My visit to Angkor Wat was by accident. I was supposed to meet a friend in Thailand and, when I arrived in Bangkok, he had escaped to the land of the Khmer.
Sometimes it is better to embrace an experience without knowing anything about it, completely devoid of information or prejudices that tend to act as boundaries to our imagination. Other times, perhaps many a times, knowing the history (or the story) of something supercharges the senses.
I didn’t know anything about Angkor Wat. I wandered around the ruins admiring its enormity, its carefully crafted bas reliefs depicting beautiful stories, the mesmerizing reflection of the temple on the lagoon. But I knew nothing and eventually the scorching heat won me over and found myself eating pineapples and monkeying around with macaques.
Here are 7 things I wish I had known before walking into the City of Temples:
1) It was built by an ancient race: the Khmer people. These people are one of the oldest ethnic groups in Southeast Asia, dating back to 2000 BCE. They developed the first alphabet still in use in SE Asia, from which Thai and Lao scripts are derived. Angkor Wat was erected during the peak years of the Khmer Empire, somewhere around 1113 and 1150 CE.
2) Pol Pot did not want to destroy Angkor Wat. We hired an “unofficial” guide who told us that the Khmer Rouge tried to blast out the temple, as Pol Pot’s aim was to abolish all cultural forms and start civilization anew. A new civilization without architecture. There was one exception, however: Angkor Wat (and other Khmer temples). “These buildings had a useful nationalist symbolism with which to bind people to the [Khmer Rouge] regime, while at the same time being temporally distinct from a living culture marked for destruction” (source: The Destruction of Memory: Architecture at War. Robert Bevan).
3) Origin and significance: built by Suryavarman II (king) in the 12th century, dedicated to Vishnu… or constructed by Indra (god of rain and thunderstorms) in a single night to act as a palace to his son. You choose the version that you like best.
The temple is a representation of Mount Meru, the center of the physical, metaphysical, and spiritual universes in Hindu, Buddhist, and Jain cosmology. Sacred mountain with five peaks.
4) There’s a feeling I get when I look to the West. The temple faces to the west, something uncommon for Khmer temples (most of them face east). Experts debate its meaning, saying that it has funerary connotations. The real reason shall never be known.
5) The dancing girls are deities. There are more than 1,796 depictions of apsaras (dancing nymphs). These celestial dancing girls are characters from Indian mythology and, the story goes, were used by the gods to seduce mythological demons, heroes, and ascetics. If the girl is not dancing, she is called a devata.
6) Most of the stories depicted on the walls are from the Ramayana and the Mahabharata: the Battle of Lanka (Rama, 7th avatar of Vishnu, defeats Ravana, monarch of Lanka, in epic battle), Churning of the Sea of Milk (92 asuras and 88 devas using a serpent, Vasuki, to churn the sea), etc.
Although originally Hindu, it has been a Buddhist temple since the late 13th century.
7) Average income in Cambodia is around $3 USD per day. Please keep this in mind as children and adults swarm towards you at the entrance of the Angkor temples trying to sell you postcards, artwork, textiles. Don’t get irritated. Think about how it is possible to have such an imbalance of income in the world.
Don’t stop until you start questioning the meaning of money.
Angkor Wat is impressive. No need for a fruitless attempt to describe it with words. You must see it for yourself.