Angkor Wat. The largest religious monument in the world. Sounds like a pretty big deal but a lot of us haven’t even heard of it. Maybe because it’s halfway around the world, in a country with about 14 million people, only 300 million less than the population of the United States. Or maybe it’s because the significance of the temples stems from the Hindu and the Buddhist religions, about which many westerners are not familiar. Whatever it is, this 203-acre plot of land is important enough to Cambodians to be the only image on their flag. It represents integrity, justice and heritage. Millions of people from all over the world come to these temples to try to understand a fraction of their importance. Chinese tour groups covered from the sun, frat stars wearing their PIKE tee-shirts, young French families bravely toting their young (beautiful) children, and of course, curious backpackers like us, all roam around snapping pictures of a world so unfamiliar to them.
There are over a thousand ruins scattered all over the land, but very few have the time and attention span to see even the top ten.
What to do there:
Pretty basic. You go and look. Look at the stone friezes carved into the temple walls, telling stories of the Hindu religion, the 5 massive towers reaching towards the sky and the monks paying their respects. The friezes tell stories about Rama and Sita and their challenging love, stories of different wars fought hundreds of years ago. There is also a lack of stories destroyed by later wars fought within the temple walls. But it’s much more than pretty rocks and with our tour guide, “Suk” we had the opportunity to learn that.
We traveled by tuk-tuk from temple to temple only stopping at the three most significant because the heat exhausted us pretty quickly. Each temple varied slightly and told a different story on why what remains, remains.
The first, Angkor Wat stands tall and strong because of support from countries such as Japan, Italy and France.
The Second, Bayon stands with much less, as a result of one of the several Hindu and Buddhist wars. Only about a dozen Buddha faces remain on the top of the towers, where there was once forty-nine.
The third stop, Ta Prohm, faces destruction from nature. Massive spung trees take over and surround the concrete and stone. They twist and turn through the ruins creating their own thick walls, growing both within and out of the ruins.
At the gate of each temple, wide-eyed children wait for the tourists, offering dollar tee shirts, books, water and toys. One dollar! Most travelers say no anyway- it’s an automatic reaction at that point.