Sunday – February 20, 2011 –
I have been really fortunate to see a number of the world’s wonders. Today I had the opportunity to check another one off my bucket list by visiting world-famous Angkor Wat. So around 5 a.m., I woke up and prepared for a very special day!
After getting dressed and grabbing some breakfast, I was dragging because of the little sleep I received. At 5:30 a.m., Sovonne picked me up for an iconic sunrise tour of Angkor Wat.
Today Sovonne brought along a professional guide, his friend Richard, a trained archaeologist. We arrived before sunrise at the east gate. It became obvious we were in the right place because several hundred visitors gathered in front of the nearby pond to take photos and video of the sunrise hitting the pond and reflecting the temple of Angkor Wat. I am not Hindu or Buddhist, but it did seem like a spiritual and timeless moment as the sun rose spectacularly above the placid pond.
The name Angkor Wat means “Temple City” or “City of Temples” in the Khmer language. The temple has become a symbol of Cambodia and appears on its national flag. Naturally, it is the country’s top tourist attraction and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Before the 19th century, Angkor was the largest city ever constructed. Citizens began construction of Angkor Wat in the first half of the 12th century. This period marked the peak or golden Age of the Khmer empire. I marveled at the size of the gigantic three-step pyramid and it’s surrounding nine slender and tall towers. It was fascinating how the ancient Khmer people oriented Angkor Wat to the west, facing the centre of the city and the Shiva temple of Phnom Bakheng. I couldn’t believe how massive Angkor Wat was as it stretched out over more than 2.5 square kilometers.
Richard explained that Angkor Wat was originally a Hindu temple before it was converted to a Buddhist complex. King Suryavarman II built it as his state temple and mausoleum with a dedication to the Hindu god Vishnu, the preserver of the world. This was unusual during the time because previous kings dedicated their temples to Shaiva. To this day, it is the largest religious site in the world.
As we toured the site, I couldn’t believe how large it was. The complex was designed to symbolize Mount Meru, home of the Hindu devas. Surrounded by a moat and an outer wall 3.6 kilometres long are three rectangular galleries, each raised above the next. The temple-mountain and rises above the galleries. But there is one mystery behind the design. Unlike most Angkorian temples, Angkor Wat is oriented to the west. Richard said many archaeologists still debate this significance today.
It was easy to see why Angkor Wat is one of the eight wonders of the world. One highlight for me were the beautiful bas-reliefs murals and devatas adorning Angkor Wat’s walls. I was not expecting to see such intricate detail and Richard explained some of the meanings. He also pointed out numerous plaster and structural repairs that the French carried out to help preserve the galleries. I also climbed into the temple and talked to a monk near the Buddha shrine. It was a very peaceful place to visit.
There were little monkeys all over the place. I don’t know what species they were, but they reminded me of the squirrel monkeys I had encountered in the Brazilian Amazon. One aggressive monkey took a bottle of water from me near the east side and I gladly let him have it after he hissed back at me. Richard was a great guide and took a number of photos of me before we finished our tour of Angkor Wat.
Afterwards, we then grabbed some breakfast at a cafe next to the temple. I am glad that we started these tours early because the heat and humidity becomes oppressive by noon. That’s one reason why most tourists start early and finish around noon. I myself toted around a gallon-size water bottle and drank most of it because I sweated profusely during previous days.
Our next stop was Ta Prohm, located about 2.5 kilometers northeast of Angkor Wat. Meaning “Royal Monastery”, it was constructed in 1186 in the Bayon style and dedicated to King Jayavarman VII’s father. It served as a Mahayana Buddhist monastery and university. The city is surrounded by an enclosure wall, 1,000 meters by 670 meters. Face towers make up the gates, but the east and south towers have collapsed during the centuries.
One of the distinguishing characteristics of Ta Prohm is its condition. Unlike most Angkorian temples, Ta Prohm has been left in the same condition in which it was uncovered in 1920. It is a little shocking at first to see trees growing out of the ruins, which are surrounded by jungle. Trees overgrow the walls with their roots clinging to the stones and force their way into any gaps of the masonry. Over time, these expansions have forced the walls open and brought parts of the structure down. But the contrast makes it appear harmonious with nature despite the destruction the trees have caused during the years. Like nearby Angkor Thom, the site was infamous featured in Angelina Jolie’s movie “Lara Croft: Tomb Raider” as she sought to recover pieces of the Triangle of Light.
My favorite part was the central temple which is enclosed by two galleries. It is also surrounded by other temples at the north and south. Two other galleries and moat basins surrounded the complex. When water filled these moats, they originally supplied the Khmer people with water.
Afterwards, Richard and Sovonne drove me to our last stop: Angkor Thom, located about 1 kilometer to the east. We saw elephants carrying tourists for rides in baskets on top, but the animals looked like they have been mistreated. Therefore, I decided to skip the elephant rides.
Angkor Thom means the Great City and was the last capital city of the Khmer empire. Built in the late twelfth century by King Jayavarman VII, it covers a huge area of 9 square kilometers. The 8-meter laterite walls, 3 kilometer-long moats and five monumental gates were constructed about 1200. Roads lead the center where there are several monuments from earlier eras, but also the state temple, the Bayon (at the center). Also included are the Baphuon, Royal Palace and Royal Plaza, the Terrace of the Elephants, the Terrace of the Leper King and other buildings.
We drove past the Victory Gate, about 500 meters north of the east gate. The faces on the 23-meter towers at the city gates, which are later additions to the main structure, are modeled after those on the Bayon. When we arrived at the central temples of the Bayon, I marveled at the amazingly carved faces decorating the temples. The smiling faces seemed to welcome visitors back to a previous era when the Khymer empire was at its zenith. After touring the Bayon we headed towards the south gate, the most famous gate and main entrance to the city for tourists.
Upon finishing our tour and being hounded by kids for the last time, it was time to say goodbye to Angkor Wat around 11 a.m. We drove back to the Royal Angkorland hotel. I paid them Richard and Sovonne both before going upstairs at about 11:15 a.m. to shower and pack. Sovonne then carried me to the airport for my 13:25 departure. I thanked my great host and told him I appreciated his hospitality and graciousness before give him a nice tip.
After checking in for my flight back to Thailand, I paid my departure taxes and checked out of Cambodian customs. I said goodbye to the beautiful Cambodian countryside as we banked over the rice paddies on my one-hour flight on Bangkok Airways back to Suvarnabhumi International Airport.
Back in Bangkok, I grabbed Subway for lunch — that’s right, Subway in Bangkok — while waiting on my luggage. After retrieving my luggage, I bought a ticket on the Pattaya bus for about 125 baht after some initial confusion. I slept most of the way before we arrived in the famous resort town located about 100 kilometers southeast of Bangkok on the Gulf of Thailand coast.
I awaited transport at a taxi stop, and then a motorcycle taxi arrived and insisted I ride with him and my rolling luggage balanced sideways between us. I couldn’t believe! It was quite the taxi ride. I then arrived at my hotel, the Siam Bayshore Resort off Beach Road and Walking Street, where I planned on decompressing for the end of my trip. Instead of going out, I still didn’t feel well from my earlier food poisoning. Therefore, I stayed in my room, watched some movies, drank plenty of fluids and rested up. I needed a nice and relaxing evening.