Monday, February 24, 1:20 p.m., Siem Reap
During a break between this afternoon’s temples, I have a chance to get a few thoughts down about Angkor Wat, which was as amazing as I was expecting.
As we were approaching, our guide R shared a few facts. The building process for Angkor Wat took 37 years, and involved an estimated five million tons of stone and 200,000 to 300,000 workers. The stone was quarried some ninety kilometers away, and was transported to the site by water, then by elephants. Location was key: Angkor Wat was at the center of the Khmer Empire, as well as adjacent to Tonle Sap Lake – a good source of water for agriculture and fish – and on soil that was good for large-scale building. As the funerary monument for King Suryavarman II, Angkor Wat is the only Khmer temple that faces west, toward the setting sun.
Since it faces west, our guides were smart to have us enter via the far less busy east gate, which afforded both a wonderful view, with good light for photography, and vastly fewer people than we would have seen at the main west gate.
Towering above us was the central representation of Mount Meru, the hub of the universe and home of the gods.
We got to see our first apsaras, celestial female figures, of which there are something like 2,000, all unique, within Angkor Wat.
Once inside, we got to see at least a portion of the several enormous bas reliefs, covering some 800 meters. The Punishment Relief describes the afterlife in three levels, from heaven above to the tortures of hell below. There are depictions of scenes from Khmer history, battles both mythological and actual, and a panel dedicated to King Suryavarman II and his armies.
We also walked along the famous Churning of the Ocean of Milk, in which the gods (devas) and devils (asuras) grab hold of opposite ends of a snake and use it to churn the ocean of milk, producing an elixir of immortality. Along the bas reliefs the crowds were huge and noisy, but at least we got some glimpses.
Later, with far fewer people around, we also saw the bas relief that tells the story of the Ramayana and the battle between Rama (an avatar of the god Vishnu, as was Suryavarman II) and Ravana over Sita.
We were also allowed to climb the steps to an upper level and get great panoramic views of the whole complex.
There was also a beautiful large Buddha statue concealed within.
Right after that we entered the Hall of One Thousand Buddhas, although now just a few damaged Buddhas remain, the intact ones having been sent to museums in France and the Angkor National Museum in Siem Reap.
Only after all of this did we exit through the west gate, which by now was much less busy than it would have been a couple of hours previously. There we got the famous frontal view of Angkor Wat, including a reflection image in the water.
Then we walked along the well-known causeway, over the moat, and to the front.
Angkor Wat was, of course, the reason this entire southeast Asia trip came into being, and it was indeed awe inspiring. It remains difficult to grasp how something so perfect and immense came into being, and how much sheer human labor had to have been involved. Imagining it in its prime in the twelfth century, all painted, shining in the sun, surrounded by a community of hundreds of thousands of people, is almost impossible, beyond imagination. That it is just one, although admittedly the greatest and most memorable, of the 292 temples of the Khmer Empire (that we know about!) suggests that this may have been the greatest empire on earth at that time, far more sophisticated than anything in Europe and rivaling the greatest in the Americas.
Anthony Bourdain had very appropriate words about this experience (in The Nasty Bits: Collected Varietal Cuts, Usable Trim, Scraps, and Bones):
“It’s an irritating reality that many places and events defy description. Angkor Wat and Machu Picchu, for instance, seem to demand silence, like a love affair you can never talk about. For a while after,you fumble for words, trying vainly to assemble a private narrative, an explanation, a comfortable way to frame where you’ve been and what’s happened. In the end, you’re just happy you were there – with your eyes open – and lived to see it.”
Visiting here was worth all the effort. And we still have two vastly important temples to visit today, so after watching some entertaining monkeys for a moment, off I go…