A chat with my sister, February 2011
me: do you want to go to Angkor Wat?
lissa: i don’t know what that is, but ok
me: google earth it
We had some visitors! My dad and sister flew out to visit us for eight days. It wasn’t much time, so we decided to spend just two days in Bangkok and the other six days in Siem Reap (visiting Angkor Wat) and Phnom Penh, Cambodia. I’ve been wanting to go to Angkor Wat since… I don’t know, probably since the first time I ever heard about it. Lissa, on the other hand, didn’t know what it was. But we both had a great time.
For those of you who might be in the same boat as Lissa was: “Wat” means temple in Cambodian, but Angkor Wat is not only one temple. It’s a collection of dozens of temples, big and small. Angkor Wat is the most famous of them all, so the entire area is usually referred to as “Angkor Wat.”
The temples were built between the ninth century and thirteenth century, by a succession of kings, for various reasons. Some are devoted to the Buddha or a Hindu god. Some are devoted to the kings’ parents, and some are funerary temples. Interestingly, some temples are Hindu and some Buddhist. Southeast Asia has been a cultural melting pot for a long time, and Cambodia is no exception. The ancient empire of Angkor was influenced by both India and China, Hinduism and Buddhism.
These temples are very old and historically significant, but I think the real reason they’re such popular tourist attractions is because of the art they contain. The kings were not content to just to build temples; they commissioned artists to carve intricate bas-reliefs over most of the exposed surfaces. Due to our limited time, we decided to hire a guide to take us around the temples. The bas-reliefs all tell a story: some carvings depict stories from the Ramayana, some show historical events, and some show scenes from daily life. Our guide was able to tell us what meant what, as well as point out things we wouldn’t have noticed on our own.
The Effect of Tourism
Almost every single traveller we’ve met in Southeast Asia is planning to go to Angkor Wat. I guess if you’ve flown all the way here, why not go? According to my incredibly unscientific study, it is one of the top cited must-see destinations in Southeast Asia (the other one nearly every backpacker mentions is Vietnam.) This is a good thing in many ways: Cambodia sure could use the money, and temples don’t get restored for free. However, we were constantly surprised by the number of people we saw touching the carvings. Over time, some of the carvings have gone from rough to smooth, and now appear shiny. Our guide told us that she’s also seen people breaking off pieces of the rock, to take home as a souvenir. I worry about this laissez-faire attitude towards preservation. The good thing about Angkor Wat is that there are no unsightly signs that say “Don’t touch.” Unfortunately, maybe they need them.
My dad and I agreed that if these temples were in America, the bas-reliefs would be behind glass. I had that same thought at Borobudur (in Indonesia) as well; those ruins predate Angkor’s but receive far fewer visitors, so the reliefs are still in fairly good shape. I think that in the future, both Cambodia and Indonesia will have to do more to protect their ancient temples, and that probably means Plexiglas, at least over the most popular carvings. Go now, while you can still see them up close!
Fun Things to Do at the Temples
- Dance like an apsara, or heavenly dancer (in Hindu mythology)
- Thump your chest in an echo chamber
- Touch your nose to a giant’s
- Pretend to be Vishnu and have people worship you
- Look for Cambodian wedding parties taking photos
- Take a hundred photos in different windows and doorways