Angkor and its temples are the heart and soul of the Cambodian nation, and remain a source of pride and inspiration to all Khmers as they struggle to rebuild their lives after the years of terror and trauma.
Today, the temples are a point of pilgrimage for Cambodians and no traveler should miss seeing them when passing through the region.
Built between the 9th and 13th centuries when the Khmer civilization was at the height of its extraordinary creativity, the majestic monuments of Angkor, constitute one of humanity’s most audacious architectural achievements. From Angkor, a succession of Khmer devaraja (god-kings) of the Khmer Empire ruled over a vast territory that extended from the tip of what is now southern Vietnam northward to Yunnan in China, and from Vietnam westward to the Bay of Bengal.
Using the vast wealth and huge labor force of their empires, the Khmer Devaraja initiated a series of monumental construction projects. Intended to glorify both the kings and their ancestors, many were built in the vicinity of Siem Reap.
The temples are what are left of a much larger and spectacular administrative and religious center. The houses, public buildings and palaces have long decayed away since they were made out of wood – because in those times the right to dwell in structures of brick or stone was reserved for the gods.
Temples OF Angkor
The ‘lost city’ of Angkor became the center of intense European popular and scholarly interest after the publication in the 1860s of La Tour du Monde, an account by the French naturalist Henri Mouhot of his voyages. A group of talented and dedicated archaeologists and philologists, mostly French, soon undertook a comprehensive program of research.
Spearheaded by the Ecole Franchise d’Extreme-Orient (EFEO), they made an arduous effort – begun in 1908 and interrupted from the early 1970s by war to clear away the jungle vegetation that was breaking apart the monuments, and to rebuild the damaged structures, restoring them to something approaching their original grandeur.
The three most magnificent temples at Angkor are the enigmatic Bayon with its eerie faces staring down; romantic Ta Prohm, parts of which are slowly being swallowed by nature; and the immense Angkor Wat, which will send a tingle down your spine as you first cross the causeway.
Visitors are encouraged to take your time, as all these monuments are well worth several visits each and there are dozens of less-celebrated but no less re-warding temples to see in the area.
What to do/see
This is the world’s largest religious building. With its soaring towers and extraordinary bas-reliefs, it is considered to be one of the most inspired and spectacular monuments ever built. It was built by Suryavarman II (1112-52) to honor Vishnu, his patron deity, and for use as his funerary temple.
The central temple consists of three elaborate levels, each of which encloses a square surrounded by intricately interlinked galleries. The temple is surrounded by a vast moat, which forms a 1.5km by 1.3km rectangle.
Outside of the central temple complex is an 800m-long series of extraordinarily exquisite bas-reliefs. The most famous scene, the Churning of the Ocean of Milk, is located along the southern section of the east gallery. This carving depicts 88 asura (demons) on the left and 92 deva (gods) with crested helmets on the right, churning up the sea to extract the elixir of immortality.
The fortified city of Angkor Thorn, north of Angkor Wat, is huge, its walls stretch more than 12km, and is 6m-high and 8m-wide. It was constructed under the watchful eye of Angkor’s most prolific builder, Jayavarman VII, who came to power in the 12th century.
Built around 1200 by Jayavarman VII in the exact center of the city of Angkor Thorn, the temple of Bayon has 216 gargantuan faces watching over visitors. Some historians believe the unsettling faces with the icy smile bear more than a passing resemblance to the great king Avalokitesvara himself.
Almost as extraordinary are the Bayon’s 1200m of bas-reliefs, incorporating a staggering 11,000 figures. The most elaborate carvings on the outer wall of the first level depict vivid scenes of life in 12th-century Cambodia, including cockfighting and kickboxing.
It is best to visit during sunrise or sunset as the shadows and shafts of light make the faces stranger still. The Bayon is one of the most stunning of Angkor’s temples.
Exporering the temples
Those with the time and the inclination should get a one-week pass (US$60), which allows for some thorough exploring. Many travelers go for a three-day pass (US$40), which allows for enough time to get around the main sights, but leaves little time to venture further. If you can help it, don’t even consider getting a one-day pass (US$20).
Tickets can be purchased at the large check-point on the road to Angkor and multiday passes include a photo. Don’t lose the pass or you’ll be fined US$30 if spotted in a temple. The price also includes access to the very impressive public toilets, which are liberally spread around the principal monuments.