In almost direct contrast to the atrocities and sheer hell described in the last post, our next stop in Cambodia was quite literally heaven on Earth. Angkor Wat, the ‘City of Temples’, is both the largest Buddhist temple complex and the largest religious monument in the world.
The temple came into being in the early 12th century under King Suryavarman II and is the earthly representation of Mount Meru, the home of the ancient Hindu Gods. (Note: Angkor Wat was first Hindu, then Buddhist – as it is today) The Khmer King and his successors were known as the ‘God Kings’, and each strove to build enormous tributes to both honour the gods as well as illustrate their own power and strength to their subjects and against their predecessors.
We’ve heard that the first glimpse of Angkor Wat is one of the most breathtaking and stunning experiences of the modern world. They are completely right. As we rounded a corner, we saw the temple come into view, silhouetted against the pale streaks of the dawn sky and reflected in the enormous moat that surrounded the gates. To actually get to the temple, you walk along a wide stone pathway, always with the impressive structure ahead of you. I have never been to Agra, but I can imagine that perhaps there are echoes of the Taj Mahal in Angkor Wat – both stunning in their architectural riches and religious devotion, both modern wonders of the world.
As you enter the temple you can see the extensive intricate detail on the stones, illustrating the time and devotion that was spent on every little detail. There are four towers which surround one large central tower, standing 31m above the rest. This gives the whole structure a sense of symmetry and unity, the height of the towers emphasising their closeness to the gods. What really strikes you about Angkor Wat is that despite the hoards of tourists (it was packed at dawn!) the whole area is just so peaceful. Although it is one of the world’s most renowned tourist attractions, it has retained it’s original ambience of calm and religious devotion, something that has become few and far between in the modern world.
Equally as impressive, if not more so by it’s diversity and size (10 square km) is neighbouring Angkor Thom. To enter, you drive through terribly imposing gates, made all the more foreboding by the pregnant clouds that hovered aggressively above. The gates are flanked on either side by stone statues that depict a tug of war between 54 gods and 54 demons – The Churning of the Ocean of Milk.
The first temple you come to is the Bayon, which I perhaps wouldn’t recommend if you’ve got any sort of easily triggered paranoia issues. The whole temple, majestically dilapidated, comprises 54 Gothic towers that are decorated with 216 faces of the Hindu God, Avlakiteshvara. Word on the street is that the King (Jayavarman VII) who built this was more than a little off his rocker, and as if the feeling of constant surveillance wasn’t unusual enough, the faces are said to bear a strong resemblance to Jayavarmann himself. The whole place is eerie yet fascinating; you clamber over piles of rocks and peer through darkened archways only to find that at every turn you are once again face to face with the coldly smiling Hindu deity. It is mesmerizing, enigmatic and very very weird.
There’s plenty more to see at Angkor Thom – the Terrace of the Elephants, Prasat Chrung, the Terrace of the Leper King. Each equal in beauty, each with it’s own story to tell. As we moved through, however, the blue-black sky which had been threatening us all morning finally broke and we were caught in a torrential downpour. Rather than a hindrance, it was a welcome cool from the closeness of the morning. Although photo-taking was now a no-no, the heavy clouds and sheets of rain only added to the ethereal atmosphere of Angkor Thom and Ta Phrom (our next stop).
Everyone knows Ta Phrom. It was in Tomb Raider, it might as well have been in Indiana Jones, it’s that world-famous image of temple against jungle; human against nature. Ta Phrom has been completely left to the mercy of the jungle which, as we know, is merciless. The temple emerges from thick jungle, barely distinguishable from the dense foliage and layers of dark greenery. Nature has run riot and tree roots hug the crumbling walls, emerging at incredible angles from the once beautiful stonework. Foundations have been overturned, and stones and piles of rubble lie everywhere, interspersed with lopsided gateways and broken steps. Some roots look like serpents, their corpulent bodies gradually choking the building and bringing it to the ground. It seemed so apt visiting this natural playground in the pouring rain, as though we were trespassing on a jungle secret that served to remind us of the power of nature against the relative impunity of humans.
And that was that, our experience of Angkor Wat. We only had time for a one-day pass, but it’s possible to have three- or (for the hardcore) seven-day permits. All we have to say is DO IT – this ancient site will inspire, impress and instill a sense of wonder that will last for a long, long time.