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Temples of Angkor in Cambodia

The Angkor temple complex in Cambodia is one of those rare, much-hyped destinations that actually exceed expectations.

Most of us have seen the photos: invading jungle trees, acres of collapsed stone blocks, the tranquil and knowing faces staring out from towers… Photographs of Angkor are captivating, but the actual place is larger and more magnificent still.

Ta Prohm temple is left wild and unrestored
History & Rediscovery
Between 802 and 1432 AD, a succession of Khmer kings funneled the enormous wealth of their kingdoms into a series of monumental building projects. Growing successively grander and more elaborate, the Buddhist and Hindu temples of Angkor stand as the apex of ancient Khmer architectural and cultural achievements.

The great city of Angkor gradually fell into decline in the early 1400's after repeated attacks and encroachment by the Thais. The Western world first heard about the temples in the 1860's, when they were discovered by a Frenchman named Henri Mouhot.

Cambodia's Identity & Pride
The temples of Angkor are recognized by many as one of the greatest architectural achievements of man. Scattered in the jungle outside of Siem Reap, the temples are a source of identity and pride for Cambodians, and they draw thousands of foreign visitors every year.

Some of the Angkor temples have been restored and reconstructed, while others have been left largely untouched, giving visitors an idea of what early explorers saw.

Angkor Wat
Majestic Angkor Wat
Visitors driving into the main Angkor complex are greeted first by the vast square moat that surrounds Angkor Wat. The temple towers peep out above the tree line.

At the west entrance, a long stone road gleams past an imposing outer wall, across a sprawling courtyard, and right up to the main structure, where five honeycomb-shaped towers jut into the sky. The site is nothing short of magnificent.

The inner galleries of Angkor Wat contain almost 13,000 square feet of bas-relief galleries that depict scenes from historic Khmer battles, sacred books, and Indian epics. The most famous gallery depicts a myth derived from the Hindu epic Bagavata-Pourana called the "churning of the ocean of milk", which tells the story of gods and demons who attempt to produce an elixir of immortality.

Ta Prohm, the Jungle Temple
The temple ruin of Ta Prohm is one of the more spectacular sites in Angkor. Giant jungle trees grow over and around the temple stones, clasping them in a violent, slow-motion embrace; huge stone blocks lie in heaps where they originally fell; moss, vines, and thick white spider webs obscure many of the bas-reliefs. This was the Angkor that I'd always envisioned: wild, sprawling, overgrown, mighty, and ripe for exploration.

The Bayon: Face to Face
From a distance, the Bayon looks like an indistinct pile of stones. But up close it proves to be one of the most enigmatic temples in Angkor. Here more than 200 giant faces peer down from 54 stone towers. Ever-changing throughout the shifting daylight, these faces express a myriad of emotions similar to the Mona Lisa: tranquility, mischievousness, wisdom, peace.

crowd gathered for a sunset

Plenty of Others to Explore
There are a vast number of major and minor temples to explore at Angkor. I saw almost all of them over seven days. The major temples can be seen in three days.

"You Mean I'm Not the Only One?"
The days of Angkor being a secluded spot where only explorers and scientists roam are long gone. Thousands of tourists visit the temples every day, and the popular sunset/sunrise spots can turn into zoos at peak time.

Thankfully, Angkor is a giant, and I found peaceful corners in even the most popular locations.

Magic in the Details
Architecturally, the temples of Angkor are fantastic. But the magic of the place lies in the details: the endless bas-reliefs, the texture of the sandstone, the rich green lichen on the walls, ancient graffiti, the uniform color of the bricks and the jungle tree trunks…

devetta bas relief
The magic of my Angkor experience was in the details too: the freedom I felt while riding a moped around the temples, the aggressive and comical salesgirls at the temple-side restaurants, the bullet holes in Angkor Wat's bas-reliefs and the history they implied, the peculiar violin played by an old man outside Ta Prohm, the monkeys at the side of the road, English lessons with three monks atop Wat Thmei, drinking coconut milk in the shade…

Visiting Angkor was a peak experience. I'll never forget it.

» view the Angkor photo gallery

Posted on January 06, 2003 02:50 AM


Comments (post your own below)

Is Angkok better than Bagan?

Posted by: Traveler on January 7, 2003 08:02 PM

Most people consider Angkor to be the finest archeological site in Southeast Asia.

Posted by: mike on January 21, 2003 07:09 AM

"Better"? Cretin.

Posted by: Tricky3 on July 3, 2003 01:29 AM

Do these 'most people' have a knowledge of archeology ?

Posted by: angkor on August 4, 2003 01:24 AM

Sorry, I should have said "many people consider..." I was just trying to find a nice way to answer a dumb question.

Posted by: mike on August 4, 2003 03:52 AM

Do these 'many people' considerations include people having a knowledge of archeology ? ;)

What do these people think about the Borobudur temple in Indonesia (842AD) ?

I'm afraid you can say that Angkor Wat is the most publicized, and thus the hord of tourists. But quantity does not mean anything.

Posted by: angkor on August 4, 2003 04:47 AM

the info on this site isn't bad, but I wish to know why is it that Thai People seem to think the Angkor wat is theirs.

Posted by: Sup1Sun on May 5, 2004 07:23 AM

How do I find out more info about henri mouhot and certain archaeological information about Angkor?

Posted by: Curious on June 19, 2004 07:16 AM

Comments closed.


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