Day in Angkor, Night in Town (Monday, November 28)

With the advice of Dave at the Peace of Angkor, we had planned an equally full schedule for the next day, and we started off at 7:30. We had a new guide  Dave, who had made arrangements for us, hadn't been able to find one who was free on all three of our touring days  but we had the same comfortable van and driver. Our first stop was an early temple named Prasat Kravan, built in 921 (while Western Europe was still trying to deal with the Viking problem). A Hindu temple built by members of the nobility rather than by the king, Prasat Kravan predates the sandstone-clad temples and is made of bricks whose color is a light, slightly orangey brown. The doorways and lintels are of sandstone, all elaborately carved, but the Khmer craftsmen also carved the bricks to create pictures of Vishnu, to whom the temple is dedicated, and his consort Lakshmi.

The builders of ancient Angkor created several reservoirs, called barays, to store water for their cities. Made not by digging into the flat ground, but by building up dikes to retain the water, they are rectangular in shape. The biggest one, West Baray, is about five miles long and one and a third miles wide, and about two-thirds of it still contains water. Our next stop was a much smaller baray with a landing-place called Srah Srang at the end nearest the road. This end of the baray, which is close to a temple named Banteay Kdei, was used for religious ceremonies including ritual bathing. Unlike the biggest barays, this small one was full of water. At the Srah Srang end, its shore is lined with steps like an Indian ghat. The guide told us that there was an island where the king (presumably Jayavarman VII, who had the steps and boat landing that constitute Srah Srang built) would meditate, but now it can only be seen when the water is low, as at this season it was not.

Many people come to Srah Srang to watch the sun rise over the lake, but it was well into the hot, sunny morning when we arrived, and we were the only tourists on the site. Some children were hanging around hoping to sell the usual assortment of guidebooks and postcards, and as usual the monks had to tell them that they carried no money, while we laypeople had to adopt a more Scroogelike posture. (Cambodian children obviously study English in school, and every one we met knew at least this much: "What country?" America, we'd answer. "Capital Washington DC!" they'd shout triumphantly.) Three little girls who clearly had a little more English at their command chatted with Tan Punnyo for a bit, and when he was saying goodbye, one of them asked him to come again when he was through being a monk.

From Srah Srang we walked across the road to visit the nearby temple of Banteay Kdei, another production of Jayavarman VII. The entrance gate, as at Angkor Thom, went through a face tower, but the temple, like Preah Khan, seemed to be primarily Hindu. (The guidebook says the face tower was added later in J. VII's reign, some years after the temple was built.) The walls had many carvings of apsara dancers. But Banteay Kdei is much smaller than Preah Khan, and its layout is simpler. It's more linear, with long corridors. In one of these a small Cambodian boy no more than two or three years old watched us with big eyes as we took his picture. A parent was doubless somewhere nearby, hoping that some touring photographers would bestow gifts on him. The authorities don't allow selling at the temple sites; all the older kids have to stay outside the gates with their guidebooks and postcards. (Srah Srang is an exception because, having no gate, it has no "outside.") Out-and-out begging is, I'm sure, forbidden, because we encountered none of it. But there's no law against letting a cute kid play in a temple, and if someone gives him something without being asked, what's wrong with that? Jayanto, who had received more food on pindabat that morning than he needed, found in his bag a can of tuna and gave it to the boy, who pondered it solemnly, perhaps not sure what it was.

We left Banteay Kdei on the side opposite from where we'd entered, on an unpaved path that ran through some woods to a distant gate where our van was waiting. Along the way we passed a folk orchestra made up of land-mine victims, like the ones we had seen at Preah Vihear on the Thai border. These had a stack of CDs for sale, and I bought two. (I confess that I've found the CDs less pleasant to listen to than the musicians I saw and heard in person, but we were glad to be helping them  in a country where the only work most people can find requires manual labor, anyone who has lost a limb is at a serious disadvantage.)

The next place we visited was Thommanon, a small temple that justifies the guidebook's description of it as "elegant." It was built at about the same time as Angkor Wat (in the early 12th century), by the same king, Suryavarman II, on a much smaller scale than Angkor Wat, but with the same kind of carved dancers on its walls. The climb to the central shrine, in a tower like those at the larger temple, was not long, but it was steep, and Dorothea and I contented ourselves with taking pictures from outside. The monks did go inside, and reported the shrine to be very atmospheric, with long shafts of sunlight slanting down.

It was time for lunch, and we went to a nearby open-air restaurant. Unlike the Angkor Wat area, this place was beyond the edge of the electricity grid, so the food took a bit longer to prepare, and there were no fan breezes to cool us while we waited. But as before we were well ahead of the crowds, and it was pleasant enough sitting there. Jayanto and Punnyo made friends with some children, and Jayanto found more tinned food and a package of ramen noodles for them in his bag.

We spent most of our afternoon visiting Ta Prohm, sometimes called the jungle temple. The French conservators, early in the 20th century, found it half tumbled down and overgrown with vegetation, and  "as a concession to the general taste for the picturesque," according to one French writer  decided to leave it pretty much in that state, taking only the steps necessary to prevent further collapse. Most of the damage has been done by kapok trees, although strangler figs are also present in a supporting role (supporting the destruction, that is, not the structures). Pictures of the crumbling buildings in the grip of huge, snakelike roots have been seen nearly everywhere, and Ta Prohm has been used as a romantically spooky setting in several films. Most recently, "Lara Crofts: Tomb Raider," a movie based on a video game, was filmed there in 2001.

(Shortly after coming home, we saw Ta Prohm in a program on public television about human interaction with the environment. While the presenter wandered around talking about how the ancient Khmer society declined and the jungle encroached, the kapok roots, thanks to some special-effects genius, were made to look as if they were slithering along like snakes. This artificial motion was applied only to the surface of the existing roots; you couldn't see the tips advancing, which of course they were not doing, having reached the ground. The effect was silly, and made us nostalgic for the days when public television didn't have to rely on such cheesy devices to peddle its goods.)

Ta Prohm was built as another project of Jayavarman VII, who dedicated it to his mother. and was both a temple and a monastery. Just as Preah Khan (dedicated to his father) contained a statue of the Bodhisattva of Compassion made in the father's likeness, Ta Prohm had a statue of Prajnaparamita in the likeness of the king's mother. (This name, which means "Perfection of Wisdom" is used in the Mahayana tradition primarily to refer to the body of Buddhist teaching in its fullness, but has been represented figuratively as a female deity who is also known as "the mother of all the Buddhas.") The statue, of course, is no longer to be seen (presumably the work of that zealous Hindu Jayavarman VIII, though the guidebook doesn't speculate).

Ta Prohm was built in the Bayon style, and its walls had their full share of apsaras and devatas, but it was the encroaching vegetable life that we paid most attention to. One doorway, a popular place to pose for pictures, is flanked by a kapok tree's descending roots, which are locked in the deadly embrace of a strangler fig. We didn't resist the temptation to have Jayanto photograph us there.

Elsewhere in the temple we saw buildings being crunched under the massive weight of kapok trees while simultaneously being squeezed by their roots. In other places, kapok roots ran horizontally along ledges, like snakes, until they found a good place to get down into the ground. The jungle that has encroached on Ta Prohm wasn't always jungle; an inscription records that in its early days the temple was surrounded by a city of 12,500 inhabitants, and 80,000 villagers in the area also contributed to its support.

We left Ta Prohm in the late afternoon and visited one more temple: East Mebon, which was once an island in the East Baray. This reservoir, four and a half miles long and more than a mile wide, is completely dry now, and the temple sits on a raised terrace  the former island  above the flat ground. (We didn't visit West Mebon, which is in the West Baray and is still an island, though it's close to the place where water now gives way to dry land.)

East Mebon is a relatively old temple, dedicated in 953. The layout, like the former island on which it stands, is square, with three concentric tiers. The lowest tier, where ancient visitors would have gotten out of their boats, had roofed galleries running all the way around. From this tier they climbed to a slightly higher one surrounded by a low wall and containing some small buildings. Next came the highest tier, on which the five towers of the temple stand, with the largest tower, containing the main sanctuary, in the center.

At each corner of the two lower tiers is a stone elephant looking outwards. They may be guardians or symbols of the king's power. All around the complex are statues of singha-lions, also facing outwards, and these are certainly guardians. Most of the lion guardians we saw at the Angkor temples had lost their tails, which our guide explained was because the tails were made of wood. The stone they used must have been too hard for carving a long thin tail, or too soft for carving one that would last. On at least a couple of the lions at East Mebon, however, the sculptor had solved the problem by representing the tail pressed tightly against the lion's back.

The base of the temple island is laterite, and so are the galleries and some of the smaller buildings. The towers were built of brick, however, and then covered with earth-colored stucco, all of which is long gone. Decorative details like doorways and lintels (and sometimes doors as well, because the towers have some "blind doors" made of solid stone and never meant to open) are of carved sandstone. Some rough carvings of guardians (human watchmen, not demons) and geometric decorations can be seen on the bricks near the doorways, but these were meant as guides for more detailed work in the now vanished stucco. All the bricks, including the carved ones, are pocked with holes deliberately made in them to help the stucco stick.

The high relief carvings on the sandstone lintels are the most interesting artwork. They show various Hindu divinities (including Indra, Varuna, Shiva, and Skanda the war-god) riding on various mounts traditionally associated with them. Elephant-headed Ganesha, strangely, is shown riding the headless body of a horse that appears to be growing out of his own trunk.

East Mebon hadn't as much to offer as some of the bigger temples we'd seen, but its ambience, in the late afternoon sun, was quiet and peaceful. That had something to do, of course, with our being almost alone there  there were few other visitors. It put a pleasant finish on the day's tour.

Feeling a bit perkier than we had the night before, Dorothea and I decided to take a tuk-tuk into the downtown part of Siem Reap and find our dinner there. We had a free tourist map that showed the locations of all the restaurants that had paid for the advertisements printed around the edges of the map, and one of the young men at the Peace of Angkor front desk had recommended one of them, a place called the Red Piano.

Seeing that this wasn't far from the block labeled "Old Market," we had the tuk-tuk driver drop us off there, and wandered inside the cavernous covered market, where we found booths selling every kind of goods and food. Besides the kind of silk and cotton items you could find anywhere, there were lots of small images of Buddha, Ganesha, Kwan Yin, and the like, as well as jars, boxes, and other kinds of small gift and souvenir items. Many looked like antiques, and possibly some actually were. We bought a pretty silk scarf, now covering a buffet in our living room, and a small Chinese compass at one booth near the entrance, then continued through the building, looking but not buying. (The booth in the picture, taken in the Old Market and retrieved from the Web, may not be the one where we bought the scarf, but it looked a lot like that.)

We came out on the other side and headed toward the the Red Piano, but first we stopped at Senteurs ('scents') d'Angkor, a shop that sells work by local artisans. Our guide that day had told us that his brother was a stonecarver who made reproductions of traditional pieces and sold them through a shop in the town. Dorothea bought a small stone image of the reclining Buddha, hoping that the guide's brother might have made it  but when the guide joined us the next morning, we learned that, of the two such outlets in Siem Reap, we had gone to the wrong one. His brother's work was available at Artisans d'Angkor. But the image is beautiful anyway.

The Red Piano is in one of many buildings in this old part of Siem Reap that were built by the French in a typical colonial style. Both the ground floor and the second floor are open on the two street sides (it's on a corner), and our second-floor table overlooked the street, almost as if we were dining on a balcony. Across from us we could see people dining or drinking on both floors of a similar building. The street below was very busy, with tuk-tuks, vans, and trucks constantly passing and crowds of people hanging around on the sidewalks. At one point we looked down and saw a naked child, perhaps three or four years old, wandering down the street. He seemed to be alone, but he may have been following a parent on the sidewalk directly below us, which we couldn't see.

At street level on the opposite side was a row of bars and restaurants. Close enough to see into was the Buddha Lounge, where patrons sipped cocktails under the tranquil gaze of several images of the Perfectly Enlightened One, who would probably have advised them to take up a more mindful activity had they thought to ask. Two doors down, a sign advertised a place called Kama Sutra. We could see just enough of an inside wall to observe that there were pictures on it. We couldn't see what was in the pictures, but we could certainly guess, and we were glad to note that it wasn't quite next door to the Buddha Lounge. In fact, the establishment turned out to be nothing more sinister than an Indian restaurant, whose proprietor obviously knew that the name would attract certain kinds of western tourists.

Our meal at the Red Piano was a fine one, the best we had in Cambodia. While we waited for it I was paging through a little brochure advertising local attractions and came across an advertisement for another restaurant, oddly named Dead Fish Tower. It serves Cambodian and Thai food, and offers among other attractions Cambodian music you can dance to and a crocodile pit where you can toss food to the crocs. It wasn't these delights that attracted my notice, however, but a certain happy-go-lucky spirit in the ad, which offered "10% discount for Hollywood film star," and, under the heading "Why are we popular?" led off the list of reasons with "Doesn't serve dog, cat, rat, or worm." The Dead Fish Tower might have been fun to try, but this was our last night in Cambodia, so we weren't going to get the chance.

The Last Temple (Tuesday, November 29)

Our flight back to Bangkok wasn't due to leave until the middle of the next afternoon, so we had engaged the guide for another half day to show us the temple of Banteay Srei. It's a good many miles from Siem Reap, so again we left early to beat the crowd, which we more or less succeeded in doing, though we were by no means the first to arrive. The road to the temple led through a typical stretch of rural Cambodia. We passed small thatched villages and rustic houses, usually with one or two very large pots or drums outside holding the water supply. In several places we saw a big pot over a fire where someone was boiling down palm syrup to make sugar. Water buffalo and cows were here and there in the fields, and the rice looked ready to harvest. Jayanto told us that Burma also looks a lot like this, and so did Thailand before economic development was widespread. Dorothea took a few hasty photos through the window of the van as we sped along. Most of them were blurred, but she salvaged a few fragments that we appended to the Siem Reap gallery at the beginning of this section.

Banteay Srei, a small temple built not by a king of Angkor but by a counselor to one of them, is an exquisitely beautiful place. It's made of pink sandstone (actually, to my eyes at least, reddish brown) and every surface is richly carved. The royal counselor, whose name was Yajnyavaraha, had it built in the 960s, while in Europe the Hungarians were being introduced  using the military techniques then in fashion  to the consolations of Christianity. "Banteay Srei" means 'citadel of women' or 'citadel of beauty,' but that's a relatively modern name. It was consecrated as "Great Lord of the Threefold World," a dedication to Shiva, whose lingam resided in the central shrine. Surrounded by a square moat, the square temple precinct comprises a cluster of little buildings, some with doors only 3 1/2 feet high.

Every doorway, every column, and every pediment (a more or less triangular gable placed above a doorway like an expanded lintel) is carved with decorative patterns or scenes and figures from Hindu mythology and literature. The red sandstone is not only attractive in itself, but because it is relatively hard the carvings in it still have much of their original sharpness, and are held to be among the finest in all of Khmer art. The relief is relatively high, giving the figures almost a full three dimensions.

Banteay Srei was an enchanting place and a worthy climax to our visit to Angkor. We wandered around taking pictures almost nonstop. Soon, however, it was time to head back through the green countryside to the Peace of Angkor, where we parted from our guide. We had hired the van driver for the full day, so that he could take us to the airport a bit later, after we had packed our bags and eaten the midday meal.

This page last updated 3-5-2007