Date Traveled, Auguest 2012
On my flight to Siem Reap I struck a conversation with a person who told me it was his 19th trip to Cambodia and he had never been to the Angkor Wat or for that matter any of the other temples even once. Odd, but to each their own was what I thought then and didn't recall that conversation again till I was back home, reminiscing about the trip, including my experience crossing the outer moat with the naga balustrade to see the magnificent Angkor Wat in the pouring rain for the first time. Wow, 19 missed opportunities for the sights of a lifetime.
Angkor Wat is huge, it is surrounded by a large moat that you can cross via a stone bridge or pathway with the aforementioned naga balustrade. The pathway first extends across the moat to the outer wall with the central gate and branches out to other side gates. In times of the Angkor empire, the main central gate was reserved for the King and other people of importance but we get the privilege these days. Note that the gates and the outer wall is not just a solid barricade and is more like a long building with passages to walk through it complete with reliefs and a few surviving statues. Once you get past and see the inner grounds, you truly begin to appreciate the size of the complex, and you will clearly see the five towers of the central complex of the Angkor Wat in the distance. The pathway continues from the gates all the way to the central temple structure and the grounds is today mostly clear grass, so lush and green in the wet rainy season, with a few trees and surviving stone structures. In the past this was a whole city in itself with many other structures, but only stone has withstood the test of time.
Across the main causeway in the downpour
The moat protecting the temple
Apsaras greeting you at the main gate
One of the surviving stone structures on the lawn
The naga balustrade encompasses the whole site
The naga balustrade is called so because it is modeled as the body of a giant serpent or naga from Hindu mythology and the various terminus points of the balustrade have stone sculptors representing a multiheaded serpent. Sadly, most of these have been defaced in the Angkor Wat and in other temples in the region. The whole temple complex in it's design is an earthly representation of Mount Meru, the abode of the Devas or Gods from Hindu myth. The five central gopuras represent the five peaks of Mount Meru and the moat represents the surrounding ocean. The moat is also one of the reasons the Angkor Wat wasn't completely abandoned unlike the other temples as the moat offered a certain degree of protection from the encroachment of the forest over time as the population dwindled.
Angkor Wat reflecting pool
As you get closer to the temple, there is a point where two large pools of water are formed on either side of the central path. The pool on the left when you face Angkor Wat is the large one and I understand the pool on the right dries up for the most part in the summer. The pools, especially the larger one, are a popular photo spot as it is possible to view all 5 towers from a side angle toward the edge reflecting in the pool. If you have done any searches for Angkor Wat or seen pictures in books, this is a common photo you will find. The reflecting pool is also a great place I am told to see the sunset or the sunrise with the Angkor Wat if you can deal with the crowds but in the rainy season like when I had traveled, it was too cloudy for sunsets or rises. But don't let that deter you, Cambodia and it's glorious Angkor temples are beautiful to see in the rain, mystical even with breathtaking vistas together with the lush surrounding vegetation. And you will have far less visitors to all the sites in the rainy months, you will truly appreciate that at times.
Here is one tip, the pool on the right I found seemed to give better reflections at least in the rainy season when I went and there are less people there as well. Of course when it is raining you are not going to get a proper reflection on either pool but even with hard downpours like when I first got there, you will have moments when the rain stops.
Near the main temple
The view from the main temple front
With my lion friend
Once you arrive at the main temple, there is a small flight of stairs to get to the first level. Here you will notice more frequently the reliefs on the walls of the Apsaras, divine nymphs from Hindu mythology. Thousands of the Apsaras adorn the walls of the Angkor and have survived in good condition. The Apsaras have also inspired the Apsara dance of Cambodia, at least in terms of the dress and the tricorn headgear.
While the Apsaras are great reliefs, the first level is home of the most famous features of the Angkor Wat, the galleries on the four walls of the temple. They galleries are extremely detailed reliefs representing scenes from Hindu mythology and a scene from King Suryavarman's own period. Extending across the entire width and height of the inner walls, these scenes are priceless in both their beauty and execution as well as the clues they have given to us about society and life in Angkor historically. One scene depicts the myth of the churning of the sea of milk where the Gods or Devas and the Daemons or Asuras use a giant serpent like rope around a mountain to churn the ocean to get the nectar of immortality. Another scene represents the Ramayana and Mahabharatha, the two famous epics of Hindu mythology and my favorite scene is that which depicts life from the King Suryavarman's time including a military procession. The other reliefs around the temple show various Queens and Kings and other scenes include daily life in the Angkor civilization which were fascinating to watch. I spent hours here on my two visits to the Angkor Wat.
Suryavarman's armies in procession
Suryavarman at his court
On the terrace level
The second level takes you to an open terrace where you have a much closer view of the towers or gopuras. The final level takes you into the inner sanctum. There is an extremely steep stairway constructed to allow people to access the final level. Its easy to climb up but be warned it is quite scary coming down, especially if it is damp. From the top of the final level, you are treated to more Apsara sculptors and can gaze out from the top to the surrounding forests or the main gate and the passageway from whence you entered.
The sky was magnificent against the temple gopuras
Around the terrace levels
Structures reflecting in puddles and pools on the lawns
In a visit to the Angkor Wat, you will be surprised by how easy it is to lose hours just walking around, admiring the beauty of it's sculptors, or the details in the reliefs, or walking around the upper levels looking outside or even just around the expanse outside staring at the grandeur of it's towers and construction, and imagining what it must have been like in it's glorious heyday.