We spent four days in Siem Reap last week to explore the vast number of temples around the ancient city of Angkor, capital of the former Khmer Empire. The archeological site of Angkor is quite remarkable, possibly – no, certainly – the greatest human-made monument I’ve ever seen. We had a really great if exhausting time exploring the jungle-scattered sites by bicycle, electric bike and tuc-tuc. In addition to the live elephant featured in the previous post, Angkor turned out to be a real treasure-trove for elephant imagery and statues, pushing me ever closer to that much-desired target of 80 elephants around the world. It took clambering over rocks in high humidity, peeping through jungle creepers and crumbled doorways, and many shatteringly early morning starts to find them, but here are three of my favourites…
Elephant No. 28: Terrace of Elephants
These particular elephants form part of the terrace of elephants within Angkor Thom (one of many temples complexes within Angkor). The terrace is 300m long and depicts hunting scenes with elephants in bas-relief; it was constructed in the reign of Jayavarman VII in the late 12th century. The terrace forms the foundations of a royal reception pavilion, which was also used by the king to review his returning victorious army. We got there just as the sun was starting to go down, so you can just glimpse the sun coming through the trees. If I were a Khmer monarch, I would certainly decorate my terraces with elephants such as these.
Elephant No. 29: Angkor Wat
This elephant comes from Angkor Wat itself, the jewel of the city of Angkor and surely one of the most-visited sites in the world. Go at dawn and you will be surrounded by literally thousands of visitors all trying to snap “that” perfect picture of the sun rising over the temple and lake. Linger a little (or a lot) longer and it’s a truly fascinating place to explore – we particularly liked the friezes running along colonnaded galleries round the temple. These depict a variety of subjects, including Hindu myths (we especially enjoyed their creation myth, the churning of the Sea of Milk), the serenity of heaven and the hair-raising tortures of hell (tongue-amputation anyone?) and one historical procession, featuring important generals atop elephants. Apparently the more parasols, the more important the general – this elephant-rider has no fewer than 15 parasols which in fact marks him as the king, King Suryavarman II. This is the king who first built Angkor Wat in the 12th century.
East Mebon is an earlier temple than the other two – it dates to the 10th century, and was built by King Rajendravarman, on what used to be an island in the middle of a reservoir. However, the reservoir has now dried up so you have to imagine the water where fields now lie. It’s a fun temple to visit, and not nearly as crowded as some of the others.
It also features eight lovely elephant statues, two at each of the four corners, on two tiers. They are guardian elephants and stand looking proudly out from the temple, to guard against any potential invaders.