When I was a kid, I came across an old copy of the 1982 May issue of National Geographic. Since that moment, I have never forgotten the enigmatic stone face glaring out from that magazine’s cover and the fantastical images of the jungle-run ruins of Angkor held within its pages.
While planning a two week trip to Thailand, I simply couldn’t resist including in the itinerary a visit to neighboring Cambodia. After all, my childhood dream of traversing the temples of Angkor – and in particular, exploring the iconic structure of Angkor Wat – was within reach.
Thousands of miles and a two weeks later, I am over-the-moon excited to share some of my snapshots from an afternoon in Angkor Wat.
Influenced by India and the Indonesian island of Java, the Angkorian Empire began in the 9th century when King Jayavarman II took control and proclaimed himself to be the reincarnation of the Hindu god Shiva. Thus began a line of god-kings who ruled the Khmer people of Cambodia and the surrounding regions for a few hundred years. Each king constructed elaborate temples in the fashion of their beliefs, which alternated between Hinduism and Buddhism; every new temple had to be greater and grander than its predecessor. Constructed in the 1100s during their Golden Age, Angkor Wat was one of the last major temples of the Angkor Empire.
Intricate details clothe the stone of Angkor Wat with exquisite charm and mystical meanings. Entire walls and doorways are covered in delightfully decorative patterns, tiny etchings, and graceful embellishments rife symbolism and style. Unmistakable and unmissable are the apsara dancers – over three thousand of them – which line the buildings with their flirtatious smiles and whimsical hairstyles. Yet, these dynamic examples only scratch the surface: Angkor Wat’s artistic complexity is so vast that it would take much more than one afternoon to uncover all of its secrets.
Although the former home to fallen kings, Angkor Wat was never fully abandoned nor reclaimed by the jungle, like so many other sites across the Cambodian countryside. Even today, Angkor Wat still functions as an active temple. Buddhists monks have free access to the grounds, and they have established places of meditation and worship throughout the complex.
Of course, there were more people at Angkor than the peaceful monks, but my tour of the golden towered complex blessedly afforded me more solitude than many other visitors experience for two main reasons. First, I visited during the slow season; April is the hottest month of the year, when many recommend avoiding the oppressive heat and humidity. And second, I toured Angkor Wat the last two hours before closing.
Loads of folks arrive at Angkor Wat just before dawn so they can watch the sun rise directly behind the spiritual superstructure. As a result of this practice and the fact that Angkor Wat is the closest temple to the city of Siem Reap, this area can become fairly crowded in the morning. From my own experience, I can say that visiting during sunset was quite special and altogether spectacular.
Because of its magnificent scope and architectural mastery, Angkor Wat has become the Machu Picchu of Southeast Asia, now attracting more than 2 million visitors each year. This archeological wonder is the pride of the Khmer people, a precious key that unlocks great stories from our world’s history. But for all its importance and grandeur, local children still swim in the muddy moat waters just outside the main entrance – making it all the more extraordinary.
Hello readers! What do you think about Angkor Wat? Have you been somewhere that you learned about as a child but never imagined having the opportunity to visit?