First Visit to Angkor Wat

So you plan to visit one of the world’s famous monuments like Angkor Wat in Siem Reap, Cambodia, and now you’re finally there… now what? I think for most first-time visitors coming to Angkor Wat, what they’re expecting to see is something that’s big, grandeur, magnificent, as that’s what you read about or even see in travel programs featuring the place. But just like many other iconic places like that in the world (the Grand Canyon and Statue of Liberty came to mind), you really need to come and see it in person to be able to put your own words on the experience. And I think a combination of having done some homework to learn about the place, having a knowledgeable guide to accompany you experiencing the place, and being observant of what you’re seeing around you (the details, other visitors’ take on the experience, the locals, etc.) would enhance your experience there.

For me, prior to coming to Angkor Wat, I had done some cursory readings of guidebooks on Cambodia (the ones from Lonely Planet and National Geographic Traveler are quite good) and watched a couple of travel programs on TV on Angkor Wat / Cambodia. So in my mind, I had quite an expectation of seeing something ‘grand’ and ‘large in scale’. As I mentioned yesterday, the initial approach to Angkor Wat was not what I expected. After getting our entrance pass to visit the temples, we continued our drive, and we saw what looked like a lake or river on the side of the road. I asked Vanna our tour guide if that was a lake, and he said, ‘No, that’s the moat that surrounds Angkor Wat. You’re looking at Angkor Wat across the moat.’ From the distance, we only saw trees in a forest across the moat; there were no magnificent temples to see from the ground level. But few minutes after, we approached the west side of the complex where the entrance gate and bridge was located, and then I saw the outer part of the magnificent temple complex for the first time.

Our driver dropped us near the bridge, and after showing our newly-printed entrance pass to an official who checked that near the bridge, we walked across the bridge just like hundreds of other visitors to enter the temple complex. Honestly, at that moment, with so many visitors who are clearly tourists (a large number of them came as part of large tour groups in big tour buses), it felt more like walking in from parking lot to the entrance of an amusement park. Fortunately we didn’t have to wait for a long time to go through the gopura (gate) to get to the pathway towards the main temple building. This was where you could hear the ‘oooh’ and ‘aaah’ from the visitors and they saw the panoramic view of the magnificent temple building for the first time.

The next thing I noticed was that there were a lot of tourists there. We came to visit towards the end of the year where it was somewhat of a ‘high tourist season’ there, so that was somewhat expected. But there were a LOT of them… So we had to work our way around large tour groups as we walked into and toured the interior of the temple building.

We spent about three hours walking around the temple interior. Vanna turned out to be quite knowledgeable about the history and the details of the temple — I could tell he’s done his own study on the topic, and had done the tours many times before). He gave us an overview of the history of the Khmer Empire around the time when Angkor Wat was built. King Suryawarman II built the temple as his state temple and capital, and since he dedicated the temple to the Hindu god Vishnu, some said that was the reason why Angkor Wat complex is oriented to the west, contrary to most of other temples in the area that had eastward orientation.

Around the temple interior visitors can observe the galleries of bas-reliefs that depicted stories from Hindu epics Ramayana and Mahabharata and one section depicting King Suryawarman II and the life in the Khmer kingdom at the time. As we went through these galleries, Vanna gave pretty good overview of the scenes/stories that were depicted on the wall. I tried to follow along, but honestly there were so many details that after a while things kind of blurred together in my head, so I thought I’d just remember the main themes, and focus on taking detailed photographs of parts of the bas-reliefs that seemed to be good representatives of the story, and moved on. I think that’s probably similar case for most of the visitors who came there — they didn’t spend as much time looking for the details because they were part of large tour group that had to keep moving on, or they didn’t care as much learning about the details. If you really want to take in as much as you can and appreciate what you’re seeing there, I think it’s probably best if you allocate at least a day of your visit to be go there on your own and just take your time to observe the details.

The photo below was taken as we toured the interior of the temple. This was one of around 3,000 apsara (celestial dancer) figures that were carved on the temple walls. This particular one looked like she was looking from behind the wall of carving, and the afternoon light came through at an interesting angle from the left.

Apsara behind the wall

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