Angkor Thom, Siem Reap
With unrelenting enthusiasm and unflappable endurance, the vast majority of us opted for another dawn departure to the final and largest temple of our journey: Angkor Thom. Angkor Thom means “Great City”, and it is the most expansive and most mysterious of all of the Angkor temples.
A fleet of tuk-tuks were lined up and ready, as we boarded two by two for the open-air ride to the Angkor Temple Complex. By now we were all experienced experts on local transportation in Southeast Asia, so the tuk-tuks seemed almost luxurious as we putted along through the temple check points. The weather was blissfully cool and cloudy, completing an entire month of quite comfortable weather conditions throughout our entire journey.
Our first stop was the bridge at the south gate, where the familiar faces of the heroes and the demons pulled on the serpent Naga in a cosmic tug-of-war that is the famous Hindu creation myth of the Churning of the Sea of Milk. Orchestrated by the Hindu God Vishnu from his perch atop the turtle avatar of longevity, heroes and demons churn the sea of milk for 1,000 years to release the elixir of immortality. The bridge over the moat is railed with the demons on one side and the heroes on the other, with the demons definitely being the favored photographic subjects! Overlooking the bridge and the south gate entrance is the enigmatic smile and face that defines the reign and prolific building of Jayavarman VII. A devout Buddhist, Jayavarman VII defeated the invading Cham people and reclaimed Angkor in the 12th century, becoming the first Buddhist God-King of Kampuchea. He was a tireless builder of temples, bridges, reservoirs, hospitals and schools in his 39-year reign, and the signature 4-faced towers seem to keep a cosmic watch on all travelers through Cambodia.
Nowhere is this more unsettling than in the central temple of Angkor Thom, called the Bayon, where hundreds of the soft, smiling faces seem to emerge from the sandstone surfaces. The Bayon also displays magnificent bas-relief carvings that show the great battle on the Tonle Sap Lake where the Khmer defeat the Cham, as well as numerous examples of everyday life in the late 12th century.
We finished our morning visit with a stop at the Elephant Terrace and Leper King Terrace, where it was easy to imagine the great victory processions returning to the temple to pass in front of the King. And when we tried to depart from Angkor Thom, we saw the wisdom of our early visit as masses of visitors were trying to squeeze through the south gate entrance.
What a finale. The rest of the day was “at our leisure”, and leisure is easy at La Residence d’Angkor Hotel. Still, some of us had energy and ambition to spare, and were off to the markets, the Angkor Museum, and local restaurant on our final day of a truly captivating expedition. It will take a long time to sort out the images and experiences of this Mekong journey.