We travel to Ta Prom which has been abandoned to the elements, a reminder that while empires rise and fall, the riotous power of nature marches on, oblivious to the dramas of human history. Left as it was ‘discovered’ by French explorer Henri Mouhout in 1860, the tentacle-like tree roots here are
slowly strangling the surviving stones, man first conquering nature to create, nature later conquering man to destroy.
After soaking up the unique atmosphere of Ta Prohm, we continue to the giant pyramid of Takeo, one of the highest temples in the Angkor area. Built at the end of the 10th century, it was never completed. Some scholars contend this was due to an inauspicious lightning strike during construction. Others have suggested the high quality sandstone was simply too hard to carve in detail.
This morning we also visit the remains of an old Angkorian bridge which once spanned the Siem Reap river. Like the Romans before them, the Khmer kings built long, straight roads connecting the outposts of their empire and these included many magnificent bridges. There is also the option to visit the smaller temples of Chau Sey Devada and Thommanon for avid temple enthusiasts.
In the afternoon, we visit the immense walled city Angkor Thom that was the masterpiece of King Jayavarman VII. Following the occupation of Angkor by the Chams from 1177 to 1181, the new king decided to build an impregnable fortress at the heart of his empire. The scale is simply staggering and we are immediately overwhelmed by the audacity of Jayavarman on arrival at the city’s gates. The causeway is lined by an intricate bridge depicting the Churning of the Ocean of Milk from Hindu mythology in which the devas (gods) and asuras (devils) play tug of war with a naga (seven-headed serpent) to obtain the elixir of immortality.
We begin our visit at the Terrace of the Leper King. This intricately carved platform was the royal crematorium and the statue that was originally thought to be the leper king is now believed to be Yama, the god of death. We continue along the Terrace of Elephants, originally used as a viewing gallery for the king to preside over parades, performances and traditional sports. At the southern end lies the Baphuon, once of the most beautiful temples at Angkor, dating from the reign of Uditayavarman 1 in the 11th century. It has undergone a massive renovation by the French and is now once again open for viewing.
Our climax is the enigmatic and enchanting temple of the Bayon. At the exact centre of Angkor Thom, this is an eccentric expression of the creative genius and inflated ego of Cambodia’s most celebrated king. Its 54 towers are each topped off with the four faces of Avalokiteshvara (Buddha of Compassion), which bear more than a passing resemblance to the king himself. These colossal heads stare down from every side, exuding power and control with a hint of compassion, just the mix required to keep a hold on such a vast empire. Before clambering upwards, we unravel the mysteries of the bas-reliefs, with their intricate scenes of ancient battles against the Chams and their snapshot of daily life during the Angkor period.
Overnight in Siem Reap