Angkor Wat – the Jewel of Cambodia

The day was already warm as we made our way along the edge of the 200m wide moat which surrounds the temple complex. We are about to enter Angkor Wat, the largest and most iconic temple complex in Cambodia. In many ways it has come to symbolise Cambodia – it is the centrepiece of the Cambodian flag, and is found on the local currency. It is even on the side of the Angkor Balloon – a tethered helium balloon used to give visitors an overview from 100m up, although sadly, it wasn’t flying the day we went due to the monsoonal weather.

Angkor balloon


One of the striking things about Angkor Wat is the control of water through large-scale hydrological works around the complex. The ponds or moat around the Angkor temple complex is over 200m wide and was designed to reduce local flooding in the wet season. The scale of the hydrological works has to be seen to be believed, and considering this would have been dug by hand, it is very impressive indeed.

Angkor Wat

Today the main causeway is becoming fragile from the hundreds of thousands of annual visitors, so we are directed towards a floating causeway or pontoon bridge (see on the right in the photo above). It feels a little like walking on a bouncing castle, but it is stable, new and well maintained.

But not all of the ‘King’s swimming pool’ as the locals call it, remains in good repair – and there is evidence that its effectiveness decreased over centuries as it silted up, and was not regularly maintained even in its heyday. Today the locals and tourists use it as a picnic spot, and a cool place to watch the sunset.

Angkor Wat

You first see the familiar beehive cupolas after you pass through the gates, and realise that this is a very large complex with many buildings, each with their attractions. This view is from one of the side temples, and is out of the way of the main crowds that head straight down the main causeway toward the iconic temple.

Angkor Wat

As I came closer I found a quiet spot to take in the view

Angkor Wat

Sometimes a sketch is the best way to understand a place, as you take time to observe, unlike the busloads of tourists that try to cram in this and three other temples into one day (!). Although this sketch was done from a photo afterwards, I did sketch in many of the temples during this visit.

Angkor Wat

But there is so much to take in. One aspect for which Angkor Wat is particularly known, is the extensive wall carvings depicting scenes from King Suryavarman II’s life and from the sacred Hindu texts of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. The depictions of war elephants and sophisticated chariots, as well as infantry each with their individual expressions, is worth a visit just for this.

The temple was dedicated by Suryavarman II to the Hindu god Vishnu, and there are gruesome depictions of tortures inflicted upon sinners in no less than 32 specialised hells. There are also depictions of the birth of the universe achieved through the Churning of the Ocean of Milk – the Earth is said to have been created from the resulting curd. It gives a whole new perspective on the moon being a piece of cheese!

Angkor Wat

The windows are barred with stone balusters shaped in the form of prayer wheels – they are worn quite smooth in places, from countless hands running along them. They also make great silhouettes against the glare of the outside gardens.

Angkor Wat

The buildings and corridors are clearly formed from corbelled arches, and you can see how the final key-stones keep the roof in place. It evidently works as most of these buildings have survived relatively intact for centuries.

Angkor Wat

A special meeting

I was privileged to meet these two Buddhist monks.They spoke quite good English, so  I asked if they were from the temple here, and they said they had come from another temple about 100kms away, to be here on a holy day. They have been monks for 18 years and they had a wonderful calm presence to them. I told them about my pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela, and they seemed surprised that modern Westerners would undertake such a journey on foot. They were relaxed and joked around a little. I asked if they would mind having their photo taken, and they readily agreed – it is always polite to ask. As they sat, I moved up the nearby steps to take a different angle. I thanked them for talking with me and took my leave of them.

Angkor Wat

The central temple was closed to tourists for a Cambodian Hindu holy day (Pchum Ben – Ancestors Day), so we couldn’t get to the highest point, but of course, as a working temple, it is important to respect the place and its function. As someone once said: “Buddha (or Vishnu) is not a garden decoration.”

Angkor Wat

The processional corridors and cloisters are impressive. Of course, even the officials need to look after their feet sometimes…

Angkor Wat

Angkor Wat is also a popular place for film-makers and for professional fashion photographic shoots. This was in one of the side temples – the Southern pavilion.

Angkor Wat

And of course, I had to get the ‘postcard’ shot – though it took a bit of doing. I initially tried to follow the lesser path to one side of the temple complex, but found the path flooded and quite muddy. So with wet feet, I headed back around and onto the main causeway, and then detoured to one of the side temples. Fortunately, I had remembered to bring a neutral density filter, as well as a circular polariser and, by holding the camera firmly against a wall I was able to get this shot. I was fortunate that the wind had died down ahead of the approaching rain.

Angkor Wat

Once our friends had finished their sketches, we took our leave, knowing there is so much more to see here.

So, from a 12th century king who marshalled the control of water, to create a great civilisation, and who brought prosperity to his kingdom by regulating the worst ravages of the monsoon, to a temple dedicated to Vishnu, who churned the great Ocean of Milk to bring forth the Earth from the star-stuff of Space, we, now, in the 21st century are able to gaze on these wonders. It is worth taking the time, not just to see the buildings, but to see the system that made it possible, and gain a new respect for these achievements done without mechanisation, as we retreat back to our airconditioned hotel room, hoping for a strong wifi signal.

About Angkor Wat

The complex was built by King Suryavaman II in the first half of the 12th century. The temple complex, including the moats, covers an area of more than two square kilometres. As part of the King’s capital city, there is evidence of a major population centre throughout the surrounding area. This was enabled by the large Barays or reservoirs that mitigated the impact of the monsoonal variations in water level, and allowed for sustained irrigated agriculture through a sophisticated system of canals and channels. Not bad when you consider that Britain was still in the iron age, and Britain was seeing the end of Saxon rule. By the 13th century, the vast water management system covered an area of over 1000 square kilometres.

The Khmer rulers reigned here until the 15th century, leaving behind an amazing legacy of temples built to house Hindu and Buddhist divinities.

At a glance

Date: First half of the 12th century (around 1150)
King: Suryavarman II
Cult: Hindu (Vishnu)
Best seen: early morning or lunchtime when the tourist crowds are thinner. Also, try walking around away from the South Gate via the side temples once you cross the moat from the ticket control.
Do not miss: the carved relief panels – some of the best decorations in all the Khmer temples, and the view of the temple from the reflecting pools
Cost: One day pass is USD $37, three day pass is USD $62 and a seven day pass (recommended) is USD$72. The pass gets you into almost all the temples, not just Angkor Wat.
Location: around 7km north of Siem Ream city.



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Travelling mindfully is like making a violin

Do you approach travel with excitement or trepidation? How do you find calm amidst the excitement? And importantly, how do you balance these to get the most out of travel, and out of life more generally? It seems to me, that to get the most out of our travel, we need to be:

  • responsive to our environment,
  • aware of our surroundings, and
  • calm within ourselves.

How we achieve a balance between these aspects can influence how we experience our travel.


As a musician and luthier, I find that these aspects can easily be applied to violin making. For a violin to have good tone, it must be responsive, both to the inputs from the strings but also to the environment. And at the same time, in order to produce a good well-rounded tone, there must be a harmony between the responsive parts and the calm parts of each plate of the sound box. Examining this is a bit like reading the Chladni patterns on a violin plate, showing how harmoniously it vibrates in response to excitement.

violin purfling

Between travels, I have been making a violin – my second – and some people have asked me what I do to make a violin have a good sound. As with my first, I have tried to take time to tune each plate so that it is responsive across a range of frequencies. Every piece of wood is different, after all, it is an organic material that has grown in its own environment and has been subject to unique weather patterns, and cycles between winter and summer, resulting in unique growth patterns (the same applies to people too!). For that reason, you can’t just measure a Stradivarius violin and machine the timbers of a new one to exactly the same thickness across each plate and expect a Stradivarius violin to emerge. I think there is both an art and a science to it.

violin shaping

It is possible to measure the responsiveness of a violin plate at different frequencies, but perhaps more importantly, we need to be able to see where the plate is responsive, and where it is not. Any block of wood can be tuned like a xylophone block to ring to a particular note, but it is the pattern of vibration that provides the tone.

I use a fairly crude means to do this, but it seems to work. I suspend the plate I’m working on over an amplifier/speaker – in this case, a 15W Roland Cube amp placed so that the speaker faces upward. I set the plate on a couple of pieces of foam polystyrene over the speaker. I then use a tone generator on my phone (yes there’s an app for that!) and play tones smoothly rising from 10 beats per second (10 Hertz) up to 1000 Hertz.

So how do I see the vibration patterns? I take a tea bag – actually, any lightweight powder will do – you could use poppy seeds or dark sawdust too – and sprinkle a random pattern evenly over the plate. Then I play tones gradually rising in frequency. At different frequencies, the tea leaves will bounce and move where the plate is responsive, and they will stay still where the plate is not responding. In this case, the plate responds to its resonant frequency, which is 190 Hertz – which falls between F# and G. This is good because it means it won’t ring out suddenly when a properly tuned note is played.

violin chladni1

Initially, the patterns are thick and often unbalanced. I then take a photo, and draw with chalk lightly around where the tea leaves are settled, and gently remove shavings of wood, a little at a time, with a scraper from within the chalked area. Then I re-sprinkle the tea leaves and repeat the process until I have a nice pattern – like a frown and moustache – that are well balanced and have a nice form. Every plate is different and varies in density, but the patterns shouldn’t have gaps or wild inconsistencies. The technical term for these patterns is Chladni patterns, named for Ernst Chladni, who first visualised the patterns. The tea leaves collect where there is no vibration – these areas are called ‘nodes’. Where the vibration is greatest, these are called ‘anti-nodes’.

violin chladni2

Just as when we travel we seek a balance between periods of excitement and periods of calm, so too we need a nice balance between the nodes and the anti-nodes. There will be changes, of course, to these vibration patterns when the violin is assembled as against being a free plate, but I work on the basis that if each part is tuned well, then it will also work well collectively when it is assembled.

Again, the same is true of people – if each member of a group is well attuned, the group itself will perform well. This is why emotional intelligence is so important to good group dynamics. Conversely, if one part of the group is not emotionally aware, the whole tone of the group, or the tour, or the holiday can be dampened. I hope your ‘Chladni’ patterns are nicely formed too!

Okay, I drew a long bow here, but while this post tells you something about violin making, it also shows how different aspects of our lives can be seen metaphorically to apply to one’s whole philosophical approach to life. All things are connected in their way, and find resonance in unexpected places.



Cambodia – Ta Prohm: An Angkor treasure

Ta Prohm emerged from the Cambodian forest about an hour’s drive out of Siem Reap, and immediately we knew it was special. Towering trees sprawled protectively over the ancient temple ruins. Groundwater lay all around from the recent monsoonal rains. It looked like a scene from a movie, and it was easy to have visions of being an Indiana Jones or a Lara Croft intent on securing some ancient treasure. But what really struck me, was that this complex of buildings came from the hands of highly skilled architects within a well-resourced advanced society. I found a spot out of the way of the tour groups, behind what had once been a monastery library, and began sketching.

Just a year before Saladin captured Jerusalem from the Crusaders, this monastery complex was built and dedicated by King Jayavarman VII near Angkor in honour of his mother. It was to become an important pilgrimage site. The year was 1186, and Jayavarman was on an unprecedented building spree.

He recognised that a united country needed to be a connected country. But the land he inherited was subject to flooding in the wet season, and despite Angkor Wat and the royal palace being above the high water mark of the inland sea known as the Tonle Sap, it was difficult to maintain year-round communication.

Ta Prohm

To facilitate the communication of people and administration (including taxes/tributes), he built over 2,000 km of roads above the high-water level, and set up rest houses – every 15kms (one day’s walk), along with hospitals equipped to minister to the sick. The hospitals had shrines made in the Mahayana Buddhist tradition. The sanctuaries of the rest houses may correspond to some of the buildings found within the major temple sites, such as Ta Prohm.

Ta Prohm

They are extraordinary structures, built with corbel-vaulted roofs capable of supporting heavy stone coverings.

Ta Prohm

The ones in Ta Prohm were deliberately left largely as they were found, with great Spong trees and their parasitic strangling ficus (fig) which gradually encapsulates the tree and kills it. The ruins, symbiotically interwoven with the majestic trees – the age-old struggle between nature and culture – made it the perfect setting for an epic movie adventure. More recently, substantial restoration work has been undertaken by an international partnership through UNESCO. Nevertheless, you can still locate recognisable parts of the site as seen in Lara Croft: Tomb Raider. The movie mythologises the role of amateur and dilettante archaeologists hoping to fill the museums of Europe with strange and exotic artefacts.

Ta Prohm

For me, the reality was far more interesting than any swash-buckling movie adventure could be. The temples and associated monastery tell a story of devout Buddhists. The wall carvings included detailed dancers and scenes from Buddha’s life. During the period of the Hindu reaction, some panels depicting Buddha were mistaken for a king in his palace, and so were spared erasure.

Ta Prohm was one of the largest monastic complexes in the Kingdom, with quarters for more than ninety monks. One of the devotional statues was captured by one of the many great tree roots.

Ta Prohm

Much of what we know of early Khmer culture came from the travel reports of Zhiou Daguan a member of a Chinese diplomatic delegation in 1296. He was sent by the Yuans, a Mongol dynasty established by Kublai Khan. The document that resulted gave a detailed snapshot of life in the Angkor kingdom at the end of the C13th.

Western accounts began to surface in the 1500s by Portuguese and Spanish missionaries of an ancient city in the jungles of Cambodia. The stories relate how king Ang Chan stumbled across the Angkor ruins – already covered by dense vegetation – while out hunting wild elephants in the forest.

Then in the 1860s research began in earnest with a French scientific expedition to see if the Mekong was navigable, and they took a detour to Angkor, making an extensive survey.

I was glad I started with this temple, and built up to the larger ones as I started to put together a picture in my own mind of how these sites relate to each other, and how this was indeed a civilisation that was built on advanced hydrography.But more on that in a later post…

Ta Prohm


In Brief:

Country: Kingdom of Cambodia
Language: Khmer
Currency: Riel (but almost everything is done in $US)
International phone code +885
Where I stayed: Central Suite Residence, Siem Reap
Getting there: direct flights are available to Siem Reap International Airport from Bangkok, KL or Singapore.
What to see: Ancient temples, including Angkor Wat, and don’t forget the Angkor National Museum.

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