“Heaven on Earth”, that’s how the Lonely Planet described Angkor Wat. European cathedrals are “nothing compared to Angkor Wat”. To be honest, I’ve never been a fan of European cathedrals. Nice to look, but once you’ve seen one you’ve seen pretty much all of them. Unless you’re an architect or church-addict and can appreciate the fine details. I made a similar experience with temples in Asia. Nice to visit, but after a while you’ve seen them all.
So I was skeptical about Angkor Wat. Can it be that good as everyone says? Is it really “Heaven on Earth”?
Well, not sure whether it qualifies as “Heaven on Earth”. But Angkor Wat and the surrounding temples are the most amazing buildings I’ve ever seen in my life. It simply beats everything.
Let me provide you with a quick introduction first: Angkor Wat is the largest Hindu temple complex in the World. What the Vatican is to Catholics, Angkor Wat is to the Hindus. Angkor Wat was built in the 12th century and surrounded by a massive city. More than 1 million people lived there at the time, a time when big European cities like London just had a few ten thousand inhabitants.
What is mind-blowing about Angkor is the sheer size of it. What we refer to as “Angkor Wat” is just the main temple structure. One out of many temples. To visit other temples in the area, count in a solid two or three full days and rent a tuck-tuck to get around. Some people prefer to use a bike, but the climate is brutal (hot and humid) and distances far. The whole area exceeds 25 sq km.
Let’s start with the main temple – Angkor Wat. The temple was built to praise Vishnu, a popular Hindu God, and beats any religious monument I’ve ever come across.
Angkor Wat replicates what people back then believed is to be our universe. In the middle you find what should symbolize Mount Meru, the center of the universe (make sure to go all the way up to the top, but the stairs are steep), it’s surrounded by smaller peaks (smaller towers) and the continents (courtyards). The small lakes outside the main temple represent the oceans.
And oceans they are. You see, the area on which Angkor Wat is built on is a massive swamp. Get off track and you’ll sink in mud. So how did they manage to built temples made out of stone, weighing thousands of tons? Plus, if that isn’t hard enough to achieve, how on earth did they manage that these temples are still there, 800 years later?
It turns out, the Khmer were brilliant builders and engineers. All the building activities had to take place during the dry season, just three to four months out of every year (November to February). No wonder it took them decades to finish. November to February are the only dry months in Cambodia when temperature are bearable. I visited in October and it was still a steaming hot 30C and more than 90% humidity.
To make sure the temples don’t sink in the swamp, the Khmer came up with a well-thought water control system. During the rain season the lakes around the temples collect the water, making sure the temple’s foundation remains dry.
Angkor Wat is not the only temple worth a visit. Angkor Thom, just north of Angkor Wat, beats Angkor Wat in many respects. What you will first realize are the massive gates that lead into Angkor Thom. There are four gates, North, South, East and West that allows you to penetrate the fortress-like wall. Inside you will see the Bayon, a temple built by Jayavarman VII, one of Cambodia’s legendary kings. 1200m of bas-reliefs decorate the Bayon, depicting more than 11,000 figures. Fifty-four towers are erected throughout the Bayon and 216 smiling faces of Avalokiteshvara look down on you. Some say, though, the faces rather resemble the King himself. He seems to have been quite an eccentric person.
If you are in Angkor, make sure to visit Ta Prohm. It somehow reminded me of the old Indiana Jones movies I watched as a child. The first Tomb Raider movie was also filmed there. And it’s not hard to see why. It simply looks stunning. Massive trees simply grow out of the old temple structures. It is amazing how nature claims back what is hers.
But I shall keep quiet now and let the photos speak of themselves….