Jan. 16, 2017:
For a day that featured time mostly spent traveling, we sure packed a heck of a lot into our first day exploring Angkor Wat!
We were able to fly directly from Saigon to Siem Reap, the center of ancient culture in Cambodia. Angkor Wat was the center of the ancient Khmer kingdom, built into a jungle on the flat plains of Cambodia. There is a somewhat elaborate process to get your pass for the various temples in the Siem Reap area, but once that was done, we went to see the actual temple of Angkor Wat. The temples of Angkor Wat were built between 800 and 1200 A.D.. Although they were originally built as Hindu temples, over time they converted to Buddhist temples, in keeping with the majority population of Cambodia, which is about 94% Buddhist.
As we approached the site, it looked like a carnival, with vendors and Tuk Tuk drivers and tour busses everywhere! Our first order of business was taking a group photo of our tour group. Our tour director had arranged to have a local photographer (“Loving”) shoot that image, but there was an enterprising young man who dashed in and shot his own photo of the group, the better to sell those photos as we left the temple.
The temple of Angkor Wat is laid out on a grid pattern, surrounded by a moat, with an outer wall with pagodas, and an inner center with pagodas of ascending size. You cross a causeway over the moat, and then enter an inner yard, where gibbons scamper across the grass. The design is based on the mythical celestial city of Mount Meru, with the highest inner pagodas forming the mount. One of the most beautiful parts of these temples is the relief carvings on the walls. For this temple, many of the carvings are of the apsaras, or sacred temple dancers.
We then had an option of walking the temple with Loving, going on a strenuous hike of the entire temple site (with its many steep stairs), or meandering through the temple while getting more of a historical tour. I opted to walk with Loving, and it was really a fabulous opportunity to see some of the temple highlights through his photographer’s eye. In particular, I loved the chance to snap loads of pictures of the Buddhist monks in their bright orange robes as they walked through the grey stones of the various temple buildings.
We visited this wonderful site late in the day in order, hopefully, to be able to take advantage of the sunset (golden hour) lighting. However, storm clouds had boiled up and were threatening rain, so that was not to be. However, we were still able to snap some moody pictures as we left for the evening. Plus another gibbon or two.
But wait, there’s more! We are staying at the lovely old colonial-era Raffles Hotel. In addition to the beautiful grounds, there is a large outdoors dining and entertainment space. This evening’s meal is a vast buffet of Khmer style food (which is somewhat spicier than the food we’ve been sampling in Vietnam). Also, we get to experience a local troupe of traditional Khmer dancers. Having seen the stone reliefs of the apsaras on the Angkor Wat walls, it is uncanny how much these modern day dancers resemble their ancient ancestors!
Tomorrow, more temples of Angkor Wat!