Our final day in the ancient city of Angkor was spent on its most famous location, Angkor Wat. We arrived early to take in the sunrise and begin our exploration of the site early.
The Angkor Wat I pictured in my mind is only a small portion of the giant complex. The temple (also called "Wat" from a Sanskrit word) itself is surrounded by a large forested area which is in turn encased by a large rectangular moat. The temple faces west and features a path that runs between two reflecting pools, through the forest, and to a bridge across the moat.
When we arrived in the pre-dawn morning fog, we found hundreds of vans and bike-carriages dropping off visitors like us in front of the bridge. A few vendors, including a pop-up coffee stand, were on hand to cater to the many people who had skipped breakfast to see the sunrise.
No vehicles are allowed on the bridge over the moat. We walked across the bridge and through the walls protecting the compound. Eventually we reached the temple and saw the growing crowd in front of the left-hand reflecting pool. (The right-hand reflecting pool is covered in lily pads and block out any reflections.) Though our photos of the temples look calm and serene, in reality we had to elbow in with hundreds of other visitors, all straining their arms, weaving among groups, and angling their tripods to get the perfect shot without anyone else's hat or selfie stick in them.
Everyone waited anxiously, barely caffeinated and having woken up pre-dawn, for the perfect lighting to take photos just as the sun comes up behind the towers. We joined and I tried my hand at the sunrise reflection shot. Here are my photos:
At one point during the sunrise a couple decided to walk in front of the temple with a flashlight. The crowd groaned and moaned as one as these joker messed up the lighting settings everyone had for their camera. It was extremely aggravating, since everyone wants a photo void of other people. Eventually, they left.
Don't get me wrong, though, the crowd did little to detract from the view. We also left the lake earlier than pretty much everyone and had huge sections of the temple to ourselves for nearly 90 minutes.
The wat itself is a multi-tiered structure surrounded with a central building surrounded by a giant square building, called the outer gallery. This outer gallery tells eight different stories from Hinduism in stone carvings. The most famous story depicted is the churning of the sea of milk, called the Samudra Manthan, an epic story in Hinduism that tells the story of the beginning of the world. Photos of the carvings from that story are below.
The full story can be read here, but the short version is as follows.
After a series of cosmic battles, the demons of the universe (called Asuras), gained control of the universe when the gods (Devas) had been cursed to be bereft of all strength after the king of the Devas, Idra, refused a gift from an incarnation of the all-powerful Hindu deity Shiva. Following their defeat, the gods and demons formed an alliance to jointly churn the Ocean of Milk to reveal the Nectar of Immortality. (The Ocean of Milk, Wikipedia tells me, is "is the fifth from the center of the seven oceans that surround loka or directional space and separate it from aloka or non-directional space.") To churn the ocean, a mountain was used as a churning rod and a serpent king, called Vasuki, was used as a churning rope. With the Devas at the tail end and the Asuras at the head. When the nectar finally emerged, the Devas and Asuras fought over it until it was seized by the Garuda, a large bird like creature, who took it away.
Up inside the Wat we got a feel for just how large it is... Below is a photo of Kelsi in front of the largest central pillar of the temple. We had to climb up three levels to get to this tower.
On another side of the central pillar I was able to spot a bee's nest.
Angkor Wat was a fantastic end to our three-day trip in Angkor. When we began planning our trip years ago, Angkor Wat was one of the reasons we selected Asia and was on the short list of things we absolutely had to see while in that part of the world. The experience was definitely one that we'll remember and would encourage any reader to pursue.