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Ticking off a bucket list item – Angkor Wat

Indochina Day Five, part one


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Is there a single published bucket list on the lines of ‘places to visit before you die’, I wonder, which doesn’t include Angkor Wat? If there is, I have not yet come across it, and this famous sight has certainly long been on my personal wish-list. And now, here we were.

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Angkor Wat at dawn

We had gone to bed early and set the alarm for 4.15 but were both awake before that - I because I was attacked by an insect that must have been lurking in the room and decided to take a bite out of my arm, and Chris because he was rather too hot. So we got up and prepared for our visit to Angkor. As I mentioned in my previous entry, we had hoped for the opportunity to meet our guide on arrival in Siem Reap to discuss plans for the day. Selective Asia, our tour company, promise that, ‘Having met with your guide, you will be able to discuss in detail what you are looking to achieve from your time at the temples,’ but through no fault of theirs (it was a local issue, I am sure), that hadn’t yet happened. Consequently we had no idea whether the plan was to watch the sunrise and then carry on exploring, or to return to the hotel for breakfast and then go out again, but we took everything just in case. That proved to be the right decision as when we did meet our guide Sam in the lobby, he confirmed that we would have breakfast later near Angkor Wat before going on to some of the other sites. He also asked if we had ordered breakfast boxes from the hotel, but since no one had told us that we needed to, or indeed where we would be for breakfast, of course we hadn't. He reassured us we would be able to buy something later, but it was disappointing not to have been properly briefed as the hotel breakfast was included in our room rate, leaving us out of pocket!

We’d also assumed that when we did finally meet up with our guide. we would then be able to discuss our priorities for our visit to Angkor and plan the day accordingly. Not so - Sam had come with a planned tour and that was what we were doing despite my attempts to steer him. Fortunately it included two temples I was especially keen to see, Bayon and Ta Prohm, plus of course Angkor Wat, so we let it go and just went along with his ideas. And in every other respect he proved to be a very good guide, avoiding, for the most part, the worst of the crowds and steering us towards the best spots for photos.

Sunrise at Angkor Wat

Sam's first plan was to see the sky turn pink behind Angkor Wat from a spot where few other tourists would be, and to enter by the less used East Gate rather than the West. So after stopping at the ticket office to collect our temple passes we drove to that spot and started to walk up to the temple in pitch darkness, guided by Sam's torch. It was rather magical to get our first view of the distinctive central tower faintly silhouetted against the dark star-sprinkled sky. He led us along the north side, still in darkness, to a spot near the north west corner where he borrowed some plastic chairs from a local who was setting up his little stall nearby, so we could sit while waiting for the promised pink sky.

When it came it was less pink than I had expected but looked more so through the camera lens - although it was still a bit dark to get decent handheld images.

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Dawn breaking
(edited to brighten and make the silhouette visible!)

After we had taken a few shots he led us towards the west side where we could get photos from the main causeway.

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Getting brighter
~ taken from the central causeway as we crossed on our way to the southern pool

It was then that we saw the large numbers of other tourists whom he'd been keen for us to avoid. They were all gathered at the southernmost of the two pools in front of the temple (the northern one, usually the more popular, was drained for restoration).

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So that's where everyone else is!

I was then, and remain, in two minds about the success of Sam's strategy. Yes, we had enjoyed peace and quiet while we waited for the darkness to lift, but on the other hand all these tourists were here for a reason. With the pool of water in front of the ruins reflecting both them and the sky, photos were both brighter and more interesting. For us to now get the same shots meant jostling for position from the back when we could, with our early start, have had a prime spot at the water's edge! But with a bit of patience I got the shots I had been hoping for, so our day was off to a good start.

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Sunrise at Angkor Wat

Angkor Wat

Before I continue with our visit, let’s pause for some background on Angkor Wat. For many people the name Angkor Wat is synonymous with this whole complex, but it actually belongs just to one temple, albeit a massive one.

It was built in the 12th century under King Suryavarman II to honour the Hindu god Vishnu. Its five towers, up to 60 metres high, were designed to be the earthly representation of Mount Meru, which can be seen as the Hindu equivalent of Mount Olympus, the abode of ancient gods. The central tower symbolises the mountain itself, surrounded by lower peaks in the form of the four shorter towers. These in turn are surrounded by continents (the lower courtyards) and by the sea (the moat). This moat is 190 metres wide and forms a giant rectangle measuring 1.5 by 1.3 kilometres. A sandstone causeway crosses the moat from the west side.

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Corner of the outer gallery with palm tree

The Cambodian kings in that period each tried to out-do each other by building ever bigger and more impressive temples, resulting in this, thought to be the world’s largest religious building. It was built with sandstone blocks which were quarried from the holy mountain of Phnom Kulen, more than 50 kilometres away These had to be floated down the Siem Reap River on rafts, an astonishing task. According to inscriptions found at the site, the construction involved 300,000 workers and 6,000 elephants. It was never fully completed, but was never abandoned to the elements, unlike most of the other structures here (partly because its wide moat protected it from the encroachment of the jungle), and it has been in virtually continuous use since it was built. It is now a site of Buddhist worship, as we were to see, although some Cambodians also believe that the temples are home to their ancestral spirits.

A year or so before visiting I watched a fascinating BBC documentary in their Sacred Wonders series which featured a gardener at Angkor Wat, Loun Lorng, who with his colleagues fights a constant and dangerous battle to stop the surrounding jungle from engulfing and destroying the temples. One of his tasks is to climb the towers and remove any seedlings that threaten to take hold and damage the structure, like the palm tree in my photo - I guess they missed that one! If you have access to the BBC iPlayer (UK residents paying the license fee only), you can watch it here: https://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/m0007fhj/sacred-wonders-series-1-episode-1

Unusually for Hindu temples, Angkor Wat faces west which is symbolically the direction of death, so it is thought that it was built not only to worship Vishnu but also to serve as a mausoleum for Suryavarman II. But he was never buried there as he died in battle fighting the Dai Viet (Vietnamese).

Exploring Angkor Wat

As the sunset colours started to change from pinks to blues, many tourists seemed to go off for their breakfasts (or to explore other sites?) Sam however led us along the south side of the outer wall to enter the main temple area at the south east corner, where we were just two of a handful of people. We got our first daylight shots of Angkor Wat from this excellent viewpoint, and from here on I found Sam to be great at guiding us to good spots and finding the quieter corners.

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Early morning at Angkor Wat - south side

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Early morning at Angkor Wat - south side

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Early morning at Angkor Wat - east side

The main temple complex consists of three square-shaped galleried storeys which enclose a central courtyard. The corners of the second and third storeys are marked by towers, designed to resemble lotus buds. At the heart of the temple is the tallest tower which rises 31 metres above the third level and 55 metres above the ground.

To start our explorations, we climbed to the first level gallery, built from laterite, an iron-rich rock – the rest of the temple is of sandstone. The inner walls of this gallery are decorated with a series of large-scale scenes in bas relief. These mostly depict episodes from Hindu epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, although one shows a historical scene, King Suryavarman II in procession. This is on the south side, which we visited first.

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Bas relief, King Suryavarman II's procession

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South side of the outer gallery

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Bas relief, elephants in King Suryavarman II's procession

One of the most famous scenes is in the East Gallery, and Sam pointed this out and described the scene. This is the Churning of the Sea of Milk; it portrays devas and asuras in a dramatic tug of war, using a huge snake instead of a rope. This represents the eternal struggle of good and evil which churns amrit, the elixir of everlasting life, from the primordial ocean.

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Bas relief, Churning of the Sea of Milk

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Details from the Churning of the Sea of Milk

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Devata in the outer gallery

Columns on the corners of the gallery and by the entrances to the inner courtyard are decorated with some of the many (I have read around 2,000) Devata or Apsara reliefs to found at Angkor Wat. These are depictions of beautiful women, with ornate hairdos and jewellery, bare-breasted and often posed as if dancing.

I call them Devatas or Apsaras as I have seen both terms used. The highly-regarded book which Van had given us, Ancient Angkor by Michael Freeman and Claude Jacques, uses the latter term, for instance, whereas Wikipedia uses the former and the Angkor Guide website (http://angkorguide.net/en/) says, ‘Devata are not Apsara! Calling them Apsara is an inexcusable insult’. Other sources seem to indicate that some are Devatas and some Apsaras. The best explanation I could find of the difference between them was that those who dance or fly should be referred to as Apsaras, while the standing figures should be called Devatas. I am somewhat confused but will stick with this; this photo, therefore (taken near the eastern entrance to the inner courtyard) is a Devata.

We went back outside this gallery briefly to get some more photos in the improving light.

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Another view of Angkor Wat

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Detail of outer gallery stone-work
~ spot the large snake

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Toppled stones

We then went through into the inner area, from where we could see the towers more closely, and through to the very heart of the temple. We climbed to the second storey gallery and circled it. A series of windows, each with ornately carved stone balustrades, allowed us to look out over the outer gallery to see the sun still low over the trees.

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Windows with devatas

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Looking down at the outer gallery, and the steps to the upper storey

Inside this gallery a further smaller courtyard surrounds the central pyramid with its five towers. Twelve flights of steep stone stairs lead upwards – two at each corner and one in the centre of each of the four sides. The steepness is deliberate; reaching the kingdom of the gods should be no easy task. Thankfully for modern-day visitors, and to preserve the stones, a somewhat less steep wooden stairway has been constructed in the north east corner.

Sam left us to climb to the uppermost gallery ourselves, as numbers there are limited to 100 and it wouldn't be fair for guides to add to that tally, especially as it was now starting to get pretty busy. We spent quite some time up there, despite the crowds, photographing the views beyond the temple, those down to the courtyard below, or across to the corner towers. There were also lots more carvings to admire, Buddhas and other details. Here are just a few (honestly!) of the many photos I took while up there.

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Looking up at the central tower, and east towards the path we had taken earlier in the dark

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View across the inner courtyard towards the west entrance
~ what looks like the moon rising on the horizon is in fact a tethered hot air balloon!

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More views westward to the main entrance

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Just two of a number of Buddhas

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And some of the many more devatas

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One final devata, caught by the early morning sun

Eventually though we descended the steep wooden staircase and re-joined Sam at its foot. We passed another Buddha where monks were offering blessings to tourists in exchange for donations and left the complex on the west side where we could take more photos of the reflections in the pool unimpeded by crowds of others trying to do the same!

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Detail of carving above an entrance to the inner gallery

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Buddha in the inner gallery, and monk giving a blessing

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Angkor Wat from across the southern pool

Between the pools and the western gate is a wide grassy area with two smaller structures which Sam told us were libraries, built to hold the sacred texts and also historical archives.

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One of the libraries

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Visiting monks crossing the grassy area

That western gate is the main entrance to Angkor Wat, which we had bypassed on our arrival by following Sam’s lesser used path to the east. Passing through it now we could see the impressive statue of Vishnu, known as Ta Reach, in its southern tower. This stands 3.25 metres tall and was carved from a single block of sandstone. It is thought that this may have originally occupied the temple's central shrine. Today it has been ‘adopted’ by Buddhist monks, like the other statues here, as a focus for appeals for donations.

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Western entrance

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Donations please

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The causeway over the moat was undergoing restoration, so we crossed on a temporary pontoon bridge which wobbled rather, making us walk as if we were somewhat drunk or had been too long at sea! There were vivid pink water lilies in the water - hard to photograph with the constant wobbling of the bridge!

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Father and son by the moat

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Water lilies in the moat


Beyond the moat our car and driver were waiting for us, but before leaving Angkor Wat we went to one of the restaurants here for breakfast. The baguettes were a bit dry but the mango juice refreshing and the coffee good (even if we did have to wait ages for it to be served!) Of course, if we had been told to order breakfast boxes from our hotel we would not have needed to buy any breakfast here (many tourists around us were tucking into their own boxes) although I’m sure we would still have been tempted by the coffee.

This was also a chance for a much needed sit-down before tackling the rest of the day’s explorations, as it was now well over two hours since we had seen the first glimmers of light in the sky over Angkor Wat and over three hours since we had left the hotel. This would be a good point, therefore, to take a break in this account and pick up the remaining sites that we visited in my next entry.

Posted by ToonSarah 11:19 Archived in Cambodia Tagged sunsets_and_sunrises architecture history ruins cambodia buddhism siem_reap angkor_wat details hinduism archaeology bucket_list Comments (20)

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