It was still dark as we made our way through the jungle. Tree roots spread thick fingers across our way, and the noises of the night scuttled round us. Most tourists reach Angkor Wat via the front entrance, where a grand causeway stretches over a wide moat. Instead,we entered from the east, (unusually for Khmer temples, Angkor Wat faces the setting sun, traditionally the symbol of death.) Despite the aid of pocket torches we stumbled over fallen logs and mossy stones before suddenly the temple rose before us: the grandeur of a world long gone.
For nearly six hundred years the area around the once sleepy city Siam Reap of Angkor was the political and religious centre of the Khmer Empire. The fertile land and abundance of fresh water supported a large populations, allowing the Angkorian kings built their temples and their cities here.By the 15th century, however, the courts were abandoned and the temples slowly consumed by the jungle. Even now, you cannot wander through these awe-inspiring places without wondering how many others still lie hidden, waiting to be discovered.
Watching the Dawn At Angkor Wat
It is little wonder Angkor Wat is the world’s largest religious monument, for its name literally means temple city. Originally dedicated to the Hindu god Vishnu, it was built during the reign of King Suryavaram II, a god-king who ruled the Khmer empire during the 12th century. Consequently, the design is full of Hindu symbolism. Some examples include the moat – the cosmic ocean – while the outer-most walls symbolise the edge of the world. The central five-towered temple represents Mount Meru, the centre of the universe and the mythical abode of the gods. The temple itself is shaped like a lotus, sacred to Hindu symbolism.
Yet as the sun creeps over the horizon, these facts, however fascinating, becomes unimportant. As Homer once wrote, Dawn comes early, with rosy fingers, and as she does so the temple complex rises from the darkness. Hundreds of people stood around me, yet I remained in the jungle, watching the temple emerge along with the past. The
stone towers stood silhouetted in the shimmering darkness. I stood at the edge of an ancient library pool, now filled with lotus flowers. Slowly, very slowly, light crept into the sky and floated down into the moat. Every colour shimmered on the water, and as a light
rain fell, Angkor Wat rippled across the water.
As dawn comes, so does the heat. I took my time exploring the temple. Every inch, it seems, is covered with bas-reliefs of the most intricate detail. Built at the height of the Angkor Empire, Angkor Wat reflects the artistic splendour and achievements of the time.
Steep, crumbly stairs lead to the top of the library, which offers excellent views over the complex. Despite the number of tourists, quite often you can find places to sit alone, or wander empty stone corridors. The complex is so large, it becomes in memory a series of towers and pools and stone corridors rather than a single place. To have seen it in its heyday, with the moats full of water and the temples overflowing with locals, monks and royalty, would indeed have been truly amazing.
Beginning at the grand causeway, a visitor from the age of the Khymer Empire would have walked over a brimming moat (water is never in short supply here) past a series of grand stone nagas, or serpents. From there, an ancient visitor made their way through a series of buildings with elaborate stone corridors and inner courtyards towards the towering central five towers. Statues still abound, lining galleries and antechambers. Every corridor is filled with elaborate motifs, carved by unknown artisans. Some are purely decorative, but most have mythological or religious symbolism. Once they were decorated with bronze, gold, and precious gems, though these have long vanished.
Like the outer moat, all of the inner pools have been drained, revealing the steep stairs which lead to their floors. These stairs were once for the use of royalty only, during religious ceremonies (with the added bonus of refreshing themselves in the heat).
One way to appreciate the grandeur of Angkor Wat is from the air. As our hot-air balloon slowly rose into the sky, the vastness of the jungle stretched below us – and much of it has been cleared over the centuries. Angkor Wat may only be 4km from Siam Reap, but in the lushness of the tropics the jungle remains all-consuming. The towers of Angkor Wat rose from the jungle, the colours of the stones blending with the surrounding greenery. The size of the temple complex is quite staggering, larger than can be appreciated when wandering it by foot in the heat of the day. In the distance, other temples peeped from amongst the trees.
The details can be gleaned from any guide-book. What lingers in memory long after you have gone, however, is the atmosphere. Despite the hype, despite the tourists, Angkor Wat remains a place beyond belief. Not only has it survived war and invasion down the centuries, the mere sight at dawn brings with it the sense of the distant past, a world thought long gone but in reality simply standing beside us.
The Literary Traveller
In 1951, Norman Lewis travelled from Saigon, through Vietnam and on into Cambodia and Laos. The result was The Dragon Apparent, which describes those worlds and civilisations which were to vanish just a few years later during the Vietnam War. Lewis met a king and peasants, an emperor and villagers, portraying them all in this book which was said to have inspired Graham Greene to visit Saigon, as so pen The Quiet American.
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