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