We didn’t get up at the crack of dawn, nor did we rush about the place like headless chickens when we did get up. As a result we were leaving the hotel at 11:00, much to our own surprise. The free bikes from the hotel were painful. Katherine’s saddle was so low as to have her knees hitting her chin and my bike was stuck on a high gear with a flat front tyre. But, we carried on. Should we have turned back to rent better bikes somewhere? Perhaps! Katherine managed to adjust the saddle to an acceptable height while I gave directions to three Chinese tourists whom had gone a) completely up the wrong road in search of the ticket office or b) were taking this quiet road in an attempt to sneak in. We enjoyed the shade from the trees en route but collapsed once we got to Bayon inside the Angkor Thom complex. We bartered with the Golden Monkey snack trailer that if they looked after our bikes, we would buy a drink. A honey & coconut and honey & lime slushie later, we were cooled down enough to explore the area. We decided to do a clockwise loop of the more prominent sites, finishing back at the megalithic icon that is Bayon.
Starting at the worlds largest jigsaw puzzle, Baphuon was infamous in its heyday as well as recent times. The temple was taken apart as part of restoration works, but the civil war erupted. The records kept to piece it back together were destroyed during the Khmer Rouge, leaving 300,000 stones to put back into place… without the instructions. This pyramidal representation of the mythical Mt. Meru is almost fully restored. The walk to the temple is across a raised walkway surrounded by pools with a few pink waterlilies. The staircase up to the top is steep and the views were quite stunning. The western side of the temple was later fashioned into a reclining Buddha, but had it not been for the guidebook and information boards one might have walked right past it. The structure has fallen apart with neglect but the shape is distinguishable and the head still noticeable. A walk through the 700-year-old jungle, we stopped to admire the Phimeanakas temple and royal enclosures before exiting through a gate in the walls to visit Preah Palilay. The former ‘Celestial Palace’ was apparently once topped with a golden spire and the latter housed a Buddha, long since vanished. The charm of both has been lost somewhat with the manicured trees cut back from the base and cut down if too high. I’m not too sure how I feel about the whole situation – on one hand you are trying to preserve archaeological sites and restore them to former glory, but on the other hand, these sites have been neglected or abandoned and nature is slowing reclaiming the area. Travelling eastbound past Tep Pranam, across Northern Avenue and through the throng of hawkers we casually walked around the ruins of Preah Pithu and the Northern Kleang. They didn’t scream ‘explore me’ so we admired the different angles through the massive trees before heading back through the nightmare market and across the street to Terrace of the Leper King. We didn’t notice the nude statue on top of the 7m-high platform (maybe it has been removed), but we sure as hell found the way down to the secret passage easy enough. The front retaining walls of the terrace are decorated with at least five tiers of meticulously executed carvings of seated apsaras with other figures of kings, courtiers and princesses. The terrace is beautiful as you drive past it, but you don’t really notice the detail unless up close as we were inside the retaining wall. Four tiers of apsaras, including nagas, look as fresh as if they had been carved yesterday. There were no other tourists in the walkway and we helped one of the kids cheat at hide & go seek by standing at the corners and rushing the pursuers quickly past, down round a bend and allowing her to hide once again. The 350m-long Terrace of Elephants was used as a giant viewing stand for public ceremonies and served as a base for the king’s grand audience hall. It is possible to imagine the processions coming up the avenue, with infantry, cavalry and elephants. Perhaps they too were able to appreciate the terrace with its five piers extending towards the central square. They wouldn’t have seen the life-size garudas and lions carved behind the retaining wall of the middle section, but they would have seen the elaborate carvings of elephants and guardians along be terrace with exquisitely carved elephants and their Khmer mahouts at either end. Returning to Bayon the guide book does not do it any justice. I’m sorry Lonely Planet, but you are wrong. ‘Rather like a pile of rubble from a distance. It’s only when you enter the temple and make your way up to the third level that its magic becomes apparent.’ B*****ks!
Emerging more and more from the trees as you approach, and slowly revealing the grandeur of the site, the towers are adorned with faces on each side. The sheer number of carvings at such a height is impressive and it must be good when we have silently entered the first level and barely said a word to each other. Different angles, exposures, settings and orientations from several windows, door frames, archways and tunnels. The mid afternoon sun was putting half of the towers in bright sunshine, the others in shade. The mixture of the two, with lichens growing over the rock surface and weathering giving a misshapen trait to some, the whole area was a goldmine for photography. There were those that complained about how they had taken 500 photos of rock. We were guilty of possibly taking 500 photos of the same rock. The history of Bayon temple was irrelevant to us as we wondered at this feat of engineering. The tunnels of the middle section and the bas-reliefs on the lower level were but fleeting glances as we descended from the temple heights to cross the moat back to our bikes. Of course, there was the free drink from earlier to reclaim and we bought another to thank the team for keeping a watch on the bikes.
The painful cycle back in to town was exasperated by the front wheel completely locking about 1km away from the hotel. I dragged, carried and cursed the bike past the hospital, annoying tuktuk drivers and in to reception. She tried to see if she could fix it and I think I might have broken down crying if it was something obvious that I missed – thankfully not. I loathe bicycles, almost as much as tuktuks. But, we got one in to town and grabbed a Pho, walked to Blue Pumpkin for cake and chilled out in the room with some tv. Sunday 25th September 2016