Friday, May 7, 2010

Angkor Wat

At Angkor Wat

I don't even know where to start in blogging about the Angkor Archeological Park. I should probably start with Angkor, that's where we started.

Angkor Wat is the most famous of a serious of temples and city remains located in the Angkor Archeological Park. The entire area is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

"Angkor is one of the most important archaeological sites in South-East Asia. Stretching over some 400 km2, including forested area, Angkor Archaeological Park contains the magnificent remains of the different capitals of the Khmer Empire, from the 9th to the 15th century. They include the famous Temple of Angkor Wat and, at Angkor Thom, the Bayon Temple with its countless sculptural decorations. UNESCO has set up a wide-ranging programme to safeguard this symbolic site and its surroundings."


Angkor Wat dates from the early 12th century and was originally constructed in honor of the Hindu god Vishnu. Construction of the temple stopped with the reigning king's death and some theories believe that it was built as his mausoleum. Though why his death would end the construction of his mausoleum, I am not sure.

The city was built as the Hindu cosmos in miniature with the surrounding moat representing the mythical ocean surrounding the earth and the towers of the temple representing Mount Meru, home of the gods.

We first visited the temple city at sunset on Sunday. Sunday was the annual
Plowing Ceremony and was held in Siem Reap near the Bayon Temple for the first time in forty years. We had contemplated going, but where glad we decided not to when we saw footage on TV showing the number of people who were there for the event. That night it was still quite busy for sunset at Angkor Wat (though not as busy as I imagine it is during high season; we are here for low season).

Approaching the complex for the first time is awe inspiring. The scope, decoration and detail is overwhelming. I tried to imagine the site when it was new or when it was first being built.

That first night we crossed the stone bridge over the moat leading to the first gallery. There are several doors along the face of the gallery. The one in the middle is for the king. Others were specifically for the prime minister, the common people and even elephants. On the other side of the gallery is a long, stone walkway leading to the temple in the center. On either side it is flanked by smaller "libraries" (I am not sure why they are called libraries, as they were supposedly shrines). The temple itself rises up in the distance.

One the second day we visited Angkor Wat again with our tour guide (more on this later) and made a general pass of the entire complex (with an exception of the very top, center). There are many buddha and partial Buddha statues in the temple now. Both Hinduism and Buddhism seemed to have coexisted in the area though Hinduism fell out of fashion and Buddhism rose to replace it over time, the temples were used for both. At one time there were a thousand or more Buddha statues in the temple, though few of them remain today.

At Angkor Wat

We returned once again the next day to spend time specifically with the extensive bas-relief covering the gallery walls. The most famous of these is the
Churning of the Ocean of Milk. This story is repeated in reliefs and statues through out the archeological park, most notably at the gates to Angkor Thom (more on this later). Unfortunately, the relief at Angkor Wat is currently closed for repairs and we were only able to see a life-sized photograph. Of note, the churning of said milky sea resulted in, among other things, dancing nymphs called apsara. These lovely ladies (with elaborate headdresses and lacking in the shirt department) decorate a significant amount of free space in all the temples we have visited thus far (with racks like theirs, I can see why they are so popular).

At Angkor Wat

We were able to seem some amazingly detailed and intricate reliefs depicting both Hindu mythology and historical Khmer events.

At Angkor Wat

Finally, we went back to Angkor Wat again on Friday to visit the inner sanctuary of the highest towers. Much touted, this was surprisingly not particularly exciting. The view from high up was nice, but there wasn't nearly the amount of carving or bas-relief.

There you have it, Angkor Wat. Tune in next time to hear about our day with the tour guide.

— Sara

PS. I didn't take a lot of those traditional shots you see of Angkor Wat for two reasons. 1. Lots of people have already done it better than me and 2. There is work being done and green tarping covers some of the front.

More temple photographs can be found
here.

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