As is the case of most Angkor Temples (except from Angkor Wat), Ta Som also faces east, however the Grand Circuit road that goes by it passes it from the west affording an entrance through a better preserved western gopura (entrance gate). However it pays to exit the temple through its east gopura because from the outside, the eastern gopura has a huge strangler fig tree (I’m not a tree expert, not 100% sure this is a fig tree) growing on top of it, almost enclosing the entire gopura (this sight not shown in the photo gallery here). It is essential to exit Ta Som through the eastern gopura as looking at it from the inside doesn’t offer any spectacular views, however once you get across and turn around, you won’t regret the extra effort. The fig tree encompassing the entrance hole is impressive and very photogenic. Take lots of pictures and always make backups.
A stone inscription found on a stele recovered from a nearby Preah Khan temple refers to Ta Som as Gaurasrigajaratna, which is its original, ancient name meaning “Jewel of the Propitious White Elephant”. As the temples were abandoned, their original names fell out of knowledge and today they are known by whatever modern variations were assigned to them. Below is a gallery of pictures I took at Ta Som:
Banteay Kdei temple doesn’t get the buzz and attention it deserves. It was built by king Jayavarman VII, the same god-king who built Angkor Thom and Bayon (notorious for its face towers) and as such, Banteay Kdei contains architectonic elements resembling other structures built during the reign of Jayavarman VII. For me personally, Banteay Kdei and Sras Srang – which is just on the opposite side of the road – were the very locations where I spent most of my time during my stay in Cambodia. This makes Banteay Kdei my biased favorite.
Banteay Kdei, the Khmer name of which means “The Citadel of the Cells” was built in the late 12th, early 13th centuries. Its gopuras (gateways) are crowned with the same face towers that adorn Victory Gate (as well as other gates) of Angkor Thom. Unfortunately, the sandstone used for construction of Banteay Kdei was not of the finest quality and the workmanship of stone masons was nowhere near that of the masters who built Prasat Kravan so the temple fell into a dilapidated state in which it can be found today. Much of the galleries within outer and inner enclosures are in a great state of collapse.
Scholars say that Banteay Kdei was built to be a Mahayana Buddhist temple but even though it was used as a monastery by the monks who dwelt within for centuries, the inscription stone that would contain detailed information about which divinity the temple was originally dedicated to has gone missing.
Even though similar in layout to Ta Prohm and Preah Khan temples, Banteay Kdei is smaller and not as elaborate. There is only one level on which the structure stands and contains two concentric galleries enclosed within two successive walls. Banteay Kdei faces east with east wall of its outer enclosure containing the main gopura which serves as the main entrance (from where you will get in). Part of the eastern outer wall is collapsed – it’s to the right of the main entrance when facing it from the outside but even though I tried, I was not allowed to enter from there. I saw both wandering live stock and locals get in and out of there, though.
As mentioned above, the main gopura is surmounted by a tower containing four faces of smiling Lokeshvara with features closely resembling king Jayavarman VII. If you look closely, you will also notice three small sculptures of Buddha carved at the base of the tower, at the meeting point of each two faces. The gopura itself is flanked on both sides by garudas (mythical birds) which I always used to think were related to Hinduism but as I had learned, they also apprear in Buddhist mythology.
An intriguing thing can be seen to the right of east gopura – step in that direction and focus on the carvings of Apsaras. You may notice what appears to be the bullet holes. I asked locals about it but no one had an answer for me. They certainly look like bullet holes, unless someone tried to deliberately damage the structures by hitting these carvings with sharp, pointy hand tools. If they are bullet holes, I hope they are the remnants of Khmer Rouge activities, not contemporary violence of locals residing within Angkor. Check out the video that shows the holes and judge the cause for yourself:
Once inside, I found myself walking along the cruciform terrace that’s slightly elevated above the ground and is decorated on both sides by stone statues of lions and nagas forming balustrades. As I progressed along, I paused at the few, but piquant carvings. I noticed that the towers of the galleries inside resemble those of Angkor Wat giving an impressions of mixed styles (I’m not an expert, don’t quote me on that one). Banteay Kdei also has a few spots of massive trees growing on top of ancient stones, which is a sight to behold.
There is a rectangular courtyard to the east of the central temple which may have been used as venue for Apsara performances. The exterior of the courtyard is decorated with figures of dancers and its name translates into “The Hall of the Dancing Girls”.
At the entrance to Banteay Kdei there is a sign mentioning that the preservation works on the temple are conducted with an assistance from Sophia Mission, Tokyo. Still, despite funding from Japan and some woodwork enclosing parts of the temple, most of it is unrestored. It looks and feels very ancient inside and unlike Angkor Wat or Bayon, can be enjoyed without sharing with hundreds of other tourists at the same time.
Somehow, even though Banteay Kdei is truly spectacular, most companies that provide pre-packaged tours don’t include it in their itineraries. You will see buses full of tourists drive by it at high speeds disrespecting all other traffic participants, never making a stop there. Still, because the temple is on the small circuit, it does get a fair share of visitors. Temples on the grand circuit are far more deserted with myself being the only person when I was there. If you are headed to Angkor, don’t miss out on Banteay Kdei.
I walked through the entrance gopura of the Angkor Wat central temple and continued walking upwards to reach the five-peaked summit of what represents Mount Meru. The first level wall contains extensive bas-reliefs but I left those for later. I really wanted to see the central temple first.
Gallery of the first level consists of a cruciform cloister with four rectangular stone basins. There were several statues of Buddha within the passages of these semi dark galleries. When Angkor Wat turned from being a Hindu into being a Theravada Buddhist temple, this area was named “Preah Poan” or “Hall of the Thousand Buddhas”. While there certainly are dozens of Buddhas in the halls, you won’t find anywhere near thousands of them there. It is possible that in the 16th century when Angkor Wat temple was a site of pilgrimage for Buddhists, there were as many as thousand statues there, but they were either removed to prevent them from damage or destroyed by the Khmer Rogue regime in the 1970’s.
I climbed further up to reach the second level from where you can already see the towers of the Angkor Wat central temple unobstructed, in all their glory. Similar to the causeway through Angkor Wat city, central temple has two small libraries on both sides of the footbridge leading to the courtyard. I walked around the courtyard to the north-east corner to get a photo of the temple with the sunlight but that was not easy even after I stuck myself all the way back into the corner. The temple is set slightly towards the east so I could get much better a picture from either north-west and south-west corners but because of morning light, from there I would get the dark side of the temple and have strong backlight. Yet another reason why it is absolutely essential to visit Angkor Wat in the afternoon, not in the morning hours.
Third level of the Angkor Wat central temple carries all five towers and the uppermost gallery, but at the time of my visit it was off limit. There was ongoing construction and restoration work in progress so I never got to reach Bakan – the summit of Angkor Wat. It looked like part of the restoration process was the construction of wooden stairs that would lead to the third level. That sort of made sense because the temple is built very steep with original, stone stairs under insanely difficult angle.
Climbing up the stairs that are only a few degrees off being completely vertical is excessively strenuous and dangerous – much like climbing a mountain. This perhaps was the thinking of the engineers and architects who designed Angkor Wat – if it’s meant to represent Mount Meru, let’s make the climb to its top as challenging as climbing a mountain. I can’t otherwise imagine why they would build the stairs this steep.
It is speculated that third level gallery once housed the statue of Vishnu which is now at the entrance gapura within the exterior wall. I never got to go up there, but I understand that the gallery presently houses four statues of Buddha, each facing the different direction signifying the fact that the temple is now dedicated to Buddhism, not Hinduism as when it was originally built.