Here Comes The Sun

DSC00839Everyday, at around half past four, a pilgrimage of sorts – comprising tuk tuks (a local motorcycle taxi), mini-vans, and tour coaches – descend in droves to a sandstone causeway. Here, the pilgrims (a veritable mixed bag of nationalities) disembark.

Armed with torches on one hand, and swapping away bugs with the other, this multi-national army of devotees grope their way in the near pitch-darkness, up the stairs of the sandstone causeway, across a 200 metre-wide moat, up another several flight of stairs into a gopura, past a gigantic statue of the eight-armed Vishnu (not that they can see in the blackness). A multitude of languages can be heard, each coming from a tour guide barking instructions to their respective group of pilgrims “Stay close! Watch your step! Be careful!”

I joined these pilgrims on 15 March. And became one of them.

Another 200 metres, and the tottering troupe came to a halt, in front of a partially dried up pool. There, some of the pilgrims set up their camera tripods. Others inched themselves between gaps in hopes of a better view. A few local hawkers paddled coffee and tea to the swelling mass of devotees.

Everyday, hundreds make this pilgrimage to catch the sunrise at Angkor Wat.

An hour passed.

The five corncob towers – the distinctive symbol of Angkor Wat and the national flag – peeked into view as the dark receded.

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No sign of the sun.

Tired of waiting, some of the early arrivals started to make their way into the main temple. Some took out their picnic mats and lay them on the parched grass, and unpacked their sandwiches. A hawker approached them with promises of hot coffee or tea.

Another half-hour passed, and the full majesty of Angkor Wat quietly unveiled itself in the breaking dawn.

Still no sign of the sun.

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I excused myself from the now thinning throng of pilgrims and made my way to one of the naga (multi-headed serpent) balustrades that line either side of a 475m-long avenue that leads from the main entrance to the central temple complex.

There, I dropped my backpack on the sidewalk and flicked open my Styrofoam-boxed breakfast that my hotel had packed for me. A couple of Indian bananas, five rambutans and a flaccid croissant with a small slab of butter.

Just then, the remnants of pilgrims that had gathered at the pool stirred to life. Cameras flashed. Fingers pointed.

I turned in the direction of the corncobs, and saw a luminescent coral pearl amongst them.

At 6.45 a.m., the sun finally rose on Angkor Wat.  LS

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Sunset on the Rup

DSC00822Half the fun of exploring the architectural wonders of the Khmer kingdom lies in reading up the rich history of each shrine and monument. I know this sounds like a wet blanket but really, reading up on the history of the Angkorian period (AD802 – 1432) and the many kings that embarked on their own building fantasies – each, of course, with the view to leaving behind his own legacy (and hopefully outdoing its predecessors), allows you to appreciate these stunning behemoths. Without the historical context, it’s easy to get ‘temple fatigue’ after a day at Angkor, and all you may see are just piles of stone and rubble.

For example, did you know that Angkor Wat wasn’t even the first Angkor temple that was built, even though it’s arguably the nation’s most famous? Several others pre-date Angkor Wat, such as the Eastern Mebon, Pre Rup, Ta Keo, Banteay Srei and the Baphoun. Here, we shall briefly take a look at three of them.

DSC00680Preah Khan

Translated from Cambodian as “Scared Sword”, this enormous temple complex was the masterpiece of Jayavarman VII, a.k.a champion temple builder amongst all the Khmer kings (he’s also the architect behind Angkor Wat), and was completed in AD 1191. Consecrated as a fusion temple, dedicated to Buddha and the Hindu gods of Shiva, Vishnu and Brahma, Preah Khan is usually approached from the west (where the main road is). Continuing from west to east, you will exit the temple grounds, passing by the Dancers’ Hall adorned with thousands of dancing apsara carvings.DSC00713

DSC00775East Mebon

The architectural style of East Mebon provides a glimpse into the inspiration for the Angkor Wat. Built by Rajendravarman II (the 5th king of the Khmer empire) in AD 953, the temple stood on an island in the now-dried up Baray reservoir. Typical of early Khmer architectural styles, the temple consists of five towers arranged like the dots on a dice symbolising the number 5 (i.e. a quincunx), built on top of a raised pyramid. The central tower represents the sanctuary, surrounded by four towers at the corners, representing the cardinal points.DSC00795DSC00781DSC00807Pre Rup

By the time Pre Rup was constructed (also by Rajendravarman), about 10 years after the East Mebon, embellishments had been added to the original design, featuring flanking fountains, libraries or courtyards. Smaller towers also decorate the lower levels of the stepped pyramid structure. However, the five petal towers remain the dominant feature, majestically rising above the waters or surrounding foliage.  Interestingly, Pre Rup was believed to have once been used as a crematorium, as its name literally means in Sanskrit “Turning the Body”.

At sunset, Pre Rup is a popular spot to catch the crimson globe slowly descend in the midst of expansive padi fields and tree canopy.  LSDSC00804

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