A murder of crows can be seen flying over the trees in the distance. Unseen hounds howling echoes in the empty halls of Bayon temple at 6:30 in the morning. Lai and I were the first ones there as everyone else preferred to wait for sunrise at Angkor Wat. Here at Bayon however, it was only us left to face the gigantic, smiling faces looking over us from the upper terrace of the temple. For a moment, the eerie morning made several hairs on the back of my neck stand still. Mga 37 na hair follicles. Binilang ko eh.
Our tuktuk driver picked us up at 5:00 AM for the sunrise. The skies have been pouring angrily since 4:00 AM so we knew than there won’t be any sun to catch and it would be impractical to spend the morning with hundreds of tourists as they wait for it at Angkor Wat. So being the smart travelers we’d like to believe we were, we opted to go straight to Angkor Thom instead. We waited for daybreak by the South Gate where several stone statues lined up on a causeway facing against the 23 meter tower gate. On our left, gods. To our right, monsters. At least, that’s what our guide told us.
At the very center of the great city of Angkor Thom stands Bayon, known for the towers where faces of King Jayavarman VII is carved on each side as if watching our every move. We proceeded each step carefully because, aside from a photographer and his guide roaming around, it didn’t feel like we were alone. Most of my friends who have gone around Siem Reap told me about their preference of Bayon over the other temples in Cambodia. It was built a hundred years after Angkor Wat but the crumbling walls of the former makes it seem like it’s the much older brother of the Khmer temple family.
The central tower is enclosed inside two galleries with walls and stone pillars featuring bas-reliefs depicting historical Hindu events. These Khmer people were a bunch of talented and hardworking fucks for having the time and effort to carve that much detail into their architecture. I can’t even create a decent mould of play-dough for crying out loud! It makes one wonder about the level of technology that ancient civilization had to produce such decor. Eh di wow.
By the time we reached the upper terrace where the stone faces greeted us with their warm smiles, the sky was still devoid of any color from the morning rain shower. I disliked the indifference of the heavens. For some reason, I could not feel any connection with Bayon no matter how many of these faces made me feel welcome. The weather wasn’t helping either. I could appreciate the cooler temperature, but seeing nothing but the varying shades of gray against the colorless sky was uninspiring. Mother Nature dashed the ruins with hints of green but that didn’t seem enough. Taas ng standards ko eh.
It wasn’t long before it started raining again so we seeked shelter among a stretch of overpriced eateries conveniently located several hundred steps away from Bayon. We sat at a table between two Filipino women and a European couple. The English man sitting next to me was very attractive. Like gay porn material. Enough to make me think of naughty things I wanted to do to him as I ignored the plate of bread and scrambled eggs the waitress placed on my table. Shortly after breakfast, we all waited for the weather to stabilize but it was us to leave the table first. The rest of the tourist population was still probably on their way to Angkor Thom so we wanted the opportunity to get to our next stop before it gets too crowded.
We visited a couple more temples before heading to Prasat Ta Prohm. There, buses of Chinese tourists were beginning to build up so we hurried to the entrance gate in order to have a bit of quality time inside. Unfortunately, some of these talkative bunch were already spreading their noise pollution as they made their way through the jungle dirt path. Beads of sweat started forming on my already damp forehead and my frustration over the crowd was not helping. But as soon as I entered the complex, the folds on my forehead flattened out.
The same king who had built the Bayon was responsible for Ta Prohm’s construction. Back then it was named Rajavihara and was meant to be a Mahayana Buddhist monastery and university. Imagine how pleasant it would have been if your college looked like this. I sure won’t mind going to class everyday! Now it’s one of the major draws of tourist attractions in Siem Reap thanks to a certain Lara Croft and for being part of the UNESCO World Heritage List since 1992. And it’s no wonder people flock to this site. Ta Prohm has it’s own unique character which you won’t see in any other temple within the Angkor complex.
Much like Beng Mealea, this temple have lost a thousand year battle with nature as enormous trees and their roots have taken over most of the moss-covered walls. I couldn’t help but remember Chihiro as she entered the abandoned theme park in the middle of a forest leading her to the spiritual world that Miyazaki created for his movie, Spirited Away. I felt like I was under the same story as the young heroine. Then I see all the ugly wooden platforms and railings built around the temple grounds and I am instantly transported back to reality. But as much as I hated the installations, it’s the only way to manage and protect the monument from the daily damages caused by tourism.
Like living giants, each of the silk-cotton trees emerged from the rubble in search of light, while their tentacle-like roots creep on stone. The bas-reliefs told of stories I could not decipher. As I follow the constructed path, it felt like as if I was reliving the adventures of fantasy heroes from the role-playing games I used to play day to night during summer vacation when I was 14 years young. In my head, I would imagine unlocking hidden staircases leading to an underground dungeon. This is a place where many boss fights took place, I thought.
Among the temples included in the small circuit, I felt the most connection with Ta Prohm and its gradual surrender to the jungle giants that have conquered it. Maybe I’ll get to see Bayon again on a better day. Perhaps then, Jayavarman’s signature smirk would feel warmer with bluer skies in the background. No matter how much Bayon smiled at me, it was nature’s persistence in Ta Prohm that won me over. See, unless you’re a charming cutie, hindi ako nakukuha sa basta ngiti. Minsan kailangan sapilitan. Chos.