Phnom Penh and the Angkor Temples 25th February to 3rd March 2012
25.02.2012 - 03.03.2012
We arrived in Phnom Penh from Vietnam. The following day was spent on a tour of the city, which is a charming place with tree-lined boulevards, old colonial villas and a wide waterfront on the Tonle Sap River. Our first visit was to the Royal Palace, where the roofs of the exotic buildings are adorned with golden nagas (sacred multi-headed snakes) and spires. The palace dates from the early 20th century, having replaced earlier constructions. The main and most impressive building is the Throne Hall. It was erected in 1919 as a faithful replica of King Norodom’s wooden 19th century palace. It is used for coronations and ceremonies and has a four-faced spire, a seven-tiered roof tiled in orange, sapphire and green, representing prosperity, nature and freedom with golden nagas at the corners to ward off evil spirits. Within the palace’s surrounding wall is also the Silver Pagoda, which was constructed in 1962 by King Sihanouk to replace the wooden pavilion built by his grandfather in 1902. It is so named because of the 5329 silver floor tiles, each 20cm-square and weighing over a kilogram. In the centre of the pagoda is a 50cm-tall Emerald Buddha seated on a five-tiered dais. However this is outshone by the magnificent images around it, especially a life-size solid gold Buddha at ground level. This dates from 1907 and weighs 90kg with 2086 diamonds and precious stones taken from royal jewellery. There is also a case of gold statuettes depicting key events from the life of Buddha, such as taking his first steps as a child on seven lotus leaves, meditating under a Bodhi tree and reclining having reached nirvana. The courtyard is surrounded by an amazing 640m-long mural painted in 1903-04 and depicting the Hindu epic tale of the Ramayana in minute detail. The courtyard also features the two heavily embellished chedi (stupas) of King Ang Duong and King Norodom, plus the equally embellished chedi of Norodom’s daughter Kantha Bopha, who died in 1952 as a child. This chedi is open-sided and shows a golden lotus flower in the middle.
Our next stop was one of the Khmer Rouge ‘killing fields’ sites, Choeung Ek, which now shows little more than shallow depressions, where the mass graves were. This was a difficult and emotional visit, especially as our tour leader in Phnom Penh had lost all his male relatives in the killings and his testimony was very moving. In the middle of the site there is a pagoda with thousands of skulls piled up behind glass as a memorial to all those killed. We then moved on to the Toul Sleng Genocide Museum, which used to be a high school and was turned into a notorious Khmer Rouge prison, where over 13,000 men, women and children were interrogated, tortured and murdered. It has been retained as a museum and the cells still contain iron bedsteads and shackles, whilst other areas display instruments of torture and photographs of many victims, most of the latter staring straight ahead with an expression of complete emptiness (or hopelessness). The upper-floor balconies still have the barbed-wire round them that prevented prisoners from jumping to their death. We then went to the National Museum, a dark-red sandstone building dating from 1918, which has a roof with protective nagas all over it similar to the Royal Palace roofs. It contains a rich collection of statues and artefacts dating from prehistoric times to the present. The visitor, on entering, is immediately confronted by the 10th century sandstone statue of a massive and dramatic Garuda over two metres tall and with outstretched wings. The displays do include Buddhist items, but these are outnumbered by the large number of Hindu gods, goddesses and related images.
We next visited Wat Ounalom, which is one of Phnom Penh’s oldest and most important Buddhist pagodas, dating from the 15th century, and the centre of Cambodian Buddhism. Its name comes from its role as the repository of an ounalom, or hair from the Buddha’s eyebrow, which is kept in a large chedi behind the main sanctuary. The following day we had a boat trip up the river to Silk Island and visited two villages, where we saw women weaving and where we bartered for garments and other items. It was interesting to see the very basic style of housing here, all on stilts because of flooding. The day after that we left Phnom Penh and drove to Siem Reap.
Tonle Sap Lake
In the afternoon we went to Tonle Sap Lake and Chong Khneas Village, which again has its houses on stilts and this time very tall ones, because the lake can produce very high floods. Alternatively houses may be tied to pontoons that rise with the flood waters. Sometimes the villagers even dismantle their houses and remove them to higher ground for the duration of the flood. At its lowest level this huge freshwater lake covers an area of 2500 sq. km, but during the rains it inundates an area of 10,000 sq. km, making it then the largest freshwater lake in Southeast Asia. The receding waters leave behind highly fertile land for rice planting. The lake acts as reservoir, flood-relief system and communications route, as well as home and source of provisions for those who live on and around it. The lake was designated a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve in 1997, a status which reconciles sustainable use with conservation. However its position and fragile eco-system are under threat from the controversial construction of dams upstream on the Mekong River by the Chinese. Fishing is big business on Tonle Sap, but most of the local fishermen have to rent a share from wealthy concessionaires or practise their trade illegally. The majority of these fishermen are itinerant and most of these are stateless ethnic Vietnamese. They live in floating villages with extremely basic houses, which are built on bamboo rafts, and boats that ply between them. The villages only stay in one place for a certain length of time, before moving to another location on the lake. At Chong Khneas Village we boarded a boat for a trip on the lake through one of the floating villages. You definitely see life in the raw here and in a totally aquatic setting, where mothers breastfeed their babies or seem quite unconcerned, as small children move about perilously near the edge of the water and wave to the passing tourists. Livestock such as pigs are kept in rudimentary cages and there is even a floating petrol-station to provide diesel for the boats.
Temples of Angkor
The next day we started our visits to the Angkor Temples, which gained World Heritage Status in 1992 and are located over an area of 400 sq. km. This plethora of construction was principally the result of the Khmer kings creating state temples to serve the devaraja cult, which co-existed beside Hinduism and was introduced in the 9th century by King Jayavarman II. The king would create a statue consecrated to Shiva or Vishnu and install it in the main sanctuary. On his death he would become unified with the god and thus be able to protect his kingdom from the afterlife. Because no written Khmer records from ancient times have survived, the history of the temples is uncertain, and what is known has been pieced together through the study of the temples themselves and of over a thousand inscribed steles from around the Khmer empire. The temples date from 802 AD to the early 1200s and the majority face east to catch the rays of the rising sun, symbolising life. However Angkor Wat faces west towards the setting, symbolising death. The first ones we visited were Preah Ko, which was built in 879, Bakong in 881 and then Lo Lei.
After that we went to Banteay Srei, which is unusual in being built by two local dignitaries and not a king. The sanctuary was consecrated to Shiva in 967, but the temple wasn’t completed until some twenty years later. Banteay Srei has a wealth of carved detail, including scenes from the Ramayana, and there are a number of temple guardians in the form of figures with human bodies and animal heads crouching on the steps. It also has a 75m processional way leading west to the temple complex.
Our next temple was Ta Prohm, which was built around 1186. It was originally a Buddhist monastery and would have accommodated 12,000 people living and working there. A further 80,000 locals were employed to provide services to the monastery. It is one of the most dramatic and evocative of the Angkor temples, partly owing to the jungle which has been left clinging to it in places. Huge kapok trees grow from the terraces with roots trailing over the walls. The carvings are fairly well preserved, but the air of ruin and collapse of the temple just adds to its charm. The final temple we saw that day was East Mebon, which was erected in 953. That evening we went to a performance of apsara dancing. The girls are sewn into their glittering silk and sequinned tunics for each performance and wear elaborate gold headdresses. Each position they adopt has its own symbolism in this ancient classical form of dance and the dancing is slow, deliberate and ritualised.
The following day we started with a visit to the ancient city of Angkor Thom, the last and most enduring capital city of the Khmer empire, which was established in the late 12th century and covers an area of 3 sq. km. It is enclosed by a moat and an 8m-high wall with a wide earth embankment. The southern entrance gate is approached over a 100m-long causeway, which is flanked by 54 almond-eyed Hindu gods on one side and 54 round-eyed demons on the other. Angkor Thom contains several temples, such as the Bayon, the Baphuon and the Phimeanakas. The first temple we visited was the Bayon, which was constructed in the late 12th century and originally meant to embrace all religions in the kingdom. However when the state reverted to Hinduism, the Buddha in the central sanctuary was thrown down. One of the main features of the Bayon is the profusion of massive smiling faces on the 37 towers and these represent Lokesvara, one of the Buddhist Bodhisattvas. There are also a number of carvings of apsara dancers. The three enclosing walls all have fascinating bas-reliefs, including gods, battle scenes, circus acts, hunts, musicians and scenes from daily life. There is also a depiction of the story of the Churning of the Ocean of Milk, which is a Hindu creation myth from the Bhagavata-Purana epic. The 11th century Baphuon temple is undergoing restoration and therefore closed, but it is interesting to walk alongside it to view the enormous reclining Buddha, which takes up the whole length of the fourth level, although it isn’t easy to make it out at first. The Phimeanakas (also 11th century) consists of a single rectangular three-tiered structure with the remnants of elephants at the corners of each level and lions on the staircase. Two other notable features of Angkor Thom are the 300m-long Terrace of the Elephants, which shows a bas-relief frieze of almost life-sized elephants, and the Terrace of the Leper King, which has a narrow gap between two walls with bas-relief friezes of gods and goddesses.
We moved on to see Preah Khan temple, which was built in 1177. It functioned as a monastery and as a university for a long time and employed over 1000 teachers, plus 97,840 ancillary staff. In 1191 it was consecrated as an inter-denominational temple, to worship Buddha, Shiva and Vishnu, plus a further 282 gods. Preah Khan is also invaded by trees and has a similar atmosphere to Ta Prohm. It is surrounded by four walls and a moat with four causeways. There are fine carvings, especially of apsara dancers. Our last temple that day was Neak Pean, which has a single tower in the centre of the largest of four pools joined by walkways. It may have been a spa.
The next day was devoted to the 12th century temple of Angkor Wat, the most famous (and most crowded) of the Angkor temples. It is majestic and dominated by five corn-cob-shaped towers. It is thought to have been used by the king (Suryavarman II) to worship the devaraja during his life and then as his mausoleum. The main entrance on the western side is along a 200m-long causeway over the moat to an impressive 230m-wide gopura (gatehouse to the sacred area of a temple) in the fourth enclosing wall. This gopura has three towers and entrances for elephants. Then a second 350m-long causeway between two pools leads to the third enclosing wall and the temple. Along the colonnaded gallery which runs around this enclosure is a series of magnificent bas-reliefs that mainly portray events associated with Vishnu. This is as far as the populace were allowed to go and the scenes depicted were intended to impress them with the king’s prowess, as well as provide religious education. The reliefs extend over 700m and are divided into sections by porches in the middle of each side. There are battle scenes from the Mahabharata, the great Hindu epic of the conflict between the Pandava and Kaurava brothers, as well as scenes from the Ramayana. Panels also show Khmer armies, battles between gods and demons and a section depicting the many-armed god Yama judging the dead, plus another representation of the Churning of the Ocean of Milk myth.
Cambodia is attractive and interesting with good food and hotels and the people are very friendly. It is a poor country, which isn’t surprising considering that the devastations of the Khmer Rouge period were only thirty-odd years ago. In fact it’s amazing how much Cambodia has achieved in such a short time. The ability of young children there to converse in English is also amazing, although that is driven by the imperative to sell trinkets to the tourists.