Friday, February 5, 2010

Angkor Wat.... first visit

On our fourth day in Siem Reap it was finally time to visit the vast temple attraction of Angkor Wat. Since this temple is unique in that it faces west rather situated facing east as are most Hindu temples, that means photography is normally not very good during mornings. The morning sun ruins photos taken facing the temple grounds. The guide books recommend visiting Angkor Wat in the afternoon. We decided to go in the morning because it is cooler. We could always come back another afternoon to take photos.

Our tuk-tuk driver dropped us off at the front entrance and moved to wait in the nearby tuk-tuk parking area under the shade of the big trees. Immediately we were pounced upon by children trying to sell us one thing or another. Sorry, kids; not buying anything to carry around all day. The crowds were already building as one big tour bus after another deposited passengers near the front entrance esplanade. If the crowds are supposed to be in the afternoons rather than in the morning, then we definitely made the right decision to come early. It was crowded enough during this non-crowded time. We were a bit surprised to hear even Polish and Russian along with lots of French, German, Dutch and Italian. Many, many tourists from China and a few busloads from Korea and Japan. Tourists were from all points of the globe.

We strolled up the causeway across the 200-meter wide moat that surrounds the temple complex. There are basically 3 rectangular "rings" around the inner temple at Angkor Wat. The outer wall is 2.2 miles long surrounding the temple complex. I cannot conceive of the manpower required to build this place about nine hundred years ago. The photo at left shows the distance between the first gallery and the entrance to the second gallery. Photo was taken about 30 feet from the entrance of the second gallery, looking back towards the rear side of the first gallery. The temple was built in the early 12th century by order of King Suryavarman II as the state temple. After his death, the temple was sacked by the Cham from Vietnam, the traditional enemies of the Khmer. Later the Khmer empire was restablished in the region by another king. This later king built another temple very close by called Bayon. We would see it next.

Inside the outer wall of Angkor Wat are 3 rectangular galleries, each raised higher progressively toward the center. The second rectangular gallery has 4 spires/domes and the central gallery has the highest spire/dome at 65 meters. These 5 spires are in the shape of closed lotus blossoms and form the very distinctive shape of the central area of Angkor Wat. The central gallery is higher than any cathedral built in Europe during that time period. The actual sanctuary inside the top of the central gallery is very small. When the temple became Buddhist, this is where a small statue of Buddha was placed for worship. The only people allowed in this small sanctuary were 2 Buddhist priests who brought offerings each morning to the statue. An enormous temple complex surrounding a small statue to worship. Today there are several Buddha shrines placed in the lower level of the central gallery as well as the Buddha shrine in the dark hallway in the second gallery. There might have been more shrines that we missed because we did not walk the entire gallery complexes.

Angkor Wat was originally a Hindu temple dedicated to the god Visnu. But later it became a Buddhist temple. The guide books and a Discovery show we watched claim that Angkor Wat was overtaken by the jungle and forgotten until it was rediscovered by Frenchman Henri Mouhot in 1860. Balderdash! Angkor Wat was overtaken by the jungle. The wide moat helped a lot to protect from the jungle, but the jungle still managed to invade the temple grounds and severely damaged the stone buildings in the process; but this temple has also remained in constant use for worship by local residents and inhabited by either Hindu or Buddhist priests for the entire time of its existence---about nine hundred years.

The first western visitor to Angkor Wat was a Portuguese monk in 1586. Afterwards, rumours of this special place circulated for centuries. After the "rediscovery" by the western world in 1860, the French became very interested and began efforts to salvage the temple from grips of the jungle. This salvage effort continues today with monies provided by UNESCO and also through contributions from many countries. There is a restoration project in the central gallery currently underway until December 2010 that is financed by France.

Shortly after we entered the second gallery a Buddhist priest blocked the walkway forward and insisted we turn left and enter a dark hallway. Bill stepped over the high stone doorway threshold with no problems. Being a bit shorter, I have a shorter stride. When I stepped from the bright sunlit open room through the opening into the dark hallway, my right foot went into a deep depression in the stone floor and I went tumbling down and sprained my ankle. There was another Buddhist monk in the dark hallway and he said "Look down, madam; always look down." Well, excuse me, buddy. Madam was looking down but couldn't see the floor stones in the dark. The monk then did 5 bows to a little Buddha statue and asked me for a donation to Buddha. My ankle was hurting badly and I was in no mood to donate anything to Buddha at that moment. I hobble away looking for a place to sit for awhile.

When the throbbing stopped we continued to walk around the second gallery. Something I found particularly interesting were the ceilings of parts of the galleries. Much of the stone both on the walls and on the ceiling were covered in what must have been a plaster of some kind. A few of the walls and ceilings had multi-colored plaster still in place. Obviously at one time this temple or parts of this temple was decorated with bright colors. In the limited research I had done on Angkor Wat, no where did I read anything about the possibility of the walls and ceilings being decoratively colored.

Inside the second gallery there also were two sunken areas that appeared to be like swimming pools. Of course there was no water in these sunken areas but that is what they reminded us of. I have no idea what these large rectangular pits were used for.

We slowly made our way to the central gallery. Soon the realization set in that if we did not start toward the entrance that I wasn't going to be able to walk out of there. The entrance causeway across the moat and the causeway between the first and second galleries were both very long and I was having a difficult time hobbling along. We slowly made it to the tuk-tuk and that was the end of any walking for me for the day. Bill tried not to jump for joy that I wouldn't be dragging him through any more temples. Little did he know that I still expected him to visit a few temples and take photos while I sat in the tuk-tuk. Our day was not over yet.

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