The choice of Cambodia, as a destination for work, had a fair amount to do with my fascination with the ancient civilisation of the Khmer. Angkor Wat was the one place Kevin and I both had on our travel bucket lists so we decided to visit together. I found other places to explore in the fall and waited until he arrived in November that we began to make plans.
My research had led me to a company of professional guides and we booked a 5-day tour package. This blog is going to talk about one – half day. Now, if that statement doesn’t give you an idea of the prolific nature of this empire, I don’t know what will. We both felt it important to really learn, albeit in a short amount of time, about the history of this great civilisation.
As I have said before, my education in this area was woefully minimal and travel vlogs and Trip Advisor are superficial sources at best. Names were so unfamiliar and uncommon that reading about them was a challenge as I found it hard to remember the names one king to the next and who did what. Add to that my absolute ignorance of both Hinduism and Buddhism I knew I needed someone who could answer my inevitable questions. I would wonder about the symbolism of the decorations and art and Kevin’s questions about how everything was built.
My choice was well made and this meant that we could take our time, ask questions and discover the many facets of this impressive site. Our diver kept us well hydrated and cool with water, AC and cloths to wipe our faces with. Our guide even pointed out bugs and critters when we found them…but that is for another story.
Most people may not realise that that Angkor Wat, while easily the most spectacular monument in Cambodia, is only one of innumerable temples and sites of the Khmer civilisation. Siem Reap is the city from which we explored, as do most people, but temples and sites are found all over Cambodia and into Thailand, Vietnam and Laos.
My ignorance was like imagining that the Chichen Itza was the only site of the Maya or that the Great pyramid of Khufu is the only pyramid of the ancient Egyptians. I know it sounds obvious, but I admit I had not considered that there would be so many sites before arriving in Cambodia.
650 feet wide, 13 feet deep, perimeter of almost 3 miles
We arrived by van from another major site, Bayon, and walked towards the moat. Still full of water the causeway was Canadian made and made me smile. Monkeys greeted us on the other side, they hassled other tourists that had plastic bags or snacks out. We skirted around them and took photos from a distance. Standing on this side of the first gallery we still did not grasp the enormity of this, the greatest Angkorian temple. We passed through the first wall and enter to behold the central temple building unobstructed.
Once we had the ability to tear our eyes away from the main towers, we headed down one of the galleries that form the perimeter of the temple. Our guide was patient as he recounted the stories laid out before us on the gallery walls. As he spoke the bas reliefs came alive with characters from Hindu mythology. We learned about ancient enemies, battles and beasts. There were lessons about the afterlife and about common life. I have to say that it was almost too much. We visited only a single section of the five-kilometer gallery and my brain was already overloaded. The level of craftsmanship was tremendous, equal or better than what I’ve seen in Europe.
With my back to the main temple this is the causeway we just walked over. You can see the ponds on either side and the two libraries flanking the walkway.
The main gallery, we would walk through only a small portion of this gallery. The bas-reliefs were unbelievable. Detailed, rich and easy to read if you understood the symbolic references.
Our tour continued towards the centre tower. We walked on a causeway with side railing topped with Naga protectors. We passed two libraries and two ponds before entering the second level. Here there were even more bas-reliefs lots of apsaras and all kinds of decoration. Apsaras are carvings of girls dancing. There are over 1800 of these goddess carvings in Angkor Wat. Many with different clothing, jewellery and dress. I was mesmerised by the individuality of each one I passed and stunned by their myriad of diversity. Following the gallery around we entered the base of the third level.
Looking almost straight up we could see the top of the main tower. Steep and tall it was like looking to the Heavens, no doubt something the designers had intended. The five towers in the shape of a lotus are meant to represent Mount Meru, the centre of the Hindu universe. The day was hot, we had seen quite a lot (take that to mean walked and climbed a lot in the heat) and while I was feeling sluggish and apprehensive about climbing the stairs there was no way in Heaven (meant literally here) was I going to pass up going all the way up.
I climbed up last, not wanting to worry about holding up Kevin or Shokufeh and held the metal rail for dear life. Vertigo was my companion as I climbed to the top…but once there…WOW. I just know that my poor words and small photos can not do any justice to what we saw. Every where we turned out head another carving, decoration or gallery. So amazing and unbelievable to visit virtually alone. Our guide left us to enjoy this top level on our own so we were able to walk and wander following only our own curiosity and wonder at what was around the next corner. We peered out from the openings down on the jungle around the temple imagining how this space at one time would have been filled with the city buildings of over a million people.
I read somewhere that there more stone here at Angkor Wat than all the pyramids in Egypt and that the stone came from farther away. Knowing that the Khmer empire was vast and had a huge population compared to what Europe was like at the time made my imagination run away with me. The middle ages were coming to an end in Europe and this civilization was at its peak. The sounds of the jungle were easy to hear even from this great height. In my mind, I could hear the chaotic sound of city life below me. I could imagine elephants working, farmers minding rice crops and gardens, cooking fires smoking, artisans carving and people praying to Vishnu and their pantheon of Gods.
Kevin standing next to me as we looked out was special and I am so glad he was there with me. The photos will pale next to our memory so it especially meaningful to share in these moments with him.
Climbing down was as challenging as going up but it had to be done. Again, I went last, nose down I watched my feel carefully as I raced to get back to solid ground. We passed new galleries and visited the other side of the temple as we worked our way back out. Exhaustion making our exit faster than our entrance. We all kept looking back as we walked back towards the van. The enormity, the beauty almost impossible to describe was hard to turn away from.
The day had run its course and we were off to see sunset from another location so we headed back down and out. We would return a few days later for sunrise and I can promise you now that I intend to head back to look around some more before I leave Cambodia.