After seeing the sunrise at Srah Srang and touring Ta Prohm to start our second day in Siem Reap, we — my friend, our guide, our driver, and I — had a Khmer breakfast of fish and fried rice in Srass Srong Village. Sated, we traveled about 20 miles north-northeast toward Koulen Mountain to visit Banteay Srei (point A on map below). We then returned to the Angkor area to tour Banteay Kdei (B), Preah Khan (C), and finally Bayon (D).
Banteay Srei means “Citadel of Beauty”, and this temple is renowned for the quality of the intricate bas-reliefs carved in red sandstone. Indeed, many reviewers refer to it as the jewel of Khmer art. Built on an east-west axis, the single-story structure was a pilgrimage site to the god Shiva. The temple has three rectangular enclosures with the innermost one containing a sanctuary, two libraries, and three towers that were reserved for the elite. Today, it is still partially surrounded by the remnants of a moat.
Yajnavaraha — a royal physician to the court, grandson of a king, and mentor to the future King Jayavarman V — funded the construction of Banteay Srei. Since only royals could build close to the capital, Banteay Srei is quite a distance away.
While the temple was rediscovered in 1914, it was only after the looting of several Devadas by André Malraux in 1923 that serious conservation efforts began. (As an aside, Malraux was ultimately arrested and the figures returned; the French funded much of the early restoration efforts; and De Gaulle appointed Malraux to be France’s first Minister of Culture in 1956.)
The main entrance to Banteay Kdei, or the “Citadel of Chambers”, is from the east, directly across from Srah Srang where we viewed the morning sunrise. Banteay Kdei was built as a Buddhist monastery in the late 12th century by King Jayavarman VII and it was occupied by monks as recently as the 1960s. One of the first Buddhist kings in the Khmer Empire, Jayavarman VII came to power at age 55 after defeating the Cham. During his 30 year reign, he took on the task of rebuilding the Khmer Empire. He establish Angkor Thom — the Great City — as his capital and created Bayon; he built Ta Prohm in honor of his mother and Preah Khan in honor of his father; and he erected many hospital and rest houses to alleviate the suffering of his subjects.
There are four entrances to the temple and each is guarded by Garudas. The main causeway through the temple has statues of lions at the front and is flanked by Naga balustrades. Banteay Kdei is largely unrestored with most of the work simply to reinforce the soft sandstone walls to prevent further collapse. The most notable feature in the complex is the Hall of Dancers located in the first courtyard along the main corridor when entering from the east.
Preah Khan, or “Sacred Sword”, was built in 1191 by King Jayavarman VII on a site northeast of Angkor Thom where his forces defeated the Cham. Preah Khan was not just a temple but also a Buddhist university and a city of over 100,000 people situated on about two square miles. It also functioned as the capital of the Khmer empire while Angkor Thom was being rebuilt from damage suffered in the war with the Cham.
Originally built as a Buddhist temple, the Buddha images were all defaced in the mid 13th century when the kingdom reverted to Hinduism. A large Buddha statue that was initially at the center of the temple was replaced by a stupa. Preah Khan is largely unrestored although the World Monuments Fund has done some work here. Like Ta Prohm, there are several strangler figs that have damaged and overrun much of the complex.
A moat (now dry) and a two-mile long laterite wall surround Preah Khan. Every 50 yards along the wall, there is a sculpture of a large Garuda holding a Naga. As at Banteay Kdei, Preah Khan also has a Hall of Dancers, named so because of the large number of Apsara bas-reliefs that line the walls.
We ended our second day at Bayon, the official state temple of King Jayavarman VII at the exact center of the Angkor Thom complex. Bayon was the last state temple built in Angkor and the only one built as a Buddhist temple. The architecture of Bayon differs dramatically from that of Angkor Wat with the most distinctive and awe-inspiring feature being the 216 enigmatic stone faces carved on all four sides of each of the 54 pyramidal towers.
Kop Khun Krab.
© 2013 Kurt Brown. All rights reserved.