However many times you’ve seen Angkor Wat in photographs or films, nothing can quite prepare you for what unfolds as you visit the temple. Dominated by five corn-cob towers and consecrated in 1150 to the Hindu god Vishnu, it’s considered a masterpiece of Khmer architecture.
Scholars are largely undecided on the purpose of Angkor Wat. Some believe it was built for worship, others for funerary purposes. The site is approached from the west and the famous gallery of bas-reliefs is designed to be viewed anti-clockwise, these two elements suggest the temple was associated with death. The true purpose of Angkor Wat could well satisfy both opinions, perhaps it was used by the king for worship during his lifetime, and later became a mausoleum upon his death.
Everything about Angkor Wat is on a different level to other temples in the region. It’s scale is hard to comprehend at first, it is after all the largest religious monument in the world. Coupled with the fact that it is of course the major site for visitors means you really need to ensure you set aside enough time to take it in, 3-4 hours would not be too short if this is your sort of thing.
I’d recommend splitting your tour of the temple into two parts by firstly exploring the heart of the temple, and walking around the various levels of the pyramid. The second level I found particularly interesting, with a remarkable collection of over 1,500 carved apsaras.
Apsaras are beautiful, supernatural female beings – youthful and elegant, and superb in the art of dancing. They are often the wives of the Gandharvas, the court musicians of Indra. They dance to the music made by the Gandharvas, usually in the palaces of the gods. As ethereal beings who inhabit the skies, and are often depicted taking flight, or at service of a god, in some respects they may be compared to angels.
The second part of your Angkor tour should concentrate on the stunning bas-relief carvings that run around the inner wall of the third (outer) enclosing wall. My first visit to this temple was with an organised group, and I was quite surprised and disappointed that we spent just 2 minutes inspecting a single scene before moving on. Anyone with an ounce of interest in history or art will want to spend much longer admiring these bas-reliefs.
Extending over 700m, the bas-reliefs are broken into sections separated by porches, they are best viewed in an anti-clockwise direction, in keeping with the ancient funerary practices.
In brief, here’s what the bas-reliefs depict in each section. There are three standout sections if you really are pushed for time.
- West gallery, south section – The battle between Kauravas and Pandavas, from the Mahabharata
- Southwest corner – Tales from Ramayana
- South gallery, west section – Elaborate battle scene
- South gallery, east section – The Heaven and Hell gallery (a must see !)
- East gallery, south section – The Churning of the Ocean of Mile (another must see !)
- East gallery, north section – more recent 16th century carvings, less intricate, could be skipped
- North gallery, east section – Another 16th century carving, showing the battle between Krishna and Bana
- North gallery, west section – 21 Hindu gods in conflict with demons
- Northwest corner – More scenes from Ramayana
- West gallery, north section – Battle of Lanka, from Ramayana (not to be missed !)
The earliest carvings are the finest, with some amazing attention to detail and I’m afraid the photography does not really even start to do it all justice. Look out for areas where traces of red and gold paint can still be seen, how other-worldly this must have once looked when the entire perimeter wall was completely painted.
I returned to Angkor Wat early one morning in an attempt to get that quintessential sunrise shot over the temple. The best location for this is to position yourself in front of one of the two pools in front of the temple after crossing the moat. On google maps these are labelled as “Reflecting Pond” and “Angkor Wat Basin”.
The Reflecting Pond is the better choice, but be under no illusion, this is no secret location and you will be joined by a good 200-500 people also trying to do the exact same thing. It’s utter chaos…camera flashes popping off (which of course will do nothing), others waving their ipads frantically in the air. If you’re looking for a quiet and peaceful setting for sunrise this probably isn’t it. I was disappointed with how the shots came out as well, but I wasn’t creating anything unique and I guess I can call it all an experience 🙂
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