First Sunrise of the Year

After going to bed early the night before, we woke up early for the experience we had been planning for the trip, seeing the first sunrise of the year 2011 at Angkor Wat. We were ready to go before 6 am when it’s still dark. Our tour guide Vanna and Hour came on time to pick us up. They looked quite sleepy; it turned out that they actually went to celebrate New Year’s Eve in downtown Siem Reap as well, and they stayed there until after midnight.

The short drive from the hotel to Angkor Wat went like the day before — we waited a little bit at the entrance of the Angkor Archaeological Park to get our entrance passes checked. When we arrived at Angkor Wat, however, we realized that there were significantly more people compared to the previous morning. We’re not the only ones with the idea of going to see the first sunrise of the year at Angkor Wat. Perhaps some people even went directly from celebrating in downtown Siem Reap to end their New Year’s celebration with watching sunrise at Angkor Wat.

The picturesque north pond near the temple was already surrounded by the crowd waiting for the sun to rise and seeing the reflection of the temple on the pond. We decided to go to the south pond across the walkway instead. It was less picturesque as the pond’s water surface seemed a little murky, but there were not that many people there. So I set up my tripod and camera to wait for the sunrise. As we waited for the sunrise, we saw a group of Cambodian children with some adult chaperones gathering near us. It seemed like they were a group doing a field trip — perhaps children from villages or from an orphanage. They seemed to have fun; entertaining and great to see on the first day of the year.

The sun finally came up. The sky was a little cloudy, so the sunrise was not as clear as the day before. I was glad we were there the previous day and got the nicer photos already, but it’s still nice to fulfill our plan of celebrating the beginning of the year at Angkor Wat. It’s definitely a New Year’s Day to remember.

The photo below was taken after we took some photos on the south pond. We walked to the other side to watch people watching the sunrise there. You can see the crowd waiting to see the magical moment near the pond.

New Year's crowd

Bayon

Bayon is a temple at the center of the walled city of Angkor Thom in the Angkor Archaeological Park near Siem Reap, Cambodia. The temple was built sometime in the late 12th century or early 13th century by King Jayawarman VII, who also built the capital city of Angkor Thom as well as some other temples like Ta Prohm, Preah Khan, and Banteay Kdei. The temple is known for its 216 stone faces that adorned 54 towers, and a couple of elaborate bas-relief galleries depicting mythological, historical, and day-to-day scenes from that era. Since it’s one of the last temples built in Angkor, it was also the only temple built primarily as a Buddhist shrine, as compared to most other Angkor temples that started as Hindu temples but then converted into Buddhist temples.

We visited Bayon after we’re done visiting the Elephant Terrace inside Angkor Thom. As we’re entering the temple, we immediately saw the stone faces. Our guide Vanna explained how it’s still debated among historians about whose face that was depicted on these towers. It could be the face of Buddha, but some said it could also be the face of King Jayawarman VII, or it could be both as in the tradition in the Khmer Empire some kings considered themselves as devaraja (god-king). Vanna also noted something interesting in terms of the numbers. There are 216 stone faces on 54 towers, and Angkor Thom is 3 km x 3 km (9 km2 in area). Notice that the digit in the numbers (2+1+6 = 5+4 = 9) all add up to 9. Not quite sure what the significance of the numbers, but it’s pretty neat to see how symmetrical and precise the measurements are.

The other interesting thing to note was the bas-relief galleries that we saw at Bayon. It clearly depicted the life in Angkor at that era, and also commemorating events that happened that represented the high points of the Khmer Empire (e.g., scenes showing the defeat of the Chams by the Khmers).

The photo below was taken as we climbed up the stairs of the temple. It was one of the 54 towers with the four faces on. Along with the towers of Angkor Wat and the forest-consumed Ta Prohm, Bayon is among the most recognizable sights in the Angkor Archaeological Park especially due to these stone faces on its towers.

Bayon

The Elephant Terrace

The Elephant Terrace is an area inside the walled city of Angkor Thom in the Angkor Archaeological Park north of Siem Reap, Cambodia. The terrace is a raised platform at the end of the Victory Lane (coming into the city through the Victory Gate in the east side). This was where King Jayawarman VII would be standing to view his victorious army marching in through the gate returning from battle. It is called the Elephant Terrace for the carvings of elephant heads on its east face. Today what remains is just the ruins of the platform, but you can still go up there and stand in the middle of the platform and see the panoramic view of the surrounding open field and the present highway going through the Victory Lane.

We stopped at the Elephant Terrace area as the next stop in Angkor Thom after the Victory Gate. Our tour guide Vanna gave an overview of the area and some of the carvings that we saw. What I remember most however was standing in the middle of the Elephant Terrace, looking around, and imagined in my head what it might’ve been standing there near the King welcoming the troops marching into the city after a victorious campaign, and having the open field in front of the terrace filled with residents of the city. That must’ve been quite a sight…

We also walked around a little bit to a nearby area called the Terrace of the Leper King (named for a sculpture found nearby that had moss and discoloration on it, looking like someone with leprosy). By then honestly I was quite tired after walking around under the heat for a while, and I was ready to take a break. What’s interesting I remembered was the walking path nearby to continue to other sights in Angkor Thom went through a cluster of stores and restaurants — very strategically located to cater tourists needing a break from walking around in the area. We ended up continuing our walk towards where our van was parked, but we saw many other tourists stopping by there to take a break. So that was a successful strategy from the tourism planner I suppose.

The photo below was taken from the Elephant Terrace. I used my wide angle lens to capture the expanse of the view. You can see the Victory Lane right in front in the middle.

Elephant Terrace

Victory Gate

The Victory Gate is one of the five entrance gates into the ancient fortified city of Angkor Thom in the Angkor Archaeological Park north of Siem Reap, Cambodia. Four gates, one for each cardinal point, lead to the temple of Bayon at the center of Angkor Thom. There is another gate on the east side that leads toward the royal palace. The East Gate from Bayon is also known as the Gate of the Dead, as it was used as the gate where the body of the dead kings were taken out from the city for the last time. The East Gate towards the palace is also known as the Victory Gate, as it was the gate used by the Khmer army to enter the city after a victorious battle campaign.

Each gate has similar architecture design. There is a causeway across the moat that surrounds the wall of the city. On the sides of the causeway you can see a row of devas (demi-gods) on one side and asuras (demon / giants) on the other side, each holding the body of a naga (serpent). This represents the scene from the Hindu myth the Churning of the Sea of Milk. Above the entrance gate, there is a 23 m high tower with faces similar to those seen at Bayon.

We stopped at the Victory Gate before entering and exploring Angkor Thom. Our guide Vanna pointed out the devas and the asuras from the myth. The day before he actually told us the story of that myth when we saw the bas reliefs at Angkor Wat. Honestly I couldn’t follow the story as there were many turns in it, and there were so many names mentioned that I couldn’t keep up on who’s who. Later on I found an online text retelling the story (as well as the explanation on the symbolism behind it), and after reading it slowly, now I think I kind of get it. The main scene of the story was the tug of war between the devas on one side and the asuras on the other, both holding the long serpent, and in the middle there is a mountain that serves as the churning rod to churn the ocean. At the Angkor Thom gate, it’s like this scene was depicted in quite large scale; you have the large devas and asuras on both sides of the causeway, and the gate’s tower in the middle in a way is like the mountain at the center of the churning scene. Another interesting observation was that there were many names in the story that sounded familiar to me: Indra, Candra, Vasuki, Vishnu, etc. These are names of Hindu gods that were adapted into common people’s names in Indonesia back when the Hindu influence was strong there.

The photo below was taken from the causeway leading into the Victory Gate. You can see the row of devas on the left side of the road, and the tall tower / gate in the middle. As size comparison, you can compare them with the tuk-tuk that was about to go through the gate.

Victory Gate

Angkor Thom

Angkor Thom is a walled city complex in the Angkor Archaeological Park north of Siem Reap, Cambodia. The city was built by King Jayawarman VII in the 12th century, and the city was the capital of the Khmer Empire for several hundred years until it was abandoned sometime before year 1609. It is believed to have sustained a population of 80,000 – 150,000 people. The complex is about 9 km2, shaped in a square (3 km x 3 km), with five gates (one in the north, west, and south sides, and two in the east side). The surrounding wall is about 8 m high and flanked by a moat. Inside the complex, today visitors can find ruins of several temples and the royal palace and terrace. At the center of the city is the temple of Bayon, famous for its towers with their stone faces.

Our first encounter with Angkor Thom was during the drive from Angkor Wat to Banteay Srei. The modern highway actually goes through Angkor Thom. We entered through the South Gate, drove to the center past Bayon, and continued through one of the East Gates knows as the Victory Gate. We came back again and stopped at several parts of Angkor Thom on the way back after we visited Banteay Srei and Ta Prohm earlier in the day.

The photo below was taken as we drove throught the East Gate known as the Victory Lane. It was the entrance where the victorious Khmer army would march into the city after winning battles against their neighboring enemies (like the Chams). As we drove through the Victory Lane, I couldn’t help trying to imagine what it would like with thousands of people lining the entrance welcoming their victorious troops.

Victory Lane

Amok trei

After visiting Ta Prohm, it’s time for us to take a lunch break before continuing our visit in the Angkor Archaeological Park outside Siem Reap, Cambodia. Instead of taking longer time to drive to Siem Reap for lunch and back, our tour guide Vanna suggested that we should go to a restaurant located not far from Ta Prohm called the Khmer Village Restaurant. By the time we arrived at the restaurant, it was already 1:30 pm or so, so some of the lunch crowd had already left, but the restaurant was still quite full. Given its location pretty much inside the Angkor Archaeological Park, you could tell that it catered mostly to the visitors of the Park.

We wanted to try another traditional Khmer dish while we were there, and one dish I read that is a popular dish in Khmer cuisine is amok. Amok is a curry dish with coconut milk-based gravy that is cooked in banana leaves. It can be served with various kinds of meats, but the popular one in Cambodia is with fish, called amok trei. I wasn’t sure what kind of fish was used for ours, but I’m guessing it’s likely from fresh water fish like most things in Cambodia. When the dish was served and we tasted it, like some other dishes we had in Cambodia, we could taste something new and unique to Khmer cuisine, but at the same time it seemed familiar as parts of the dish were similar to dishes we have in Indonesian cuisine. I think it was somewhat like in between gulai (the gravy was not as thick and strong flavored) or opor (it wasn’t as soupy). It also resembled a Thai curry dish — not surprising given the regional influence of these cultures on each other.

The photo below was the amok trei dish that we had just before we tried it out. It wasn’t served in banana leaves container, but it had all the flavors that you would expect.

Amok trei

Ta Prohm

Ta Prohm is a temple in the Angkor Archaeological Park north of Siem Reap, Cambodia. The temple was built in 11th century by King Jayawarman VII, the same king who built the city of Angkor Thom nearby. This temple is famous among the temples in the Angkor Archaeological Park given that it had been consumed by the nature around it. Trees and vegetations grew on top of the ruins. The French organization that worked on preservation of the Angkor temples in the early 20th century decided to leave Ta Prohm alone as an example of how nature took over the land from man-made structure after centuries. In more recent years, this temple was also made famous by the movie Tomb Raider with actress Angelina Jolie, as scenes of the movie were filmed there.

We visited Ta Prohm in early afternoon before we went for lunch. The traffic near Ta Prohm was still pretty heavy, but it was better than the hours before or after that as many visitors were at lunch around that time. Along with Angkor Wat, this was one of the main sites we wanted to visit given its unique scenery. It was quite surreal to see large trees standing firm on and around the temple ruins, as if they were in the process of ‘eating’ the structure. We also found the spot where the famous scene of Angelina Jolie coming out of the temple ruins was filmed for Tomb Raider. It was quite easy to locate, as there were many visitors around there waiting to ‘reenact’ Angelina Jolie’s scene and got their photos taken. We didn’t do the same, but I did take a photo of other visitor doing the reenactment.

The photo below was taken inside the temple complex. You can see the big tree standing on top of the temple ruins, looking like they are well integrated with each other.

Ta Prohm