The first temple we decided to visit in Angkor was the Bayon. I’d read that the light was best in the morning, but as overcast as it was, it wouldn’t have mattered what time we visited. The other benefit of being there at sunrise, though, was that we had a decent amount of time before the place was crowded with other tourists.
We traveled the thin, dirt road into the jungle, humidity smoky and thicker than the trees, it wasn’t long before we were turning the corner around the moat surrounding Angkor Wat. I covered my eyes and turned my head as we passed to save the surprise for the next morning.
After entering another stretch of jungle, we began seeing ruins scattered about the road side, piles of carved stones, partial walls, slowly being digested by the forest and time. After passing through a decrepit, yet astonishing towering gate and more jungle, the car pulled over next to a pile of jumbled stone towers and we got out to explore.
Constructed around the end of the 12th Century, it was one of the last major constructions of the Angok era, and the last state temple. The King who commissioned its construction was Jayavarman VII, the most prominent builder of all the Angkor Kings.
Being only the second Buddhist king in an otherwise Hindu lineage, Jayavarman VII continued the tradition of Devaraja, literally God-king, similar to an Egyptian Pharaoh in being considered incarnations of Gods. The deity that he associated himself with was Avalokiteśvara, the Buddha of Compassion, not a bad choice!
Once your eyes adjust to the crumbling chaos poking at the humid morning air, dozens of mysterious, giant faces begin to emerge; the merged face of Avalokiteśvara and Jayavarman VII. The temple, with its main central tower and four large towers directly surrounding it is meant to represent the mythical Mt. Meru, the center of all the physical, metaphysical and spiritual universes. There are 54 towers in all, in various stages of ruin, and each tower holds four smiling faces. As you wander around the site, at any moment there are more than a few of the 216 faces watching over you.
I walked up the dirt path leading to the entrance and into the temple. Passing beside a towering palm tree, I thought of what my dad once told me about never sitting under one. Useless information at the time, growing up in Nova Scotia, but looking at the sugar palms, split open, fermenting on the ground, it seemed like dang good advice after all!
What were once simple corridors have crumbled into a maze of rubble, making wandering anything but linear. Actually, it was sort of like Scarab of Raw, an old Mac game I used to play when I was in elementary school, except as you rounded corners, ducked down dark passage ways, and circled walls, there were Buddhas instead and mummies, children popping up to ask for a dollar instead of monkeys stealing your gold, and tarantulas instead of scarabs. One striking similarity, though, were the 1200 meters of bas-reliefs carved into the out walls of the temple, reminiscent of Egyptian hieroglyphs. I spent a good hour scanning the stories and scenes of life in Cambodia over 900 years ago.
The second level wasn’t very different, but ascending the third level offers a spectacular treat. There, you find yourself face to face with Avalokiteśvara, where you can offer a quick prayer that the floor doesn’t collapse beneath you! Adorned with the striking features of the ancient Angkor king, his cat-like eyes are soft but penetrating, his round, plump nose, and his unforgettable bulging lips, smiling as though one of the local Irrawaddy dolphins playfully leaped up and slapped him a permanent tail-shaped grin.