Study Tour Blogs

Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom

Angkor was the political and religious center of the Khmer Empire from 802-1432. Angkor Wat, “City which is a Temple,” was built by Suryavarman II (1113-50) as a dedication to the Hindu god Vishnu (Protector of Creation). It is the largest religious structure in the world, measuring 1,626,000 sq meters. The layout is based on a mandala (sacred design of the Hindu cosmos). Unusually among Khmer temples, Angkor Wat faces west and toward the setting sun, a symbol of death, which makes scholars surmise that it was not only a temple, but initially designed as a mausoleum for the king as well. While Suryavarman II may have planned Angkor Wat as his funerary temple or mausoleum, he was never buried there, as he died in battle during a failed expedition to subdue the Dai Viet.

A five-towered temple shaped like a lotus bud represents Mount Meru, the mythical abode of the gods and the center of the universe, and stands in the middle of the complex. The outer walls represent the edge of the world, and the moat is the cosmic ocean. There are 1970 ft. panel of bas-reliefs and around 2,000 engravings of apsaras (celestial dancing girls). Work seems to have ended shortly after the king's death, leaving some bas-relief decoration unfinished. In 1177, approximately 27 years after the death of Suryavarman II, Angkor was sacked by the Chams, traditional enemies of the Khmer. In the late 12th century, it was converted to a Buddhist temple, which shows that like Hinduism, Buddhism was integral to the traders who came seeking spices and deposited not only goods, but their religion in the Khmer Empire. By 17th century, Angkor Wat was not completely abandoned and functioned as a Buddhist temple. Fourteen inscriptions dated from the 17th century discovered in Angkor area, testify that Japanese Buddhist pilgrims that might have established small settlements alongside Khmer locals. At that time, the temple was thought by the Japanese visitors to be the famed Jetavana garden of Buddha in India.

The sandstone blocks from which Angkor Wat was built were quarried from the holy mountain of Phnom Kulen, more than 50km away, and floated down the Siem Reap River on rafts. According to inscriptions, the construction of Angkor Wat involved 300,000 workers and 6,000 elephants. The stones, as smooth as polished marble, were laid without mortar with very tight joints that are sometimes hard to find. The blocks were held together by mortise and tenon joints in some cases, while in others they used dovetails and gravity. The blocks were presumably put in place by a combination of elephants, coir ropes, pulleys and bamboo scaffolding. The Angkor Wat temple consumed about 6 million to 10 million blocks of sandstone with an average weight of 1.5 tons each. In fact, the entire city of Angkor used up far greater amounts of stone than all the Egyptian pyramids combined, and occupied an area significantly greater than modern-day Paris. Moreover, unlike the Egyptian pyramids, which were built of limestone quarried barely a mile away, the entire city of Angkor was built with sandstone quarried 25 miles or more away.

Angkor Thom, “Great City,” was built by Jayavarman VII in the late 12th century. The largest city in the Khmer Empire at one time, it is protected by a 26 ft. high wall, about 8 miles long, and surrounded by a wide moat. On the five gates, there are four giant stone faces. Within the city, the most celebrated ruin is the Bayon. The temple’s central towers are decorated with four huge, mysteriously smiling faces gazing out in the cardinal directions. These are believed to represent the all-seeing and all-knowing Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara, as personified by Jayavarman VII himself. The Bayon features 54 towers bearing more than 200 huge and enigmatic stone faces. The Bayon's plan can be divided into three levels — the first two are bas-reliefs and the uppermost consists of the central sanctuary. The outer gallery depicts scenes from everyday life and historical events, while the second inner gallery depicts mythical figures, battles, and stories. In total, there are more than 1km of bas-reliefs to be viewed in the Bayon. After Jayavarman’s death, both Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom lay forgotten as Thai invaders ravaged the land.

The artistic legacy of Angkor led directly to France adopting Cambodia as a protectorate in 1863 and invading Siam to take control of the ruins. Cambodia gained independence from France in 1953. The restoration of Angkor Wat in the modern era began with the establishment of Conservation d'Angkor by Ecole Francaise D’Extreme Orient (EFEO) in 1908 with its major restoration of Angkor undertaken in the 1960s. However, work on Angkor was abandoned during the Khmer Rouge era and Conservation d'Angkor was disbanded in 1975. Between 1986 and 1992, the Archaeological Survey of India carried out restoration work on the temple, as France did not recognize the Cambodian government at the time. In 1992, UNESCO listed it as a World Heritage Site and many countries such as France, Japan and China has been involved in numerous conservation projects. Angkor Wat appears on the national flag as a symbol of Cambodia and remains its prime attraction for visitors.

Eleanor Mannikka explains in her book Angkor Wat: Time, Space and Kingship that the spatial dimensions of Angkor Wat parallel the lengths of the four ages of classical Hindu thought. Thus the visitor to Angkor Wat who walks the causeway to the main entrance and through the courtyards to the final main tower, which once contained a statue of Vishnu, is metaphorically traveling back to the first age of the creation of the universe. Like the other temple-mountains of Angkor, Angkor Wat also replicates the spatial universe in miniature. The central tower is Mt Meru, with its surrounding smaller peaks, bounded in turn by continents (the lower courtyards) and the oceans (the moat). The seven-headed naga (mythical serpent) becomes a symbolic rainbow bridge for man to reach the abode of the gods. These are some important facts one should keep in mind as one travels through the complex.

Story of Vietnam

This is a very concise but comprehensive book about the whole story of Vietnam from the founding until modern day. Without much analysis, it lays out the facts of events of how Vietnam was established. The Ly dynasty set the foundation of the traditions of Vietnam, but was quickly overtaken by China. This was a theme in Vietnam having such a strong neighbor that influenced Vietnam militarily and culturally. France made Vietnam a colony to keep up with Portugal and Spain's colonization fervor during the 1500's. France was very repressive and fomented revolution movements. Ho Chi Minh traveled the world and learned about communism in France and China. As French power waned after WWII and especially after the defeat at Dien Bien Phu, the US stepped into the vacuum and became Ho's enemy. The war escalated under Lyndon B. Johnson and led to many deaths on both sides. After the Tet Offensive, the US public did not support the war at home and Nixon used Vietnamization to try to pull our troops back. Saigon quickly fell and Vietnam turned communist. Economically, they suffered from 1975-1985 and after a war with Cambodia to rid the neighbor of the disastrous Khmer Rouge, they have been allowing more economic freedom to turn the country around.

It was an easy read and read fast. It was a good summary of the whole history.

It is meant to be an introductory, supplementary text for high school students and undergraduates.

I could assign it to my students as a quick read to get them to know the facts about the history of Vietnam.

It refreshed my memory about what I knew about Vietnam and taught me a little bit more about the older history.

It is a quick read and it is easy for students to understand.

When Heaven and Earth Changed Places

Le Ly Hayslip's autobiography tells her story of how she went through a lot in her childhood at the hands of American soldiers and Viet Cong soldiers during the Vietnam War. She was raped and tortured and had her father and brother die due to the war. She marries a GI and moves to the States until she comes back to Vietnam to face her past. It is a chilling story of the pains of war a family goes through and the story of resilience in the midst of such horror.

It is difficult to say that I enjoyed such a sad, horrifying story, but her ability to find meaning in even the most negative circumstances gave me hope and a new perspective on the human will to survive and forgive.

It gives the Vietnam perspective that is usually overlooked when Americans learn and focus on the Vietnam War. It is usually difficult to have sympathy for the enemy, but she is able to make the reader/viewer have empathy and feel sorry for her.

It has made me want to see the countryside and hope to see the beauty of the countryside before the Vietnam War devastated the landscape.

It does a good job weaving the history of Vietnam into the war period and show the devastating effect of the war on a typical Vietnamese family during the period.

The Things They Carried

It is an account of a Vietnam soldier who basically carries just the essentials in his backpack as he is doing his tour of duty in Vietnam. But it is so much more. It is a commentary on life and the baggage that we carry with us (prejudices, hang-ups, fears, hurts, etc.) that affect how we deal with new situations.

I have read a lot of soldiers' accounts of their experiences in Vietnam, but I thought this was the most English-class worthy book with good writing and deeper meaning to the events being described.

It would help me explain what the US perspective was for most of our soldiers as they experienced Vietnam and the war at an early age. I think high school students would be able to get insight into why some soldiers acted as they did when they got to Vietnam (many valiant but dishonorable acts of our soldiers).

It helped me refresh my memory of the significant areas of battle and the general climate of the region. I will be looking for ghosts of the past as I see a more vibrant country in front of my eyes.

It is a more poetic book than most about the war. It is a good companion book to When Heaven and Earth Changed Places. The Things They Carried gives the US soldiers' perspective, and When Heaven and Earth Changed Places gives the vietnamese perspective.

First They Killed My Father

Loung Ung tells the heart-wrenching story of how the Khmer Rouge one day turned her privileged life upside down as they force them to leave their home in the city of Phnom Penh and wander from village to village. The Khmer Rouge eventually kill her father and mother and her sister dies from disease. She feels so guilty taking a handful of rice in the middle of the night because she is so hungry as she sees it as stealing from her family. She goes through training as a orphan soldier and then almost gets raped by a Youn soldier. She finally reunites with her two brothers and gets to leave the country and go to the United States and write her story.

It is a great true story that would resonate with a lot of students since it is written from the perspective of a little girl. She is very honest about what is happening around her. I have heard from other teachers that they assign this book as the summer reading for AP World History.

I would highly recommend it since it is very well written and gives a lot of insights as to what individuals went through during the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge. It is much easier to understand the situation through personal stories than it is through mere death figures.

It makes me want to interact with the native more and ask about their experiences and ask about how things are now in the present.

I enjoyed the complex relationships with her siblings that she describes well especially with her sisters. As someone who also has a sister, it was touching to hear her be frank and honest about the tender moments she shares with each one.

Getting ready for the adventure

Just one week to go before we head to Hanoi. Last night was our orientation meeting. As part of the meeting, we discussed how we might fully capitalize on this upcoming adventure.

We decided that with a little mental, physical, and emotional preparation, we should be able to accomplish each of the following during our trip:

Improve our intelligence through discomfort.
Experience a journey of self discovery.
Develop cultural sensitivity.
Find opportunities to network and make new friends.
Discover the commonality of man.
Write a good story worth retelling.
Enjoy both serendipity and synchronicity.

To that end, we want to use this blog to reflect on our day-to-day experiences and lessons. Each day a different person will write a blog post sharing the details of the day and responding to a reflective prompt. We will address such topics as food, economics, politics, the environment, cross-cultural misunderstandings, social relations, and on and on. By doing so, we hope to make this trip very memorable for those in the group, and educational for those who may read the blog.

As Cesare Pavese once said, “Traveling is a brutality. It forces you to trust strangers and to lose sight of all that familiar comfort of home and friends. You are constantly off balance. Nothing is yours except the essential things –air, sleep, dreams, the sea, the sky – all things tending towards the eternal or what we imagine of it.”

While we certainly aren't masochists seeking brutality, we are adventurers who thrive in the realms of the unfamiliar. We hope we can gain a better grasp of the eternal--or what we imagine of it. Thanks for reading and for sharing the adventure with us.

Click an image to zoom with description

Halong Bay, our first destination.  Image taken from Lonely Planet,