Click here to visit the Cambodia chronology page and read about the history of the Angkor region.
As impressive as are the temples of Angkor, it was the whole complex of 72 major monuments and the irrigation system that made it one of the architectural wonders of the world. Yet only when Bernard Groslier made aerial surveys after World War II was its full extent rediscovered. As it expanded from about AD 9000, the kings built temples to glorify their lives and assure their apotheoses. As temples were added, so too were canals with dikes, moats and reservoirs called barays. The hydraulic system was used for transportation and, most important, for rice cultivation to support a surrounding population of about one million. Temples were made of brick or stone, materials reserved for the gods. Even the kings' palaces were wooden and none survive. The countryside was planted in rice and other grains, and trees were cultivated for fruit. Groslier notes that the Khmer had an integrated concept of the universe. "In Angkor this was reflected by a harmonious combination of a powerful political organization, a strong, centralized and uniform society and fabulous technical organization for rice cultivation - and over these elements was an artistic genius and deep religious belief."
Don't make the mistake of taking the ferry from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap/Angkor - it's one of the few remaining danger spots in Cambodia - fishermen armed with AK47s like to do target practice on the passing ferries. Trains are to be avoided, too - several western tourists were murdered fairly recently when they tried to travel through Cambodia by train. Do as we did then, and fly from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap. We stayed at the Nokor Kok Thom hotel in Siem Reap - one of the most popular but poor value (US$95 a night for "Motel 6" type quality). We checked out some cheaper hotels at US$35 a night but each one had problems (overbooked, noisy, smelly...) The Angkor Village looked nice but at US$35 a night it books up months in advance. The 2 bedroom villas of the Grand Hotel of Angkor looked nice, too, but at US$2300 per night (no misprint!) they were a little outside our budget...
As we made the 15 minute drive from Seam Reap town where the hotels are located to the Angkor area we passed this sign - it shows a tree spirit imploring the logger to spare its life. "Without trees, there will be no wood for your children's house, no wood for your coffin."
The Roluos group is 17km east of Siem Reap - there are several temples there but even the best one was of little interest to us - the sculptures and bas-reliefs were severely deteriorated by the centuries and by looting (a major problem at Angkor).
Constructed on a natural hill. It was the first temple at Angkor. Its builder, Yasarvarman I, also diverted the Siem Reap river to fill the East Baray, the first irrigation project. This temple is a magnet for tourists every afternoon for it has fine views of the surrounding landscape, particularly at sunset.
'The coiled serpents". Built as an island. The small square basins at each side are connected by gargoyles which discharge into small sanctuaries in a form which replicates the sacred lake of Anavatapta in the Himalayas, venerated for its power of healing.
"The citadel of the women". The special charm of this small temple lies in its remarkable state of preservation, small size and excellence of decoration. This temple is a jewel of Khmer art. Bantei Srei is located about 35 km away from the main group of temples and wasn't discovered until later, which accounts for the good condition of the place. This is the favorite temple for many visitors now, but for many years it wasn't safe to come here. An American tourist found this out in 1995. She was accompanied by armed guards but her guards ran away when the Khmer Rouge appeared - her corpse was found the next day.
There are dozens of apsaras (sacred dancers) here, much more varied and attractive here than elsewhere, as well as complex bas reliefs telling various Hindu stories. This particular image shows a devata rather than an apsara (apsaras are never portrayed looking down).
This is just one corner of a dozen panels that tell Hindu stories. This panel (most of which is not visible here) shows Indra attempting to put out a fire in the Khadava forest by sending rain but Krishna's arrows prevent the rain from reaching the ground.
"The Ancestor Keo or the tower of crystal glass". It was the first major temple made of sandstone, with each of its five towers laid out in a cruciform pattern. Dedicated to the Hindu god Siva, it was the most massive temple of its period.
"The Aerial Palace". A single pyramid of laterite was legendary as the site where, to protect the empire, the Khmer king had nightly union with the serpent goddess in the form of a beautiful woman. If the king missed even one night it was believed he would die. In this way the royal lineage of the Khmers was perpetuated.
"The City which is a Temple" is the largest religious structure in the world. Not only the biggest but also the finest and best preserved of the Angkor temples, it is a physical representation of Hindu cosmology. The five central towers represent the peaks of Mount Meru, the home of the gods and thus the Hindu equivalent of Olympus. The outer wall represents the mountains at the edge of the world, and the moat, the oceans beyond. Building this temple probably required 5000 workers with 50 000 more supporting them.
Buddhist monks are a common sight at Angkor and indeed many monks live in the area - we visited a village inhabited largely by monks just north of Phimeanakas in Angkor Thom, the walled city.
Another Buddhist monk looks out from the temple. The stone columns, turned to look like they are made of wood, are a characteristic of Angkor.
Angkor Wat features a gallery with hundreds of meters of fine bas-relief carvings representing various Hindu legends. And more than 20 000 apsaras like these adorn the temple - it's easy to overdose when exposed to so many of them so don't plan to spend more than four or five days exploring Angkor unless you're really into Hindu mythology.
One of the most famous temples of Angkor, Ta Prohm's claim to fame is that is it is the only temple that has been left as it was found by French explorers early in this century. Huge fig trees like this one have invaded the temple and are hastening its deterioration - when this tree dies it will no longer hold together the stones that it has displaced and they will join the hundreds of others than lie strewn across the ground.
This little girl was rather angry with me - I had run out of dollar bills and her appeals for money went unheeded. There are dozens of beggars in each of the most popular temples - many missing arms or legs - but they are less aggressive than in many of the countries we have visited (parts of Bali were the worst). Here in Angkor, they will ask for money a couple of times but if you refuse they will not pester you or follow you. It's always difficult to know how much to give - it's obvious that by giving money you are making these people more dependent on charity and it's also obvious that tourists following you are more likely to be bothered.
"The Royal Bath". A chapel to Kama, God of Love. The spot would suit the temper of the strange power, terribly strong and yet terribly tender, of that passion which carries away kingdoms, empires, whole worlds, and inhabits also the humblest dwellings...
Phra Khan is not visited by many tourists and this is one reason why it was one of our favorite temples. It's larger than many, with some endless corridors, and an American organization seems to have taken charge of its restoration. It must be said that this temple has been particularly badly damaged over the centuries - especially by Moslems offended by the large number of linga (phallic symbols) in this temple.
This apsara caught my attention as the sunlight bouncing off the floor gave an unusual lighting effect.
"The ancestor Som". Typical of the later period of the Bayon style with three enclosures. The various buildings which still stand are in an advanced state of ruin. When a tree dies, the dislodged, unsupported stones fall. Many were looted long ago, probably for their magical powers. This temple is small and not overrun by tourists we liked the tranquility and also came across an overgrown tower behind the main temple with the characteristic four large Buddha heads. Very pretty in the late afternoon sun.
The apsara at right caught my attention for her remarkable beauty and good state of preservation.
One of the entrances to the Great City. Undeniably an expression of the highest genius, it carries symbols of the two related faiths, Buddhist and Hindu. Just as JavararmanVII's faith, Buddhism, had been tolerated for centuries when Hinduism was the state religion, so was the reverse true. As the kings stopped worshipping Hindu gods, Buddhism became the sole faith. In time, the Khmer people came to view much of Angkor as both pagan and alien.
At the center of the last city of Angkor and perhaps a microcosm of the kingdom with representations of all the major divinities- Buddhist to the south and east and Hindu to the north and west. With bas-reliefs of commoners as well as gods, it is disintegrating because of poor construction.
Nowhere in the world other than Angkor has towers with Buddha faces like this facing in all four directions. The Bayon has dozens of them.
The Royal Plaza is a long raised platform overlooking a vast open space where the populace could gather to listen to their king or witness processions of the armies, complete with elephants.
The south end of the platform is called the Elephant Terrace and carries many elephant sculptures, the north end is the Terrace of the Leper King and carries a sculpture of a naked king who may have had leprosy. We found these bas-reliefs sandwiched between the inner and outer walls surrounding the Terrace of the Leper King - this narrow space had been filled for centuries so the bas-reliefs were only recently discovered and are in good condition.