After cycling to the temples and lining up with a sea of other people to get our tickets, we head for Angkor Thom, the largest temple complex at Angkor – nothing like trying to tackle the biggest area on your first day. Angkor Thom, meaning ‘Great City’, was the last capital of the Khmer empire, built during the reign of King Jayavarman VII (who we will henceforth refer to as J7 because we have no idea how to pronounce his name). Actually, saying J7 built Angkor Thom is a bit like me painting a hat on the Mona Lisa, putting it in a new frame and calling it mine. J7 didn’t really build Angkor Thom: he added the Bayon, made some minor modifications to other temples and then put a new wall around the whole thing. As a result, Angkor Thom is a mixed bag of temples built between the early 11th and late 12th centuries. The whole thing covers 9km2 and we spent most of the day there, so bear with us.
The Bayon (that temple with the big faces)
We start with the Bayon. This is J7’s contribution to Angkor Thom, best known for the giant, stone faces on the upper terrace. Our friend Maurice (author of the classic Angkor guide) likes the serene, smiling faces although he’s scathing of just about everything else. He says the Bayon is “like a cathedral built on the site of a village church … [that] appears as but a muddle of stones, a sort of moving chaos assaulting the sky”. Nice, Maurice. It certainly feels cramped when we’re in there, but that’s probably more to do with the fact that we’re sharing the tiny space of the upper terrace with at least five hundred other visitors who are all vying for a shot of the smiling Lokesvara faces. It is amazing, but it’s also a rude introduction to the crowds of Angkor, and we’re glad to escape to the Royal Palace.
The Royal Palace (peace, quiet and genie sex)
We walk along raised walls beside the Terrace of the Elephants and Terrace of the Leper King to get inside the Royal Palace, ignoring all the ‘way of visit’ signs telling us that we’re going the wrong way. The Royal Palace enclosure is a relief from the midday sun and the crush of the Bayon. It’s full of shady trees, and we picnic beside a huge rectangular pond with tuna baguettes for lunch, catching up on what our friend Maurice has to say about the monuments.
Our research into Phimeanakas turns up one of our favourite Angkor stories: the king and his genie-sex temple. It’s probably best if we let you read it for yourself:
The local people commonly believe that in the tower [of Phimeanakas] lives a genie in the form of a nine headed serpent, which is the Lord of the entire kingdom. Every night this genie appears in the shape of a woman, with whom the sovereign couples. Not even the wives of the King may enter here. At the second watch, the King comes forth and is then free to sleep with his wives and concubines”.
Even if you know nothing about the King and his nightly visits to a serpent genie, Phimeanakas is still an amazing monument. It’s one of the earlier temples in the Royal Palace, built in the late 10th or early 11th century. It’s a huge, three-tiered pyramid and you can climb all the way to the top. Although parts of your Angkor visit can feel highly controlled, with ‘way of visit’ signs telling you exactly where to go, climbing all over ancient monuments with a typically South East Asian disregard for occupational health and safety is one of the best parts. Nowhere in Australia would you be able to climb up a thirty metre high temple built a thousand years ago without so much as a guide rope in sight. We both climb all the way up and bask in the view for all of two minutes before rushing back down out of the brutal midday sun.
Further into the Royal Palace is the Baphuon, another 11th century temple for the climbing. The Baphuon is an imposing, five-tiered pyramid, far bigger than Phimeanakas. It’s a long climb to the top up steep flights of stairs but the view is amazing. The uppermost terrace of the Baphuon is twenty metres high and faces out over the Royal Palance and the impressive 200m sandstone causeway that leads to the front of the temple.
Prah Khan (a delightful decaying mess)
After scrambling up two huge temples, we wander out of the Royal Palace on pretty wobbly legs. We’re tired and hot, but it’s our first Angkor day and we’re still full of temple enthusiasm. We walk past the line of touts outside the Royal Palace, who yell “Cold drink! Cold drink! You buy something!” but stay behind the road like there’s some kind of invisible electric fence stopping them from coming closer. Jumping back on the bikes, we pedal further around the temple circuit to Prah Khan.
Consulting Maurice again, we’ve started to notice a trend. He’s not impressed by J7. Whenever possible, he slags off his architectural taste and deplores the additions he made to any other King’s monument. He slags off Prah Khan in the same way he did the Bayon, saying that in typical J7 style it has “all the elements of a vast composition compressed into a relatively small space… the transformation of an elegant initial plan into a veritable architectural chaos”.
Whatever Maurice thinks, we like Prah Khan. Perhaps the temple itself is a bit jam-packed, and admittedly you have to climb through a lot of concentric galleries to get through the monument. Once you get through the temple to the other side, though, there’s something beautiful about its state of decay. Dense jungle pushes in on the temple from all sides, and in places it has begun to grow up through walls. In the late afternoon shade, it’s a great place to sit for a while.
Exhausted and just a little overwhelmed from our first day, we start the ride back to Siem Reap as late afternoon slips toward dusk.