Cambodia, Part 1: Angkor Wat

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May 3, 2013 by Rokman61

Angkor WHAT?

Wat’s this!

AW main centre 2013.03.18 8737

In essence, ‘Angkor Wat’ refers to the spectacular remains of a very old yet very advanced Southeast Asian civilization, and is understandably billed as one of the “Wonders of the Ancient World”.  As part of our tour we spent most of a day with a local guide, examining a few of the major ruins.  The internet has almost endless information about the sites, and I will present only a few of my impressions and a sampling of images.

The first thing that is likely to strike a visitor is the immense size of the area involved.  There are multiple sites, of which Wat is the most notable of the several principal ones, and purportedly there are more than a hundred smaller satellite temples, shrines, walls and miscellaneous structures scattered around for many kilometres radius.  The sheer amount of manual labour reflected here is absolutely mind-boggling!  The construction took place nearly a thousand years ago, so keep in mind that everything you see was done without any mechanized equipment.

This is an aerial overview of the Anchor Wat complex (source: ‘Wikimedia Commons’).

To provide a feeling for relative scale here: the outer perimeter of the moat is 5.6 km in length.


This shows the approach along the causeway at upper left in the aerial view.  Two sets of structures are visible here, some along the edge of the moat, and the tall towers of the central temple complex in the background.   AW main complex 2013.03,18 8719

On site, the first thing that really grabbed my attention was the quality, beauty, and abundance of carving in the stone.  It is literally everywhere!  The carvings include both stand-alone sculptures and bas-relief carving of panels and trim decoration on walls.  Several themes appear again and again – here are some examples.

A line of magnificent human figures greets visitors along both sides of the entrance road to one of the main sites.

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This particular site also featured numerous enormous faces carved in relief – two prominent examples are visible in this tower structure.

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The carving is exquisite, the faces so imposing.

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Human figures are a common theme, with several distinctive poses appearing time and again.

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Another style of human figures, surrounded by an amazing amount of fine intricate detail.

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For some odd reason the breasts on these female figures are conspicuously darker than the rest of the carving.

AW dark boobs 2013.03 8730

Here’s a close-up view of some superbly carved detail.  Note also the precise fit of the large stone blocks.AW carving and joints 2013.0-3.18 8726

A carving that I particularly liked – a bit different and very nicely done.

AW carve serpent? 20.03.18 8702

Serpents were obviously very important creatures to the people who built the shrines.  This statue represents the head and hood of a very large cobra, expressed as a fan of seven smaller heads.

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Another recurrent feature was ‘windows’ filled with banks of spindles.  These are so accurately shaped that they surely look like they were done by machine!

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Everywhere there is considerable repetition in the style of the carvings.  I can imagine each individual craftsman being assigned to execute a particular subject, and that was likely their job – for life!

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And a few more random views.  First a portion of the central temple complex.

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One of the large towers at the corner of the central complex.

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Two closer views of the tower, showing more details of the carvings at various scales.

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One more superbly-carved face.

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There are three kinds of rock used in the construction.  Most important, and carrying all the carving, is sandstone, a sedimentary rock that is exactly what its name indicates.  (Note the sedimentary bedding in photo above).  Less common is vesicular basalt, a dark volcanic rock with numerous small holes caused by bubbles of gas escaping from molten lava.  The third rock type was described to us by the guide as something unique – he called it ‘laterite’.

Time out for a brief geology lesson (skip this if not interested).  Throughout all of the tropical areas of the world, there are essentially two kinds of material underfoot.  Much of the land surface is underlain by sediments deposited by water (floodplains, deltas, estuaries) or blown in by wind (dune-fields), the rest is exposed bedrock.  In upland areas where erosion is rapid, there may be fairly ‘fresh’ bedrock, such as the fine sandstone used for construction at Angkor.  Where the bedrock is exposed for very long periods, it becomes extensively altered by chemical processes (i.e., weathered), the resulting material being referred to as ‘laterite’.  Laterites are thus very abundant and widespread, but highly variable in character, reflecting both the nature of the bedrock and the kind and degree of weathering.  (Laterites are rarely found in our northern latitudes, because glaciation has removed them).  What is unusual or special about the laterite used at Angkor Wat is that this particular material has just the right properties to make it suitable for cutting into dimensioned blocks and used as a building stone. Here are two typical variations of the laterite.  You can see that the rock is composed of bits and pieces of rock embedded in ‘soil’, with lots of open spaces.  The reddish colour is characteristic, reflecting a small percentage of iron oxide (iron being one of the most abundant elements in the crust of the Earth).  Precipitated oxides serve to help cement the material into a solid rock.

Laterite x2 2013.03.18 8699

The laterites do not hold up as well as the sandstone, and obviously cannot take fine carving details.  It was mostly used to build the interiors of some walls and structures, with sandstone covering the exposed portions. The next photo shows an intricately carved sandstone wall, with some internal laterite visible in the window.  Presumably this space at one time contained more carvings.

AW window of laterirte 2013.03.18 8682

Many of the stone blocks have conspicuous small holes in them.  These were drilled into the rock so the blocks to facilitate transportation:  wooden pegs would be driven into the holes, allowing for attachment of ropes, and elephants could then be used to do the grunt work.

AW holes in blaocks 2013.03.18 8618

At about a thousand years old, the structures are well past their “best before” date.  Most of the site was abandoned for several hundred years, allowing the forest to encroach and and degrade the structures.  In some places, there has been considerable restoration and cleaning, and in other locations the ruins have deliberately been left in their as-found condition.  Still, some vestiges of the ravages of time are evident throughout the remains.

AW crumbling ruins 2013.03.18 8616Giant trees like this one hint at the antiquity of the structures, and in fact are a significant cause of their degradation.AW tree cover ruins 2013.03.18 8691

One more look.

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Because it is justifiably one of the most popular tourist destinations in Asia, Ankgor get lots of visitors.  Our guide told us “millions per year”; whether or not this is an accurate figure or just national bravado, there were masses of people everywhere we went.

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In addition to the ruins themselves, there are plenty of subsidiary attractions, all vying for the tourists’ dollar.  Among them are different options for viewing the site without actual having to walk.

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These girls are dressed in their colourful traditional garb.  For a fee $1 US, you can have your photo taken with them – they will even try to smile.

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Or you can pay for a ride on a rustic ox-cart.  This involves sitting on a rock-hard wooden platform, bouncing around like popping corn, whilst holding an umbrella for relief from the searing sun.  The best part is seeing the craftsmanship in the hand-made cart, and the pretty cows.  The puppy has the best of the deal – it trots along underneath to avoid the sun.  The ride is billed as a ‘tourist attraction’.  If we had been told that it was a traditional form of punishment for misdeeds, that would have made more sense to me.

AW oxcart ride 2013.03.18 8653

Angkor Wat is justifiably the pride of Cambodia, every bit as spectacular as advertised.  A truly awesome place to visit.  You may want to pass on the rides.

Coming next, a more contemporary view of everyday life.

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