It’s 8 a.m. on our second day in Angkor Wat, and our tour guide Salon is adjusting our itinerary. “We are supposed to visit Angkor Thom first,” he tells us, “but I’d rather start at Ta Prohm. This is a very special temple, and if we go early, we’ll avoid the crowds. Everyone seems to start at Angkor Thom.”
Our group is on board with Salon’s plan. In the short time we’ve known him, he has proven to be an exceptional guide, navigating crowds and maximizing our time to deal with the high temperatures and humidity. He is also extremely kind and considerate, spraying arms and ankles with mosquito repellant in case anyone forgot to bring their own and pointing out steep or slippery areas at the ruins. “Every day someone gets injured climbing around Angkor Wat,” he told us yesterday. “I don’t want that to happen to anyone in my group!”
I’m also amazed by Salon’s knack for photography. He stops frequently at his “best spots” and offers to take photos of everyone, never rushing or telling us there isn’t time to stop. I don’t think Herb and I have ever had so many photos of us taken in such a special place.
Ta Prohm Temple
Ta Prohm Temple is all about the trees. Tree roots, that is – mammoth, twisted, gnarled extensions that wrap around temple walls and structures like a monster’s fingers. The temple was built without mortar in the late 12th and early 13th centuries, and the trees took root in the loosened stones when it was abandoned. Originally created as a Buddhist monastery, Ta Prohm was once home to 80,000 residents. The temple has a sort of cult following for fans of the movie Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, filmed here in 2000.
We enter the temple grounds on a dirt road. Brown cracked leaves cover the ground, looking like fossils imbedded in clay. As we approach the first building, women with brooms are sweeping the stone entry. It seems like an impossible task in this jungle-like setting, but the stones look as clean and leaf-free as they can possibly be. A thick-trunked tree curves crookedly skyward from the top of the building, telling us that if we’re looking for Ta Prohm, we’ve come to the right place.
The name Angkor Thom translates as great city and was once the longest-lasting capital of the Khmer Empire. Constructed in the late 12th century, the city covered about three-and-a-half square miles and is believed to have had a population of 80,000 to 150,000 residents. Once filled with temples, a Royal Palace and other important sites, Angkor Thom was abandoned sometime in the early 16th century.
Angkor Thom’s most famous landmark is Bayon Temple, built exactly in the center of the city in the 12th century. Fifty-four stone towers each carved with four serene, smiling faces look down from the temple’s upper levels. Some scholars have speculated that the faces represent Buddha; others believe they are likenesses of King Jayavarman VII, who is responsible for building the temple as well as other contributions to Angkor Thom.
When French naturalist and explorer Henri Moutot saw the faces at Bayon Temple on his expedition to Angkor Wat, he described them as “four immense heads in the Egyptian style.”
“One of these temples – a rival to that of Solomon, and erected by some ancient Michaelangelo – might take an honourable place beside our most beautiful buildings. It is grander than anything left to us by Greece or Rome.”
~Henri Mouhot, Travels in Siam, Cambodia & Laos (published posthumously, 1863)
From a distance, the towers don’t appear to have distinguishable carvings. But as you get closer, the faces begin appearing, and soon it’s astounding to realize how many there are. According to Salon, the number is based on the lucky number 9…54 towers x 4 faces each = 216 faces; 2 + 1 + 6 = 9.
Terrace of the Elephants
Our last stop of the morning is a 1,000-foot-long platform built in the late 12th century. Named after the parade of elephants that adorn the platform walls, the Terrace of the Elephants was used for public ceremonies and as a viewing sport for King Jayavarman VII to watch processions and military parades on the grounds below. Like everything else at Angkor Thom, it’s built on a grand scale. A larger-than-life part of a city that was once larger than life.
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The rest of the day included a Khmer lunch and optional shopping excursions around Siem Reap. Salon’s driver provided transportation for group and individual requests. Except for the evening’s farewell dinner and entertainment at the hotel, we had free time to customize our afternoon plans.
About That Ever-Present Coconut
I continued to deal with my inability to tolerate coconut with set menus in Cambodia, just as I had in Thailand. When it was part of a sauce mixed with other ingredients, I was fine. But when coconut was on its own or as the main headliner – coconut soup, coconut ice cream – I had to politely decline. From what I could tell, these weren’t dining experiences that dealt with food allergies or special requests. I adopted a When in Rome attitude, tried what I could and said “no thank you” when I simply couldn’t.
One of the optional shopping stops was Satcha Project, an artisan educational center for young Cambodians to develop traditional Khmer craftsmanship skills in making a variety of products. I was a bit dubious after visiting an artisan center in Nha Trang, Vietnam, but this was a very different experience. The group’s website describes the project as “incubated artisans” and has an impressive mission statement.
“To create the first Cambodian handicraft center that incubates local artisans, mixing traditional knowledge with contemporary design to showcase Cambodian talents to local and international visitors and to transmit these know-how(s) over time while having a sustainable social, economic and environmental impact.”
~Satcha Handicraft Mission Statement
We watched artists working in their studio, an open-air, bamboo-covered pavilion with individual stations for wood and stone carving, weaving, painting and lacquer work. The grounds are lovely and peaceful, filled with trees and walking paths, a small outdoor café and a pond. A shop featuring the artists’ work is housed in a separate building. I bought a small stone elephant to add to our ever-growing collection of travel treasures.
Scenes from Siem Reap
As we were leaving Satcha Project, Salon offered to stop at Siem Reap’s Old Market before dropping us off at the hotel. The market was more of a place for souvenirs, he told us, where it was expected that you’d bargain on pricing. But it wasn’t so much the market I wanted to experience, but the city itself.
Before our trip, I had somehow pictured Siem Reap as a small town with a few hotels and dirt roads leading to Angkor Wat. I couldn’t have been more wrong! With a population of almost a quarter of a million residents, Siem Reap is the second-largest city in Cambodia. Salon told us that the city made good use of the non-visitor pandemic months by completing renovation and road work projects. It’s a vibrant, busy city, and it was great fun to walk its streets.