For a total of $34 US, I hired a tuk-tuk driver, who will be at my disposal for the next three days, carrying me back and forth between my modern, elegant hotel and the ancient temple ruins, located six kilometers north of town. Initially I thought the entire ruin complex was named Angkor Wat but I have discovered that Angkor Wat is the name of just one of the temples – perhaps the most famous one – in this massive city that was built beginning in 889 AD. The complex is so large that it requires a minimum of three days to see just the most important structures (frankly, a person could spend a year investigating these ruins, visiting a different site each day, and still not see them all). I have been told that there are countless sites yet to be excavated and, indeed, I did see numerous unexcavated mounds with carved blocks poking out from the surrounding dirt.
Because Angkor Wat is the best known among the temples, it was my first stop. My initial view of it was through the stone doorway of the wall surrounding the temple, its three signature spires punctuating the morning haze. It took my breath away. I stood stunned, unable to move, as I took in its beauty. When I finally got my senses back I stepped over the stone portico and onto the long stone walkway leading to the temple itself. Built between 1113 and 1150 AD, Angkor Wat is the largest religious monument in the world and it is truly extraordinary. Although volcanic laterite blocks were used as underlayment to provide structural strength, the majority of Angkor Wat was constructed of sandstone blocks that were intricately fitted together to form the scalloped, pointed towers for which it is so famous. The sandstone, being relatively soft, proved the perfect material for the artisans of the time, who decorated the walls, ceilings, pillars – practically every available space – with breathtaking carvings of geometric designs, gods and goddesses, scenes from everyday life and scenes from both Hindu and Buddhist religious legends, such as this long stone mural (below) depicting the ancient Hindu legend of the Mahabharata.