Second day in Cambodia and I couldn’t wait any longer to go and see Angkor. I asked Good Old Nell to pick me up at 9am and drive me up to the site. The word site really doesn’t do it justice though. The greater Angkor region is a massive archaeological city with hundreds of buildings, water features and terraces. The sheer scale of it all was breath taking. As the tuk-tuk roared up to Angkor Wat’s and the west gate came into view my heart was racing.
A gigantic smile across my face, I laughed aloud as its sheer majesty became apparent. I took my time as I walked along through the gate and along the paved causeway, breathing it all in.
I will never forget that first proper look. Rising like a mountain from the surrounding landscape, the quincunx of towers are a truly remarkable sight. I had to refrain from simply running in. Everything about Angkor Wat is perfectly grand, from the intricately detailed carvings and bas reliefs to its geometrically beautiful layout. The fact that construction began in the early 12th century, more than 900 hundred years ago, reinforces what a truly impressive feat of human endeavour it is.
I spent hours walking the corridors, visiting every room and gazing at the carvings. The temple-mountain’s tiered levels are linked by steep, daunting staircases, worn smooth by the passing of the generations, and the physicality of ascending adds to the spirituality of the experience. Everywhere the eye wanders there are wonders.
Angkor Wat was very busy during my visit with accents from around the world ringing out but thankfully not too many ‘selfie-sticks’. The more I explored however the quieter it became with some parts, including the huge sculpture panels, all but deserted. I wonder how many people visit sites like this to take a quick photo and then move on?
My camera was very active during the day but before every shot, I took a moment to think about what I was looking at, the enormity and history of it all. To see Angkor Wat first hand is more than just a visit to an old temple, it is a personal experience, where it is possible to feel a connection to the deep past of humanity and revel in its glory.
Part of me could have stayed there for months wondering the hallowed passages, indeed, part of me will remain there forever. Time on this visit was short however and there was so much more still to see. I also had the luxury of knowing I am here for a good long while, so I will defiantly be going back. After a few hours I met back up with Nell and he took me north to Angkor Thom and all the wondrous spenders it had to offer.
Angkor Thom covers a mind-bending 9km2, bigger than the island I grew up on, and is filled with vast array of buildings. We began by stopping at the southern gateway to admire the rows of smiling statues which line the causeway of the moat. After another 5 minutes tuk-tuking, Nell dropped me off at Bayon temple in the centre of the complex and told me to make my way to the Terrace of The Elephants and, to take my time.
Whereas Angkor Wat stands like a mountain, Bayon is more like a cliff, staunch and unrelenting against the passing of time. Whilst parts have fallen through the ages, the spectacle it was designed to impart remains. The famous four-faced towers smile serenely at you as you climb more steep steps. At first it was slight odd to have an amused head staring at you wherever you went but quickly it became strangely reassuring, like there was someone looking out for you with their blessing. Already the number of tourists was in decline and peace and serenity were much more common. The temple feels cramped inside which adds to the omnipresence of the faces. It feels like everywhere you travel along the narrow walkways, they go with you. The last of the great Khmer temple-palace complexes rightly has stood the test of time
Heading north from Bayon, I wandered for a few hours through the area and around every corner, behind every tree there was more and more to see. The palaces, terraces, shrines and walkways in the Angkor Thom area go from near completion to almost total destruction and that adds to their charm and mystery. Where renovation has occurred it has been with grace, precision and care to ensure the experience and authenticity remains. The tranquillity wandering through the jungle, seeing so many incredible things is an experience all of its own.
A highlight was rounding a corner to see a small half-ruined shrine with three Buddhist monks worshipping. One looked up as he heard me. I instantly turned to leave the men in solitude but he politely smiled and returned to his thoughts. I took a moment to reflect on the nature of the site. It really highlighted to me the living nature of the place. Monuments are created to commemorate, temples to be worshipped in. It is important that we preserve, record and study these things but it also important that we always remember that the past is alive and influences us today. The monks at that shrine were not there to admire the architecture (although I am sure they appreciate it), they were there to continue a centuries old tradition of worship.
Having finally seen the incredible acts of human construction and engineering my mind was awash with questions. How did a pre-industrial society created such monuments? How did the rulers of the time manage to organise such labour and what was their purpose in doing so? How many people would have been needed to construct the monuments and how did the economy function to allow so much to be done? It is impossible not to be overwhelmingly impressed by the grandeur of it all. Let’s hope the research goes well and I can start to answer some of these and the thousands of more questions swimming round my head!
(Lots more photos on the second Blog post!)