It's not about understanding.
There's actually very little I can say about Angkor Wat. Just one sentence springs to mind; Angkor Wat is one of the most remarkable Human constructions on Earth. Which is the most accurate and truthful description that I can think of. I could describe the architecture (it's magnificent), I could give a list of dimensional statistics (it's enormous) or I could describe it's religious and cultural importance (it's very important). However there's no point in doing this as there's plenty of very scholarly information on both the internet and in just about every single guide book on Cambodia, rehashing it here would serve no purpose.
I've wanted to visit Angkor Wat for a very long time now, and in a way, this longing and desire to visit a site, any site, be it the great pyramids at Cheops, the Great Wall of China or, as in this case Angkor Wat, is also a cause of great confusion. These sites that we've all known about from childhood have passed into our psyche – almost osmotically, they've become so much a part of us. That we don't know how to feel about them when we actually get there. It's a bit like visiting a childhood hero, you have to align the fantasy, with the physical reality.
As I walked around Angkor Wat my first impression was just the scale of the place, it is simply vast. It's far too big to be taken in at one visit or even two visits. I wandered around the monument almost trance like, the sheer scale of the place was intimidating. There was far more here than you could ever see or indeed understand in a lifetime. So I stopped walking and just examined one piece of the bas relief, just one figure. I admired the craftsmanship, the skill and the endless patience to create just one beautiful figure, then you need to multiple that by ten thousand.
These figures are on every facade that you looked at, around every corner that you turned, everywhere your gaze fell. And it's not just the figures, there's also exquisite carvings on every structural item. On the beams, on the lintels, on corbels, on the columns, everywhere you looked there was extraordinary beauty. To step back a little from the minutiae of the detailing, I was then overwhelmed by a second wave of wonderment as I considered the engineering excellence that went into creating this structure, men without any mechanical assistance whatsoever created this in the twelfth century, by their muscles, their skill, their knowledge and of course their intelligence.
It was now early evening, the sun was starting to set but the temperature was still high, maybe high thirties, maybe low forties and my brain began to pound, not just from the exertion of walking around but from the mental effort of trying to comprehend what I was seeing. The five kilometre tuk tuk ride back to the hotel and a few cold beers helped restore brain function.
We had arranged our second visit to Angkor Wat for sunrise the next day. I had doubted the wisdom of five o'clock starts, but this possibly seemed justified, possibly.
Seeing Angkor Wat in the dark and to watch as the sky lightens revealing Angkor Wat in the pale pink light of dawn was, well I would certainly hesitate to use the word spiritual, especially in a 'religious' place, but there was a special connection. I no longer felt that I had to try to comprehend the monument, I simply felt that all I had to do was just stroll around the building in the cooler morning air and let the place wash over me. We walked further that morning than we did on the previous day. We walked further and I thought less. Angkor Wat is not a intellectual exercise, it can be of course, but for the few hours Angkor Wat gives to a tourist, it can never be that, nor should you try to make it that. Just walk around and let Angkor Wat make that emotional connection with you.