The broad walkway to the temple is paved with thick, square-cut stones. I visualize the procession of elephants, royalty and commoners all sharing this tremendously wide and long avenue. The stone balustrades on both sides are called nagas which is in the shape of the snake deity. The symmetry of the temple is visually stimulating to the photographer who carefully angles his shot while paying attention to light and shadows. Up close to the temple, the artist too, creates a palette rendering ancient stone. It is the color of earth, rich and vibrant with hues of browns, yellows, grays, and blacks. Add green and even turquoise to the palette to duplicate the moss and lichens which cling to some of the massive cut stones. We are fortunate to have a guide (Reno) who was a Buddhist monk for five years. His religious teachings include Hinduism from which Buddhism evolved. It was after the fall of the Angkor Empire that Buddhist statues were placed in many of the temples. As we walk through the corridors we stop to marvel at the bas reliefs depicting scenes from the Indian epics of the Mahabharata and the Ramayana. Our guide shares a story about the Churning of the Ocean of Milk (the creation myth) depicted with its carved stone Asuras (demons or devils) and the Devas (the good gods). Other important symbols are pointed out such as the lotus flower which represents purity.
Not far from Angkor Wat, we enter Angkor Thom known for the Bayon Temple. It is unique for its 54 gothic towers decorated with over 200 glaring faces of Avolokitesvara which are said to resemble Jayavarman VII, Cambodia’s legendary king. These enormous heads can be seen from every angle and at least a dozen can be seen at any one time. One feels being watched and under the control of this all-seeing powerful king. In addition to this temple is the Terrace of the Leper King. Legend has it that two of the Angkor kings had leprosy and that the temple is the royal crematorium. Facing the Terrace of the Leper King is The Terrace of the Elephants. This area was used for public ceremonies and was a giant viewing stand. Carved into stone is the famous parade of elephants including their Khmer mahouts or elephant handlers. An artist can paint in minutes what took months to carve these scenes in stone.
No two temples are alike. Ta Prohm is an incredible example of the forces of nature. This temple has been left untouched until recently. It is known for its massive roots of banyan trees spreading out and over the ruins like serpents devouring its prey. Among the dappled shadows the visitor feels swallowed up by the jungle. Many of the courtyards and corridors are impassable, clogged with ancient stones covered in moss and lichen. This was built as a Buddhist temple and is one of the few where inscriptions provide valuable information about its inhabitants.
In the late afternoon, we walk through Ta Kao, a small, unadorned and unfinished temple. The sun accentuates the orange in the sandstone giving it uniqueness. A female monk or priestess is sweeping the dirt with a handmade broom, as if she has done this daily for centuries. She disappears only to reappear in a small cloister like setting. She is sitting on the floor and is lighting incense in front of a small statue of Buddha. I remove my shoes before entering, clasp my hands together and slightly bow. Handing me a stick, I light the incense and place it with the others. I say a silent prayer. She then takes my wrist and ties a red piece of yarn around it. I add a dollar to the plate on the floor. Before I leave, she allows me to take her picture. Although her serious face, cold eyes and shaved head give her a melancholy look, she would be an interesting subject for the artist to paint.
The next day we visit Banteay Srei which dates back to the second half of the tenth century. It is a small Hindu temple dedicated to Shiva and considered the “jewel in the crown” of Classical Khmer Art. Its sandstone is of a pinkish, reddish hue, best visited early in the morning or late in the afternoon when the sun accentuates its beauty and color. It was constructed in miniature proportions and contains some of the finest, ornate carvings. Almost every inch of the interior buildings are covered in decoration. Bantreay Srei means “Citadel of the Women” and contains carvings of delicate women holding lotus blossoms. Their traditional clothing is elaborately carved and the beautiful filigree relief work on the lintels over the doors to the library are said to be carved by women, that a man with his larger hands couldn’t possibly have carved such intricate work. This temple is said to be dated AD 967 found on inscriptions at the site.