Day 1: Doing the Temple Run in Siem Reap

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Advice, Asia, Siem Reap, Cambodia

1000949_10151742289040186_1133497578_n-1I’ve always thought of Siem Reap as mystical.  I was curious to experience what the famed Tomb Raider setting was all about.  And so with my adventurous group of girlfriends, we planned a convenient weekend trip to the fabled destination.

Siem Reap, which literally means the “Defeat of Siam”, is the most prosperous region of contemporary Cambodia. It’s close proximity to the Angkor Wat temple complex  has turned the city into one of the world’s premier travel destinations. More than one million travelers visit Siem Reap every year to see over a thousand years of Khmer heritage built near Tonle Sap Lake,  the seat of the economic power of the ancient Cambodian empire.  From Manila, the most convenient flight is via Cebu Pacific.

The main attraction for visitors to Siem Reap is the Angkor Wat and the Angkor Temple Region, which covers more than 300km of northwestern Cambodia.  The Angkor Temple Complex has been designated a UN Heritage Site and consists of hundreds of structures from the 9th to the 14th century that tell the story of the rise and fall of the Khmer empire. This wide collection of historical structures are decorated with intricately carved, priceless Khmer artwork and that provide an archaeological and  a pictorial history of an empire that ruled much of southeast Asia for five centuries.  Structure  range from  partially renovated temples, pagoda and imperial residences to recently discovered ruins which are virtually untouched for the last 500 years.  The best way to appreciate their stories is by hiring a knowledgeable tour guide to take you around.

We wanted to move like Angelina Jolie as the celebrated heroine around the ruins – with power and grace – at best efforts in our conservative attires (Note: temples have a dress code). Lists of adjectives are inadequate to describe the landscape we enjoyed:  Stunning, humbling, awe inspiring, spiritual or magical, all of these words could not encapsulate our unforgettable experiences.  Even sharing the following temple highlights below may not give justice to the Khmer temples of the Angkor complex.  To some it may be a bunch of ruble in the depths of a jungle, sweating in discomfort amidst the humidity.   But it was a humorous day of which being there gave us that feeling of solemnity – it brought us back to its story – taking pride of our Asian Heritage that was as wise and rich as the Roman and Greek Empires.   We all agreed it was worth the trek, to appreciate it’s splendor and exude our inner Goddesses in the most ideal setting.

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South Gate is one of the 5 gates which guard the ancient city of Angkor Thom, and is the best preserved of all the gates.

The avenue welcomes you with opposing reactions. On one side a row of gods, and on the other demons, expressing welcome or grimace respectively as they watch your approach.

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The Bayon is a well-known and richly decorated Khmer temple at Angkor in Cambodia. Built in the late 12th or early 13th century as the official state temple of the Mahayana Buddhist King Jayavarman VII, the Bayon stands at the centre of Jayavarman’s capital, Angkor Thom. Following Jayavarman’s death, it was modified and augmented by later Hindu and Theravada Buddhist kings in accordance with their own religious preferences. (Wikipedia)

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The outer wall of the outer gallery features a series of bas-reliefs depicting historical events and scenes from the everyday life of the Angkorian Khmer.

As we walked towards the courtyard, Our guide was explaining the different stories portrayed on the bas reliefs: a scene with boats and fisherman, including a Chinese junk, below which is a depiction of a cockfight; then some palace scenes with princesses, servants, people engaged in conversations and games, wrestlers, and a wild boar fight; then a battle scene with Cham warriors disembarking from boats and engaging Khmer warriors whose bodies are protected by coiled ropes, followed by a scene in which the Khmer dominate the combat, followed by a scene in which the Khmer king celebrates a victory feast with his subjects.

The inner gallery is raised above ground level and has doubled corners, with the original redented cross-shape later filled out to a square. Its bas-reliefs, later additions of Jayavarman VIII, are in stark contrast to those of the outer: rather than set-piece battles and processions, the smaller canvases offered by the inner gallery are decorated for the most part with scenes from Hindu mythology. Some of the figures depicted are Siva, Vishnu, and Brahma, the members of the trimurti or threefold godhead of Hinduism, Apsaras or celestial dancers, Ravana and Garuda.

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The Bayon’s most distinctive feature is the multitude of serene and massive stone faces on the many towers which jut out from the upper terrace and cluster around its central peak.

The photo below shows Tata kissing Lokesvara. Depending on time of the day and the angle of the sun, the 200 faces seem to change their expression.

Our next stop involved trekking a bit through the jungle to reach Ta Prohm Temple.

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Ta Prohm is the undisputed capital of the kingdom of the Trees’. It has been left untouched by archaeologists except for the clearing of a path for visitors and structural strengthening to stave of further deterioration.

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It was built about mid-12th century to early 13th century (1186) by the King Jayavarman VII, dedicated to the mother of the king (Buddhist) replica to Bayon style of art.

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Thanking Mother Earth! I love this picture of Tata Mapa – an exchange of positive energy.

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Fig, banyan and kapok trees spread their gigantic roots over stones, probing walls and terraces apart, as their branches and leaves intertwine to form a roof over the structures.

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“Trunks of trees twist amongst stone pillars. The strange, haunted charm of the place entwines itself about you as you go, as inescapably as the roots have wound themselves about the walls and towers”, wrote a visitor 40 years ago.

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A Sanskrit inscription on stone, still in place, give details of the temple. Ta Prohm 3,140 villages. It took 79,365 people to maintain the temple including 18 great priests, 2,740 officials, 2,202 assistants and 615 dancers.

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Manu (our guide) led us to this Echo Tower where one is to lean on the wall inside the temple and beat his heart where the echo should sound like a bell. We all tried beating our chests strongly like King kong in our attempt for echoes reverberating over the tower. I think only Jennie Verano was successful.

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Roots of a spung running along the gallery of the second enclosure.

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SALDS Tomb Raiders

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We savored our traditional Khmer lunch overlooking the Srah Srang at Angkor. The name means royal bathing pond which we didn’t mind doing (the heat was debilitating) except for fear of who knows what creatures lurk in that water.

On the way to Angkor Wat, we made a brief stop by the first lake.  Built in the 10th century, it may have been larger. It is across another temple called Banteay Kdei.

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And at last, we arrive at the piece de resistance of Khmer Temples, the magnificent Angkor Wat.

The temple is the heart and soul of Cambodia. It is the national symbol, the epi-centre of Khmer civilization and a source of fierce national pride. Soaring skyward and surrounded by a moat that would make its European castle counterparts blush, Angkor Wat is one of the most inspired and spectacular monuments ever conceived by the human mind. Unlike the other Angkor monuments, it was never abandoned to the elements and has been in virtually continuous use since it was built.

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Attempting an iconic shot by the entrance of the temple.  Posing instantly before the monkeys shoo me away.  Those smart aleck monkeys! You’ve got to bribe them for photos. Here’s one enjoying his “suman” – he grabbed it from a distraught tourist.

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Thank God!  Tata brought an umbrella.  The sun was fierce but we couldn’t let it disrupt our tour.

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After crossing an enormous moat, visitors enter the temple grounds through this portico and then stroll the sandstone causeway to reach the main temple.

Angkor Wat is also called a “funeral” temple: the reason for its construction was so that the king’s ashes could be placed there. To simply said, the purpose of this complex is the same as that of pyramids of Egypt.

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There is, however, a story about a divine origin of Angkor Wat. Legend has it that the Angkor Wat in Cambodia was built by a son of Hindu god Indra, Khmer King Preh Katomialia. One day he went to the heavenly palace of his father, where everything was perfect, including the barn. He loved the place reserved for the sacred animals so much, that he decided to make its copy on Earth. And that is how a replica of Indra’s barn, Angkor Wat, came to existence. (Air Pano)

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The central tower (with the height of 65 meters) and four small surrounding towers represent the five peaks of the sacred Mount Meru. The giant moat around the temple (190 meters wide and over 5.5 kilometers in length) represents world oceans.
Angkor Wat is, quite literally, heaven on earth. It is the perfect fusion of creative ambition and spiritual devotion.

IMG_2079 Integrated with the architecture of the building, and one of the causes for its fame is Angkor Wat’s extensive decoration, which predominantly takes the form of bas-relief friezes. The inner walls of the outer gallery bear a series of large-scale scenes mainly depicting episodes from the Hindu epics the Ramayana and the Mahabharata.

From the north-west corner anti-clockwise, the western gallery shows the Battle of Lanka (from the Ramayana, in which Rama defeats Ravana) and the Battle of Kurukshetra (from the Mahabharata, showing the mutual annihilation of the Kaurava and Pandava clans).

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Angkor Wat is famous for having more than 3000 beguiling apsaras (heavenly nymphs) carved into its walls.

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This grand structure is one of several libraries within the temple complex.

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Access to the central temple was via a dangerously steep stairway. Climb at your own risk and DO hold on to the railings.

Still heaving from the climb but in awe with a sense of spiritual enlightenment. There was really not much to see at the top but you earn a sense of thrill for reaching the top. Imagining their belief of being one with their gods.

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Although the temple ruins are rather devoid of color, the surrounding jungle flora exudes more shades of green than I knew existed.

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The mystical Angkor Wat left us smiling with pride at how the ancient Khmer Civilization (our Southeast Asian brother) was a strong rival to Roman and Greek heritage.  Such structures proved how sophisticated the people were in their own right. Explanations to the why and how certain intricate designs and architecture were included made practical sense that up to this day applies.  It was an informative and surreal afternoon well spent.

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