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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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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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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