The jungles of Cambodia are home to one of the largest concentrations of ancient ruins in the world. Massive city and temple complexes in the Angkor area, built in the time of the powerful Khmer Empire are are believed by historians to have supported upwards of a million people, making this area the largest pre-industrial age city complex in the world. After the fall of the Khmer empire, the cities and temples fell into decay, and many were quickly lost to the encroaching jungle. Re-discovering the ruins of this lost civilization is a major goal for many modern tourists, and my trip there in January of 2011 was most definitely a major highlight of my travels.
Because of the enormous breadth of sights I saw on this trip, I have divided my travel experiences in Cambodia into two unique blog posts. This post, the first one, deals solely with my visit to the famous Angkor Wat temple complex, Angkor Thom and its temples, and the nearby temples in the immediate Angkor Area. The second blog post deals with my visit to the faraway temples of Banteay Srei, Beng Melea, and also my trip to visit the Floating Village of Chong Kneas on Tonle Sap Lake.
The closest Cambodian city to the largest concentration of temples is a city known as Siem Reap, and I arrived there after dark after a speaking engagement in neighboring Vietnam. I immediately negotiated a car and driver for the following day, and quickly made plans for an early morning sojourn to largest religious complex in the world, the world-famous Angkor Wat.
The park where Angkor Wat is located opens very early in the morning, usually at 5am to allow for sunrise viewing of the sights. Angkor Wat in particular suffers from its fame, however, as even during the wee hours of the morning it can be overrun by tourists who come to take photos of the famous sunrise here. The vast majority of them camp out by the small pond just to the west of the main temple complex, however, so if you bypass them and head directly for the interior of the main temple, you can generally avoid the crowds.
I stumbled through a darkened temple, deep into the interior of the structure, and into the inner courtyard, which I had all to myself during the early pre-dawn hours. Watching the sky slowly lighten, listening to the birds awaken, and imagining the history of this place is an extremely spiritual experience, and one that has inspired me continuously in the months that followed.
Angkor Wat was built by the Khmer king Suryavarman II as his capital city and as a state temple devoted to the Hindu god Vishnu. It has retained a religious purpose over the years, gradually changing from Hindu to Theravada Buddhist in the process. Indeed, because it was constantly used and maintained, it has not suffered the same effects of age and dilapidation due to neglect as many of the other temples and Khmer cities in the area did.
While massive in size, much of what makes Angkor Wat interesting is the detail you can find etched into the stone. Of particular note are the many ‘Devatas’ that are carved into the walls, divine guardians who keep a watchful eye on the temple, protecting it from evil sprits.
These devatas are everywhere, and it is not difficult to find them carved into nearly all of the temples in the area. Some are better-preserved than others, though unfortunately some also suffer from obvious signs of theft and neglect.
Angkor Wat is huge. So huge you can successfully keep going deeper and deeper into the complex to avoid the encroaching tourists, a game I kept playing that morning. I tend to try to avoid large crowds of camera clicking tour groups, and the massive size of Angkor Wat allowed me to do a pretty good job of it this time.
Eventually I ran out of space to retreat, however, as I ended up at the far East wall of the complex, near the ‘Gopura’ (Entrance building) near the East Gate that provides the only other access to the complex. I noted that this apparently is the approach taken by many of the locals who work here as tour guides and vendors, as many of them were entering from this side.
Most of the Khmer cities I visited were oriented in a similar way to Angkor Wat…they were roughly square, with a large square moat surrounding them and at least one bridge that provided across the moat.
Bear in mind that the dimensions of the walled in area are 1024m x 802m, which provided for 203 acres of space for the buildings in the complex. The buildings present today are the stone ones that have survived the ravages of time. However, the majority of the space in the complex was taken up by wooden buildings which have since rotted away and have been replaced by an expansive jungle in the interior of the complex. One can only imagine what this place would have been like in its height.
I eventually acquiesced to the fact that I was no longer able to avoid tourist crowds here, so I journeyed back through the temple towards the West Gate where I began. Along the way, I stopped at the spot that was previously filled with the hoards of early morning camera toting tourists and grabbed my own parting view of this amazing complex.
The largest and longest lasting capital of the Khmer empire is located just north of Angkor Wat, and carries the name Angkor Thom, or “Great City.” If the walls of Angkor Wat encompass an area just slightly less than a square kilometer, Angkor Thom takes up nearly 9 square kilometers, and is estimated to have held a population of up to 150,000 people. Like Angkor Wat, only the stone structures have survived, however, which makes it even more amazing to envision how this environment would have looked when it was packed wall to wall with wooden buildings, flowing canals, and massive crowds of people.
There are five Gopuras (gates) that allow access into Angkor Thom, four corresponding to the four cardinal directions and a fifth one known as the Victory Gate. The most popular way into Angkor Thom is via the South Gate, as it is the closest one to Siem Reap.
After entering the gate, you enter into the ancient nearly thousand year old city and typically head for the center of the complex, a temple known as the Bayon.
The Bayon was originally built by Jayavarman VII, who was only the second of the Khmer kings that was Buddhist. He built the temple in the middle of his newly built city, Angkor Thom, and infused it with Buddhist imagery. It is most well known for the large faces carved into the temples, which have a very calming effect on you when you look at them up close.
Buddhism is still an important religion here, and most Cambodians practice Theravada Buddhism. You can find numerous active Buddhist worship sites within the walls of Angkor Thom and in Cambodia as a whole.
What makes Bayon even more interesting is the blend between Buddhist and Hindu styles that are evident throughout the structure. While Jayavarman VII was Mahayana Buddhist, the kings immediately following him were Hindu, and the subsequent final kings of the empire were Theravada Buddhists. Each one of these rules left their mark, as is evident throughout the structure.
The Bayon contains several bas-reliefs that detail out images of Khmer life. These extremely detailed inscriptions provide a great deal of insight into the spiritual, wartime, and mundane aspects of their lives.
A short walk north from the Bayon takes you to several other complexes within Angkor Thom including the Baphuon temple, a very large temple originally dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva and later converted to Buddhist use.
Just beyond the Baphuon is a walled portion of Angkor Thom that originally held the royal palaces. Within the walls, you can still find the pyramid-style Phimeanakas, which was where the king himself would worship the gods. The Phimeanakas has a set of very steep stairs that can be climbed for some great views from the top. Coincidentally enough, this structure most reminded me of the Mayan pyramids at Chichen Itza that I had visited some years prior.
Inside the Royal Enclosure are several ponds simply known as the Royal baths, a place previously used for ritual washing.
Terrace of the Leper King
Walking through the narrow corridors of what is called the ‘Terrace of the Leper King’ within Angkor Thom is a definite must, as the pure volume of carved bas reliefs lining both sides of the long narrow passage is incredible.
The final site I visited before departing Angkor Wat is the site of the Khleangs, picturesque buildings with an unknown purpose, just off of the parking lot by the Terrace of the Leper Kings.
I exited Angkor Thom via the Victory Gate, one of the five principal gates that led into the city. My short time within the city walls was enough to see just some amazing structures inside, and I could only begin to imagine what it was like to enter one of these gates nearly a century ago when this City was a bustling metropolis. Before I left the gates, I stood by the side of the road and stared into the jungle, almost half expecting to see an ancient Khmer warrior staring back at me.
Other Angkor Sites
Just outside of the Victory Gate of Angkor Thom is the unfinished temple of Ta Kao, a structure older than Angkor Thom itself. Work on the building of Ta Kao was rumored to have stopped due to a lightning strike that hit the structure, a bad omen which led to a permanent halt on construction.
Ta Prohm (Tomb Raider Temple)
Ta Prohm was originally built as a Mahayana Buddhist monastery and university, and at one time supported a population as great as 12,500. When restoration work began on the other Angkorian structures, Ta Prohm was left more or less in the same state in which it was found, with strangler figs and other jungle vegetation growing throughout the complex. This allows for some fantastic visual imagery, one of the reasons it was chosen for the movie project.
Ta Prohm’s popularity is also a disadvantage, however, as the crowds of tourists here can get fairly thick. Indeed, it was the only temple in Cambodia I visited that had roped off areas that were meant to corral visitors and keep them out of certain areas.
My next stop was the temple of Banteay Kdei, a single story structure with an immensely long corridor of concentric enclosures, surrounded by a 700m x 300m wall.
The most unique feature of Banteay Kdei is that immense corridor, of which you can nearly walk through the entire length, wandering through various Buddhist prayer areas and other temple enclosures.
Intricate carvings of various devatas and dancing apsaras fill the complex, and it is fairly easy to find a quiet corner of this complex to have for yourself, even in the height of the tourist day.
The final temple I visited in the immediate vicinity of the Angkor Wat area is known as Pre Rup, a pyramid style temple that was one of the earlier temples in the area and is well over a thousand years old.
Pre Rup probably had the best overall view of any of the temples I visited while I was there, and you could see for miles over the jungle tree tops.
After I descended Pre Rup, my driver was waiting for me with a freshly grilled banana snack called ‘Num Ansom Chek Ang,’ which has to be one of the tastiest snacks I’ve ever encountered. Of course, it likely tasted even better considering the roughly eight hours of temple exploration I had just finished. After the delicious snack, I jumped into the car and we set off for some of the temples further afield, covered in Part II of this blog post series!