2020-09-29

Travelogue: Siem Reap, Cambodia by Roberto Dionisio

Siem Reap means “Siam Defeated” and was so named by the reigning King in the olden times to commemorate their victory over Siam (now Thailand). This is the center of spiritual background of the Khmer Empire, now profiling its cultural hub and thus becoming the tourist capital of Cambodia with its hundreds of temples. Angkor Wat which literally means “Temple City” is the more widely known among the hundreds of temples that can be found in Siem Reap because it is the largest Hindu temple in the world. It was built in early12th century and the most preserved among the temples. It is magnificent with its towering structure that can be seen from afar, surrounded by a wide moat, and constructed on a wide plain.

There is a town rule in Siem Reap that no building or house structure can be built more than three floors and no taller than the Ankor Wat. They believe that Ankor Wat should be the highest and prevailing structure all over the area. Cambodians revere Angkor Wat so much that it is even featured in their national flag. With its grandeur and magnificence, I find it very enchanting as it emanates a spiritual presence announcing to the world the historical value of the temple to the Cambodians.

While Angkor Wat was originally built under Hindu religion, it has become a Buddhist temple several centuries ago. Inside the temple, you can see inscribed on the wall bas-reliefs depicting the historical chronology of the life in Angkor Wat, just like the Egyptian hieroglyphics. To climb the steep stairs of the tower of Angkor Wat is a challenge, and I was able to climb up to the second level which is really an accomplishment, considering that I am sporting two dodgy knees and climbing up with the help of a walking cane. The upper tower? I am not that foolish and I know my limitations. Besides, our tour guide told us that a foreign tourist had already fell while going down the peak of the tower, and died.

Next to Angkor Wat in terms of prominence is Ta Prohm Temple, more probably because the Tomb Raider movie starring Angelina Jolie was filmed here. Unlike Angkor Wat, this one is in the midst of the jungle. However for me, with or without the movie Tomb Raider, Ta Prohm is a standout among the hundred temples in Siem Reap. Once you enter the temple, you will immediately see the juxtaposition of the centuries old Spung trees and the falling walls of the temples. Spung tree is a kind of strangler fig tree with its giant roots and enormous trunks pushing away the walls of the temples. The spung trees have become the most popular spots for picture taking in this temple. You can see all around the temple the scale of invasion made by the roots, appearing to be an anaconda snake slithering on top of the walls and breaking up walls through any openings the roots can squeeze in. While the big roots and trunks have stolen the lustre from the Ta Prohm Temple, it cannot be denied that Ta Prohm Temple is must visit for tourist. The government is now in a quandary whether to protect and preserve the ruins of the temple or preserve the Spung strangler trees for natural forest conservation purposes. I sure hope they can find a balance between the two.

The third temple that caught my interest is the Bayon temple in Angkor Thom, particularly because of the four faces sculptured on all its towers.
From afar as you approach the site, you can already see the faces etched on its side, each one facing the east, west, north, and south. According to our tour guide, the four faces represent the four virtues held most by the people of Angkorian inhabitants which are love, respect, compassion, and equanimity. However, other sources say that the face resembled the face of King Jayavarman VII. The entrance to the temple is preceded by a bridge with rows of monuments on each side, the right side (coming from the main gate) showing the images of the Good Spirit while on the left side are monuments of the devil faced heads in different stages of anger and fear expressions. This temple also did not escape the invasion of the strangler fig tree and walls are in shambles falling to the ground because of the forceful push of the roots of the Spung tree.

In smaller scale is the Terrace of the Elephants in honor of the elephants who laboured in constructing all the surrounding temples in Angkor. It is said that it was the elephants who pulled the heavy stones and trees to make the temples. This place was mostly used for grand parades and ceremonial celebrations of the reigning King where the army are parading.

Across the temple is a vast open plain where probably the grand audience were watching the ceremonies being hosted by the King. Another smaller scale structure is the Terrace of the Leper King. It is said that there was at least one reigning king who was afflicted with leprosy. Rumors had it that despite his leprosy condition, the King still maintained several concubines, although there is no written history about this. Due to the limited time of our stay, we were not able to visit other known temples of Siem Reap. Maybe, in our next trip to this legendary place.