Angkor Wat in the early morning (Photos by Narca)
Angkor Wat is, to my mind, one of the true wonders of the ancient world, on a par with Egypt's and Greece's antiquities and Peru's Machu Picchu. For our first three days in Cambodia, Alan, Jim, Rich and I are exploring the vast ruins of Angkor Wat and birding the temple grounds.
We begin our temple-trek before daybreak, driving out to the stunning central complex of Angkor Wat with our temple guide, Mardy, to watch dawn illuminate the ruins of Angkor. Mardy is a charming young man who knows his subject well. He tells us that the whole region is called Angkor. "Wat" means "monastery," and therefore the most well-known complex is that of the temple of Angkor Monastery. Cambodia is now a Buddhist country, but hundreds of years ago when Angkor Wat was built, the region was Hindu.
Huge faces gaze down from ruined towers
Erected in the 12th century by King Suryavarman II, Angkor Wat was conceived as a Hindu center dedicated to the god Vishnu. Vishnu represents that aspect of god which sustains and preserves the universe. Angkor was the king's capital city and the state temple. The immense towers are shaped like lotus buds. An intricate system of waterworks was one of the region's marvels.
Mardy teaches us
Bas-relief carving of a story from the Mahabarata
Hundreds of apsaras––celestial nymphs––dance over the surfaces of Angkor Wat. These two are draped in serpents.
Mardy explains the meanings of the elaborate shapes and bas-reliefs. Stories from the epic Hindu tale, the Mahabarata, are carved into the sandstone surfaces. Elaborations project from the roof and edges of all the buildings, and they represent serpents. I'm blown away. During years of marveling at depictions of the temples of Angkor Wat, I never realized that all those projections were serpents. Serpents adorn not only the angles of the buildings, but also the statues and carvings.
A King Cobra towers over this statue.
Even the balustrades of bridges are serpents ("nagas") and usually resemble King Cobras.
This balustrade is fashioned after a 7-headed cobra.
Serpent power or serpent energy is the symbol for kundalini, the powerful energy regarded in yoga as lying coiled at the base of the spine, which, when awakened, courses up the spine and leads to spiritual awakening. The whole immense, intricate, stupendous temple complex strikes me as a monument to the attainment of higher consciousness.
We roam through temple complexes for three days, yet I feel we have barely begun to explore what's here.
Trees have sprawled over many ruins.
Marauding gangs of Long-tailed Macaques roam the ruins, ready to snatch an iPhone or a bit of someone's lunch.
And yes, even Asian Elephants stroll about, ferrying tourists.
Restoration is underway in several sites.
Fearsome demons adorn this restored panel.
At the end of a hike, we find a restful spot to scan wetlands behind one of the temples.
Here we find our first Pheasant-tailed and Bronze-winged Jacanas, our first Lesser Whistling-Ducks.
Lesser Whistling-Ducks are common in Cambodian wetlands.
Black Bazas, a small and elegant raptor, gather in family groups around the ruins.
A lizard scurries away. Most of our Cambodian adventure still lies ahead.