To an average visitor, the temples of Angkor may appear as piles of rock – ancient structures in a great state of ruin, often overrun with jungle but we must not forget that they were built to be sacred places that are still used as places of worship by the local populace. Most of the temples that are still standing contain at least one sanctuary housing a statue of Buddha (or other divinity) and are deeply venerated by a steady flow of worshippers, including monks. It was with great disappointment that I saw so many westerners disrespect these sacred spaces by walking around wearing baseball hats sideways (wigger style), speaking loudly with their friends, and even walking in front of a person kneeling before the statue, interrupting their connection with the deity portrayed.
Cambodians must have grown used to the westerners and their apparent lack of respect (or understanding) for their religion, because I’ve never seen or heard any of them speak up and request the westerners to adjust their behavior as a sign of respect for the holy space they are within, but this was something one should not have to ask of another. Just because Cambodians are tolerant of inappropriate behavior of westerners in their sacred places, it should not be seen as open invitation to completely disrespect and desecrate them.
Yes, exploring the temples of Angkor involves a lot of sweating and an exposure to an intense sun, so head covering is often a necessity, however removing your hat when you enter a space with a decorated statue that has incense sticks burning at its base and people praying in front of it is the least of trouble. Yet I’ve always been the only westerner doing it.
Why do so many westerners think that they are too good to have to remove their hats upon entering the Buddhist sanctuary? Does that really make you feel macho that you were able to disrespect the sacred statue of Buddha and got away without? Does it really make you feel macho to announce your presence by shouting when you enter a sanctuary where people are praying to their deities in silence. And does it really make you feel macho to wander in front of a person who’s praying to that statue so you can pose yourself up for a cool photo?
Behind the pool flanking the South Khleang is a long laterite terrace called Vihear Prampil Loveng. The 128 meters (420 feet) long Vihear Prampil Loveng is surrounded by a rectangular wall with entrance gateway in the north wall – can be accessed from Victory Way, the causeway connecting Victory Gate with the Royal Palace area.
Most visitors to Angkor Thom never make it to Vihear Prampil Loveng because it’s so insignificant and uninteresting however I thought that the fact that it houses the chief divinity of the original Bayon temple was rather fascinating.
3.5 meters tall statue of Buddha sitting on a serpent that coiled three times to serve as a throne and whose multi-head spreads into a hood to shelter the Enlightened One like a canopy was originally placed in the central sanctuary of the Bayon temple but when king Jayavarman VIII took over from Jayavarman VII, he went on a big mission to demolish all Buddhist relics and instil new religion which resulted in destruction of the Buddha statue installed in Bayon.
Strangely enough, all of the pieces of shattered statue were recovered in 1933 when archaeologists discovered it in the well of the central Bayon which allowed them to fully restore this historically important relic. It was removed from Bayon and placed in Vihear Prampil Loveng where it still sits today.
According to the Khmer legend, serpent Naga king Mucilinda emerged out of the roots of the tree under which Buddha was meditating to shelter him from the storm. This scene has become one of the most imitated artforms in which Buddha was depicted. Even though the original statue depicting the very motif was removed from Bayon, many smaller statues of the same can still be found at several spots throughout the big temple.
Vihear Prampil Loveng entrance stairs are decorated with Angkorian era lions and elephants but the overall ancient feel gets lost with the rather unfitting pavilion housing the statue. When I made my way all the way to the pavilion to take a picture of said Buddha, I disturbed a Cambodian nun who was sleeping at the foot of the statue. Upon noticing, she instantly rose and charged towards me to try to collect donations which as it goes with Angkor, are solely used for personal enrichment of a person who collected it. This prompted me to shoot off.
However since Vihear Prampil Loveng covers quite an area, I got out of her sight quickly and was able to spend a little more time taking pictures of what fascinates me about Angkor the most – trees growing over ancient stones.
To the north-west of majestic Bayon temple is a small Buddhist shrine called Preah Ngok (sometimes spelled as Preah Ngoc). Even though small in overall size, it houses a rather large statue of Buddha sitting with his legs crossed and eyes only slightly open. The shrine appears to be reasonably modern, but the statue itself is believed to have come from late Angkorian era. Some say the statue has been there since the 13th century even though the chapel itself has been rebuilt several times over the centuries.
Because of its small size and apparent insignificance, the Preah Ngok shrine is missed by most visitors to Angkor. I had the whole thing for myself when I made my brief pause to take a few pictures of it, however a few Cambodian nuns sporting shaved heads and white robes kept me company. Through my own eyes, the most significant part of Preah Ngok appeared to be its similarity to more famous shrine called Tep Pranam which is located just north of the Terrace of the Leper King and aside from looking strikingly similar, it also houses a statue of Buddha that looks virtually identical to that of Preah Ngok.
I don’t know the reason behind such similarities and I’m quite likely the only person in the world who noticed that. None of the locals I spoke with seemed to have noticed or cared and none of the guide books to Angkor ever compared the two. But that’s probably because none of the guide books ever mentions Preah Ngok in the first place.
Exploring Bayon is a challenging but rewarding experience. The temple is very complex both in terms of architecture and symbolism and offers many an opportunity to theorize on its structure and meaning. King Jayavarman VII who had the temple built had it altered several times but the modifications continued even after his death. It is believed that when originally built, Bayon had 49 face towers – towers adorned with giant faces each facing one cardinal point. Even after extensive restoration works, only 37 of Bayon’s towers are still standing. Let’s take a look at some of Bayon’s facts. This guide will be accompanied with pictures.
Just as is the case with most Angkor temples, Bayon faces east. I approached Bayon from the south after crossing the South Gate of Angkor Thom and turned right on the T intersection which got me on the road encircling the temple. Turning right took me to the main entrance in front of which I parked my bicycle (at the elephant station).
Broad, two-levelled terrace serving as an approach to Bayon is guarded by stone lions and naga serpent as balustrades on far sides. Despite extensive restoration works, much of the terrace is in desolate state but the feel of walking on ancient stones is much stronger than any other structure at Angkor. The sun was frying me alive and was far more intense now as it got closer to noon, than it was during my exploration of Angkor Wat.
Entrance gopura (gate) consists mostly of collapsed stone frames serving as doors but there are no walls. Piles of giant stones lie scattered randomly around as archaeologists try to figure out which ones belong together so they can paste the whole temple together to its intended look.
Galleries within outer enclosure contain extensive carvings and bas reliefs. It comes as a striking contrast seeing fine work of artists who skilfully covered entire exterior wall with beautiful bas reliefs against the pile of disorganized, large rectangular stones laid piled up right opposite of it. Much work needs to be done to fully restore Bayon.
I turned left at the main entrance because the bas relief on this section of the outer wall seemed the most interesting. The carvings continue around the corner and throughout the south wall which has its own, collapsed gopura. There are several chapels within the exterior wall that can be entered as you’re exploring the bas reliefs. Because Bayon was a state temple, I think these chapels once house statues of divinities.
As I got within the outer enclosure, the face towers took more distinct shape. From the outside they appear as a disorganized pile of rocks sticking up. Countless hallways and wall-less corridors make navigation trickier as you get inside. Several flights of stairs are available to take to get to the second and third levels. Some are easy to climb, others downright dangerous, especially if you’re carrying a DSLR camera like I did.
Because Bayon was remodelled so many times after taking its original shape, exploring the interior of the temple is a bit confusing. The temple is large to begin with but oddly structured galleries and terraces which were added later made it difficult to set out on an obviously best way to explore it all. The best way for me to describe it is by thinking of it as a maze without walls. You can exit any corridor through the wall that is not there and get to another corridor through the wall it doesn’t have. It’s literally akin to cheating in a videogame. You are an explorer of an ancient temple on a mission to find holy grail, but you hacked the game and can just take shortcuts.
The face towers are clearly the most attractive and photogenic (picture friendly) part of Bayon. Aside from crowning the entrance gates (gopuras), the face towers can also be found at corner angles but also as free-standing pillars on upper level. Because many of these towers were added later, they don’t seem to be placed in any logical order and just give an impression of being there to rise up to the sky.
When I reached the upper terrace, I was offered several good opportunities to take pictures of the giant faces. The space on top seems more organized with fewer collapsed structures and it’s overall less tight (as far as breathing space is involved). From here you can get up close and personal with the free-standing face towers.
Historical inscriptions suggests that Jayavarman VIII, a rather insignificant Khmer king who took over the kingdom after Jayavarman VII has order a destruction of Buddhist symbols and initiated conversion to Hinduism. It was during his rule, when 3.6 meters tall statue of Buddha sitting on a body of a serpent whose multi-headed head shelters him was destroyed. Remarkably, all pieces of this statue, which was originally housed in the oval sanctuary at the heart of Bayon, were recovered enabling full restoration of the image. There are several smaller replicas of the same statue throughout Bayon, but the original, restored piece was relocated and is currently housed in Vihear Prampil Loveng – a small pavilion south of the Victory Way (road connecting Victory Gate with the Royal Palace area), next to South Khleang.
When you get to a sanctuary housing a statue of Buddha, there will likely be some locals inside as well. They sit and patiently wait inside with incense sticks at the ready and as soon as a foreigner enters the room, the sticks will be handed to them. It is a natural instinct of every person to take what is offered to them, especially if statue of a local divinity is present. This is exactly what these people are counting on because once you grab a hold of what is handed to you, they won’t be taking it back but will be insisting that you make a donation that as they claim, would go to the monks and to the preservation of the temple. None of the money provided will ever make it to any purpose other than personal enrichment of a person who gets the money from you. Just as almost everything else in Cambodia, this is a scam. The best way to protect yourself is to never ever impulsively take anything that is handed to you. No matter whether the person handing you stuff is a kid, or a nun with shaved head and robe draped around her body – the purpose is to abuse the presence of the divinity and scam you out of money. Don’t be surprised if you get told to “f%$k off” or called “stingy” or “a$$hole” by a kid whom you didn’t give any money. You may not see this anywhere else in the world, but in Cambodia, touts will not hesitate to call you names and swear straight in your face if they fail at scamming you of money.
Once I got the layout of Bayon more or less figured out, I saw it as a structure consisting out of three main sections. Starting from top middle, there is an oval sanctuary that is the center of the temple originally assigned to house the large statue of Buddha which was later destroyed as described above. The oval sanctuary is surrounded by four corridors creating an orthodox cross around it. These serve as access points to the sanctuary with east entrance being the largest. This is the third, top tier of Bayon.
Second tier consists of rectangular inner galleries (second enclosure) encircling the orthodox cross with the circular sanctuary in the middle of it. First tier consists of outer galleries (exterior enclosure). Passages at each cardinal point connect outer galleries with the inner ones.
Bayon is covered with extensive bas reliefs. Earlier carvings mostly contain scenes from every day life at Angkor Thom as well as the battles with Champa armies on the great lake whereas later carvings contain scenes from Hindu mythology, signifying the conversion of the religion during the reign of Jayavarman VIII.
Bayon was a temple honouring a host of gods which gave it the name of “Tevea Vinichay”, which loosely translates as “Assembly of the Gods”. Its principal sanctuary housed an image of Buddha, but dozens of other sanctuaries housed various provincial and local Khmer gods. Inscriptions on door jabs of these small sanctuaries tell us about the many gods housed by them during the reign of Jayavarman VII.
North East corner of Bayon has a small, stand alone gallery with many people inside. There was another such gallery at the south-east corner but because that part of Bayon is in much ruin, there was nobody there. I thought something interesting must surely be within the gallery given the number of people inside and around it so I went to take a climb. The access was extremely difficult as stone steps are high and steep, much steeper than I had seen anywhere before. To my disappointment, there was absolutely nothing inside. I think people were just hanging in there, killing time. Some interesting bas reliefs could be found on the outer wall of the gallery, otherwise nothing excessively special about it.
I spent several hours exploring Bayon. I started in late morning and wasn’t done until early afternoon. This basically means that I spent the hottest part of the day marking the ancient stones of the temple with my sweat. As I found out later, this was a great idea. Vast majority of organized tours take their high paying customers back to Siem Reap during noon hours so they can have lunch in one of the air-conditioned restaurants. The number of tourists at Angkor drops significantly during that time. As such, it is advisable for solo explorers to brave the midday heat and continue exploring the temples during lunch hours despite intense sun.
Because Bayon is the second most famous temple of Angkor (second only to Angkor Wat) and is a must-see for everyone coming to Angkor Archaeological Park, there were a few dozen people sharing the temple with me despite scorching midday sun. However it is better to have to share it with a few dozen people, than with hundreds, who on top of it all have an escort with an umbrella to shelter them from the sun and oftentimes a guide as well.
The best time to visit Bayon would be either very early in the morning (when all organized tours are at Angkor Wat), during noon (when all organized tours are back in Siem Reap for lunch) or in late afternoon (after 4pm, when all organized tours are either in Banteay Srei or already lining people up to go on Phnom Bakheng to watch sunset from the hill). The worst time of the day would be between 8am and 10.30am when dozens of buses full of rich tourists park it next to the temple and release hundreds of people to swarm the temple, turning it into an anthill full of crawling creatures.
Even though already completely devastated from exposure to extreme sun, after I was done exploring Bayon, I was still determined to complete the small circuit the same day. I was done with two of the largest structures to explore, but many more to go. Angkor Thom itself had several more iconic pieces nearby. I made an attempt to stop at one of the food stalls north west of the temple but touts were so aggressive, I opted for a swift dart off. The temple of Baphuon, which is 200 years older than Bayon was next.
Preah Ang Chek Preah Ang Chorm Shrine blew my mind right out because of the unprecedented circumstances surrounding my discovery of it. The presence of thousands of Cambodian Flying Foxes that circled over Royal Independence Gardens where the shrine is located gave it the movie-like feel. Subtle but pronounced illumination of shrine’s edges and distinct roof draws eyes of passers-by after dark and since it was the beginning of Pchum Ben Festival, Preah Ang Chek Preah Ang Chorm Shrine was enveloped in a haze of smoke from hundreds of burning incense sticks which is part of Khmer ritual surrounding the Festival of the Dead. There was no other temple or shrine anywhere in Cambodia that would leave me with profound impressions similar to those I felt after visiting Ang Chek Preah Ang Chorm Shrine.
History of Preah Ang Chek Preah Ang Chorm Shrine
As its name suggests, Preah Ang Chek Preah Ang Chorm Shrine is dedicated to two Buddhas: Preah Ang Chek and Preah Ang Chorm. Two standing statues located inside depict these two Buddhas: Preah Ang Chek is the taller Buddha and Preah Ang Chorm is the shorter Buddha. Local Cambodians believe that Preah Ang Chek Preah Ang Chorm Shrine provides protection for entire town of Siem Reap. Legends have it that when Khmer Rogue, who were on a mission to destroy religion in Cambodia, entered Preah Ang Chek Preah Ang Chorm Shrine and attempted to remove both Buddha statues, these were growing heavier by the second until they’ve reached such weight that Khmer Rogue cadres were unable to move them. Aside from beliefs of its indestructibility, Preah Ang Chek Preah Ang Chorm Shrine is also believed to bring good fortune to newly married couples and is therefore frequently visited by newlyweds on their wedding day.
Inside Preah Ang Chek Preah Ang Chorm Shrine
As soon as I was done admiring heart-stopping Fruit Bats I proceeded to pay the visit to Preah Ang Chek Preah Ang Chorm Shrine. The place was incredibly busy with whole families coming in and out all the time. There were Buddhists praying at every part of the shrine, whether it was inside before the statues of two Buddhas or outside by large pot where devotees put their burning incense sticks.
Pilgrims and Beggars
From what I found out, Preah Ang Chek Preah Ang Chorm Shrine is a place of great reverence for pilgrims and beggars. It was easily noticeable that all visitors entering the gates of Preah Ang Chek Preah Ang Chorm Shrine gave the beggars some money. There were quite a few of them and from my independent observation, they were cashing in big time. Out of hundreds of families I saw come in, virtually every members would give them some. They probably made more cash there in one day that all those families see in a year.
Despite my solid and well reasoned philosophy that I don’t give to the beggars, I caught myself breaking my own rule on the steps to Preah Ang Chek Preah Ang Chorm Shrine. There was this boy who was incredibly crooked. He was crawling around the ground with all limbs and facial features crooked really badly. He was obviously not faking his condition and it seemed pretty bad, however as I have observed later, he was not disabled enough to safely grab at handed money and store it in his large pockets. He truly needed massive pockets to store all those bills that were coming in large numbers from everyone entering the shrine. My beef with him was that he came chasing after me as I was walking in, and did the same as I was walking out. I told him I gave him already and just because he sees me again, it doesn’t mean I was gonna give him again. I did not have this type of budget, no matter how much I would like to help. He was extremely hard to get rid of as he knew real well how to use his disability to his advantage.
Street Vendors at Preah Ang Chek Preah Ang Chorm Shrine
The area along National Road #6, on south west corner of Preah Ang Chek Preah Ang Chorm Shrine houses several street vendors selling flowers, decorated coconuts, incense sticks and live birds. These items could be bought by the Buddhists heading to the shrine and used as offering for the Buddha statues inside. Most of these made good sense to me, except from live birds. I don’t know how they capture these beautiful, wild birds, but somehow they do and keep them in small cages where many of them are cramped together. Bottoms of these cages are sprinkled with dead birds who suffocated in confined space, or were trampled by too many other birds inside, or simply beat themselves to death trying to escape.
People who buy these birds, hold them between their palms they keep locked together as if in a player, often close to their mouth with eyes closed while they utter a prayer in their minds and then they release them. This is an extremely sad sight for me as I feel strongly for the animals and while some of those released birds take off happy to be returned back to their wild homes, many try to fly but go straight for the ground. Their wings are too crippled from being caged for so long, or they’re broken from overcrowded cages, or they are otherwise disabled and can’t fly anymore. You can find these dead birds sprinkled all over the grassy padding of the Royal Independence Gardens and it’s truly a sad sight. I couldn’t believe this abuse of birds was happening and that local Khmer people think it’s really awesome. They think Buddha likes it when they release the birds in the wild, but they don’t take into account what birds go through in order to be available for sale and subsequent release. Very sad 🙁
Preah Ang Chek Preah Ang Chorm Shrine on Pchum Ben Festival
The shrine was so alive it was breathtaking. The shriek of thousands of bats above was dubbed by chatter of hundreds of people below. There was a traditional Cambodian band playing traditional Khmer music on the right hand side of the terrace, several Buddhist Monks were kneeling on the left to accept offering from devotees and give them blessings. The inside of the shrine was getting filled up with offering from devoted Buddhists. It was dark outside but the smoke from incense sticks and the lights of the shrine created a peaceful and mellow atmosphere in which anyone could enjoy themselves by just sitting and observing. Which is exactly what I was doing. I found Preah Ang Chek Preah Ang Chorm Shrine to be a magical place and visited it often. Besides, the Fruit Bats were the coolest thing in all of Cambodia.
This photo gallery contains pictures of Preah Ang Chek Preah Ang Chorm Shrine in the Royal Independence Gardens in Siem Reap taken at night. This was also the first night of Pchum Ben Festival so the shrine was being continuously flooded with Cambodians bringing offerings for the Buddha and food for the dead. Few stalls selling decorated flower bouquets, decorated coconuts, burning incense sticks and live birds were nearby so devotees can purchase those for use within the temple. There was a band with traditional Khmer instruments set on the shrine floor playing traditional Khmer music. Few monks were seated on the side to give people blessings and take offerings of food and clothes from devoted Buddhists. Inside a small room, there were two statues of Buddha and people were hanging flower rings on them, touching their hands or just leaving other offerings at their feet. Hundreds upon hundreds of incense sticks were being lit up and burned in a large ashtray. The smoke from these could be smelled and seen half a mile away. Devotees also prey before the Buddha images with their palms joined together for a prayer while burning incense sticks are held between the palms. Preah Ang Chek Preah Ang Chorm Shrine is a small, but nicely located and beautifully built shrine that enjoys vast popularity among people of Siem Reap. The gallery is below:
I had a walk around the Wat Preah Prom Rath compound and went to take a peek through the gate that served as doorway to the main temple. The Wat Preah Prom Rath Temple is surrounded by the wall with typical triangular roof. Right by the doorway there was a sign requesting all visitors to the temple to remove their footwear as sign of respect for Buddha who was housed inside. There was a name of the patron of the temple, but I didn’t memorize that.
I left my sandals by the entrance where several pairs of sandals from people who were already inside were placed. Through the gate I saw several people, all dressed in white shirts, sitting on the porch, chanting prayers aloud. Bare foot, but still outside, I was looking at them. I didn’t want to disturb their prayer but then one of the ladies who participated in praying looked over her shoulder and saw me standing at the gate. Continuing with her prayer, she swinged her head as if giving me a sign that it was OK to enter. Encouraged, I did.
Lady turned back to facing inwards and continued chanting her prayer in Khmer along with everybody else. From the inside, the walls surrounding the Wat Preah Prom Rath Temple had nice colourful relics all over it. I did not understand the motifs revealed, but it was all really pretty, very rich colors and 3 dimensional. I walked all the way around until I got back to the gate and was ready to walk outside.
The same lady who previously gave me the sign that it was OK to enter, looked at me again, smiled and gave me another sign encouraging me to walk inside the temple itself. I was within temple gates, but not inside the temple itself.
They were praying by the door which made it a bit difficult for me (I really didn’t want to disturb their prayer) but silently I sneaked by and walked straight inside. Unlike Catholic churches, Buddhist Temples are not so richly decorated inside. At least not those found in Cambodia. The inside was actually very modest, with hardly anything inside other than really dominant statue of Buddha sitting on a pedestal with his legs in yoga like position. Few unlit candles were in front of the statue and a ship like thing that was used to hold burning sticks. Pleasant smell of oriental burning stick was prevalent inside the temple.
Entering Wat Preah Prom Rath Temple was a powerful experience for me. I felt strongly spiritual and close to the higher being. I took the camera off my neck, took by sun glasses off top of my head, put it all aside, knelt before the statue and clasped by hands in prayer. As I was kneeling before Buddha, I thanked him for the gift of being here.
It was really hot inside. The temple had no windows so it was also rather dark. Air conditioning or anything of that sort is not used in temples. While obscurity added to the spirituality, heat was making it difficult for me. I felt thousands of sweat drops rolling down my back without break. Then someone else entered the temple.
I was still kneeling before the Buddha when a young Khmer male who I think was one of the people from the Wat Preah Prom Rath compound walked in. I stood up and he asked me if I saw the Reclining Buddha. I had no idea what he was talking about and then he took me to show me something behind the big Buddha statue.