There’s no bet­ter way to take in Cam­bo­dia’s tem­ple than way up high on the back of an easy-go­ing ele­phant

The Advertiser - SA Weekend - - MOVIE REVIEWS -

OUR ELE­PHANT stoops his head to ac­cept a pineap­ple be­ing of­fered by a woman with one leg and two miss­ing teeth. The woman – no doubt a land­mine vic­tim – looks up at us and grins as she strokes the an­i­mal’s wrinkly trunk with af­fec­tion.

Ele­phant ap­petite tem­po­rar­ily sated, we con­tinue on the path around Bayon tem­ple (pic­tured above and right), bounc­ing side to side as we went.

Open-mouthed chil­dren step out of a car and stare up at us, macaques scurry along the grass be­side us and count­less tourists stop to take our photo.

We pass a mar­quee where a film crew is hard at work and tuk-tuk driv­ers stand in a cir­cle and play a brisk game of hacky sack as they wait for cus­tomers to fin­ish their sight­see­ing.

We nearly run over a man who is stand­ing on the road gaz­ing in awe at the tem­ple. “Beep! Beep!” I call out to warn him. He turns and is sur­prised at the size of the an­i­mal com­ing to­wards him and jumps out of the way quickly.

Turn­ing a cor­ner we come to a stop at a par­tic­u­larly pretty spot to ad­mire the crum­bling grey stone tem­ple build­ing sur­rounded by a mossy, leaf-topped moat.

We’d toured Bayon tem­ple the pre­vi­ous day, but it is great to re­turn atop an ele­phant and see it from another an­gle.

Built in the late 12th or early 13th cen­tury as the state tem­ple of Ma­hayana Bud­dhist King Jayavar­man VII, the World Her­itage­listed site is the most beau­ti­ful tem­ple in the an­cient city of Angkor Thom – one of three tem­ple com­plexes near Cam­bo­dia’s fastest­grow­ing city, Siem Reap.

The mon­u­ment was built of sand­stone, which was trans­ported from quar­ries up to 50km away on wooden carts and bam­boo rafts pulled by ele­phants.

Each of Bayon’s tow­ers was cre­ated with a sa­cred room for a Bud­dha statue – long since looted by trea­sure hunters.

The tem­ple was re­dis­cov­ered by French ex­plor­ers in the 19th cen­tury – over­grown and cov­ered in vines.

“I see this nearly ev­ery day but I’m still amazed at how they built it,” our guide says.

The next morn­ing, we are up be­fore dawn to see the most fa­mous, largest and best-pre­served of the three tem­ples – Angkor Wat.

Our plan is to see the tem­ple at the best time – and beat the crowds and heat.

Un­for­tu­nately, ev­ery­one else has the same idea, and tourists jos­tle for po­si­tion to get the highly sought sun­rise photo.

While most tem­ples were built fac­ing east for good luck, Angkor Wat was built as a fu­neral tem­ple and thus faces west.

It has five tow­ers ar­ranged in the shape of closed lo­tus flow­ers and three lev­els rep­re­sent­ing heaven, Earth and the un­der­world.

Four pools at the en­trance rep­re­sent the el­e­ments – fire, wa­ter, earth and wind – which were used to pu­rify vis­i­tors be­fore con­tin­u­ing to the most sa­cred tower and to col­lect wa­ter dur­ing the rainy sea­son.

Angkor Wat took 37 years to build, be­tween 1113 and 1150, and was orig­i­nally a Hindu tem­ple, only con­vert­ing to a Bud­dhist tem­ple in the 16th cen­tury.

There are more than 1000 images around the tem­ple of deities and Ap­sara (ce­les­tial nymph) dancers. The sculp­tors who carved them couldn’t make a mis­take be­cause the stones were al­ready in place. Each tem­ple has its own per­son­al­ity. While the jun­gle veg­e­ta­tion was re­moved from the other tem­ples, the fin­gers of tree roots still stretch down over the ru­ins of Ta Phrom, pulling the stone to the ground in many places.

It is not hard to see why it was cho­sen as the lo­ca­tion for the 2003 film Tomb Raider, star­ring An­gelina Jolie.

Jolie be­came so at­tached to Cam­bo­dia dur­ing her time there she adopted her first son Mad­dox from an or­phan­age there.

We are also priv­i­leged to visit an or­phan­age just down the road from Ta Phrom – the Or­phans and Dis­abled Arts As­so­ci­a­tion – which is sup­ported by our tour company APT.

Home to 32 chil­dren, some who are HIV pos­i­tive, the or­gan­i­sa­tion was founded by artist Leng On, who wanted to help chil­dren learn to draw and paint.

On and his fa­ther were sep­a­rated from his mother and sis­ter when he was six

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