Driving into Siem Reap, the city at the edge of Angkor’s temples, we see gargantuan five-star hotels spilling onto the paved road garnished with luscious multi-coloured lights. It is mid-December. The hotel proprietors have gone to great lengths to make North American and European tourists feel at home – nativity scenes grace the lawns, strings of red and green lights hug the trees. It is Christmas in Cambodia. Irony falls like a hammer: We go to a place whose contributions to mankind’s creative prowess overshadowed anything the West could muster at that time. During the six centuries of the Angkorian Empire, the Khmers produced architectural works of such staggering ingenuity and creative brilliance that it is arguable whether they have ever been surpassed. And yet, today, Cambodia tries to placate its tourists, hungry for their money and good words. Standing on Angkor Wat’s central tower, overlooking the bustling city, the reservoirs, canals and causeways, the intricately carved sandstone, and the massive temples, could Suryavarman II, Angkor’s greatest king, have seen his end? I wonder if in 500 years Cambodian tourists will flock to the remnants of the Statue of Liberty or the Eiffel Tower and gawk at their faded beauty. Will our governments greet them in a manner befitting Shiva or Buddha? After all, only the dead truly know that nothing lasts forever.
The great Khmer period lasted roughly six hundred years from 802 to 1432. Jayavarman II initiated the period by unifying many of Cambodia’s cat-fighting kingdoms. He spelled-out in great deal what Angkorian civilization would look like and what its internal logic would be.
Jayavarman declared himself a devaraja, or God-King, specifically a representative of Shiva, the Hindu god of destruction. For Jayavarman and subsequent Angkor rulers, the temple represented legendary Mt. Meru, the heavenly home of Hindu gods. For Indian Hindus, Mt. Meru was the Himalayas; for Jayavarman it was Phnom Kulen, 40 kilometres away from today’s Angkor Thom. Each following king built his own temple – a beautiful amalgam of spiritual submission and assertive ambition – symbolizing the god’s abode on holy Mt. Meru.
Indrayarman II (877-89) began the first great wave of Angkor construction – the Roulous temples located a few kilometers away from the walled Thom and the first stages of an intricate irrigation system based on barays or reservoirs which watered Khmer lands for centuries. Indrayarman dedicated Preah Ko and Bakong temples to Shiva and for the first time employed more durable sandstone in their construction as opposed to the previously used and less architecturally-sound brick.
With Preah Ko, the essential layout of Khmer design began to take shape. As stated, the temple had to resemble the mythical Mt. Meru. In the design, a central tier-based tower represented the mountain and at its summit four doors, representing each compass point, enclosed a sanctuary. As time passed, the designs became more ambitious and included grand causeways adorned with balustrades of mythical serpent creatures, called Nagas, entry towers and elaborate courtyards flanking the central tower.
The Golden Age of Khmer civilization crystalized with the reign of Suryavarman I (1002-49). History remembers him for two reasons: expanding Angkor to include central Thailand and southern Laos and the promotion of Buddhism whose sculptures began to grace some newer temples’ floors.
Rival factions sprouted in the following decades until Suryavarman the second further unified Cambodia and extended his rule to Malay and Myanmar. He built Angkor Wat, the ostentatious centerpiece of Khmer identity; but in breaking with tradition, the king dedicated it to Vishnu, the Hindu protector god.
Although Angkor Wat represented the apogee of Khmer civilization, signs emerged that decline lurked around the corner. For one, the hydraulic system started to strain under demographic pressures: overpopulation and deforestation began to literally suck the grounds dry. Also, in 1177, the Chams of southern Vietnam rebelled and sacked Angkor, burning their wooden buildings and plundering their treasures.
The last great king of Angkor, Jayavarman II (1181-1219), drove the Chams out of Cambodia and added the final pieces to the golden Khmer mosaic. Following the Cham devastation, he fortified his new city, Angkor Thom, with a massive, 12 meter-high wall and deep, 100 meter-wide moat ensuring that Khmers would never feel vulnerable to a surprise attack again. In the centre, stood Bayon, the magnificent state temple. Jayavarman II also organized the construction of other famous temples, including Ta Prohm and Banteay Chhmar. More controversially, Jayavarman adopted Buddhism as the state religion and dedicated himself to Avalokiteshvara, the Bodhisattva of Compassion.
From there, Khmer went into steady decline. A combination of internal squabbling and the expansion of the Siamese Ayuthaya Empire precipitated the fall. The Khmers eventually moved their capital to Phnom Penh, the temples largely left to the elements.
I don’t do hype. Travel writing is notorious for undue hyperbole. Yet when describing the experience of witnessing Angkor’s towers for the first time, no magical metaphor or apt adjective can do it justice. Walking down the sandstone causeway, past the ancient libraries and carved images of Vishnu, across the sacred pools, towards the central tower, the Hindu’s Mt. Meru, one cannot help sense approaching something divine. The construction of this site, however, was very much a human affair. It is said that it took 300 000 workers and 6000 elephants to complete Angkor Wat; the giant sandstones were mined from holy Phnom Kulen and were floated down the Siem Reap River.
Three storeys, enclosing a square, compose the central tower complex. Three towers rise from each storey, giving the structure a spiritual unity. Every inch of the fabled temple is covered with complex Hindu and Buddhist iconography. Whether playful nymphs, the Apsaras, cheeky devils, the Asuras, or multi-headed serpents, the Nagas, these wonderfully detailed carvings will make you wish you had brushed up on your Hindu mythology before arriving. Around the outside of the central temple, stretches an 800 meter long series of bas-reliefs. These etched panels detail epic events spanning everything from Hindu legends to Suryavarman II’s great armies.
In the morning, we stand in the rain, our flimsy one dollar umbrellas already broken, waiting for light to explode behind the towers. We take turns seeking refuge underneath trees, while more and more people file to the pond’s edge desperate for the most photogenic spots. And when the bright pink light methodically breaks through the heavy clouds and washes over the morning sky, igniting the towers as if they were sticks of dynamite, a hush falls over the crowd. Everything is dark and light. And we don’t care which way it settles.
Less grandiose, but equally spectacular, Bayon stands nearby. Bayon lacks the symmetry of Angkor Wat and from a distance its 54 Gothic-esque towers look like over-flowing rock ice-cream cones. The scene is much more chaotic and disorganized, more labyrinthine and disorienting. It is only when you enter its narrow corridors and climb its steep staircases does the typical Khmer lay-out unfold. At every turn, huge smiling faces, the compassionate Avalokiteshvara, stare and shadow you around. They permeate power and a megalomaniac will – chilling in their ubiquity, they appear to have been an ancient surveillance technique. Like Angkor Wat, bas-reliefs decorate Bayon’s walls, each telling another epoch of Angkorian history. The panels illustrating the Cham advance and retreat are particularly striking.
When I enter Ta Prohm, the atmospheric and shadowed temple swallowed by the ruthless jungle, I remember Siem Reap’s Christmas lights. Trees stalk and strangle the crumbling walls like a python tightening its grip, like an octopus’ tentacles smothering a crab. Massive roots slide and slither across the once grandiose corridors like a spider’s web stickily and silently enveloping space. Moss sucks at the sandstone. Dead leaves lie on piles of disused blocks. The jungle eats away. The forest reclaims its space. And as we step over the forest’s muscular, unrelenting clutch, we understand the natural order of things: of rising and of falling, of the impermanence of now and of the inevitability of darkness.
Angkor preaches the only historic truth: Things Will Fall Apart.
This is the only temple in Cambodia made by women. It was built in the tenth century, dedicated to the god Shiva. It stands near the Phnom Dei hill, northeast of the rest of the temples of Angkor Wat, and was discovered by French archaeologists in 1914. It really is one of the jewels of the Khmer period, constructed in easily carved sandstone and decorated with floral detials, reliefs, and sculptures of Hindu deities. Apparently it was built by a Brahman, a priest from a high caste. It is so delicate that it seems more like a jewelry box than a temple. The cordon of the gateway and its beams are spectacular, changing tones from reddish to pinkish. You follow a staircase into an inner platform in the temple, where you're welcomed by an image of the goddess Indra with her three-headed elephant. The reliefs narrate scenes from Hindu mythology, and the central shrine is dedicated to Shiva.
The Bayon temple is in the center of Angkor Thom. The King Jayavarman VII had it built during the XII and XIII centuries. More than 200 faces are carved in 54 towers. The large number 54 represents the 54 provinces of Cambodia that existed in those days. Some say the four sides of the towers represent Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara (future Buddha). But in general it's believed that the four sides of each tower are images of King Jayavarman VII and signifies the omnipresence of the king. Angkor Thom, or the big city was the capital. It's the ideal place to stop and think, to see and listen. There the pyramid shaped temple, Bayon, rose in the center as the temple of the state, and representation of Meru, the mountain of the gods and center of the universe. Out of the four gates of Angkor Thom the South Gate is the most well preserved. It's door is flanked by statues on both sides and leads to the tower door with four faces.
It is precisely that, a 300 meter terrace extending from the Baphuon Temple to the Terrace of the Leper King. The main person who used this terrace was the king, because of the scenery, he could follow the military marches of his generals and soldiers after their victories in a battle. This terrace has 3 levels with well preserved reliefs. The main part of the terrace is the facade where you can see the heads of elephants with their trunks ending in a lotus flower. As Michelangelo said perfectly, it's a clear zone when the sun is beating down.
We went to see the temple, with the peculiarity that the rains had just finished and we almost could not even pass by because the street was submerged in the water, which forced us to see the area from a different perspective from the entrance. We had to walk several feet above the walkway that goes over the water, being able to observe a strange landscape with trees coming out of the water.
The city is huge and one never ceases to imagine what it was like when it stood at its peak, proud and dominating the forest roads. Gigantic doors lead us to the next wonderful place. This time the surprise was Ta Keo. According to the guide, once finished, the temple became the most elegant and impressive of the entire complex. It has height of 22 meters which gives it a feeling of power and strength. It has 5 towers, all semi-destroyed and with ample room for the pilgrims ve came to worship the Brahma. The feeling of peace is noticeable among the structure.
There were quite a few things that attracted me to this temple. First, its atmosphere is very peaceful, further away from the tourist circuit than the other temples. Secondly, its structure is unique, surrounded by a moat filled with water. This moat enhances the feeling of isolation, and works aesthetically to produce a stunning mirror effect. Once inside, we found the main sanctuary, with four wings surrounded by libraries. The access bridges were made of stone, flanked by nagas and lions, and covered by wooden roofs.
Beng Mealea is a temple which is 60km from Siem Reap. It belongs to the larger temple complex of Angkor, but it's far less popular with tourists, making it perfect for those who dream of adventure. Until recently, it was dangerous to visit, with landmines found a few hundred metres from its perimeter. However, as elsewhere in Cambodia, a Germany company has cleared the area to a 1km radius. However, nothing has been done about the snakes that infest the site, so walking among the stones is a risk. We were lucky enough not to see any of them, but apparently there are are plenty living here.
To enter the temple, you are advised to stay on the wooden walkways, and the local boys (who will work for you as a guide in exchange for a couple of dollars) are very careful in that regard. Nearby, you'll find the floating forest, with floating villages that will show you a fascinating glimpse into the traditional Cambodian way of life. The people here are friendly but very poor, and with a hint of sadness in their eyes, which is not strange if you know something about the past and present of this country.
Although it looks newer than the others, Prasat Kravan is as old as the other temples in the site. It was built by the high officials of the Empire, and has one of the few remaining examples of brick sculptures on its walls. The representations of Vishnu and Lakshmi are truly amazing.
The eastern gate of Angkor Wat is located opposite the Naga Bridge Temple. This gate used to be the servants' entrance long ago, and it's not well-known: not many people make it to this point, and most who do just turn back and return the way they came. The view from outside is almost the same as the view from the front entrance, but it has the advantage of almost always being empty, making it a great spot for photos. There's a door leading to the gardens, and three doors leading outside the main temple, decorated with nagas on the sides. It's like being in a fairy tale, and I recommend that you don't miss it - it's much quieter than the main entrance, but just as beautiful.