-Antonio de Madalena, 1586 – one of the first Westerners to visit Angkor Wat.
Today Angkor Wat is Southeast Asia’s number one tourist attraction. I was quite excited to see what all of the fuss was about, but I also wondered if it was truly as fascinating as everyone said it was. The Angkor Wat ruins would be our last destination before heading back to Thailand to begin the shipping process to India. I hoped we’d be leaving our Southeast Asia leg of the trip with a bang.
We arrived midday in Siem Reap and quickly decided we weren’t quite ready to explore the ruins. Instead we took advantage of Siem Reap’s tourist infrastructure and the air conditioning at a Swensen’s ice cream chain while endless sheets of rain finally extinguished the intense heat of the day. I left Brad behind and transitioned to the town’s covered market. There was an authentic section of the market devoted to fruits and vegetables, meat, and household goods and then there was the tourist market: a puzzle of aisles devoted to replicas of Angkor Wat, Buddha statues, wooden elephants, silk scarves, and the all purpose plaid Cambodian cloth used by all of the local people.
A half an hour in the market was enough. If I even so much turned my head in the direction of a stand an explosion of frenzy would occur.
“Lady! Lady! What you want? You want scarf? Real silk! Oh so nice! What you want? How much you pay me? I give you good price! Good price for you! Lady! Lady! Laadddy!”
After purchasing an unlikely souvenir of black sticky rice and tomatoes we left Siem Reap and sought out a camping location for the night. Just before nightfall we were granted permission from a local tourist official to camp in the parking lot of a rarely visited ruin. As I began to cook Brad set up camp, snapping our front curtain in place and laying out our new hand woven bamboo mat. This was going to be one of those perfect nights: a grassy parking lot and a quiet street. Midway through dinner preparations the tourist official returned and peered in at us from outside.
“I am horribly sorry but I was misinformed and now you cannot stay at these ruins. They are not safe. Please, you must leave in 10 minutes.”
We pleaded with him, telling him that we’d accept the risk but he was firm. We had to go, and fast! We continued cooking and contemplating where we would go next. Seeking out a camping spot at night was our least favorite task. Twenty minutes later he returned and looked worried that we were still there. “Please, if you follow me I will show you a safe place.”
Our procrastination paid off. While Brad followed him down the winding road, I held our half-cooked meal over the stove. He stopped a few minutes later in front of a Buddhist temple.
Brad walked inside and came back out a few minutes later with the thumbs up. In an instant the entire community of orange-robed monks filled our sliding door. We talked with them for a long time and the conversation went all over the place.
A few of the younger boys in the group were dressed in normal clothes and the senior monk in the group mentioned that the temple also took in orphaned kids. We played a game of guessing ages and they unanimously agreed that their favorite actor was Jet Li. They told us a bit about daily life too. “Every day we wake up at 4 and we pray. Then we collect food from the village people and make our only meal for the day. We don’t eat after 11 but we can have soda or juice. After that we study again and in the evening we pray.”
We went to sleep to the beautiful melody of monks chanting.
We woke up to the mesmerizing sound of monks chanting. After breakfast the senior monk greeted us and apologized for having chanted so late into the night, and expressed his sympathies for having chanted so early in the morning.
He was surprised when we told him we loved it–an experience so surreal we’ll question later in life whether it was dream or reality.
We dedicated the day to Angkor Thom, the last capital city of the Khmer Empire and the second most popular set of ruins in the area. It was built in the late twelfth century under King Jayavarman’s rule and remained the capital until the Khmer kingdom’s demise in 1609.
To enter the ancient capital we crossed through a massive city wall by way of an incredible 36 foot tall gate decorated with a face looking down at us. We could hardly believe that we were able to drive straight into the ruins, passing through the same gate that once provided thoroughfare for war horses, men returning home from battle, and the King. We followed a perfectly straight road to the center of the grounds where the capital’s iconic temple, the Bayon, was built.
A set of walls decorated in extraordinary bas-relief scenes of battles, Cambodian daily life and legends encircled the center of the temple. Beyond the walls, corridors led to steep stairs, windows framed rooms like picture frames, and endless seductive goddesses adorned every surface. We climbed up a steep flight of stairs to the temple’s second level and stared out to a spectacular view of the surrounding forest and ruins. Carved faces completely surrounded us–106 of them in total, each of the 54 towers bearing four faces. The towers represented the King’s 54 provinces, while the faces, bearing an uncanny resemblance to the king himself, symbolized the King’s watchful eyes over all his people.
Angkor Thom far surpassed our expectations and I was at a loss as to why I hadn’t heard of it before. All I could think was that Angkor Wat must have been something spectacular to have overshadowed these ruins.
It was Angkor Wat day: icing on the cake to an already spectacular few days. As the world’s largest religious monument it’s known for its immaculately preserved state, its beauty and the story behind its existence.
While many temples are built to honor the ruling king of the time, Angkor Wat was built to honor the god Vishnu. Its purpose was to provide a funeral location for King Suryavarman and it was built facing West, representing death in Hindu cosmology. Furthermore the temple’s foundation was built to symbolize the mythic Mount Meru with its five inter-nested walls representing a chain of mountains and its moat representing the cosmic ocean.
Angor Wat also played a larger role alongside the other major temples in the Khmer Empire. Each was purposefully arranged in a specific location to mirror the stars of the constellation of Draco at the time of 10,500 BC. This arrangement was meant to create harmony between the heavens and the earth and the stars.
To enter into Angkor Wat we passed over an incredible 600 foot wide moat by stone bridge, sturdy but damaged with upturned stones littering the ground and its center peeled upward. The bridge continued well past the moat and chauffeured us through the first set of walls. The walls and the buildings and everything around us were made of sandstone carried from a quarry 25 miles away, all 5 million TONS of it. It’s a wonder how this was accomplished but with 600 elephants and 300,000 workers I suppose anything is possible.
Like Angkor Thom we passed through several galleries decorated in incredible bas-reliefs. The panels stretched for 2,400 feet and like ancient comic books told stories of epic events in a counter clockwise direction—another symbol of death. A quick observation identified where the bas reliefs had been touched countless times; an elephant’s head or the breast’s of a woman, polished black and shiny like marble.
Farther into the temple the epic bas-reliefs ended and the theme changed. On seemingly every wall and pillar, seductive asparas, or goddesses decorated the surfaces. There were also ancient Buddha statues, painted rooftops and pillars, script and unfinished work, but the goddesses were easily my favorite. The unfinished works also surprised me and I learned Angkor Wat was never entirely completed.
For lunch we set up picnic at nearby Angkor Thom. Monkeys joined us and then retreated back to the trees, and eventually we left too.
The last ruin we saw was Ta Prohm. It is the only temple in the Angkor ruins where the jungle trees had essentially been left as they were found. I felt like we had walked into a lost world like Angelina Jolie in Tomb Raider (this was a filming location.) The place had incredible atmosphere and the tree’s parasitic root systems tangled their bodies around the many corridors and walls, blocking alleys and crippling the temple’s structure.
We left Ta Prohm feeling complete. We could have easily spent a week exploring the vast area and still had not seen all of the temples. The Angkor ruins WERE as spectacular as everyone said. They were easily the most splendid of religious buildings we had seen in all of Southeast Asia AND in the Americas. And to think, this was only what remained.
I must say, this is one of those places you just have to see sometime in your lifetime.