A popular quote by St. Augustine goes, “The world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page.” I could say the same thing about Angkor Wat, which is undoubtedly the most renowned temple in all of Cambodia. It is so outstanding, in fact, that it has become a national symbol in Cambodia and is a central constituent in the design of the country’s flag. Wandering through Angkor Wat was like stepping inside a giant story book, seeing the engrossing stories come to life, and meeting many interesting characters along the way.
Angkor Wat was the first temple my girlfriends and I set foot on on our second day in Siem Reap. The day before, our tour guide Sam told us to be ready by 4:30 in the morning (oh my god!) for our Angkor Wat tour. We arrived at the temple at around 5:30 AM, still slumberous and groggy, but as soon as we caught a glimpse of the magnificent complex, we were suddenly awakened. When we all finally came to our senses, we were so keyed up as we cried out, “We’re heeeere!!! We’re in THE Angkor Wat!!!”
We walked down this long sandstone causeway leading to the main entrance of the temple. The walkway, as well as the rest of the temple, is surrounded by a giant moat. From an aerial view, this part looks like a giant cross.
|Detailed temple plan of Angkor Wat (top view)|
Image source: www.alien-ufo-sightings.com
Angkor Wat is actually a representation of Mt. Meru, the home of the gods in Hindu mythology. It is the equivalent of Mount Olympus in Greek mythology. Angkor Wat is referred to as a “Temple City,” and no doubt, this temple is like a city in itself because of its humongous size! If you plan on exploring it, be prepared for a lot of walking and don’t forget to bring a bottle of H20!
At the western entrance of Angkor Wat, we were greeted by this 20-foot statue of the Hindu god Vishnu, who is also known as “Ta Reach” (if you see how tall this statue is, you’ll know that it’s anything but within reach). The temple is dedicated to Vishnu, who is depicted as a god with Buddha’s head and eight arms. In many stories and images, however, he is usually depicted as a blue-skinned god with four arms. Oh well, I guess in some cases, eight arms are better than four… but I’m happy with just two, thanks.
|Pilgrims pray to this statue and lay down their offerings for blessings and good fortune. Coconut juice! Yum! I could use some of that!|
You’d think at first glance that Angkor Wat is just one huge chunk of stones, but once you get inside, you’ll see that Angkor Wat is much, much more manifold. It is an elaborate nexus of towers, terraces, galleries, libraries, and monuments. This photo is just one of the many structures within this superstructure.
Writing a travel diary about Angkor Wat is quite a challenge for me. How do I condense such a mighty and staggering place into a single blog entry? Because words will surely fail me and they will never really do this great place justice, I decided that I will just let the pictures paint a thousand words — even if pictures may not even come close to portraying how amazing this temple is.
At 6:00 in the morning, the place was already packed with tourists. And of course, where there are throngs of tourists, there also are throngs of hucksters trying to sell everything from toys to clothes to these beautiful paintings:
This little girl was also trying to sell me something and would literally not leave me alone after repeatedly saying “Ledeeehhh! (Lady) Two for one dollahhh!”. I forgot what she was selling exactly, but she said “You buy, very fragrant!” I misheard her and excitedly said, “Get pregnant?! Why, I’ll take ten of those, whatever they are!” Oops. In the end, all I really took was this photo of her.
This is the best place to take a postcard-ish photo of the Angkor Wat because its reflection in the water is just so beautiful. Here is a photo of my friends and I with our tour guide Sam. We are all looking very prim and proper, conducting ourselves in a manner worthy of the sacredness of this temple…
…but not for long, unfortunately. We can only be prim and proper for probably less than 10 seconds.
In Angkor Wat, like most temples in Siem Reap, visitors are not allowed to wear anything too revealing because it is, after all, a consecrated place. Tourists are advised to wear clothing that covers their arms and knees. My friends and I took the rules a little too seriously and ended up looking like a bunch of dykes in our baggy shirts, baggy pants, and sneakers. Since we looked like a pack of lesbos, we thought, “Oh well, might as well pose like one.” When Sam took our photo and counted from one to three, instead of saying “cheeeese!” we said “Waaaat?!” You know, as in “Angkor Wat.”
It is easy to feel like nothing but a tiny speck in the universe when in Angkor Wat. This rectangular gallery was enough to leave us in awe, but there was so much more to see beyond this.
|A balustrade that looks like an enormous serpent with nine heads|
|Sitting on the steps of a stairway of one of the libraries in Angkor Wat|
Kids, please do not try this at home. It may not look that high but the steps were pretty narrow and if I was clumsy (which is how I normally am), I could have fallen and broken a leg. The things I do for a cool photo!
This is no ordinary passageway. The walls of this hallway is a massive gallery of extensive and impressive bas-relief carvings that exhibit scenes from Hindu mythology. Like I mentioned earlier, going through Angkor Wat was like stepping inside the pages of a magical storybook — a riveting, just-can’t-quite-put-it-down storybook — and when you pass by these galleries, you will know exactly what I mean. I really recommend going with a tour guide because he can best explain the scenes in vivid detail. Though these carvings are beautiful, if you don’t know what they represent, you may be led to think that they’re just mere artworks. We were so lucky that our tour guide was knowledgeable. He pointed out things that we might have missed had we gone there by ourselves, and he made us appreciate each everything more because of his commentaries.
|Bas relief carvings of an archer on a chariot at the Battle of Kurukshetra|
|Yama, the ruler of Hell who has eighteen arms, rides a buffalo while judging the dead|
There’s a human head on the floor being stepped on by one of the warriors. Brutal foot spa!
|The soldiers from the Khmer Rouge used Angkor Wat as their hiding place and practiced their shooting on the bas-relief carvings. The holes above are from the soldiers’ bullets.|
|Story time with our tour guide Sam|
The heat in Siem Reap — intensified by all that cardio we had to do to get to the top — made me wish that I could jump into a nice swimming pool and cool myself for a little while. Well, I got my wish… sort of. Sam took us to one of these pools where the royals of the olden times used to bathe. The water was drained out of it, but I can imagine the King throwing a pool party and his guests wading in the water while sipping pina coladas…. or Angkor Beer, perhaps?
|Too bad I didn’t bring my swimsuit with me. The bathing pool was quite inviting — with or without water!|
In The Fault In Our Stars, the Support Group for the cancer survivors and patients met at a place their leader called “The Literal Heart of Jesus.” This spot that I am sitting on is the literal heart of Angkor Wat. It is the very center of the entire temple.
|Sanskrit carvings on the posts|
|A group of women praying and giving their offerings at Angkor Wat|
|Headless statues at Angkor Wat|
|Another very elaborate carving of a battle scene|
|Spot the peacocks resting on the trees|
|Suryavarman II, seated at the center and being fanned by his servants, is said to be the king who built the Angkor Wat.|
|A rectangular hole was left after inscriptions on the wall were exsected.|
|The holes in these walls were where precious jewels were once part of, but because of looting and plundering, these jewels are nowhere to be found now.|
The next gallery we visited represented the 37 Heavens and 32 Hells derived from the Indian tradition. It was like an adaptation of Dante’s Inferno. Some of the carvings were kind of horrifying!
|That huge stick is being forced inside a sinner’s mouth. Excuse me while I puke.|
|I don’t remember what this punishment is, but the spikes on the tree don’t look very comfy!|
|A sinner gets skewered like a pig with the wooden stick shoved up his butthole. This must be the punishment for sodomy!|
|Gouging of eyes. Bad Peeping Tom!|
|A sinner is nailed on every part of his body. Wow, those nails are huge!|
|The expressions on our faces are so picture perfect! Hahaha! Sam’s stories were very,very interesting… but come on, we were up since 4:00 in the morning and we haven’t even eaten anything! Plus, we had to pack so much information in our noggins!|
The next gallery we visited was also really interesting. This gallery is called “The Churning of the Sea Milk.”
The myth of the Churning of the Sea Milk was about the long battle of gods (devas) and demons (asuras) in an attempt to get the amrita, an elixir that would make them immortal. It was Vishnu who advised the gods that they needed the help of the demons on this one, although he knew from the beginning that the amrita would eventually be given to the gods. In short, they were just going to “use” the demons to get what they want. A giant serpent named Vasuki was coiled around Mount Mandara and was used as their “rope.” As if playing a game of tug of war, the gods held the tail of the sea serpent while the demons held the head, and whenever they would pull alternately, the mountains would twist and the oceans would churn.
According to the myth, one of the gods was able to seize the amrita, but one of the demons found out about this and tried to take it and drink it to obtain immortality. However, he was beheaded just as soon as the elixir touched his lips, and so because of this, the demon survived but only as a living head without a body.
|Vishnu is at the very center of the churning action.|
|Because of the intensity of the churning, various sea creatures like crocodiles and fishes were stirred up from the ocean, and many were even torn to pieces.|
|The violent churning also gave birth to beautiful apsara dancers.|
How I wish I could post all my photos of the carvings and write about all the stories behind them, but there are just too many, and it’s really ten thousand times (or more!) better if you get to see them for yourself. My only regret now is that I did not record the tour guide’s explanations of each image or at least take down notes because I could surely use those now as a guide whenever I look at the photos again. Being a “lola” (my memory weakens with age), and the fact that this trip happened a year ago, I have forgotten a lot of the details already. But the memories and the beauty of those artworks, I will never ever forget!
After hearing all those stories and going through the information overload, I really felt like my brain was exercised strenuously. To balance all that mental workout, our next activity at Angkor Wat was a little more physical.
See this tall tower with people ascending and descending those steep stairs, holding on to nothing but a thin rail? THIS was our physical exercise! My friends and I looked at one another nervously and asked Sam, “Are we… uh… going up there?” He said that it was a must, if we really wanted to reach the top of the temple. We did, and we figured that we made it that far already, so we might as well accept the challenge. Now that I think about it, it was actually kind of a mental exercise, too. I had to channel the power of mind over matter and convince myself that “I can do this! I can do this! Don’t look down! (looks down) Sh*t! Focus!”
Climbing these stairs and reaching the top was such a big accomplishment for us! It may not look like a big deal, but if you get to experience it for yourself, you’ll see just how scary it is. My stomach was churning with every step, but I kept going because this was a once-in-a-lifetime chance and I was imagining myself at the pinnacle of one of the greatest wonders of the world. As soon as I reached the top, the feeling was indescribable! I was so happy and I almost said “I can die now!” but then I stopped myself because I remembered that I still had to worry about going down the stairs and making it alive.
|My friend Punky enjoying the view from the top while her knees are trembling and her heart is pounding.|
|This was me after the climb. I was so relieved I made it that I decided to lie down on the empty bathing pool.|
When I reached the top of Angkor Wat, I couldn’t help but feel a little emo. “Am I really here?” I asked myself incredulously. I’ve heard and read much about this phenomenal attraction, but actually being there in all of its glory was a tremendously surreal experience.
One of the funniest moments of our Angkor Wat trip was when we chanced upon this monk. From what I know about monks, part of their vows is for them to renounce all material possessions. But when I asked this particular monk if I could take a photo of him, he said yes, and then pulled out his iPhone and took a photo of me! Hey, Mr. Monk, is that even allowed?
Monks are not allowed to touch or go near women, so when Punky and I asked this monk if he could join us for a photo, we tried to be as careful as we could to make sure that there was no skin-to-skin contact. We were afraid that the slightest touch could get him kicked out of the monastery!
And then it was time to go…
Angkor Wat’s opulence really took our breath away! There’s just so much to see and learn in this architectural sensation. There are those who say that it’s become a little overrated, but despite what they say, a trip to Cambodia is really not complete without a visit to Angkor Wat. It really is a magnific work of art. No wonder it was once named as one of the Seven Wonders of the World!