Angkor Wat Experience

By Bert Bogomolny

A sudden burst of adrenaline rushed through me as I set foot in Siem Riep. I have heard ungodly stories of Cambodia and the ruthlessness with which the Khmer Rouge ruled the country. Even though they had recently been ousted from power, the Khmer Rouge left the population in utter devastation and the infrastructure in ruin. Knowing this, it's difficult to say what makes Siem Riep such a special place. Perhaps it's the primal energy contained in a place that recently escaped persecution. Or maybe even that the land on which this city rests is holy! Whatever the reason, Siem Riep would become an epic prelude to one of the most incredible places on this planet...the Ancient City of Angkor!

The weather was muggy and air dusty as many of the roads are unpaved. Navigating our two-wheelers out of town towards Angkor was a heart-pounding endeavor as traffic is very erratic with little organization! Upon entering the complex, we came upon a fork. You can either go right, left or straight ahead toward the stunning Angkor Wat which is perched behind a vast, beautifully manicured lawn. It's a surreal, dream-like structure, with its phallic pillars and gloomy grey coloration. It embodies the Khmer era beautifully! It was so striking that we decided to save it for the last day and turned right.

The complex is divided into 4 main sections, Eastern Baray, Western Baray, Angkor Thom and Angkor Wat, with lots of temples scatted in between and on the outskirts. Stay there a month and you still won't see everything. Our first stop was Prasat Kravan! A relatively small 10th century temple consisting of 5 reddish Brick Towers on a common terrace. The temple was dedicated to Vishnu and built in 921 AD. We took some pictures, explored the area briefly and carried on.

Riding along towards Eastern Baray, we unexpectedly came upon a little lake called Srah Srang. The sunlight, reflecting gently off the still water, caught our eyes and put us in a hypnotized trance as we drew near. We couldn't help but stop and sit for a moment, captivated by the lake's peaceful beauty! There was something truly special there as little Cambodian kids bathed and played with each other on the banks. Little shouts of childish laughter, the fresh scent of the murky waters and warm sunlight touching my shoulders, I was awash with an overwhelming sensation of where in the world I currently sat!

Famished, we decided to grab some lunch at the little market just across the street from the lake. Not the best food and grossly overpriced, we ate there anyways as our options were limited.

Banteay Kdei was next and proved to be our introduction to how nature interacts with the man-made beauty of the Angkor structures. It's smaller and less complex than some of the other temples, but it certainly did not seem small to me! Rubble and scattered stone blocks litter the entryway. A massive tree greets you as you enter. Its powerful, yet graceful roots meander along the entryway path, implying who the rightful owner of this temple is! The temple structures are contained within two successive enclosure walls and consist of two concentric galleries from which protrude two massive towers. It's a bit dilapidated due to faulty construction and poor quality limestone, but considering it's still standing after 900 years, I think the Khmer did a pretty good job of putting it together!

Eastern Baray is a gigantic section of Angkor. Trying to see it all in one day is pointless! Needless to say we were only able to get through about half of it. But on that day, I was awestruck by an absolutely compelling temple. As I mentioned earlier, aside from the genius architecture and the metaphysical wonder of Angkor, there seems to be a beautiful symbiosis between the natural and man-made structures. Ta Phrom, for instance, blew me away! The monstrous trees that are hundreds of years old sit directly on top of the temples with their roots cascading down to the ground, spreading like giant tentacles, putting their claim on whatever happens to be within their grasp. I have never in my life seen anything like this before!

Anyhow, physically exhausted from pedaling all day and emotionally drained from experiencing such magnificent power, we decided to call it a day and return back to town. What we would uncover later that evening was nothing short of exhilarating. After a fulfilling dinner, my buddy and I decided to grab a few drinks at a local bar. It was close to midnight when we got there and what we found was an electricity in the air that rippled through me with giant force. I quickly realized that I was not the only one who felt the intensity of the rich history and succulent flavor of Angkor. All the chatter was infused with passionate accounts of what everyone had experience that day! The dance floor was steamy! Both young and old moved to the rhythm of music, fueled by the intense excitement of finding themselves surrounded by such an opulent piece of history. Everyone was open and friendly and we remained until the wee hours of the morning, engaged in conversation, drinking, laughing and dancing!

I didn't think there could be an equal to what we encountered the first day but it just kept getting better! We woke up early with no ill effects from the previous night's debauchery and headed straight for Angkor. With a little more knowledge about the terrain and energized by the previous day's events this would be the biggest day for exploration! We saw all the major temples of Eastern Baray, including Preah Khan, Nak Pean and Ta Keo. All were magnificent and very impressive, especially Ta Keo. Ta Keo was built in 968 AD, and what was truly striking is just how large it appears when in fact it is quite small. This is an example of the Khleang style, using elaborate perspective effects and absolutely no carving to give it that massive look. Just incredible!

What most people think of when it comes to Angkor is Angkor Wat. If you haven't noticed, that temple has been mentioned only once up to now! Nature is what brings this kingdom together and puts it over the top of most other historical sites on this planet. As we rode our bicycles from temple to temple, I cannot even begin to tell you how many times we stopped in sheer awe and amazement! We were in awe not because of an incredible piece of architecture or a world wonder, but because of simple things like rice fields, streams, the sky, the sounds of the jungle around us, even the tropical rains that swoop in with no warning had a strangely exhilarating appeal. At times, it was magical to ride alongside and meet locals who greet you kindly and are more than happy to share with you a bit of the wonder that Angkor truly is! To hire a taxi would be to miss out on so much as the true magic of Angkor is to be uncovered in a simple, squeaky bicycle ride!

Angkor Thom, meaning the Great City is guarded by Victory gate on the southern entrance! The bridge leading up to the gate is lined by intricately carved demon statues. As creepy as that sounds, the rustic beauty is striking! And being that it's a central passage way into Angkor Thom, you will also see many locals and tourist pass through on bicycles, tuk-tuks and everything in between!

Many people think of Angkor Thom as a massive temple, when in fact it's an entire city! In the center of this once sprawling metropolis stands Bayon, the most famous temple within city limits. It's most recognizable feature is the main terrace where giant, peaceful stone faces cluster around its' central peak! The temple is rustic and looks truly ancient. Massive boulders, giant pillars and intricately carved towers are everywhere. Once you step inside, you are sent back in time and the outside world ceases to exist. We wandered the maze of hallways for hours, playing archeologists and inspecting the beautiful carvings on the walls. The overall architecture of the place is also a treat! It is perfectly symmetrical. When inside, certain key spots allow you to look onto the main terrace providing you with unobstructed views of the faces and other peculiar points of interest that you otherwise would not have noticed. Really taking the time to explore this temple will give you a sense of what king Jayavarman VII valued most.

Kissing the Stone Face in Bayon, Angkor Thom

The city took us the rest of the day to explore, but most of our time was spent uncovering Bayon. With the last moments of the day, I found myself sharing a profound moment with a very good friend. While sitting at the top of the beautifully peaceful Bayon, with the sun descending to the backdrop of the jungle, a myriad of peculiar jungle sounds permeated the air. The weather was muggy, but seemed to envelope you as a warm down blanket would, not too hot and certainly not too cold...perfect. Little Cambodian kids rustling at the base of the temple with their parents nearby. There seemed to be an energy that electrified the air! Knowing that tomorrow would be our last day there, we sat until the sun finally set, sharing our hopes for the future and dreams about what's to come. It was truly one of the highlights of the entire Southeast Asian Tour!

Many people say that Angkor Wat must be seen at sunrise so we woke up bright and early, at 5 AM, hired a taxi and sped off. I'll be honest, seeing Angkor Wat in the dark is quite different and very spooky! It's already a gloomy structure, but when lit by the howling moon, that side of its demeanor is magnified ten-fold! The phrase "the ghosts come out at night" is very appropriate to describe the feeling. A millennium worth of wars, strife, and torment is present there and you can feel it with the force of a bone-chilling thud! The entrance to the temple is the first causeway and historic accounts state that it signifies the movement from hell to earth. I'd say that's appropriate!

Anyhow, by the time the sun began its ascent, the sky was covered in clouds and the effect of a magnificent sunrise was dulled a bit. The main terrace quickly began to fill with tourists. Photographers, tour guides, families and little Cambodian kids selling nick-knacks littered courtyard, making it difficult to soak up the energy of this famous temple. It was almost like being in Disneyland. Nevertheless, we took our time exploring this "temple City," which is what the words "Angkor Wat" actually mean.

To describe how amazing this temple is, I feel it's best to draw on a quote from Antonio da Magdalena of Portugal who visited the temple in 1586 and consequently became one of the first westerners to do so. This is what he said. It "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." The fact that this temple has suffered very little damage and was nicely restored in the 19th century allow me to attest to those beautiful words. It truly is an incredible structure and surely worth a visit wherever in the world you are coming from!