Angkor Wat, 2013

The crown jewel of my first trip to SE Asia: Angkor Wat. I assumed it would be some long, arduous journey on the bus to reach the sacred city, but it took us a mere 20 minutes to roll out from the hotel into a parking space. Traffic was already starting to get heavy starting a few miles out from the entrance. Tour bus after tour bus queued up, shuttling the hundreds of photo-snapping, sunglasses-wearing, backpack-toting tourists that would soon flood the gates.

Angkor from beyond the moat

It was high noon. And hot. Monkeys stood guard atop wooden posts outlining the parking lot. Their eyes twinkled at every jostle of our backpacks, in anticipation of a tasty handout.

From the entrance looking backAngkor Wat is the largest religious monument in the world. It was built in the early 12th century as a tribute to Vishnu, a Hindu deity, but the temple gradually transformed into a Buddhist temple near the end of the 12th century. Its architecture is based on Mount Meru, home of the devas in Hindu mythology, with extensive bas-reliefs. The central quincunx of towers symbolizes the 5 peaks of Mount Meru, and the walls and moat symbolize the surrounding moungain ranges and ocean.

Angkor means “city” and Wat means “temple grounds” in Khmer. Interestingly enough, wat can also mean “small”. Thom, conversely, means “big”.

We crossed the moat, 190m (or 623 feet) wide, to reach the main entrance. The head of a naga peered down at us as we walked the causeway. Steven explained to us that the West door represents death (where those who pass must exit and funnily enough through which we were entering); the East door represents life; the South door is for commoners/civilians; the North door is for the “brainwashed” (can’t remember context anymore).

Tapping palm trees

Women in straw hats tapping palm trees for their sugar in bamboo tubes waved to us cheerfully as we walked down the city promenade.

Angkor Wat is built mostly out of blocks of sandstone. Elephants would haul giant stones from the quarries of Li Shi Shan, 50km (or 31 miles) away, to Angkor Wat. Engineers would drill holes into the stones for wooden piles to stand in. The stones would expand from water and the piles would get securely locked in as a result. Genius!

One of the most amazing details about Angkor Wat was that it never suffered damage from any sort of natural disaster. The sewage and piping was engineered so efficiently, that no matter the length or intensity of a downpour, all the rainwater would drain out of the temples within 15 minutes. Astounding!

Another testimonial to the architectural voodoo mastery of its designers and engineers was that the columns were completely in line with each other. As in, 500m of columns spanning the length of each side of the temple were so meticulously constructed that there is only .05cm difference at most in deviation from the center line.

perfectly aligned columnsEven more fascinating is that the column weights were calculated so precisely–i.e. each column was so identical–that they even crack in the exact same places. No more, no less. That level of accuracy and precision is mind-blowing to me. I can barely pin a ruler down hard enough to draw a proper straight line.

vendors and monkeys hanging around

Left: the drainage basin; middle: vendors; top-right: deity relief; bottom-right: monkey hoo ha ha

Running parallel to the promenade was an avenue of shacks topped by tarps, with vendors selling quintessential tourist tchotchkes–keychains, postcards, magnets–, fresh coconut, small bites, and beautiful linens embroidered with elephants.

the towersThe towers at Angkor Wat were used as a seasonal clock: the sun rises to the right of the complex in summer, and to the left in winter. Spring and autumn equinoxes rise directly above the center tower. This center tower was the symbolic center of Cambodia, the intersection of sacred and secular.

windows at sunset

Soft, sepia hues descended on the towers as dusk grew closer.

Our experience culminated in a steep ascension up the stairs of the central tower to greet Vishnu’s statue. Keep in mind that your clothing needs to be respectful if you want to go up the towers! I wore shorts that day and had to buy a skirt to cover myself up.

walking up the steps to the towerWe were given half an hour to pay our respects and tour the towers before queuing up in a line so long that it wrapped the perimeter of the towers, to begin our descent. The slope of the staircase is not for the faint of heart or those with acrophobia (me) — you couldn’t even see the next step when going down! It was terrifying.

angkor wat in 4 images

From left to right: pineapple shucking; flower reliefs; Vishnu; my group and I having some fun imitating 千手觀音 [qian shou guan yin], or Thousand Hand Guan Yin

The sun set behind the clouds and our visit came to a close. We returned to our bus via the causeway. Women skinned fresh pineapples by the water with unmatched efficiency and precision, skewering them before exchanging with a thirsty visitor for several thousand Cambodian riels.


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