Travel can be wearing when that much-vaunted heritage tour ‘treasure trove cave’ proves to house one shabby Buddha and a few burnt-out joss sticks. Likewise, even the Giza pyramids can seem hyped when seen in context, squashed up against Cairo’s filth. Disappointment abounds.
Few tourists, however, report feeling let down or jaded when they witness Angkor Wat: the Cambodian temple complex built at Angkor on modern Vietnam's fringes for King Suryavarman II in the early 12th century as his state temple and capital city. Angkor Wat (‘Mountain Temple’) is one of the largest monuments to religion ever built and is a magnet for superlatives. Lonely Planet calls it ‘one of the most inspired and spectacular monuments ever conceived by the human mind’.
The scale of the monument makes it hard to grasp: it features the five towers shown on the Cambodian flag, covered galleries, chambers and courtyards on different levels, all linked by stairways. The whole stands for the cosmic world with the central tower symbolising Mount Meru: the mythical, sacred mountain at the core of the universe.
Nothing about the structure of the world's biggest temple is mundane, not even the moat. Symbolic of the world's seas, the moat makes the one that rings the Tower of London, built at about the same time, resemble a rut. No army ever made it across its gaping expanse. The temple’s restrained monumentality and precise proportions amply justify its status as one of the seven wonders of the world. No words are up to the task of adequately describing its sublime power, unity and style. Language fails, the reader must see Angkor with his own eyes.
Smothered by jungle, Angkor Wat only became known to the west in 1861. Thank the French botanist Henri Mouhot, who ‘discovered’ the architectural marvel while hunting orchids in North West Cambodia’s jungles. Like many who would follow in his footsteps, Mouhot was blown away.
Here we relate the ecstatic reactions of Mouhot, of a medieval monk and of two more recent visitors, all of whom attempt to dig beyond the superlatives and explain what the supreme masterpiece of Khmer architecture means to them.
Henri Mouhot, 19th-century explorer
One of these temples — a rival to that of Solomon, and erected by some ancient Michaelangelo — might take an honourable place beside our most beautiful buildings. It is grander than anything left to us by Greece or Rome, and presents a sad contrast to the state of barbarism in which the nation is now plunged. At Angkor, there are ruins of such grandeur that, at the first view, one is filled with profound admiration, and cannot but ask what has become of this powerful race, so civilised, so enlightened, the authors of these gigantic works?
Antonio da Magdalena, Portuguese monk who visited in 1586
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.
Michael Di Giovine, author: ‘The Heritage-scape: UNESCO, World Heritage and Tourism’.
I first fell for Angkor in 2002, when I was directing group tours to Cambodia and Vietnam. Cambodia was really just coming into the mass cultural tourism market, and many of my travellers simply did not know what to expect.
They came for many different reasons and had divergent expectations. Yet, like me, all were struck by the sheer vastness of the place, the beauty and exquisite artistry of the monuments, and the uniquely Khmer melding of Hindu and Buddhist depictions.
I remember being particularly struck by an Angkor Wat sunrise where I felt like a spectator to the melding of man and nature. Unlike the sunsets that are greeted rowdily at the Angkor mountain temple Phnom Bakheng, this was a solemn and transcendent occasion, imbuing me with a strong sense of the enormity of life and the sublimity of creation. At 4 am, I recall, the mist hung heavy and wisps of steam rising from Angkor’s moat made the long causeway I was crossing almost imperceptible. Despite the crush of people, most were silent, and I felt as if I were the only person entering the immense temple complex.
I sat in the courtyard just inside the outer wall, gazing like the others at the thick blankness before me, wondering where exactly the telltale pine-coned towers would appear. When daylight finally threw its first streaks of colour across the sky, Angkor emerged – at first a silhouette, an almost two-dimensional rendering of this crowning achievement of humanity – and then gradually became clearer, fuller. When the world awoke in a soft blue-gray wash, so too did my understanding of the power and diversity of mankind and the variety of its symbols, motivations and achievements.
Martin Gray, author: Sacred Sites (sacredsites.com)
For my visit to Angkor, which lasted more than a week, I had decided to arrive before the time of the rising sun. Sitting to the west of the great temple, alongside its wide moat of water, I watched as the sky changed from black to purple to pink. The water mirrored the sky and thus born from the night’s darkness was the most sublime temple of all southeast Asia.
Constructed by the Kings of the Khmer civilisation between 802 and 1220 CE, the temple complex of Angkor is exceeded in size only by that of Bagan in Burma. There are more than 100 stone temples at Angkor, of which Angkor Wat is the largest, and altogether they represent one of humankind's most astonishing architectural achievements.
During the half-millennia of Khmer occupation, the city of Angkor became a pilgrimage destination of importance throughout southeastern Asia. As such a pilgrim I had also come. Wandering about Asia for several years I had explored the temples of both Hinduism and Buddhism. There is a sense of holiness and power to these places that reaches to the very heart of every visitor. Pilgrims speak of miracles of healing and mystic visions, of spiritual insights and enhancement of personal creativity.
I experienced such wonders myself and was also amazed at the magnificent beauty of the site. The temple of Angkor Wat is itself only a part of a vaster complex, which includes such jewels of sacred art as the Bayon, Ta Prohm and Bantai Serai. Take your time when visiting this ancient holy place, let it work its magic on your heart and mind. It is an experience you will never forget.
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