Story posted: Wednesday, 18. May 2011 by CPA Media
Pictures From History / Themes / ANCIENT ANGKOR
Exploring Ancient Angkor
Angkor is one of the wonders of the world. Perhaps nowhere else on earth, unless it be the Valley of the Nile in Egypt, are the relics of antiquity found on so monumental a scale. In colonial times, when the French first opened Angkor to tourism, it was usual to distinguish between the ‘Small Circuit’ comprising the central temples of the complex, and the ‘Great Circuit’, taking in the outer temples. Today, when air-conditioned taxis have replaced elephants and horses as the most popular means of transportation around Angkor, it still makes a great deal of sense to follow—at least approximately—these designated routes.
The Small Circuit:
The road to Angkor leads north from Siem Reap, past the Angkor Conservatory, to a tollbooth. Here the visitor must pay a fairly hefty charge—US$20 per day, US$40 for three days, US$60 for four days to a week—before proceeding to view the monuments. About 1 kilometre (1/2 mi) beyond the tollbooth the road reaches the south side of Angkor Wat, and the visitor will catch first sight of the justly famed monument. For the moment, however, it is probably better to drive past Angkor Wat by the west road and visit the city of Angkor Thom, as the former should be visited in the afternoon when the complex is best illuminated by the sun.
Angkor Thom or ‘great city’ encompasses a huge area of land within a square, 8 metres (26 ft) high defensive wall and outer moats approximately 100 metres (325 ft) wide. Each side of the wall is about 3 kilometres (1.9 mi) long, and it has been speculated that, at the height of its wealth and power, the city may have supported as many as one million people. The founder was King Jayavarman VII (1181-1220), probably the most prolific builder the Khmer Empire ever produced.
There are five gateways into the city, each approached by a causeway built across the moat. As the visitor approaches from the south, the initial impression of the fortifications of Angkor Thom are impressive. The causeway is flanked by 108 large stone figures, 54 gods on the left and an equivalent number of demons on the right. In the distance, at the far end of the causeway, the southern gateway bears four huge enigmatic faces facing in the cardinal directions.
Passing through this prodigious gateway, the road continues northwards for around 1.5 kilometres (1 mi) to reach the justly celebrated Bayon. This temple, which should be entered from the east, was built in the late 12th century by the Buddhist King Jayavarman II, the architect of Angkor Thom. Always a favourite with visitors, the Bayon is possibly the most celebrated structure at Angkor after Angkor Wat itself. The Bayon is thought to represent a symbolic temple mountain. It rises on three levels, the first of which bears eight cruciform gateways. These are linked by galleries that contain some of the most remarkable bas-reliefs at Angkor, and are well worth an hour or two of the visitor’s time.
The bas-reliefs of the Bayon combine numerous domestic and everyday scenes with historical details of battles fought and victories won and lost by the Khmers. The domestic scenes, many of which are in smaller bas-reliefs below the main war scenes, show details of fishermen, market scenes, festivals, cockfights, women giving birth, playing chess, removing lice, hunting, and so on. There are also everyday scenes from the royal palace—princes and princesses, wrestlers and sword fighters.
To view the bas-reliefs it is best to start near the east entrance to the Bayon and proceed clockwise, via the south wall, keeping the bas-reliefs to your right. The East Gallery, which is in an excellent state of preservation, features a military procession of Cambodian troops, elephants, ox carts, horsemen and musicians. Parasols shield the commanders of the troops, who include Jayavarman VII. The South Gallery is spectacular and contains some of the finest bas-reliefs at Angkor. The early panels depict the great naval battle that took place on Tonlé Sap in 1177. The Khmers have no head coverings and short hair, whilst the Cham invaders wear strange hats which resemble long hair. The fighting is intense, with bodies falling from the boats sometimes being taken by crocodiles. Having viewed the galleries, the visitor should climb to the third level and spend some time examining the vast, mysterious faces with their sublime smiles. The central shrine, which is circular, is also at the third level and features the faces of the bodhissatva Avalokiteshvara.
Passing the once mighty Baphuon—now undergoing extensive restoration—and the former royal palace of Phimeanakas, the visitor reaches the celebrated Elephant Terrace. Built by the Buddhist monarch Jayavarman VII (1181-1220), this structure is over 300 metres (975 ft) long, and has three main platforms and two lesser ones. The terrace was probably used for the king, members of the royal family, ministers and generals to review their forces and, perhaps, to watch other entertainments. The whole terrace is elaborately decorated. There are the sandstone elephants from which the terrace gains its name, but also tigers, lions, sacred geese, and lotus flowers all presented in a wealth of detail. Immediately to the north of the Elephant Terrace and in a direct line with it stands the Terrace of the Leper King. Like the Elephant Terrace, this much smaller structure dates from the late 12th century and is chiefly remarkable for its many bas-reliefs.
Turning from the Terrace of the Leper King, the visitor should head southwards back to the Bayon and exit Angkor Thom via the South Gate. A few hundred metres beyond the South Gate, to the west side of the road, the hill of Phnom Bakheng rises 67 metres (218 ft) above the surrounding plains. This is an ideal spot to view the distant spires of Angkor Wat at sunset, but can be ascended with profit at any time of the day. On the east side of the hill a steep and treacherous stairway provides a swift but difficult means of ascent. Alternatively, and much more easily, a winding elephant path leads to the summit via the south side of the hill.
After Phnom Bakheng, the visitor should continue south to Angkor Wat. By any standards, this must be the highlight of any visit to the Angkor region—the great temple is simply unsurpassed by any other monument. Construction of this masterpiece is thought to have begun during the reign of Surayavarman II (1113-1150), and to have been completed sometime after his death. Authorities claim that the amount of stone used in creating this massive edifice is about the same as that used in building the great pyramid of Cheops in Egypt, though at Angkor there are many more exposed surfaces, nearly all of which are elaborately carved to a remarkable standard....
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