Angkor Wat is huge. It’s bigger than any monument of it’s kind. The moat itself is as wide as two football fields. The outer wall measures 3,360 ft by 2,631 ft, and the grounds are some 300acres. Not only is it enormous, its also detailed from bottom to top; everything is carved from the steps to the statues to the steep roofs. It’s the biggest but it’s not the only temple in the area. There are around one thousand temples, called Wats in the Angkor region of Siem Reap, Cambodia. Angkor Wat (City Temple/ Temple City) was commissioned to be built by the Khmer ruler Suryavarman II, a Hindu ruler with a purpose similar to the pyramids of Egypt; it was his burial site and an enormous statement of power. Originally the five central towers were gilded, some traces of gold still remain. Though hard to imagine, it was even more impressive than it is now.
Two different types of stones were used to built Angkor Wat. Sandstone is the outer stone, the intricate carved-by-hand scenes cover it in amazing detail. Some of the temples are made completely of Sandstone. Below the sandstone, particularly in outer structures is laterite a porous rock thats formed by the leeching of minerals from “parent rocks.” The laterite used in Angkor is red and unattractive, so it’s understandable they had it covered in sandstone.
Unfortunately, this monument wasn’t built by workers being paid fair wages. No, this beauty was handcrafted by thousands of slaves. Elephants were used to transport sandstone from a quarry 25 miles away and men ground the multi-ton stones until the edges were smooth, seamless and ready to carve.
Mega-buses, private cars, tuk-tuks and bicycles alike swarm to the mega temple each morning. At sunrise there are already hundreds of people on the grounds awaiting their photo-op. Buddhists collect in the outer temples lighting incense and ringing bells. Artists and tradespeople open their shops and stream into the area to sell their wares. By 7:00 the grounds are abuzz.
To enter, cross the moat and walk through the first stone gate. Corridors stretch to either side, ahead is the door way that opens to the enormous grounds. A long stone walk stretches from the gate to the temple entry. Giant carved snake heads and dragons line the walk. Small gravel paths to either side of it give an unencumbered view and offer a little personal space. We took the gravel way.
At the end of the long walk is another gate and high walls. The galleries that surround the inner grounds are carved floor to ceiling depicting battle scenes and hindu creation myths. The detail is astounding. Some are original with faces rubbed down and some have been restored. The sandstone is discolored in areas due weather exposure. Some parts have been eroded, in an effort to repair the roofs several decades ago some groups used cement which proved to be detrimental to the carvings as minerals leeched out and down the walls. Restoration work continues, but without cement.
Inside further still are two smaller temples in front of the raised upper temple complex. The innermost temple boasts five giant towers and enormously steep, narrow steps which are said to represent the path to enlightenment. Inside, is now another buddhist temple, although we didn’t enter.
Headless statues sit inside the grounds. Confused we assumed it was the Khmer Rouge, a terrorist/political group of the 1970’s/ 80’s who committed genocide leaving between 1.5 and 2.2million Cambodians dead, they sought among other things to abolish religion, who removed the heads. In actuality, it wasn’t the Khmer Rouge. The Khmer empire started Hindu and eventually became Buddhist. Centuries ago, one of the Buddhist kings who succeeded Suryavarman had all the Hindu heads removed.
Throughout the grounds tall palms grow, and during rainy season there is an expansive green lawn. Jungle lurks at the edges of the temple always growing, threatening to retake it and grow over it as it has with several other temples. Large families of monkeys live in there too. As we were exiting the last gate one perched herself on top of a gate. She eventually climbed down and ran off. So did we, there are many other temples in the jungle waiting to be explored.