Thursday, July 30, 2015


Stone sentinels on the causeway, leading to the famous Angkor Temples
The kingdom of Angkor was once the greatest empire that Southeast Asia had ever known. Their lands included not only Cambodia, but what are now parts of Thailand, Laos and Vietnam. They were a culture far ahead of their time, accomplished in architecture, engineering, irrigation and agriculture. 

Recent history during the Khmer Rouge era was a low point in Cambodia, but through it all the glorious sights of Angkor survived the wars, survived communism, survived the jungles, survived the ages. Long unknown to the outside world, these wondrous Angkor temples are again open to foreigners like me. 

On this tropical day, I’ve departed Siem Reap, an unromantic town that is awash in hotels, restaurants and bars aimed at tourists. Fortunately, the town is far from the temples. I've rented a tuk-tuk and driver for the day, and headed out to the temples to explore. I won't be disappointed. 

Archway used by royalty to mount elephants!
On my way into the temple complex, my tuk-tuk crosses onto a long causeway bridge. The railings on both sides are like those I’ve never seen. Each is formed from a long line of ancient stone statues. Stern warrior faces are topped with Khmer headresses. The long snake-like railing they bear has broken off in some places. Some of these statues have been decapitated by looters, in years gone by. 

Reaching the end of this bridge, I'm met by an amazing archway of stone. At the top, enormous faces look out from three towers, as if keeping watch over all who enter. This high archway was made for elephants! Used by Angkor royalty, the king and his family used to mount and dismount elephants from the steps beneath the arch. Elephants still occasionally walk through here today, though most traffic passing through these days are tuk-tuks and bicycles. As I pass through, I look up to see numerous bats clinging to the high ceiling. Like most of Angkor nowadays, there are more animals here in this ancient city than anything else. 

Continuing on through the jungle, we soon reach my destination, and I leave my ride. My eyes widen, and I stare. 

Angkor Wat! 

I gaze at a wonder of the ancient world. It is the unmistakable outline of Angkor Wat, the largest religious building in the entire world. It's spectacular, awesome, stunning, mind blowing. The Angkor temples are one of those places, where adjectives are insufficient in describing them. Angkor Wat is so synonymous with Cambodia, that this temple is on the country's national flag.

Amazing Angkor Wat, the largest religious building in the world
Approaching the complex another causeway leads me across an ancient man made lake, arriving at a stone entranceway. A doorway between two stone pillars leads inside. I notice some lightly colored dots and marks to the sides. These were bullet holes from the war years, only recently filled in with cement. Renovations are still underway. 

The doorway takes me through the outer wall of this grand complex, and onto a long stone walkway. Angkor Wat is directly in front of me in the distance. It’s blazingly hot! It’s afternoon, and the tropical heat is at it’s peak, easily over 90 degrees. I’m unfazed though, since the heat at this time of day will keep away many tourists. There are some visitors about, but not the masses that will be here for sunset. It’s a long hot walk; seems a mile. But it’s fitting for me to walk this way. It is better to approach Angkor Wat just as its pilgrims did centuries ago, on foot. With each step, the great 12th century edifice grows larger in front of me. 

Remains of a brightly painted interior hallway, the whole temple was once this color
Finally arriving at the temple itself, I climb the steps and walk into the cool shade inside. 

Along the interior, there is a noticeable splash of color. The exterior is all dark stone, but here I see the originally painted colors. These pillars still have patches of dark crimson. As magnificent as this temple looks now, I can only imagine how Angkor Wat must have looked back before the paint started to fade.

There are many great carvings upon the walls. Common among  them, are the Apsara nymphs. These female Apsara dancers are depicted performing their graceful dances in front of the Khmer king. They wear shapely outfits, low cut skirts, tight tops, and ornate headdresses. Some have mysterious smiles. 

There are few statues to be found in Angkor Wat, and I soon find out why. Coming into one hall, I find many Buddhist statues. Most have been decapitated, by looters, or by the atheist Khmer Rouge. With so much else to fill the senses here, the lack of statues is hardly noticeable. 
Monkey resting in temple shade

There are many faces, friezes and bas reliefs all over the walls, along with the stunning architecture. I find a long covered walkway in the back, with a bas relief stretching the entire width of the temple depicting a religious scene from antiquity. It’s crowded with carved Hindu deities, royalty and mythical figures. Gods, chariots, and soldiers, with fighting depicted. Like many of the Angkor temples, Angkor Wat was originally made for Hindu worship, and converted to Buddhist use later. 

As I walk along, I notice a stray dog far ahead of me, and it walks out a corner doorway. Taking my time, I finish my stroll admiring the huge bas relief, until I walk out the same door. 

I freeze in my tracks. That wasn’t a dog walking in front of me, it was a monkey, and a big one at that! It’s now only two steps in front of me. Brown with a long tail, and white fur on his chest and neck, it’s a macaque monkey. He’s seated, resting in the shade of the entranceway. 

Upon seeing him, I jump back with a start, and he glares up at me, perhaps annoyed that I’ve disturbed his privacy in the shade. He turns, walks down the steps, and makes his way across the grass before disappearing into the jungle. 

Before it gets too late, I take my leave of this magnificent place. 

Buddhist monk walks in Angkor Wat

On my way out, I head down the walkway from whence I came. A Buddhist monk slowly walks towards me, on his way to the temple. He wears the simple orange robe and sandals that all Buddhist monks wear. The only thing modern about him is his orange umbrella, which is  shielding him from the hot sun. 

As these temples were once a place of conflict, I'm glad that they are once again a place of peaceful religious worship. Angkor Wat is now a place loved by many; both tourists and Buddhists alike. 

Apsara dancers on the temple walls