When I began traveling to various countries and places in the world, I began to make mental notes on places I wanted to see. As the years passed, I purchased a large, framed world map and using different colored pins, I was able to mark places I have visited and places I still wanted to see. One of the places that was marked as a “want to see” for many years, I was finally able to “re-pin” as a “have seen” a couple of years ago. This was the temple complex known as Angkor Wat and the surrounding temples.
We hosted an adult tour group that visited Vietnam, Cambodia, Myanmar and Thailand. There were a multitude of highlights on this trip, but the most amazing place we visited was the city of Siem Reap, Cambodia, and the former Hindu/Buddhist temple complexes of Angkor Wat, Ta Prohm and Angkor Thom. Angkor Wat is 3.4 miles from the city of Siem Reap. We found the city very tourist friendly, lots of different restaurants to eat in and incredible markets, especially fun at night. One night, we actually ate at a Mexican restaurant and had a great meal – it was run by an American who had relocated to Cambodia. At the night market, bargaining was the method to be used to make all purchases. Several in our group even took in the unusual “small fish nibbling dead skin off your feet” booth.
Photos by TR Robertson
But, the reason to come to Siem Reap is to tour the temple complexes. We left early one morning to try and beat the large tour buses that crowd onto the roads around the temples. By getting an early start we were able to feel, at least for a while, that our tour was not overrun by hoards of other tourists.
Angkor Wat means Temple City. This is the largest of the temples in this area. It was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1992 and is the #1 visitor attraction in Cambodia and is on the Cambodian national flag. Angkor was first a Hindu temple and later a Buddhist temple. It is the largest religious monument in the world and is the most important archaeological site in all of Southeast Asia. Angkor took over 30 years to build and was built by the Khmer King Suryavarman II in the 12th century. He built it as his state temple and mausoleum.
The temple complexes, including all wooded area, would eventually cover over 98,000 acres. The style of architecture is referred to as Khmer Temple architecture. It is designed to represent Mt. Meru, home of the deva’s in Hindu mythology. For the Angkor Wat complex, there is a large moat that surrounds the temple. The moat covers around 2.2 miles and is 190 meters wide. A long sandstone causeway leads visitors into the temple grounds. Around the 3 rectangular galleries is an outer wall, averaging 4.5 meters high. The rectangular galleries get progressively higher as you go to the center of the complex. The 3 galleries are dedicated to Brahma, Vishnu and man. In the center of the temple are 4 towers. Long, high slopping stone stairs lead up the sides of the towers.
Possibly, the most amazing part of the complex is the extensive bas-relief friezes that cover all of the walls in the temple. They are said to be “the greatest known linear arrangement of stone carvings” of any temple in the world. The carvings depict a variety of gods, goddesses, animals and stories from Hindu and Buddhist beliefs. In the late 13th century Angkor Wat would move from a Hindu temple to a Theravada Buddhist temple. The temple has never been abandoned and has always been in use. This is partly due to the lack of jungle encroachment due to the moat. This is unlike the Mayan temples of the Yucatan. Most of these temples, when discovered, were completely covered by the surrounding jungle and had long been abandoned by the Mayan peoples.
One amazing feature about the construction of Angkor Wat, and the other temples, is the huge stones were laid without mortar and are held together by mortise and tenon joints. One theory is the huge stones were quarried and barged in, possibly over 25 miles way, and elephants, ropes, pulleys and bamboo scaffolding was used to move and lift the stones. The volume of stone used to build this complex is greater than the stone volume in the Great Pyramid of Giza in Egypt. It is estimated that 6-10 million blocks of sandstone, with an average weight of 1.5 tons each, were used to build the entire complex.
Angkor Wat was not discovered by Europeans until 1586, when a Portuguese monk, Antonio da Madalena, visited the temple. In the 1800’s, a French naturalist and explorer, Henri Mouhot, visited and wrote travel notes about the site that would be published in newspapers in France. Since 1953 and once Cambodia gained independence from France, the Cambodian government has controlled Angkor Wat and the surrounding temples. As more and more visitors began to come to Cambodia to see this huge complex, a restoration movement would eventually begin in the 20th century and last until the 1970’s when the country was ravaged by civil war and the Khmer Rouge. After the 1980’s, and peace returned to this area, the restoration would resume.
Not far from Angkor Wat is the small temple of Ta Prohm. What makes this temple so outstanding is actually the ruined nature of this temple. The “ruin” was brought on by the growth of huge Banyan tree roots in the side walls of the temple causing an incredibly artistic look to the mixing of nature with the stone walls. The tree roots are holding up part of the walls. This small temple is one of the most photographed parts of the entire temple complex region. Part of the tree/wall section was used as the background in Angelia Jolie’s movie, “Tomb Raider”.
Another temple that is widely photographed is Angkor Thom, which means Great City. This region once had over 80-150,000 people living in the surrounding area. Angkor Thom is the last and most enduring capital city of the Khmer Empire. This temple was built in the late 12th century by King Jayavarman VII. The portion of the temple, called Bayon, was the state temple. It is famous for the temple towers with carvings of large faces, possibly the King himself. Close to this temple is a very artistic terrace with carvings of elephants running the entire length of the temple terrace. The Angkor Temple is also covered by bas reliefs of various gods, goddesses, mythological beasts, serpents, dragons, elephants, snakes, fish and monkeys.
Everywhere you walk, the beauty of this region jumps out at you. Hundreds and hundreds of pictures later you find yourself still taking pictures. You would think the temples would start to look alike, but what is surprising is that each temple has something about it that looks different and is unique to that particular structure. Some feel there should be an updated 7 Wonders of the World and Angkor Wat should be included on that list. This beautiful complex needs to be on your travel list and another one of those “must see’s”.