Tips for Visiting Angkor & Angkor Wat

Cultural Insight: Buddhist Prayer Beads

Prayer beads or japa malas are used by both Theravada and Mahayana Buddhists.

The Tibetan faithful at Jokhang Temple, Lhasa. Prayer beads are used by both Theravada and Mahayana Buddhists.

The use of prayer beads, or japa malas, in both Buddhism and Hinduism speaks to a historical connection between the two faiths; however, Buddhist japa malas typically contain a lesser number of beads than the Hindu japa malas’ 108 — it is usually a divisor of 108. There many potential explanations for the significance of the number 108, however, none alone appears offers a definitive explanation.

The beads are typically made from the seeds or wood of the Bodhi tree (a.k.a. “ficus religosa” or fig tree; this is the tree under which the Buddha gained enlightenment) and are typically used as counters, thereby enabling the faithful to keep track of recitations of mantras or prayers, prostrations, circumambulations and so forth.

The large bead on the strand is symbolic of the wisdom that allows one to recognize emptiness (sunyata) and the bell-shaped bead surmounting it is symbolic of “emptiness” itself (the bell is always a Buddhist symbol for emptiness; its ringing is the sound of emptiness).

A few words on Buddhist philosophy: “Emptiness” signifies that everything one encounters in life is empty of absolute identity, permanence, or an in-dwelling ‘self’ (anatta).  All things are connected and mutually dependent, in a constant state of flux, transforming and becoming (rather than self-centered and fixed).  The Buddhists believe that only when this abandonment of “self” occurs can the transcendent state of enlightenment be achieved.

How to Use Buddhist Prayer Beads

A mantra is said as each bead is spun (in turn) in a counterclockwise direction (similar to circumambulation of the stupa).

The rotation through the beads is also typically done in a counterclockwise motion beginning at the first bead after the large central bead. This large bead is used a counter, signaling that one full rotation of the beads (108 mantras) has be achieved. This process is of 108-bead cycles is repeated countless times.

AUM: Symbol, Sound and Silence

The meaning of the AUM (OM) symbol

Travelers to Buddhist and Hindu countries might find a review of AUM valuable, as it exemplifies many of the fundamental tenets of these faiths.

The AUM symbol (also spelled “Om”) consists of three curves, one semicircle, and a dot; these are symbols of each person’s self and his potential:

  • The large curve (the lower left corner of the image) symbolizes the waking state.  Perhaps it is best to think of this curve as symbolic of the ego, our outward persona, the person we think we should be, that identity that we consciously associate with the self.
  • Moving clockwise, the upper curve (upper left corner) symbolizes the unconscious state, that part of the self that is hidden to one’s consciousness, but is equally part of the self.
  • The middle curve, which extends from the center to the right side, symbolizes the dream state. This dream state, positioned vertically between the conscious and unconscious elements of the self, serves as a means to connect the two, a means for the conscious and unconscious to interact.  This is certainly what we do when we dream: the unconscious becomes conscious, affording a more complete view of the self.
  • The semicircle or crescent (upper right corner) symbolizes illusion, specifically in this case, the illusion that the self exists as a separate entity at all.  Notice that the crescent separates the dot from the other three curves.  It is this illusion that separates the individual from becoming one with his infinite self, beyond boundaries.
  • The dot signifies the infinite, absolute self, hidden from the individual by illusion; this is what the Eastern faiths of Hinduism and Buddhism consider God.  Dispelling the illusion and becoming one with this infinite self is the ultimate experience of life and the experience of the divine.

Joseph Campbell’s interpretation

One of our favorite descriptions of AUM, which touches on many of the symbols described above, can be found in Joseph Campbell’s book “The Hero with a Thousand Faces“.  Campbell breaks down each of AUM’s three phonemes, a, u and m:

  • The A representing the realm of waking experience: “cognitive of the hard gross facts of an outer universe, illuminated by the sun, and common to all”.
  • The U representing the realm of dream experience: “cognitive of the fluid, subtle forms of a private interior world, self-luminous and of one substance with the dreamer”.
  • The M representing the realm of very deep sleep: “dreamless, profoundly beautiful” (the person unified with the unconscious and the greater self).

For Campbell, the most profound element of AUM is not the sound, however, but the silence that surrounds it: “The silence surrounding the syllable is the unknown: it is called simply ‘the fourth’.  The syllable itself is God as creator-preserver-destroyer, but the silence is God Eternal, absolutely uninvolved in all the openings-and-closings of the round.”

Experience the silence!

Cosmology Shapes Design of Angkor Wat Temple

Fig. 1: Angkor Wat temple’s design recreates three-staged cosmological journey.

The Khmer temple was designed as a microcosm of the Hindu cosmological universe. In making his way from the temple’s entrance to the sanctuary at its center, the visitor undergoes a symbolic three-staged journey to salvation through enlightenment.

Stage 1: Moat as Cosmic Sea

The outermost boundary of a Khmer temple was often surrounded by a moat, a body of water symbolic of the Cosmic Sea (blue highlights in Fig. 1). For Hindus, the Cosmic Sea is the source of creative energy and life, the starting point for the journey toward salvation.

The temple visitor begins his journey by crossing the sea on causeways lined with serpents, beasts similarly intimately associated with both Hindu and Khmer myths of creation (we explore the serpent in detail in our guidebook to Angkor).

Stage 2: Enclosure Walls as Sacred Mountain Ranges

Continuing on his way to the center of the temple, the visitor passes through a series of massive enclosure walls; these walls recreate sacred mountain ranges, symbolic of obstacles that must be overcome on the path to enlightenment (green highlights in Fig. 1). Monumental tower gateways, called gopurams, grant the visitor passage through the walls, each successive one revealing a more sacred area, farther removed from the outside world.

The combination of concentric enclosure walls with large gateways was derived directly from South Indian Hindu architectural precedent. Enclosure walls make their first appearance very early in the Khmer building tradition — at the late 9th century pre-Angkor site of Roluos in the temples of Preah Ko, Bakong, and Lolei — and are a constant feature in all subsequent temples.

Fig. 2: Angkor Wat’s five towers.

Stage 3: Five Sanctuary Towers as Mount Meru

At the center of the temple stand sanctuaries with tower superstructures (red highlights in Fig. 1).

  • The mountain residence of the gods. Under Hindu cosmology, the gods have always been associated with mountains. The sanctuary’s form, dominated by its large tower, recreates the appearance of the gods’ mountaintop residence, Mount Meru (Fig. 2). The mountaintop residence of the gods carried particular symbolic resonance for the Khmer people.
  • God’s cave. The sanctuary proper, located directly under the tower, is where an image of the deity resides. Its dark interior is designed to represent the cave into which god descends from his mountain home and becomes accessible to human beings.
  • The sacred intersection. At the Hindu temple’s sanctuary, the worlds of the divine and living connect: the god’s vertical axis (mountaintop to cave) intersects with the visitor’s horizontal axis (temple entrance to cave). The entire universe emanates from this intersection, as unity with god is the goal of earthly existence. In Hinduism, god is believed to temporarily physically inhabit his representation in the sanctuary; the Hindu temple is arranged to enable the direct devotee-to-deity interaction that necessarily follows. Unlike other faiths, there is no religious intermediary and no abstraction; god is manifest before the devotee’s eyes, a profound encounter.

It is here, among the peaks of Mount Meru, that the visitor’s symbolic journey ends in nirvana: the pairs of opposites characteristic of worldly existence (e.g., good versus bad, right versus wrong) fuse into a single infinite everythingness beyond space and time.

Guidebook to Angkor’s Temples

The Temples of Angkor Guidebook
Angkor — the ancient capital of the Khmer Empire that thrived for 500 years from 802-1327 — is one of the most magnificent sites in Southeast Asia. This recently updated and expanded Approach Guide serves as an ideal companion for travelers seeking a deeper understanding of Angkor’s art and architecture.

The Faces of Angkor (Video)

The stone-carved faces are one of Angkor’s most iconic images. Explore what makes them unique in this Insights series video by Approach Guides’ founder David Raezer. It is produced in conjunction our guidebook, “The Temples of Angkor

What to Eat in Cambodia: Amok Fish

Fish Amok in Siem Reap, Cambodia

Amok fish in Siem Reap, Cambodia. Photo by: Texugo.

Amok fish

We just spent several weeks in Siem Reap researching our guidebook to the temples of Angkor, and since we’ve come back, many people have asked us about the food and what to eat in Cambodia. In our opinion, the culinary delicacy of Cambodia, amok fish, is a must-try.

  • The fish. If you are staying in Siem Reap, many of the fish are sourced locally in Tonle Sap, the largest freshwater lake in Southeast Asia. The dish typically uses light, neutral flesh fish, which better showcase the curry flavors. Frequently used freshwater fish include: snakehead, carp, and catfish.
  • The curry. The fish is steamed in a savory curry sauce made, first and foremost, from coconut cream and coconut milk, with a touch of salty anchovy fish sauce. The base for the sauce is made from kroeung, a traditional Khmer spice-herb paste based on a mixture of ingredients: lemon grass, citronellal-rich kaffir lime zest and leaves, the ginger-like galangal, garlic, nhor leaves (a leafy green similar to kale, but more bitter), turmeric, shallots, and dried red chillies (not spicy). For those of you who don’t like spicy (hot) foods, there is no need to worry: Cambodians don’t go heavy on the spice, so you are in good shape.
  • The rice. The sticky rice is exceptional, delicate and al dente. As a general rule, we suggest keeping the curry and rice separate on the plate; combine them at the center of the plate, almost on a bite-by-bite basis, so as to keep the rice fresh and optimize the curry-to-rice ratio.

Best Amok Fish in Siem Reap

Siem Reap is full of restaurants serving this popular dish, but we recommend two restaurants in downtown Siem Reap to sample for yourself:

  • Khmer Kitchen – Small restaurant that has recently expanded to accomodate tourists looking to try traditional Cambodian dishes. They also have cooking classes.
  • Amok – Right in the heart of the old market, this restaurant does its namesake dish very well. Also serves traditional Cambodian dishes.

Guidebook to Angkor’s temples

The Temples of Angkor Guidebook
Angkor — the ancient capital of the Khmer Empire that thrived for 500 years from 802-1327 — is one of the most magnificent sites in Southeast Asia. This recently updated and expanded Approach Guide serves as an ideal companion for travelers seeking a deeper understanding of Angkor’s art and architecture.