A Day at Angkor Wat

By L. Morffi

The former capital and massive temple and palace complexes of the Khmer Empire are too big to cover in one article, so I’d like to just write a few things about Angkor Wat.

It was our first stop on April 15th when we went up to the ruins for the Khmer New Year celebration. A three-day event! Angkor Wat lies about 7km from our home in Siem Reap. A Cambodian friend who works as tuk-tuk driver picked us up at our home before sunrise! It’s roughly 20 minutes to get there.

The name of the place means the “City of Temples” in the Khmer language. It’s an awesome place and the massive moat that surrounds it, indirectly saved it from the worst ravages of the encroaching jungle. This is important to note, because many other temples and ruins in the immediate area that did not have a protective moat were swallowed by the jungle in a ridiculously short period of time. Even if Angkor Wat weren’t so big, its story is amazing by itself. Its construction started in the early 12th century.

At that time Cambodia wasn’t a Buddhist country. The Khmer people are one of the oldest ethnic groups in the region, much older than the empire they founded. Not unlike other ethnic groups in Southeast Asia they were heavily influenced by Indian culture, in particular the Tamil influence of the Chola Dynasty. So these early Cambodians adopted Hinduism as their religion long before they built Angkor Wat. Although it would eventually become a Buddhist religious complex, Angkor Wat was originally dedicated to Hinduism. Another fact, which I found interesting, was that up to the 12th century the Hindu temples that were built by the Khmer people were dedicated to Shiva.

However, the Khmer King Suryavarman II had the great temple dedicated to Vishnu instead. Historians don’t even know what the original name was; just that it wasn’t Angkor Wat. They suspect it may have been named after Vishnu. The term ‘Wat’ basically means a temple in the Khmer language. However, all Cambodian temples face east and Angkor Wat has a western orientation instead. Some experts have speculated that its original intent may have been as a royal mausoleum, but it never came to pass. Angkor Wat ended up being a Hindu temple for about a hundred years, gradually moving more and more to Buddhist religious practices. Even today, Cambodia has a form of Theravada Buddhism that is mixed with a lot of Hindu ideas, rituals and concepts. They certainly don’t consider themselves Hindu, but Cambodians have fused its beliefs as well as ancient animistic practices with Buddhism. So walking around the huge complex, you are bombarded with Hindu and Buddhist images. Because of the architecture, you can easily imagine yourself to be in southern India or Sri Lanka as you look around.

The operative word here is walking! Angkor Wat is big. It’s the largest religious monument in the world! Comfortable sneakers or boots with good traction are a must here. Sandals, flip-flops and high heels are only for the insane! Let me explain why: Stairs are extremely steep or weathered away in some places and the distances are long. Most temples were built with steep staircases climbing to higher levels to symbolize the ‘spiritual’ climb. In the class-caste system of the ancient Khmer, the upper levels were forbidden to most. So ascending those stairs was never meant to be easy, either physically, socially or spiritually. Adding roughly seven centuries of water and wind erosion has only made going up and down temple stairs that much more…uh…interesting! So be careful! Don’t worry too much though, because in many places sturdy wooden stairs with handrails have been emplaced. This was our third trip to the ruins and the result was the same on all three visits – the next day my legs and feet were a bit sore. So one must be prepared to walk, climb, descend and walk some more in often 34°C to 38°C heat. Moreover, it is a temple. As such, long pants and no tank tops are the rule.

Aside from being #%/:*#!% huge, the main structure has its five iconic towers jutting into the sky. And when I say iconic, I mean just that. You only have to look at the Cambodian national flag – it of Angkor Wat! A Cambodian friend told me that the five tower spires of the temple are known as ‘prang’ and they represent the Hindu version of Mount Olympus, Meru – the abode of the devas (gods or angels). The structure is rectangular, its sharp straight lines reminding me a bit of Greco-Roman architecture. The big difference being the adornments, which are very Indian in flavor and not plain, or spartan, like a lot of classical architecture.

The bas-reliefs that wrap around the inside wall of the outer colonnade, or gallery, are something to behold. They run counter-clockwise along the full length of this external gallery. So walking from left to right, one sees various stories from the Mahabharata and the Ramayana of Hindu tradition: such as the Battle of Lanka, Krishna defeating Bana and the Battle of Kurukshetra. Included among these scenes of mythical battles is a historic depiction of Suryavarman the Second’s army as well. It could be a little difficult to keep all the tales straight in your head unfortunately, because the plaques that described them were missing in three of the four galleries on our last two visits. In other words, only two of the eight famous bas-reliefs were properly identified. I assume it has something to do with the restoration project on the front, west-facing façade of the temple. We noticed quite a bit of scaffolding there on the days we visited.

There are some really cool legends about the place. Totally inaccurate but extremely fun! One Chinese diplomat insisted that a deity built the temple in one night! Not sure, which deity he was talking about. Another maintains that its construction was ordered by the Hindu god Indra. However, the truth is that slave labor and elephant power under watchful Khmer engineers built Angkor Wat.

The construction of the moat alone was probably a bigger project than the temple itself. The fact that it’s still there (the moat) and not silted over is certainly impressive to me! No one ever mentioned anything about having to periodically dredge it, but it did keep the jungle at bay, so I assume it never silted over. There is a heck of a lot more to these ruins. To the north lies Angkor Thom, which literally means “Great City”. It’s only 3 km away. Its construction was begun on the site of an existing city about three decades after Angkor Wat. More on that in a later post.

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