The area around Angkor Wat is a collection of Hindu and Buddhist temples built from 900 to 1200 AD. It is labeled the eighth wonder of the world and is the largest religious building in the world.
Entering Angkor Wat for the first time puts you through a time warp. The amount of building, the detail of the building and the original structural forms makes it hard to believe it was all conceptualized and built so long ago (1113-1150). It creates a sentiment that today, we are lazy and unoriginal. Would we bother to carve out blocks of sandstone and move it 50 km by river or elephant simply because we liked that stone best?
Entering Angkor Wat, meaning Big Temple, you walk along a bridge with a large seven-headed serpent on each side, offering as a symbol of protection. Inside the main gallery you see monkeys having a party, gods riding in on various animals (ostrich, demon, chicken, horse), and the famous Churning the Sea of Milk where demons and gods pull opposite side of the serpent, combining heaven and hell to reach immortality.
There are three main towers for the three Hindu gods: Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva. The whole temple is in honor of Vishnu. You can climb to the top of the main tower to marvel at the size of the temple grounds, with two libraries and a large moat. Even the fifth floor is decorated with dancers and Hindu images, and more recently added Buddhist shrines where incense is always burning. It is an astonishing structure. There is too much to see, to much to marvel at. I could go back several more times, I think, without being bored. It is inevitable that I missed details that would interest me.
In an area of now empty pools, I sat with a monk, out of traditional clothing, who read my fortune and blessed me, tying a red string around my wrist. Its funny, I’m not sure if it’s due to the three strings of blessings I have collected or if it’s just the phase of life I’m in right now, but I have been feeling extra blessed of late. 🙂
Moving on, we went to Angkor Thom means Big City. Larger in terms of land than Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom was built by the subsequent king, Jayavarman VII (1181-1219). At its height, Angkor Thom was home to a million people. Surrounded by 4 20m high gates, visitors walk across a road flanked with demons and gods, acting out, again, the story of Churning the Sea of Milk. Within Angkor Thom are the Elephant Terrace, where we watched the marching of monks and nuns for alms, Bayon temple and Ta Prohm.
Bayon temple was one of my favorites. The temple has 52 towers, each with four large faces of Buddha, or as some protest, the face of the king. The symmetry and repeated imagery creates a feeling of disorientation, a maze of Buddhist images and shrines. The faces stare down at you wherever you walk, a literal representation of Buddha, and the king’s, omnipresence.
Ta Prohm is actually right outside Angkor Thom, and is mostly famous today for the trees that grow on and around the temple. To be honest, it wasn’t the most impressive for me, and our guide lamented the rehab that had taken place. Before it was cleaned, he said, it felt far more magical, seeing the crumbled walls and the vine covered facade. Today, most tourists snap photos of the large, and admittedly quite impressive trees, and pose in the doorway where Angelina Jolie stood during Tomb Raider.
We covered all of these sites on our first day, and needless to say, we were exhausted. The second day we moved further out to see the temples Banteay Srei and Beng Mealea.
Banteay Srei may have been my all time favorite, aside from Angkor Wat. Banteay Srei was built long before Angkor Wat, beginning construction in 967 AD. It is the only temple to have been commissioned by a Brahman (during the reign of Jayavarman V), not a king. In fact, it is the second attempt by the Brahman. His original temple was much larger, but half way through the construction, the largest center tower was hit by lightening. Taking it as a sign that the gods were not pleased, they started over, this time creating Banteay Srei and concentrating on carvings instead of size. The result is an absolute artistic wonder.
Carved from red sandstone, the temples radiate pinks and greens when the light hits the facade. The carvings are so perfectly preserved it is very hard to accept that they were built during the 10th century. Hindu imagery of the gods, dancers, elephants and lions decorate the three main temples, again in honor of Vishnu, Brahma and Shiva. (Side note: because these temples were all constructed over a period of three centuries, the religions of the Khmer fluctuated between Buddhism and Hinduism. As a result, several of the Buddhist images have been removed from the temples by the Hindu, who considered Buddhism sacrilegious, and instead there are empty spaces in the shape of meditating Buddhas all around. The only common image within the two religions is the image of the dancer, which has stayed in tact throughout the temples.) They call Banteay Srei the Women’s Temple, because the largest tower is in honor of Shiva, the female god. Sort of fitting that it is also pink!
Lastly, we saw Beng Mealea, a model of Angkor Wat. With the same floor plan, just 5 times smaller, Beng Mealea has not withstood the test of time. Most of the temple, I believe 60%, has crumbled, with huge blocks of stone creating the ultimate rock climbing arena. It would be the perfect set to an Indiana Jones movie, as my Lonely Planet points out. Our guide Marty took us on an adventure tour of the temple, guiding us through the ruins, testing our balance and fear of heights. At one point I looked at our trail, a 2 foot wide block about two stories above the temple floor, and looked at him saying, “you’ve got to be kidding.” Ultimately it was worth it, to see the still standing galleries and sturdy window frames, to see the holes and locks within the blocks of sandstone and to see the gorgeous nature that has grown in the temple.
All in all, our visit to Angkor Wat was truly magical. I am so glad I was able to see the temples and admittedly, glad to have had a parent with me to fund a guided tour. Most backpackers do not see Beng Mealea and Bonteay Srei because they’re further out of town, meaning it is a higher cost visit. Also, it was great to have someone with us to go over the history and point out some artistic and architectural details that I would have been ignorant to.
It was an amazing trip and a part of Cambodia I was thrilled to see.