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Angkor Wat: Exploring the Ruins of the Khmer Empire

The temples of Angkor, built by the Khmer civilization between 802 and 1220 AD, represent one of humankind’s most astonishing and enduring architectural achievements. From Angkor the Khmer kings ruled over a vast domain that reached from Vietnam to China to the Bay of Bengal. The structures one sees at Angkor today, more than 100 stone temples in all, are the surviving remains of a grand religious, social and administrative metropolis whose other buildings – palaces, public buildings, and houses – were built of wood and are long since decayed and gone.          

We travelled to Angkor Wat April 14-16, 2010, as part of our visit to Siem Reap, Cambodia. We both agree that Angkor Wat was the most impressive place we visited in our travels through Asia.          

The south gate Angkor Thom

During half-millennia of Khmer occupation, the city of Angkor became a pilgrimage destination of importance throughout Southeastern Asia. Sacked by the Thais in 1431 and abandoned in 1432, Angkor was forgotten for a few centuries. Wandering Buddhist monks, passing through the dense jungles, occasionally came upon the awesome ruins. Recognizing the sacred nature of the temples but ignorant of their origins, they invented fables about the mysterious sanctuaries, saying they had been built by the gods in a far ancient time. Centuries passed, these fables became legends, and pilgrims from the distant reaches of Asia sought out the mystic city of the gods. A few adventurous European travelers knew of the ruins and stories circulated in antiquarian circles of a strange city lost in the jungles. Most people believed the stories to be nothing more than legend however, until the French explorer Henri Mouhot brought Angkor to the world’s attention in 1860. The French people were enchanted with the ancient city and beginning in 1908 funded and superbly managed an extensive restoration project. The restoration has continued to the present day, excepting periods in the 70′s and 80′s when military fighting prevented archaeologists from living near the ruins.          

We began our visit in Angkor Thom, the last and most enduring capital city of the Khmer empire. Angkor Thom was built as a square, the sides of which run exactly north to south and east to west. Standing in the exact center of the walled city is the Bayon (below), representing the intersection of heaven and earth.  The Bayon is known for its huge stone faces of the bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara, with one facing outward and keeping watch at each compass point (below-top). The curious smiling image (below-bottom), thought by many to be a portrait of Jayavarman himself, has been dubbed by some the “Mona Lisa of Southeast Asia.” There are 51 smaller towers surrounding Bayon, each with four faces of its own.          

The Bayon - the intersection of heaven and earth

Near the Bayon are the ruins of the Royal Palace and the huge platform known today as the Elephant Terrace. The Elephant Terrace runs from north to south, across the east front of the Royal Palace, for a distance of about 1,000 feet. The main wall of the platform is carved with elephants and garudas (a large mythical bird or bird-like creature that appears in both Hindu and Buddhist mythology).  the Elephant Terrace served as the base of the king’s audience pavilions. Below on the right-hand side, I’m set between some elephant trunks along the Elephant Terrace. Below on the left-hand side, Laura climbs up to one of the four elephants on East Mebon Wat that guard the cardinal directions.          

The Elephant Terrace (left) and elephant of East Mebon

 Hell hath no fury like Angkor Wat in April, the middle of Cambodia’s hottest season.  During our stay, the average temperature was 41° C elsius (106° Farhenheit). Below is a view from the top of the Elephant Terrace looking out over Angkor Thom.  If you look under the tree to the left (foreground) and the tree to right (background), you’ll note the cars and tuk tuks keeping relatively cool.          

Angkor is hot!

From the Elephant Terrace, we went to Thommanon (below). Thommanon is a small yet elegant Angkor temple. From studying the carvings of the devatas in Thommanon, scholars have concluded that it was built around the time when work on Angkor Wat was begun. The style and experience in Thommanon allowed the architects to create the more elaborate and complex Angkor Wat.       

Laura rests a bit at Thommanon

 Next we visited Chau Say Tevoda (below), a small temple of similar design and floor plan to that of Thommanon, across from which it stands.      

Laura talks her way past the bouncers at Chau Say Tevoda

Also nearby is Ta Keo.  Architecturally, Ta Keo is a temple-mountain, symbolizing Mt. Meru, with five towers in quincunx. It is the first Angkor temple to be built mostly of sandstone, and the first to work up its inner enclosure into the form of a continuous gallery.  The temples of Angkor are highly symbolic structures. The foremost Hindu concept is the temple-mountain, where the temple is built as a representation of the mythical Mount Meru: this is why so many temples, including Angkor Wat itself, are surrounded by moats, built in a mountain-like pyramidal shape and topped by precisely five towers, representing the five peaks of Mount Meru.        

In front of Takeo

The top of Takeo is quite a steep climb, a feature common of all Angkor’s temple-mountains. The steep, narrow and high steps are exhausting on the way up (below-left) and downright harrowing on the way down (below-right).       

Climbing Ta Keo

The most famous and impressive of the temples is the grand Angkor Wat (below). Angkor Wat, built during the early years of the 12th century by Suryavaram II, honors the Hindu god Vishnu and is a symbolic representation of Hindu cosmology.             

Angkor Wat at dusk reflecting in the moat

Consisting of an enormous temple symbolizing the mythic Mt. Meru, its five inter-nested rectangular walls and moats represent chains of mountains and the cosmic ocean.  Angkor Wat was built by King Suryavarman II as his state temple and capital city. Unlike most Khmer temples, Angkor Wat is oriented to the west rather than the east. This has led many (including Glaize and George Coedès) to conclude that Suryavarman intended it to serve as his funerary temple.     

We started the morning of our second day (April 15, 2010) at Banteay Samre.  Built under Suryavarman II and Yasovarman II in the early 12th century, Banteay Samre is a Hindu temple in the Angkor Wat style. The temple is named after the Samré, an ancient people of Indochina.  However, there is a legend connecting the naming of this monument with a farmer who mistakenly killed the king then ascended the throne.   Banteay Samre is relatively isolated, allowing us to enjoy a quite and secluded morning together in an enthereal setting.  Below, you can see how the sun moving across the morning sky awakens the colors of the stone from one side to the other of the central courtyard.      

Morning light at Banteay Samre

 After our meditative visit to Banteay Samre, we arrived at the maginficent Ta Prohm. Unlike other temples at Angkor, Ta Prohm (below) has been left as it was found, preserved as an example of what a tropical forest will do to an architectural monument when the protective hands of humans are withdrawn.   

Entering Ta Prohm

 Built in the later part of the 12th century by Jayavarman VII, Ta Prohm has been left in the stranglehold of trees.  

Ta Prohm has been left in the stranglehold of trees

Having planted themselves centuries ago, the tree’s serpentine roots pry apart the ancient stones and their immense trunks straddle the once bustling Buddhist temple.  

The serpentine roots pry apart the ancient stones of Ta Prohm

After the fall of the Khmer empire in the 15th century, the temple of Ta Prohm was abandoned and neglected for centuries. When the effort to conserve and restore the temples of Angkor began in the early 20th century, the École française d’Extrême-Orient decided that Ta Prohm would be left largely as it had been found, as a “concession to the general taste for the picturesque.”    

Laura beneath one of the immense trunks that straddle Ta Prohm

Banteay Kdei is located south of  Ta Prohm. It was built in middle of the 12th century to the beginning of the 13th century by king Jayavarman II. Like Ta Prohm, Banteay Kdei has not been restored and allows the visitor to experience what it may have looked like originally. Changes and additions account create an unbalanced layout of ruin and confusion. Many of the temples galleries and porches have collapsed, further adding to the quiet chaos.   

Banteay Kdei

Like nearby Ta Prohm and Bateay Kdei Preah Khan has been left largely unrestored, with numerous trees and other vegetation growing among the ruins. The temple is flat in design, with a basic plan of successive rectangular galleries around a Buddhist sanctuary complicated by Hindu satellite temples and numerous later additions.  

The ruins of Preah Khan

Preah Khan was built on the site of Jayavarman VII’s victory over the invading Chams (from present-day Vietnam) in 1191. The modern name, meaning “holy sword”, is derived from the meaning of the original — Nagara Jayasri (holy city of victory).     

A giant tree growing out of Preah Khan

For sunset we hiked up to Phnom Bakheng. Phnom Bakheng is a temple built on a hill of the same name, where the first city at Angkor was established. This gives its state temple on Phnom Bakheng special significance. It was to here that Yasovarman I moved his capital from Roluos. His capital city, called Yasodharapura, was larger than Angkor Thom, which came later. “Phnom” means “hill” in the Khmer language. Climbing the hill after a day walking around the monuments in the unforgiving Cambodian heat can be a challenge, but the view from the top just before sunset is a rewarding sight. You see the sun go down over the western Baray while the five towers of Angkor Wat slowly disappear in the jungle to the east.  Below are photo of our hike up to Phnom Bakheng: Laura offers her water to a thirsty elephant carrying some lazy tourists up the hill (top), the view from the top with the towers of Angkor Wat in the background (middle), and a crowd gathering for the sunset (bottom).       

Sunset hike to Phenom Bakheng

On our final day (April 16, 2010) we explored Angkor Wat separately − Laura took a tour in order to gain more knowledge about the history and architectural symbolism around the temples, while I ventured to some of the lesser visited wats.  One wat I sought out was Ta Nei, an ancient Angkor ruin located deep in the jungle.   There is much to remind you of Ta Prohm here, albeit on a lesser scale, with moss and tentacle-like roots covering many outer areas of this small temple. It is a little hide-away is one of the temples left untouched by the tourists.  

Ta Nei is in the middle of nowhere

I also visited Prasat Ta Som.  Prasat Ta Som was built in the end of the 12th century and dedicated to the father of the king (Buddhist). It replicates the Bayon style of art. Ta Som is a small, quiet and unrestored temple.  One of the significant features of Ta Som is the growth of a fig tree at the face of the west tower (below).        

The fig tree at Prasat Ta Som's west tower

In touring any part of Angkor Wat you cannot help but be approached by courteous children selling shoddy souvenirs.  Welcoming you to Cambodia and impressing you with rote quiz-knowledge about any place you claim to be from, these gentle children are an inescapable reminder of the decades-long wars’ aftereffects – that this reminder is juxtaposed against the ruins of the same peoples’ once-majestic civilization provides for some emotional imagery. 

The kids of Cambodia

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