There’s nothing like coming face to face with the world’s largest historic religious monument and realizing how minuscule you are in the course of things.
Standing on the grand threshold, barely coming halfway up one of the temple pillars, I suddenly remembered the sonnet by Percy Bysshe Shelley titled “Ozymandias”.
I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
Power fades, kingdoms decline and man’s very own pride become insignificant over the passage of time. The only thing left are a bunch of stones that will last forever. The Angkor Wat has stood for centuries and won’t be going anywhere for years to come. Unless the aliens come back.
A visit to Cambodia or Southeast Asia in general, without dropping by to see the ancient temples will make your life meaningless. It’s the country’s official symbol, it’s even on the national flag.
Enough with the serious stuff, let’s get to the tour.
What’s Up at the Angkor Wat?
The tour begins by crossing over the massive 4-lane bridge over the manmade moat. I believe it used to be home to man-eating crocodiles but the tour guide reassured us that only leeches are in the moat.
Then you reach the gate and just when you think you’re there, another mile-long bridge stretches out to the main temple entrance. Keep a relaxed pace, stroll and check the sights, you don’t want to be exhausted before climbing the first level.
For photography enthusiasts, the best time of the day to visit Angkor Wat is by mid-afternoon because otherwise the sun is behind the temple and your pictures will all be against the light.
Best Tip: Hire an official tour guide (in uniform) for $10/group. It’s worth the extra cost. The guide’s english may be hard to understand but hey at least you won’t be going around in circles. The temple complex is HUGE.
Stand at the Center of the Universe and contemplate life in the Gallery of 1000 Buddhas. There are no more statues and scrolls and ancient treasures left. Most have been stolen and destroyed, the rest are in the Museum.
Climb to the second level where the meditation happens for the commonfolk. If you’re still up for it, climb the highest tower to get to the topmost level. That’s where the king and his family goes to meditate. Back in the day, the high priest used to live up there, conjuring spells and conducting virgin sacrifices. Just kidding, totally not true.
Coming up next, pictures! Enjoy.
At first it was a Hindu temple dedicated to Vishnu, then another king came in and changed it into a Buddhist temple in honor of Buddha. The temple had quite an identity crisis for a while. That was the least of Angkor Wat’s problems though.
In the 70’s, communist leader Pol Pot killed 25 percent of the population in Cambodia in his quest to create an agrarian society where everybody in the country was forced to work in the farms. 2 million people were killed in the Khmer Rouge.
The communists defaced all the temples by cutting off the heads and arms of all statues. They believed that by doing this, the spirits of the gods would flee the temple. Without their gods and without the freedom to practice their religion, the Cambodian people became helpless.
Today, the Cambodian people have slowly risen from the ashes. They have restored their temples and their faith in Buddha and Vishnu. The temples remain standing, a testament to the people’s resilience.
Angkor Wat should not be missed. If you do, you will literally miss a world of experiences.