The Amazing Temples of Angkor
Angkor Wat is revered as Cambodia’s pride and joy. This iconic, five-towered temple, designed to represent the heavenly home of Vishnu, the Hindu god and Protector of the universe, is considered the epicenter of Khmer civilization and is now recognized as the national symbol of Cambodia.
Despite Angkor Wat’s cultural significance and tourist appeal, it took Jeremy and I six weeks of living and working in Siem Reap before finally making our first visit to the famous temples (how embarrassing!). Committed to watching the sunrise over Angkor Wat, we woke at 4:45am on a Sunday and stumbled in to a hired tuk-tuk, coffeeless and half asleep. Astonished by the refreshing coolness of the dark morning, we picked up our friends, James and Nicole (visiting from Koh Tao), and followed the stream of flowing traffic to the temples.
The sky was just beginning to brighten as our tuk-tuk parked beside the moat surrounding Angkor Wat. With small, black coffees in hand, we crossed the bridge and passed through the walled entrance to Angkor Wat. The sun was still below the horizon, but hundreds of tourists had already gathered within the temple grounds, facing East with cameras posed. Not wanting to stand in the crowd, the four of us continued to make our way inside Angkor Wat. I didn’t quite understand why so many people were waiting on the western side of the temple to take their sunrise photographs when the backlight only encases the building in shadow. So we crossed through the temple to catch the warm, orange light of the rising sun illuminate the eastern side of the temple.
Several factors make Angkor Wat one of the most outstanding human creations of all times. First, this “City of Temples” was constructed almost one thousand years ago by the hardworking hands of over 300,000 people and the strength of roughly 5,000 elephants. Using sandstone that had been carried over 55km, the temples in Angkor Wat were cut and sculpted with impeccable detail. Every wall, pillar, and banister reveals a story from history through carved images of ancient myths, seductive Apsaras, and honored kings. It is even more amazing that this colossal temple has remained intact since the years of its creation. As the only temple to never have been abandoned by Khmers nor destroyed by the Khmer Rouge, Angkor Wat is an incredible testament to the endurance of Khmer culture. To this day, it is one of the largest religious Hindu sites in the world.
For most of the early morning, we were able to escape the crowds of tourists by exploring the areas around the eastern gate first. Once the sun had risen above the temple walls, we headed back into the temple to climb the central towers. Tip: Men and women are required to wear full covering clothing to visit certain areas of the temples. Scarves are not adequate, so wear bottoms that cover your knees and shirts that cover your shoulders. As nice as it is to be told, “you are too sexy,” you won’t be allowed to visit the most sacred sites without proper attire.
By 8:30am, the air was already thick and hot. Seeking refuge from the heat, we found “Spiderboy” (a little boy who had approached us on the bridge to ask that we come have breakfast at his family’s restaurant) and sat for a morning meal of fresh coconut juice and noodles. By the time we filled our stomachs and quenched our thirst, tourists were beginning to flow through the gates in bus loads. But it was perfect for us. We were on our way to the capital city of the ancient Khmer empire, the Great City – Angkor Thom.
Angkor Thom spans an area of nine squared kilometers, encompassing several monuments and ancient buildings. At the center of the city is Bayon. Bayon was one of the last temples constructed in Angkor, but its style is one of the most famous. From a distance, the multitude of towers appears to be merely a cluttered mess, but taking a closer look reveals two hundred smiling faces carved into the stone. Though it is uncertain whether the faces belong to the King or to the Buddhist god, Lokesvara (the “Lord who looks down”), their features are a sight to behold. Weaving through the maze of inner Bayon, we were constantly confronted by these giant, stone smiles. Unfortunately, Bayon was more crowded than Angkor Wat. Finding small passage ways leading to the lower levels, we spent some time enjoying the tranquility of Bayon’s beautifully hidden corridors.
It was midday and the sun was fierce, but we still had a lot to see. From Bayon we walked to the recently renovated temple of Baphuon. For having only been open to tourists for three years, the temple was an impressive three-tiered construction offering a spectacular view of the grounds from the top. Admiring the small doorways and archways, we looped around Baphoun before checking out the Terrace of Elephants on our way back to the tuk-tuk.
By the time we made it back to our tuk-tuk, we had drunk three liters of water and sweat out six. Words and pictures cannot convey the heat in this country, so go turn on your oven and hold your hand under the flame. That’s how hot it is here, except the heat is everywhere. At the beginning of the day, I was thinking I’d be able to stick it out until sunset, as dusk at the temples is said to be even more spectacular than dawn. But by early afternoon, I was easily dissuaded from that idea. Hot, sticky, exhausted we agreed to visit one last temple – Ta Prohm (aka “the one from Tomb Raider”).
Ta Prohm is another popular tourist attraction in Angkor, and for good reason. Left in most of its original condition, this crumbling temple offers a unique sense of serenity. Ta Prohm, neglected for centuries after the fall of the Khmer empire, is now encased in jungle. The enormous silk cotton trees growing out of the temples crevices create an enchanting atmosphere, putting nature’s striking beauty back into the spotlight. Renovations are underway, however, so much of the temple was closed off to visitors. There is much work to be done to freeze the jungle’s takeover and prevent further demolition. Despite the limited access and crowded walkways, Ta Prohm was definitely a favorite and a great conclusion to our day in Angkor.
Back in the tuk-tuk on our way home, we were mostly quiet. Too tired to say much, my mind drifted between the longing for air conditioning and food to questions about the incredible sites we’d just seen. I am still in awe at how people could have designed and constructed such massive structures in a time before machinery. The detail and perseverance of the people who created these wonders and the continued care and maintenance that keeps them alive is unbelievable to the point of inspiration. I can’t think of a better way to say it: the temples of Angkor are truly amazing.