Angkor Wat, Cambodia : a Photo Essay

“One of these temples — a rival to that of Solomon, and erected by some ancient Michelangelo — might take an honorable place beside our most beautiful buildings.”
Henri Mouhot, on Angkor Wat

We watched the sun rise behind the Angkor Wat.

Then, before entering, our guide stood us outside to talk about the history of this temple. One thing he said was startling.

It took THIRTY SEVEN YEARS to build the Angkor Wat!

King Suryavarman II ruled Khmer for nearly 40 years. Over a large part of his reign in the early 12th century, he constructed a massive religious monument, one that would withstand ravages of time over the next 8 centuries!

Today, millions of people from around the world visit the Angkor Wat. They are of different races, religions and communities. On the morning we went, there were Koreans and Japanese, Indians and Sri Lankans, Americans and Australians, people from many European countries, and many more nations.

Angkor Wat Cambodia sunrise

They all marvel at the superb architecture and gaze in awe at intricate sculpture on the walls – “the greatest known linear arrangement of stone carving” – that depict Hindu epics like the Ramayana and Mahabharata.

How many years those skilled artisans must have spent, chipping away at the limestone walls to craft their lovely creations!

Did they know, back then, that their work would survive for so long, thrilling and delighting people from far away lands across several generations?

At the Angkor Wat Dr.Mani

As I wandered the ancient hallways, a thought kept running through my mind…

What am I doing that will last for eight-hundred years after me?

Or eighty?

Or even eight?

The question will lend perspective to my annual planning exercise for this year – and the ones to follow.

António da Madalena, a Portuguese monk who visited Angkor Wat in 1586, said the temple “is of such extraordinary construction that it is not possible to describe it with a pen, particularly since it is like no other building in the world. It has towers and decoration and all the refinements which the human genius can conceive of.”

I agree. And won’t try to, either.

I’ll just share some photos we shot at the Wat, and some stories our excellent tour guide told us about Suryavarman II’s iconic legacy that was 40+ years in the making!

Sunrise Over Angkor Wat

Watching the sun rise over the temple. We woke up at 4:30 a.m. to get there on time. Totally worth the lost sleep!

After watching the sun come up behind the temple complex, we prepared to explore the ancient monument.

Here’s the long causeway leading up to the temple complex, almost deserted early in the morning.

Angkor Wat causeway Cambodia

But that’s only because not everyone was an ‘early bird’.

This is the same causeway a few hours later, when we came out of the temple!

Angkor Wat Cambodia

Bas Relief Carvings at Angkor Wat

A highlight of the 800 year-old temple is the lovely bas relief carvings that dot the perimeter of the interior walls of the temple.

They depict scenes from the Ramayana, Mahabharata, and local Cambodian legends from King Suryavarman’s time.

Angkor Wat bas relief carvings

This one shows the famed warrior of the Mahabharata, guru Dronacharya, in battle…

Angkor Wat carvings Cambodia Guru Drona

And this one is of the ruler who built the Angkor Wat, King Suryavarman II

Angkor Wat King Suryavarman II Cambodia

The Apsaras – Dancing Damsels

Apsaras adorn the walls of many Cambodian temples, including the Angkor Wat. Exquisitely carved, these masterpieces reveal even minuscule detail like birth mark striations on the bellies of some dancers!

Apsaras at Angkor Wat Cambodia

Apsaras on Angkor Wat Cambodia

Delightful and Exquisite

In Angkor Wat, Cambodia, the carvings extend out into the distance… on both sides of the long hallways that surround the temple.

Angkor Wat Cambodia hallways of carvings

Sculptures are ordered in 3 layers, one above the next.

The highest level depicts the heavens, the middle level represents life on earth, and at the bottom are scenes from hell.

Look closely and you’ll see wicked sinners being dragged away in chains and being whipped by guards.

Angkor Wat Cambodia - 3 Level Carvings

Here’s another scene from hell, with wrong-doers being led in chains around their necks to suffer eternal punishment in purgatory.

Angkor Wat Cambodia Carvings Purgatory

In this iconic piece at the Angkor Wat, Cambodia, you’ll see the Devas (gods) and Asuras (demons) churning the Ocean of Milk to extract ‘Amritha’ the nectar of immortality and bliss.

This is a tale from Indian mythology, which apparently was also in vogue in other parts of South East Asia.

Caring For Culture

Now, this is interesting.

See this photo of one section of the walls in Angkor Wat, Cambodia.

Angkor Wat damage

Notice how the delightful art work has been desecrated by ugly chunks chipped out? (red arrows)

That’s by invaders (probably from Champa) who were looking for a vast royal treasure rumoured to have been hidden in the walls of the Wat by Suryavarman II.

There are quite a few of them in the section of the wall of carvings that depicted Cambodian royal life – but curiously enough, even those invaders seem to have been respectful of the craftsmanship, because they’ve only made limited holes instead of blindly ripping down the entire wall like other invaders in history have done!

Headless Buddhas!

Buddha statues dot the corridors of the temple… but all of them are headless!

Our guide explained that the heads had been lopped off at various periods, to be sold to art collectors around the world!

Angkor Wat Buddha headless

Iconic Domes of Angkor Wat

Angkor Wat dome

Angkor Wat domes

Angkor Wat dome view

Angkor Wat Library

One of 4 libraries attached to the ancient temple, this was once a repository of religious texts.

Angkor Wat library

This is towards the end of the causeway, walking away from the temple…

Angkor Wat causeway end Cambodia

Angkor Wat Lake

A lake surrounds the temple. In the foreground are carvings of nagas, the multi-headed serpent.

Angkor Wat Cambodia nagas

Another view of the walkway across the moat, leading up to the Angkor Wat temple in Cambodia.

Angkor Wat lake

And one more…

Angkor Wat Cambodia lake

The Moat Around The Wat

A wide moat surrounds the temple on all sides. Water seeps from it into the volcanic rock substrate, lending strength to the foundation which is made of limestone and clay.

Without this constant moisture, the foundation could grow weak and lead to damage – probably what happened to many other temples of the same period.

Angkor Wat Cambodia Moat

South Gate, Angkor Thom

54 devas (guardian gods) stand on the left side, churning the Ocean of Milk by holding on to the serpent Shesha‘s head.

On the opposite side, 54 asuras (demon gods) pull on its tail in the opposite direction.

Their combined churning threw up the elements, remaking the earth and the cosmos anew. In the myth, the snake’s body is wrapped around holy Mount Meru – which is here represented by the Bayon temple.

This picture shows the asura side of the bridge…

Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom South Gate

And here’s the other side – with the 54 devas…

Angkor Thom south gate - Angkor Wat Cambodia

I hope you enjoyed this pictorial tour of the Angkor Wat temple in Cambodia.

If you’d like more photo essays of the places I’ve visited over the years, please let me know in a comment below.

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