Siem Reap literally translates to ‘Siam Defeated’, Siam being the former name of Thailand. It is the gateway to the Angkor region, itself a mega city in the 12th Century, supporting 0.1% of the world’s population making it the largest pre-industrial urban centre in the world.
Angkor was the capital of the Khmer Empire which flourished from the 9thC. to the 15th C. covering most of what is now Cambodia, Thailand, Laos and southern Vietnam. Angkor Wat, Wat meaning temple, is claimed to be the world’s oldest religious monument and one of the ancient Seven Wonders of the World – although that seems to be an ever changing list.
Clearly, the Cambodians are proud of their most iconic symbol, it is the main feature on their flag, and we were to find out why with a 5:00AM excursion to see the sunrise over the iconic temple.
Angkor Wat is a complex rather than a single monument, built between 1113 and 1150 for King Suryavarman II as his state temple and capital city, and dedicated to the Hindu god Vishnu. It was later converted to a Buddhist temple in the 14th C. so statues of Buddha were added to the already elaborate stone artwork; it makes for quite a confusing religious chronicle.
As the sunrise lit the famous central tower and its four smaller supporting towers, the layout of this remarkable palace became clear so we made our way past the stone lions guarding the route, to the main entrance of the 500 acre site. Making it not only the oldest but the largest religious monument in the world.
Considering the temple is around 900 years old it is in remarkably good condition, thanks largely to the moat preventing the jungle from reclaiming the area. The detail in the 3,000 heavenly dancing nymphs (Apsaras) ornately carved into the walls is very well preserved, extraordinarily each is unique.
During the 300 years between 900 and 1200 the Khmer Empire built some of the world’s most magnificent architectural masterpieces. In fact, the temples in the Angkor area alone number over one thousand, ranging in scale from nondescript piles of brick rubble scattered through the landscape of rice fields to minor temples and the magnificent Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom with the huge smiling faces and Ta Prohm. An equally astonishing three thousand were built within the whole Khmer Region.
A day of rest and recovery was definitely welcome before we took on the ‘Big Circuit’ as it’s known locally, a visit to seven temples culminating with sunset over Phnom Bakheng.
The scale of the Empire was best seen at Angkor Thom (Big Angkor) a 9 km square walled and moated city built in the 1180’s with stone smiling faces carved into the 23 metre towers at the city gates and the wonderful central temple of Prasat Bayon, in my view the most impressive of all we visited.
In front of the Royal Palace area is the Terrace of Elephants, a 350 metre viewing platform built for the king and his subjects to view the victorious army returning from war. It reminded me of the military parades we see in Red Square and Pyongyang, the landscape clearly shows where the armies marched in front of the 12 towers of the zodiac across the shallow valley from the king’s position. It must have been quite a spectacle.
Another temple named Ta Som was constructed in the middle of a man made square reservoir. This was their hospital, where those suffering from malaria, dysentery or any other common ailment in the 12th C. would be taken by their family to be treated. There are stone built quarantine rooms in each corner to house the sick, once capable of movement the patients were treated in the island temple, usually with a blessing and copious amounts of holy water.
We continued our journey of temples crossing a bridge of fifty beautifully carved but headless torsos until we reached the temple everyone wants to see – Ta Prohm made famous in the film ‘Tomb Raider’. It is an astonishingly atmospheric place, where the crumbling towers appear to be in a slow wrestling match with the jungle as the vast roots have locked the temple walls in an embrace which can realistically only have one outcome.
Our last venue was Bakheng Hill a towering temple from which we watched the sun set on a glorious couple of days of adventure and discovery, and our time in Cambodia, a country of extremes that touched us like none other on this 15 country adventure.
David Moore is Author of ‘Turning Left Around the World’. Published by Mirador and available from Amazon, it is an entertaining account of David and his wife’s travel adventures – often intriguing, frequently funny and occasionally tragic.
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