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The Temples of Angkor

Sunrise at Angkor Wat

Between the 9th and 13th centuries AD, a powerful empire ruled most of Southeast Asia. Stretching across modern-day Laos, Thailand, Vietnam, Myanmar, and Malaysia, their capital was located at Angkor and it was here where they built their legacy. The most famous landmark they left behind was Angkor Wat, built for king Suryavarman II in the early 12th century as his state temple and capital city. But this was only one of dozens of temples that were built in the area during the empire’s dominance.

The Khmer people were mainly rice farmers using vast areas to grow their crops. Large water management systems were created to capture, store and dispense water to help irrigate the fields. The capital area of Angkor covered nearly 3000km2 and contained the main settlement site for the empire, with over 1 million people residing in the area during its height. It was through the reign of the various Khmer kings that temples and water works were constructed, all to showcase their art, culture, and economic power.

Throughout the three centuries of Khmer power, close to fifteen kings ruled the empire. Each of these kings oversaw the building of at least one temple, with the major ones (Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom, and Ta Prohm) being built between the 12th and 13th centuries. Religion played a large part in the construction and architecture of the temples, with Hinduism dominating until the mid to late 12th century when Buddhism took over.

The Angkor area lies about 5 km north of modern-day Siem Reap, located in the northwest part of the country. It’s Cambodia’s tourist hub and base camp for those visiting the temples. The city itself has been steadily growing to accommodate the increasing number of tourists, with 4 and 5 star hotels getting in on the action. While Angkor Wat is the largest and best-preserved temple, it makes up only one of dozens of temples to explore in the area.

After taking a day to plan out our itinerary, we decided to purchase a three-day pass to the grounds ($40 each) to allow us the time to visit as much as we could, without having to rush through the temples. We planned out our itinerary in such a way so that we were building up to the “big guns” by day three.

Carvings from Preah Khan temple.

Exploring the temples was everything we had hoped and imagined it would be. We were constantly in awe of the magnitude and scale of the temples, the intricate details of wall reliefs, and the spiritual vibe that radiated throughout the ruins. To think about how they would have looked during their time and the amount of people who would have called the surrounding areas home was astounding. These were once full-fledged functional cities. And what remains of these temples are really only their skeletons. The temples would have included many other elements constructed in wood and other materials that just didn’t survive the centuries.

What makes the temples of Angkor so interesting is the differences in architecture between them. Those that were built around the same time and by the same king did in fact show some similarities, but each temple had it’s own unique style and character.

Nature finding it's way through the rock.

It’s striking how much of the temples have managed to withstand the test of time (Angkor Wat being the most remarkable). But quite a number of them have been losing their battle with nature over the years, mainly due to the poor materials originally used to construct them. However, those temples, Ta Prohm, Ta Som and Banteay Kdei, offer some of the most stunning encounters. It’s like your own Indiana Jones adventure walking through the ruins, climbing over fallen rocks, and staring straight up into the sky at a massive tree growing right out of the temple. Ta Prohm was most memorable with the roots growing in and around the ruins, seamlessly becoming a part of the architecture. It’s no wonder Hollywood came calling when they shot some scenes for Angelina Jolie’s Tomb Raider back in 2001.

A tree grows right out of the roof in Ta Prohm.

On our second day, we woke up very early to watch the sun rise behind Angkor Wat. We arrived in total darkness, requiring a flashlight to show us the way and staked out a spot by the water’s edge. As the sky slowly brightened, changing from dark blue to light blue with streaks of pink and red, it revealed this massive silhouetted temple before us. It was breathtaking to say the least. You could clearly make out the jagged edges of the lotus-like towers that rise 65 metres from ground level. Seeing Angkor Wat was what we were both looking forward to most on this trip, and it more than lived up to our expectations.

Angkor Wat is the world’s largest religious building, with its architecture putting it on par with such iconic sites as The Great Pyramids of Giza and the Taj Mahal. It has become the national symbol of Cambodia, appearing on the country’s flag. Angkor Wat follows the standard design of the empire’s state temples, though there’s a bit of debate about it’s original intent. Since the temple is oriented west, and not east like most Khmer temples, many have speculated that Angkor Wat was originally built as king Suryavarman II’s funerary temple.

One of the carved faces at Bayon.

After Angkor Wat, the next most remarkable site in the Angkor area is Bayon, the state temple for king JayavarmanVII’s. The temple is comprised of thirty-seven towers, each carved with four giant stone faces, the iconic image of Khmer art. The towers are not in the best condition, but the faces are unmistakable. On the lower-level exterior walls were some of the best bas-relief scenes we saw, depicting stories of epic sea battles and everyday life.

Bas-relief carvings at Bayon depicting historical battles.

Three days was the perfect amount of time to explore the area. In total we visited over twenty temples and gave ourselves a rest day between the second and third day. We didn’t join a tour group or use a tour guide, but instead read up on each of the temples we visited and discovered them at our own pace. We hired a tuk-tuk driver to transport us around to the different temples, as many of them are kilometers apart, though we did see some very ambitious people cycling from site to site.

The temples at Angkor are truly spectacular. They allow us the opportunity to learn and understand more deeply the significance of the area and the history of the Khmer empire.  They may have started out as simple rice farmers, but what they accomplished and set in stone continues to impact the lives of people from all around the world, many centuries later.

Be sure to check back everyday this week for more on the Temples of Angkor, including photos, a video, and tips for when you make your own visit to Angkor.

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