By Jeanette Teh
“I felt beautiful when I was in Cambodia for Tomb Raider. I was sweaty, and my hair was matted and all over the place. And I was happy and hot…., and I could feel my heart beating, and I felt beautiful.” ~ Angelina Jolie
The warm breeze provided little respite from the heat as our tuk tuk, a three-wheeled motorbike taxi, moved slowly along the bumpy roads to the temple. With temperatures in the 30s, it was unusually warm for winter and while I was hot and sweaty, I certainly did not feel beautiful. However, the beauty around me did ignite the type of happiness Angelina described.
Located just outside the town of Siem Reap, the Angkor Archaeological Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is comprised of several temples spanning over 400 square kilometres. It is named after the Angkorian era that took place between the 9th and 15th centuries.
The Smiling Faces of The Bayon
“We stop first at famous temple of the faces”, John, our driver, informed us as we headed to Angkor Thom, the former capital of the Angkor civilization (they changed capital cities often). At the center of Angkor Thom, “the Great City” which housed several temples, lies The Bayon, the State Temple of King Jayavarman VII that was constructed around 1200. Known for its 50 towers which have faces carved into huge blocks of stones, the temple features over 200 faces, creating a magnificent roof-top tableau.
Some scholars believe that the four-meter tall faces are those of the Buddhist deity of compassion, and that their enigmatic smiles and closed eyes reflect a state of Nirvana. It was enchanting to have the many serene faces smiling down on us as if stone dieties were casting a gentle spell of relaxation and perhaps even inner peace and enlightenment upon us weary travelers.
After viewing the many pretty bas-reliefs (wall carvings) depicting battles, palace and daily life beneath the face-towers, we ended our visit of the Great City at the Elephant Terrace, a showcase of elephant carvings, and the Leper King Terrace, based on a legendary leper king.
The Little City of Beauty
Another unique temple is the Jewel of the Khmer, Banteay Srei, which means “Citadel of Women” or “Citadel of Beauty”. Its miniature scale is almost as if it was created for children. While small in comparison to the other temples and a 20 kilometer drive away, its exquisite carvings in the pink sandstone with wonderfully delicate details made it a special experience, particularly since we enjoyed it early in the morning before the busloads of selfie-snapping tourists arrived.
Channeling our inner Tomb Raiders
Being the site where Lara Croft: Tomb Raider was filmed in 2001, Ta Phrom is one of the most visited temples in Angkor. While we were aware that Ta Phrom is unusual as one of the few sites left in its “natural state,” we were nevertheless astonished to see what that actually meant. “OH. MY. GOSH!”, I exclaimed, stopping suddenly as we approached the complex. I was so mesmerized, I was unable to move my foot in a forward motion. If it were nightfall, I would have backed away in fright as a horror-movie monster tree appeared to be gobbling the temple. Its sprawling, octopus-like roots clawing over the walls, while branches sprouted through the roof.
These tree trunks with massive roots are literally growing through and over the temple, which was constructed around 1126. It is unclear when and how these trees merge into the temple, but the seamless blending of stones with tree branches and roots was the most remarkable sight. With child-like wonder, we fancied ourselves Tomb Raiders exploring the grounds, energetically fueled by our fish amok lunch, a deliciously flavorful curry that even my delicate stomach did not find spicy.
That evening we dined on Pub Street, the town’s prime tourist spot. Although we were offered crocodile, snake, and kangaroo for our Cambodian BBQ, a wonderful mix of Korean BBQ grill and Chinese hot pot soup, we opted for the less exotic chicken, beef and prawn instead, at a very tasty $7 (KD 2) per person.
We ended our adventurous day at the Red Piano restaurant, where Angelina Jolie had hung out during the filming of Tomb Raider, and had even more excitement that night. “Do you hear a bell ringing?”, my husband asked, not long after we had placed our order. “I think you just won the Tomb Raider!”, I remarked with glee as I saw the waitress emerging with the signature drink, the 10th order of which was given free each night.
Wonderment at Angkor Wat
The buzzing of my alarm at 5 a.m. the next day was a rude awakening after a deep slumber, a well earned by a full day of temple visits. I groaned at the thought of waking up earlier on vacation than for work. However, as we were scheduled to catch the spectacular Angkor Wat sunrise, my weary body was sufficiently motivated to get up.
Built around 1113, Angkor Wat was both the capital and state temple constructed under King Suryavarman II, taking 30 years to complete. It represents a microcosm of the Hindu universe and is the world’s largest religious monument. Most, if not all, the temples in the Angkor Park are of the Hindu variety although Angkor Wat was converted to a Buddhist temple in the 14th century.
There have been several translations of “Angkor Wat”, “Capital temple”, “temple city”, “City which became a pagoda”, or “Angkor monastery”. Whatever its name means, it is simply a mystical place.
Surrounded by a large moat giving it a beautiful waterfront entrance, it is a three-tiered pyramid with five delicate lotus-like towers that are 65 meters high. At its prime, it housed about a million people, the world’s largest city until the Industrial Revolution. Being the peak season, it certainly felt like there were a million other tourists there as well, even at the crack of dawn.
We sat quietly on the banks of the moat, awaiting the sunrise. As we watched the skies turn from inky black to varying shades of grey, highlighted with increasingly bright orange flames flanking the temple tops, I was filled with a sense of calm, a serene smile playing on my lips.
Perhaps it was due to the sense of wonder at the stark beauty of nature transforming right before our eyes or to the awe-inspiring recognition that so much history had unfolded at this spot almost a thousand years ago. Whatever it was, just as Cambodia had humbled Angelina Jolie, I, too, felt humbled by the architectural grandeur and celestial show in front of me.