When Portuguese monk António da Madalena visited the temple complex in Cambodia in 1586 he declared that, ‘It is of such extraordinary construction that it is not possible to describe it with a pen, particularly since it is like no other building in the world’ and countless millions who followed him down the centuries have agreed. Among its many mysteries are why, after all those 12th Century efforts, the Buddhists abandoned it to tree roots and moved on to who knows where.
What Makes Angkor Wat Special
Two million tourists visit the temple complex every year in hire cars and buses to marvel at the original temple mountain that Hindus built, and wonder at the symbolism of its mysteries. Why does it face towards the west unlike most other structures built for the same purpose? How did they sustain the cost of maintaining it far out in the deserted jungle where so little else exists? Moreover who (or what) did the high priests have in mind to keep out when they built a wall around it 1,024 meters by 802 meters by 4.5 meters high (3,359 x 2,631 x 15 feet) and within a moat 190 meters (625 feet) wide?
The architecture of Angkor Wat is symbolic. The temple represents the sacred Mount Meru where the gods live, and the five towers its five peaks. The high wall is the mighty mountain chain surrounding it, and the moat the ocean far away. Only the highest order of priests entered the inner sanctum and communed with gods on earth. The common faithful had to be content with walking counter-clockwise at the lowest level, past stone reliefs and statues that reminded them of the principles of their faith.
The Angkor Wat Secrets Explorers Missed
Earlier this year scientists from the University of Sydney completed mapping the surrounding areas within and beyond the moat. They used a device that allowed them to remotely sense variations in ground level while flying overhead in a helicopter following a grid. They revealed Angkor Wat secrets far more beneath the dense jungle canopy than the hills and valleys they expected. The Angkor Wat secrets were composed of a vast cityscape of temples, highways and elaborate waterways spreading out across the landscape.
At its peak in the late 12th Century, the ancient temple stood amidst a city covering 1,000 square kilometres (186 square miles). This was by far the biggest settlement anywhere on earth. In fact even London would take another 700 years to grow that big. The greatest mystery of all is what happened to it later. Why did so many people pack up their possessions and move on, leaving so much intact behind them?
The Reason for Angkor Wat’s Decline
Angkor Wat arose where it did because the surrounding hills were richly watered by monsoon rains. The developers canalised the torrents, and brought them to the moat that was a source of life in many ways. Towards the end of the medieval period the region entered a phase of severe drought. This came at the worst possible moment because these waterworks had not been properly maintained.
With its lifeline in tatters Angkor Wat entered a spiral of decline from which it never recovered. The centre could no longer hold. The people drifted away and with them the temple’s income. Nobody knows whether the last priest died there or followed them. Everything that was not stone is gone forever. Now tourist money is helping keep the ruins intact.
If you’re planning a visit to the Angkor Wat ruins, a good place to look for accommodation is in Siem Reap town.