Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Cambodia: The Temples at Angkor Wat

Sunrise at Angkor Wat
Blog Entry #43: Cambodia: The Temples at Angkor Wat

Friday, October 28, 2011

Sunrise at the Temples at Angkor Wat: what a beautiful and serene experience to contrast with our immersion into the Khmer Rouge the day before.  We had flown into the Siem Reap airport the previous evening, impressed again by both the beauty of the Cambodian countryside north of Phnom Penh, and the breadth of the flooding along the Mekong River.  

The King returns to Phnom Penh

Our departure from Phnom Penh had been delayed, as it coincided with the return of the King from time abroad.  

Traditional Cambodian Dance

After checking into our hotel, we watched traditional Cambodian dancers reenacting Cambodian folk tales and favorite Hindu stories over our first meal of Cambodian fare.

Soon we were stumbling from bed at 4:30 am in order to make our 5:00 am departure for Angkor Wat.  We entered the compound, crossed the bridge over the moat that encloses Angkor Wat as an island, and then watched as the sky changed from one magical hue to another, framing the silhouette of the rising levels of temple towers against the sky.

Sunrise at Angkor Wat

Hindu goddesses in Angkor Wat
Though perhaps the most spectacular and well-known, Angkor Wat is only one of an enormous complex of temples and cities built by the Khmer empire dating to the 9th century C.E.  The surprise to me is that these temples are largely of Hindu, rather than Buddhist origin, reflecting the Hindu gods and stories, and only later incorporating Buddhist themes and iconography, under the influence of the great Khmer king Jayavarman VII’s conversion to Buddhism in the 12th & 13th centuries.

Model of Angkor Wat showing three main platforms
NE corner of main temple platform, Angkor Wat
Angkor Wat, “the city that became a pagoda,” was built during the reign of Suryavarman II during the first half of the 12th century CE, and was dedicated to the Hindu god Vishnu, the Protector.  The 82 hectares of the “island” are enclosed by a large rectangular moat, and the Temple is set in the center with a tall pyramid surrounded by concentric rectangular galleries. 

Stairs to upper platform
The building material is largely red sandstone, quarried in the Kulen Mountains, about 50 km to the north.  Angkor Wat is impressive at every scale: from the initial impression one has of the entire site, approaching from the west and seeing it reflected in the ponds at the base of its first platform, to the intricately carved details of Hindu gods and stories that illustrate its walls. 

Highest temple tower at Angkor Wat
Angkor Wat from east side
Designed to reflect Hindu cosmology and the centrality of the sacred Mt. Meru, one ascends different levels to ascending platforms, culminating in the uppermost level with its central tower and four surrounding towers.  As might be expected, views from the top of the temple are stunning.

Bas relief on West wall
Detail of bas relief of the Mahabharata Hindu epic
Reclining Buddha, Angkor Wat
Buddhist monks at Angkor Wat
Along the west face of the lowest level is an incredibly detailed and spectacular bas-relief of the Hindu epic, the Mahabharata, which describes the struggled between two rival clans in northern India, the Pandavas and the Kauravas.  It would take days and a very knowledgeable guide to work your way through not only this epic in stone, but also all the many carvings that narrate many of the central Hindu stories and mythology.  In the limited time we had, all I could really do was to admire the intricate handiwork and marvel at the effects this temple complex must have had on the original inhabitants of Angkor.

Entrance to Angkor Thom
After lunch we returned to the Angkor complex to Angkor Thom, the magnificent Buddhist city and temple complex built by Jayavarman VII and likely the Khmer capital until the 17th century.  One enters the city through the impressive S Gate with its four faces in each of the cardinal directions, across a bridge lined with an avenue of gods and asturas.

Ta Prohm
Before visiting the main Bayon Temple in Anchor Thom, we drove first to Ta Prohm, a spectacular set of Buddhist ruins from one of the early temple complexes build by Jayavarman VII, allegedly to honor the king’s mother. 

Strangler Fig reclaims Ta Prohm ruins
Ta Prohm ruins
The French archaeologists responsible for much of the excavation and restoration of the Angkor complex have chosen to leave Ta Prohm in a largely natural state, and so huge strangler fig and silk cotton trees and their roots intertwine with the stone temples, and also provide structural support.  This is the temple perhaps best known to American moviegoers as Angelina Jolie filmed the Tombraiders film at Ta Prohm.  Even here reminders of the violence that has engulfed Cambodia in recent years is evident, as a musical group of survivors of land mines plays traditional tunes at the temple entrance.

Bayon Temple, Angkor Thom
Buddha towers at Bayon Temple
Perhaps my favorite of the sites we visited is the Bayon Temple, the state temple for Jayavarman VII, and aptly described by our guidebook as “a mass of face-towers to create a stone mountain of ascending peaks.”  Originally containing 49 towers, each with a large smiling Buddha on all 4 faces, today only 37 towers remain standing.  But the effects are amazing; to wander through level after level and see tower after tower with these immense Buddha faces smiling serenely to the world.
"Smiling Buddhas" at Bayon Temple
Many of the temples also contain active Buddhist shrines in them, kept by Buddhist monks and others, and it was moving to linger at them, and receive a blessing from the monk while leaving an incense stick at the shrine.  We also saw several Buddhist monks in their bright orange robes visiting the temples and pausing before the Buddha statues.
Statue of Hindu god Vishnu at Angkor Wat
Soon it was time to bid Angkor farewell and make our way back to Siem Reap and the airport for our flight back to Ho Chi Minh City.  It will take me some time to absorb all we experienced during our three short days in Cambodia; I am grateful to have spent some time in the land of the Khmer people with their rich and often tragic history, and I hope that I am able to one day return.

Sunset over the flooded countryside of the Mekong River in Cambodia


  1. I am grateful that your day reviewing the legacy of the genocidal Khmer Rouge was followed by the beauty and mystery of the Angkor Wat. I did not know of its Hindu origins either-- Best wishes to you as you continue your travel...

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