Angkor Wat, Cambodia : a Photo Essay
Millions around the world visit Angkor Wat Cambodia to gaze in awe at its marvel and majesty. Let’s explore the pride of Cambodia.
“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!
A Labor of Love
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.
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.
Did They Know – Or Believe… ?
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?
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 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.
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!
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.
This one shows the famed warrior of the Mahabharata, guru Dronacharya, in battle…
And this one is of the ruler who built the Angkor Wat, King Suryavarman II
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!
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.
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.
Here’s another scene from hell, with wrong-doers being led in chains around their necks to suffer eternal punishment in 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.
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!
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!
Iconic Domes of Angkor Wat
Angkor Wat Library
One of 4 libraries attached to the ancient temple, this was once a repository of religious texts.
This is towards the end of the causeway, walking away from the temple…
Angkor Wat Lake
A lake surrounds the temple. In the foreground are carvings of nagas, the multi-headed serpent.
Another view of the walkway across the moat, leading up to the Angkor Wat temple in Cambodia.
And one more…
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.
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…
And here’s the other side – with the 54 devas…
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.
Snapshots of Cambodia
Today, millions of people from every corner of the world throng Cambodia. Many come to visit the famous Angkor Wat Cambodia, a UNESCO World Heritage site that boasts some of the oldest temples in the world.
Visitors marvel at the stunning architecture, the intricate stone carvings and the sheer magnificence of these houses of worship that have withstood the ravages of time to stand proud over centuries.
King Suryavarman II ruled Khmer (Cambodia) for nearly forty years during the early 12th century. What he built has lasted over eight hundred years!
Talented artisans and craftsmen chipped away at limestone blocks to create works of art that thrill and amaze visitors to this day. In the long passages winding around Angkor Wat in Cambodia, lovely bas relief carvings extend out into the distance on either side.
The sculptures are in 3 layers, the highest depicting heavens, the middle level life on earth, and the lowest are scenes from hell. You can see the wicked sinners being dragged away in chains and whipped by guards.
Could these artists have imagined their art would last forever?
Did they put all they had – talent, skill, energy – into it because they knew it after all?
One can’t help but wonder while walking around the ancient hallways of Angkor Wat Cambodia, where a soft, silent question seems to echo off the high ceilings and rocky walls…
Will what you do last for hundreds of years?
TEMPLES OF CAMBODIA
While it’s the cynosure of all eyes, the Angkor Wat in Cambodia isn’t the only famous Cambodian temple.
Dotted around the area are dozens of smaller, yet just as spectacular creations. A tour of the Temples of Cambodia will warm the heart of any heritage traveller, taking you down a path that traces the rich cultural history of a proud nation.
An ill-fated, incomplete shrine, the Ta Keo is a sandstone Khmer temple to Lord Shiva built by the 17-year old king Jayavarman V – in 975 AD.
Work stopped before carvings could decorate the outer walls, because lightning struck the building – an evil omen. The structure looks even bigger because of the lack of carvings on the outer wall.
You can see 3 of the 5 towers in this photograph.
Abandoned and unfinished, the structure still stands tall. These pictures were taken from the steps to the first level.
There are two more levels above this, with a steep staircase leading up to what would have been the inner sanctum.
Just looking at it scared us into not trying to climb up in the blazing mid-morning heat! So we settled for a zoom-in snapshot of the tower.
Earnest efforts are being taken to preserve and restore the building. This plaque details the conservation effort.
Who would have thought: A temple for Kings only!
Remember Simba in The Lion King singing: “Oh, I just can’t wait to be king!”
When you’re King, you can do anything… even build yourself a special temple where you worship in private – like Phimeanakas.
This lovely, mossy moated temple constructed by Rajendravarman more than one thousand years ago, still stands, scarred and pockmarked by the passage of time, as testament to his ambition, glory and pride.
In the past, a golden pinnacle probably capped the structure.
Wikipedia, in a section about Angkor Wat Cambodia, tells an interesting story about the temple…
According to legend, the king spent the first watch of every night with a woman thought to represent a Nāga in the tower. During that time, not even the queen was permitted to intrude.
Only in the second watch the king returned to his palace with the queen.
If the naga who was the supreme owner of Khmer land did not show up for a night, it meant the king’s days were numbered. If the king did not show up, calamity was sure to strike his land.
The Terrace of the Elephants inside the ruined Angkor Thom complex in Angkor Wat Cambodia was used by King Jayavarman VII to view his victorious returning army.
Here’s a view of the gardens around the terrace, from the platform.
And this is the path along which the victorious procession would proceed, for the king’s inspection.
What remains today is the 350 meter long foundation platform adorned with carvings of elephants on the 3 meter high eastern face. The mid-section is decorated with carvings of life-sized garuda (eagles) and lions. At either end of the platform are statues of the elephant parade.
Elephant carvings, Angkor Wat Cambodia
Carvings of elephants with their mahouts adorn the retaining wall of the terrace.
The elephants’ trunks form pillars that reach down to the ground.
Many think of Banteay Kdei, one of the smallest and best preserved sites, as a jewel in the crown of Angkorian art at Angkor Wat Cambodia.
The Hindu temple dedicated to Lord Shiva has stone of a pinkish hue and boasts some of the finest three-dimensional carvings. Construction started in 967 AD on this ‘Citadel of the Women‘.
After walking down a long, tree lined avenue, you arrive at the front of Banteay Kdei to be greeted with a view like this.
There are 4 towers, one located at each of the corners of the temple’s outer wall.
Close ups of the ancient, ornately carved inner sanctum, reveal stunningly intricate statuettes of apsaras/devatas along its walls near Angkor Wat Cambodia
But the structure itself isn’t in great condition. You can’t help but worry about when those huge rocks may topple over!
Some fallen blocks are being reassembled to give a glimpse of how the carvings must have looked like in years past.
But many blocks just can’t be placed correctly, and they lie strewn about the place, lost.
The towers are under restoration, and it looks like they’re being held together with metal bandages!
You’ll see remnants of carvings of lions, garuda (eagle) and naga (snake) guarding the entrance to the ancient temple in the Angkor Wat Cambodia complex.
At the exit, one path leads to the present… and the other back into the past.
I was tempted to turn left! 🙂
P.S. – Notice the face of Jayavarman VII in the little tower over the doorway!
The Baphuon temple in Angkor Thom in Angkor Wat Cambodia is a 3-tiered structure dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva, with intricate carvings literally covering the entire surface.
Even without considering the tower, the temple soars 34 meters high. In the late 15th century, it was converted into a Buddhist temple and a 9 x 70 meter statue of Buddha was built into the west facing side.
Can you spot the giant statue of a Reclining Buddha here?
Due to a weak foundation, the temple crumbled early and often. Restoration work progressed in fits and starts due to civil war in Cambodia, as evidenced by the different rock (sandstone and volcanic rock) used in repairing it.
As seen from the ground, separated from the shrine by a (now dry) moat, the restored Baphuon looks impressive.
Here’s a view from the first level courtyard, looking upwards at the tower.
And looking down from level 1 to the long approach path gives some indication of the symmetry and design of the layout.
A long hallway on the first level.
A picture from the second level of Baphuon, looking down into the first level courtyard, and showing the long approach path at ground level
After climbing up to the highest (third) level, a view down the steep stairway I just scaled.
And the approach path from level 3
Walking down the (roofless!) hallway at the highest (third) level, I’m taller than the huge hardwood trees!
And here’s a photograph of the tower right at the peak of Baphuon temple.
Bayon is a richly decorated Khmer temple from the 12th/13th century situated in Angkor Thom.
It is best known for the many serene, smiling stone faces that seem to be looking at you from every direction!
The Bayon temple is also known for an impressive set of bas relief carvings depicting mythology, history and everyday Cambodian life in exquisite detail.
My favourite snapshot of Bayon temple, Angkor Wat Cambodia – elephant and all.
This is how the Bayon temple looks as you approach it from front. Note the boundary wall in the foreground, it features prominently in the rest of this photo essay.
Steps to enter the temple complex in Angkor Wat Cambodia.
Inside the courtyard, a pillar bears this intricate piece of workmanship.
These rocks are part of the original temple that have fallen off, and are now being used in the conservation/re-construction effort, painstakingly pieced together and then replaced from where they came.
Notice the double-holes in some?
They are for lifting up the rocks using an ingenious contraption made of bamboo sticks inserted into the holes, tied together tightly with vine, and then lifted using long bamboo poles, using a system of levers.
There was a demo set up which we tried – and I could raise one of these heavy blocks with just a little pressure!
There are oh-so-many bas relief carvings decorating the entire length and height of the boundary wall of Bayon. We only spent 10 minutes with them on our tour – but could easily devote a full day to studying the beautifully done art work inside Angkor Wat Cambodia!
Our wonderful guide, Mr.Lekh, explained some details and told us many interesting stories about the carvings. Without him, we may not have appreciated this part of our trip so much. Thanks to Sam Sophea Tours!
This photo shows bas relief carvings of a battle scene, with battle-bound warriors bearing shields and swords, and a naval force at the bottom. Can you spot the alligator attacking a fallen soldier?
Here’s another about the popular Cambodian sport of cock-fighting. Two teams support their ‘candidate’. Wagers are made. Passions run high.
And this one depicts daily life in a poor Cambodian household. A lady has her mother pick lice from her hair! Two men sit chatting over a drink. Kids are playing.
Another bas relief carving showing a game of chess(?) in progress
And a lady in labor, with a midwife in attendance to assist with delivering her child.
A wealthy household. One lady rests on a pillow. Another reclines on a cushion, while maids await her instructions.
And finally, the pièce de résistance… Multiple smiling faces
How many faces can you spot watching you? 🙂
Ta Nei, seen in this photograph taken from the front, is a late 12th Century stone temple in Angkor Wat Cambodia that was constructed in the reign of King Jayavarman VI.
It is in ruins, yet retains a kind of charm that’s special. The magic is woven around you as you step closer to the structure.
Only two of the outer gopuras (towers) still exist today, on the west and east sides. A bit of restoration was necessary to hold up this tower.
And yet, art survives amidst the ruins. Lovely carvings of apsaras decorate the outer walls.
Here’s a close up of one of the crumbling towers.
And a snapshot from inside the courtyard at Angkor Wat Cambodia
There are no bats in this belfry – well, just a few, maybe!
Of all the temples of Cambodia that we visited, Ta Nei was my favorite.
Man Versus Time & Nature.
An awe-inspiring view of how time has allowed nature to overwhelm manmade creation, yet happily coexist in peace and harmony.
This picture was shot at the ancient Ta Promh temple in Siem Reap, Cambodia, better known as the place where Angelina Jolie starred as Lara Croft in the movie ‘Tomb Raider’.
Built in the 12th-13th century by King Jayavarman VII, the temple remains just as it was first found, making for a unique combination of trees and ruins.
Ta Promh, built in the Bayon style, is among the Angkor Wat Cambodia’s most popular tourist attractions, and inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List.
This picture shows the temple courtyard, with vegetation growing into the masonry.
Here a tree trunk has completely encased the temple.
One of the entrances to the temple.
An aged gateway leading into the temple is adorned with some excellent art work.
Trees grow over the compound wall surrounding the structure, making it hard to distinguish where one ends and the other begins.
– a floating village of boat people
We took this picture on the way to see the floating village on Tonle Sap Lake near Angkor Wat Cambodia.
This unique Vietnamese fishing village has people living almost entirely on their water-borne homes, getting from one place to another by boat. Little craft like this one, fitted with outboard motors, are used to zip to and from the nearby village with houses-on-stilts.
Located on the seasonally inundated Tonle Sap Lake, which has a water level that rises by almost 14 METERS in the wet season, these villages simply float when it rains – until they’re level with other homes-on-stilts!
We took a boat ride to a house on stilts, where we had lunch.
This is a typical house on stilts. In the wet season, the water level reaches almost to the top step. During the dry season, there’s absolutely no water along the route we had just boated up – and our guide explained that it’s possible to drive all the way!
We ate at one of these homes, where we got a little taste of how the people lived… and that included taking a short nap in a lovely, relaxing hammock!
The boat people of Cambodia live entirely on their little vessels, which rise and fall with the water level. During the dry season, they simply float their homes downstream toward the Lake.
There’s not only this primary school, but also a floating hospital, grocery store and a church.
The smaller boats are used to get around from one home to another, and for vendors to bring stuff that they sell to residents.
See some other houses in the villages nearby Angkor Wat Cambodia.
Siem Reap, the capital city of Siem Reap Province in northwestern Cambodia, is a gateway to the Angkor region, including Angkor Wat Cambodia.
The interesting Tuk-tuk is a popular vehicle to get around Siem Reap, Cambodia. A mix of a carriage and motorcycle, it’s fast, fun and quaint! Imagine riding on one of these close to midnight from the airport to our hotel room. We felt like Kings and Queens as we passed down the middle of Main Street!
We visited a village on the outskirts of Siem Reap to get a taste of life in rural Cambodia.
The old market is a vibrant hub of Cambodian social life with all kinds of things on sale. Those orange/yellow oval things between the bowls are TURTLES!
(From time to time, one of them would roll over and try to scuttle away – and the lady selling them would flip them over again, rendering them helpless in an instant!)
Dotting the roadside of all routes out of Siem Reap are stalls selling ‘bamboo rice’ – a delicious mix of rice, coconut milk, coconut and black beans… cooked inside the hollow of a bamboo stick!
You peel off the covering, eat the rice, and……and then the shredded bamboo is used as firewood – to cook the next batch. Yes, it’s 100% recycled!
An interesting story underlies Cambodian ‘bamboo rice’.
Soldiers carried a couple of these sticks on a belt worn around their waist, as their rations during battle. They also carried a longer hollowed out bamboo pole filled with drinking water across their back.
Stuck In The Past
Something strikes me as I remember our trip to Angkor Wat Cambodia.
Many years ago, as a freshly graduated doctor, I received my first posting order – as medical officer at a primary health center (PHC).
To get there, I was forced to take a five-and-half hour bus ride every weekend to a nearby town. Next morning, I would catch the only train passing by the village – an ancient old steam locomotive that only managed 35 kmph – when it was speeding! (Now I wish I’d been smart enough to grab a photo of it – but I didn’t, though you can see the over-crowded carriages above!)
The trip lasted 40 minutes. Sitting by the window would leave a thin layer of grime on my face, and gusts of black smoke stung my nostrils every time the wind blew it into the compartment.
Since the train didn’t halt at the village (even through the track passed beside it), I’d alight a kilometer away – and either walk or hitch a ride on someone’s bicycle to reach the ‘hospital’.
There, in a gloomy, damp room I would see 100 to 150 patients every morning… in under 3 hours! A few were seriously ill. Most had chronic ailments needing prescription refills. And a fair number came out of curiosity – to see the ‘city doctor’ who was visiting their remote village!
No, this wasn’t in the same age as Angkor Wat Cambodia. The year was 1990.
It was my first exposure to medical practice in the public sector – and was representative of what I’d see and experience over the next 15 years, until I quit to follow my dream and set up my non-profit project in the private sector.
Medical science was not stuck in the past. The practice of it in certain locations, and the distribution of these services to geographically remote places, however, was.
Barely 400 kilometers away, state-of-art medicine was practiced at standards that rival – even exceed – the best available in most developed nations. But Annandal village was stuck in the past.
It doesn’t happen with technology or science alone.
Sometimes, our attitude and mindset gets stuck in the past.
When we should be looking ahead, we instead put our heads in the sand and remain caught up in obsolete paradigms.
Where we should be proactive and forward-thinking, we let the past smother and imprison us.
In an era of the bullet train, when we should be thinking about tele-portation and speed of light travel, the horse-and-carriage system shouldn’t occupy any mind space.
Cherish the old steam locomotive, by all means.
Even feel nostalgic about the tang of burning coal in your nose, if you must.
But stay focused on the future.
After all, it’s the only part you can influence… and change.
Ok, that’s it. I hope you enjoyed these snap shots of Angkor Wat Cambodia and nearby temples and villages as much as I did presenting them to you.
If you did, please share this post with a friend.
And maybe you’re tempted to take a trip to lovely Angkor Wat Cambodia? Please do.
You’ll love it!