Continued from here:
Buddha shrine, Angkor Wat
This was our last full day in Siem Reap, and we saved it for the Big One: Angkor Wat. We allowed ourselves the luxury of sleeping in a little longer (the tyrant was reset to awaken us at 6am), since Sarng advised us that arriving there too early was not a good idea, as the place would be thronged with people all trying to catch a glimpse of the temple at sunrise. Angkor Wat actually faces west, unlike the other temples, and is supposed to be at its most spectacular at sunset, but the sunrise views are also said to be lovely.
Well-stocked with baguettes and other munchies, peppy with caffeine (courtesy the free coffee provided by the hotel, see below), we set out.
Aside: a few basic facts about Angkor Wat
We arrived at Angkor Wat - this felt like our own backyard by now - and walked across the causeway (part of which is being renovated) over the moat, stopping to delight in the water lilies and the effect of the soft early-morning light on the water.
Once across the causeway, we stopped just short of the entrance into the temple complex, while Sarng filled us in on the history and other interesting facts of Angkor Wat.
Well armed with a good deal of knowledge, we entered the temple, through a shrine on the right, which had a huge statue of an 8-armed Vishnu. This was probably one of the original statues here, before Angkor Wat was converted into a Buddhist temple. Then, we stepped out through another door, and there, in all its splendor and glory, rising majestically into the early morning sky, right before our awe-struck eyes, was the temple of Angkor Wat itself!
But no, there was a lot more to see before we made our way there, and it would be a shame to miss it. For, right where we were standing was a profusion of lovely apsaras, in a dazzling array of poses, fashions and hairstyles. We spent a good deal of time here, admiring their grace and beauty. See for yourself: aren't they gorgeous?
Sarng pointed out something interesting. Only one out of the nearly 2,000 apsaras in this temple is smiling with her teeth visible !
No braces for me!
Reluctantly, we tore ourselves away from the apsaras, after Sarng's gentle reminder that there was plenty more to see. So, past the parched grass we walked, past the two "libraries" (which Sarng informed us served as the repositories for the offerings to the shrines), past the long lines of vendors, already brisk and alert at this early hour, past the first of many steps...and into the temple itself.
We entered an area to the left, which bristled with construction tools and cautionary signs. We gazed at the carvings on the wall delineating the Seetha Swayamvara incident, our Experts threatening to open fire on a fresh topic, when we were summarily shooed away from the area by construction workers, saying it was off-limits! Quite unchastened, Sarng led us down to the first of the bas-relief galleries, filled with episodes from the Ramayana. The monkey army and the Lanka Battle figured prominently. The story moved linearly along the gallery, just like a comic strip, or a child's picture book. What a wonderful way of telling a story! We were amazed by how much attention had been paid to every little detail.
We moved from one bas-relief gallery to the next, from the Ramayana to the Mahabharata, arguing and debating all the way. We passed several other tour groups, all of them listening in a hushed and reverential manner to their guides. Not us! I sometimes wondered if Sarng secretly wished that we were a docile, placid group like all those others we passed. I hope not. From our end, we felt fortunate to have someone like Sarng - always smiling and cheerful, patiently answering our stream of questions, enthusiastic and knowledgeable.
It was interesting to see how "our" mythology and religion have been adapted into this country. Much of it is intact, some of it has been modified so that lesser gods in India have assumed greater significance here, and the imagery is quite different as well. Here, for instance, Ravana is depicted with his multiple heads stacked one on top of the other, as opposed to the sideways style of India. At Banteay Srei, Sarng pointed out a carving of Shiva as Nataraja, which, at first glance, looked nothing like our version in India. Only after he showed us the parts which represented the fire, the drum, the hair, etc., did things come into focus for us.
The Mahabharata galleries were easy to follow, with the Battle of Kurukshetra displayed in all its bloody glory. The rows of Kauravas on one side, and the Pandavas on the other, were full of interesting details.
We took a short break, relishing more of the never-ending supply of dried fruits and nuts, watching the many tourists of various nationalities come and go. We enjoyed the breeze which flowed, cool and brisk, through the shady galleries. We had no idea what lay ahead. This!
This was what stood before us and the next level, the highest we could climb up to at Angkor Wat. It was quite a terrifying sight to see those steps stretching away as far as the eye could see, impossibly steep and narrow, with no support or anything to hold on to. Nobody said the path to heaven (or wherever these steps led) was easy!
We bided our time, taking more photographs of more apsaras, until Sarng firmly gathered us together and led us to another set of steps, claiming they were an easier way up. They looked every bit as awful as the previous lot to me, but, it was now or never. The Time had Come.
I took a deep breath and started the climb. It was entirely as bad as it looked. I went very, very slowly, on all fours, not daring to look at anything but the next step, wondering when this nightmare would end. In many places, the steps were badly worn out, and there was barely enough room for a foothold, even sideways. Many, many steps later, it was over. The last step was the worst, as with nothing to hold onto in the front, I had to haul myself into a vertical position from a very steep angle. I firmly refused to think about the journey down!
The others were already at the upper level. Feeling like daring and heroic adventurers, we walked all around this level, taking in the panoramic views and the many Buddha shrines, with the statues of Buddha clothed in bright and shiny saffron robes. These Buddhas must have been later additions to the temple, after it ceased being a Hindu shrine.
Here are pictures of some of the sights we enjoyed from the top:
Angkor Wat upper level: a peek at the peak
It was an awesome sight to see the central tower, representing Mount Meru itself, which we had glimpsed so often from afar, looming before us so close by. This is how it looked:
If you have really, really sharp eyes, and if you look very, very closely, you might be lucky enough to spot a few apsaras.
We had spent plenty of time up here, and it was time to face the truth of that old adage: what goes up must come down. We went to the south side this time, since there was a handrail providing support. In pathetically slow motion we made our way down one at a time, clinging for dear life to that flimsy railing, again not daring to look at anything but the next step. Personally, I found the descent much less terrifying than the ascent. Once down, we heaved a huge sigh of relief, and watched anxiously while the other members of our group made their crab-like way down. We had a joyous reunion with the dried fruits and nuts, which were sorely needed after our adrenalin-pumping activities.
Once everyone was safely down, we allowed ourselves a break in which we amused ourselves watching dozens of others making their way down, and lavishing praise on one another on our bravery and climbing prowess. Our pride was deflated somewhat at the sight of a bent old woman making her way swiftly and sure-footedly down.
There were more bas-relief galleries to explore, and we walked to them. First, Sarng took us to the Heaven and Hell galleries, with the Judgement of Yama. This was great fun, as whoever conceived of this Hell and its punishments had an extremely vivid imagination. The violent video-games of today can pick up an idea or two from here. We saw the procession of souls waiting to be judged by Yama, with the vast majority of them tumbling down into Hell, where a choice array of tortures awaited them: being pierced all over by nails, having their bones sawed off, being forced to swallow hot coals and others I couldn't figure out. They could have included running up and down those steps we had just navigated! I'm not sure whether this picture will do it justice, but I'll show it in a larger size, and perhaps you can make out that the sinner is being hammered all over with nails.
Leave no area un-nailed
We moved on to a cheerier section, with bas-reliefs depicting King Suryavarman II and his court. Status symbols are forever changing with the times, and the one that mattered in 12th century Cambodia was the number of parasols that were held over you! Naturally, Suryavarman outdid everyone, with no fewer than 15 parasols, and we saw a general who came close, with 12 parasols. A coup in the making??
Next was the last of the bas-reliefs, a scene showing the churning of the milk ocean, with the devas and asuras neatly lined up all in a row, demonstrating excellent teamwork as they pulled on the serpent Vasuki. All was nice and orderly, with all the asuras identical in size, and the devas, too, until - a large monkey showed up, near the end of the line of devas, taller than the others in front of and behind him.
Sarng paused. Maybe he felt the grandmas were flagging and needed a boost. What better pick-me-up than a no-holds-barred mythological debate? Addressing them, he pointed out to the large monkey, and said that some scholars believed that it was Hanuman, but many others disagreed, saying that there was no way Hanuman could have been present, or even born, during the churning of the milk ocean. What did the two ladies think?
They took the bait immediately, and an energetic and wide-ranging argument followed. The rest of us repaired to a shady alcove with our packet of dried fruits and nuts. While this was going on, a Korean group went by, paying close attention to their tour guide, many of them earnestly writing into their notebooks. We understood nothing of what the tour guide said, but one word caught our ears: Hanuman. The tour guide pointed to the large monkey with his stick and proclaimed authoritatively, "Hanuman". The Koreans nodded their heads and moved on. Our Experts continued arguing.
One disturbing sight we saw in our rounds of the bas-relief galleries were bullet marks, the result of fighting by the Vietcong and Americans. Apparently some of the Vietcong took refuge here in Angkor Wat, and the Americans tried to shoot them out.
Far lovelier sights were the mango trees, laden with tender young mangoes. Ahhh for a bite of one of them!
And then it was over. We walked out through the grounds, sticking to the sliver of shade near the buildings. After all that walking around and climbing, and danger to life and limb, we needed a restorative. You guessed correctly: elaneer!
We settled ourselves comfortably under the shade of a large tree, and enjoyed the biggest elaneers we had seen so far. Some claimed that their coconut water was slightly fermented, and certainly, they were in a happy state after drinking it!
Perked up after the elaneer, we indulged in some shopping. We bought t-shirts, apsaras, drawings, and other things too, after some very successful bargaining. The prices here were the lowest we had seen so far: perhaps the vendors make it up with volume.
That done, it was time for lunch. The plan was to eat at our hotel before going out on our very last stint of temple-seeing, but at the last moment, probably seeing how wiped out some us were by the heat, Sarng suggested an air-conditioned restaurant nearby. It was a nice enough place, although the air-conditioning was struggling to cool the place. Everybody ordered for themselves (memories of the morning glory loomed large), and it was nice to see everyone revive, like parched plants after a good watering. This restaurant (I have no memory of the name) had some lovely orchids near the entrance:
Lunch over, we left to see some of the oldest temples of this civilization, collectively called the Roluos Temples. You will have to wait for a few days to read about them. I have bombarded you with enough for today!