Face Off With A King

What is the first thing you would do if you have just reclaimed your kingdom that was plundered from you in a surprise attack? Arm yourself in preparation for a reprisal, of course!

This could have been the motivation behind Jayavarman VII (the Cambodian king responsible for Angkor Wat and many other magnificent temples) when he successfully regained Angkor from the Chams (from the Kingdom of Champa) of Southern Vietnam.

One of the first tasks that Jayavarman VII undertook after the recapture of Angkor was to construct a new fortified city – one that would cover a massive 10 square kilometres, surrounded by gigantic walls and a massive moat – the city of Angkor Thom.

And Bayon was its crown jewel.

Constructed as a state temple of Jayavarman VII, the Bayon signified a great departure from the usual quincunx layout (imagine five dots on a dice) that you find in most other Angkor temples. Instead, 216 enormous square faces of Avalokiteshvara (which some say are ‘caricatures’ of the king himself) are spread out over 54 towers, looking in different directions.

DSC00918Archaeologists have debated the exact function and symbolism of Bayon, according to Lonely Planet. However, if you were trying to guard against a counterattack from your enemy, the scenario that Jayavarman VII found himself in at that time, the many faces of your own portrait, designed to pass off as similar to that of a Bodhisattva, makes perfect sense.

Because to the enemy, seen from a distance, it would appear as if the King (or Buddha) himself is watching over the city from every conceivable angle, exuding a mystical power and aura over the fortified city. It was also said that Jayavarman VII had adopted Mahayana Buddhism and the Avalokiteshvara was his patron ‘Buddha’.

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Today, most of the 216 faces have been painstakingly restored, and quietly watch over the Angkor Wat to its south, Ta Prohm to its east, and Preah Khan to its northeast.

These faces are also the subjects of comic selfies and photo opportunities of countless tourists, all eager to stage a personal ‘attack’ on these faces.

You could ‘kiss’ the Buddha, ‘touch’ your nose with Jayavarman (Maori style), ‘hold’ Avalokiteshvara in the palm of your hands, or even ‘stick’ a finger up one of its nostrils, according to a local temple guide who grabbed my camera and enthusiastically showed me all the different possibilities, in exchange for a quick US$2 tip.

I politely declined his offer, and wistfully, wondered what Jayavarman VII would have thought of this.  LS

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Touched By An Apsara

“Apsara” refers to the ancient art of dance performances performed by women in traditional glittering silk tunics and elaborate golden headdresses in the royal courts of Angkor during the reign of Jayavarman VII.

But in modern day Siem Reap, and I suspect, in many parts of Cambodia, Apsara is probably the most overused name you can find anywhere and everywhere. There’s Apsara Hotel, Apsara Spa, Apsara Boutique Spa & Hotel, Apsara Café, Apsara Restaurant, Apsara Foundation, even an Apsara Spice Garden.

DSC00612Frankly though, your trip to Siem Reap or Cambodia will never be complete without catching an Apsara performance. Many restaurants in Siem Reap offer this traditional dance performance, although prices vary markedly, so it’s good to check with your hotel before you make a reservation. You can find a relatively affordable meal with accompanying Apsara dance for US$12 at the Koulen II Restaurant. The best part of the deal – it’s a buffet!

DSC00663After your Khmer debauchery, head for the night markets for some bargain hunting. Or indulge your own Fear Factor fantasies by taking on some traditional Khmer street food – fried spiders / scorpions / crickets / baby frogs!  LS

P.S.: I’m sorry I kind of went on a hiatus again because work has started. So now that I’ve had a chance to take a breather and jet off again, I shall remove that cryptic post of Mount Fuji titled “Majesty” (taken from my flight back from Tokyo).

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