At 7:30am the next morning, a few hours after sunrise (literally — they don’t have daylight savings time), we met Mr. Ta in the lobby, bright eyed and bushy tailed for our first day in Cambodia. I wasn’t as up-to-date as my dad on the Indochina National Geographic articles so I really had no clue what to expect. Our first stop: Ta Prohm. If you’ve watched Angelina Jolie deliver a roundhouse kick to the face in Tomb Raider then you’ll definitely recognize Ta Prohm. Tomb Raider was shot there, and so were a few scenes from the movie Troy… Interestingly enough. Ta Prohm was a Mahayana Buddhist monastery built in 1186 by the Khmer King Jayavarman VII, the last of the great kings of Angkor, as a gift to his mother. Unlike most Angkorian temples of its time, Ta Prohm has been left pretty much just as it was found — overgrown and, for lack of a better descriptive adjective, jungle-y. Giant silk-cotton trees (some 400 years old!) devour the ruins, their massive roots spiraling downwards, in most cases breaking through the stone. Navigating through the dark, moss-covered corridors, I imagined I was Lara Croft, ready to kick butt and take names.
Before I describe the other Angkorian temples we visited, I should probably mention that they were discovered in 1860 by a French botanist, Henri Mahout. Mahout was studying butterflies, and in the process accidentally stumbled across the temples tucked away in the jungle. I tried to imagine how he must’ve felt… One second chasing around a butterfly, the next uncovering an entire ancient civilization. Mind blowing, I’m sure. While we’re talking backstory, here’s a little more about the Khmer Empire…
Khmer Empire: One of the most powerful empires in Southeast Asia (802-1431). The empire grew out of the former kingdom of Chenla, and at times ruled over parts of modern-day Laos, Thailand, Vietnam, Myanmar, and Malaysia. Its greatest legacy is Angkor, the site of the capital city during the empire’s zenith. (Want to learn more? Consult the 2nd paragraph of Wikipedia’s “Khmer Empire”… guilty.)
After Ta Prohm, we visited Angkor Thom, literally meaning “Great City.” Angkor Thom was established as the capital of Jayavarman VII’s empire, and it was the center of his massive building program. We visited Bayon, Jayavarman’s official state temple and the centerpiece of Angkor Thom. I was delighted to discover we’d be taking an elephant ride to Bayon (which, might I add, was also built for his mother. Mothers everywhere should expect nothing less). I’d never ridden an elephant before, but I figured it’s got to be something like riding a horse, right? Not so much. We had a much better view, but boy was it rocky. The man steering our elephant entertained us during the ride by playing music on his flute. He played “Happy Birthday” and “Jingle Bells,” and we happily sang along, gripping our legs against the seat to keep from falling off. But wait a minute, that’s not a flute. It’s a leaf! What a renaissance man. Next stop: meeting a Khmer scholar at Angkor Wat.
Angkor Wat (literally meaning “City Temple”): temple built in the early 12th century under King Suryavarman II as the state temple and capital city, dedicated to the Hindu god Vishnu. It is the world’s largest religious building, and it has become a symbol of Cambodia (appears on its national flag). The temple is admired for the grandeur and harmony of its architecture (noted for its use of different Khmer styles), and for its extensive bas-reliefs… Definition aside, that place is un-be-lie-va-ble. The symbolism, the detail, the stories on the walls… I’ll let the pictures do the talking for this one.
Our stomachs began to growl as we left Angkor Wat, and the Khmer scholar who toured us around the temple made an offhand comment about how it smelled like rain. Sure enough, 2 minutes later, buckets. We ate like kings at a nearby Cambodian restaurant — spring rolls, sticky rice, and chicken stir fry served in a coconut. Perfect timing too, because the rain began to let up just as my dad took his last sip of Angkor beer.
Last but not (eh…) least, we stopped by the Angkor National Museum. We walked from room to room, admiring statues taken from Angkor Thom, Angkor Wat… Even a room full of 1,000 Buddhas. I joked with my dad how creepy it would be if the lights shut off and all the Buddhas’ heads turned toward us, like in a scene from a horror film. The lights did shut off while we were there, but thankfully we weren’t in the Buddha room.