Thursday, 10 November 2011

Days 65 to 68: Angkor Temples: Bayon

"It really does make a difference seeing things twice..."

So Burness concluded yesterday as we cycled by Angkor Wat, after a day of leisurely cycling around a select few temples in Angkor. After a slow start to the week, in which our sluggishness threatened to overwhelm our enthusiasm, we were finally awake and appreciating Angkor. Shed of the burden of expectation and a lethargy conspired by lack of sleep and too much $0.50 beer, Angkor was now permitted not only to be magnificent, but also to be an enjoyable experience. Yes, finally, to us, Angkor was great.

It didn't feel this way on Monday morning as we began our day and our Angkor experience with a day's guided tour. Not our freshest ever morning, it didn't help my mood to realise, as I did after ten or minutes, that our guide was rubbish. Not rubbish in the sense of lacking knowledge, for he certainly knew his stuff, but rubbish in his lack of clear communication, lack of interesting insight, lack of patience when we asked questions ("I've already told you this!"), and lack of passion for the world class sight he was showing us around. His interests were more clearly in ogling girls without much subtlety or suggesting that I find a Cambodian girlfriend (curiously, he didn't really suggest this for Burness). His English was poor but that doesn't need to be an obstacle - our guide to Borobudur didn't speak flowing English, but his passion and determination to communicate made for a great tour. Our Angkor guide did not achieve this. As if reading from an autocue, he reeled off some set facts about each location but never managed to convey the bigger picture. In fact, only because I'd done some considerable reading already did I have a clue what he was on about, and poor Burness was lost from the very start.

So I'll try and make a little more sense. The word Angkor simply means "city" and is derived from the Sanskrit word "nagara". Indeed, the Indian influence goes much further, and the architecture and religion all has its roots there, as does the rest of south-east Asian civilisation. Whether Borobudur in Indonesia or Bagan in Burma, around the 7th to 10th Centuries AD civilisation really began to kick off in this region, and all of it looked distinctly Indian in style. Even the word Cambodia, or the interchangeable term Khmer, derive from Sanskrit "Kambuja", which according to an early Angkor temple inscription relates to a wise Indian man named Svayambhuva Kambu marrying a princess and uniting some tribes. Kambu-ja means "descendants of Kambu": the Khmer people are the product of a wise man and a princess.

Although meaning city, Angkor really refers to a fairly spread out area that today is dominated by jungle and that existed between the 9th and 15th Centuries. It was by far the biggest city, or urban sprawl at any rate, in the world back then, and the overall spread would still match the likes of Berlin or Madrid today. Numerous kings ruled over this period, numerous wars were fought, and over the centuries a whole load of giant sandstone temples were built. Like Bagan in Burma, the wooden structures built for daily life quickly perished upon Angkor's downfall, but the stone temples survive centuries later. The monuments erected to worship the gods and the kings still glorify them today.

Our tour began with the very last temple built in Angkor - Bayon. Although the Angkor civilisation lasted around 600 years, it was on its way out after about 400. The last great king ruled from 1181 to 1218 and was called Jayavarman VII. Compared to some other kings, with ungainly names like Tribhuvanidityavarman and Udayadityavarman - "Tribby" and "Uddy" to their friends - Jayavarman has a fairly manageable name, which is a good thing as his name comes up a lot when discussing Angkor. "Jaya" means "victory" and "varman" means "warrior" or "protector". Jayavarman VII was the man responsible for most of Angkor's attractions, Angkor Wat being the notable exception. Under his rule, lots of wars were fought and won, and a quite astonishing number of buildings went up.

It's probably fair to say that Jayavarman VII was a bit of a mentalist, in the manner of all the great kings of the world. As the only evidence we have to go on are stone inscriptions and educated guesswork, we have to fill in a few gaps, but it appears that he only came to power as a fairly old man, likely in his 60s (thus already beyond the average life expectancy back then). He clung onto power and life for another thirty years plus, and appeared to thoroughly enjoy being a pensioner in power. He built himself a new city - Angkor Thom ("Big/Great City") - and filled it and the surrounding area with temples, hospitals, rest stops for travellers, and a network of roads. As long as you weren't a slave - thousands would have died during construction - Jayavarman VII, in accordance with his Buddhist beliefs, liked to keep a watchful eye over you.

Maybe that's where Bayon comes in. After Jayavarman VII had built his many hospitals and rest stops, and after he had built two of his largest temples - Preah Khan and Ta Prohm - in honour of his father and mother, he embarked on his final big one. And Bayon is not a normal temple. From afar, these days, it looks like a glorified pile of rubble, though an impressive one nonetheless. It is positioned smack bang in the middle of the massive Angkor Thom city complex, and has seen better days, but its bulk and ruined form make it one of Angkor's most distinctive landmarks. But then, catch it at the right angle, and you realise that something is a little strange...

And that's because Jayavarman has decorated Bayon with over 200 faces of... himself? Buddha? Nobody quite knows, but on 37 towers (there were once 49), the same mildly smirking face gazes out, four faces to each tower. It's a feature that from a distance can escape you, and even as you approach the temple the faces aren't entirely clear. It's only once through the first couple of galleries and up the steep steps into the upper terrace that suddenly the faces appear. From all around, Jayavarman VII or Buddha or possibly, "Stars In Your Eyes" style, Jayavarman VII as the Buddha, large smirking faces watch you. All the same face, all the same expression, a temple of giant faces, probably of the egomaniac god-king of Angkor.

Even on our first visit, with the weather overcast, and a lacklustre guide to match our lacklustre moods, both Burness and myself were impressed. A few days later, returning during our cycle round the temples, it made an even bigger impression. It's just... the faces. The giant faces everywhere make it unlike any other temple I've ever seen. Walking around the upper terraces, the faces are everywhere. I imagine that in certain conditions - alone at night, particularly - the effect could be quite spooky; the crowd of sightseers that swarm reduce the impact of this however.

Unfortunately, Bayon is pretty ruined. In its heyday, it's not difficult to imagine how spectacular it would have seemed. Over two hundred faces watching over an ornate temple at the heart of one of Angkor's most powerful king's modern city, it was a distinct and unusual statement for Jayavarman VII to make. It was also his last. Details of Jayavarman's death are unrecorded, and it was surely just old age, but subsequently the empire went downhill. His successors ran the place into the ground, although the state of the empire wasn't helped by the absolutely vast expenditure by Jayavarman VII on all his building projects. Two hundred years later, after repeated Siamese invasions, Angkor was abandoned by the Khmers as they set up shop somewhere a little further from the Siamese border. Bayon and everything else around it was abandoned to the jungle.

Bayon is one of the big three in Angkor, along with Angkor Wat and Ta Prohm, and is perhaps the most represented temple in terms of public visibility in and around Siem Reap. The large smirking faces are everywhere, as though Jayavarman VII has extended his watchful eye into the modern age. Shops selling paintings are dominated by the face of Bayon. It even appears on a beer, called, appropriately, "Bayon". Angkor Wat might be the big boy of Angkor, but Bayon is the poster boy, the quite literal face of the ancient empire.

Bayon is not one of my Wonder candidates, as I felt it was a satellite to Angkor Wat rather than a candidate in its own right. I was wrong. Bayon can be added to my small list of "unlisted" Wonders that includes Prambanan in Indonesia as although it might not be one of the top Seven, it is unquestionably deserving of an honorary mention. It's big and weird and quite unforgettable; it's just a shame it's a little too ruined for its own good.

With our guide, we also visited Baphuon, which is an 11th Century temple from the catchily-named Udayadityavarman II's reign. It was only recently restored and opened to the public after decades of problems. It had been in mid-restoration when the Khmer Rouge came to power in the 1970s, with all the mania and genocide that entailed, and a record of the position of the dismantled stones was lost. Therefore, it's been a slow jigsaw puzzle to get it back into shape. It didn't have the depth of interest of Bayon, but was still good fun to climb. Our guide didn't appear to agree - as with every single temple we visited he stayed at the bottom while we went up. As he sat about, not guiding us, we also clambered up the small but steep Phimeanakas temple. Angkor may be full of tourists, but it certainly wasn't designed for their safety - a slip on a steep, slippery step could see a quite rapid - and perhaps final - descent. This might be a quite helpful thinning of the numbers of the many tour groups packed full of aged French people.

It was lunch break now, which serves as an appropriate break for this blog too, as the overgrown temple of Ta Prohm and the biggest temple in the world await.

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