Although it doesn’t seem right to classify our visit to the magnificent ancient temples of Angkor Wat as a side trip, it was a three day stopover on our around-the-world trip to India.
Angkor Thom Angkor Wat
The ancient temple city of Angkor Wat is undoubtedly one of the wonders of the world. Constructed by the Khmer kings in the early 12th century, it was swallowed up by the jungle and lost to the world for over five hundred years following the fall of the Khmer empire. For hundreds of years, the lost city of Angkor was a legend. Cambodian peasants living on the edge of the thick jungle around the Tonle Sap Lake reported that they had found “temples built by gods or by giants.” Their stories were casually dismissed as folktales by the Europeans until Angkor Wat was rediscovered in 1860 by the French naturalist, Henry Mahout. The folktales became fact and a stream of explorers, historians and archaeologists came to Angkor to try to uncover the meaning of these vast buildings. Gradually some of the mysteries were explained, the Sanskrit inscriptions deciphered and the history of Angkor slowly pieced together, mainly by French scholars in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Excavation and restoration projects were begun at the site but were interrupted by wars throughout the last century and most recently by the bloody civil war with the Khmer Rouge in the 70’s. It has only been within the last ten years when this awe-inspiring architectural treasure was finally opened to travelers.
From the 9th to the 15th century, the Angkor Empire was the greatest civilization in Southeast Asia extending from the coast of Vietnam to Burma and from Southern Laos down the Malayan peninsula. At the heart of this great kingdom rose the magnificent temple at Angkor Wat and the nearby capital city of Angkor Thom. The rulers were great builders and engineers, constructing a network of roads connecting the capital to all of the major outlying cities and a sophisticated irrigation system that supported rice cultivation sufficient to feed a city of over one million people, larger than any city in Europe at that time. During this period they left behind an amazing legacy of some forty temples and palaces located within an area of thirty miles from Siem Reap in the Cambodia jungle not far from the border of Thailand.
We flew to Siem Reap from Bangkok and stayed at a five star hotel within a mile of the archeological site. We hired the services of a local guide and driver to show us the ruins. Because the temperatures were in the 90s and the climate humid, we did our exploring in the morning and again in late afternoon returning to the hotel for lunch and a swim in the pool during the heat of the mid-day.
Although there are some 35-40 temples and palaces on the site, only a dozen or so have been fully excavated. Many of the others have collapsed and only traces of some remain. The grounds around still others have not yet been fully cleared of land mines. The ruins are spread out over some forty miles around the village Siem Reap, about 200 miles from the Cambodian capital, Phnom Pehn. The main temple is Angkor Wat, a Hindu temple built in the early part of the 12h Century by King Suryavarman II as a temple to the Hindu God Vishnu. Regarded as the supreme masterpiece of Khmer architecture, it is a huge pyramid temple. Covering an area of about 200 acres and surrounded by a four mile long, five hundred foot wide moat, its well-recognized silhouette consists of one central tower surrounded by four lesser towers and has become the national symbol of modern Cambodia. It can be found on its flag, its currency and its souvenirs. The height of the central tower is 215 feet. Cambodia law prohibits any other building in the country to exceed that height in deference to this national treasure. The temple features the longest continuous bas-relief in the world, which runs along the outer gallery walls, narrating stories from Hindu Mythology.
A second major temple at the site is the Bayon temple in the Angkor Thom complex. Built seventy years later by a Buddhist king, its most distinctive features are its fifty-two towers, each of which features four granite faces of Buddha on each of its four faces. These 208 faces are each carved from a solid stone and seem to follow you with their eyes at every turn, looking down with bemused and enigmatic smiles.
Smiling Buddha - Angkor Thom
The Jungle Temple of Ta Prohn
Divata - Ta Prohn
The most captivating of the temples we visited was Ta Prohn, which has been left untouched by archeologists except for the clearing a path and strengthening some of the walls structurally to stave off further deterioration. Because it remains in its natural state, one can share the sense of wonder and amazement of the early explorers when they first came upon these monuments one hundred and fifty years ago.
Fig, banyan and kapok trees spread their gigantic roots over stones, forcing walls and terraces apart, as their branches and leaves intertwine to form a roof over the structures. The trunks of the trees twist among the stone pillars like huge serpents creating a strange haunting scene, while hundreds of bas-relief stone depictions of voluptuous goddesses (divata) and heavenly dancers (asparas) add their touch of charm. Ta Prohn has the feel of an elaborate movie set and was, in fact, featured in a recent otherwise forgettable movie called Lara Croft -Tomb Raider.
Of the many archeological sites at Angkor, only one third have been excavated and restored. Sadly, over 85% of the statues, friezes and bas-relief ornamentation have been plundered and sold to foreign buyers through the years. The site was designated a World Heritage site in 1992 and is now under the protection and management of the UNESCO World Heritage Foundation, with countries from all over the world contributing their support for the protection and maintenance of this archeological treasure.
As we visited the site, we were reminded of the terrible consequences of the Khmer Rouge takeover of Cambodia in 1975, shortly after the U.S. left Vietnam. Led by Pol Pot, a radical communist, the Khmer Rouge massacred close to two million Cambodians, almost one out of every three citizens. In a brutal attempt to create a classless society, all of the doctors, teachers, artists, administrator and other educated people were summarily executed. Anyone who wore eye glasses was assumed to be an educated person and was tortured and killed. The rest of the population, including the sick, the aged, pregnant women and children, were forcibly evacuated to the country side and put to work growing rice. Tens of thousands died of overwork and undernourishment in what came to be known as the Killing Fields.
This tragic episode set back economic progress in the country for several generations, a problem which is still being felt today as the country struggles to improve its economic situation and quality of life. It also set back the restoration efforts at Angkor Wat, where only two of the seven thousand workers employed by the French to work on the restoration, survived the “holocaust”, a word our guide used to describe the period. The rest of the workers were put to death for having worked with the French. The final obstacle to re-opening the site to tourism was the thousands of land mines that were planted on the site during the war and which only recently have been largely although not totally cleared out.
On our final night at Angkor Wat, which happened to be my 70th birthday, Valerie and I enjoyed a candlelight dinner at the French restaurant in our hotel and reflected on our good fortune to have been able to enjoy so many wonderful travel experiences together through our forty-six years of marriage. I couldn’t imagine a better place to celebrate my birthday or a nicer traveling companion with whom to celebrate it.
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