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A Temple older than Time Itself

A Temple older than Time Itself
 
 

THE BAYON temple only forms a small part of the largest of the archaeological sites in Angkor. Angkor Thom was aptly known as, the Great City. The four gates into Angkor Thom were usually shut granting access only to the privileged keeping the common folk in the very densely populated areas outside.

Large Buddha
Large Buddha at Wat Preah Ngok

We walked about fifty metres away from the temple to where a large Buddha statue was sitting under the square gazebo of Wat Preah Ngok. The statue was wearing the orange and yellow robes and had numerous offerings before it. There were a couple of people there burning incense.

Upon leaving the Bayon Temple, we walked northwards along a gravel road towards the Victory Square. Despite an abundance of leafy trees and a scattering of small cumulous clouds overhead, the tropical sun beat down on us relentlessly making an otherwise easy walk rather laboured.

Large moss covered statues were randomly dotted amongst the rubble on either side of the path. They stood there in perpetual silence watching over the loosely arranged rubble. Each statue was in a rather advanced state of decay to the extent that I couldn’t see any carvings or inscriptions in them. The stones were laid out, and many had been laid out for so long they had thick mats of moss growing on them. Each status had a story behind it, a purpose in this once mighty kingdom. These stories were no doubt lost in the decay of time as the archaeologists have been unable to solve this part of the three dimensional jigsaw puzzle. Maybe this part of the puzzle will be solved soon, but time is running out for these statues as the soft moss continues to eat away at them.

Statue overlooking rubble
Statue overlooking rubble

Perhaps this rubble is never meant to go back to where it came from, and the statues are satisfied their purpose now is to watch over this archaeological graveyard as the vegetation continues to reclaim this city back into the jungle as nature has ordained it to be.

The Victory Square was close. Vinh explained that although little is left of the square, archaeologists have discovered many interesting artefacts here such as an inscription describing King Jayavaraman as the groom and the city his bride. So there are still secrets to be discovered under the moss.

The king's pool
The king's pool

Upon entering the Victory Square, the first thing I noticed was a few large half empty stone pools each covering several acres in area. Vinh told us one of these pools had been for the king and another for the queen. There was very little water in one of them. If not for a torrential deluge two weeks ago from Typhoon Ketsana it would no doubt be completely dry. I imagined these pools would completely dry up during the dry season when the water table drops. Each pool had a large stone pagoda at one end. No doubt these had been fancy changing rooms for the royals. Now they were piles of rubble with a few columns standing on their large stone bases. There was a low stone fence around each pool some ten metres from the edge of where the stone walls dropped into the water. The stone fences were short columns with stone beams across the top. There were piles of stone blocks surrounding the pool, indicating other buildings had once stood here before the jungle invaded this area.

Phimeanakas
Phimeanakas

Near the middle of Victory Square was a large stone pyramid. It looked out of place here. Most structures in Angkor were sleek vertical walls with towers shaped in either the four faces of the Bayon, or of the lotus bud. The pyramid would have been better placed in a Mexican Aztec ruin or even in Egypt. Here it stood alone in amongst all the Khmer architecture.

This temple was the Phimeanakas, a large stone pyramid temple predating Angkor Thom, back in a time before time when the city was far smaller. When Angkor Thom had been built much later, this temple was left intact.

Courtyard near the top of the temple
Courtyard near the top of the temple

There was a flight of worn rocky stairs heading up to the top of the pyramid. Three of us decided to attempt a climb to the top of it. The climb was steep and the hot sun was beating down directly on us, but otherwise it was relatively easy and within a couple of minutes we had reached the temple at the top.

The stairs up the pyramid had been steep, but the top was a low barrack with stone windows. I’m not sure if there was ever a roof here but if it was it had either been thatched and rotted away centuries ago, or it had been completely dismantled and taken away. The temple surrounded a further extension of the pyramid holding up a higher level of the temple. Two of us continued up the steep stairs to the top where we saw a couple of other people exploring the three small rooms without a roof. The inner room contained the remains of a sacrificial fire with the circle of stones black with soot. Was this still used as a sacrificial temple?

Altar at the top of the temple
Altar at the top of the temple

The tiny size of the top of the temple reminded me of when I had climbed Mount Egmont and Ngauruhoe in New Zealand. The mountains had appeared very big from the bottom, but as I had gained altitude the mountains became smaller. Finally the summit areas of both mountains had actually been surprisingly small. It was the same climbing this temple.

At about thirty metres above the ground I was at a dizzy height, so I cautiously descended the steep stone steps, joining the rest of the group at a small market under a clump of nearby trees. Most of the others in my group weren’t very fit at all and were struggling with the hours of walking around the temples in the jungle heat. This had been a relaxing rest for them under the shade of the trees.

From the market we walked through the forest a short distance walking beside a moss covered solid stone wall standing five metres high in amongst the forest. About two hundred metres along the wall was a small archway entrance to pass through. Upon passing through the entrance we were in a large open area with mowed lawn. There was a large mound running parallel to the wall about fifty metres out from it.

Terrace of the Leper King
Terrace of the Leper King

We walked towards the mound passing a level cutting crossing through it. From here we walked to another building set inside the hill. Vinh explained this mound was the terrace of the Leper King. I entered the narrow entrance of the building set into the mound. Rather than a functional building though, this was a maze of stone wall about three metres high and about a metre wide. The walls within the maze had thousands of faces carved into them giving an impression of purgatory. After exploring the maze I climbed to the top of the grassy mound and looked back down into the maze. It was eerie seeing all those petrified stone faces looking up at me. I wondered what could have inspired such eerie creativity. What did it have to do with the leper king anyway?

The top of the long mound abruptly ended with a stone wall spanning back towards the Bayon temple.

From the terrace of the Leper King, we walked along the top of the mound to a part named the terrace of the elephants. About a hundred metres ahead was the van and beyond that were the grey towers of the Bayon. After two hours under the intensely hot sun, it was nice to be back into the air conditioning of the van again.

Once everyone was back on board, we followed the road anticlockwise around the Bayon temple, and once we reached the other side the van stopped. From there we had a stunning view of the temple reflected perfectly in the still pond that separated us from the grey towers of faces. Once our Kodak moment was finished we headed out of Angkor Thom. There was one more stop though.

South Gate
South Gate

Upon reaching the outer wall of Angkor Thom, we stopped again just outside the South Gate entrance to take some good shots. The causeway we had driven across spanning the moat had a row of devas to the left and a row of asuras on the right – both representing humans. The front of each row had a large seven headed Naga snake, the same as what we had seen on Cambodia’s oldest bridge yesterday on our way here from Phnom Penh and a couple of days ago in the park near the national museum in Phnom Penh. The Naga were lined up in a tug of war, similar perhaps to the tug of war seen in the Tomb Raider movie when the scene had been shot here (or maybe it was at one of the other gates).

The three and a half metre wide by seven metre high gateways at each cardinal point of the city was now open arches where the roads ran through. Back when the city was occupied though, they would have been concealed by huge wooden doors keeping common folk like me out.

Today though there were no doors allowing us access into what had been a magnificent city even though it had been abandoned for hundreds of years.

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Latitude: Longitude: Altitude:

24 October 2009

 

Angkor Thom

Cambodia

 

13°26'N
103°51'E
9m ASL

 

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