(Conductor taps stick, the orchestral music swells, then softens…a voice booms overhead…)
NARRATOR: So begins a ‘short’ treatise on the temples of Angkor built by the Khmer kings a long, long time ago (790-1307 AD) in a place far, far away (Cambodia) in nine different architectural styles (trust me). Of the dozens of ruined, restored and random temples interspersed near Siam Reap, here are the ones I, the Narrator, and friends happened to visit, explore, scramble through and photograph. We begin with the best and work our way down. Break out your warm cans of Angkor and Anchor beer and settle in, this is about to get historical.
(Curtains open. The stage is a large stone temple with trees.)
NARRATOR: Ta Prohm – built by King Jayavarman VII (henceforth to be known as Jay the 7th) in the 12th century or so, this royal monastery is most famous for the many silk cotton and fig strangler trees growing from and causing the ruins of walls and galleries. Atmospheric and grand, the site has largely been left alone, letting the trees continue to thrive towards their ultimate destructive magic. Sit and contemplate life for awhile before your photo is taken in front of a storied and massive tangle of roots. Photos cannot do the tree’s roots even the slightest justice…
(Narrator pauses, Jay the 7th enters with a flourish.)
JAY THE 7TH: Jai Ho!
(Beautiful dancers run onto the stage and an epic rendition of “Jai Ho” from Slumdog Millionaire ensues around the roots of the giant tree. Exit all.)
NARRATOR: Beng Melea – built by some dude in the 12 century, this temple, which means ‘Lotus Pond’, could be best described as finding a lost, ruined civilization in the overgrown, unknown jungle. No inscriptions or markings were found to indicate who is responsible for erecting this site, but over 800 years of nature have not been kind. Left virtually untouched (a few walkways were added to minimize sprained ankles), you scramble, squeeze and scrap your way through, between and around the jumbled stones, mosaics and pillars. You could stop and marvel at one or two of the massive galleries that survived complete destruction, but then you would never have time to see it all.
(Conductor allows soothing orchestral music to reach a crescendo. Slowly it mellows.)
NARRATOR: Angkor Wat – built by King Suryavarman II in the early 12th century, the name means the ‘city (that became a) pagoda’, and is among the largest religious temples in the world. Adorned by countless (by my count) bas reliefs and carvings, Angkor Wat is huge and covered in art. One such is the “Churning of the Sea of Milk” that depicts the Khmer origin story and is especially violent, given all that furious churning. We arrived just before sunrise (too early) and waited as the sun slowly crept up and up, mirroring the pyramid towers of Angkor Wat perfectly on the lotus pond. Photos were snapped. Explorations were had. Awe was struck.
(Conductor continues the orchestral music for a brief interlude. It fades…)
NARRATOR: Bayon – built by Jay the 7th, in 1200 or so, this temple was among those used as a film set to show off Angelina Jolie’s more refined attributes (see Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, natch). Not that you care. More impressive are the 49 towers (37 still standing) loaded up with huge carved faces on each. The original number of faces is disputed but it’s safe to say there are a lot of semi-smiling dudes staring at you from every angle. As fascinating and numerous as these faces are, the temple also has a series of massive bas-reliefs that completely circle both inside and out. The outer ones, of which there are at least eight, are 35 meters long and 3 meters high and depict epic battles of the Khmer versus the Cham from long ago. Intricate and ambitious, these carvings do not seem to leave a single detail uncarved.
(Jay the 7th returns and does a mean Riverdance jig, set to Irish music. Suddenly, a loud boom erupts offstage and 10 Cham warriors rush Jay the 7th. He battles and taunts them one by one with a scimitar, as he does his masterful jig. They cannot smite him. The Cham are vanquished. Exit all.)
NARRATOR: Ta Nei – built by Jay the 7th (yes, this dude is a temple building fiend when not slaying Chams) in the late 12th century, Ta Nei is still overgrown and far off the beaten path. We had to walk a solid 20 minutes down a random dirt road to find this place, which made it all the more exciting to finally discover, since the alternative was being lost forever in the woods with only a lonely, slow death to look forward to. The best part was getting kicked off the temple roof (rubble?) by one of the curators who was not amused by our climbing and exploring endeavors.
Bakong – built by King Indravaran I in 881, we reached this giant stone temple just as the sun was about to set, after a long road trip to Beng Melea in crazily slow tuk-tuks. Loaded up with cans of warm Angkor and Anchor beer (from roadside vendors), we sat and scrutinized the slowly sinking sun while savoring the succulent swill. A couple of local girls sat nearby, waiting patiently for us to finish the beers so they could run off with the cans (recycling plunder). As the sky darkened, we soon realized that no one else was hanging around. A group of tough looking monks soon came with flashlights and we hightailed it out of there before we were questioned and gleefully thrown into a pit of tigers.
(Conductor plays “Interstate Love Song” by Stone Temple Pilots. Jay the 7th and King Indra enter and begin a slow swaying dance. Soon locals run onto the stage, pursued by tigers. Jay the 7th and King Indra, run for their lives. King Indra is caught and tackled by a tiger, rolling offstage. Horrible noises ensue.)
(Curtains open. The action continues on a temple overlooking Angkor Wat, again during sunset.)
NARRATOR: Silence!! You in the back, sit down! Where was I, oh yes… Phnom Bakheng – built by King Yasovarman I around 907, the best way to reach this hill-top temple is by elephant. Of course, you could walk…but that’s no fun. My elephant was very laid back and received a severe rapping upside the head every two seconds by the handler’s evil hooked stick. Not sure I would have put up with that. The elephant of my friends was not as laid back and was off like a flash and out of camera range in less then 60 seconds.
(Conductor plays “Pink Elephants on Parade” from Dumbo. Enter elephant stage left. Exit elephant stage right.)
NARRATOR: Phimeanakas (and the royal palace) – originally built by Jayavarman V in the late 10th century, and added to by others, this small temple gave a nice excuse to climb to the top and sit around. Nearby, a large man-made pond, next to where the Royal Palace once stood, gave an equally good reason to sit around and relax.
Banteay Kdei – built by Jay the 7th in the late 12th century, we didn’t so much as see this temple as simply walk through it on the way to Ta Prohm. Looked okay, we just had other priorities.
(Jay the 7th runs out on stage and takes a bow. Conductor plays “Don’t Be Cruel” by Elvis Presley. Hips sway. Women swoon. Jay the 7th bows again and exits stage left.)
NARRATOR: Srah Srang – built by King Rajendravarman in the mid 10th century, this is a massive royal bath (more like a lake) built so that King Raj over there would have a ridiculously ornate place to bathe and frolic. As the sun’s fire mirrors on the shimmering lake you can pretend you’re worthy to clean yourself in these waters. You’re not – it’s off limits to you and elephants.
Bapuon – built by King Udaya (something) around 1060 AD, this has a reclining Buddha made of bricks, that doesn’t look so much like a reclining Buddha as a brick wall. Nice try though. One of the many drawbacks of the Khmer Rouge regime in the 1970’s is they stopped all restoration and research on the temples for many years. As a result, you can still see all the hundreds of scattered stones, waiting, like a nightmare jigsaw puzzle, to be reintegrated into this pile of stones passing as a temple.
(Conductor begins to play “Another Brick in the Wall, Part 2” by Pink Floyd. King Udaya, King Raj and three elephants enter stage and start marching to the music.)
KING RAJ: We don’t need no education!
(Exit all. Conductor ends song.)
NARRATOR: Preah Palilay – maybe built by King Jayavarman VIII in the 13th century, this small sanctuary had great promise, at least based on the guide book, which espoused ‘its attractive forest setting’. Imagine our chagrin when we sauntered up and found that the bums had cut down ALL the trees growing around the tower! And not more then a few days before we arrived. Made me sick.
Suor Prat Towers – built by King Indravaman II in the early 13th century, these towers are supposed to have been where tight rope walkers balanced and entertained the king before he fed them to the rampaging, hungry elephants. I jest.
Now please leave quickly, we have another performance in 10 minutes. Go!
(Orchestra music fades. Narrator berates audience until last person has left the theatre. That means you.)
- Direct observation by Narrator (Jeremy Bailey), Intrepid Explorer, December 2008
- Ancient Angkor by Michael Freeman and Claude Jacques
- No music rights were procured.