The Angkor temple complex is one of the best known archeological, cultural and religious sites in the world- everyone recognizes the quincunx of towers (new vocab word! Meaning an arrangement of 5, like the five dots on the side of dice), particularly reflected in a lily pond at sunset. Like this:
But did you know that this temple, built in the 12th century, was originally a Hindu temple dedicated to Vishnu? The structure is designed to represent Mount Meru, home to the Hindu gods: the five towers are the five peaks, surrounding galleries (large square buildings with covered passages) are mountain ranges, and the moat represents the ocean.
This moat also helped to prevent complete jungle encroachment when, after the death of its builder King Suryavarman II, his successor built the newer, larger Angkor Thom next door for the capitol of the Angkor empire. Then, sometime in the 13th century, Angkor Wat was converted to a Buddhist temple, and has been in use as such since.
My first trip to Angkor Wat was for sunset on my last day of being 28.
I stayed around the outside gallery and the temple exterior- the temple was golden (above pic), and the dark discolorations of the limestone looked velvety in the light of the setting sun.
I came back for sunrise the next morning. It was raining when I got up, and I suspected there was too much cloud cover for a good sunrise, but this was the promise I’d made: see the sunrise over Angkor Wat on my birthday. And a bazillion friends wanted to celebrate too!
I figured I would head inside the temple before the crowd hit. Turns out, it was a perfect time to go in and explore- all those sunrise enthusiasts left, for breakfast or their beds. There were maybe 50 people spread through the temple, leaving me examine bas-reliefs and devatas to my hearts content!
So whose enigmatically smiling face is this? No one knows for sure. Scholars suggest it could be King Jayavarman VII or a bodhisattva (one who has attained enlightenment). Or it could be the Mona Lisa.
Angkor Thom incorporates some temples left over from the previous Khmer capitol Yasodharapura, like the Baphuon state temple.
The Royal Palace is prominently demarcated by the Terrace of the Elephants and the Terrace of the Leper King, from which the king could watch his parading armies.
We zoomed out of the walled city via the Victory Gate, pausing at the temples Thommanom and Chau Say Thevoda for some of the most persistent, tiny, child hawkers I have seen. It was raining on and off by this point, so forgive my lack of iPhone pics as I was juggling my umbrella, bigger camera and a pineapple snack.
The last stop of the day was the jungle-encrusted Ta Phrom. Although it was decided to preserve this temple with the incredible tree growth, tree roots aren’t really good for continued stability. This temple is undergoing some SERIOUS restoration to prevent it from crumbling further, so many galleries are inaccessible. (It’s amazing how many folks in person and on the Internet complain about the restoration efforts and how the preservation of these sites impeded their own personal experience. Ugh.) I though the restoration was fascinating! They have taken apart the Hall of Dancers on the East side and are meticulously putting it back together with reinforcement, realigning the stones and the carvings. Khmer archways and the gallery passages are narrow and pointy- it takes a fair bit of precision to keep that from collapsing.
They are also trying to rebuild parts of the temple that have fallen over 900 years into great boulder piles. Then there is the glimpse that the restoration provides into modern Khmer work ethic. It was about 2 when I wandered through, and a good portion of the men were still on lunch break, laughing and talking on the stone ground, showing no sign of getting back to work soon. A couple men were working to even out stone block with chisels, and the backhoe was running great puffs of diesel exhaust (standing idle), but largely there was not a hurry to be found.
Again, no iPhone photos, but I will leave you with these stunning images by photographer John McDermott.
Should I come across a copy of his book, Elegy: Reflections of Angkor, it’s coming home with me!