With the help of a new tuk-tuk driver who was very patient and knowledgeable I spent most of the day exploring Angkor Wat and the surrounding temples in the Central Angkor complex, including:
- Angkor Wat
- Barsei Chamkrong
- Prasat Bei
- Thma Bay Kaek
- Angkor Thom
- Elephant Terrace
- Leper King
- Phimeanakas & Royal
- Tep Pranam
- Preah Palilay
- Preah Pithu
Glad I have a book but by the end of the day all the structures seemed to run together except Angkor Wat itself which is massive, distinctive, and unforgettable. I will spend one more day at the temples and plan to get an early start tomorrow morning.
The Angkor Complex is one of the most important archaeological sites in Southeast Asia. Angkor Archaeological Park has the remains of the different capitals of the Khmer Empire, from the 9th to the 15th century. These 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 program to safeguard this symbolic site and its surroundings.
“Built for King Suryavarman II in the early 12th century, Angkor Wat was the king’s state temple and capital city. It’s the best-preserved temple at the site and the only one to have remained a significant religious center since its foundation – first Hindu dedicated to the god Vishnu and then Buddhist. It is the world’s largest religious building. The temple is at the top of the high classical style of Khmer architecture. It has become a symbol of Cambodia, appearing on its national flag. Angkor Wat is the country’s prime attraction for visitors.”
Angkor Wat combines two basic plans of Khmer temple architecture – temple mountain and galleried temple. The later, based on early South Indian Hindu architecture, has key features such as the Jagati (a raised surface or terrace built for a temple).
Designed to represent Mount Meru, home of the devas in Hindu mythology, the temple has three rectangular galleries – each raised above the next – situated within a moat with an outer wall 2.2 miles long. At the centre of the temple stands a quincunx of towers. The temple’s orientation to the east – unlike most Angkorian temples – leaves scholars divided about the reason for this.
People admire the temple for the grandeur and harmony of the architecture, its extensive bas-reliefs, and for the many devatas (guardian spirits) adorning its walls. The modern name, Angkor Wat, means “City Temple”. The temples are about 3 miles north of Siem Reap, a short distance south, and slightly east of the previous capital centered at Baphuon. The complex is the southernmost of Angkor’s main sites in an area of Cambodia where there is an important group of ancient structures.
Dedicated to Vishnu as the king’s state temple and capital city, the original design and construction of Angkor Wat temple took place in the first half of the 12th century, during the reign of Suryavarman II. In 1177, about 27 years after the death of Suryavarman II, the Chams, traditional enemies of the Khmer, sacked Angkor Wat. Thereafter a new king, Jayavarman VII, restored the empire and established a new capital and state temple (Angkor Thom and the Bayon respectively) a few kilometers to the north.
Henri Mouhot ( a French naturalist and explorer of the mid-19th century) popularized the temple in the west in the 19th century. In the late 13th century Angkor Wat gradually moved from Hindu to Buddhist use, which continues to the present day. Angkor Wat is unusual among the Angkor temples in that although it was somewhat neglected after the 16th century it was never completely abandoned. Its preservation is due in part to the fact that its moat provided protection from encroachment by the jungle.
One of the first Western visitors to the temple was António da Madalena, a Portuguese monk who visited in 1586 and said that it’s of such extraordinary construction that it’s “not possible to describe it with a pen, particularly since it is like no other building in the world. It has towers and decoration and all the refinements which the human genius can conceive of.” The temple was popular in the West only in the mid-19th century with publication of Henri Mouhot’s travel notes. The French explorer wrote of it:
One of these temples – rival to that of Solomon and erected by some ancient Michelangelo – might take an honorable place beside our most beautiful buildings. It is grander than anything left to us by Greece or Rome, and presents a sad contrast to the state of barbarism in which the nation is now plunged.
Mouhot, like other early Western visitors, found it difficult to believe that the Khmers could have built the temple, and mistakenly dated it to around the same era as Rome. Stylistic and epigraphic evidence accumulated during the next clearing and restoration work revealed the true history of Angkor Wat.
The temple is a powerful symbol of Cambodia and a source of great national pride that has factored into Cambodia’s diplomatic relations with its neighbor Thailand and with France and the United States. A depiction of Angkor Wat has been a part of Cambodian national flags since first version circa 1863.”
A tour of Angkor Wat leaves you mesmerized – it’s really something magnificent to see. In my opinion, more than one visit is necessary to really digest even part of the history and symbolism of the architecture. As we drove back through the complex I noticed monks in their saffron robes everywhere and my tuk-tuk driver said tonight is a full moon and an eclipse. Such an occurrence is very auspicious. The monks will be busy giving blessings. This is such an exotic and beautiful country!