Wednesday, September 28, 2011
All of us have signed up for the extension of our tour, a land excursion to the ancient Khmer temples surrounding the town of Siem Reap. They're surprisingly close by, and as the day breaks with a beautiful blue sky, none of us can wait to see the highlight of anyone's trip to Cambodia.
Chhn Long, our guide, takes us first to Ta Prohm, a temple built in 1186 in the middle of the time of the Khmers. It's one of the smaller sites near Angkor Thom, but it has the distinction of being yet to be restored, giving us the chance to see how the Khmer Empire looked when the French happened upon it more than a century ago. Trees grow out of the towers and walls, giving the place an eerie, other-worldly appearance. Just the sort of thing for a hollywood movie, and in fact it is one of the sites used to film "Lara Croft: Tomb Raider" in 2001. As we walk through Ta Prohm, we hear other guides pointing out where Angela Jolie stood in various scenes.
Because the day is so beautiful, we're hading to Angkor Thom this afternoon, rearranging our schedule in one of the wonderful Plan Bs we've come to expect from Road Scholar. On the way, we pass through much of the ancient city of Angkor Thom - walls, reservoirs, and smaller temples, some surrounded by moats. Our bus stops briefly for us to take pictures. It's almost incongruous, given how beautiful these timeless structures truly are.
After lunch, we head to the temple of Bayon, at the center of Angkor Thom, also built around the time of Ta Prohm. It is spectacular, on both the grand scale of its architecture, and in the finely-detailed carvings on its interior walls. Bayon is the temple that smiles back at you as you explore it from its towers, built to look like the sacred Mt. Meru. They do look like mountains, although no camera can do them justice, or at least mine can't. You need to see them for yourself to experience them in their fullest.
The carvings tell stories Mr. Long describers to us in great detail, including the struggles between gods and demons, battles on land and sea, and the combination of man and animal that made up many of the Khmer religion's gods. The carvings of Bayon are the best we see during our program; those elsewhere are worn by time and erosion, or polished to an almost metallic shine by centuries of visitors rubbing them to take souvenirs home in the days before cameras.
Our day ends at Banteay Srei, a Buddhist temple built in 967. Sometimes called the Women's Temple, it is built of red sandstone, giving it an unusual, warm appearance. Because of the high water this year, we wade to it, but our trek is more than rewarded. The late afternoon sunlight brings out its details in an unforgettable way. And today is just the beginning. Angkor Wat, which we have passed several times along the way, awaits at dawn tomorrow.