Tuesday, 3 August 2010

Angkor Thom and Bayon

Friday 30 July: When in 1177 Cham armies, from the Mekong Delta, captured Angkor Wat, sacked it and burned the city to the ground, it took four-years before Jaya VII recaptured Angkor and drove the Chams out of (modern day) Cambodia. A devout Mahayana Buddhist he constructed the city of Angkor Thom, with Bayon at it's heart, and fortified it with a huge wall and wide moat.
Cycling towards the east wall, past a river and overgrown ruins, the first thing you see is the magnificent east gateway supported by six-foot high elephants and topped with the four benign, smiling faces of Avalokiteshvara, the Buddha of compassion. The moat, once alive with fierce crocodiles, is now a pretty paddy field bridged and guarded by angry gods and demons at war - tugging at a lengthy naga (mythical serpent) in perpetuity. This is fantastic.
Passing through the towered gateway and along a leafy avenue, the vista opens up to reveal the honey-coloured sandstone Kleangs towers and the Terrace of Elephants, once a grand royal viewing platform. The city, at it's peak the home to one-million Khmers, had one-hundred times London's medieval population and a moat wide enough to put all of Europe's castles to shame.
To the south, at the city's centre, is Bayon. From a distance it looks like a pile of old rubble reflected in a puddle. Up close, it's astonishing. Inside the hollow pillared chambers are lined with bas-reliefs showing the defeat and banishment of the Chams under, the great temple builder, Jaya VII. But that is not all, on the third tier you get up close and personal with the enigmatic faces of Avalokiteshvara, a sort of male Mona Lisa. There are 54 towers, each with four-faces apiece, plus five gateway towers adding twenty faces - you can do the maths.
It is, to steal an expression repeated by student backpackers, awesome.
Photos of Angkor Thom and Bayon.

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