by Cassidy Armbruster
It’s difficult to imagine yourself in a time other than the one you’re living. You can’t quite grasp the cultural norms, the political climate, the social expectations, the vernacular, or the gender roles. You can’t taste the food or talk to the people. Well, this morning I stepped into the 12th century. It’s not such a difficult thing to do at Angkor Wat, an extremely well preserved religious monument and the national symbol of Cambodia. Although weather and war have made their marks, the temple has withstood the test of time. The temple was there in the 15th century when the Thais seized Angkor and in 1953 when Cambodia claimed independence from France.
Physically seeing history etched onto the walls of Angkor Wat and the surrounding temples affirms that 12th and 13th century desires, daily activities, and conflicts were not unlike ours. The base-reliefs on the walls and walkways depicts people buying goods at the market, people playing instruments, people hunting, people conversing and playing games, people gathered together drinking rice wine, as well as several battle scenes. Bunny, our extremely thoughtful and intelligent tour guide said that a depiction of two men grabbing each others pinkies was them pinky swearing, joking that even cultural gestures such as this have transcended time.
The entire Angkor temple is an astounding 500 acres, built in an estimated 37 years. The temple is made from sandstone block, and without any machinery. It truly is difficult to imagine when you see the size and detail of each wall and railing. Bunny explained that the sandstone came from the holy mountain of Phnom Kulen, 50 km away. The people depended on the Siem Reap River for which the stone floated down, as well as on elephants to transport the stone to the temple. Interestingly, the Angkor temple was built as the Hindu capital of the Khmer Empire, and was dedicated to the Hindu God, Vishnu. The switch from Hinduism to Buddhism came at the end of the 12th century. New monuments, Buddhas, and temples in the surrounding areas were constructed after the switch to Buddhism. These temples have, however, been victims of theft throughout more recent history. As you will notice when walking through the temples, many of the Buddha’s are missing their heads. The heads were worth a great sum of money, and the thieves were curious as to if gold was stored inside, thus majority were of the Buddha heads were stolen.
Today, bullet holes stain the exterior of the West entrance of the temple. Pol Pot used the temple as a fort during the Khmer regime, and during the Vietnamese invasion in 1979, Angkor Wat was in harm’s way. However, despite some damage, weathering, and periods of neglect, majority of Angkor Wat is extremely well preserved. The upper level of the temple was in my opinion the most breathtaking both physically and aesthetically. The stairs to the upper level are so steep, it’s as if you are climbing a ladder. This was done intentionally, because the upper level is symbolic of heaven, and reaching the kingdom of the gods is not easy.
Trees have woven their way through the architecture in this once thriving city of Angkor Thom, making their home amidst the ruins. The Angkor Wat day tour is one that I wouldn’t miss. You can find thousands of tours to Angkor Wat in Siem Reap, but ours is truly unique in that you zoom through the streets from temple to temple on the back of a Vespa. You are led by a certified guide that takes you to all of the nooks and hidden crannies you otherwise wouldn’t have seen, and you never get trapped behind TukTuk’s or buses of tourists. The day will likely be hot, but the breeze on the back of a Vespa refreshes you before you arrive at the next temple.