[ Cambodia ~ 1 ]


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 look at.

    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 spots.

    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 immensity.

    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 windows.

    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.


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