The magnificent Angkor Wat, a legacy of the Khmer Empire, is the most impressive stop on my trip to Cambodia.
I am traveling by Cambodia’s traditional means of transport, a tuk-tuk, which is a small, open-air carriage attached to the back of a motorbike. In the darkness of the night, we leave behind Siem Reaps, and the buildings become fewer and far between. We are now on the way to the forest in the pitch dark. I am relieved of tiredness by the wind striking my face. This wind in the hot and humid tropical climate of Cambodia is a great blessing. As I realize where we are, I begin to think about what I am going to see here and I feel a pang of excitement. I am on my way to Angkor Wat, the world’s largest temple, to watch the sunrise.
After almost a half-hour journey, the tuk-tuk driver stops and tells us that we have arrived. The huge walls of the temple-city are vaguely visible between the trees beyond the large water canal. I remove the small torch from my pocket and begin to follow the other visitors. We are walking quickly, as if we have to get somewhere on time. Our aim is to get the best place to watch the sunrise. At the end of the historical bridge over the canal that surrounds the temple we come across a gate that is relatively small compared with the huge walls. I walk through the gate following the other travelers, who have come from all corners of the world, and find myself in a huge garden. As I walk along the long stone path in the center of the garden holding the torch, I begin to get used to the darkness. Suddenly, the silhouette of Angkor Wat’s majestic towers begins to appear. The area around the pond beside the path seems to be a good place to watch the sunrise behind the temple and its reflection on the water.
However, it appears that others also have the same idea, and the area around the pond is crowded. I find a suitable place and begin to wait. Although the sky has begun to turn from black to a darkish blue, the stars are still visible. In a short time, the darkness starts to dissipate and the magnificence of the temple begins to appear. The story about why Khmer Emperor Suryavarman II had this temple built comes to my mind. Suryavarman II, who was greatly disturbed by his wife’s concern for her health and her pursuit of eternal life, decided to have a magnificent tomb built in the capital to show that death was inevitable. The temple that took 30 years to build was dedicated to the Hindu god Vishnu. Unlike most of the Hindu temples, the façade faces the west to emphasize death. So while the other temples are generally famous for the view of the sunset, Angkor Wat attracts visitors with the silhouette that emerges with the sunrise.
As the effects of the sunlight increase, the sky and clouds behind Angkor Wat are transformed into an array of colors ranging from blue to red, red to orange, and from orange to pink. I am totally captivated as I witness this spectacular ceremony of colors. When the scene of sunrise is combined with this 800-year-old temple that is carved like lacework, it creates an overpowering effect. First the central tower, which for Hindus represents the sacred Mount Meru and is carved in the shape of a lotus flower bud, greets the first light of day. After a while, the towers representing the other hills of the mount are illuminated. As the sunlight becomes stronger, the carving on the towers and temple becomes more apparent. This monument that 300,000 laborers and 6,000 elephants worked on for 30 years is standing before me in all its splendor!
As the sun rises, I move on to tour around the inside of the temple. Buddhist monks wearing orange clothing walk past me. When Jayavarman VII turned the religion of the Khamer Empire to Buddhism towards the end of the 12th century, Angkor Wat was transformed into a Buddhist temple, and since then this has been a place of pilgrimage for Buddhists. As I enter the temple, I notice the statues of two small women called apsara on either side. According to Khmer mythology, these are fairies that came from heaven. There are around 2,000 apsara figures in the temple, each different from the other. I head towards the corridors, which are hundreds of meters long, and inspect the reliefs on the walls. On the order of Jayavarman VII, the walls were carved with Hindu epics like the Mahabharata, legends from Hindu mythology, important events, victories, and events of daily life. These reliefs seem so real that I feel absorbed in the scenes that they revive. It is estimated that these carvings on an area of almost 1,200 m2 took 10 years to complete.
As I leave the corridor and walk deeper into the temple, I come across huge empty pools. I see Buddhist monks sitting around the pools on straw mats burning incense and praying. In front of them are brass bowls and lotus leaves… Visitors, if they wish, can sit in front of them cross-legged. The monks sprinkle water on these visitors from the brass bowls using a small brush accompanied by the rhythm of Khmer prayers. This ritual aimed at warding off evil spirits lasts a few minutes, and ends with the monk tying a thin red string bracelet around the visitor’s wrist. It is believed that if this bracelet is removed before it falls off by itself, it brings bad luck.
I leave the monks and go upstairs so I can climb up Angkor Wat’s spectacular towers. Today, like the Tower of Babel, these towers that were once only used by the emperor’s family and senior monks, host tourists speaking many different languages. For centuries, the temple complex that was abandoned following the fall of the Khmer Empire in the 15th century was only visited by monks. With its walls covered in lush vegetation, the deserted structure was promoted in the West in the 19th century by French explorer Henri Mouhot, and after restoration works, gained its current popularity. I virtually crawl up the narrow, steep, and very high steps. The fact that the temple’s steps are so high and steep makes me think of the connection between faith and trial. Eventually, I reach the top of the tower that represents Mount Meru. As I look over the long walk I had to take in the darkness, the vast gardens, and the never-ending tropical forests beyond the walls from the windows decorated with reliefs, I totally forget my exhaustion. Henri Mouhot’s note, jotted down in his notebook, comes to my mind, “One of these temples –a rival to that of Solomon and erected by some ancient Michelangelo- might take an honorable place beside our most beautiful buildings. It is grander than anything left to us by Greece or Rome.”