Temples and Trees (Sunday, November 27)

The next morning, after a breakfast of banana and pineapple pancakes, we met our guide and drove to Angkor Wat, the most famous and by far the biggest temple in the Angkor complex. It was built as a Hindu temple in the 12th century, when the Khmer empire was at the height of its power. Though westerners often use the name "Angkor Wat" for whole complex of temples and other structures around ancient Angkor, the name really belongs only to this temple.

A causeway leads across a wide moat to a big entrance building (called a gopura) that is quite an impressive structure in itself. Both the gopura and the main temple were built with laterite, a porous volcanic rock containing a lot of iron, which makes it red. Although it's easy to quarry and cut into blocks when still wet from the earth, it becomes very hard when it dries. This makes it good for building, but not for decorating, because the surface, pocked with little holes, is too hard to carve. So at Angkor Wat and many of the other temples, all visible surfaces were clad in sandstone, soft and smooth and, though not strong enough to build with, quite amenable to sculpting. In some of these temples  though it's rare at Angkor Wat  a lot of the sandstone has fallen off, and anyone who spends more than a couple of hours visiting the temples of Angkor will see plenty of laterite on display.

Both inner and outer walls were decorated everywhere with sculptures in bas-relief. On the outside, most were apsaras. Their presence may have a guardian aspect, or perhaps it just serves to establish the appropriate atmosphere for a dwelling of the gods. (At all the Angkor temples we saw carved nagas and singhas who were clearly assigned to guard duty  a tradition that passed over into Thai temple architecture.)

From the entrance gopura, the causeway continues to the main temple, crossing a vast open space that once held the city of Angkor. Flights of steps, guarded by nagas, lead down from the elevated causeway into this space. As you near the temple there's a shallow pond full of water lilies on one side, and we detoured at this point so that the guide could snap the traditional photo of us standing with the pond and the temple in the background. Near where we stood were some relatively recent monastic buildings, on one of which we saw a crew of monks lined up like a bucket brigade along one of the eaves, repairing the roof tiles. Jayanto remarked that he had served in such repair crews more than once during his time in Thailand.

The main temple is laid out as a huge square with three levels, the highest in the center. Jayanto found the design and construction similar to what he had seen in Hindu temples in South India, though most of them had only one level. The multilevel plan of Angkor Wat reflects the Hindu tradition that the gods (like those of the Greeks) dwell on a mountain. The guide told us that the highest level was reserved for worship by the royal family (and perhaps the Brahmins), the middle level was for high-ranking officials and others of that class, and the bottom level was for the common people. On each level were four rain-fed washing pools, one each for men, women, boys, and girls. Hindus thought of their temples less as gathering places for worshippers than as houses for the gods, and it was natural enough to suppose that the gods would feel most at home in a setting that imitated their primary abode, Mount Meru. The towers and galleries of Angkor Wat stand for the peaks and ranges that surround it, and the high tower in the center, where ceremonies took place that only the elite could attend, was Mount Meru itself. The guidebook points out that "the ascent to the central shrine is, maybe intentionally, a fairly convincing imitation of climbing a real mountain."

This was certainly true, and one look at the steep steps told me that I should attempt to go no higher than the court officials' level, where I stayed. The monks scrambled up, however, and Dorothea also made the ascent, with assistance from the guide. Some time later they came down, having been rewarded with the best views of the whole temple and city complex. The steps were so steep that many people made the descent backwards, as if coming down a ladder. Dorothea started down forward, however, and part of the way down began to see the advantages of going backward, but at that point it was too late to turn around. She says that her legs were shaky and sore for several days afterwards.

On the inside of the gopura and the main temple we saw elaborate relief carvings of scenes from both the Mahabharata and the Ramayana. There were also a few stone statues, usually set up at the intersections of the corridors. At least one we saw was a Buddha image, which would have been placed in the temple after its conversion from Hinduism. Another, in the gopura, was a large eight-armed image of Vishnu, to whom Angkor Wat was originally dedicated. The guidebook says that it has been restored more than once, and suggests that it may have stood originally in the central shrine, since it seems too big for the place it's in now.

The decorative details at Angkor Wat were impressive. In addition to all the apsaras (more than 2,000, according to the guidebook) and the epic scenes, there were decorative patterns everywhere you looked, all carved into the stone. Every window was "barred" with stone balusters that, if they had not been turned on lathes, were carved to imitate wood that had been shaped by that method. Either would have been a very demanding operation. In one interior corridor I noticed traces of colored paint, suggesting that the sandstone, which is now gray, might once have been painted in brilliant colors, like Greek temples. (I remember learning in college that all their white marble was originally colored scarlet and gold.)

We finished our tour of Angkor Wat in time to head for a nearby open-air restaurant where the monks could get their meal before noon. Arriving well in advance of other tourists, we had the place to ourselves and enjoyed a pleasant meal at separate tables. Unlike restaurants farther from Siem Reap, the ones near the big temple had a connection to the electrical system, so we had fans overhead to cool us. The restaurants were interspersed with gift shops, and Dorothea bought some nice woven textile pieces from the one nearest to our table, including a tablecloth like the ones in the restaurant, which had caught my eye.

After eating, we went to Angkor Thom, a city built a half-century or so after Angkor Wat, which we approached up an impressive avenue flanked on one side by a long line of gods and on the other by a long line of demons. Each group is holding the thick body of a long naga, which forms a railing along that side. It looks something like, but not entirely like, a tug-of-war. In fact, it illustrates an episode from Hindu mythology. The link below leads to some information about this.

Angkor Thom became the royal capital when it was built by Jayavarman VII, who ruled from 1181 to 1220 after defeating local and foreign enemies who had overrun Ankgor. It continued to serve as the capital into the 17th century, long after the Khmer empire's decline. Jayavarman had been converted to Mahayana Buddhism (which like Hinduism came to Angkor by way of India) and the central temple of Angkor Thom, the Bayon  which we were on our way to see  reflects this.

This temple is characterized by its many "face towers," with huge, gently smiling faces on them  usually four, each looking toward one of the cardinal compass points, but sometimes two or three. Many people assume that all these faces represent the Buddha, but according to our guide they represent four aspects of Avelokiteshvara, who was not the Buddha himself but a bodhisattva. The four aspects (also commended as virtues to be practiced by all who seek to live rightly) are loving kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity  all states of mind that a tranquil smile seems to express appropriately. I don't know whether anyone has tried to sort out the faces at Bayon according to which aspect each one represents. Avelokiteshvara had a considerable cult among Khmers who practiced Mahayana Buddhism, so it isn't surprising that the temple's architectural features reflect his popularity.

The Bayon Temple has other carvings as well, including a whole series of bas-reliefs that show Jayvarman marching with his armies (including some that are identified as Chinese allies or mercenaries) and defeating enemies on land and sea. The life of the common people gets into these pictures also. For instance, the marching army is accompanied by teamsters driving wagonloads of supplies and accompanied by their families, the women carrying burdens on their heads and babies on their backs. These civilian campaigners can also be seen making camp. As the elephants keep marching by in the background, they crouch around a jar of water, or kneel down to blow the fire up under a cooking pot. Other reliefs show scenes of Khmer life separate from the military background: for example, two temple dancers in performance, accompanied by some perfectly visible musicians. According to the guidebook, there's also a cockfight scene, though we didn't happen to see it.

Some of the wall carvings resemble those you can see in the purely Hindu temples, because Jayavarman (like the Indians some centuries earlier) didn't toss out the Hindu pantheon, but rather superimposed Buddhism on it. There are apsaras at the Bayon, for instance, although they aren't as numerous as they are at Angkor Wat. The guide told us that the rituals practiced at all the Angkor temples included dance, and pointed out sections of some temples that were dedicated to the training of dancers. So the apsaras carved in stone were not the only representations in those temples of the dancers in heaven  there were always human representations too.

The temple decor originally included many small relief carvings of the Buddha seated in meditating position, but Jayavarman VIII (who didn't immediately succeed number VII, the temple's builder, but came along one king later, in 1243) was converted back to pure Hinduism and had all of these carvings chipped away. He didn't modify the face towers, though; perhaps a bodhisattva was less of an affront to his brand of Hinduism, or perhaps it was just too much trouble; all those towers would probably have had to be substantially rebuilt.

It's good that they were spared, because the calmly smiling faces that look down in every direction do convey feelings associated with the Buddhist virtues they're supposed to represent, and the ambience of the Bayon is all peace and benevolence.

Dorothea and I were exhausted when we got back to the van, and we enjoyed the recuperative power of its air conditioning while the monks went with the guide to see a cluster of small temples called the Preah Pithu group. Rain began to fall before they were back, and they all arrived wet. We moved on to the temple of Preah Palilay while it was still raining. I chose to stay dry in the van, but Dorothea and the monks took their umbrellas and went to look at the ruins, where some carvings of scenes from the Buddha's life had apparently escaped the notice of Jayavarman VIII, who was probably in power when the temple was built. (One theory is that he began to accept Buddhism toward the end of his reign, and the temple may have been built at that time.) Much of the site had been destroyed by the huge roots of trees, something we were to see a little later at Preah Khan and most spectacularly the following day at Ta Prohm.

The two kinds of trees that have done the most damage to the structures at Angkor are kapok and strangler fig. Both have the characteristic that, after a seedling takes root in a bit of earth near the top of a wall, the growing tree can send its roots all the way down, along the surface of the wall or through any available crevice, until they reach the ground. So, instead of starving, the tree grows big and heavy, its trunk rising from a point as much as 15 or 20 feet above the ground. Kapok trees put down thick roots that continue to grow thicker with the years, pushing bricks and blocks of stone apart while the trunk applies a crushing weight from above. Strangler figs instead surround other trees, putting down many thin roots until the tree  and the wall it may be growing out of  are enveloped in a kind of wooden curtain. Because of these differences, the two trees are easy to tell apart. Jayanto had been told that the ones with big thick roots were balsa trees, a thought I found startling when I recalled the soft, light wood I used for building model airplanes or gliders when I was a kid. But the guidebook said these trees are kapok, which is a member of the same family as balsa and, like balsa, was originally native to South America. (Spanish and Portuguese traders introduced many South American species into Asia during the colonial period.) Kapok is also called the "silk-cotton tree" because its seeds in their pods are surrounded by a white fluff that is used to stuff pillows and sleeping bags.

In Thailand, Jayanto had pointed out bodhi trees destroying structures at ruined monasteries in Chiang Saen and Ayutthaya, because the bodhi tree (a variety of fig) has the same characteristic of being able to send roots down to the ground from a height. But we didn't see (or at least recognize) any bodhi trees at Angkor.

On the way to Preah Khan the driver stopped near Phimeanakhas, which was built in the late 10th and early 11th century (around the time when England was ruled by Ethelred the Unready) and served as the royal chapel. The royal living quarters were clustered around it, but  since only religious structures were built of permanent materials  have not survived. The temple is built on a pyramidal base not faced with sandstone, as the temple is, but made of plain rust-colored laterite. The buildings were in use from the 11th to the 16th century and underwent many rebuildings and remodelings. We looked from the window of the van, but Dorothea and I were content to let the monks get out and take a short stroll around without us. Then we moved on to Preah Khan.

Like the Bayon temple, Preah Khan was built by Jayavarman VII. It's outside Angkor Thom, on a site where the palace of the two previous kings had stood. A great battle took place there when Jayavarman was recapturing Angkor from the Chams, a people who lived in part of the area now occupied by Viet Nam. In collusion with local allies, they had conquered the city and it took Jayavarman four years to drive them out. According to inscriptions in the temple, the Cham king died on the site, presumably as a result of the defeat, though whether the immediate cause was battle wounds or loss of face we are not told. Jayavarman dedicated the temple to his father, and put in it a statue of Avalokiteshvara, the Bodhisattva of Compassion, sculpted in his father's likeness.

Preah Khan was not merely a place of worship, but a Buddhist university (or, according to our guide, a university of both Buddhism and Hinduism) that housed a thousand teachers. The surviving carvings suggest a greater emphasis on Hinduism, although the guidebook says that some Buddha images were removed by the zealous Jayavarman VIII, who also probably smashed the bhodisattva image of the builder's father. Temple rituals as well as teaching certainly went on there, because there is a large ruined Hall of Dancers (now a courtyard, having lost its roof) with many carved apsaras on the walls and lintels.

We approached the temple up a long paved walk similar to the entrance to Angkor Thom, with gods and demons pulling on a naga, but it hadn't been restored so completely, and most of the supernatural beings had lost their heads.

Preah Khan was the first temple I visited where the damage done by kapok trees was evident. At one point the same building had two of them growing up and out at different angles from nearly the same starting point. The guidebook says "While extremely beautiful, the trees are causing problems because they are old and likely to fall down damaging the temple in the process." The book was published in 1999, and one of the trees is now only a massive stump. It looks as if the conservators managed to remove the rest of the tree without permitting any damage, although so much of the temple is in ruins that it isn't easy to be sure. Many small buildings were crowded into the central temple enclosure at various times, and since so much of the site has fallen into disrepair, the overall impression we got was a bit confused, although one can't deny the romantic appeal of the piles of tumbled, lichen- and moss-covered stones  wet, at the time we saw them, with falling drizzle  and the encroaching jungle vegetation.

We felt a bit too tired that night to go out in search of dinner, and the Peace of Angkor served us a modest but good meal.

This page last updated 3-5-2007