During a century in which the barbaric Viking tribes were expanding across and conquering Europe, many Asian cultures had evolved into a much more civil society. The Chinese invented gunpowder and the smaller and lesser known Khmer people of Southeast Asia designed and constructed the largest city in the world: Angkor.
Angkor is the earthly representation of the heavenly Mt Meru, essentially the Mt Olympus of the Hindu religion, where the pantheon of gods lived. The city is the perfect fusion of faith and craftsmanship. The Khmer Empire (pronounced ‘K-mare’) spans more than 600 years between the 9th and 15th centuries. And today, visitors from all over the world can witness the majesty of their civilization in the many temples and ruins of this once great people.
The word Angkor itself, derived from the Sanskrit language of India, means ‘Holy City’. Before the Khmer independence was declared by King Jayavarman II, most of the region was under the control of Java – an force from the islands of Indonesia to the south. But the king established Angkor at the northern tip of Tonle Sap Lake for it’s strategic advantages (it was an area very well fortified by waterways, jungles, and mountains – very hard to attack).
However, after a few hundred years, the capital of the Kampuchians (another word for Cambodians) fell into decline and was relocated south to its present day location of Phnom Penh after being attacked and looted by the Ayutthaya Kingdom – aka Siam. The Siamese population had been growing and expanding, threatening the sovereignty of the Khmer Empire and the splendor of Angkor.
The city was lost for hundreds of years, victim to the perils of the jungle, only to be rediscovered by French explorers and archaeologists, particularly Henri Mouhot, in the late 19th century. Since then, the ruins and temples have been open for hundreds of thousands of tourists to discover the ancient Khmer magic for themselves.
The wonder of Angkor Wat is matched a few places across the entire surface of the globe; only sites like Macchu Picchu in South America or Petra in the Middle East can compare. As mentioned earlier, the name translates to, “Heaven on Earth,” and it is the only temple within the entire Angkor complex continuously operated while the others, one by one, have fallen into ruin.
Most ancient temples, across cultures and continents (from Egypt to Tokyo) are oriented east, toward the rising sun. Not so with Angkor Wat which is oriented to the west, the direction typically associated with death. This has led many scholars to believe the temple’s original purpose was that of a kingly tomb.
Angkor Wat is surrounded by a 190 meter wide moat, a giant rectangle over a kilometer in each direction that, throughout history, protected the people from unwanted visitors. According to the inscriptions (also known as Bas-Reliefs), the construction took over 300,000 workers and over 6,000 elephants and was never officially completed. That would’ve been a lot of Porta-Potties.
Angkor Thom & Bayon Temple
Angkor Thom is significantly larger than Ankor Wat at over 10 square kilometers. At the height of the Khmer Empire, Angkor Thom may have supported a population upwards of one million. One of the most interesting things about Angkor is the meshing of religious influences of the region. There are three major motifs: Hindu (from the west), Buddhist (from the north), and the Lingam (phallus worship of the indigenous people in that region).
Along the many walls, one will find symbolic depictions of spiritual events carved into the stone. Many have names like ‘Churning of the Ocean of Milk’, ‘Krishna and the Demon-king’, and ‘Heaven and Hell’. But without a doubt the most impressive, and haunting, structure within the gates of Thom is the temple of Bayon.
When I approached Bayon, I had a feeling someone was watching me…
The 54 gothic-style towers are decorated by over 200 eerily smiling faces that glare down from every angle. I was eerily reminded of the Mona Lisa; the expressions on the faces could be happy but it’s more than that. The mysterious faces, which bear a resemblance to the king who constructing them, felt to me like they are all hiding something, something sinister or ulterior (maybe a secret buried treasure)! No matter what, don’t trust the faces of Bayon.
This spot was my favorite in all of Cambodia and is the ‘most atmospheric ruins‘ according to Lonely Planet. I whole-heartily agree and while I was trekking through the darkened tunnels and over the towering piles of rubble, John Williams’ Indiana Jones score blasted in my headphones, adding a soundtrack to that atmosphere (are any of you really surprised?).
Ta Prohm has literally been swallowed by the jungle and between the tangles of tree roots and angles the sunlight bends through the ruins, it feels other-worldly. Truly the construction of all these temples is a testament to the genius of the Khmer kings of old. The many courtyards, towers, and corridors of Ta Prohm were built in 1186 to be used as a monastery for the king. During its use, almost 80,000 people were required to maintain the temple grounds including over 600 dancers and concubines.
The most iconic spot in all of Angkor is the Crocodile Tree, located at the entrance to the central enclosure. This is the spot where Lara Croft (played by Angelina Jolie in Tomb Raider) picked a flower before plummeting deep into the catacombs of the temple. The trees all around Ta Prohm are called Thitpok. There are other species as well (the tree in the photo above is nicknamed the “spider tree”) but these are the most prominent.
I did a great deal of exploration in and around Ta Prohm, Angkor Thom, and Angkor Wat on Christmas Day. However, I was instructed by my guide to stay within the walls and on the designated paths for tourists. Why? The Khmer Rouge civil war from the 1970s left thousands of land mines scattered throughout the jungle, remnants of the horrors that took place in this beautiful country. Good thing I didn’t have to search for a private spot to relieve myself. I might have returned home with one or two less appendages!
While Angkor has strove to be heavenly, there is another side of the proverbial coin: the darker side of Cambodia. A descent into Hell equally terrifying and fascinating at the same time.
Until Next Time…
(If you’d like to see more photos of Angkor, please click here).