we were content to sit by the water-filled moat, sip Cambodian wine, nibble on frogs' legs
- From: "Chim" <ChimS1@xxxxxxx>
- Date: 1 Apr 2007 08:27:03 -0700
By Susan C. Hegger
ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH
Sunday, Apr. 01 2007
SIEM REAP, CAMBODIA - The traffic at the South Gate was hectic.
clogged the narrow bridge as motor scooters veered in and out, coming
always just missing a startled tourist or two. Cabs, buses and
maneuvered through the gawkers, most with awestruck looks on their
cameras slung around their necks. But whether on foot or on wheels,
moved to the side to let the lumbering elephant caravans through.
It was a typical morning at Angkor Wat, the ancient capital of the
in modern-day Cambodia and reportedly the largest religious monument
veryFrom one glance at the South Gate, we knew we were entering someplace
special and important. Leading to the portal, on both sides of the
road, was a
line of stone figures, each one clasping the body of the Naga, a long
holding it in their grasp for eternity. The gate itself was imposing
ornate, with four faces of the Buddha smiling down on all those who
we passed through the gate, monkeys scampered among the stones.
The South Gate is a majestic sight, one that prompts a sudden gasp and
whispered "ohmigod" when first seen. Yet even so, it couldn't quite
for how vast and monumental Angkor Archeological Park is.
One very full day
For starters, it's far too big to be explored on foot, which explains
the bicycles, cabs, motorbikes and even the elephants on the roads. It
more sense to ride to each of the major complexes - and given the
definitely more pleasant. Comprising multiple structures, each of the
complexes is also much more expansive than I had imagined. The size
of the park underscored what an amazing place this must have been at
from the 9th to the 13th centuries. (While, in retrospect, two days
been better, we did see in one very full day, without feeling rushed,
sights of the South Gate, Bayon, Central Angkor Thom and Angkor Wat,
park is often called.)
Once through the gate, our guide Sarin Soeum, more familiarly known as
took us to what he later called his favorite spot - the temple of
what's called Central Angkor Thom. Actually, the word "temple" may be
misleading; Bayon is an intricate complex of terraces, towers and
which you could spend hours exploring, beginning with the bas reliefs
historical scenes on the exterior walls.
Bayon is his favorite, Kea said, because of all the stone images of a
Buddha. Indeed, his face adorns all four sides of many of the towers,
a nod to
the four cardinal directions. (Some suggest that these Buddhas may
King Jayavarman VII, who built Bayon.) Indeed, from one particular
point, where we crammed into a narrow corner, we could photograph
Buddhas in a row. But no matter where we looked, the stone faces were
Just as remarkable was the fact that Bayon, as well as all the temples
park, is still a living shrine to Buddha. Time and again, we'd enter
or dark tower only to discover visitors praying while a monk tended a
altar crowded with burning candles, incense and other offerings to a
Picture with roots
If Bayon was Kea's favorite, I'd have to say that Ta Prohm, a
one-level monastery-temple complex, was mine. Where Bayon is out in
Ta Prohm is like a hidden and mysterious jewel. We reached it only
short walk through the jungle. As we approached, it appeared sheltered
surrounding jungle. We noticed hints of the red paint that once
covered all the
What makes Ta Prohm magical, though, is the way the jungle has claimed
curling, curving roots of fig and silk-cotton trees seem to devour the
trees seem to sprout from some of the towers. It's a literally
nature and human creation fused, entwined in a symbiotic embrace.
why people - and I confess I was one of them - lined up at various
for a picture of themselves framed by these enormous roots.)
The crown jewel of the park is, of course, the spectacular temple
Angkor Wat, which covers a square kilometer. Unfortunately, we came up
temple from behind. That gave us a terrific sense of the immense size
complex, but it robbed us of that first indelible, breath-taking
You know the one from countless photographs: Angkor Wat with its
towers at the end of a causeway. The million-dollar view finds the
of the temple shimmering in the reflecting pool.
We explored the wat or temple right after lunch, in the heat of the
before the crowds for sunset swarmed the site. While the temple was
built in the 12th century by King Suryavarman II in honor of the Hindu
Vishnu, it now houses dozens of Buddhas, said our guide Kea.
I could barely absorb it all: the walls of carvings, ranging from
dancing celestial beings; the array of Buddhas, including a beautiful
Buddha; the one shrine to Vishnu, with his many graceful arms; the
Heights and mosquitoes
I even conquered my fear of heights, temporarily at least, to climb
exceptionally steep, narrow steps to the temple's highest spot. I
of the handrail, focused only on the step ahead and ascended. At the
looked out and gasped: How am I going to get down? I couldn't even see
steps I had so gingerly trod.
I postponed my panic to wander around. In one corner by a shrine to
a group of five elderly Cambodians and a monk. They were burning
laughing and taking turns telling fortunes. It was a lovely scene,
reminder of the reverence in which this place is still held. Then it
These people walked up those steps, and they're going to walk down.
triumph, and fear, were deflated.
That evening, the sky was so overcast that there wasn't a sunset to
Angkor Wat in a reddish glow. But we were content to sit by the water-
moat, sip Cambodian wine, nibble on frogs' legs and watch the temple
darkness - at least until the mosquitoes took over.
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