Thursday, 1 July 2010

The Temples at Angkor, Cambodia

The antediluvian temple city in Angkor, near Siem Reap in Cambodia, is conceivably the most awe-inspiring of the historical world's masterpieces. No single historical curiosity I have seen when travelling has filled me with such wonderment, sparked such curiosity and fulfilled so much promise as this 1,000 year old metropolis. Probably best known for the principle temple, Angkor Wat, it would be disingenuous to dismiss this ancient site as simply Angkor Wat alone. It is infinitely more than that. So often, celebrated monuments are spoken of with reverence and excitement and, when actually viewed, in reality, tend to be something of a disappointment. Not so Angkor. Interestingly, the word Angkor derives from Sanskrit and means "city".

To place it in its historical context, the Angkorian period began, according to most historians, shortly after 800 A.D., when the Khmer King Jayavarman II declared the independence of Kambujadesa (Cambodia) from Java and established his capital of Hariharalaya (known today as Roluos) at the northern end of Tonle Sap. Tonle Sap is translated most often as "Great Lake" and is of huge significance to Cambodia. In the dry season it is 1m deep and covers an area of 2,700 square km. In the monsoon season this increases to a depth of c.9m and an area of around 16,000 square km. Jayavarman II, calling him self devaraja ("God-King"), changed the denomination of Angkor at the time, worshipping Shiva, which affected much of the building to come. This would change in the 12th Century AD when Jayavarman VII adopted buddhism. The temple most commonly associated with him is Ta Prohm - the most beguiling of all the Angkor constructions. The seat of the Khmer Empire ended in 1431 when the Ayutthayan invasion forced the Khmer south to Phnom Penh.

All that said, below, you will see, my inexorable, perpetual curse has struck again - each and every ancient monument I visit is inevitably garbed in scaffolding. It's really alarming how often this happens to me...

We cycled, having received free bikes from our hostel, to Angkor from Siem Reap. In the 35C heat, it seemed at once a dubious decision, but it enabled us to navigate the epic site at our own pace. The main entrance gates to Angkor are some way from the site itself, which is a relief as the commercialised entrance does not therefore detract from the majesty of the area. Visitors pass through these gates, which put me in mind of the Dartford Tunnel Toll booths (Kent, England - neither ancient nor wonderful) in size and layout, and then make their own way, through a throng of banshee hawkers, to the trail leading to Angkor itself. Tickets can be had for several days and I commend the 3-day pass in case you want to return the next day or two (I suggest, respectfully, you will). They even take your photo which is then imprinted onto your ticket! Purchase a guide book from native sellers to try and support the local economy and take your time as you peruse the site, absorbing the historical perspective the guidebook gives you. You need to understand the history to comprehend what you are seeing and time spent now is worth it later. 

The approach to the site is stupefying as you circumnavigate the leviathan 190m-wide moat encircling Angkor Wat and the site fairly creeps up on you as a consequence - you slowly catch stunned glimpses of Angkor Wat through the foliage as you travel the dusty road. To give you a sense of the scale of Angkor Wat, the outer wall stands sentinel over an area 1024m by 802m. Eventually, you will reach one of the main entrances to the site proper, along with dozens of tuk-tuks and hundreds of other people. My philosophy of starting early, especially in the dusty Cambodian heat, is well-founded. Dress in light, loose-fitting clothing and take water with you if possible, although the opportunity to purchase all manner of things from merchant stalls is omnipresent, as it is across Asia.

We avoided most of the crowds by climbing up to the walls encircling parts of the ancient city, particularly the immensely popular Angkor Thom, which can be seen to the left in the photograph, dragging our bikes with us and cycling along those. They are wide and easy to traverse by bike and we were rewarded with inspiring views of the West Baray lake and jungle for little effort as well as access to parts of the site infrequently visited, but supremely diverting. Small monuments and temples, like Prasat Chrung below, completely free of tourists, were ours alone and we were able to spend time closely inspecting the walls and stonework for intriguing religious and cultural markings, ducking in and out like gleeful children.

We came down off the walls, and cycled through the jungle towards Angkor Thom. We stowed our bikes against a wooden fence, dimly aware that they might not be there when we got back, and ambled over to the Bayon temple, which stands in the centre of Angkor Thom and was built by Jayavarman VII in the 12th Century. We clambered over the muscular stone edifices, carefully inspecting the bas-reliefs and carvings within the stone, examining the imagery & symbology, thoroughly absorbed, and referring spasmodically back to our newly acquired Angkor guidebook. As you approach Bayon, what slowly but inexorably draws your attention are the carved faces in the rockface. I take much delight in carvings such as these, and the symbology in every nook and cranny, attempting, usually unsuccessfully, to interpret their meaning. Eventually, my ever-practical partner dragged me onto the next temple site, the 350m long Elephant Terrace, with its elephant iconography, abutted by the Terrace of the Leper King and leading to the astounding Phimeanakas.

UNESCO protects Angkor as one of the most important archaeological sites in South-East Asia. Stretching over some 400 square km, including jungle, the UN recognises that Angkor contains the magnificent remains of the different capitals of the Khmer Empire, from the 9th to the 15th centuries AD. In 2007, an international team of researchers using satellite photography and computer analysis concluded that Angkor had been the largest preindustrial city in the world, with an elaborate infrastructure connecting an urban metropolis of at least 1000 square km to the fulcrum temples at its nucleus. This was at a time when the population of London was 50,000 people - Angkor was home to 1 million.

It is impossible not to be impressed by the sensitivity with which international agencies, and the Cambodian government, have sought to restore and support the Angkor buildings. That the stone that has been replaced is obvious, but in the years to come, it will almost certainly become less so as the stone becomes weathered. And what choice do they have? This is all the more impressive, given how economically poor Cambodia is. There are areas of the site that are closed off as the restoration works continue and, on occasion, it can look rather like a building site in places. But then, moments later, you find yourself moving down a corridor towards yet another temple, curtained by dense foliage and steeped in mystery and archaic intrigue, and you so quickly forget those small areas of restoration. So deftly are you seduced and beckoned into the dreamscape that all you can recall is just how breathtakingly wild this place is.

It is a site replete with religious carvings, imagery, iconography and symbology. Each and every temple has some historical significance but Angkor was more than simply a religious city - it served the entire Khmer people. All that remain now are the religious structures as these were constructed in stone whereas the non-religious buildings would have been made far more cheaply in wood or sun-hardened mud. Perhaps the most remarkable is Ta Prohm. Built with ancient kapok and sacred fig trees growing out of the walls it is even more wild now that it was then. It has been left as much as possible as it was, and strolling around it, marvelling at the symbiosis of nature and man's architecture is a magnificent and, to be honest, rather humbling experience.

After ascending to the throne of Cambodia in 1181 A.D., and adopting buddhism instead of Hinduism, Jayavarman VII commenced a huge series of public construction works, perhaps to cement his administration given his embracing of a completely different religion to that which had gone before and the inevitable concern this must have caused the proletariat. Rajavihara ("royal monastery"), today known as Ta Prohm ("Brahma the ancestor"), was one of the first temples built.

Jayavarman VII constructed Ta Prohm to honour his family. The temple's main image, representing Prajnaparamita, the Mistress of the Perfection of Knowledge, was dedicated on his mother. The northern and southern satellite temples in the third enclosure were dedicated to the king's guru and his elder brother respectively. As such, Ta Prohm formed a complementary pair with the temple monastery of Preah Khan, dedicated in 1191 A.D., the main image of which was modelled on the king's father and represented compassion.

Drawing a picture of 12,640 people (including 18 high priests, 2,740 officials and 615 dancers), with an additional 80,000 farmers, labourers and their families in the surrounding villages working to provide services and supplies, the temple's records also suggest that the temple was extremely wealthy, with gold, silks and pearls in its treasury. The expansion of Ta Prohm continued as late as the rule of Srindravarman at the culmination of the 13th century.

Some of the temples are so high that a quick climb up will bless you with amazing views of the surrounding area and the site as a whole. Ta Keo temple, at 45m high, is a tricky ascent as the steps are steep, high and irregular. Once at the top, you really do have views of the site which are worth the effort. Built in the reign of Jayavarman V, some time after 968AD, it is enormous temple in terms of height and area. The descent was even more precarious and we made our way across the road afterwards to haggle with the street vendors for water and food. Yes, even here (especially here) you cannot escape hawkers. We feasted on noodles and chatted to the stall owner in the faltering Khmer/English/sign language conglomerate of the itinerant traveller. Learn a few words of the local language - it is an enormous ice-breaker and shows respect for the people you are visiting. Also learn local customs and perform them - it will set you apart from those travellers who really do not care about where they are or what they are seeing.

The Angkor Wat complex itself is immense - some 1500m by 1300m - surrounded as it is by that impressive 190m wide moat. It is clear, at some stage, there would have been wooden buildings in the area now occupied by dusty scrubland within those walls, but they have long since disappeared. Angkor Wat itself is clearly the principle Temple in Angkor and was built between 1113 and 1150 by King Suryavarman II. He ascended to the throne after winning a battle with a rival prince. According to legend, Suryavarman lept onto his rival's war elephant and slew him.

After fortifying his political position through successful military campaigns, strong diplomacy, and a controlled domestic government, Suryavarman II constructed Angkor Wat as his personal tomb, rather like the Taj Mahal in Agra, India was constructed as mausoleum. Ignoring the tradition of many of the previous Khmer kings, he dedicated the temple to Vishnu rather than to Shiva. Consequently, Angkor Wat displays Hindu cosmology, with the central towers representing Mount Meru, home of the gods; the outer walls represent the mountains enclosing the world; and the 190m wide moat represents the oceans beyond. Even the dimensions of the temple itself, and its constituent elements in relation to each other, have cosmological significance. Suryavarman had the walls of the temple adorned with carvings depicting not only scenes from Khmer mythology, but also from the life of his own imperial court. One such scene, in the South Wing of the pavilion, depicts a battle between two monkey kings Sugriva and Valin, the latter being mourned by his wife. Conversely, in the west wing of the south gallery, Suryavarman II can be seen seated at a royal audience.

Angkor, as a site, deserves at least 2 or 3 days to do it justice. The temples number over a thousand and, although you won't in reality see them all, to spend less time there is almost insulting to such an ancient wonder. It is one of the most majestic testaments to what man can build, when we're not killing each other for territorial and economic superiority.

The articles on Angkor on Wikipedia are simply outstanding starting points for further study of this ancient wonder.


  1. Brought back some memories there Maz. we did a circuit overland from Bangkok to Cambodia, across Cambodia into Vietnam where we travelled to the north and into laos where we again travelled the length of the country back into Thailand. A brilliant 3 months it was. I love your description of the bus trip into Thailand from Laos. we did something simular from Muang Sing into Thailand, 10 hours on a really knackered old bus piled high with sacks of rice and bamboo shoots. The highlight being when a local guy bought a bag of live snakes for dinner that night! Not a patch on a 40 hour bus ride in the Indian Himalaya though (only valium got me through that one). I must get my trip report set up on my blog! A great write up you have done there.

  2. Can't wait for your write up James - 40hrs?!?! Surely that's a typo? If not, I kneel and salute your endurance. I thought 16hrs was a pretty tough task. I didn't use valium, but the Lord of the Rings soundtrack...

    Laos and Cambodia were really something. I would certainly wish to go back as, unlike you, we had 4 weeks rather than 3 months. There is only so much you can see and learn in 4 weeks. You must've been exposed to so much in that time that you really began to understand SE Asia. Get writing, old chap, need to hear about it.

  3. No typo there Maz. It was meant to be less much less. Once on you just have to go with it. I think I dribbled for most of the time, much better than being a gibbering wreck. It was Dehli to Manali - a shocker of a journey. I did start serialising the emails I sent home whilst travelling on my blog but sort of forgot about it (plus no one read it!), will have to get copy and pasting once again.

  4. I remember getting very ill on the bus from Jaipur to Agra at the same time as the overnight rains had caused so much damage to crops that farmers held armed roadblocks to force the government into giving them compensation. A 6hr journey took 13hrs and I was on the back seat clutching my stomach in agony! As you rightly observe, once there, you just have to get on with it!