Angkor Wat has evoked stories in my head since I first heard those words as a kid. Now here we are, stepping out from the coolness of the Airbus on to the tarmac at Siem Reap airport. Dragging two preteens who are no more excited than if they had landed in Cleveland.
The next morning at 07:00 sharp I got a WhatsApp message from our guide, Jack (whose real name is Hun). He was at the lobby ready and waiting for us. We stopped in town to buy our tickets to Angkor Wat (they are like mini visas and even have each of our mugshots), and then we headed off to Angkor.
Jack had three qualities which make him a good guide. First, he likes to talk. That is good because I have a lot of questions. We quickly got done with the historical facts associated with Angkor Wat.
The Khmers built Angkor between the 8th and the probably up to the 15th century. During its peak, Angkor was one of the largest cities in the world with a population of one million. The temples, palaces, and monasteries are what we see. The surrounding city has been reabsorbed into the jungles. There are more than 300 temples in the complex which stretches over 400 square kilometers. Angor Thom and Angkor Wat are the bigger and more well known temples.
I’ve added this photo of Angkor Wat reflecting in the lotus pool. People wake up at 4:00 am to get here by the thousands at sunrise to capture the dawn sky and the sun rising from behind the temple. On equinoxes it’s even crazier because the top tower of the temple is directly lined up towards the east with the rising sun. My photo is a lazy 9:00am attempt on a random non equinox day with the light in the wrong place and a haze hanging in the air. It will have to do.
The temple of Angkor Wat was built by a Hindu king Suryavarman II. It is dedicated to Vishnu. Cambodia is almost completely Buddhist now. Over time, Hindu idols have been altered into Buddhist ones. Like the eight-armed statue of Vishnu that has a Buddha head on it and it worshipped by Buddhists today.
We enter Angkor Wat through the gate that was reserved for brahmins in the old days and Jack is excited to learn that we’d be welcome through this gate even back then. Oh, the privilege of caste!
The myth of a French man walking into a jungle and discovering the Lost Temple is apparently just that. Angkor and the Khmer Empire, probably due to floods and then droughts, disintegrated in the 15th century. The majority of the population died or left. Small groups of villagers could not maintain the vast facilities but they lived amongst the ruins and worshipped there till the said French man discovered them.
The immensity of the temple and the beauty of the sculpture are breathtaking. As we visit some of mankind’s most sublime works around the world I’m selfishly glad that through the history of our species we have been suckers for religion. Our best art and architecture are in service of our gods.
I thought it would be really crowded here with 2.5 million annual international visitors. But the temple is big enough to accommodate us all and Jack is able to steer us down almost deserted paths most of the time.
Vivian and Evan seem interested enough and the weather is comfortable – so no one complains. But I have no doubt that if they had been offered their iPads and the option to stay at the hotel instead, they would have been all over that.
We left Angkor Wat awe struck through the back gate facing east and drove to the next temple on our (Jack’s) list – the Tomb Raider Temple.