Chapter 9: Monday: Angkor Thom

Multi headed Buddhas


As always we started our day at the civilized time of 9AM, just after breakfast. We began with a short car ride to Angkor Thom.

Sopheap: “Angkor Thom is sometimes called Bayon. Historians think that this temple complex was one of the last to be built.”

Me: “I can’t imagine anything that could match the splendor of Angkor Wat, that we saw yesterday.”

Sopheap: “Angkor Thom is different than Angkor Wat. While Angkor Wat is noted for its structure, Angkor Thom is noted for its size.”

Me: “But Angkor Wat is huge!”

Sopheap: “Angkor Thom makes the temple complex of Angkor Wat look small.”

To get to Angkor Thom, we had to drive past the dense forest of tall trees that shielded Angkor Wat from curious eyes. As we approached the outer gate of the complex Sopheap stopped the car and let us out.

Sopheap: “We’ll walk from here.”

From our perspective the outer gate seemed to be a crumbling mass of stone with a V shaped portal in the middle. However on each side of the wide pathway, (perhaps 15 to 20 feet wide) there were countless life sized sculptures in stone of humans, which seemed to be pulling a huge rope. Upon closer examination it seemed that each one was unique.

Miranda: “The figures on the right seem uglier than those on the left.”

Me: “Maybe just an optical illusion.”

Sopheap: “No, she’s correct. The sculptures on the right are meant to represent the demons while the ones on the left are meant to be the gods. That’s why they are better looking. They are pulling against each other - the good and the evil. Their tug of war churned up the sea of milk. This is the way the world was created according to Hindu mythology.”

Me: “So these figures represent the creation myth?”

Sopheap: “Exactly. The King was conveying that his city participated in the creation of the Universe.”

Me: “Or perhaps the recreation.”

Sopheap: “Actually the world is constantly coming into existence. So this representation shows that the Khmer kingdom is part of the churning of the milk by the gods and demons which creates the world anew. In contrast to your Greek statuary the symbolism is meant to be current. Not representing some past event. This is the big difference between the Khmer and most other cultures. Our mythology is alive today not in the past.”

As we strolled down the walkway the gateway became increasingly enormous. Seen from a distance it appeared quite small, but now that we approached the entrance to the complex we began to realize how big it was.

Serena: “Look at that huge head on top of the gate!”

Me: “Whadayamean?”

Laurie: “Right on top of the wall. A gigantic Buddha head. Open your eyes.”

Miranda: “There’s another one on the side.”

Sopheap: “There are actually four Buddha heads facing each of the four cardinal directions.”

We were blown away to see these huge Buddha faces staring at us from the top of the portal. As we walked around the wall we saw all four faces - all looking impassively out at the world. They seemed to guard the entrance as well as watching to see what was happening. No matter where you were there was a face watching you.

The gigantic head was a six foot cube that sat on top of the wall, which was already over twenty feet tall. Then a ten foot high spire projected from the top of the head. Quite an imposing and awe inspiring structure. Anyone visiting this ancient kingdom would certainly have been impressed by the size and symbolism of this entrance - no matter what culture they came from.

After pausing for about a half an hour to inspect the crumbling stone wall of the outer gate, we proceeded on to the main temple. While Angkor Wat was enormous, Angkor Thom was even more immense - in all ways. It would have been very difficult to survey the whole complex without a car.

The main temple was topped with more of these 4 sided heads. Because it was in greater disrepair than Angkor Wat, the gigantic heads seemed to almost emerge from the stone, rather than being sculpted into it. It was like looking at a picture with objects embedded in it rather than being plainly displayed.

While the statuary of Angkor Wat consisted mainly of scenes from Hindu mythology and great battles, Bayon, as the main temple was called, had many scenes from the village life of the Khmer world. There were cock fights, gambling, builders, festivals - all represented there, as well as victorious elephant battles against the Cham culture of Vietnam.

Looking up at the myriad 4 sided heads it was next to impossible to detect any order to the arrangement. While Angkor Wat was laid out in an incredibly orderly fashion, the Bayon was almost chaotic. It was like being in an unusual geologic formation. It reminded me of the glacial landscape of the High Sierras, where sharp ridges obscure the next level and blend in with the multi-leveled terrain that was in the background. There was a bewildering array of levels with these huge 4 faced heads staring at you, watching from every corner.

To enhance the moment Sopheap had provided me with the magic Herb.

Back at the hotel before we left.

Sopheap: “I have some of the Herb that Californians seem to like. Do you want some?”

Me: “Of course. But isn’t it illegal?”

Sopheap: “No one cares. I suggest you smoke some at the temple. It’s the best way to appreciate what it has to offer.”

Me: “Merge with my environment to commune with the spirits of the Khmer.”

Sopheap: “That’s the idea.”

So here I am at Bayon lighting up a big one and joining energies with the spirits of the past who are with me now. Eternity is forever. In a similar fashion the Reader is transported to Angkor when he comprehends these words.

Experience the bewildering array of sights and sensations - the hot sultry day in the jungle - with the brown faced Cambodian children selling souvenirs, from post cars to native instruments and T-Shirts. The wispy clouds in the sky framing these ancient towers as they have for centuries. These gargantuan heads look down upon us wherever we go - as they have forever.

Sopheap: “No one knows for sure what the heads represent. Some say it is Buddha - Others Shiva or perhaps Vishnu. Many think it is the king himself. The face certainly has the racial characteristics of a Khmer. I think it is a combination of all. The Khmers initially worshipped Shiva, then Vishnu, and in their final phase, when this complex was built, had begun converting to Buddhism. I think the king constructed the temple to identify himself with all of these gods. This established him as a god king like Rama. It also connected him with the Khmer tradition. Remember that for the Khmer the spirits of the dead are still with us. So the king was affirming his connection with the royal spirit world as well as identifying himself as a god. The past, present and futures are one in the Khmer world. Just as we are experiencing all worlds as we speak. The Herb should help you to connect up these worlds in Right NOW.”

Overwhelmed I bowed my head and prayed - expressing my gratitude to the Universe for leading me here to Cambodia, as well as here to write this narrative. Tingling all over my body as I let the spirits of the Khmer enter in.

On the walls were pictures of the long haired Yogis as well as bald Buddhists both in identical postures of meditation.

Sopheap: “Our king was supposed to be an ascetic, practicing austerities like the Yogis. Purifying himself, he purified the nation."

Me: “They must have thought their world would last forever.”

Sopheap: “It has. Can’t you sense it.’”

More tingling. I was in the Presence.

Involuntary tears of release welled up expressing thanks for whoever arranged this grand Experience.

Climbing to the top layer of Bayon, we looked down on a vast courtyard which spread out below us.

Sopheap: “A whole city lived here - dancers, sculptors, architects, cooks, artisans, kings, priests, soldiers and all the rest necessary to continue the building. The king, as had the kings before him engaged the complete Khmer population in this spiritual project. Entire generations were engaged for their whole lifetimes. Remember that serving the king and the Khmer culture was identical to serving the gods. The king was great because he engaged the entire nation in this spiritual pursuit - proving to everyone that he really was a Buddhist Bodhisattva.”

The fact that I was moved by the experience, when in the temple and when writing about it shows that the influence of this divine king continues throughout time. Hopefully the Reader is able to enter the same state.


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