Tag Archives: temple

Angkor Wat-What.

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In almost direct contrast to the atrocities and sheer hell described in the last post, our next stop in Cambodia was quite literally heaven on Earth. Angkor Wat, the ‘City of Temples’, is both the largest Buddhist temple complex and the largest religious monument in the world.

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Walking to Angkor Wat at sunrise

The temple came into being in the early 12th century under King  Suryavarman II and is the earthly representation of Mount Meru, the home of the ancient Hindu Gods. (Note: Angkor Wat was first Hindu, then Buddhist – as it is today) The Khmer King and his successors were known as the ‘God Kings’, and each strove to build enormous tributes to both honour the gods as well as illustrate their own power and strength to their subjects and against their predecessors.

We’ve heard that the first glimpse of Angkor Wat is one of the most breathtaking and stunning experiences of the modern world. They are completely right. As we rounded a corner, we saw the temple come into view, silhouetted against the pale streaks of the dawn sky and reflected in the enormous moat that surrounded the gates. To actually get to the temple, you walk along a wide stone pathway, always with the impressive structure ahead of you. I have never been to Agra, but I can imagine that perhaps there are echoes of the Taj Mahal in Angkor Wat – both stunning in their architectural riches and religious devotion, both modern wonders of the world.

Our rather unorthodox sunrise crew

Our rather unorthodox sunrise crew

As you enter the temple you can see the extensive intricate detail on the stones, illustrating the time and devotion that was spent on every little detail. There are four towers which surround one large central tower, standing 31m above the rest. This gives the whole structure a sense of symmetry and unity, the height of the towers emphasising their closeness to the gods. What really strikes you about Angkor Wat is that despite the hoards of tourists (it was packed at dawn!) the whole area is just so peaceful. Although it is one of the world’s most renowned tourist attractions, it has retained it’s original ambience of calm and religious devotion, something that has become few and far between in the modern world.

The temple walls - decorated with 800 m worth of bas reliefs depicting King Suryavarman II's victories

The temple walls – decorated with 800 m worth of bas reliefs depicting King Suryavarman II’s victories

The intricate detail on the walls

The intricate detail on the walls

Inside the temple complex

Inside the temple complex

Sunup

Sunup

Equally as impressive, if not more so by it’s diversity and size (10 square km) is neighbouring Angkor Thom. To enter, you drive through terribly imposing gates, made all the more foreboding by the pregnant clouds that hovered aggressively above. The gates are flanked on either side by stone statues that depict a tug of war between 54 gods and 54 demons – The Churning of the Ocean of Milk.

The first temple you come to is the Bayon, which I perhaps wouldn’t recommend if you’ve got any sort of easily triggered paranoia issues. The whole temple, majestically dilapidated, comprises 54 Gothic towers that are decorated with 216 faces of the Hindu God, Avlakiteshvara. Word on the street is that the King (Jayavarman VII) who built this was more than a little off his rocker, and as if the feeling of constant surveillance wasn’t unusual enough, the faces are said to bear a strong resemblance to Jayavarmann himself. The whole place is eerie yet fascinating;  you clamber over piles of rocks and peer through darkened archways only to find that at every turn you are once again face to face with the coldly smiling Hindu deity. It is mesmerizing, enigmatic and very very weird.

The faces of Avalokiteshvara

The face (one of 216) of Avalokiteshvara

Cel's getting paranoid..

Cel’s getting paranoid..

The labyrinth of archways and entrances

The labyrinth of archways and entrances

 

The fallen archways

The fallen archways

More temple decoration

More temple decoration

Contemplating the crazy faces

Contemplating the crazy faces

There’s plenty more to see at Angkor Thom – the Terrace of the Elephants, Prasat Chrung, the Terrace of the Leper King. Each equal in beauty, each with it’s own story to tell. As we moved through, however, the blue-black sky which had been threatening us all morning finally broke and we were caught in a torrential downpour. Rather than a hindrance, it was a welcome cool from the closeness of the morning. Although photo-taking was now a no-no, the heavy clouds and sheets of rain only added to the ethereal atmosphere of Angkor Thom and Ta Phrom (our next stop).

Everyone knows Ta Phrom. It was in Tomb Raider, it might as well have been in Indiana Jones, it’s that world-famous image of temple against jungle; human against nature. Ta Phrom has been completely left to the mercy of the jungle which, as we know, is merciless. The temple emerges from thick jungle, barely distinguishable from the dense foliage and layers of dark greenery. Nature has run riot and tree roots hug the crumbling walls, emerging at incredible angles from the once beautiful stonework. Foundations have been overturned, and stones and piles of rubble lie everywhere, interspersed with lopsided gateways and broken steps. Some roots look like serpents, their corpulent bodies gradually choking the building and bringing it to the ground. It seemed so apt visiting this natural playground in the pouring rain, as though we were trespassing on a jungle secret that served to remind us of the power of nature against the relative impunity of humans.

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Growing THROUGH the temple foundations

More roots...

More roots…

...that look like something from a sci-fi movie

…that look like something from a sci-fi movie

One of the desolate courtyards

One of the desolate courtyards

 

And that was that, our experience of Angkor Wat. We only had time for a one-day pass, but it’s possible to have three- or (for the hardcore) seven-day permits. All we have to say is DO IT – this ancient site will inspire, impress and instill a sense of wonder that will last for a long, long time.

If I had an elephant, I’d call it Nelly

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For the record, Thailand is actually REALLY LONG. Coming from our fair isle (fair, but also fairly small), Thailand seems huge. And with it’s size comes a lot of diversity.

Post-Bangkok, we both took our full bellies and newly acquired viruses (how you manage to get a stinking cold in 36 degree heat escapes us) up to the northern city of Chiang Mai.

Chiang Mai and Pai

If you have the opportunity to go to the north of Thailand, go. With a mountainous backdrop, cooler climate and calmer pace of life, it couldn’t be further away from the heat of the islands and the chaos of the capital. There are only 174,000 inhabitants in Chiang Mai, a village compared to Bangkok’s 9 million, and the city is dominated by a walled and moated old town – picturesque indeed. It is awash with temples, historic buildings and even a Buddhist University, so seeing a monk with his alms bowl at dawn is a common occurrence. This seemingly sleepy place comes alive at night with the sprawling Night Bazaar, for which Chiang Mai is renowned. It is also famed for being the gateway to the hills – there’s an abundance of treks and organised outings for those who want to explore the surrounding jungle.

Chiang Mai Night Bazaar

Chiang Mai Night Bazaar

NOTE: Be CAREFUL with the treks – it’s a huge gamble choosing a tour operator and a lot of travelers end up disappointed. We met a couple who’d forked out for a 3-day jungle trek and didn’t quite realise that it was no country amble, it was a Thai-Army-Action-Commando-style adventure. The jungle here is pretty much straight out of Jumanji, so if you’re stuck there battling spiders the size of your hand and burning leeches off your ankles, it’s not so much fun.

Of course, Cel and I did LOADS of research and asked LOADS of people … (or maybe just picked a place with a nice looking lady who was really chatty and had nice pictures in the office). Regardless, we plumped for a one-day-er and for a pittance we rode elephants, visited a hill tribe village, swam in a waterfall, walked alongside paddy fields, (dubiously) shot a crossbow, made our way down a river on bamboo rafts… WIN!

It was an absolutely fantastic day, if not quite an experience in places. For example, despite feeding the elephants about 4 tonnes of bananas, it was hard to shake the feeling that they might not be leading the happiest of lives. Although there are a plethora of eco-friendly ‘Elephant Camps’ in Thailand – where elephants live in comfort and luxury and are treated fantastically by well-trained ‘Mahout’ (handlers) – there are a hell of a lot more which rake in the cash from gullible tourists (such as ourselves), and work the elephants a little too hard and use elephant hooks a little too liberally. To be honest, it is hard to judge as we couldn’t understand what the guides were saying and we don’t know anything about the training and handling of animals, but if you go with gut feeling, I think we both felt rather guilty. Lesson learnt – when animals are involved, don’t go for the cheap option.

Hungry nelly-phant

Hungry nelly-phant

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Having a drink to cool off

Having a drink to cool off

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Meeting the kids of the Karen tribe...

Meeting the kids of the Karen tribe…

..who have learnt to be extremely photogenic

..who have learnt to be extremely photogenic

The bamboo rafting was probably the most unforgettable, namely because our ‘driver’ was an absolute legend. Each raft was made up of about 5 or 6 thick tubes of bamboo strung together with strips of old tyre. (Ace Ventura, eat your heart out. ) You can fit 5 people on it, four farang and one driver, who essentially punts at the front using a long stick of bamboo. However, he didn’t last long and soon gave up, consigning charge of the raft to Cel and another lad. He him sat back and barked instructions, shouting ‘Rie..rie…control rie. Mmmmmm. Lef..LEF! LEFCONTROL LEF!!’ before we got absolutely annihilated by rocks and rapids. Anther catchphrase of his was, ‘no wet no fun’, which he’d mutter to himself before he soaked us and encouraged local children who were playing along the river to do the same. All Cel’s hard work and manual labour paid off as we rounded a corner of the river and in front of us three elephants and their baby ambled across the water in front of us. They were silhouetted against the low sun and as they reached the other side they stopped and started splashing themselves in the river, spraying themselves and cooling down. Corny as it sounds, it was genuinely magical.

Take a look at the map at the top, and the star up a bit and to the left of Chiang Mai was our next destination – Pai. So the road there might have been horrendously mountainous and we may have spent the journey clutching onto our seats and repeating rosaries, but as soon as we arrived it was clear that this was our kind of place. It has a population of just 2,000 and is set in a mountain fortressed valley; a perfect setting for the laid-back hippy lifestyle that Pai nurtures. The best thing to do there, aside from relax and take in the town, is to make your way up another hair-raising hill climb to the Yun Lai view point, which towers above the valley. We were on a scooter and only JUST managed it – Cel was driving and Imogen actually made a quick exit by jumping off the back halfway up the hill… lighten the load and all that! The view from the top is stunning. The mountains look fake – coloured in various shades of purple and green, you can see all the hillside villages with the wonky houses and bamboo roofs, and best of all, it is utterly silent up there. As you arrive, an old Chinese man (it is above the Chinese village of Santichon) shuffles towards you with a beautifully decorated pot of tea and two tiny mugs. You sit in the shade, sipping your piping hot tea and looking out over the valley.. it’s bliss. I guess the calmness and serenity of the viewpoint kind of summed up our experience in Pai; not only is it extremely chilled, but it feels like you are experiencing how Thai people live. Tourists are secondary here –  the Thais just carry on with their lives and we are lucky enough to get a sneaky peek.

Decorations at a strawberry farm just outside Pai

Decorations at a strawberry farm just outside Pai

Yun Lai Viewpoint

Yun Lai Viewpoint

Tea time

Tea time

An elephant we met on the road to Pai..

An elephant we met on the road to Pai..

Chinese influence at Yun Lai

Chinese influence at Yun Lai

At first she was a bit apprehensive...

…at first she was a bit apprehensive…

...but then she became extremely friendly!

…but she became extremely friendly!

Pai Canyon

Pai Canyon + intrepid explorer

Next stop, Laos. Heading up to the border (past Chiang Rai) and slow boat down the Mekong River to Luang Prabang.