Angor Wat, Cambodia
“One of these temples – a rival to that of Solomon, and erected by some ancient Michelangelo – might take its place besides our most beautiful buildings – Grander than anything left to us by Greece or Rome …it makes the traveler forget all the fatigues of the journey, filling him with admiration and delight, such as should be experienced on finding a verdant oasis in the sandy desert” Henry Mouhot (the French explorer who publicized Angor Wat by writing about his findings)
There’s a moment just before you do what it is you have anticipated doing for your whole life, that is better than actually doing it. That is how it felt as the plane landed in Siem Reap. Everyone was a tourist. Everyone had their Iphones out and were snapping photos out the window and of the Cambodian Airlines plane that we were on.
Collective excitement is definitely more exciting – especially in many different languages. We were here. The place that we had watched on the Discovery Channel specials, or documentaries and/or had seen photos of, was just a few miles from the airport. The next day, everyone on that plane was about to see one of the most impressive sights in the world.
Angor Wat is the largest temple in the world and the world’s largest religious building constructed of stone.
It is often described as one of the most extraordinary architectural creations ever built, with its intricate bas-reliefs, strange acoustics and magnificent soaring towers. It was built by King Suryavarman II in the 12th century. The Cambodian word Angkor is derived from the Sanskrit word ‘Nagara’ meaning ‘holy city’. It was originally built as a Hindu temple.
Angkor Wat is unusually oriented to the west, a direction typically associated with death in Hindu culture. Archaeologists and scholars disagree about why the ancient builders chose to deviate from the ‘norm’ at the time. Bas-reliefs at Angkor Wat read counterclockwise, another sign that the temple is associated with funeral rituals.
Also unusual for the time of construction, Angkor Wat was dedicated to Vishnu a Hindu deity, rather than the current king.
Angkor Wat was shifted from Hindu to Buddhist use sometime around the late 13th century. The temple is still used by Buddhists today.
The temples greatest sculptural treasure is its 2 meter high bas reliefs, around the walls of the outer gallery.
It is the longest continuous bas reliefs in the world. In some areas, traces of paint and gilt that once covered the carvings can still be seen.
There are scenes of legends, wars and everyday life, enhanced by carvings of nearly 2,000 apsaras, or celestial dancers.
Angor Wat was made a Unesco World Heritage Site in 1992.The site suffered from decades of unregulated tourism and looting; many ancient statues have been decapitated and their heads sold to private collectors.
An international collaborative effort has helped to slowly restore sites and prevent further collapse of unstable structures.
Sokimex, a private company founded by an ethnic Vietnamese-Cambodian businessman, has rented Angkor Wat from Cambodia since 1990 and manages tourism there – for profit.
Most of the money to restore Angkor Wat comes from foreign aid.
Only an estimated 28% of ticket sales goes back into the temples,
It is architecturally and artistically breathtaking. No photograph can capture the immensity of this monument.
I expected to have some deep spiritual connection with Angor Wat but I did not. Instead I felt the imprints of history and stood in awe of the skill and artistry that covers ever inch of the buildings from an ancient Khmer universe that surpasses the imagination.