15. Angkor Wat

(Although located in Travelogues SEA2 Chap folder, this article is part of SEA Empires. These 7 chapters, 10>16, belong between SEA5:Ch8a & SEA6:Ch09. This particular article is excerpted from SEA Travelogues SEA3:Ch14.)


In prior chapters, we examined the political, religious and artistic influences that led to the Khmer efflorescence at Angkor. The long-lasting Khmer Empire produced many magnificent religious monuments, the largest and most famous of which is Angkor Wat. The Universe arranged circumstances to induce the Author to visit this amazing testament to the human spirit with his family in June of 2001. In fact, his encounter with this Khmer masterpiece was a key element that inspired the Author to do the research that led to the current volume. Due to its importance in the generation of this book, following is the Author's first person account of his reaction to Angkor Wat. Besides, any rendition of the history of Southeast Asia would be incomplete without at least a cursory account of this amazing piece of architecture.

Historical Context

Jayavarman II founded Angkor as the sacred capital of the Khmer people circa 800 CE. This enormous city was located near Siem Riep in present day Cambodia. Square walls, 2.5 miles in length, surrounded the city and a moat surrounded the walls. It encompassed both the areas of what was to become Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom. Virtually nothing remains of the original city.

Jayavarman II built a temple on top of the tallest mountain in the area. It is called Phnom Bakheng – the Mountain Top Temple. The uplift is right in the heart of his capital city. Although it is hard to tell from the remains, the original temple was carved out of the stone of the hill and then faced with sandstone. Certainly an amazing feat.

Although the temple has not been restored as much as the others, it is the first to use the style, which became the standard for the Khmer temples. It is called the quincunx plan - 5 towers placed on the upper terrace, one in the center surrounded by the others in the corners. The upper terrace was placed on top of five tiers, which were on top of a foundation. In all there were 7 levels, which represented the 7 levels of Indra’s heaven from Hindu mythology.

Phnom Bakheng is also referred to as the first Angkor Wat. Each of the subsequent kings built their own mountaintop temples. This temple building obsession culminated with the current Angkor Wat in 1100 CE, almost a millennium ago. A hundred years later in 1200, construction began on Angkor Thom, the last of these enormous mountaintop temples. It is evident that the Khmer Empire was vibrant for at least 4 centuries, quite a long time as empires go.

Now that we have the historical context for the Khmer stone temples in mind, let us hear the Author’s first hand account of his experience.

The Angkor Complex recently reopened, after closure for war

At 3PM Sopheap, our guide, and the driver picked us up to go to see Angkor Wat. 'Wat' means temple in the Thai language. The Thai named the temple in their ascendance, as the Khmer empire was in its decline.

There was enormous security at the gateway to get in. It seems that the Angkor complex attracts treasure hunters, poachers, thieves, smugglers, whatever you want to call them, from all over the world to steal artifacts. Trading in these pilfered goods can bring lucrative rewards for those that are successful.

However, there are dangers. Land mines are supposedly sprinkled randomly throughout the forested environment due to the fighting that has gone on in Cambodia over the last few decades. 'Keep on the marked trails. Don't stray too far off the beaten path. Take a guide.' There are rumors that there are land mines surrounding the complex, which are turned on at night and turned off during the day.

Sopheap: "Angkor was 'discovered' by the French for the Western world in the late 1800s. Its marvelous temples were covered over by the jungle - everything in a state of decay. While the temples had not been maintained, Buddhist monks had inhabited them continuously. Angkor had never been lost, contrary to popular opinion. The French began the renovation of the temples and the research into the Khmer empire, and continue to do so. There is still much restoration work being done, most of it by the French. Another point needs clarifying. Angkor is the name for the whole complex of temples, which covers over 70 square miles and contains over 40 structures. Today we are going to see Angkor Wat, the most famous of the temples, but not the only one. Angkor also refers to the Khmer Empire in its glory."

Past the guarded entrance, we now have laminated picture IDs, which establishes us as legitimate visitors to this architectural splendor. Angkor was reopened to the world in 1994 after being closed for a quarter of a century. This shuttering was due to the turbulence of the Vietnam War of the late 60s and early 70s followed by the violent uprising of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia.

Sopheap, our guide, barely survived the war.

Sopheap: “Battling armies burned down my village twice in my lifetime.”

“How old are you?”

“28. In many ways it is a miracle that I am still alive. I was caught in the middle of gunfire three times; the last time was 1997 - four years ago. One of my friends didn't survive. I never joined the army on either side, because I was too young and then a student.”

“Which side were you on?”

“I don’t take sides.”

He assured us that Cambodians liked Americans, but don't like the Vietnamese.

"We blame the Vietnamese for the American involvement. The Vietnamese have always been the aggressors in this area. They were granted independence from China and immediately began expanding southward. What is called South Vietnam used to be part of Cambodia. The Mekong River flows right through Cambodia. Vietnam conquered the Mekong River delta from the Cambodians."

Actually the Cham had a nation centered in South Vietnam. The Vietnamese attacked them from the north and the Cambodians from the west. Eventually these more aggressive cultures conquered the kingdom and absorbed the people. To say that the Mekong was traditionally Cambodian would be as false as it would be to say that it was traditionally Vietnamese. It was actually neither. Even today the Cham speakers make up the biggest minority in South Vietnam and in southern Cambodia.

Angkor Wat, the structure

Driving a short distance through the forest, we see what seems to be a big river, in which people are swimming and bathing. Turns out it is the moat around Angkor Wat. It is almost two football fields wide. Manmade and square. Awesome. We drive to the entrance. Many people of multiple races are milling around including the omnipresent official looking guards.

Don: "Is it safe to swim in the moat?"

Sopheap: "Yes. People cleanse themselves in it. It symbolizes the ocean, which surrounds Mount Meru, the center of the universe, where the gods live. Angkor Wat is meant to represent Mount Meru. Angkor means capital. Wat means temple. Angkor Wat was supposed to be the central temple, or capital temple of the Khmer Empire. The Hindu gods were thought to have incarnated themselves as the rulers of the Khmer. They built Angkor as their home on this planet. The construction of these temples established themselves as god-kings, for all to see."

Don: "The kings felt themselves as representing the gods?"

Sopheap: "For Cambodians there is really no separation between the gods and the kings. The people worshipped the king, not as the representative of Vishnu, but as Vishnu himself. People viewed the King as an actual incarnation of the God. The king probably felt so too. We'll talk more about this when we see the friezes, especially the one portraying the Ramayana."

Angkor Wat, stone doing a good job of pretending to be a lotus flower

From outside the moat, the temple Angkor looks like one structure all made of gray sandstone with multiple levels. It has a vegetal fractal pattern, which duplicates itself regularly and harmoniously on small and large levels. For instance there are small spires within the larger spires, each with a similar pattern. These fractal replications are very pleasing to the eye, mimicking the shape of a lotus flower. One must remind oneself that this vegetal pattern is made of stone that has lasted in the jungle without care for nearly 1000 years. Awesome that stone becomes and remains a flower for so long.

Across the middle of the moat were enormous blocks of sandstone, rising perhaps six feet high or so above the moat, which allowed one to cross without getting wet. Walking up to the entrance of this walkway, first there are statues of lions on guard and then again the Naga serpents, as balustrades. But this time the serpents' bodies stretched across the entire length of the moat, approximately 200 yards, up to the entrance of what seemed to be the Angkor temple. The causeway was 12 meters wide, large enough for elephants to cross.

The right half of the bridge had been replaced with new stones, while the left half had not been restored. This balance of restored and unrestored was a theme that we frequently saw. For instance, the Thai people had restored three sides of one of their temples, but were going to leave the last as a ruin.

In this way, one gets a sense of both the old and new. When something is completely restored, one loses touch with the ancient, no matter how accurate the touchup. There is something sacred about that which has been ravaged by time, but still retains the integrity of its original self. It is like the wrinkles of an old person versus the face-lift. While the face-lift looks young, it erases the history off the face. Some people would like their history erased, for instance smokers. But there are others who like to see the history, untouched. A temple that has been restored has lost its recent history of decay. It has lost its wrinkles. A temple that has not been restored retains its history, but loses its youth. Restoring a temple, allows it to regain its youth. Thus to restore one part and not the other, allows one to see youth and old age simultaneously. How glorious! (However, as we were to find out the restored part had only been taken to middle age, not even close to its prime.)

The Multiple illusions that the Mind creates

As one crosses the moat over the causeway, one comes to a gateway tower or wall, which seems to be immediately in front of the wat, the temple behind it. In fact, the temple is another 300 yards behind this towered gateway. The Mind is boggled after one passes through this entry tower and sees the temple still so far away. Employing the standard triangulation techniques that all of us use to make sense of our world, the Mind had created a mental temple based upon smaller dimensions. We naturally project an altitude for the whole structure based upon the illusion that the entry tower is immediately in front of the temple. Walking through this entryway, one is startled to see the temple another 300 yards away. The Mind must immediately make new altitude projections based upon the new information that had been hidden by the entry walls. The temple instantaneously doubles in height. One gasps in amazement, letting out a deep sigh, that anything so incredible could have been created.

All of us have experienced this type of phenomenon at one time or another. When driving we might see a mountain in the distance. Because of the lack of visual cues we imagine it to be smaller than it actually is. After driving for hours to reach the base, we begin to appreciate its true height. While the mountain tricks the Mind because of lack of relevant visual cues, the builders of Angkor Wat deliberately tricked the Mind by creating misleading visual cues. In this case the gateway tower of the entry wall tricked the Mind into minimizing the size of Angkor Wat.

Moving through the entry gate, the veil of illusion is immediately removed from the Mind. We are able to appreciate the real proportions of the structure. We are awed, bowing down to pray. This state of illusion is constantly played with throughout the temple complex. On the first level, stone is pretending to be a flower. On this next level the structure pretends to be shorter than it is. Now that we are the Initiates, having passed through this veil of illusion, we are now able to see the real dimensions - at least what we think are real.

This experience reveals the limitations of the Mind. The deductive Mind creates scenarios from the limited data that he receives. This same Mind projects both glorious and depressing futures based upon these same inadequate data points, connecting the dots and creating arrows which 'predict' what reality consists of. In this particular case, the creators of this masterpiece incorporated an illusion breaker into the architecture. We are stunned when our first veil of illusion is instantly stripped away as we see the temple beyond an immense field of grass, when we expected to find the temple immediately behind the first wall. The insight evokes the notion that the Mind is limited, frequently creating illusions based upon insufficient data.

In defense of the Mind, as if he needs it: Upon entering Angkor Wat the Mind is bewildered and then overwhelmed by the complexity of the data that he receives. The Mind is overloaded attempting to create some kind of order from all this misleading information. Knowing instinctually that there is order, the Mind tries to discover it - hopeless but still attempting. The architects incorporated so many illusions into Angkor's architecture that Mind should be humbled - but is probably not.

The three spire illusion

Another architectural illusion has to do with how many spires there are. From the front we only see three - a central spire rising above the surrounding ones. Because of their placing, from many directions we only see three spires, while there is actually one main spire and 4 lesser spires. From 8 directions, spires in the front hide the spires in the back. The five spires only peak out from the correct angles, if we know what we are looking for and are not too distracted by the statuary. As we walk and drive around the outside of the complex, the five spires pass in and out of our view depending upon your vantage point.

Sopheap: "The motif of three represents the three Hindu gods, Shiva, Vishnu, and Brahma. From every direction you can see at least three. Sometimes they multiply into five, representing their miraculous powers.”

Again because of a lack of visual information, there are no cues as to the exact location of the spires with respect to each other. In approaching the complex from the front, the Mind puts the three spires it sees into the same plane. This has a tendency to shrink the temple in our mind's eye. When looking at the plan of Angkor it appears that there were also meant to be four more smaller spires, which have yet to be renovated, around the perimeter of the complex, which would have provided more extremely confusing information, as the spires disappear and reappear depending upon which direction one views the complex.

While the Mind has been humbled, he is still proud. Passing through the gateway after the moat, we see the Angkor Temple in the distance, past another triple football field of grass. Confusing the Mind, as in the moat of the initial approach, are bodies of water that seamlessly reflect the magnificent structure that looms ahead. Still confident, the Mind imagines this inner structure of Angkor Wat as one temple, projecting altitudes with our inborn trigonometric techniques. Perhaps we think it is a type of cathedral or a pyramid.

Sopheap: "We have passed the Ocean, the moat. We entered into the Earth, through the gateway. We are now walking over the earth on the inner causeway to the temple, Mount Meru, where the gods live. The center of the universe, Angkor Wat."

As we walked across these sandstone blocks of this inner causeway, it started to rain, heightening the mystical nature of the experience. The soft noise of the raindrops was the sound of the universe buzzing. Further the veil of rain sealed us off from the rest of the world. We were certainly in the center of the Universe.

The Gallery of Bas-Reliefs

We finally reach the temple itself, having walked over a third of a mile from the entrance to the moat. Strolling up to the edifice, the spires disappear as one approaches the intricate bas-relief that decorates the walls. The exquisite art distracts Mind from his spatial projections.

Sopheap: "This is called the Gallery of Bas-Reliefs because there are sculptures etched into the sandstone of the walls which surround the temple. Mount Meru, residence of the Gods in Hindu mythology, had seven levels, which are reflected in the architecture of Angkor. The first level, which we are entering, has friezes sculpted into the stone on the sides of each wall. The friezes depict scenes from the Mahabharata and the Ramayana. One entire wall is devoted to telling the story of the Ramayana. In it Rama, who is the incarnation of Vishnu, becomes the king. This was a very important story in our culture. It came from India. The king and the people felt that he was the incarnation of Vishnu, not just another human. He was not a symbolic god, but an actual divinity."

Climbing a few steps to get inside, on our right we see a greater than life-sized statue with six arms.

Sopheap: "That's Vishnu, the god that this temple was dedicated to."

In front of Vishnu are local peasant ladies who are bowing and praying before this deity offering him their incense and flowers. One looks at us, as if in a trance, eyes glazed over, only looking at the sculpture of Vishnu. It seems that we've gone into the past. They could just as easily be worshipping Jupiter, Zeus, or some ancient image of a calf. This type of religious devotion has been destroyed or gone underground in the West due to science and the education that supports it. The scientists tell us that this is primitive superstition, while we are in the Age of Reason, where the Left Brain's deductive logic reigns supreme. To the scientist the statue is just a rock with history. To these ladies this statue is filled with a spirit that they seem to be experiencing directly without the Left Brain filter.

Sopheap: "One of the arms of the statue was accidentally shot by the Khmer Rouge when they were fighting. It is in the process of being repaired. Overall the Khmer Rouge respected Angkor. It was the military rulers who followed who did most of the looting of the temples here."

Don: "Do those ladies even know that we are here?"

Sopheap: "Probably not. Cambodians will worship anything. The statue's head is not the original either. When the country converted to Theravada Buddhism, they replaced Vishnu's head with a Buddha head."

Layer upon layer of the veils of illusion

Walking thru this wonderland of sculpture, Sopheap eventually leads us to the next level, further away than we expected and of course bigger also. The Mind has again underestimated the enormity of the temple complex because of deliberately misleading visual cues. Humbled but not daunted, the Mind again creates a single temple to project its trigonometric functions upon.

On the outside of the first temple level there were exquisite carvings everywhere. The outside of the second level was plain, but inside the second level, again our Mind is dazzled by the sculpture on the walls. And then in the middle we see the final platform with sharply rising steps.

Anxious to reach the top, our Body reaches the bottom of the third layer. The Body climbs up the steep stairs, made slippery by the soft rain, carefully hanging onto guard rails so as not to fall and break our crown, ruining everybody's day and vacation.

We finally reached the central complex of towers that contain the 5 spires that were seen from a distance as we drove up. They are much more enormous than our Mind's eye had imagined. The Mind had been tricked by the same visual tricks so many times that he laughs at himself. He realizes that this carefully constructed pile of stones has regularly and easily tricked his acclaimed mental powers. The Mind laughs at himself; his mental projections were totally inadequate for the task of imagining the enormous reality of Angkor Wat. The Mind is humbled by the limitations of his main tool, deductive logic. A heap of rocks surrounded by a moat has fooled the deductive Mind of the Left Brain, which the scientists value so highly.

Although taken in with a quick glance, the total area encompasses 1 square mile. While seeming so small compared to the rest, the inner platform is still about 10,000 square feet - large enough to fit 10 small houses inside. The height of the central spire of the complex is 65 meters (213 feet. i.e. 70 yards) above ground level - about the same height as the tallest cathedrals of Europe, but built of huge slabs of stone. Due to these remarkable dimensions, Angkor Wat is the largest religious monument ever constructed.

As we were to see, this spectacular mass of stone named Angkor Wat was not the only amazing piece of Khmer architecture.


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