Arriving at Phnom Penh Airport in the morning I am greeted with a story to write in almost every direction. Once again I am lost in that magic spell that always brings me back to traveling and the endless search for places as strange and secluded as possible. Why Cambodia? There is, of course, only one answer – Angkor Wat; a cluster of temples hidden within hectares of Cambodia’s forests and one of the largest religious monuments in the world. Angkor Wat was inaugurated as a UNESCO
Before setting out to Angkor Wat I thought I’d see some of Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh and, to kill some time, I took a short walk around the city. I found it quite clean though rather dusty and the traffic is no less chaotic than back home in Indonesia. I was fascinated by the spirit houses; a form a mini temple built in front of each house where the spirits live. The temples and mega buddhas in the suburbs of the city make Cambodia significantly different from other Southeast Asian countries.
I took a local flight and a few hours later landed in Siam Reap, a town I had thought would be only a small village and quite remote, it turned out I was wrong. Siam Reap is a thriving town, advanced and well maintained. There are many luxury hotels and villas along the main roads, the occasional magnificent Buddhist temple and monks walking around the streets of the city.
A single entrance ticket gave me access to all areas of the extensive site. Angkor Thom (the Great City) was built in the late 12th century by Khmer King Suryawarman the 7th as the capital of his empire. Passing through the main entrance, we are retracing the well-worn steps of the ages lined with ancient stone walls carved with images of gods and goddesses, graphic representations of mythological stories that render these temples and palaces as sacred places for pilgrims. Beyond the front courtyard of the city, we find the site of an old palace with a large artificial pool that is crossed by a bridge, it is reminiscent of a scene in a Tomb Rider movie where Angelina Jolie rides in a boat in the middle of a lake full of floating lotus flowers. Even though in places we are only left with rubble we can still imagine the former grandeur of these ancient structures.
Out of the main temple area, I headed to a group of temples hidden in the middle of the forest. These are the remains of a palace built by King Jayavarman the 7th and presented as an offering to the queen, better known as Ta Phrom, who was the King’s mother at that time. The walls have almost collapsed from the inexorable advance of the roots of towering trees which have already pulverised the doors and the temple windows. It is a harsh reminder that, sooner or later, nature will always win out over the marvelous creations of mankind. These magnificent buildings being slowly swallowed up by the jungle should not be considered as damage; instead, they add to the beauty of Angkor Wat.
Wat Bayon is my favorite temple, Bayan means Jaya Giri or Victory Mountain. Built by King Jayavarman the 4th, this is a temple filled with carved Buddha faces that smile in welcome on anyone who enters this sacred area. Large, friendly faces that were carved hundreds of years ago are still brightly lit by the sun’s radiance, making the scenery of Wat Bayon even more magical. There are many more temple buildings in the Angkor Wat area, far too many to see in only one day, but it is never dull to enjoy such places taking your mind back to imagine what life was like when kings and queens strode the corridors of these palaces.
The area of Angkor Wat temples is closed in the evenings to avoiding vandalism and the theft of artifacts which is why Angkor Wat area is protected by heavy doors, gates and walls. Visitors are also asked not to sit, climb or lean on the ancient, weathered structures of the temples.
I ended my trip mingling with some monks and their students on a pilgrimage to Angkor Wat and thinking back to the times of the hidden Kingdom in the Cambodian jungle, why not?
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Journal and photo by Sofian Hadi