Guest Author - Teresa Coates
Lost deep in the jungles of Cambodia, Angkor Wat was long believed by foreigners to be a myth, a Khmer fairy tale. But like the Lost City of Z, El Dorado and the Fountain of Youth, explorers continued to search for it. In 1586 a Portuguese monk stumbled upon the beautiful grounds and raved about it upon his return. But Westerners remained ignorant of the reality of Angkor Wat until the mid-1800s when Henri Mouhot, a French explorer, made copious notes and spread the word.
Over the years, the Angkor Wat grounds have developed into an enormous tourist draw with nearly a million visitors a year. Located 300 kms northwest of Phnom Phen and just a few kilometers outside Siem Reap, the massive temple is still in use by Theravada Buddhist monks. Unlike many other temples, it has never been completely abandoned, in part due to the large moat that surrounds it and has kept the jungle from infringing far more than it has.
Angkor Wat took decades to complete, starting in the early 1100s. Several kings oversaw the work and innumerable craftsman were involved over that time. The vast temple is known for its unique building style and the astounding sculpturing skills of its builders, worker adept at using sandstone as construction material. The extensive decorations that line every wall is an astoundingly beautiful accomplishment. There are numerous large scenes of Hindu epics, including several battles, a procession o f the ancient king and the 32 hells and 37 heavens of Hindu mythology. Some of the carvings are so small and intricate that at first glance they look simply like a nice pattern, but on closer inspection, one is awed to see the carvings of dancers. The bas-relief work is awe-inspiring for its delicacy and beauty.
As Angkor Wat draws more and more tourists, it is wearing down. Ropes and wooden steps have been added to protect the intricate sculptures and floors of the temples and libraries throughout the complex. Numerous organization from countries around the world have taken part in restoring Angkor Wat and preventing further decline. As a visitor is important to remember the impact that tourism has on both the complex, its surrounding lands, and the monks still reside and worship there.
The breathtaking splendor of Angkor Wat remains with visitors long after visiting; the grandeur of the buildings, sculptures and the encroaching jungle that surrounds it makes it easy to imagine the thriving culture that once had their capital there.
Photographs by Keith Gaumont. Copyright 2009.