When I say I’ve been to Angkor Wat, people sometimes reply, “where?” but when I show them this photo, they nod in recognition:
Oh yeah, that place. The giant temple thing in Cambodia. In fact, Angkor Wat is the largest single religious monument in the world. (I guess that’s under dispute by Those Who Measure Religious Monuments or something, because most of the info I can find on it won’t give me a hard yes or no on the topic. Regardless, it’s huge–the outer wall runs over 2 miles long.) Of course it’s big, when you learn that “angkor” roughly translates to “city” and of course we know “wat” is fairly synonymous with “temple.” Angkor Wat is a temple and also a city.
Khmer king Suryavarman II built Angkor Wat in the beginning of the 12th century. He broke from tradition by dedicating it to Vishnu rather than Shiva, and orienting the temple complex to the west, rather than the east. In the next century, the main religion of the Khmers changed from Hinduism to Buddhism, so the religion associated with the temple changed, too. One of the main statues of the temple, which was somehow not destroyed during the reign of the Khmer Rouge (as most of the statuary was), is an eight-armed Vishnu whose head has been swapped out for a buddha’s head.
Other decorations, however, are not so easily changed from one religion to another. Angkor Wat is impressive not just for its size and age, but for the bas-relief friezes that run around a large part of one of the inner walls. These friezes show scenes from the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, two Hindu epics. Many of the friezes have been restored by various conservation groups over the past few decades, and I’m so glad I got to see this artwork dusted off and cleaned up. It’s much easier to appreciate the incredible detail of each carving when the accumulated grime of centuries has been swept away.
Angkor Wat is built in the temple mountain style: it’s meant to resemble Mount Meru, the home of the gods in Hindu mythology. There are always outer walls representing mountains, and usually a moat to represent the ocean. The inner temple is made up of five pyramids representing the five peaks of Mount Meru–usually four in the corners, and an elevated one in the center, the innermost sanctum of the gods.
One of the distinctive features of Khmer architecture, according to my architecture guidebook, was the “trick of perspective” achieved by progressively reducing the height of each structure from the center outwards, making the central towers appear even taller and more impressive. This architectural trick expresses the religious beliefs of its builders, too, since it emphasizes the importance of the home of the gods and the humility of the rest of creation in comparison to it–even the oceans are reduced to flat moats calmly reflecting Mount Meru’s glory back to it.
For those of us who haven’t made a study of Khmer architecture or Angkor period temples (and that’s most of us, isn’t it), it’s good to keep in mind that a Khmer temple “was not a meeting place for the faithful but the palace of a god,” as Michael Freeman and Claude Jacques note in Ancient Angkor. Thus, the tiny space in the interior of the central pyramid, made only to house the statue of the god and not for crowds of worshipers; the super steep stairs that were usually only scaled by a few temple workers; and small buildings housing various gods, the grouping of which made up one large temple, rather than one temple per god. This is such a different approach to religious architecture from the Western, Christian one that I hadn’t even realized I had been making assumptions about what a temple was for and how that affected the architecture until this book pointed it out.
I’m used to vast cathedrals built to house masses of congregants; the altar is often large and ostentatiously decorated, and it’s easy to see from just about anywhere in the building. The temple mountain structure of the Khmer Hindu places of worship also accommodates large crowds, but in the outer areas of the grounds; the inner areas are difficult to reach, and the sacred space is small and hidden from the casual eye. I love that the book made me look at the temple in a different way, and also had me reflect anew on the churches I’d been to before.
None of the buildings from the city surrounding the temple (the “angkor” part of “Angkor Wat”) have survived. They were likely made from wood, unlike the sandstone, brick, and laterite of the temples. This means that a lot of imagination is required to envision what it must have looked like in its heyday, a little harder than putting paint on the Forum in Rome, but not as difficult as seeing the cooking fires smoking at the side of Uluru. I stood on the east end of one of the interior walls of the temple and looked out over the forest that stretched to the moat nearly two miles away. All this forest was once royal palace, regular houses, streets, food stalls, markets–all populated with one of the largest concentrations of humanity in the pre-industrial age.
This is all about Angkor Wat, but let’s not forget that the Angkor period lasted several hundred years, and almost every king built at least one temple (perhaps as a mausoleum for himself, the god-king), so there are nearly a thousand temples in the area. Dozens of these have been restored and opened to the public. It all seems an embarrassment of riches once you see Angkor Wat. Not only is there this magnificent complex, but there are more–and in different styles, with their own delightful carvings and architectural quirks? I enjoyed discovering those temples as well; stay tuned this week for more on those.
I went to Angkor, World Heritage site and location of dozens of ancient temples renowned for their architecture, carvings, and historical importance, in March of this year. I read up a little on what to expect before I went, but was still tripped up by a few things I discovered on the ground. Here’s my advice for how to visit the temples with minimum fuss and maximum enjoyment. Share your own tips in the comments!
Buy the 7-day pass for $60, if you have a flexible schedule and at least four days in the area. I bought the 3-day pass for $40, intending to use every day in full, but then I stepped outside and almost fainted from the humid heat (we’re talking over 100 degrees Fahrenheit every day). If I’d had the 7-day pass I could have done half-days in the mornings and escaped to air conditioning in the afternoons, but as it was I had to push on through the heat. I still didn’t fit in everything I wanted to see, so I had to buy a 1-day pass for $20 for my last trip out there. If I’d spent that $60 upfront, I’d have had more time in the park for the same amount of money.
Bring at least a liter of water to drink and plan to buy at least another liter while at the park. It is 40*C/104*F on a regular basis here.
Bring a bandana or handkerchief. You’ll use it as a sweat rag during the amazingly humid days, and also as a face mask during your tuk-tuk rides on the often dusty roads.
Bring snacks, and a full lunch if you can swing it. Unlike in town, no one’s pulling a food cart all over the parks, and there are just a few places where restaurants are set up. I got hungry climbing up and down the many stairs of the temples, and was glad of the fruit and granola I had in my bag. Of course, your driver will know of the perfect little place to take you when it’s lunchtime, and they all seemed more or less the same to me, so why not say yes and let him have his commission?
Plot your trip ahead of time. If you’re just going for a day and you want to catch sunrise and sunset at Angkor Wat and maybe see the Tomb Raider temple, then you’re fine and your tuk-tuk driver will have no trouble getting you to each place with plenty of time. However, if you have more time and want to explore the temples in more depth, work out with your driver ahead of time exactly where you want to go and in what order, and generally at about what time. My driver thought I would take less time than I did at each temple I went to, so he was surprised I couldn’t do his normal itinerary in one day, but I know I take a long time seeing sights, so I wasn’t surprised. I should have communicated better with my driver about timing, though, so that we both knew what to expect.
Bring a proper cardigan or long-sleeved shirt when going to Angkor Wat and Phnom Bakheng. I had a scarf to cover my shoulders as a sign of respect, which was fine at other temples, but at Angkor Wat and Bakheng I was turned away. I was told I needed to have a proper shirt–because a scarf is too easy to take off? I’m not sure what the reasoning was, but the guards were absolutely strict on this, despite there being no warnings about such rules at the ticket office or anywhere else, and as a result I never got to climb to the very top of Angkor Wat (yep, I planned to do it on my last day there, oops).
Plan more than one sunrise at Angkor Wat, if your schedule and sleepyhead ways can swing it. I only made it to one, and it was gorgeous, but I was torn between staying by the pond with the hundreds of other visitors to see the full sunrise, and scooting into the temple after a few minutes to explore while it was mostly still empty. I ended up doing the latter, and I do not regret that at all, but it would have been nice to have gone another time and just relaxed for sunrise.
Lose your pass. That ticket just cost you at least $20, and they won’t replace it. At nearly every temple I entered, I needed to show my pass before I could climb the steps of the actual temple, so don’t think you only need it at the entrance, either. They take your photo and put it on the pass when you buy the ticket, so there’s no mistaking whose ticket is whose.
Pay attention to guidebooks that say you need a special ticket to get non-consecutive passes. That may have been true in past years, but not anymore. If you buy a 3-day pass, you can use it on any three days in a week, and you can use a 7-day pass any seven days in a month.
Forget to bring or buy a guidebook. There are no helpful placards here, no clear markers next to exhibits of note. You can hire a guide for the day, and I overheard some great guides sharing in-depth information, but I also heard some impenetrable accents and bare-bones introductions to the sites, so the quality of the guides varies and it can get pricey to hire one if you’re on your own. I bought Ancient Angkor by Michael Freeman and Claude Jacques, and it proved pretty useful. There’s a lot of history up front and then the sections on specific temples focus more on the architecture. It was last updated in 2003 and there have been improvements to the park since then, so some of the info on what is accessible is outdated. I got the book for $8 at a bookstore in town, and then six different touts tried to sell me the same one for $1 at the park itself. You can go that route, but realize it’s probably an illegal copy so the publisher isn’t getting paid, and of course the tout sees maybe a few pennies of that money.
Stress about getting from Siem Reap to the park. Your guesthouse/hostel/hotel will have tuk-tuk drivers they can call, guaranteed. The only thing you’ll need to do is negotiate price, which you can prepare for by looking online to see what other people have paid in the past. If you’re fancy, you can take an air-conditioned car, but tuk-tuks are much more affordable and perfectly comfortable (see above about a face mask, though). Hopping on the back of a motorcycle is even cheaper, but if you’re fat they might not let you, even if you’ve done this before and you know it’ll be fine. You can also bicycle there, if bicycling in 90% humidity at 100 degree temperatures appeals to you. Pretty decent roads, not sure where you’d lock it up, scary drivers to share the road with, but you do get to set your own pace and schedule.
Try to go against the grain on the prescribed routes in the temples. There are no markers telling you what you’re looking at, as I mentioned, but there are plenty of signs telling you which way to walk once you’re in the temple. These are set up to manage the flow of the crowds, and are really helpful. You can always dart off to the side and come back or take a seat if you need a breather, but try not to turn around and head the opposite way everyone else is going. You’re gumming up the works. Of course, some temples don’t have a prescribed path, so you can hop about all you like there.
Hello, dearest fellow travelers! We are now moving from Singapore to Cambodia in the ACAM Project. I’ve been reading A Short History of Cambodia: From Empire to Survival by John Tully, and so far I’m liking it as a very brief overview. One of the things that Tully emphasizes is that there are so few records of Cambodia before the 16th century. Unlike the ancient and well-documented civilizations of China and Japan to the north, the Khmer people live in the hot, wet land of southeast Asia, which doesn’t do so well for preservation of paper. So what we know of the history of Cambodia is largely taken from what visitors wrote about it over the years, and also a bit from stone inscriptions.
The ancestors of the Khmer people built the city of Angkor in the 9th century CE, and at its height it was the largest city in antiquity, with a population of 1 million. One million people in one place in the pre-industrial age! For comparison, London grew hugely in the 16th century and still only reached 225,000. So Angkor, today a giant ruin of temples and not much else, was, for several hundred years, the largest city in the world.
Tully is eager to emphasize that the massive building projects of Angkor were all based on a huge slave population. I got a bit uncomfortable with his descriptions of the “overweening egotism and peculiar religiosity” (p. 25) of the devarajas (god-kings) who ruled over their enslaved subjects and commissioned giant temples. I’m not uncomfortable with pointing out the barbarism of slavery, but there are several other places in the book where Tully draws comparisons between the Angkor people and other ancient peoples, which helps put their culture in context. I mean, when I read about tens of thousands of slaves dragging several tons’ worth of stone to a building location to construct an enormous temple made for the glory of a god-king, the first thing I thought of was the ancient Egyptians. Right? Pharaohs, gods incarnate, built pyramids as massive tombs for themselves, to be filled with materials to carry into the afterlife; and all at the considerable expense of slaves’ sweat and blood. But Tully never draws this comparison, which strikes me as odd.
Maybe the constructions weren’t similar enough for him? He says several times that the wats were an unprecedented religious construction; they were temples and mausoleums at the same time. So they weren’t like a church or mosque, which may have some tombs in it but serves the main purpose of being a place of worship for people; nor were they like pyramids or large tombs, which serve the main purpose of housing the deceased. They were places to worship the deity Vishnu or Shiva, but only through worshiping the god’s manifestation on earth, the god-king’s body. (Or at least this is what I got from re-reading the relevant chapter over and over; please correct me in the comments if I’m missing something.)
Speaking of religion, the wats (yep, the Angkor Wat is the largest religious construction of what used to be this major city, and that’s how it got that name) were part of a strain of Hinduism practiced in Angkor, influenced by Mahayana Buddhism and Khmer folk beliefs (p. 39). Tully references historians who believe that the decline of these religions and the rise of Theravada Buddhism contributed greatly to the decline of the Angkor empire. The drive to build monuments glorifying one man, at the expense of thousands of men who literally lived to serve him, was a concept supported by Hindu and Mahayana Buddhist beliefs. Theravada Buddhism, on the other hand, emphasized living a simple life resigned to suffering. This resignation to suffering may have comforted the laborers, but the more democratic focus on achieving nirvana by living a good life rather than making great displays may have stirred up discontent among them as well and undermined the devaraja rule. (Please note that I am not familiar with the particulars of various strains of Buddhism, so I’m paraphrasing Tully here, who is talking about Buddhism as it was practiced 1000 years ago. These may not be the same as current iterations of the religion.)
Tully points to two other major factors in the decline of the Angkor empire: increased raids by neighboring Siam (today known as Thailand), and environmental destruction. The city (which was spread over a large swath of land) depended on a particular system of irrigation canals. Deforestation above the canals caused damage to the water and soil below, which destroyed many fish and introduced still water patches perfect for malarial mosquitoes to breed in.
So the people believe in a more equitable religion, one that denounces material things, right around the time armies are invading, and old farming and forestry practices are destroying the people’s habitat. Easy to see how these factors combined to kill and displace people, and transform the population of a mighty kingdom into a minor city and eventually a grand ruin.
Photos from here; photo 1 taken by Trey Ratcliff, photo 2 taken by Philip Lock.