Lindblad Expeditions - From the Jahan in Southeast Asia - Paula Swart, National Geographic staff
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From the Jahan in Southeast Asia

Jan 11, 2013 - Jahan

Buddhist monk cleaning a temple
Angkor Wat at sunrise
Tuk-tuks visiting Angkor Thom

Angkor Wat at sunrise and the Bayon Temple

It is only day two of our expedition, and already our activities today form a major highlight of our itinerary: early rise to witness and experience the sunrise at Angkor Wat, dedicated to the Hindu God Vishnu, the foremost solar deity. What an extraordinary experience!

It allows for some quiet contemplation in front of this incredible religious structure dating from the 12th century. Coffee and croissants were served at the hotel at 5:00 a.m. to sweeten the deal of an early start.

Entering the temple compound in pitch dark with the aid of flashlights, we waited for the dawn to move closer to the central 3-tiered structure topped by the five peaks of Mt Meru, the mythical abode of the gods. Pinks and gold colors appeared in the sky, while roosters joined in to welcome the new day around 6:35 a.m.

Created over a number of decades, the complex design and execution, the organization of manpower for the tasks of quarrying and transporting the sandstone blocks to the site, and the detailed carving by master craftsmen of subject matter drawn from Indian literature and mythology, is, to say the least, very impressive. Our guide, Chan, reminded us of the role of elephants in the construction of this temple. It is thought that there were 50,000 elephants at the time, but how many were used is anyone’s guess. People praying in front of a Buddhist altar remind us that this is not only a major UNESCO monument, but also an active place of worship. Climbing to the top level was not possible today, as this is the first day of the lunar calendar, a special day for Buddhists.

We returned to the hotel deeply satisfied and ready for brunch and relaxation.

In the afternoon, we used the local tuk tuks for a pleasant breezy ride past Angkor Wat, entering the slightly later built Angkor Thom through the South gate, to reach the spiritual centre: the Buddhist temple Bayon. The large multiple faces that adorn the numerous towers smile benignly on the eager and curious travelers. The outer gallery, its roof long gone, gives us glimpses of late 12th century daily life, naval and land warfare between the Khmer and their neighbors from Champa, located in central Vietnam. It forms an intriguing picture gallery, illustrating activities from a time for which we have hardly any written documents. We moved deeper into the city to check out the relief carvings on the so-called Elephant Terrace. On the way back we stopped to examine up close the large sized 3-D sculptures of demons and gods engaged in their tug-of-war a.k.a. the creation myth the Churning of the Sea of Milk.

To top off this wonderful day of exploration with our informative guides, we had dinner at the Aha restaurant near the old market, sampling a combination of contemporary and traditional Khmer cuisine, nicely presented in a modern setting.

Tonight we will go to bed with an Angkor smile on our face, perhaps dreaming of all the impressions we have gathered these last two days. Tomorrow, we will say goodbye to Siem Reap as the time has come to board our Mekong ship, the Jahan.

About the Author

Paula Swart·National Geographic Staff

Paula Swart is an expert on Asian culture and history, and has been a museum curator for more than 20 years. Her travels have taken her to Vietnam and Cambodia numerous times, including a rail journey that she led from Beijing to Hanoi in 1994. Paula holds degrees in Sinology, Asian art history, Chinese history, and archaeology. She speaks five languages, including Mandarin, and has published several books and numerous articles on the art and architecture of Asian cultures. Paula has enjoyed introducing visitors to Asian culture and history for more than 25 years.