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Postcard from Cambodia – Part 2: Angkor Wat Essentials

December 1, 2019

This is the blog piece everybody posts when they visit Cambodia, so I’ll be brief.

What will I tell friends who are thinking of visiting the temples of Angkor Wat?

Read up on Hindu mythology and acquire a working knowledge of the essentials of Buddhism, or get a guide who will explain things to you. Otherwise the intricacies of the architecture and the endless friezes will mean little. We didn’t use a guide because we didn’t want to be constrained into a schedule, but we did buy a book, which was very instructive.

Get reasonably fit and bring plenty of water. Some of the temples take hours to explore. Angkor Wat itself, if you choose to explore it thoroughly, involves some climbing. Not surprising, considering that its five towers symbolise the mountains where the gods hang out.

Unless you stay for at least a week and go temple-visiting every day, you will not scratch the surface of what is on view. Angkor Wat is only one of a number of temples within a huge complex. I suspect that only the dedicated avoid becoming templed-out at some stage.

if you’re visiting Ta Prohm, known to Indiana Jones fans as the Temple of Doom, you’ll have plenty of company. It was the busiest of the temples we visited. You will be the accidental subject of many selfies.

 

As for the structures themselves, I can think of a few houses down my way that would be far more interesting if they were eaten by trees.

Ancient Cambodians seemed to like fighting. Go around the cloisters of Angkor Wat, which takes an hour, and you will witness many battles, both heavenly and earthly. A 12th Century Brexit wouldn’t get a look in.

Heaven is boring, hell is spectacular. Graphic depictions of the visceral agonies of hell outnumber visions of heaven by at least ten to one. The medieval Christian church would definitely approve. If I was going to Angkor’s heaven, I would definitely bring a Travel Scrabble set.

And finally, the temples themselves are impressive, including those that haven’t been restored. Beautiful? For me, yes, but that depends on your idea of beauty. The sad thing is that there is little evidence of the human settlements that surrounded them. Houses and palaces were made of wood, and simply rotted away. Personally, I like to try and understand something of the lives of the people who built the ancient structures and lived around them. What did they think of their gods and emperors?

That said, if you’re thinking of visiting Cambodia, Angkor Wat is the one place you must visit. The local people are friendly and helpful. The facilities are fine (you don’t need to use a squat toilet). The temples are a reminder – if you need one – that empires rise and fall.

Cambodians who suffer from poverty and corruption, and whose land was so grievously damaged forty years ago, perhaps take comfort from the idea that on earth, heaven and hell are temporary states, and that better times might be ahead of them.

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