January 12, 2013

Angkor Wat

I explored the sprawling grounds of the Angkor temple complex in Cambodia with my parents over three days. The largest collection of religious monuments in one location on Earth, Angkor started of as a Hindu place of worship in the tenth century. It was later augmented with some Buddhist additions, as the religious leanings of Khmer kings who sponsored the construction changed through the centuries.

On Day 1 we focused on the main temples, beginning with the famed Angkor Wat and then moving on to Bayon and Angkor Thom. Angkor Wat is located a little over 5km from Siem Reap, to the north of Tonle Sap. In Ta Prohm the trees have rooted themselves around the temples and become one with them, like tattoos on flesh.

On Day 2, we moved to the outer ring of temples. Drawing two million visitors a year, it is still easy to escape the crowds as there are over a thousand temples scattered around Angkor. It is seventeen times the size of Manhattan, and was the largest city in the world before the Industrial Revolution.

In a swampy forest, trees rose directly out of the murky waters. An elevated wooden path ran through the swamp to a temple. I inadvertently crushed a green object, the loud "Splat!" sound echoing through the forest. Its innards were splattered on the wooden walkway. The force of the impact was so great, the remains were unrecognizable. To this day I do not know if it was an insect or a fruit.

On Day 3, we woke up early to see the sun rise behind the magnificent triple stupas of Angkor Wat that appear on Cambodia's national flag. A heavy contingent of tourist and monks was also present. As has been the case every time I have woken up early to see a sunrise, there was none perceptible to the human eye as the sun was shrouded by a heavy cloud cover.

We visited an area where the temples had some vague resemblance to Roman ruins, with successive floors of the temple supported by pillars rather than the standard walls. A policeman was moonlighting as a tour guide here. He told us to stand at a certain spot to witness something special. Sure enough, from one vantage point the sun shone through the ruins at such an angle that the form of a candle was clearly visible, with the sunlight standing in for the flame.

We drove a lengthy distance to see a small set of temples in Banteay Srei. The miniature structures hold the best preserved wall carvings in Angkor. It was highly underwhelming, although there were a lot of carvings of monkeys. The beauty of Angkor lies not in the details, but in the scale and variety of the temples and its intricate embrace of the nature environment around it.


"It is not possible to describe it with a pen, particularly since it is like no other building in the world. It has towers and decoration and all the refinements which the human genius can conceive of." - António da Madalena