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Angkor Wat, Cambodia

on 06/25/2015 in Siem Reap

I’ve recently returned from Cambodia where I spent a few days exploring the ancient temples of Angkor Wat. By far the most magnificent religious monument in the world, what remains is a structure so grand, so remarkable; it’s hard to believe that it exists today. Imagine yourself living in the 12th century, during the height of the Khmer Empire. More than 750,000 people lived in the city of Angkor, working the land for agriculture, building a great Royal Palace where lavish banquets and music and dance and celebration abounded. Through several centuries, war and unrest created turmoil in the country and eventually Angkor Wat was abandoned. This incredible monument is located in the northern jungles of Cambodia and over time, the ruins were engulfed by trees, only to become forgotten. In 1880 they were discovered by a French Archeologist and restoration work has been underway ever since to preserve what remains.

The temple itself is made up of thousands of limestone blocks, all intricately carved. In fact, more stones were used to build Angkor Wat than the Great Pyramid of Egypt. But what are unique are the stories and myths that are carved along the outer walls of the lower terrace. Stories of war, of good and evil, battles won and lost.

An astounding representation of history! Several steps take you to the second terrace with multiple galleries. Windows with twisted carved columns and hundreds of sculptures of celestial dancers adorn the interior walls. The third terrace, used by only the King and the High Priest, is the most stunning part of the temple. The central terrace features five intricately carved towers, one for each corner and a central shrine, each one standing 65 metres high, and carved in the shape of a budding flower. A visit on the third level is not for the faint of heart, but those that can manage the steep stairs are rewarded with views of the entire temple and the surrounding moat and city walls.

Angkor Wat is only one part of what remains of this great city. Many other monuments exist and it takes days to explore the most well-preserved. A visit to Angkor Thom must not be missed. As you approach the south gate of the Temple, the avenue is lined with statues of the Gods on the left, and demons with fierce facial expressions on the right. The gate itself is an impressive structure with a portal large enough for an elephant to pass through, and topped off with a huge 4-headed deity representing each direction of the sun. The highlight of Angkor Thom is the Bayon, a complex religious temple, with a mass of towers, all with sculpted images of 4 faces representing compassion, wisdom and enlightenment. These giant faces are several feet high and everywhere you turn they look upon you with a gentle smile. The experience is quite delightful.

Ta Prohm, a temple monastery and movie set for the Tomb Raider series, is an eerie but fascinating set of ruins. On approach, the jungle is dense and humid, and the sunlight filters through the trees with a mist that seems to hover over the swamps. In the distance you hear music, barely audible, but you can detect its sadness. Walking along the forest path emotions rise; fear, curiosity, and intrigue. We are greeted by a group of musicians, all victims of land mines, playing with their hearts in the hope of making a living from the many visitors who pass through. The temple itself is a series of partially collapsed buildings and shrines, most covered in green moss and many intertwined with the roots of the strangler fig trees and cotton trees. The seeds of the trees were likely deposited by birds, and as they grew, the roots worked their way through the crevices of the stone, becoming part of the structure, pushing blocks apart and holding others together. A visit to Ta Prohm is like having a part in an enchanting movie.

If time permits, there are many more temples to see in Angkor. I would recommend a visit of 4 days, enough to see all the major temples and time to revisit certain ones at dawn and dusk when the sun casts a golden glow upon the ruins.

Angkor is located 6 miles north of the Siem Reap, a town of 70,000 people and growing rapidly due to tourism. It’s a delightful place to spend a few days and with many 5* hotels, one can spend their days exploring the temples, and return to their hotel for excellent dining and leisure facilities. I will never forget the people I met in Cambodia and I was astounded by how happy they are. Despite the atrocities they have suffered, they have an incredible spirit and great determination to survive. Angkor is one of the world’s best-kept secrets. Enjoy it now, for one day mass tourism will take over and its temples will be off limits.

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