Some things you encounter while traveling just have to actually be experienced – seen and smelled and touched and felt to be understood; an account just won’t be the same. Angkor Wat is one of those things. It doesn’t compare to anything else, you can describe and explain all you want, but the entire experience is so unique and unlike anything else, that telling the story will always feel insufficient. Of course, I can try. That is the whole point of writing.
The first time we visited Angkor Wat was at sunset, after an uneventful, recovering day. That was my favorite part of it all. It was peaceful, not an insane amount of people, that warm breeze brushing your face as the red light that only happens at sunset slowly warms you, inside and out. The feeling like the world is right underneath your feet. And that the rest of everything is spread out under your gaze.
All of these temples are so amazing – they are beautiful up close and just as beautiful far away. Up close they are detailed down to the embroidery in the elephant’s blanket: lightly brushed and faded by the elements of nature and time, rounding out their sharp angles, creating a softness in the entire scene. The weather has created its own pallet of colors, ranging from deep red to light green and an entire world of blacks, whites, and creams. From far away you can stare in awe at the craftsmanship, the work and the labor and the years. You observe the extremes – the height and the vastness and the intricately carved, never-ending stone – the entire view of the master piece is awe-inspiring. And there were so many.
When people hear Angkor Wat, they think of the main temple. But there is also Angkor Thom meaning “Big City”, with the famous Bayon temple. It has 54 towers, each with 4 large faces of the high priest. We walked around with the help of our guide (between the throngs of people and the identical looking towers it’s easy to get lost), prayed in the shrines and received braided bracelets, symbolising long life and good health for the family, from smiling women. The guide explained which king of the Khmer Empire built the temple; between the strong accent and the numerous long names, I couldn’t remember. I liked the faces built in; at first you wouldn’t notice, but once you do, you notice them everywhere, carved in and almost hidden by all of the colors.
We visited Ta Prohm, the temple that starred in Tomb Rider and where Angelina Jolie filmed, as the tour guide proudly explained to us, even though we’ve never watched the movie. This temple was built in the forest and over time the forest has taken it back. Massive old spung trees grow out of the passageways and temples, embracing, or is it strangling?, and growing right through the stone. Still, the reliefs of the apsara dancers (which are prominent in every temple) are still visible and admirable. I can’t imagine what everything looked like as it was discovered; in order to show us the temples we see today, different countries volunteer to restore / piece together the heap of rubble and still actively restore today. Temples hidden in the jungle are still being discovered…
One more thing that is difficult to explain accurately – the heat. The heat index was 100 degrees and up. The searing sun glared at us with such intensity you would have thought we would melt. It was truly like being in an oven. If you’ve ever been on a boat or where there is extremely strong wind, you know how you can almost reach out and touch the wind, as if it were a solid object. It was the same with the heat – I could almost grab it as it enveloped and surrounded us, never letting us go! After about 3 temples, our guide showed us another minor temple with little traffic. All we could do was sit there, too put out to climb more steep stairs. Thankfully he brought us to lunch then, which delivered a much-needed energy boost, carrying us through the rest of the day. Still, I don’t think there is a single video clip without Josephine peeping, “Mama? Mama? It’s so hot. Can we go? When are we going? Mama!“. At least until they started scraping the moss off of the piles of rock playing archeologist – now Emilia’s future career wish.
Angkor Wat was visited again last. Our tour guide explained the reliefs, detailing the fights between the Khmers, Chinese, and Arabs, the reliefs depicitng the hells and the heavens (the hells are more intricately carved to scare people into being good), and the mythical legend of Queen Sirta who was kidnapped by the demon gods. This follows with the fight of good vs evil, symbolising the same fight that rages within each person today.
One of the most beautiful things about Angkor Wat is its size. The vastness allows you to wander away from the tourist masses and walk along the quiet passageways alone, enjoying the peaceful serenity among the soft stone and smiling figures. That was the experience I cherished most. I could’ve explored forever.