Ta Prohm (about 5 miles from Angkor Wat, southwest of the East Mebon and east of Angkor Thom) is a monastery with Bayon-style temples that have purposely only been partially reclaimed from the forest to give the site a jungle-cloaked ambiance and show visitors what the pioneering French archeologist had to overcome to reconstruct the restored temples of Angkor. The inner courtyards have been cleared of jungle, but fig and silk cotton trees, some of them over 300 years old, grow on top of the walls and extend their gnarled roots to the ground like tentacles of massive arboreal octopi. Some scenes of “Laura Croft: Tomb Raider” were filmed- here.
Ta Prohm has been left untouched by archaeologists except for the clearing of a path for visitors and structural strengthening to stave of further deterioration. Because of its natural state, it is possible to experience at this temple the wonder of the early explorers when they came upon these monuments in the middle of the nineteenth century. Ta Prohm’s outer enclosure is near the corner of Banteay Kdei. It can be accessed by entering the monument from the west and leaving from the east entrance. A torch and a compass are useful for visiting this temple at all times.
Shrouded in dense jungle the temple of Ta Prohm is ethereal in aspect and conjures up a romantic aura. Fig, banyan and kapok trees spread their gigantic roots over stones, probing walls and terraces apart, as their branches and leaves intertwine to form a roof over the structures. Trunks of trees twist amongst stone pillars. The strange, haunted charm of the place entwines itself about you as you go, as inescapably as the roots have wound themselves about the walls and towers', wrote a visitor 40 years ago.
The Ta Prohm site recalls what French archeologist Henri Parmentier experienced when he began working there. He wrote, "the forest took advantage of its deplorable construction to overrun it completely. Before our work began it, it was an incomprehensible labyrinth, which was even dangerous, but it had the thrill of an extraordinary romanticism." It was also written: “The temple is held in a stranglehold of trees. Stone and wood clasp each other in grim hostility; yet all is silent and still, without any visible movement to indicate their struggle as if they were wrestlers suddenly petrified, struck motionless in the middle of a fight, the rounds in this battle were not measured by minutes, but by centuries.”
The trees at Ta Prohm took root as seedlings the same way they do on cliffs and steep mountain sides. But as beautiful and atmospheric as the trees are they do present their share of problems. Their grasp is so strong that they can literally pulverize stone. Roots squeeze between the stones and pry them apart, making gaps and cracks. In some cases the trees push walls of stone the to the point of collapse. Removing the trees also presents problems. In many cases they also help bind the structures together like a tightened rope and if they are removed the structures might collapse.
Built by King Jayavarman VII from the mid 12th century to the beginning of 13th century, and dedicated to his mother and Buddhism, Ta Prohm covers 150 acres and has a huge gate topped by Buddha-like faces carved out of stone. On the arches are sculptures of apsaras. A Sanskrit inscription on stone, still in place, give details of the temple. Ta Prohm 3,140 villages. It took 79,365 people to maintain the temple including 18 great priests, 2,740 officials, 2,202 assistants and 615 dancers. Among the property belonging to the temple was a set of golden dishes weighing more than 500 kilograms, 35 diamonds, 40,620 pearls, 4,540 precious stones, 876 veils from China, 512 silk beds and 523 parasols. Even considering that these numbers were probably exaggerated to glorify the king, Ta Prohm must have been an important and impressive monument.
Before the Khmer Rouge years ago a troop of monkeys lived at Ta Prohm here but they were killed by hungry farmers desperate for food during the Cambodian Civil War. These days you can sometimes see men hunting birds with sling shots. When archeologist raised the idea of cutting down some of the trees to preserve the temple, tour agencies worried that the place would lose its charm. Ta Prohm is especially serene and beautiful in the early morning. Try to get to Ta Prohm early in the morning before the crowds arrive.
Layout of Ta Prohm: Ta Prohm is among the largest of the monuments in the Angkor complex, the in scrimption gives an idea of the size of the temple. The complex included 260 statues of gods, 39 towers with pinnacles and 566 groups of residences. Ta Prohm comprises a series of long low buildings standing on one level, which are enclosed by rectangular laterite wall (600 by 1,000 meters, 1,959 by 3,281 feet). Only traces of the wall are still visible. The center of the monument is reached by a series of towers connected with passages. This arrangement forms a ' sort of sacred way into the heart of the monument’; three-square galleries enclose the area. Some areas of the temple are impassable and others are accessible only by narrow dark passages. It is recommended to follow the plan with a route and landmarks indicted or to stay with a guide to avoid getting lost. [Source: Tourism of Cambodia]
The boundaries of the exterior wall are recognizable on the west by a stone entry tower in the shape of a cross, with an upper portion in the form of four faces, one looking towards each of the cardinal points (not shown on the plan). The approach to the west entrance of the temple is a path through the forest. After about 350 meters (1,148 feet) there is a stone terrace in the shape of a cross. Remains of lions, serpent balustrades and mythical creatures lie scattered in the area. Walk across the terrace to the vestibule of the enclosing wall. The view from this point is spectacular.
Every here around you, you see nature n this dual role of destroyer and consoler; strangling on the one hand, and healing on the other; no sooner splitting the carved stones asunder than she dresses their wounds with cool, velvety mosses, and binds them with her most delicate tendrils; a conflict of moods so contradictory and feminine as to prove once more if proof were needed how well " Dame "Nature merits her feminine title. The next causeway with serpent balustrades on each side leads to an entry tower in the first enclosure around the temple. Inside, on the right, niches along the inner wall contain images of the Buddha.
Return to the center of the vestibule, turn right and walk through the courtyard to the annex building at the right. Continue walking straight through the series of rooms and passages to a tower. The relief on the horizontal beam is a fine representation of a scene from 'The Great Departure ' when the future. Buddha decides to leave his father's palace to live the life of a monk, the gods hold the hoofs of his horse so those sleeping in the palace are not awakened. Return to the courtyard and pass through an opening as opening in the wall of the second enclosure (at the south end).
The roots of a tree grip the double row of pillars in this gallery. Walk to the center of the complex, turn right and enter the entry tower of the third enclosing gallery. The inner walls are decorated with friezes of pendants, scrolls and figures in niches. Turn right again and walk into the central courtyard of the temple.
Central Sanctuary of Ta Prohm: Follow the plan and walk through the Central Sanctuary, recognizable by its undecorated interior. The stone has hammered, presumably to apply a coating probably of paint or gilt. Evenly spaced ' holes in the wall from floor to ceiling suggest a covering of wood, stucco or metal.
Walk across the central courtyard towards the left (northeast) and through the door of a gallery that is framed by the roots of a tree. Turn left and walk through a dark passageway and a courtyard. Enter the aisle with pillars, turn right, walk straight between twin towers and to the right into a very narrow passage which houses the inscription of the temple. Return by the same passage, turn right and continue straight, passing through a vestibule. The false doors on the north and south sides of the large rectangular enclosure with high walls are finely decorated. There are four small courts with galleries and pillars (12). Ritual dances may have been performed in this area.
Walk across the courtyard and into the entry tower of the enclosing wall, at the east entrance. It is in the shape of a cross with pillars on the interior, four wings and two passages on the side. The walls of these passages are decorated with relief. To the left there is a hall with pillars placed close together. They probably provided the base for a structure built of wood. Beyond are small rectangular cells, which surround the exterior of Ta Prohm. One leaves Ta Prohm by a path (400 meters, 1,32 feet long) leading to the exterior enclosure where section of the wall are visible.
Banteay Kdei (south of Ta Prohm) is one of the first temples built by King Jayavarman VII. Constructed in 1180 and dedicated to Mahaya Buddhism, it features an impressive overgrown gateway topped by a dome with four colossal faces, each facing a different direction. Both Angkor Wat and Bayon styles are discernible at Banteay Kdei. One travel writer wrote: In the ruin and confusion of Banteay Kdei the carvings take one's interest. They are piquant, exquisite, not too frequent... they seem meant.. to make adorable a human habitation. Enter the monument from the east and leave at the west or vice versa, either way, also visit Srah Srang.
Banteay Kdei situated in front of a large "tank" (lake) with ritual pool with steps facing the rising sun. It has not been restored and allows the visitor to experience what it may have looked like originally. Changes and additions account for is unbalanced layout. Banteay Kdei was built of soft sandstone and many of the galleries and porches have collapsed. The wall enclosing the temple was built of reused stones. [Source: Tourism of Cambodia]
The temple is built on the ground level use as a Buddhist monastery. The elements of the original design of Banteay Kdei seem to have been a Central Sanctuary, a surrounding gallery and a passageway connected to another gallery. A moat enclosed the original features of the temple. Another enclosure and two libraries were among the additions in the Bayon period. The outer enclosure (700 by 500 meters 2,297 by 1,640feet) is made of laterite and has four entry towers.
A rectangular courtyard to the east is known as 'the hall of the dancing girls', a name derived from the decoration which includes dancers. The entry tower of the second enclosure is in the shape of a cross with three passages; the two on either end are connected to the literate wall of the enclosure 320 by 200 scrolls of figures and large female divinities in niches. In the interior court there is a frieze of Buddha.
A causeway of a later date, bordered with serpents, leads to the entry tower of the third enclosure. It comprises a laetrile wall includes a gallery with a double row of sandstone pillars that open onto a courtyard. Tip Parts of this area have been walled in and passage is limited. Vestiges of the wooden ceiling can still be seen in the central Sanctuary. The galleries and halls, which join it in a cross to the four entry towers, are probably additions. Two libraries open to the west in the courtyards on the left and right of the causeway.
Srah Srang (across the road from the east entrance of Banteay) is a large lake (700 by 300 meters, 2,297 by 984 feet) with elegant landing terrace of superb proportion and scale. Built in Bayon-style at the end of the 12th century by the King Jayavarman VII and dedicated to Buddhism, it is always has water and is surrounded by greenery. According to one French archaeologist, it offers at the last rays of the day one of the most beautiful points to view the Park of Angkor. Enter and leave Srah rang from the road.
One traveler wrote: Srah Srang “was perhaps a chapel to Kama, God of Love. The spot would suit the temper of the strange power, terribly strong and yet terribly tender, of that passion which carries away kingdoms, empires, whole worlds, and inhabits also the humblest dwellings...Love could occupy this quiet nest embedded in water...gave the impression that love had come one day and had left there, when he went away, apart of his spirit.”
Srah Srang has a majestic platform (landing stage) which leads to the pond. Constructed of laterite with sandstone molding, the platform is in the shape of a cross with serpent balustrades flanked by two lions. At the front there is an enormous Garuda riding a three-headed serpent. At the back there is a mythical creature comprising a three-headed serpent, the lower portion of a Garuda and a stylized tail decorated with small serpent heads. The body of the serpent rests on a dais supported by mythical monsters.
Prasat Kravan (east of Angkor Wat and south of Banteay Kdei) was built in the first half of the tenth century and completed by 921 during the reign of Harshavarman 1 (it may have been built by high court officials) and dedicated to Hinduism and in a style that is regarded as a transition from Bakheng to Koh Ker. The reliefs in this tower are best viewed in the morning when the east light enters the door, in the afternoon they are barely visible. Enter and depart from the east
The main point of interest at Kravan is the sculpture on the interior of two of the five towers depicting Visnu and his consort, Laksmi; the scene in the central tower is the most impressive one. These carvings in brick on the interior of a monument are unique in Khmer architecture. Sometimes called the Cardamom Sanctuary, this temple was reconstructed by the French and given a new foundation, interior walls and drains. Some broken bricks were replaced with carefully made reproductions which are marked with the letters CA; representing the Angkor Conservancy These can be seen, for example, on both the interior and exterior of the tower on the right.
Kravan is an unusual arrangement of five towers in a row on one terrace. They are built of brick; the lintels and columns are of sandstone. The Central Tower is the only tower with recessed tiers intact, which are visible on the interior. The columns are octagonal, with four bare sides and sandstone rings. This tower enclosed a linga on a pedestal. An inscription on the pillars gives the date 921 for the erection of the statue of Visnu on the interior Decoration (exterior): The east side of the Central Tower is sculpted with male guardians in shallow niches and chevrons and framed figures on the pilasters.
A frieze of small heads adorns the lintel. Decoration (interior): The main decoration of this tower, on the left, depicts Visnu taking three steps to span the universe and to assure the gods of the possession of the world. It comprises a standing image of Visnu (with four arms) carrying his attributes-a disc, a ball, a conch and a club. One of his feet rests on a pedestal; nearby a person is meditating and another one is walking on a lotus held by a woman on a background of undulating lines representing the waves of the ocean. On the right, Visnu (with eight arms) is framed with six registers of people meditating and a giant lizard. This sculpture on brick was formerly coated with stucco and was probably highlighted with colours.
The North Tower was dedicated to Laksmi, wife of Siva. She holds the symbols of her powers in her four hands and is flanked by kneeling admirers, the niche with multiple lobes is decorated with tassels and floral swags. In the South Tower the walls on the interior have no decoration A lintel on the exterior with Visnu on his mount, the Garuda, is skillfully modeled
Banteay Srei (35 kilometers miles and 30 minutes from Siem Reap on rough roads) is a small Hindu temple dedicated to Shiva that predates Angkor Wat. Sometimes called the jewel of Khmer architecture, it is a favorite temple of many visitors and is the best preserved of all the temples in the Angkor area. Built under Rajendravarman II (reigned 944-968) and Jayavarman V (reigned 968-1001) and completed in 967, it is small Hindu temple commissioned by a Brahman priest rather than a king. Dedicated to Siva, it was carved with unusual hard pink sandstones that are almost red in color and shows little sign of weathering, revealing extraordinary detail.
Banteay Srei means the “Citadel of Women.” The entire set of connected buildings could easily fit into a courtyard of Angkor Wat. The entrances to the sanctuaries are so small that most people have to stoop over when they enter. Visitors enter and leave the temple by the east entrance.
Banteay Srei is famous for its miniature temples, deeply carved bas reliefs, delicate and detailed freestanding statues and intricately carved floral designs that covers the walls like tapestry,. The design of the whole structure is harmonious and as close to perfect as one can get. The site warrants as much time as your schedule allows.
Banteay Srei has been the victim of looting and many fine pieces have been removed to prevent them from being looted. The famous narrative pediments of the Indian epic Mahabharata, for example, have been removed to preserve them, But plenty more remain, including some that were stolen by the French writer Andre Malreaux. Make sure to check out the wonderful narrative scenes of Shiva that are entwined in floral and geometric designs. Try to come to Banteay Srei at an odd time. Sometimes the small temple get swamped with more people than it can handle. In 1994 an American teacher was killed on the road to Banteay Srei by bandits. After that security was beefed up in the area.
The special charm of Banteay Srei lies in its remarkable state of preservation, small size and excellence of decoration. The unanimous opinion amongst French archaeologists who worked at Angkor is that Banteay Srei is a 'precious gem' and a 'jewel in Khmer art'. Banteay Srei, as it is known by locals, was originally called Isvarapura, according to inscriptions. It was made by a Brahmin of royal descent who was spiritual teacher to Jayavarman V. Some describe it a s being closer in architecture and decoration to Indian models than any other temple at Angkor. A special feature of the exquisite decoration was the use of a hard pink sandstone (quartz arenite) where enabled the 'technique of sandalwood carving with even an Indian scent to it'.
Getting to Banteay Srei: Banteay Srei is located 25 kilometers (15.5 miles) north-east of East Mebon. The roads have been recently repaired and it takes about 30 minutes from Siem Reap to get to the temple. To reach Banteay Srei, follow the main road north out of Siem Reap, turn right at Angkor Wat and follow the road to Srah Srang where you turn right past Pre Rup. At the East Mebon there is a check post where you need to obtain clearance. Turn right again at the road before the East Mebon; pass through the village of Phoum Pradak, where there is a junctions (if you continue straight, after about 5 minutes, you will reach Banteay Samre). At this point, you come to a fork; take the road on the left and follow it to Batneay Srei which you will reach shortly after crossing two rivers - on your left hand side.
OTHER ANGKOR MONUMENTS
Pre Rub (northeast of Srah Srang and 500 meters south of the southern end of the East Baray) is a “ work of great dignity and impeccable proportions', wrote Mauize of Prerup in his guidebook of 1963. Because the temple is built entirely of brick and laterite, the warm tones of these materials are best are seen early in the morning or when the sun is setting. There are two views from the top terrace: the first looking east towards Phnom Bok and the mountain chain of Phnom Kulen; and the second looking west where the towers of Angkor Wat can be distinguished on the far horizon. An entrance and exit the monument from the east entrance. To climb to the upper terrace use the east stairway; it is slightly less steep than the others.
Pre Rub was built in the second half of the tenth century (961) by the King Rajendraman II and dedicated to the Hindu god Siva. The boldness of the architectural design of Pre Rup is superb and give the temple fine balance, scale and proportion. The temple is almost identical in style to the East Mebon, although it was built several yeas later. It is the last real 'temple-mountain ' Pre Rup was called the 'City of the East ' by Philippe Stern, a Frenchman who worked on the site.
Pre Rup a pyramid-shaped temple mountain with five shrines and a series of steep stairways. Cambodians have always regarded this temple as having funerary associations but reason is unknown. The name Prerup recalls one of the rituals of cremation in which the silhouette of the body of the deceased, outlined with its ashes, is successively represented according to different orientations, Some archaeologists believe that the large vat located at the base of the east stairway to the central area was used at cremations.
Pre Rup dominates the vast plain, which the East Baray irrigated. Contracted on an artificial mountain in laterite with brick towers, the plan is square and comprises two enclosures with four entry towers each and a base with three narrow tiers serving as a pedestal for five towers on the top platform one in each corner and one central. The outer enclosing wall is 127 by 116 meters (417 by 380 feet). Inside the outer laterite-enclosing wall there are two groups of three towers, one on each side of the entrance; the towers of each group share a common base. The middle tower in each of the two groups dominates and is more developed than the others. It appears that the first tower on the right was never built or, if it was, its bricks were reused somewhere else. The most complete lintel is on the tower at the far left (south )on the east face showing in his avataras a man-lion.
The next enclosure, also made of laterite, has four small entry towers, one on each side Long galleries surround the courtyard on the enterior. The walls of these galleries, which have sandstone porches, are built of laterite. In the courtyard there are vestiges of long rest halls probably used by pilgrims. They have sandstone pillars in the east and laterite walls and windows with balusters in the west. In the northeast corner there is a curious small square building built of large blocks of laterite and open on all four sides. The inscription of the temple was found in gallery near this building.
On the left and right sides of the east entry tower of the second enclosure there are libraries with high towers. They sheltered carved stones with motifs of the nine planets and the seven ascetics. In the center there is a vat between two rows of sandstone pillars. Glaize suggested that this might have been, rather than a sarcophagus, a base for a wooden building or for a statue of Nandi, the sacred bull, the mount of Siva to whom the temple was dedicated.
The square base has a stairway on each side. Pedestals flanking the stairways are adorned with seated lion of which those on the lower terraces are larger than those on the higher levels. The first two tiers are built of laterite and have simple supporting walls with a molded base and cornice. The third tier is built of sandstone. Two supplementary stairways are framed with lions on the east side. Twelve small temples opening to the east and containing linga are evenly spaced around the first tier. The upper platform is raised on a double base of molded sandstone with stairway flanked with lions.
The five central towers on the top platform are open to the east. They all have three false doors made of sandstone and are sculpted with figures and plant motifs. Traces of plaster are visible on the tower in the southwest corner. At the same tower there is a depiction of Saravati , wife of Brahma , with four faces and arms. On the west side of this tower there is another divinity with four arms and heads in the form of a wild boar; it is the wife of Visnu in his avataras as a boar. Figures in the niches are surrounded by flying Apsaras at the corners of the towers. the figures at the two west towers are feminine while those at the east and central towers are masculine.
East Mebon (500 meters north of Pre Rup) is an ancestor temple built in the second half of the tenth century (952) by king Rajendravarman II in memory of his parents. Dedicated to the Hindu god Siva and built in a Pre Rup style, East Mebon stands on a small island in the middle of the Eastern Baray, which was a large body of water (two by seven 7 kilometers) fed by the Siem Reap River. The site is a pile of ruins known best of its whie stones with elephant images on them. The temple was accessible only by boat. Today the Baray, once a source of water for irrigation, is a plain of rice fields and the visitor is left to imagine the original majesty of this temple in the middle of a large lake. Enter and leave the temple from the east entrance.
East Mebon embraces five towers arranged like the numbers on a die atop a base with three tiers. The whole is surrounded by three enclosures. The towers represent the five peaks of the mythical Mount Meru. The outer enclosing wall is identified by a terraced landing built of laterite with two seated lions on each of the four sides. The interior of this wall is marked by a footpath. The neat enclosing wall is intercepted in the middle of each of its four sides by an entry tower in the shape. Of a cross The towers are constructed of laterite and sandstone and have three doors with porches. An inscription was found to the right of the east tower. A series of galleries surrounds the interior of this enclosing wall. The walls are of laterite and have porches, sandstone pillars and rectangular windows with short balusters. The galleries were originally covered with wood and tiles but today only vestiges remain. They probably served as halls of meditation.
The stairways of the tiered base are flanked by lions. Beautiful monolithic elephants stand majestically at the corners of the first and second tiers. They are depicted naturalistically with fine detail such as harnessing. Tip: The elephant in the best condition, and the most complete, is in the southwest corner. The lintels on the west entry tower depict Visnu in his avataras of man-lion tearing the king of the demons with his claws (east). At the northeast corner Laksmi stands between two elephants with raised trunks sprinkling lustral water on her.
The large inner courtyard contains eight small brick towers on each side opening to the East. Each one has octagonal columns and finely worked lintels with figures amongst leaf decorations. On the East Side of the courtyard there are three rectangular laterite buildings without windows opening to the west. The two on the left of the entrance are decorated with either scenes of the stories of the nine planets or the seven ascetics. Vestiges of bricks above the cornices suggest they were vaulted. There are two more buildings (without windows) of similar form at the northwest and southwest comers of the courtyard.
The terrace with the five towers was enclosed by a sandstone wall moulding and decorated bases. Lions guard the four stairways to the top platform. The five towers on the upper terrace were built of brick and open to the east; they have three false doors made of sandstone. Male figures on the comers are finely modeled. Circular holes pierced in the brick for the attachment of stucco are visible. The false doors of the towers have fine decoration with an overall background pattern of interlacing small figures on a plant motif.
Lintels on the Towers of the Upper Level: 1) Central Tower: (East side): Indra on his mount, a three-headed elephant, with small horsemen on a branch; scrolls with mythical beasts spewing figures under a small frieze of worshippers; (west side): Skanda, God of War rides his peacock; (south side): Siva rides his sacred bull Nandi. 2) Northwest Corner Tower: East side: Ganesa is curiously riding his trunk which is transformed into a mount. Southeast Corner Tower: North side: The head of a monster.
Banteay Samre (400 meters east of the East Baray) is an Angkor-Wat-style temple worth the extra effort to experience the elaborate architecture, and fine carvings, although theft has mutilated many of the temple's treasures. Richard Stone wrote in National Geographic, “Restored in the 1940s, the 12th-century Banteay Samre, devoted to the Hindu god Vishnu, recalls the medieval Khmer Empire at its height. The temple is cloistered inside two sets of concentric square walls. These may once have been surrounded by a moat symbolizing the oceans encircling Mount Meru, mythical home of Hindu gods. [Source: Richard Stone, National Geographic, July 2009]
Banteay Samre is one of the most complete complexes at Angkor due to restoration using the method of anastylosis. Unfortunately, the absence of maintenance over the past 20 years is evident. A unique feature is an interior moat with laterite paving, which when filled with water must have given an ethereal atmosphere to the temple. All of the buildings around the moat are on a raised base with horizontal mouldings, decoreated in some areas with figures framed by lotus buds.
Banteay Samre was built by King Suryavarman II (reigned 1113-1150) and dedicated to the Hindu god Vishnu.. The name Samre refers to an ethnic group of mountain people, who inhabited the regions at the base of Phnom Kulen and were probably related to the Khmers. No inscription has been found for this temple, but the style of most of the architecture is of the classic art of the middle period similar to Angkor Wat. The monument most likely dates from the same period, or, perhaps, slightly later, although there are additions attributed to the Bayon style.
Kbal Spien (15 minute drive from Banteay Srei, plus an hour-long mountain hike) is often called the River of a Thousand Lingas” in English. At the site are hundreds of phallic-shaped lingas—stones dedicated to Shiva—and images of Vishnu, Rama, Lakshima, Hanuman in a river below a modest waterfall. Some people who have made the trek don’t think it is worth it. Other find it magical to see these images carved in stone among water falls and jungle. For the ancient Khmers the hills here were their equivalents the Himalayas and the Ganges. Kbal Spean 50 kilometers northeast of Siem Reap or about 18 kilometers from Banteay Srei on a dirt road. It takes from one to two hours to get there from the provincial town.
Richard Stone wrote in National Geographic, “One of Angkor's holiest sites is high in the Kulen Hills at the headwaters of two rivers, the Puok and the Siem Reap. Under the shade of gnarled strangler fig trees, submerged in the clear water of a lazy creek, are row after row of circular bumps, each about six inches wide, carved into the dark sandstone riverbed. These are worn lingams, cylindrical stone sculptures representing the essence of the Hindu god Shiva. The lingams lead like a road to another sculpture in the riverbed: a thick-walled square, a yard wide, with a narrow inlet. It's a yoni, a symbol of the Hindu source of life. [Source: Richard Stone, National Geographic, July 2009]
“Angkor's high priests came here to thank the gods for providing the lifeblood of the kingdom. A short walk upstream is a natural bridge of sandstone that lends this holy site its name,Kbal Spean—Khmer for "bridgehead." Water rushes through a cleft, splashing an adjoining rock face where Vishnu, legs crossed, meditates atop an angry ocean; sprouting from his navel is a lotus-flower-bearing Brahma. Here in the Kulen Hills the ancient gods enjoy perpetual libations from flowing water. “
The original River of Thousand Lingams, Kbal Spean is an intricately carved riverbed deep in the foothills of the Cambodian jungle. Lingams are phallic representations sacred to Hindus as symbols of fertility, and hundreds of them are carved into the rock here, as are several carvings of gods and animals above the small waterfall. The area was rediscovered in 1969, when French researcher Jean Boulbet was shown the carvings by a local hermit.
A visit to Kbal Spean, a reference to the natural rock bridge, is one of the easiest ways to take a short jungle trek in the Angkor area. It is a 30-minute walk to the carvings through steamy forest and some curious rock formations. It is best to try to visit between July and December, at other times of year the river rapidly dries up. The access to the trail is not permitted after 3:30pm. Food and drinks are available at the base of the trail.
Phnom Kulen (25 kilometers from Banteay Srei and 60 kilometers from Siem Reap) in Svay Leu and Varin districts was originally called Mount Mahendraparvata. It is the holy mountain where, when King Jayavarman II59 (A.D. 802-850) proclaimed independence from Java in 802, the Angkorian Empire was born. This mountain plateau served as the capital of the first Khmer Empire for more than half a century before it relocated south to Hariharalaya, known today as Roluos. As many as 20 minor temples are found around the plateau, including Rorng Chen temple, the first pyramid built by an Angkorian King, but many of them are difficult to reach. Numerous important sites lie scattered across the mountaintop, which is accessible by foot or by car.
ROLUOS GROUP AREA MONUMENTS
Roluos Group (11 kilometers southeast of Siem Reap) is a cluster of 9th century temples that are among the earliest Khmer structures built in the Angkor area. They are grouped around three main temples—Bakong, Lolei and Preah Ko— that are close together and extend over an area of three kilometers ( 1.9 miles ) east of the Great Lake. Surrounded by the lush forests, Baktong was dedicated in 881 A.D. and rebuilt by French archaeologists in the 1930s. Preah Ko is a cluster of ninth century palaces which contains evidence of the great changes that took place at Angkor when Indian culture was introduced.
The Roluos group, dating from the late ninth century, is the earliest site of the 600 years Angkor Period that is open to visitors. The three temples belonging to this important group have similar characteristics of architecture, decoration, materials and construction methods, which combine to reveal the beginning of the Classic Period of Khmer art.
Roluos is the site of an ancient center of Khmer civilization known as Hariharalaya (the abode of Hari-hara'). Some 70 years after Jayavarman II established his capital on Mount Kulen in 802 inaugurating the Angkor Period, the king moved the king moved the capital to Hariharalaya, Perhaps for a better source of food or for defence purposed. He died at roluos in 850. It is generally believed that his successors remained there until the capital was moved to Bakheng in 905.
The buildings of the Roluos Group are distinguished by tall square-shaped brick towers on pedestals. The open to the east, with false doors on the other three sides. As is typical of this period, brick was used for the towers and sandstone for carved areas such as columns, lintels and decorative niches. A wall originally enclosed the temples though only traces remain today. It was intersected on two or more sides by an entry tower, an innovation of this period, of perhaps slightly earlier. The early examples were square with a tiered upper portion. The library also made also appearance at Roluos. It is a rectangular building with a curved roof and pediments. A temple often has two libraries, one on each side of the entry tower preceding the Central Sanctuary.
The characteristic decorative features of the Roluos group are: a Kala (monster head), the Hindu god Visnu on his mount the Garuda, female figures with abundant jewelry, and a preponderance of guardians and Apsaras. Columns are generally octagonal and intricately adorned with delicate leaves. Decoration on the lintels at Roluos is, according to some art historians, ' the most beautiful of all Khmer art '
Preah Ko (in the Roluos Group between Bakong and Lolei; mid-way between Bakong and the road) was built in late ninth century (879) by the King Indravarman I. Dedicated to the Hindu god Siva, it is a Prah-Ko-style funerary temple built for the king's parents, maternal grandparents, and a previous king, Jayavarman II and his wife. Enter and leave the temple from the east.
The complex of Preah Ko is square and surrounded by four enclosing walls with entry towers successively smaller in size. The first two walls are in a ruined state with only vestiges remaining. The first, or outer, enclosure is 450 by 800 meters (1,476 by 2,625 feet) square with entry towers on the east and west sides. The central area is rectangular and consists of six brick towers arranged in two rows on a low platform. The towers to the front of the platform are than those at the back; the middle one in the front is the largest and set slightly back from the other two. the three in the front row are for paternal ancestors, with male guardians flanking the doorways; the three in the back row are for maternal ancestors and have female divinities flanking the doorways.
The back row of towers is curiously unevenly spaced with the right-hand one closer to the center tower than left-hand one. It has been suggested that the placement of the two towers close together in the back may signify that those two ancestors loved each other during their earthly life. A small terrace in the shape of a cross (largely destroyed) precedes the literate entry tower to the east. Additional beings on the east and west sides lead to a literate causeway. Sandstone pillars and windows with thick balusters carved with rings, which give the appearance of being turned like wood, complete the remains of the temple complex. A step at the entrance in the shape of a moonstone is note-worthy for its graceful form.
In the courtyard there are the bases of two galleries, which run parallel to the east wall. Close to and parallel to the north and south walls of the enclosure ate two long halls. On each side of the causeway, and closer to it, are two galleries with a porch opening to the east (mostly ruined). Between the long hall and the gallery on the left is a square brick building that may have been a crematorium, with a tiered upper portion and a porch opening to the west. It is distinguished by rows of holes (perhaps for ventilation) and a row of figures of ascetics in niches above the holes on the upper portion of the building. Continuing along the causeway one comes to the brick wall of an enclosure, which has two entry towers, one in the east and another directly opposite it on the west. They are simple square buildings with columns and fine lintels depicting Visnu on a Garuda. An inscription was found in the entry tower on the east. Past the entry tower at the east in the courtyard there are the remains of three crouching sacred bull aligned in a row
Central Area Preah Ko: The base of the Central Sanctuaries has three stairways along the eastern side. The landings are decorated with make and female figures. Sandstone lions on the stairways guard the temple. The only other access to the central level is a single stair way on the west side. The central towers are square on the lower portion with a porch in each of the cardinal directions. Each of the six towers of the Central Sanctuary group was covered with stucco. Traces of the original material can be on the tower on the right of the back row.
The thickness of the stucco and the sandstone motifs of the false doors are features on this tower. The columns, which are octagonal, are 'incontestably the most beautiful of Khmer art ', according to French conservators. The frame of the door is cur in four parts and the corners where the pieces meet are mitered, like wood, by cutting the ends of two pieces at identical angles and fixing the cut faces together. Sandstone lintels above the doors of the tower in the front row on the right are decorated with small horsemen and figures mounted on serpents. The lintel on the false door of the middle tower of the back row have a Garuda in the center, surmounted by a row of small heads.
Corner niches of the central tower in the front row have male guardians in niches carved in sandstone and encased in brick. The decoration on the three towers in the back row is if inferior quality to that on those in the front row. The corner niches contain female deities. A curious feature of the center tower in the back row is that the false door is brick coasted with stucco whereas the other false doors are of sandstone. Each tower originally contained an image of a Hindu god with whom the deceased was united.
Looking east from the platform of the Central Sanctuaries one can see the laterite roadway and remains if the entry towers of the four enclosing walls. Leaving the Central Sanctuary from the west one passes through a simple square entry tower with a stairway (mostly demolished). The courtyard on this side is narrow and contains two rectangular galleries parallel to the west wall.
Bakong (in the Roluos Group south of Preah Ko, to the right of the east entrance to Bakong) is a Prah-Ko-style temple built in late ninth century (881) by King Indravarman I dedicated to the Hindu god Siva. Bakong was the center of the town of Hariharalaya, a name derived from the god Hari-Hara—a synthesis of Siva and Visnu. The temple represents cosmic Mount Meru. Four levels leading to the Central Sanctuary correspond to the worlds of mythical beings (Nagas, Garudas, Raksasas and Yaksas). . Enter and leave the temple at the east.
The temple of Bakong is built on an artificial mountain and enclosed in a rectangular area by two walls. It has a square base with five tiers. The first, or outside, enclosure (not on the plan) (900 by 700 meters, 2,953 by 2,297 feet) surrounds a moat with an embankment and causeways on four sides, which are bordered by low Naga balustrades. The second and smaller enclosure has an entry tower of sandstone and laterite in the center of each side of the wall. There were originally 22 towers inside the first enclosures. After passing through the entry tower at the east one comes to a long causeway decorated with large seven-headed serpents across a moat. Long halls on each side lie parallel to the eastern wall. They were probably rest houses for visitors.
Two square-shaped brick building at the northeast and southeast corners are identified by rows of circular holes and an opening to the west. The vents in the chimneys suggest these buildings served as crematoriums. There was originally a single building of this type at the northwest and southwest corners but today they are completely ruined. On each side of the causeway just beyond the halls there are two square structures with four doors. The inscription of the temple was found in the one on the right.
Further along the causeway, there are two long sandstone buildings on each side, which open to the causeway. These may have been storehouses or libraries. To the north and south of the storehouses receptively there is a square brick sanctuary tower. There are two more on each side of the central platform, making a total of eight. Decoration on the towers is in brick with a heavy coating of stucco. The towers, with one door opening to the east and three false doors, have a stairway on each side, which is decorated with crouching lions at the base. The two to the east of the central platform have a unique feature, a double sandstone base, The door entrance and the false doors were uniformly cut from a single block of sandstone, The decoration on the false doors is exceptionally fine, especially that on the tower on the right in the front row, the false door of which has remarkable Kala handles. The corners of the towers are decorated with female and male guardians in niches. the lintels of the west towers are in the best condition. A long building with a gallery and a porch opening to the north is situated close to the western wall (on the left); it is mostly demolished.
The square-shaped base (10) has five tiers with a stairway on each of the four sides and, at the base, a step in the shape of a moonstone. Remains of a small structure can be seen at the base of the stairway fairway flanked by two sandstone blocks, which may have held sculpted figures. Elephants successively smaller in size stand at the corners of the first three tiers of the base. The fourth tier is identified by twelve small sandstone towers, each of which originally contained a linga. The fifth tier is framed by a molding decorated with a frieze of figures (barely visible) the ones on the south side are in the best condition.
The Central Sanctuary (11) is visible from each of the five levels because of the unusual width of the tiers. The sanctuary is square with four tiers and a lotus-shaped top. Only the base of the original Central Sanctuary remains. The rest was constructed at a later date, perhaps during the twelfth century.
Lolei (at Roluos, north of Bakong) was built at the end of the ninth century and finished in 893. Although Lolei is small it is worth a visit for its carvings and inscription. The temple of Lolei originally formed an island in the middle of a Baray (3,800 by 800 meters, 12,467 by 2,625 feet), now dry. According to an inscription found at the temple the water in this pond was for use at the capital of Hariralaya and for irrigating the plains in the area. Enter and leave the temple by the stairs at the east. Beware of the ants during certain seasons near the top of the entrance steps.
The layout consists of two tiers with laterite enclosing walls and stairway to the upper level in the center of each side. Lions on the landings os the stairways guard the temple. A sandstone channel in the shape of a cross situated in the center of the four towers on the upper terrace is an unusual feature, the channels extend in the cardinal directions from a square pedestal for a linga. It is speculated the holy water poured over the linga flowed in the channels.
Four brick tower with tiered upper portions, arranged in two rows, on the upper terrace make up the Central Sanctuaries. As the two-north towers are aligned on the east-west axis, it is possible the original plan had six towers, which probably shared a common base like that at Prah Ko. The northeast tower is the best preserved. The entrances of the doors to the towers are cut from a single block of stone, as at Bakong.
The corners of the towers on the east are decorated with male guardians holding tridents and those of the west with female divinities holding flywhisks. They are sculpted in sandstone with a brick casing. The panels of the false doors have multiple figures. The inscriptions on the doorframes are exceptionally fine. The workmanship on the lintels is skilled and the composition balanced. Some noteworthy depictions are: Indra on an elephant with figures and Makaras spewing serpents (northeast tower); Visnu riding a Garuda with a branch of serpents (south-east tower).
MONUMENTS ACCESSIBLE FROM SIEM REAP
Phnom Krom (12 kilometers southwest of Siem Reap near the north end of the Tonle Sap Lake) is a 137-meter- hill with a temple on top. Climb the steep stairs and curved path through a temple complex at the top of the hill. The walk affords a fine view of the lake and surrounding area. The temple was built in the end of the ninth century beginning of the tenth century dedicated to the Hindu Trinity- Siva, Visnu and Brahma, with following to Prasat Bakheng art style. Yasovarman I built a temple on each of the three hills dominating the plain of Angkor, Bakheng, Phnom Krom and Phnom Bok. The temple of Phnom Krom is visible from the airplane as one fly into Siem Reap.
Phnom Krom is a square plan and consists of three towers in a row situated dramatically on a hilltop. They were dedicated to Siva, Visnu and Brahma respectively. The upper portions of the towers have collapsed and the facades are very degraded but otherwise they remain intact. The towers are enclosed by a literate wall intersected on each side by an entry tower in the shape of a cross.
Three long halls built of laterite (only the bases of which remain) parallel the wall around the courtyard. They probably served as rest houses. Four small building inside the courtyard preceded the sanctuaries. They are similar except that the two at either end are brick and the two in the middle are sandstone. All four have a series of holes in the walls, which suggests they may have been used as crematoriums.
The three central towers stand on a north south axis on a low rectangular platform with molding constructed of sandstone paving over a laterite base. Two sides of the base are intercepted by three stairways with lions on the landings. The towers are square and originally had four recessed tiers on the upper portion. they open to the east and west with false doors on the north south. Traces of decoration remain around the base of the platform near the stairs, on the pilasters, the panels of the false doors, the cornices and on niches in the corners. The upper terrace affords a panoramic view of the Great Lake and the surrounding plain.
Beng Mealea (40 kilometers east of the main group of temples at Angkor, and 77 kilometers from Siem Reap by road) is an Angkor -Wat-style temple built by King Suryavarman II in the early 12th century and dedicated to the Hindu god Vishnu. Beng Mealea “means "Lotus Pond"). Located on the ancient royal highway to Preah Khan Kompong Svay and constructed from primarily from sandstone, it was built as Hindu temple, but there are some carvings depicting Buddhist motifs. It is largely unrestored, with trees and thick brush thriving amidst its towers and courtyards and many of its stones lying in great heaps. For years it was difficult to reach, but a road recently built to the temple complex of Koh Ker passes Beng Mealea and more visitors are coming to the site.
The history of the temple is unknown and it can be dated only by its architectural style, identical to Angkor Wat, so scholars assumed it was built during the reign of king Suryavarman II in the early 12th century. Smaller in size than Angkor Wat, the king's main monument, Beng Mealea nonetheless ranks among the Khmer empire's larger temples: the gallery which forms the outer enclosure of the temple is 181 m by 152 m. It was the center of a town, surrounded by a moat 1025 m by 875 m large and 45 m wide.
Beng Mealea is oriented toward the east, but has entranceways from the other three cardinal directions. The basic layout is three enclosing galleries around a central sanctuary, collapsed at present. The enclosures are tied with "cruciform cloisters", like Angkor Wat. Structures known as libraries lie to the right and left of the avenue that leads in from the east. There is extensive carving of scenes from Hindu mythology, including the Churning of the Sea of Milk and Vishnu being borne by the bird god Garuda. Causeways have long balustrades formed by bodies of the seven-headed Naga serpent.
Beng Mealea is only 7 kilometers far from the angkorian sandstone quarries of Phnom Kulen, as the crow flies. Presumably sandstone blocks used for Angkor were transported along artificial water canals and passed from here. Despite of lack of information, the quality of architecture and decorations has drown the attention of French scholars just from its discovery. Beng Mealea was studied by the French archeologist D'apres Leon de Beylie (1849-1910).
Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Vietnamtourism. com, Vietnam National Administration of Tourism, CIA World Factbook, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, Fox News and various websites, books and other publications identified in the text.
© 2008 Jeffrey Hays
Last updated May 2014