[ Cambodia ~
An Afternoon at Angkor Wat
Angkor was the capital of the Khmer empire for about 500 years, peaking in the
12th and 13th centuries. During these busy years, hundreds of monuments,
temples, palaces, and administrative buildings were built in the vicinity of
what is now Siem Reap, Cambodia.
Today, the temples (some Buddhist, some Hindu) are all that remain because it
was believed that only gods were worthy of living within stone walls. The other
buildings, of lesser materials, are long gone. In their place grows a lush
jungle, which stops suddenly and strangely and becomes a barren plain, on which
Siem Reap, the nearest town, is situated.
In the dry season, Siem Reap has the feel of a town in the Wild West: hot air;
wide, dusty streets; low buildings; and lots of livestock. It claims to be a
charming colonial town, but the best I can say is that it provided all the
necessary services. We scheduled a car and driver for the day after we
arrived, and steeled ourselves for a hard day. Cambodia was hotter than
anywhere else we'd been, and we were planning to spend a whole day tramping
around in the sun.
The morning was spent exploring various temples. We begun at 7am with Bayon,
which is the best temple to be viewed in the morning light. (Quality of light
is very important here, because everyone wants good photos.) I liked Bayon
because it had many huge stone heads with serene, smiling faces. Bayon
turned out to be Steve's favorite temple of all, because of its winding
corridors and little nooks and crannies.
It was also our first glimpse of the
amazing carving abilities of the Khmer builders. Every temple we saw that day
was covered with small carvings of people and patterns and animals and all
sorts of things. The carving was ornate and detailed and delightful to
A carving of apsaras (dancing girls)
Even the rubble was interesting
After Bayon, we explored other temples and things in the area called
Angkor Thom. By 9:30am, it had gotten quite hot, and remained so for the rest
of the day. We learned to look for the shady paths, and to hone in on breezy
Gods guarding a bridge
A demon statue
Some tourists were monks
Before lunch, we drove to another area and explored a few other temples before
we came to my favorite (except for Angkor Wat itself): Ta Prohm. It was
exceptional because, unlike most other temples, no restoration work had been
done except for clearing some pathways. So it felt like we were the first
people to discover Ta Prohm in the middle of the jungle. Here, mighty trees had
grown around and on top of the stone walls of the temple, creating a beautiful
synthesis of human effort and nature's power.
Find Steve in this picture
Trees and bricks were intertwined
There was a lot of rubble
Our driver took us back to Siem Reap for a much-needed lunch and
air-conditioning break before we set out for the highlight of the day: Angkor
Wat. It is the biggest and most magnificent of the temples, and really it is in
a class of its own. It is impossible to compare it directly to the other
temples we visited. Instead, I'll describe as best I can the experience of
visiting Angkor Wat...
As we drove around Angkor Wat to the entrance, I could only see a wall and a
very large moat, which surrounds the whole temple. When I stood at the edge of
the moat, what I saw ahead of me, across the moat, was a huge gopura, or gate.
It is so big and imposing that it is on a par with some of the area's temples.
Barely peeking out from behind the gopura, I could see the some of the famous
shapes of the Angkor Wat towers. From here, they are small and hazy because
they are so far away, and seem insubstantial in comparison to the gopura.
We crossed the moat on a stone walkway and approached the gopura. As we entered
it, the walls came to life with carvings of apsaras, or dancing fairy-like
women. All told, Angkor Wat has over a thousand apsaras carved on its walls.
Some of the most beautiful apsaras (and the largest) are on the gopura, so
we forgot about the rest of the temple for a while and admired the carvings.
When we passed through to the other side of the gopura, we lifted our eyes and
again took in the familiar towers. Ahead of us stretched a walkway about
30 feet wide that looked like it went on forever. At the other end, the main
part of Angkor Wat stood in the distance, still far enough away to look hazy.
In fact, from here it looked like a two-dimensional picture.
Along the walkway, our attention was occasionally drawn to the carvings
adorning the sides or small buildings nearby. Each time we glanced back at the
temple, it had grown in size until finally we were standing below its
At this point, after the slow build-up, we were both eager to get to the top.
We climbed a typically small, precarious, and steep staircase to a courtyard
from where the five main towers rose. From here, the temple complex
looked smaller than before, and shorter. This is because we had already climbed
some of the height and each higher level was smaller in area than the one
below. The main towers were right in front of us - we headed for the stairs.
After another stair-climbing experience that was more like climbing a ladder,
we could see over the outer walls and enjoy a view of the lush jungle. We
walked around the outside of this level and enjoyed the views from all sides.
The five main towers of Angkor Wat are arranged in a quincunx (like spots on
dice), with four in a square and one more in the middle. We were most of the
way up the four outer towers, and walked around peering out windows and
probably ruining the photos of those still on the ground. This level was pretty
small - a square with maybe 50 feet on a side.
We were eager to climb into the highest tower in the center, and approached it.
At the base of the tower was a little chamber containing a Buddha statue and
some burning incense. We walked around to another side, only to find the same
thing. All four sides of the tower, as we discovered, presented only four
alcoves containing Buddhist statues and a few praying monks. No staircase was
to be found. In the end, the final secrets of Angkor Wat remained unknown.
There weren't very many people on the highest level, so we spent some time
relaxing there. It felt very intimate because of the small size. We admired
more of the carvings on the walls, and let our feet dangle out the
After we had relaxed for a while, we headed down all the stairs to the lower
level, where the galleries of bas-relief carvings were. These galleries lined
the outside of the main temple, and were mind-bogglingly long compared to the
upstairs halls. We dutifully walked around the entire circumference, taking in
the intricate carvings of scenes from Hindu epics and the lives of the Khmer
kings. After the small atmosphere of the upper levels, however, I was kind of
overwhelmed by the size and complexity of the carvings. They were truly works
of art: layers of depth and perspective were expressed despite everything being
carved into only a few inches of stone. One particularly interesting wall
depicted people being tortured in Hell. There was so much detail to each
scene that my eyes ached after a while of trying to take it all in.
A tiny part of the Hell carving
Finally, the time had come to move on, so we returned down the long walkway,
occasionally turning to look as Angkor Wat withdrew into the distance, wrapping
itself once again in a hazy shroud. Despite the hordes of tourists brought by
the late afternoon photo opportunities, I felt like it had all been between
just the temple and I. The windows of the towers seemed to wink at me,
reminding me that the mighty temple had allowed me to come within, and had
shown me some of its intimate secrets before returning to the mists.