Angkor was the capital of the Khmer Empire for over 600 years. At its peak, the Khmer Empire stretched across parts of modern-day Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, Malaysia, and Burma. The Khmer Empire obtained independence from Java (present day Indonesia) in 802, and King Jayavarman II established his capital at Roluos, about 8 miles south of the present day city of Siem Reap. King Yasovarman I, the fourth king of the Khmer Empire, moved the capital from Roluos to Angkor at the end of the 9th century. Either because of the Khmer’s defeat by Ayutthaya or because of drought, the capital was moved to Phnom Penh, which is situated on the Mekong River with a more plentiful and dependable water supply, in 1432. Angkor was gradually abandoned and many of the temples were reclaimed by the jungle. In the late 1850s, Henri Mouhot, a French explorer, “rediscovered” Angkor. UNESCO designated Angkor as a World Heritage Site in 1992.
During our early December visit to the Angkor Region, my friend and I spent our first afternoon with our guide at Angkor Wat (point A on map below), perhaps the most well-known of the seventy-some temples in the Angkor region. We then made our way to Phnom Bakheng (B), the first temple in the Angkor capital, where we watched the sun set over the West Baray reservoir, a 7.5 square mile rectangular reservoir built in the early 11th century.
The next morning, we got an early start so that we could watch the sun rise over Srah Srang (C), a small 60 acre reservoir dug in the 10th century. After the sunrise and before breakfast, we went to Ta Prohm (D) to beat the crowds. Ta Prohm is a very popular attraction since it was the setting for some of the scenes of Lara Craft: Tomb Raider starring Angelina Jolie. After a Cambodian breakfast of fish and fried rice, we traveled about 20 miles north-northwest to visit Banteay Srei (point B on map below). We then returned to the Angkor area to tour Banteay Kdei (E on map above), Preah Khan (F), and finally Bayon (G).
On our third day, we went further afield, first to Beng Mealea (point C on map above), then to Kompong Phhluk (D); we ended our trip at the Roluos Group temples (E). The drives to and from Beng Mealea and Kompong Phhluk took us through the Cambodian countryside where we could see Cambodians going about their daily tasks. The low-level of economic development is readily apparent — many people were riding bicycles, others were using carts pulled by water buffaloes, and most of the homes appeared to be off the electrical grid.
Angkor Wat is the largest temple in Cambodia and its national symbol. It was built in the early 12th century during the reign of King Suryavarman II. Its five towers — one in the center and one on each corner — represent the mythical Mount Meru, home to the Hindu gods. While Angkor Wat has been relatively well-preserved, it has undergone substantial restoration over the years.
As can be seen in the first map above, Angkor Wat is surrounded by a large moat that is over 600 feet wide. Behind the moat is a 15 foot high wall that has a perimeter 2.3 miles long — one-half mile long in the front and back and nearly two-thirds of a mile along each side. Much of the appeal of the Angkor temples is the carvings that are on seemingly all of surfaces, columns, pediments, and lintels. Angkor Wat is renowned for its bas-relief friezes that depict stories from Ramayana and Mahabharatsm, two Hindu epics. The engravings are replete with Apsaras — sensual spirits of the clouds and waters typically shown dancing — and Devadas — male or female guardian spirits in less alluring poses than the Apsaras — all of which are unique. One gallery depicts the 37 heavens and 32 hells from Hindu mythology with the hells below carved in greater detail than the heavens above. Another shows the battles between the Khmer and the Cham, the Khmer’s eastern neighbors from current day Vietnam.
The complex differs from most other temples in that its main entrance is from the west not the east and the bas-reliefs on the wall proceed in a counter-clockwise direction rather than the normal clockwise direction. The structure is built of sandstone blocks that came from a quarry 25 miles away, and archaeologists believe that the blocks were floated down the Siem Reap River to Angkor. At Angkor, the blocks were set without mortar but instead were held together with either dovetail or mortise and tenon joints or simply by gravity.
Sunset at Phnom Bakheng
Phnom Bakheng was built as the city’s principal temple in 908 after King Yasovarman I moved the capital to Angkor. The temple faces east, sits on a base that covers 820 square feet, has six tiers, and was the first example of the Mount Meru-style of architecture in Angkor. Phnom Bakheng had 109 towers, but most of them have collapsed over time. Five sandstone towers, in various states of repair, stand on the top level — one in the center and one at each of the four corners.
Since the temple sits atop a 220 foot tall hill, it provides views of Angkor Wat to the east and the West Baray reservoir to the west. The temple, however, faces serious structural issues as jungle overgrowth and shifts in the stones have allowed water to enter the structure and cause erosion.
Sunrise over Srah Srang
Tourists flock to Srah Srang and to Angkor Wat to see the sunrise. Our guide took us to Srah Srang where there were a few dozen people, far fewer than at Angkor Wat, but if I were to go again I would brave the crowds in order to see the sun come up over the prangs of Angkor Wat.
The Srah Srang, or “Royal Bath”, was built for the exclusive use of King Jayavarman V and his wives. Not surprisingly, it is quite small when compared to the large East Baray and West Baray reservoirs that could hold, respectively, 13 billion and 32 billion gallons of water. Archaeologists believe that at one point there was a temple on an artificial island in the middle of the Srah Srang reservoir.
Ta Prohm — the Royal Temple — was built in the late 12th and early 13th centuries during the reign of King Jayavarman VII in honor of his mother. He also had Preah Khan (upcoming post) built in honor of his father.
Ta Prohm is located about three-quarters of a mile east of Angkor Thom, the last capital of the Khmer Empire, on the southern edge of East Baray reservoir. Unlike many other temples, restoration work at Ta Prohm had been limited primarily to stabilizing the structure although the government of India has recently worked with the Cambodians to reconstruct some of the towers, galleries, and causeways. Nevertheless, many strangler fig trees continue to grow over and out of the ruins with their roots cascading down the walls of the structures and across the floors of the complex.
As with other temples, Ta Prohm has large carvings of Apsaras and Devadas. Perhaps most intriguing, however, is a column that contains an image of what appears to be a stegosaurus among several carvings of animals within ornate circles.
Celebrating Christmas in Thailand produces a high degree of cognitive dissonance. Although cold weather moved into Bangkok yesterday — the high temp was only 83 degrees — it still didn’t feel very wintry. However, when I went to mass on Christmas Eve at Bangkok’s Holy Redeemer Church, Frosty and Santa were prominently displayed in their winter finery. After church, I had dinner with a friend at a nearby restaurant. On Christmas morning, I was able to Skype with my sister and nieces and I also exchanged emails with several people in the states.
Happy New Year to All!
Kop Khun Krab.
© 2012 Kurt Brown. All rights reserved.