The l'il lady who hired us our bikes for the day :) (okay, so it might've been her mum!)
Day two at the Angkor Archaeological Park. Today the boys and I will be taking in the super-size reputed highlights of Angkor. Mostly the larger temples that populate the central area or ‘Small Circuit’ area of the site. With this in mind today we will be taking to bicycles to get ourselves around. “Oh boy!”. Me and bikes. Not the best of friends, but regular readers will have heard me moan on that subject before. Today though, no Stevie-sized bikes available for $2 I end up with a drop-bar bike that Gray soon teaches me how to try and mount and dismount despite the fact the saddle leaves my toes some many inches from the ground.
One of the iconic gateway entrances to the Angkor Thom complex
I am deeply grateful for this. Another of life’s mysteries solved for me. How kids only as high as my knee-cap always cycle around with bikes thrice their size when I never could manage. Simple enough. They’re bike brave. And I never was. Still the day will (as I forewarn the lads) be littered with humorous incidents of me falling off my bike rather than dismounting and cracking my b***ocks on the cross-beam on my more ‘successful’ descents. “Ouch!”.
It will be a hard, hard, sweaty, exhausting and bruising day for yours truly. Thank god I have the sights of Angkor to distract me!
It takes between 20-25 mins to cycle to the Angkor Park itself. We skirt to the west of the mighty Angkor Wat (this will form the finale of our day) and head through the multi-headed gate into Angkor Thom, a walled area that houses several of Angkor’s finest.
Beautifully detailed carvings of Apsara angel/ demon nymphs
The highlight here (for me of my entire time in Angkor) is Bayon. Bayon of all the temples speaks most to the wild and mysterious visions and expectations that visitors bring with them to Angkor. It’s incredible and in ways quite bizarre. It’s tens and tens of Shiva lingam towers reaching up in gradations to the sky, each one with its eerily grinning four compass-point faces carved into their fascias. This temple really looks like something extra-terrestrials had come down to earth Millennia ago, carved out of whatever materials they found to hand, before spiriting away to the stars again. Its visual complexity and appeal only enhanced by the many slight alterations and structural degradations imparted to its form by Time, Nature and history.
(Bayon) Muju [www.mujuworld.co.uk]
The whites and greens of fungal, mossy growths. Rainwater pock-marks and stains, and the structural corruptions and slight, beautiful collapses of age. It’s outer wall is an absolute masterpiece of stone frieze carving. Gigantic mural depictions here of great acts of history and war. The victories of King Suryavarman II over the Champa in the 12th Century carved with incredible energy and detail. No repetitious figures, motifs or laborious carving here. The mural progresses from the depictions of the everyday life of Khmer peoples through to war, death, victory and back again. I coulda spent half a day at this one temple alone. It’s just incredible!
We hop back on our bikes. I’m utterly knackered out already my shonky rubber-chained bike stuck in some impossibly low, hard-work gear.
I struggle and collapse around some of the less engaging more broken down temples and buildings in the Angkor Thom arena. Baphuon (nothing but an impressive walkway to a French reconstruction project at the moment); Phimeanakas (the Royal Palace, a rusty-red pyramid only good for a climb) and the large carved walls of the Leper King’s Terrace and the Elephant Terrace.
Then to one of the temples I think everyone looks forward to. Aside from the ‘faces’ of Bayon probably the one that speaks most to the collective tourist imagination of Angkor as it stands today. The Ta Phrom temple. That which has been thoroughly reclaimed and in part destroyed by the jungle tree life of the area. Once a treasure trove palace store of ‘pearls, precious stones and golden dishes weighing 500kg’ (LP) for King Jayavarman VII’s mother, all these treasures have since been claimed by history, and their stone encasing now in the clutches of the gigantic trees whose roots snake and writhe all over the walls and constructs of the temple.
Stevie at Bayon
The site was also the only thing worth watching (apart from Angelina of course ;), when used as a backdrop in the original ‘Tomb Raider’ movie. These awe-inspiring spaghetti-rooted trees seem to have consciously chosen to grow on top of rather than within or around the temple grounds. Most strange. And in doing so, they have created an artistic if not architectural masterpiece in their own right. Their infinite roots and tendrils appearing a perfect mimic of movie-alien fingers and limbs. (The builders of Bayon returned? :).
Following Ta Phrom and lunch we cycle back towards our finale. Angkor Wat. Me lagging some miles behind the lads on the bikes by this point. We stop at the vertiginous, pyramid-ascent of Ta Keo, and the compact completeness of little Thommanon en route.
Angkor Wat, the main and largest temple structure within the Angkor site is impressive indeed. Surrounded by the reflective waters of a gigantic moat-like ‘Baray’ and approached via a looooong walkway through its grounds. It certainly has an aura of power and importance still about it today. Its three Shiva tower pinnacles visible from many points around Angkor and probably the most iconic architectural form in Cambodia and Cambodian history.
Many hundreds of tourists are present at the same time as we (of course) but I have to say that at no point in my time at Angkor has my experience (even visually) been impaired by over-large numbers of fellow travellers. A large pond or ‘Baray’ sits just before Angkor Wat to the west and people jostle and laugh and pull poses for that ‘perfect shot’ before the great temple.
Smiles, good times and the three pinnacles of Angkor reflected in the pools evening waters. This (for me anyhow) will be my final temple of my time here at Angkor and we have left a good couple of hours leading up to sundown to try to take in every last brick, detail and stone. As with Bayon, the main body of the temple is ringed 360 degrees by an incredibly detailed large stone-carved mural. Unlike the more ‘historical’ subject matter of Bayon, here we are treated to depictions of key moments and battles from the ancient Hindu texts of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. Arjun’s battle with the demons and the Churning of the Seas of creation etc, etc. Magnificent stuff. It takes Mario, Gray and I a good 90 minutes to amble around I reckon.
This tree be bigger than meeee! ;)
Poor old Mike’s left to his own devices when set against our rather super-slow cultural absorption.
By good fortune I manage unwittingly to skip up the final set of steps into the precincts of the three grand pylons of the temple just moments before they close it off. The temple is given over to some form of ’sound and light’ illumination show every evening for which an additional ticket needs have been purchased. Gray and Mario, just 30 seconds behind me are being denied access but with my presence above we manage to talk their way in. “Phew!”. Well worth it too with the sun now casting that special late evening ochre-gold upon the stones about (always the best light to view ‘ruins’ by I feel) it’s a beautiful final glance of this temple we are offered and a fitting end to my time here.
Mario and Gray are determined to return by bike at 5.00am tomorrow to take in a dawn rising but Mike and I respond in unison “No f**king way!!”.
It’s all been good don’t get me wrong but after two near dawn ‘til dusk days I am, if not “templed out”, then certainly well satiated with sacred stone for now… and frankly I wouldn’t get back on the saddle of a bike for another week or more for all the treasures once stored in Angkor! :)
We cycle and weave our way home besides an incessant noisy stream of tuk-tuks, buses, cars and motorbikes; the daily post-sundown exodus from Angkor without cycle-helmets or lights. “Naughty naughty”. Apologies mum! I must to bed and nurse my weary legs.
Stevie, Mike, Mario & Gray the Angkor Boyz.
It’s been a peerless, incredible but tiring couple of days.