Words cannot describe the wonders that we witnessed today in our second full day in Siem Reap and of touring the Temples of Angkor. This morning we visited the world-famous Angkor Wat, one of the 7 Wonders of the World. It was definitely apparent why it fits into that status. It was absolutely breathtaking.
So what exactly is Angkor Wat you may ask. Well according to Lonely Planet its the largest religious structure in the world. It was built in the 12th Century CE at the height of the Khmer Empire. Originally, it was a Hindu temple, which I believe was dedicated to Vishnu, though I might be wrong. Later, in I believe the 16th Century, it was converted into a Buddhist temple, and assumed the title “Wat.” Incidentally, the name Angkor actually means city. Our guide was explaining that it was a misinterpretation of the Khmer name for it.
Angkor Wat actually sits on an island, surrounded by a great moat. The island, which is at least 1 km long is surrounded by a wall with great gate houses, giving you a glimpse of the wonders to come. Once you reach a clearing in the trees, its 5 towers come in to view.
There is a great distance between the wall and the temple itself. But once you get into the galleries around the first level of the temples, there are these truly stunning carvings that wrap around the walls of the temple. They depict a variety of stories, including the Ramayana, the history of the Khmer empire, and the famous “Churning of the Ocean of Milk” image. The detail work in them was just incredible! I mean there were intricate carvings depicting the designs on peoples shirts and hair and fingers, even depicting their joints! I think even more impressive was that it had survived all this time!
Inside, there were three levels. On the second level stood 4 towers. The stairs up to the third level, representing heaven, were incredibly steep! It was well worth the walk though, as from the top there were great views of the surrounding area as well as great detailed carvings on columns. The fifth tower also sat on the third level, which represented this mythical mountain.
It’s been great having our guide with us to point out all the symbolism and explain intricacies. It’s also been interesting to hear the Cambodian side of things, as they have fairly negative views towards Thailand and Vietnam, as they’ve pretty much gotten screwed over on all sides. They’ve had an incredibly turbulent history, which we’ve also been hearing a lot about from our guide. While the time of the Khmer Rouge is over, it doesn’t sound as if things are all that great now either. I did learn from my guide that the name Siem Reap actually means “Siam Defeated,” as the Cambodians did beat them in a war, but have also lost in others.
After a lunch break back at the hotel, we set out to visit Angkor Thom in the afternoon, the formal capitol of the Khmer Empire. We’ve been moving forward in time during out tour of the temples, so this came after Angkor Wat, but not much after.
We began at the South Gate to the walled city of Angkor Thom. The railings of the bridge over the moat showed a greater than life size depiction of the “Churning of the Ocean of Milk” with these great figurines. It was great! The Gate House, which is pictured on the back of a 1,000 riyal note (the Cambodian currency), featured this fantastic four-sided face at the top, which I believe may have been the face of the Hindu god Brahma, but I may be wrong. But much like the gate house at Angkor Wat, it was only a taste of what was to come.
The higlight inside Angkor Thom was the Bayon, a stunning temple that was built as a Mahayana Buddhist temple, after the Khmer became Buddhist. The form of Buddhism that exists in Cambodia now is actually Theravada, the same school that is in Thailand and Laos as well.
Much like in Angkor Wat, the base of the Bayon was surrounded by incredible carvings, one of which depicted daily life in the Khmer empire. People fished, bathed, cooked, and lived their lives. There were little stories everywhere!
Also like Angkor Wat, the Bayon was comprised of 3 levels, and the highlight was on the third level where there were tons of towers, but unlike the lotus blossom shaped ones in Angkor Wat, these bore smiling faces on them, like the face on the gate to Angkor Thom. These actually I believe were of a Buddha, though not the historical Buddha, Sidartha. We made it as the sun was low and it made for some fantastic pictures.
We finished off the day with some minor sites inside Angkor Thom including the former stadium (the Elephant Terrace, as it had a facade of carved elephants) as well as several lesser pyramid temples.
Tomorrow we have a very early morning to watch the sunrise at Angkor Wat, so I’d better get to bed, but this really is a stunning place! If you can get here…do it!