Travel Spot: The Lush Beauty of Angkor Wat
I don’t know if it is the way the strangler fig trees and creeping lichens seem to devour the massive stone walls of Ta Prohm. The mystical pink blush in the carvings of Banteay Srei. Or the humbling feeling of standing in the shadow cast for centuries by the towering spires of Angkor Wat that makes me want to return more.
But whether it’s something I remember, or something I know I’ve yet to discover, few places in the world have left me longing to return as much as Angkor Wat.
Hidden in the jungles of Cambodia for centuries before being rediscovered, Angkor Wat was built in the early 12th century as a Hindu temple dedicated to Vishnu, but was soon converted to a Buddhist temple. It served as the capital for the ancient Khmer people until the 15th century, and today is the largest religious monument on Earth, receiving millions of visitors every year.
Angkor Archeological Park, often mistakenly called the Angkor Wat Temples (Angkor Wat, translated “Temple City,” is just one temple within the park), covers 154 square miles just outside the bustling city of Siem Reap. It includes the main temple, Angkor Wat, which covers a massive 400-acre are, and approximately 1,000 other temples and edifices scattered throughout the complex.
Visitors to Angkor can choose between a one-, three- or seven-day pass. But even if you spent every hour of the seven days exploring, you’d never see half of what Angkor has to offer.
To get around the complex visitors can choose from renting a bike and peddling themselves, hiring a tuk tuk driver to cruise around in an open air cabin, or hiring a driver in an air-conditioned car with its year-round average temperature of 90 degrees and humidity levels of around 80% — making midday feel akin to standing fully clothed in a steam bath.
The heat doesn’t deter visitors though. Fueled by the hydrating liquid of freshly macheted coconuts and sipping on iced Cambodian coffees served in plastic baggies. Their shoulders and knees covered — per the temple rules — in brightly colored surrongs and billowy backpacker pants they recently procured from the vendors outside the gates. Thousands of visitors converge upon the temples every day.
The crowds at Angkor Wat arrive early. At five each morning visitors amass in front of lotus lake to watch the sun rise behind the temple’s picturesque silhouette.
Angkor Wat is drenched with history and symbolism. To help peel back the layers and discover it’s hidden stories, I chose to take a guided tour before exploring on my own — a wise investment in retrospect. The carvings along the outside walls of the temple depict scenes from the Hindu epics Ramayana, the Mahabharata and Suryavarman II. That the giant statues of Buddha and Vishnu are dressed in robes to honor them and preserve their modesty. And that the temple is still an active religious site.
Colorful shrines filled with offerings of food, flowers and money lay at the feet of the idols. Next to them, urns filled with ashes hold sticks of burning incense. Twirling tendrils of smoke pirouette off the embers and fill the air with their sweet fragrance.
Monks with shaved heads and orange robes mingle into the crowds. Those who live at Angkor move stoically through its spaces. Some stop to light incense and pray, others sit along the edges of the courtyard offering to perform blessings for a small donation — an incredible experience if you’re so inclined.
Many of the monks walking through the temple’s courtyards and corridors are on pilgrimage to this holy site. These monks can be easily identified by the looks of awe on their faces and the selfie sticks they thrust into the air while taking group photos with their iPhones.
If your idea of temple exploration does not include crowds — fear not! There are plenty less-crowded temples to explore.
The most famous of the other main temples is Ta Prohm — often called the Tomb Raider temple for it’s feature in the film. It is one of the most beautiful temples in the entire complex. The green hued stone walls are in a slow battle against nature, which is swallowing the temple one stone at a time.
With smaller crowds it is easier to explore the intricacies of the temple. Walking over the piles of stone and through the passages covered in carvings while the sound of birds serenade you and the rest of the world falls away, it is hard not to feel the spiritual essence and imagine the stories hidden beneath the rubble.
Angkor Thom, translated as “The Great City,” was the last capital of the Khmer Empire. Built as a fortified city, Angkor Thom is enclosed by a 26-foot-high wall that spans seven and a half miles and is encircled with a moat. There are five entry gates in the wall, one in each cardinal direction, and an additional gate in the eastern wall called the Victory Gate.
The entrance to each gate is lined with 54 statues — gods on one side and demons holding serpents on the other. The gates themselves are adorned with the face of Avalokiteshvara, the goddess of compassion. Walking past the statues under the watchful eye of Avalokiteshvara feels like walking into another world.
Exploring these temples was like a childhood fantasy come to life — a real life Indiana Jones adventure. Even though I was fairly certain any artifacts worth finding were long ago discovered and placed in the museum in Siem Reap, the thrill of climbing over piles of rubble and creeping sideways through darkened passageways, never knowing what would be on the other side, awakened in me the adventurous spirit, hungry for exploration, that was my constant companion as a child.
Standing beneath the 216 giant smiling face of Avolokiteshvara at the Bayon Temple and climbing around the 800-year-old life sized elephant statues on the Terrace of Elephants, the feeling of wonder that flooded over me can’t have been a drop more diluted than the astonishment of the explorers who rediscovered them.
Being physically present in a place where the history and spirituality are palpable, and even the walls of the temples teem with life, conjures a feeling of harmony with everything around you. The hard lines between edifice and nature, past and present, spiritual and physical are blurred and everything coexists in peace.
My three-day pass was gone before I felt I had scratched the surface of Angkor. So, when the world is open once again, this will be my next stop.