The tag-line, introduced to us first at the airport coming into Cambodia, became the theme for this day when our study abroad group ventured out to visit the glory and wonder of Angkor Wat (which means ‘city temple’). After decades of war and strife, Cambodia’s temples are amazingly well-preserved and are among the world’s premier architectural sites. Angkor Wat is considered the symbol of Cambodia, appearing on its national flag, and is visually, artistically & architecturally breathtaking.
Angkor was the capital of the Khmer Empire, built by King Suryavarman II at the beginning of the 12th century and abandoned in 1431 following the conquest of the Khmer kingdom. The large temple complex was dedicated solely to the Hindu god Vishnu, and throughout the grounds are recordings of Hindu mythology which were used to educate the people on history and religious beliefs, most of which is still believed to this day. Our guide mentioned that his people are very superstitious, so we were likely to see monks, the devout and the penitent providing offerings, burning incense and praying for good health and karma. There are also several statutes missing heads, an indicator of the conquer by the Thais, who held differing religious beliefs. The country is now over 95% Buddhist and considers this temple a sacred place.
Read more about its history on the United Nations World Heritage Centre’s website
The visual impact of Angkor Wat is just awesome. Passing through from the eastern entrance and getting the first glimpse of its sheer size against the sky and backdrop of tropical trees filled me with awe. This place is so fantastic, and I had yet to discover its depth and complexity!
It’s one of those places I’ve seen only in fantasies of trekking the world by Indiana Jones’ side. The more we walked through, the more interested I became in the history of this place. I found this great e-book that gives a general overview of the history and lay-out, as well as suggested itineraries for those of you now putting this on your “bucket list”.
Everywhere you turn in this temple complex, there is something wonderful and historic to see. There are a total of 5 towers which rise 3 levels, each having its own purpose and meaning. The first floor: Education; The second floor: Meditation & Prayer; The third floor: Living quarters of the King.
The bas-relief gallery along the first floor was definitely the most interesting, in fact when I first saw it, I was astounded. Pictures I saw prior to the trip didn’t really do it justice because from pictures you can’t tell that these intricately detailed (and OLD) carvings are not in one area of the temple, they are on all four sides of the outer walls from one end to the other, top to bottom.
Knowing that these reliefs were carved in the 12th century, it is remarkable that they remain so well-preserved. The walls have weathered the monsoons of the wet seasons and numerous battles fought over the span of the centuries.
Each wall depicts a different story in elaborate detail. The north wall on the first floor (shown on the top of the map) depict the general mythology believed by the Khmers. Along the western wall are scenes from the Hindu epic, the Mahabharata. Here, as seen in the picture below, some parts of the relief are shinier than others, the result of oil transferred to the stone from decades of tourists rubbing them.
The southern wall explains the history of the Khmer people and provides a brief history on how the people in this kingdom originated. Since the temple was built by King Suryavarman II, the carvings are dedicated to him on one half of the southern wall. The other half is incredibly interesting, explaining the afterlife for the Khmers. Below we see two levels, heaven along the top where people live the rest of eternity in lavish palaces with lovely Apsara ladies dancing all around, and hell, where people are punished and tortured.
Bunthin explained, “We believe there is a judgement God, Yama, the God of the dead who punishes and tortures sinners. Here the walls show sinners led like cattle through hell and roasted like BBQ.” Along the wall the carvings show that there are a total of 32 hells and 37 heavens.
Turning the corner from the Heaven and Hell Gallery to the eastern wall is my personal favorite, the Churning of the Sea of Milk. Here we see in incredibly consistent and recurring detail (the people who carved this couldn’t have made a mistake!) 92 gods and 88 demons fighting for the elixir of immortality. In this battle between good and evil depicted through a tug of war over a snake, we see the gods holding the tail, the demons holding the head, while the snake coils itself around Mt. Mandala. Each time the gods and demons pull from their sides, the mountain turns and the ocean churns.
As Bunthin explains in the video below, Vishnu advised the Gods that they had to churn the ocean of milk in order to save all of creation.
I saw this scene in many places in Cambodia, at our hotel, and the next day at the Bayon temple.
Also worthy of note are the sensual Apsara ladies carved all throughout Angkor. “They are pretty ladies to look at and make us smile,” Bunthin said to us. These dancing nymphs are considered the beautifully elegant symbol of Siem Reap and can be found everywhere, even in large statue form at the roundabout on route 6.
Prior to this trip, I had in my mind the items I wanted to purchase, one of them a small replica of the west view of the temple (below). After learning that these Apsaras were so important, and appear at all the temples in this region, I changed my mind and bought one of them instead.
After touring the awe-inspiring temple complex, in the beautifully sunny and HOT 93+ degree weather, we were all happy to walk across the main causeway to a fantastic little restaurant, Angkor Cafe, where we ate an amazing lunch consisting of crab rangoon, fresh salad, fresh fish and vegetables and a delicious little pumpkin-squash quiche for dessert.
Waiting for us outside was a mob of Khmer children, looking to make some money selling anything from postcards to handmade bracelets. The children are tragically beautiful. While they are adorable and quick to smile and give you a hug, they are also living in complete destitution. It is a reality one doesn’t typically see, when living in the U.S., children who have no shoes or homes or education opportunities (and if the kids are wearing shoes, they’re falling apart). Given the dreadful history of this country, these kids really are the future of Cambodia and deserve better than what they currently have.