On our first full day in Cambodia we had already explored Angkor Wat, the most famous temple in Siem Reap. Next our tuk tuk driver took us to Angkor Thom, also known as the “Great City”. This enormous complex contains several temples including Bayon Temple, known for its multitude of stone faces. I was particularly excited to see Bayon because the stone face temple has been stuck in my consciousness thanks to Legends of the Hidden Temple. Remember how awesome that show was?
As we drove under the enormous gate I was excited but also concerned. Could this beat the magnificence of Angkor Wat? The answer was a resounding… Yes, yes it could!
It was a scorching hot day, making the shady stone interior of the temple feel like a hidden paradise. Bayon is much smaller and more intimate than the vast grounds of the Angkor Wat complex. With fewer tourists crowding the passageways, we had the opportunity to slowly wander the hidden halls beneath the mountains of grinning faces above.
I fell in love with the eccentric network of carved pillars and angular doorways as we navigated through high to low ceilings and crumbling stone steps. Many of these stone walls featured bas-reliefs of elaborate battles and Hindu gods and goddesses. I was reluctant to leave the blessed shade but needed to see the hundreds of Bayon faces taking in the sunshine up top.
On the upper terrace of the temple, accessible only by scary steep steps, we found ourselves standing at the base of many small stone mountains emblazoned with almost 200 grinning faces of Lokesvara. Lokesvara, meaning “Lord who looks down”, is a bodhisattva who embodies the compassion of all the Buddhas. Walking along the terrace, I could feel the eyes of the calm yet mischievous looking faces follow me wherever I turned. It was a bizarre yet comforting experience, one that brings to mind the feeling I get as an American expat in Asia. Eyes are on me wherever I go. It is disconcerting and yet familiar all at once.
Because of this experience, I felt an immediate connection within Bayon. In a country as crazy and foreign as Cambodia, this overwhelming sense of peace was a welcome relief. Although I would have liked to have lingered with my new Lokesvara friends, the unbearable heat and ticking clock forced us to move onward.
We began walking down a small dirt pathway beneath the trees in the direction of the next temple in the Angkor Thom complex. Soon we came upon a grand walkway raised on rows upon rows of stone columns reflected perfectly in the water below. The walkway stretched from an entrance gate off the main road and all the way to Baphuon, a three tiered temple mountain thrust abruptly into the sky. I was impressed and so were a couple of monk tourists dressed in their brilliant orange robes.
Baphuon is much more decrepit than the temples in Angkor Wat with its multicolored stones that look as haphazardly thrown together as a jigsaw puzzle. But that is what gives this temple its charm. Built in the 11th century at an original height of 50 meters, Baphuon had mostly collapsed over the centuries until it was finally restored in 2011. Today the stairs are just as impossibly steep as they were centuries before, representing the challenging ascent into the heavens. Thankfully they built wooden steps with railings that make it slightly less terrifying to climb up to each level.
From the first level we noticed people stretched out in stone windows, hiding from the intense heat of the day. I was determined to make it up another flight of impossibly steep steps to the second level so I could join them. It was already noon and unbearably hot.
We rested for a while in our own stone cubby holes while watching people walk along the long stone walkway. We were exhausted but still had so many more temples to see!
After gathering some strength (and sweating some more), we walked back to the main road to meet our tuk tuk driver who would take us to lunch. Even the outer gates of Angkor Thom were magnificent to behold with countless lions and snakes guarding the complex. We found the Elephant Terrace with the beautiful carvings of elephants with their trunks as columns. What a genius idea! We also saw a couple monkeys doing it which was absolutely hilarious, but I think I’ll spare you those pictures for now.
At this point we were ready for food, shade, and a place to rest our aching and dusty feet. We were dripping with sweat and grime and probably suffering from some heat exhaustion. Carina had wrapped her scarf around her head to prevent the deluge of sweat while I had resorted to wrapping my scarf around my waist since that rip in my pants was now a gaping hole (probably not demure enough for the gods).
Yep, we needed a break! Two temples down, two more to go!