The day before had started at sunrise, and this one was going to end at sunset. We passed through Angkor Thom’s southern gate shortly after 7 am and headed straight for Bayon.
Bayon is comprised of 54 Gothic-style towers that are decorated with 216 smiling faces – all of which are an odd amalgamation of Avalokiteshvara (a Buddhist deity) and Jayavarman VII (a king who wanted to be seen as a demi-god). The only temple more visited than this is Angkor Wat itself, and even just driving up to it, you could see why.
The sun was rising, and while many recommend this time to view Bayon, I found the sun to almost hinder getting a grand look at the temple. Instead of enhancing the faces, the sun (and the shadows it created), made it more difficult to discern fine details. It wasn’t until we were underneath the faces, on the first level, that we were able to get a good first look.
But I can’t bemoan the timing too much, once again we had arrived before the large tour buses (they showed up right as we were walking out, over an hour later!). Bayon isn’t a particularly large temple, but there’s so much to look at, from the bas-reliefs on the first floor to the faces on the third.
Everywhere you turn…there’s a face staring back at you. Built in the late 12th century or early 13th century, it’s sort of amazing that so many of these faces are in such good condition.
It’s hard to get across, with either words or photos, just how large these faces are. So I’m including the following photo to help give perspective. Keep in mind – at 5′ 6″ (1.68 m) I’m not a particularly large person.
After Bayon we made our way to Baphuon. This temple is awesome because it’s comprised of 300,000 stones that were at one time all disassembled. Records were made, of course, but they were destroyed by the Khmer Rouge and the temple had to be reassembled without them.
I’d say they did a pretty good job – though when you’re up close, it’s obvious what was an exact match and what was just an approximation!
Next we weaved our way around and on top of the Terrace of Elephants. I have to be honest, you get a better view of them by simply driving past. We also went to the Terrace of Lepers, which I found to be much more interesting – especially the carved walkway.
And then…it was time for a BREAK! After three temple days, we decided to take a break between the big ones. We went back to the hotel (read: took a nap) and then grabbed a quick lunch.
At 3:45 pm, we started making our way to Angkor Wat. Only, on the way, our tuk-tuk kept breaking down – which meant I was freaking out. I wanted to watch the sunset from inside Angkor (which happens at 5:46), but we still needed to look around the temple first. Luckily, our driver eventually figured out the issue and we were only 15 minutes later than planned.
We arrived at the gate and my heart sank – “Angkor Wat: Open 5:30 am to 5:30 pm.” Didn’t they know that that was before sunset? I couldn’t believe it. And at 4:15, there were already dozens of people lined up to watch the sunset from outside the main gate. So we decided to go inside and make the most of our time there.
We went halfway around the bottom level, looking at the bas-reliefs. We saw the famous Churning of the Ocean of Milk, which was definitely interesting – it contains 88 asuras (power-seeking deities) and 92 devas (benevolent deities) entangled in a cosmic tug-of-war. Spoiler alert: The devas win : )
But there were some other really interesting and beautiful carvings as well. Including these trees:
After seeing half of the bas-reliefs, we decided to make our way to the top of the temple – just to make sure we didn’t miss anything if we ran out of time! Definitely glad we did…turns out they close the top of Angkor about half an hour before “closing time” and we were some of the last ones to climb those famous steps.
Angkor Wat is the earthly representation of Mt. Meru, making it the Mt. Olympus of the Hindu faith and the abode of the gods. It’s also the largest religious building in the world – it took 300,000 workers and 6,000 elephants to complete.
People were lined up to leave Angkor Wat, which meant we were sharing the place with only a handful of others. Which, let’s face it, is my favourite way to view a place. I would have hated coming to Siem Reap during high season!
Something I’ve noticed about Cambodians – they hate confrontation. So when 5:30 rolled around, they didn’t ask anyone to leave. Instead, they stopped letting people come to the higher levels, but you were free to peruse the one you were on and make your way down at your own pace (we were still on the top level).
Which meant, as we continued our leisurely pace around, we got to see corridors and fields of Angkor completely empty of other people. That, in my opinion, is when Angkor Wat is at its most impressive.
And our slow pace meant we were still inside Angkor’s walls when 5:46 rolled around. Giving me that sunset I had wanted : )
It was hard to believe everything had worked out so perfectly and we had finished our last temple in Siem Reap. As we walked away, I took one last glance back and realized I might definitely be coming back here some day.