8th Wonder of the World

Trip Start Jan 01, 2009
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Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Angkor Wat is the world's largest temple occupying exactly 1 square kilometer.  I didn't think they had the metric system back then.  To my surprise, it was not originally built as a Buddhist temple but an Hindu temple to worship the god Vishnu.  The temple was built in the traditional Hindu style of a 3-tier pyramid representing Mt. Heru, a holy mountain described in Hindu epics as the navel of the world.  Another feature of this temple was that it faced westward so it is thought to be a funerary temple for the great Khmer king, Suryavarman.  The reason it was given the name "wat" was after it was built Buddhist monks moved into the surrounding land outside the temple walls but within the surrounding moat.  The Buddhist statues were also moved in after Buddhism became the main Khmer religion.  Another occupant of Angkor Wat was the Khmer Rouge during the Cambodian civil war.  Although the Khmer Rouge are atheist they did not destroy much of the temple.  Occasionally, they would lob of a Buddha head to sell to get money for arms.

We got up very early; leaving the hotel at 5:30 in hopes of seeing the sun rise over the central towers of the temple.  There were throngs of tourist walking across the west causeway in the predawn light for exactly the same reason.  I even saw a yellow hot air balloon rising over the trees to provide some lucky group an unique view of the temple.  Unfortunately, mother nature was not as accommodating because the sky was overcast so we never saw the sunrise.  We, along with all the other disappointed tourist, went to one of the nearby restaurant stalls to get some breakfast.  I had a Thai omelet with ground pork but still have not found a meal with any zing even after a covered it with tons of Cambodia Tabasco sauce.

 After breakfast we headed back to Angkor Wat for a proper tour of the place.  T had the group gather along one of the first level terrace and gave us an excellent history of the temple...do you think I knew all the information in the 1st paragraph beforehand?  Then we looked at some of the bas-reliefs along the first level terrace.  T did not want us to spend too much time examining the amazing reliefs because we would miss the truly amazing 2nd and 3rd tier.  After climbing a flight of steps, we reached the second tier.  Along the inner walls and niches are sculptured forms of celestial dancers, apsaras.  These bare-breasted angels were probably modeled after the royal harem of dancers.  These dancers were such a prize that when the Siamese invaded, they told the Khmer dancers as spoils of war.  This explains why Thai and Cambodia classical dancing are so similar.

The third tier is in the shape of a square with five towers, in each corner and one central tower.  The reason most pictures of Angkor Wat only showed 3 towers is because most pictures are taken directly from the west and 2 of the towers are obscured.  You must climb up steep steps to get to the third level.  Here you get a good view of the flower-shaped towers and you can see apsaras figures arranged along the outside.  Originally, it was believed that a great image of Vishnu was housed in the center sanctuary, but this statue has long disappeared.  Now, in the center niches facing the four cardinal points are Buddha statues in various sitting, standing or reclining form.  The bas-relief and statues were fascinating and someone could spend hours exploring; however I do not think that is why Steve 2 continued to circle the gallery.  He was trying to muster enough courage to climb down the steps.  He was the target of many Japanese tourist
photos as he proceeded to go down sliding on his butt.

T allowed everyone to scatter to explore the temple on our own for about one hour.  I decided to walk along the east entrance and walkway.  Here I discovered a troop of monkeys playing in the forest.  It was entertaining to watch the adolescent monkeys leap from branches into a pool of water.  I was surprised that the monkeys did not come and beg for food.  I guess not enough people have chosen to feed the monkeys for this to be an ingrained behavior.  I did remember T's warning about getting too close to the monkeys to take photos.  Apparently, T witness a monkey snatching the camera out of the tourist hands.  The monkeys so enthralled me that I was 10 minutes late to the meeting place.  When I apologized to the group and told them about the monkeys, it turned out I was the only one to venture in that area...win for me.

Recently, they had a competition to select the new 7 Wonders of the world.  I do not know how Angkor Wat was not selected as one of the seven.  It is probably due to the fact that with all the political problems in Cambodia's recent history, not enough people have seen Angkor Wat.  I would definitely put Angkor Wat in the same class as the Great Pyramids of Giza or the Great Wall of China.  I will have to see the other 7 wonders to determine whether Angkor Wat belongs on the list, but for now I will consider it the 8th wonder of the world.
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