A Long-Awaited Journey to Angkor Wat
Squeezed into the middle seat in the back row of a Singapore Airlines jet, between Bama and a cheerful Indian doctor vacationing from the U.S., I look out the window at a jungle-shrouded Malaysian island rising from the South China Sea. The moving map on my PTV screen identifies this as Tioman: from the air we spot a pair of sharp, near-vertical granite monoliths known as the Dragon Horns. It’s barely 30 minutes into a two-hour-plus flight when our plane climbs above layers of cloud, the earth’s surface gradually disappearing from view.
When international travel became possible again, Bama and I agreed that our first overseas holiday since the end of 2019 had to be somewhere special. Going long-haul to Europe or North America was not realistic given our limited time off; we needed a Southeast Asian location that was reasonably easy to reach from Jakarta, a place we could spend an entire week without needing to rush around. Thailand seemed like the most obvious and straightforward choice from day one. There were plenty of nonstop flights to Bangkok, and then our options were to either head upriver to the old capital of Ayutthaya or make the short hop by air to Buriram, whose ancient Khmer temples see few foreign visitors. But if we were going down that route, why not visit the heart of the old empire? Bama had once cycled around Angkor for a day as part of a whistle-stop overland trip from Bangkok to Saigon; I had never been. Choosing Cambodia was a no-brainer.
In early December, the start of dry season, the sugar palm-flecked plains around Siem Reap are a vast patchwork of flooded paddy fields the color of old parchment. From up high we see cotton candy–like clouds reflected in the calm waters of Tonle Sap, Southeast Asia’s largest lake and the repository for millions of gallons of excess water from the mighty Mekong. Our plane banks to starboard, revealing downtown Siem Reap’s red tiled roofs and tangle of newly resurfaced roads on the approach to the airport. The single runway points northeast, unlike the man-made incisions on the landscape left by ancient Khmer laborers, who dug massive rectangular reservoirs and moats around their great temples and walled capitals, all oriented east-west in a grand design that evolved over time in accordance with the whims of powerful rulers who styled themselves devaraja, god-kings.
Angkor’s original name was Yasodharapura, and until recently historians had little idea of its true scale. Archaeologists using laser-scanning Lidar technology have mapped out the marks left behind by structures made of more perishable materials now lost to the ravages of time. The combination of remote sensing, aerial photography, and on-the-ground fieldwork has revealed an extensive network of canals and gridded city streets hidden beneath the forest cover and fields – a low-density urban sprawl 40 percent larger than modern-day Chicago. At its peak in the 11th to 13th centuries, Angkor may have been home to between 750,000 and a million people, making it the biggest city on the planet in pre-industrial times. Today, the surrounding plain is dotted with the remains of over a thousand temples in different states of repair: some little more than heaps of broken stone or brick, others awe-inspiring monuments that have been carefully restored with expertise and support from countries like France, Germany, India, China, and Japan.
Chief among these is the incomparable Angkor Wat, which was built over a period of 28 years (1122–1150 CE) under the reign of Suryavarman II. He commissioned it as both the state temple of the Khmer Empire and his intended mausoleum – a place to worship the Hindu deity Vishnu, supreme protector of the universe. Inscriptions tell us the king raised an army of 300,000 construction workers and 6,000 elephants for the project. It’s estimated that at least five million heavy sandstone blocks were quarried from the sacred mountain Phnom Kulen and floated on rafts down man-made canals to the sprawling site, which measures in at just under 163 hectares (402 acres). Even today, it ranks as the world’s largest religious monument. With a wide moat alluding to the cosmic ocean and a temple-mountain at its center symbolizing Mount Meru, the abode of the gods, the layout of Angkor Wat reflects the universe in Hindu cosmology.
Suryavarman II’s ashes were never interred inside the vast complex. He is believed to have died during his second military campaign against the rival kingdom of Champa, located in what is now central and southern Vietnam. Less than three decades later, the Cham, who were skilled warriors in their own right, avenged the Khmer invasions with a surprise naval attack on Yasodharapura via the Mekong and Tonle Sap. Champa forces sacked the proud capital, killed its monarch, and occupied Cambodia for the next four years. When the Cham invaders were ousted and the empire restored under the new king Jayavarman VII, Khmer denizens increasingly turned their back on the Hindu gods. Angkor Wat was eventually converted into a Buddhist temple, and with the passage of time the name Suryavarman II vanished from memory. Even after the surrounding city disappeared and the jungle closed in, Angkor’s greatest monument was never completely abandoned: its decaying halls of worship drew a steady stream of monks and local pilgrims.
Travelers from distant countries like China, Japan, and Portugal visited over the centuries, but it wasn’t until 1860 that French naturalist and explorer Henri Mouhot brought the marvel to the attention of the Western world. He quipped in his travel journals that Angkor Wat was “grander than anything left to us by Greece or Rome,” and the mere sight of the great temple was enough to make the traveler “forget all the fatigues of the journey, filling him with admiration and delight, such as would be experienced on finding a verdant oasis in the sandy desert.”
Mouhot was based in Thailand at the time, and an unfortunate combination of heavy rain and rough seas made his voyage from the port of Chanthaburi to Kampot in southern Cambodia a perilous one. The promised transportation did not show up when he left Kampot – he had to procure his own ox-drawn wagons for the overland expedition into the Khmer heartlands, which was largely done on foot. Adding to Mouhot’s woes were the sheer amount of luggage and his hardened leather hunting boots, which forced him to spent days on end walking without shoes. This painful slog through mosquito-infested marshland and forest proved torturous for someone more used to the temperate climes of Europe: “Our sufferings from the heat exceeded all I had ever imagined of the effect of the sun in the torrid zone,” he wrote. “Its burning rays, falling on the sandy soil, became intolerable at ten o’clock in the morning.”
A subsequent passage mentions how the travelers quenched their thirst with tea using boiled water from stagnant pools along the route. The Frenchman lamented the fact that their clothes were almost always soaked through because of the rain and oppressive humidity; his two servants fell ill with malaria. In places where the party had to camp out in the open, fires were lit to ward off the “ferocious denizens” of the jungle: wild elephants, rhinoceros, tigers, and venomous snakes. Mouhot’s recollections of that harrowing journey make our complaints about 21st-century air travel seem like the tiniest of inconveniences.
These days, ox-drawn carts no longer rule Southeast Asia’s country roads. Bama and I tour the sprawling Angkor Archaeological Park by remork – the uniquely Cambodian take on a tuk-tuk featuring a motorcycle-pulled carriage with padded seating and wide wooden armrests. Many get their first sight of Angkor Wat at sunrise, when visitors flock to its reflecting pools to watch the sky lighten in dusky pinks and yellows against the dark silhouette of the great temple. Bama’s attempt to go back in 2011 was a flop: he found the front gates of the hostel padlocked and there was no one on duty. This time, though both of us are early risers, we agreed it was not worth the hassle of jostling with pre-dawn crowds to photograph the monument’s backlit spires. Why not spend an extra hour in bed or enjoy a proper breakfast?
For now, the broad sandstone causeway over the moat is closed for restoration, so tourists are funneled onto a pontoon bridge whose modular plastic floats seem to rise or fall with every footstep. “My mom would be a little scared,” Bama says. Reaching the other side, we ooh and aah at sculptures of seven-headed naga serpents and beautifully carved devatas: celestial beings with exquisite headdresses, hairstyles, and jewelry mirroring those of real-life women in 12th-century Cambodia.
Going counter-clockwise from the west, Bama and I make a slow circuit around the bas-relief galleries, marveling at the rich tapestry of stories that covers an area of 1,200 square meters (about 12,900 square feet). There are pitched battles from the Mahabharata and Ramayana, Hindu epics still remembered in the traditional art forms of modern-day Southeast Asia. One long frieze immortalizes a triumphant procession with Suryavarman II himself, fanned by servants and shaded by more than a dozen parasols as he sits cross-legged on a wooden dais. Preceding him are courtiers and Khmer troops, military commanders riding on horses or elephants, and a contingent of Siamese mercenaries. A passing local guide points out the foreign fighters to the group of tourists in his charge. “The men who look like women are the Thais.” This is on account of their distinctive headgear, which has strands of beads falling behind the ears and a plant-like arrangement of feathers sprouting from a tiered cap. Then, a little farther on, we find a portrayal of 37 heavens and 32 hells according to the ancient Hindu texts known as the Puranas, showing sinners being punished (read: tortured) for their grievous misdeeds.
Adorning the walls of the eastern gallery is Angkor’s most famous bas-relief, the Churning of the Ocean of Milk. It depicts a thousand-year-long tug-of-war between the Hindu gods and the demons, using the serpent Vasuki as a rope coiled around mythical Mount Mandara to extract amrita, the elixir of immortality, from the depths of the cosmic ocean. This ultimately successful endeavor was overseen by Vishnu, who transformed himself into a giant tortoise, Kurma, to support the sinking mountain. The churning also brought forth the goddesses of wealth (Lakshmi) and wine (Madira); the moon; the wish-fulfilling tree called Kalpavriksha; and the apsaras, celestial dancers whose charms were practically irresistible to any mortal man. Emphasizing the difference between good and evil, ancient Khmer artisans inserted the multi-headed demon king Ravana and the powerful god Hanuman into the story. Mouhot describes this bas-relief in great detail, though he mistakes the four-armed figure of Vishnu for an angel and conflates Hanuman with Sdach Sva, the Khmer name for the Monkey King (Sun Wukong) in the 16th-century Chinese novel Journey to the West.
Torrential downpours color the first of our three afternoons spent at Angkor Wat. We are stranded for some time in the cloisters of the highest level known as the Bakan, a place accessed via ludicrously steep wooden stairs. But the inclement weather also sets the scene for a few serendipitous moments. The skies unexpectedly open while we’re inside the galleries of the Western Gopura (gateway); it has the immediate effect of clearing the raised ceremonial causeway leading to the main temple of all other visitors, save three Cambodian youths huddled under a single umbrella, the lotus-bud towers behind them blurred by a curtain of raindrops. This composition becomes one of my favorite pictures from the whole trip. As we leave the central compound, a kind-hearted traveler with a German accent alerts us to the mirror-image of Angkor Wat revealed in large puddles on the 350-meter (1,148-foot) causeway. I crouch down to take photos as sunlight filters through the indigo-grey rainclouds, not knowing if these accidental reflecting pools will be gone by morning. ◊
How amazing is this place! Your post does justice to this wonderful place! Great photos and info James! Good job! X
Thank you for the kind words, Anna!
I definitely saw more of Angkor Wat this time. And although we had to reach the temple via that pontoon bridge as opposed to the original causeway, the approach was just as magnificent as how I remembered it from my first trip. It was also nice not to see the green covering that once enveloped a section of the temple compound. However, I did notice this time around it was parts of the southern hallway that was covered. But luckily instead of green, now they use black that blends well with the structure’s stones. Like what Anna said, this post does Angkor Wat justice, James.
While researching about Angkor Wat and its history for this post, I realized there was even more of the complex that we hadn’t explored, like the ruins of the Eastern Gopura and the northern and southern entrances by the moat. I was so overwhelmed by the beauty and scale of the bas-relief galleries I missed details like the depiction of King Ravana in the Battle of Lanka. The next time we visit, I think it will be worth going early in the morning to see the sun illuminating the east-facing reliefs like the Churning of the Ocean of Milk. Now that would be something special!
Oh this is a nice entry – beautiful pictures (I like the reflection from the puddles and the youths caught in the rain) and a thorough history. I had no idea Angkor was that big in the past and supported so many people. I could probably spend a couple of days there. It’s funny – when I travel, I like to wake up early and get going. But my bf likes to sleep in because he is in vacation mode. I think I would like to see Angkor Wat in the morning but I am leery of those crowds.
Cheers, Matt! If I had a time machine I would love to go back and visit Angkor at the height of its glory. The idea of living in a city so big without modern transportation or conveniences like electricity and running water is simply mind-boggling. Reading about Mouhot’s travels back in the mid-19th century made me chuckle at times – especially the part about having improper footwear and bringing too much luggage. I know what you mean about having different travel styles with people you love. My dad loves to stay up late into the wee hours of the morning and then sleep in till 10.
Oh what a treat this was. It brought back many memories of my own visit there, loving the architecture but not knowing enough about it as I explored. You filled in some gaps for me. And I do so love all the many fanciful Hindu myths and it’s infinite cast of characters. I agree the reflection photos (especially the landscape one) and the three youths under the umbrella are great shots.
Thank you so much, Alison. We were lucky to be there at *just* the right time to take pictures during and after the rain. I’m looking forward to reading Bama’s post on Angkor Wat – he will likely go into even greater detail since he knows much more about Hindu mythology than I do.
What an incredible trip this must have been ~ the photos are exquisite, and the one of the sudden rain storm with Angkor Wat in the background is so beautiful and perfect 🙂 You capture the essence of the place with your photos, such fine detail throughout Angkor Wat, and then to imagine that it may have been home to between 750,000 and a million people… it is a bit mind-blowing. It immediately takes my imagination on a trip, wondering how it would have felt to have been there so long ago and experience the place in its heyday. Excellent post, James!
Thank you, Randall! I like to think that particular photo captures a moment in time that will never be repeated exactly as it was. During my research for this post, I found out that Monash University in Melbourne has created intricate 3D models and detailed computer animations to show how Angkor might have looked at its apogee in the 12th century. It’s a long-running project and some short video clips can be seen here (scrolling all the way to the end, you’ll see a link to Part 2 with a focus on Angkor Wat): https://artsandculture.google.com/story/ugWBaZFzDpVCKw
Thank you for the link, James ~ wow, it gives such an excellent overview of the scale of this ancient ‘mega-city’ and also makes me honestly wish to be able to experience it (a few years there, at least 😂). And, yes, that is the beauty of the photograph you captured. It is an iconic shot, never to be repeated at such a perfect / slice-of-life moment! Excellent.
I almost want to print this out and carry it on the plane with me to Southeast Asia in a few weeks! (Instead I will save it in my inbox and really study the history you have outlined.) I was going to send you the interactive videos you mentioned above; someone just sent them to me as a way to prepare for my trip – super cool. Like all the other commenters, I love the photos in the rain, especially that last one with the puddles.
Lex, I’m so thrilled your long-postponed Southeast Asia trip is finally happening, even if it is without J! In hindsight, I would have liked to delve even deeper into the history of Angkor before going, but work got in the way. Aren’t those virtual simulations incredible? You can just tell that the project is a labor of love from the realism and the stunning level of detail.
Found your site through Bama’s. It is good to get another vision of your trips together. Lovely photos and thanks for the virtual visit of Angkor Wat. (Suzanne)
Hi Suzanne, thanks in turn for the comment and the kind words. I think Bama’s post about Angkor Wat will be published in the next few months… it will be interesting to compare the photos as he has a very keen eye for detail and often captures things that I miss or overlook.