Pre-dawn we were getting comfortable on our rock seats to catch the sunrise come up over a mighty, religious complex that is considered to be the crowning achievement in Khmer art and architecture- Angkor Wat. The temple’s balance, composition, and beauty make it one of the finest monuments in the world.
The temple complex occupies a rectangle 1.5km (0.9m) by 1.3km (0.8m), although the central sandstone massif occupies just 5% of that area. Angkor Wat is an imposing mountain temple, a symbolization of Mount Meru, the home of the Hindu gods surrounded by moats representing the cosmic ocean.
Unusual for an Angkor era temple, Angkor Wat faces to the west into the setting sun, rather than the east. Why Angkor Wat was oriented to the west continues to be debated but could be determined by the temple’s dedication to Vishnu, preserver of the universe, who is sometimes associated with the west in Brahmanic tradition. The unusual orientation may also be linked to the motivation for building the temple. It was possibly designed as a tomb for King Suryavarman II, the sponsor, whose death would be symbolized by the daily setting of the sun. His posthumous name, Paramavishnuloka, is recorded on one of the bas-reliefs indicating that ornamentation work continued after his death.
Most commonly the temple is approached from the road to the west. Climb the steps of the cruciform naga terrace onto the causeway crossing the 90m (620ft) wide moat. You will come to the large western gateway with five doors that completely obstruct the temple within. The walls of this gateway feature some of the finest and best-preserved carvings at Angkor Wat, including more than 250 devatas.
To the north and south are the libraries. Between these and the main temple are two basins, perfectly placed to capture the reflections of the towers.
The eastern gallery, associated with the life-giving morning sun, depicts the Brahmanic epic, “The Churning of the Ocean of Milk” in which gods and demons combine for 1,000 years to churn cosmic ocean and produce the heavenly nectar (amrita) that will give immortality. This is the most famous scene at Angkor Wat.
The direction of the setting sun in the west is commonly associated with the end of life in the Hindu tradition, so perhaps it’s appropriate that the western gallery of Angkor Wat is covered with violent depictions of epic battles.
Our roots will forever be from here, America, born and raised. Yet, life requires us to move more frequently than we care to count. Whether living stateside or abroad, you can always find us traveling somewhere. We scout out places that you only think you can dream of one day seeing and we seek out those that aren’t found in guidebooks. We then bring them to life here in our travel memos, so hopefully, one day you too can visit them or at least be able to live vicariously through us. This blog isn’t just about crossing off places from a bucket list. It’s about absorbing and learning how other cultures grow and fit into the same world that we do. Life is short and the world is big. Enjoy and get out there!