One hundred and fifty years ago, a French naturalist wandering the jungles of Cambodia stumbled upon an archaeological gold mine.
Hidden in the jungle were several temples built by a succession of rulers of the Khmer Empire between the 9th and 12th centuries. King Jayavarman II laid the foundations for the empire in the 9th century, and Angkor remained the capital of the Khmer Empire in Cambodia for the next 400 years.
The Angkor Archaeological Park is now a UNESCO World Heritage site and efforts are being made, after years of neglect and deterioration, to maintain and protect the site. The Angkor temples – the largest temple complex in the world – are collectively one of the architectural and cultural wonders of Southeast Asia.
The most famous temple at Angkor, the Angkor Wat temple, was constructed in the early 12th century and is by far the most well known. It's also the largest religious structure in the world.
I was captivated by the breadth and variety of the Angkor temples during my stay in nearby Siem Reap, Cambodia. Like Teotihuacan in Mexico, Angkor was known as the city of the gods, and the temples were constructed and decorated to represent their cosmological perspective. In the case of the Angkor temples, they were a dedication to the Hindu gods.
Also similar to Teotihuacan, there are temples to climb, but if you tire of this, just relax and reflect on what these buildings might have looked like a millennia ago. Try to imagine the ancient city’s bustle of activity.
The temples were actually surrounded by cities and villages in those days, but the homes of the people were built out of wood and have dissolved away over the centuries. The temples survived, as they were built from more durable materials such as brick and sandstone.
At its height, Angkor had a population of one million people – the largest pre-industrial city in the world. Reservoirs were built and an irrigation system brought water to the towns. The area was mysteriously abandoned, but some suspect climate change was a factor, which might have interfered with the water supply.
If you visit here, set aside at least three days to do the temples justice – you won't regret it. You can bike around the ruins, although some of the more interesting ones are distances apart. It’s easier to hire a tuk tuk driver to take you from one temple to the next. Expect to pay $40-50 for three days. For a higher fee, you can hire a guide to provide more detailed explanation of the historic background and artistic interpretation of the temples.
There are locals hanging around who will offer their services for a fee, but it’s better to find an authorized guide if you can afford it. If not, it’s a worthwhile investment to pick up the book Ancient Angkor by Michael Freeman for about $7 from one of the hawkers.
Some of the more interesting ruins include the Bayon Temple and its many stone faces, in the ancient walled city of Angkor Thom, and the intricate pink sandstone carvings at Banteay Srei, 35 kilometers outside Siem Reap. I was mesmerized by Ta Prohm, where the ruins are seemingly being swallowed up by the massive roots of Banyan trees like enormous pythons.
Also among my favorites was the main temple, Angkor Wat (“city temple”), which was dedicated to the Hindu god Vishnu. The five towers of the Angkor Wat temple represent the five peaks of Mt. Meru, the cosmological center of Hinduism.
The walls are decorated with galleries of bas-relief carvings, including several ornate details, carvings and friezes of images of battles taken from Hindu epic tales the Mahabharata and the Ramayana. There are also detailed depictions of their conception of heaven and hell.
The best time to visit Angkor Wat – and most of the other temples – is in the early morning or late afternoon. The heat is less intense, and you’ll avoid the big tour crowds. Sunrise at Angkor Wat is particularly enchanting if you can arrange it with your driver. But the ruins are worth visiting at any time of the day. The thunder and light showers that accompanied my visit to some of the temples created an appropriately mystical atmosphere.
Be prepared to be approached by persistent hawkers at nearly every temple. These are mostly young Cambodians who are trying to help support their families. If you don't want what they’re selling, just put your head down and keep on walking.
Most of their items seem to cost a dollar (“Mista, cold water, nice postcards, you wanna buy? Just one dolla” – you’ll hear that a lot) and they gladly welcome US dollars.
If you’re coming from Bangkok, it’s easiest just to fly into Siem Reap. Airfares are relatively cheap and the overland route can be a bit complicated. Coming by air, you can pick up your visa without hassle upon arrival at the airport.