WATS IN ANGKOR TO SEE?
Deep in the Cambodian jungle hides one of the world’s greatest archaeological sites: the sprawling city of ancient Angkor. Covering an area of more than 400 square kilometres, Angkor was the capital and beating heart of the great Khmer Empire from the 9th to the 15th centuries. During the empire’s greatest years a million people lived within its boundaries, and though not much remains of their wooden homes, the stone temples they worshipped in rise above the surrounding forest in testament to one of the greatest civilisations ever seen in South East Asia. Greatest amongst these stone wats (i.e. temples) is Angkor Wat – Cambodia’s much-loved icon and our first stop within Angkor.
We started our explorations of Angkor with a pre-dawn vigil outside Angkor Wat, which was glorious – especially as we got there super early (i.e. 4:30am), well before sunrise (which was at around 6:15am) and well before the other hordes of tourists* arrived with their selfie sticks, tripods, and accompanying raucous. It was wonderful sitting there in the pre-dawn twilight, listening as the jungle came alive. The bird calls began first, then monkeys start calling out to one another – it was just wonderful.
*The ruins of Angkor city are Cambodia’s #1 tourist site, with some 4 million tourists visiting every year. The archaeological park is large enough that you can still avoid the worst of the crowds if you go early, but the biggest attractions (i.e. Angkor Wat and Bayon temple) are almost always crowded it seems.
As the sky lightened more and more tourists started pouring down the main concourse the early morning serenity was lost in the general rabble, but the view we had of Angkor Wat’s spires was still spectacular. We sat transfixed as the sun inched its way up over the horizon, watching as the temple’s silhouette was gradually illuminated.
Once the sun was fully risen we entered the temple proper and spent the better part of our morning within its walls, marvelling at the architecture and detailed decorations and learning about the Khmer Empire from our guide as we went.
We learned that the Khmer God-Kings presided over an empire that stretched from modern-day Myanmar (Burma) to Vietnam. The empire flourished thanks to the system of canals, dams, and reservoirs they built; by harnessing the life-giving power of water the Khmer managed to irrigate the land and ensure bountiful rice harvests year round. Their engineering prowess is well exemplified by the city of Angkor, which boasts an incredible array of man-made waterways, the largest of which is a pool 8km long and 2.4km wide. Even Angkor Wat itself is surrounded by a large moat that encloses the 203 acres of temple grounds.
Angkor Wat is the largest religious monument in the world. It is just one of over a thousand stone* temples that lie within the city of Angkor, but it is by far the grandest and one of the best preserved. Part of the reason Angkor Wat is so well preserved is that, although it was somewhat neglected after the 16th century, it was never completely abandoned. Villagers sought shelter within its walls and kept this immense building mostly free from encroaching flora and fauna.
*Stone was reserved for the homes of the immortals (i.e. temples); common homes and even the royal palace were built of wood (and have long since been swallowed up by the encroaching jungle).
The Khmer Empire was heavily influenced by the Indian civilisation of old, and adopted many Ayurvedic cultural norms – including the Hindu religion. Angkor Wat, like many of the older temples, was originally constructed as a Hindu temple by the Khmer King Suryavarman II in the early 12th century. Suryavarman II dedicated the temple to Vishnu and designed it to be both a state temple and his mausoleum*.
*From the establishment of the Khmer Empire in 802 it became common practice for each successive God-King to build himself a rather grand temple/mausoleum, as well as one for his queen, mum, dad, brothers, sisters, etc. That’s why there are so very many temples in Angkor!
Toward the end of the 12th century the Khmer Empire adopted the Buddhist religion and Angkor Wat was transformed from a Hindu centre of worship to Buddhism, which it continues to be to the present day. The temple has become something of a pilgrimage site for Buddhists from all over the world, with over a million secular visitors come to Angkor Wat last year. Even this morning, as we explored the ancient temple, we saw a few Buddhist monks and novices there, all of them as entranced as we were by this incredible site.
For 250 years after its conversion into a Buddhist temple, Angkor Wat was home to hundreds of monks, and contained within its walls a vast library, as well as a school for the monks, a medical clinic, and numerous shrines.
The architectural design of Ankor Wat is imbued with symbolism and meaning: the largest central peak designed to represent Mt Meru, the mountain where the Hindu Gods are said to reside; the 4 surrounding peaks represent the (then) known continents of the world; and the surrounding moat the oceans. The outer galleries of the temples are inscribed with scenes from the Hindu epic Ramayana, and everywhere are beautiful friezes detailing parables central to the Hindu faith.
The temple is built of massive stones, each weighing hundreds of kilograms. These stones, all originally as smooth as polished marble, were laid without mortar with very tight joints. The blocks were held together by dovetail joints and gravity, and were believed to have been hoisted into place by a combination of elephants, ropes, pulleys, and bamboo scaffolding. According to inscriptions found within the temple library, the building took more than 30 years to construct and employed 300,000 workers and 6,000 elephants. And it’s not even 100% finished*!
*King Suryavarman II died prematurely battling the Viet people down in the Mekong Delta area (which was part of the Khmer Empire back then), and temple construction ended once he passed away because all the workers and their elephants had to start building the next king’s temple/mausoleum!
It’s hard to capture the magnitude and beauty of Angkor Wat in words and photos, but suffice to say it was quite amazing. For us Angkor Wat stands alongside sights like the Pyramids of Giza and the Great Wall of China as one of the greatest man-made things we have seen. No wonder it’s become the symbol of Cambodia, appearing on their national flag, on their currency (the Real), and on innumerable signs, postcards, T-shirts, and fridge magnets.
After our explorations around Angkor Wat we continued on to Banteay Srei, another of Angkor’s “old” temples (i.e. those built before the conversion to Buddhism and dedicated to Hindu Gods originally).
Banteay Srei was dedicated to the Hindu God Shiva and consecrated on 22 April 967. The temple’s name translates to “Temple of Beauty”, a moniker believed to reflect the temple’s intricate bas relief carvings and beautiful pinkish colouring.
Banteay Srei is one of the smallest temples at Angkor and was quite empty, which made a nice contrast to the size and busyness of Angkor Wat. The temple is square and has entrances at the East and West, with 3 heavily decorated tiered towers in the centre. Around each tower were detailed filigree carvings of various Hindu Gods and Goddesses, as well as carvings of women dancing with lotus flowers in their hands, and recreations of scenes from the Ramayana. Almost every inch of the interior buildings were covered in decoration!
Surrounding the temple was a small moat, now mostly dry, and a protective dry stone wall. Outside of the wall the forest loomed large – encroaching on the temple and seeking to reclaim it once again*.
*Most of the temples of Angkor remain encased in jungle vines; only about 40 of them have been reclaimed from the forest and restored. There are plans to reclaim more temples, but the caretakers here also have the ongoing task of keeping existing temples clear of the fast-growing and voracious vegetation. Quite a challenge no doubt!
Just outside the temple we came across a small troupe of monkeys harassing tourists for hand outs. Must be good pickings around Angkor for them, as some of the primates looked rather obese!
Further on too we stopped to listen to a group of musicians playing some traditional Cambodian tunes (for tips, of course). Many of them had disabilities caused by fighting during the years of the Cambodian civil war, but their musical skills were good, with their melodies reminding us somewhat of traditional Indian music.
By the time we’d finished exploring Banteay Srei it was the middle of the day and incredibly hot – too hot to keep walking through the jungle. So we hopped back in our (thankfully air conditioned) bus and drove back towards Siem Reap, where lunch and afternoon of relaxing by the pool awaited us. What an awesome way to begin our sightseeing around Angkor! It was well worth getting up at 3:45am to see the sun rise over Angkor Wat and we can’t wait to see a few more temples tomorrow!