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miercuri, 8 august 2012

Angkor Wat: Magical, Mysterious and Mystical

When King Suryavarman II built what was eventually to become his mausoleum in the 12 century, he surely could not have realised that some 900 years later thousands would flock from all over the world, every day, just to look at it. He broke with tradition and instead of dedicating it to Shaivism, as was the custom, he dedicated this particular temple to Vishnu. Walking around the gardens and corridors it is beyond belief that this ancient wonder was built in just 35 years. Christian cathedrals such as Gloucester started during the same era, would take 400 years to complete.

The best way to see this magnificent temple is to go early morning by motodop from nearby Siem Reap. These motor bike drawn landaus are everywhere in the town, out-numbering cars several times over. Any driver will take you for half a day for about $12 or a full day for $20. Arriving at the site before daylight we joined the thousands of others in waiting for the sun to rise over the iconic towers a couple of hundred yards in front of us. At this point I appeared to be the only person there who had noticed the very substantial cloud cover. Thankful for the sheep-like nature of human beings we forsook the money shot, opting instead for having the entire temple to ourselves for about 45 minutes.

We wandered around the empty corridors, gazed in disbelief at the bas-reliefs that adorn the walls, marvelled at the incredible architecture and admired the 203 acres of the enclosed space, all without the hindrance of fellow tourists. It is a magical place and not hard to see why it has become the most Adored Buddhist temple on the planet. It goes some way into explaining the closeness of the Hindu and Buddhist religions. Originally a Hindu temple it has become the centre of Buddhism for millions of Asians.

The central temple, dominated by one large central tower surrounded by four smaller but equally magnificent towers, is in turn surrounded by a walled garden. The wall is some 3650 yards long and 15 feet high. Outside of this a further huge garden is surrounded by walls that are more than 2 miles long and a moat that is 200 yards wide. It is completely astonishing by any measure. It would be almost impossible to build this nowadays with all the modern technological advances that we have at our disposal. How this was achieved 900 years ago remains one of the world's great mysteries. Even now we have no real idea what the bonding material was. Resins or slaked lime have been guessed at, but only guessed at. The smooth stones were somehow placed on top of each other, probably using elephants and pulleys. When in place they were carved with incredible skill and craftsmanship, to create a place of wonder and beauty.

After strolling round the gardens we returned to our motodop and the driver took us to the temple of Bayon. The main features here are the enormous striking faces carved into the stone towers. Expressionless images stare out from every side of its huge towers. Again this is inspiring in its own unique way and we were speechless at its beauty. From here we took the short drive to Ta Prom where over the years nature has been winning the battle with the man-made structure in spectacular fashion. Huge trees are growing in, on and under the stone towers and buildings. The roots have almost become part of the stone in a riotous display of man's and nature's artistic best.

As we exited the temple we were met by hordes of small children all trying to sell musical flutes, bracelets, trinkets and anything else they could get their hands on. The sights and sounds assaulted the senses after the tranquility of the other side of the wall. Our driver asked "where next?" But we were exhausted by the morning's events. Angkor Wat is one of the highlights of my life but it makes for a very strenuous day. We returned to our accommodation, shattered, in great spirits and filled with wonderment at the things that mankind can achieve when they are not ripping at each other's throats. Angkor is lucky to have survived the tempestuous history of the beautiful country of Cambodia. Siem Reap itself means "Thailand flatly defeated" in reference to earlier triumphs against its oldest enemy. Governments come and governments go but the people remain the same. I am pleased to report that the long standing bad blood between Thailand and Cambodia is in no way representative of the people of these two wonderful countries. I was accompanied by a Thai national and everywhere we went she was treated with warmth, respect and genuine friendship.

Maybe at some point in the future, countries will stop fighting each other, governments will stop killing and the world will find peace. In the meantime, go to Angkor Wat and find peace for yourself.

Keith Hancock is a musician and freelance writer from Manchester England, currently living in Bangkok. He has travelled extensively through North America, Europe, Australasia and Asia.

He has written commissioned work for the BBC, writes on a broad range of subjects and currently travels throughout Asia constantly.

His daily blog, Land Of Smiles

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