31 March 2012

Angkor Wat - a replica of the universe in stone

Angkor Wat's serene moat
If you think a sunrise (or sunset) at Angkor Wat is impressive, a daytime visit will blow your mind away! The sheer statistics of Angkor Wat are impressive! Built in approximately 1113-1150 AD and occupying about 210 hectares (500 acres) with a moat 200 meters (600 feet) wide, a perimeter of 5,5 kilometers and a height to the top level of the central tower of 65 meters (213 feet), Angkor Wat is a colossal mass of stone and art. Of course I did not measure this myself, but my excellent guide mentioned it. Unfortunately the number of tourists is as great (in a negative sense). But this is where a good tour guide comes into play again!

One of the Gates to Angkor Wat
I will not give instructions here on this blog on how to avoid the crowds. That would be really unfair to my tour guide, but he did manage to get me into Angkor Wat in a way that made me feel alone with only myself and the huge temple. The exception being of course the inner sanctuary, where you cannot avoid  tourists. But an expert guide can still time your visit at a "quiet" moment of the day. 

A replica of the universe set in stone
My first impression of Angkor Wat on this second visit was almost in a serene setting, as if I had the whole monument for myself. The soft morning light added a lot of atmosphere while my guide explained a bit of the history and we entered the gates to walk around the inner walls and into the galleries.

The huge relief of The Churning Of The Sea Of Milk 
I loved the galleries, which I had missed on my first visit to Angkor Wat because I walked with my book in a self-guided tour.  So, I wanted to spent quite a bit of time looking at the amazing details of the galleries of Bas-reliefs. And there is more detail than we can comprehend on a quick one day visit. We did pay attention to the "Victory of Vishnu over the Asuras" and  "Churning Of The Sea of Milk" and my guide really provided a lot of details, which I enjoyed, given that I had read a lot about it before.
"Heaven And Hell" relief was pretty graphic and we continued to study the "Procession Of Suryavarman II And His Troops" relief, which was also very impressive. Impressive it is, if you are interested in this kind of thing. Well, I am. By the time we reached the reliefs we did run into groups of tourists who all followed their guides with a clueless impression on their face! 

"Libraries" on the third level
The upper levels of Angkor Wat started to fill up with tourists and we did brief visits to the Hall of Echoes, which was a horrible experience with everyone thinking they had to scream in order to do their own version of an echo. At this point, both my guide and I got bit frustrated with the behaviour of tourists. Angkor Wat is after all a temple and not Disney World. Some people forgot their manners and others seemed to have forgotten (or never had) a good taste in their clothing.  As my friends from Malaysia will attest, I am a big fan of shorts, but here I will wear long pants out of respect. Tank tops and shoulder free blouses are a NO NO and it will just be a matter of time before the APSARA AUTHORISATION, the organizing body for Angkor Wat, will follow temples like the Borobudur on Java, where everyone will have to wear a long sarong. No matter how short or long the pants or skirts are.

Monks wondering around in the cloisters became "an object" to many camera lenses and it was impossible to get away from the stream of tourists. But I knew that was the case, so I focused my attention to the galleries, the Buddha statues or the nearly 1850 Apsaras, the celestial nymphs, which adorn the walls. 

View from the top over the rainforest
The inner courtyard of Angkor Wat was a zoo as you can see from the photos of my former blog . No way to avoid it, other than the good timing of my guide, which enabled me to get up and down the central sanctuary before the waiting line was as long as the entire wall of the third level. I almost took a pass at the option to go up but my guide said that I had to because the view from the top is still awesome. And it was awesome! You just have to block out all the other people who are here with you, but I did have a few serene moments where I enjoyed the spot and the view all by myself. The tours seem to come and leave as a group, so I just had to wait a bit. 
Steep stairway to the upper level

On my first visit in the year 2000 we were still alone on the top and the steep staircases were still accessible. They are blocked off now and all visitors climb up and down by using the wooden staircase and the handles provided on the south side. 

Mass tourism set aside, this is a very special place on earth and I would not have missed visiting it. And I will in fact visit it a third time soon! It is after all symbolizing the mythical Mount Meru, at the center of the universe and mentally cutting out the other tourists can be seen as a form of meditation.

Angkor Wat from the air
Besides actually walking through the halls of Angkor Wat and it's galleries, I found it as rewarding to see the temple from far, from the air or from a nearby mountain. 

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