In order to truly understand Cambodia, one must visit one of the greatest archeological sites in the world--the spiritual heart and identity of the Khmer people--the Angkor complex.
Spread over an area of more than 400 square kilometers, Angkor stands as an unrivalled legacy of a powerful and industrious Khmer race. The beauty, symmetry and mystery of these monumental achievements defy description. Of great sacrifice are such great empires born.
The Ancient Capital of the Khmer empire, built on the vast alluvial plane north of the Tonle Sap, Great Lake, dominated the region from 900-1500, reaching its zenith in the 12th century.
When Jayavarman II (801-850), founder of the Khmer empire, established his capital at Rolous, 12 km southeast of Siem Reap, he started the cult of Indian deities, for whom these temple-mountains were created.
Jayavarman II's successors built the barays, the man-made lakes adjacent to the temples, which fed a complex network of irrigation channels.
It was this sophisticated system of agricultural hydraulics that enabled the Khmers to produce two or three harvests a year and thus sustain and expand their empire.
From this strong economic base, his successor Indravarman I (877-889) began the tradition of temple building. It reached its artistic height under Suryavarman II (1113-50) who conceived Angkor Wat, and whose battles are celebrated on its bas-reliefs, and Jayavarman VII (1181-1218) who constructed the city of Angkor Thom.
The archeological area covers approximately 400 square kilometers in the province of Siem Reap, containing more than 100 monuments of which there are two dozen major temples.
Out of The Jungle
After the demise of the Angkor Empire, the decaying ruins, abandoned for three centuries, were reclaimed by the jungle. Angkor was forgotten by the world until the French naturalist Henri Mouhot rediscovered it in 1861.
Today, the forest setting and its silence enhance the sense of my stery and grandeur of the temples. Roaming among the giant fig and silk cotton trees, the visitor will experience his five senses at their height--the sounds of the birds and crickets, and the sensuous fragrance of the rom-duol flowers.
Angkor Wat with its five towers, perfect symmetry and exquisite bas-reliefs is one of the most inspired religious monuments ever built. Unlike all the other temples which face east, Angkor Wat faces west, and the sandstone reflects the glowing colors and slanting rays of the setting sun, the perfect time to appreciate the brilliance and clarity of light in this part of Cambodia.
This great symbol of Cambodia can be seen in the three towers of the national flag.
Angkor Wat covers an area of two square kilometers. Contemporary with Notre Dame in Paris, it is the largest religious temple in the world, the volume of stone equaling that of the Great Pyramid at Cheops in Egypt.
Conceived by Suryavarman II (1113-1150), Angkor's builders made a 'temple-mountain' like a pyramid with the shrine at the top.
Angkor Wat is a representation of the Hindu cosmology. Its universe has a central continent surrounded by 6 concentric rings of land and 7 concentric oceans.
At the center is Mount Meru and its five-peaked summit is the city of Brahma, the home of the gods.
Eight guardian divinities protect the cardinal points, and the causeway and terraces are lined with stone nagas--a bridge between the worlds of man and of gods.
Bas-reliefs around the first level depict Indian mythical epics, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana and warfare of the Angkor period.
The carvings are in pristine condition for, unlike the other monuments, Angkor was continuously occupied by monks, and not devoured by jungle.
It was restored by Ang Chan from 1546-1564, and later by his grandson, Satha.
Churning of The Sea
The Churning of the Sea of Milk, in the east gallery, is the most celebrated panel. According to Hindu mythology, the Ocean of Milk is churned by the demons and gods to generate the elixir of life.
Using the naga as an instrument to churn, they try to recover 13 lost treasures, including the ambrosia of immortality (toek amrith),the nymph of loveliness and the goddess of good fortune.
The benevolent naga swallows the waters of immortality, which are set free to reinvigorate the world. The apsaras, or celestial dancers, were born from the foam.
As one small example of the Angkor Empire at its pinnacle, a twentieth century visitor to the area must imagine the walled city of Angkor Thom. Within the city one can admire the famous Bayon Temple, which emerges from the jungle as an incredible forest of heads. Built by Jayavarman VII in the twelfth century, its 100-meter wide moat extending 12 kilometers--larger than any walled city of medieval Europe--protected a population of as many as one million people.
It now encloses a dense tropical jungle that appears to have stood the test of eternity in silence.
The smoky colors of the Bayon add to the eeriness of this most haunting and impressive of all Khmer monuments. Its 45 meter high tower is topped by four huge carved heads, and surrounded by 54 towers, at different levels, each containing four mysterious smiling faces, said to resemble Jayavarman VII himself as the omnipresence of the Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara.
The Bayon leads to the Royal Enclosure with the Elephant Terrace, 300 meters long, with its life-size bas-reliefs of the graceful royal elephants. Mythical garudas, or kruth--half-man and half-bird--decorate the terrace, which once supported pavilions for the King.
Little remains of the Royal Palace except the temple mountain of Phimeanakas, meaning celestial palace, built in the 11th century.
At the northeast corner is the terrace of the Leper King with more bas-reliefs of royal pageantry, apsaras, garudas and nagas. On the south side is an earlier wall behind which is concealed a narrow passageway with exquisite bas-reliefs of apsaras, demons and gods in perfect condition. Emerging, you are on top of the terrace. A sandstone replica of the Leper King is here, the original being housed in the National Museum in Phnom Penh.
South of the Royal Enclosure is the Baphuon with three massive terraces, reached by a causeway on pillars. There are some fine bas-reliefs of myths, contained within bordered panels.
Banteay Srei stands in isolation about 32 kilometers from Angkor like a jewel enshrined in a case of jungle greenery. It is the most intricately carved of all the temples, in pink sandstone.
Built in 967, the temple marks a clear transition in architecture. Unlike its heavier multiple-terraced predecessors, Banteay Srei, or the 'Citadel of the Women, is built on one level with its exquisite tower shrines and libraries creating a delicate sense of space.
One of its shrine is dedicated to Shiva and another to Vishnu, with their libraries adorned with tympans depicting scenes from the legends of the gods.
Preah Khun & Ta Phrom
Beyond Angkor Thom are Preah Khan and Ta Phrom overgrown with jungle and admired by romantics for their dreamlike qualities. The latter is the only temple which has been left unrestored, in the same state as was discovered by French archeologists. Trees tower like giants from pedestals of monuments overtaken by nature. The intimacy of these temples is a delightful contrast to the more grandiose temples of Angkor.