Angkor Wat’s famous sunrise
I think most people already know that Angkor Wat is one of the most important structures in the world. Since Cambodia finally cleared itself of its land mines and opened itself up for tourism, it gave a lot of people from around the world a chance to finally see this UNESCO World Heritage Site which entranced a lot of people since its discovery. It has been used as a setting for some movies like Lara Croft’s Tomb Raider adventures in Angkor Thom and the profound whispers of Chow Mo-wan in a hole at one of the walls at Angkor Wat in the film In The Mood for Love by Wong Kar-wai, which piqued a lot more interest to the general movie going public. Personally, being a fan of places with scenic ruins overflowing with history, Angkor Wat placed as one of my dream destinations (along with Maccu Picchu). And it has been great that I finally had the chance to walk these hallowed corridors whose walls echo stories withstanding throughout time.
Entering the central complex
Our journey started as early as 5am. With the cool morning wind passing by us, our tuktuk raced towards the direction to where famed Angkor Wat is located. We were determined to get there as early as possible, since we failed to catch the sunrise yesterday after we woke up a bit late. When we arrived at the causeway entrance, there were already a number of inspectors strictly checking every pass before the let them through. After getting through the inspectors, we sped past some of the tourist and entered by the West Gate of the complex.
Climbing the steep and small step stairs
The guide books are true when they say that no matter how knowledgeably prepared or have researched a lot about Ankor Wat, nothing can prepare you to the sheer immensity of this temple. My first thought upon seeing this structure for the first time was “Wow! This is huge!” Once you enter the main gate passing by some corridors, you’ll exit to a wide open field where the causeway continues towards the main central complex where the closed lotus-like-towers are located. Quickly we went down to the left side of the causeway and headed towards the pond where a number of people are already waiting for the sunrise. I found a neat spot and quickly placed my tripod to mark my territory and set up my camera. Since we didn’t have breakfast yet, I took my snacks from my bag and munched on some cracker nuts while waiting for the skylights to start their play.
The upper corridors illuminated
As soon as the colors of the sky started to change as the sun slowly rises, people started clicking their cameras. It was also funny when the sun showed itself behind the Wat since people started moving on the opposite side of the pond since the sun rose on the left side of the structure. As it turns out, the sun rises in different positions depending on the season, like right now for this summer it rises on the left side of the Wat while during the cold season of November and December, the sun rises on the right side of the Wat. Despite its position though the changing colors of the sky and the light of the sun creates the perfect silhouette of the structure whose outline is proudly placed on Cambodia’s flag.
Details of the window and an Apsara
As we were on our way to the central complex where the towers were located we again bumped into this two Singaporean girls we met yesterday while exploring the temples. They said that they were able to catch the sunrise yesterday as well but the sunrise today was much better. That was great to hear. Lucky for us I guess.
The central Tower represent Mt Mero, center of the Universe
There weren’t much tourist inside this central complex which is the main temple itself. I told my friend that I wanted to climb up to the upper levels while the lighting is still good. So we went to the east side of the towers and climbed. I wonder why the steps here are so small, less than half of your foot so you have to step on sideways. At first it seems daunting but once you started it’ll be easier. Those who are vertigo prone may think otherwise on climbing,
Top Corner details bas relief of the central tower
When I reached the upper level, I was greeted by a corridor basking in the warm glow of the morning sun. I looked around to see what I could find. On the walls of this upper level temple are more impressive bas reliefs of Apsaras alongside the very detailed carvings of the window pillars. Apsaras are very common bas relief throughout the archaeological park. They are celestial nymphs, always bare-breasted and usually dancing, representing an ideal of female beauty. And here on the upper level, it is said that there are 1500 of these Apsaras.
View of the Wat West Entrance from the top level
The 5 main towers which resemble a closed lotus is located here. The central tower represents Mount Meru. This central temple has very impressive bas relief as well. It makes me appreciate the hard work these people have done just to decorate each side of this structure.
Victory of Vishnu over the Demons
From this top level you could see the whole area of Angkor wat and the outlying forest. You’ll be more impressed with sheer scale of the whole temple here. French archaeologist Georges Coedes considers Angkor Wat as a model of the universe. The central tower that represents Mt Meru is the center of the universe while the outlying walls symbolize the surrounding mountains and the surrounding moat as the oceans spreading beyond the universe. Angkor Wat literally translated also means as “the city which is a temple”
The Churning of the Ocean of Milk
We went down from the top level and to the 2nd tier. Then I had this weird conversation with one of the sweepers there. When this Korean guy asked me to take his photo with his camera the sweeper was at the inner corridor looking through the window and he was laughing. I found it weird at first on why he was laughing. When we were headed outside the sweeper was there on the corridor and asked me “Where you from?” “I’m from Manila. You work here sir?” I replied “Yes, I’ve been sweeping here for many years now. If only I could sweep those tourist too. Hahaha” he laughed. I guess he’s a bit annoyed with them as well. Then he asked “Are you afraid of Buddha?”. “Hmmm… not really.” Then he said something that got lost in the air and I couldn’t understand. I don’t now where the conversation is going and just said thank you and good bye. I guess I’m not the only one annoyed when there are lots of noisy tourists around. Angkor Wat is still a temple, so it should be quiet and solemn as it is still a place of worship.
Afternoon light by the pond
We then inspected the bas reliefs in the east gallery of the outer wall of the complex. And all I can say to the level of detail here is another WOW! Angkor Wat features the longest continuous bas relief in the world, and the level of detail here is stunning. At the east gallery illuminated by the sun, we can find on one side the “Victory of Vishnu over the Demons” depicting Vishnu’s battle with a legion of demons while riding on a garuda. But my favorite here is “The Churning of the Ocean of Milk” where in the middle is Vishnu standing on a giant turtle, on one side are 88 asure (devils) and on one side are 92 devas (gods) who seem to be on an endless tug of war using a giant serpent. Their purpose is to extract an elixir of immortality which both sides covet. And above all these are numerous Apsara singing and dancing as if to cheer on both sides. This is truly a brilliant as every replica on one side is exact and symmetrical and details astounding. This is a work of art at its finest!
Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah (in black) and Mr. Ang Choulean (White with neck tie)
Updated: I think the whole exploration of Angkor Wat took around 4 hours but it was really worth it. Maybe it took that long since I was taking time to take some photos as well. But all in all Angkor Wat is best visited in different times of the day so while exploring different temples, you may come back here numerous times as there is something new to see every time you go back. And while we were leaving the temple we chanced upon a head of state Hassanal Bolkiah, Sultan of Brunei being toured by Mr. Ang Choulean, a Khmer ethno-sociologist. At first I was wondering why there were some soldiers clearing the path at the causeway, turns out these two were touring the park. I think the Sultan wants to buy Angkor Wat for his kingdom. Hehe Kidding. Anyways, it was a nice event to cap of our tour of Angkor Wat.
Ferdz Decena is an award-winning travel photographer, writer and blogger. His works has found print in publications such as Singapore Airlines’s Silver Kris, Philippine Airlines’ Mabuhay, Cebu Pacific’s Smile and Seair InFlight. He has also lent his expertise to various organizations like the Oceana Philippines, Lopez Group Foundation, Save the Children and World Vision, contributing quality images for their marketing materials.