Still amazed by Angkor Wat

Angkor Wat, viewed from the western gate, just inside the moat.

Angkor Wat, viewed from the western gate, just inside the moat.

I remember my first visit to Angkor Wat, probably about a fifteen years ago. I'd visited Cambodia a couple of times before, and had never gotten out to see the ancient temple complex at the heart of what was once one of the world's largest cities, the capital of a powerful empire whose existence had completely escaped my notice for my first three decades.

I didn't travel much as a kid, and before we began the process to adopt our oldest son Chien, there wasn't a single site or city in Asia that would have made the top fifty or so slots on my bucket list.

My Cambodian friends were mystified — and probably a little offended — that I'd traveled all the way to their country, and had never made the trip to Siem Reap to visit the world's largest religious compound, a collection of ruins so magnificent that the European explorers who "discovered" it proclaimed it to be the work of some lost race of Romans or Greeks, refusing to believe that the Khmers or any Asian people could have built something so massive, so sophisticated.

I distinctly recall approaching the massive moat around Angkor Wat and wondering how on earth its builders could manage such a mammoth excavation without the benefit of modern equipment. And then as our made the right turn toward the temple entrance, I saw in person the same towers that grace the Cambodian flag, currency and roughly 60 percent of the country's mini-marts, and the sight literally took my breath away.

I've been to the Great Wall. It's impressive not because of any intrinsic architectural grandeur, but simply because it's The Great Wall of China; its fame is its primary attraction. And I've seen the Taj Mahal. It's astonishingly beautiful, like a gigantic, jeweled cake or magical tiara. It's much bigger in person than I expected, and as mahals go, you can't get much nicer. The mosques that flank it are sufficiently grand that if they weren't overshadowed by the Taj's beauty, they'd probably merit a visit themselves. As it stands, they're relegated to the status of outbuildings, garage mahals, if you will. 

For me, Angkor occupies its own echelon. And for Cambodians, whose nation has been kicked around for half a millennium, it occupies a position of national pride that I as an American can barely comprehend. It stands as irrefutable proof that they were once at the very top of the totem pole politically, artistically, culturally and militarily. They were peers of the Greeks, Babylonians and Romans. I've seen Angkor — or at least parts of it — at least a dozen times, and I'm still awed by the ingenuity and might of its builders.

I won't bore you (or embarrass myself) by expending my limited understanding of Angkorian iconography here. But I do encourage you to spend some time on Google or YouTube familiarizing yourself with one of our world's greatest archeological treasures. I hope you'll enjoy some of my pictures. Maybe you'll make the visit yourself some day. 

John McCollumComment