I had an inkling that my family didn’t want to spend all day looking at eight hundred year old temples. So Jack and I had an afternoon session of more sightseeing while the fam chilled back at the hotel.
We started with Angkor Thom and it’s central temple, Bayon. This was Jayavarman VII’s answer to Angkor Wat. Bayon is a huge Buddhist temple and it’s striking feature is the 54 towers of stone, each with four serene giant faces on four sides.
There is some question about who the 216 almost identical giant faces belong to. Some think that they are an idealized version of Jayavarman VII’s face. If that were true he must have had a giant ego. He would surely have been a good friend of the Donald if they had been contemporaries. Others believe that the faces belong to the bodhisattva of compassion, Avalokitesvara.
Whatever the truth, there’s something about seeing so many serene giant faces smiling down at you. I happily smiled back.
From Bayon we walked over to its older neighbor, the massive Hindu Shiva temple called Baphuon. Built to resemble the mountain home of Shiva, this man-made structure is almost as imposing as a mountain, with steep steps leading to what is the top now. An additional wood and bronze tower used to sit up here. The fashion show runway-like stone bridge leading up to the temple is the place to be photographed in Cambodia according to Jack and during our time here I saw multiple photographers and brides in spectacular wedding dresses hard at work.
A few hundred years after it had been built, probably around the 15th century, the tides of religion turned again and the Buddhists reclaimed this Hindu temple. The whole immense northern wall was rearranged into a huge reclining Buddha. It’s hard to spot but here are a couple of photos anyway.
From here we walked to the next structure – the king’s palace and swimming pools and the elephant terrace overlooking a massive field from where events were witnessed by the royals.
We finished and drove out of Angkor Thom through the beautiful Tonle Om gate and over the moat.
The bridge over the moat is representative of bridges small and large and modern and ancient all over Cambodia. The rail on the sides consists of a series of humanoid figures holding a long snake between them. The head of the snake is a giant fanned and hooded multi headed thing. This is Vasuki, the king of serpents who is usually found coiled around Shiva’s neck.
The bridges memorialize one of Hinduism’s favorite stories when the gods used the snake to churn the oceans. My summary, most likely inaccurate: the gods were weak (probably due to something stupid one of them had done). They needed to drink amrit, the nectar of immortality, to regain their strength and power. But the amrit had to be churned from depths of the cosmic oceans. Only a heavenly mountain was big enough to be used as the churning rod, and only Vasuki was long and strong enough to be the rope to tie around the mountain and be pulled to and fro from both ends. But the gods were weak and couldn’t do this by themselves. Vishnu got them to ask the demons to help. The demons took the head end of Vasuki, leaving the tail end for the gods. Then Vishnu turned into an avatar, a giant turtle, on whose back the mountain could rest while it was churned back and forth. A lot of valuable things were churned up including the nectar of immortality. Along the way poisonous fumes from Vasuki’s mouth (the gods had tricked the demons into holding the head end of the snake knowing this would happen) destroyed most of the demons. More trickery was used by the gods to finish off the remaining demons. The gods got their nectar and lived happily ever after.
The moat under the bridge of gods and demons is beautiful in the evening light. In the distance amongst the lotus there are a couple of boats. I sit and look at this for a while imagining life here a thousand years ago. And just like that after a lifetime of waiting my day at Angkor Wat is over.