Standing in front of Angkor Wat in the pre-dawn calm, a large critter decided to land on my nose. Reflexively, I was all set to swat the early morning intruder off my face, much to the visibly expressed horror of my ebullient Wendy Wu Tours guide, Mao. “No, it’s a butterfly!”, he pleaded with startled, life-saving urgency. And so it was.
A vivid black and green winged beauty, who gracefully fluttered away into the pale refuge of the pre-dawn light. Yes, butterflies are sacred creatures in this spiritually-charged sanctuary. After all, Angkor Wat was rediscovered 150 years ago by a French naturalist, Henri Mouhot, while searching for butterflies. As you trip around the delights of Siem Reap, you’ll soon notice the region remains aflutter with hundreds of species of these radiantly techni-coloured creatures.
Gazing in awe of one of the world’s most recognisable landmarks, I was waiting for the rising sun to caress this monumental temple with its golden rays. Thousands of others were too, dutifully responding to their 4am wake-up calls. The touts and hawkers were out in force at 5am, peddling their souvenirs and postcards, across the grassy viewing expanse flanking Angkor Wat to their captive audience.
“Don’t buy anything from the kids,” warned Mao. “It dissuades them from wanting to go to school.” With over 2 million tourists flocking to Angkor Wat annually, it’s one of the unintended downsides to tourism’s capacity to boost local prosperity. With pesky clouds undermining the splendour of a temple sunrise, I popped over to the al fresco café, for a coffee. (Like Vietnam, coffee in Cambodia is presented with a can of condensed milk.)
A surly young female hawker, maybe 10 years of age, collared me while I enjoying my coffee, unrelentingly exhorting me to buy a fridge magnet. Her face of thunder suddenly demurred, when I suggested I give her US$1 for a photograph. The slightest of subdued smiles emerged to match the feeble sunrise. And she was on her way.
With thousands of visitors swooping on Angkor Wat at daybreak, my trusty guide Mao, suggested we return to the temple later in the day, when the precinct is less trafficked. That was one of the huge advantages of touring Siem Reap with Wendy Wu Tours. Their precision planning and on-the-ground local expertise delivered a far more enjoyable and effortless affair. The dimensions of the temple compound are staggering, covering an area of 1500 metres by 1300 metres.
So knowing where to go and what to see within this emblematic behemoth is very handy. As the world’s largest religious monument, this UNESCO World Heritage site, emblazoned on the Cambodian flag, Angkor Wat was the spiritual centre of the Khmer empire, that lorded over the region from the 9th to the 15 centuries.
Dedicated to the Hindu god Vishnu and built in the 12th century by King Suryavarman II, and later transformed into a Buddhist temple, the colossal western entrance is flanked by balustrades of gigantic serpents which apparently represent cosmic fertility.
Admiring the five spires of the main temple, reaching over 65 metres in height, reflected in the waters of the pond is an indelible experience. Acclaimed for its intricate ornamentation, harmony and striking beauty, Angkor Wat symbolises the Hindu cosmos, with a temple mountain at its heart and the vast wrap-around moats representing the seven oceans that surround Mt. Meru, the mythical home of the Hindu gods.
The five beehive-like spires form a giant lotus bud at the centre of the complex. As Mao led me around the major features, I noticed the three-tiered central pyramid itself rises in four concentric enclosures opening to the west.
Steep staircases will haul you up to the higher perches and incredible panoramas over the sheer immensity of Angkor Wat. Take it slowly in the heat of day!
The terraces are decorated with images of Hindu deities, many of which have sadly lost their heads to looters. But the artistry of the temple hits its zenith in the extensive bas-relief work that famously covers its walls. Don’t miss the first-level reliefs depicting the mythical “Churning of the Ocean of Milk,” a legend in which Hindu deities stir vast oceans in order to extract the elixir of immortality. This churning produced the apsaras, Hindu celestial dancers. Roughly 2000 of them are liberally scattered throughout the temple.
Other reliefs surrounding the base of the main temple illustrate epic Khmer wars and an audience given by the king. If the architectural richness and grandeur sounds all a bit Tomb Raider – bingo – the 2001 blockbuster, featuring Angelina Jolie as Lara Croft, was filmed extensively here. By the way, the discoveries at Angkor Wat continue.
In June, an Australian archaeologist, Damian Evans, and his colleagues found evidence of previously undiscovered medieval urban and agricultural networks surrounding Angkor Wat.
For decades, experts had assumed that the ancient Khmer civilisation collapsed in the 15th century when invading Thai armies besieged Angkor Wat, forcing populations to relocate to southern Cambodia. But Evans claims their laser maps show no evidence of relocated, dense cities in the south, throwing into doubt whether there was any mass-migration. As is the case with all temples in the Angkor complex, local officials are insisting on strict compliance to the dress code.
The latest requirement is you wear pants or a skirt below the knees and shirts that cover your shoulders. Officials simply won’t allow your entrance to the temple sites, if you don’t comply. Sweet talking your way in, won’t work here! Getting there? Jetstar offers one-stop flights to Singapore from New Zealand with onward services to a wide range of Asian destinations including Siem Reap and Phnom Penh in Cambodia. I flew with Jetstar from Singapore to Siem Reap, return. I enjoyed the ultra-modern aircraft and charming flight crew. Both flights departed bang on time and the fares are unbeatable. Book at www.Jetstar.com
Wendy Wu Tours offers a wealth of options in Cambodia from extensive two and three week tours, to short breaks and tailor-made options. I experienced their Siem Reap in Focus 3 Night Short Break, which threaded together all of the essential sights with flexibility for personal exploration. The on-the-ground local expertise was simply exceptional. (Picture of Mao.)You’ll love the passion, informality and knowledgeable insights of your guides. Book a touring option that best suits your desires. Ph. 0800 936 3998 or head to www.wendywutours.co.nz
By Mike Yardley.