The temples of Angkor: the Archaeological Park

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Scattered over some four hundred square kilometres of countryside between the Tonle Sap lake and the Kulen Mountains, the temples of Angkor are one of the world’s great architectural showpieces. This astonishing profusion of ancient monuments is remarkable both for their size and number, not to mention their incredible levels of artistry. An idealized representation of the Hindu cosmos in stone, they range from great pyramidal temple-mountains of Angkor Wat and Pre Rup through to the labyrinthine monasteries of Ta Prohm and Banteay Kdei, as well as more miniature and intimate sanctuaries such as Thommanon and Preah Ko.

Magnificent to begin with, the ravages of time and nature have added immeasurably to the temples’ appeal, with individual monuments now stranded romantically amid great swathes of forest, often in various states of picturesque semi-ruin – a far cry from the great days of the Angkorian empire, when each temple would have formed the centrepiece of a string of once bustling (but now entirely vanished) villages, towns and miniature cities spread across the densely inhabited countryside. Some, like Angkor Wat and the Baphuon, have been meticulously restored; others, like Ta Prohm and Beng Mealea, remain half-choked by the encroaching jungle, their buildings smothered in a photogenic tangle of creepers and strangler figs.

The most famous of the temples is the legendary Angkor Wat, with its five magnificent corncob towers and vast complex of bas-relief galleries. Also on everyone’s itinerary is the walled city of Angkor Thom, where you’ll find the magical Bayon state temple, topped with dozens of towers carved with enigmatic faces of the bodhisattva Lokesvara, one of ancient Cambodia’s most iconic images. Nearby, the similarly iconic Ta Prohm also attracts crowds of visitors, its crumbling ruins engulfed by the surrounding jungle, with shrines and statues held in the vice-like grip of giant tree roots.

All the temples close to Siem Reap are contained within the so-called Angkor Archaeological Park and covered by a single entrance ticket, as are a number of other headline attractions slightly further afield including Banteay Srei, a unique micro-temple of intricately carved reddish stone, and the Roluos Group, home to some of Angkor’s oldest temples. Several other major Angkorian monuments can be found even further from Siem Reap, outside the Archaeological Park and covered by their own tickets. These include the jungle-smothered temple of Beng Mealea, the great temple-towns of Koh Ker and Preah Khan (Kompong Thom), and the stunning Preah Vihear in the far north of the country, sitting high on a mountaintop above the Thai border.

Brief history

For six hundred years from the early ninth century the area around Angkor Wat was the heart of the Khmer Empire. A ready supply of water and the fertility of the land meant that the area could support large populations, and successive Angkorian kings constructed their royal cities and state temples here. Despite the region’s importance, there’s a dearth of written records: the ancient Khmer wrote on specially treated palm trees or animal skins and none of their texts have survived. Consequently the history of Angkor had to be painstakingly pieced together through study of the temples and more than a thousand inscribed steles – mostly written in Sanskrit – found across the empire. Even now, Angkorian history remains hypothetical to some degree, with the origins of many temples, the dates of their construction and even the names of kings uncertain.

Angkor’s earliest monuments date from 802, when Jayavarman II came north from Kompong Cham to set up court at Phnom Kulen. The empire reached its apogee in the twelfth century under the leadership of Jayavarman VII – the greatest temple-builder of all – when it stretched from the coast of Vietnam to the Malay peninsula, to Bagan in Myanmar and north to Laos. No further stone temples were built after the reign of Jayavarman VII came to an end in 1219; either the area’s resources were exhausted or the switch to Theravada Buddhism may have precluded their construction. The region’s existing temples and palaces remained in use until they were sacked by the Thais in 1431; the following year, Ponhea Yat took his court south to Phnom Penh and left Angkor to the jungle. Though Angkor was never completely deserted, the local people who continued to worship at the temples were unable to maintain them.

Around 1570, King Satha was so enchanted when he rediscovered Angkor Thom deep in the jungle that he had the undergrowth cleared and brought his court there, though by 1594 he was back at Lovek. Another short-lived period of royal interest occurred in the middle of the seventeenth century when, according to a letter penned by a Dutch merchant to the governor-general of the Dutch East Indies, “the king [Barom Rachea VI] paid a visit to a lovely pleasant place known as Anckoor”. Subsequently, despite tales of a lost city in the Cambodian jungle filtering back to the West via missionaries and traders, it wasn’t until the nineteenth century that Cambodia opened up to European explorers (although, from the end of the eighteenth century, as part of Battambang province, it actually came under Thai rule – a state of affairs that lasted until 1907, when the French negotiated its return). The first proper account of Angkor Wat, published by the French missionary Charles-Emile Bouillevaux in 1858, failed to arouse wide interest, but in 1864, the diaries of botanist and explorer Henri Mouhot, who had stumbled on Angkor by accident a few years earlier, were published posthumously, and the temples gripped the world. The Briton J. Thompson published the first photographs of Angkor in 1867, and was the first to suggest a link between temple architecture and the mythical Mount Meru. Close behind him came Doudart Lagrée, who discovered Beng Mealea and Preah Khan (Kompong Thom).

Angkor Wat

However many times you’ve seen it on film or in photographs, nothing prepares you for the majesty of ANGKOR WAT. Dominated by five majestic, corncob towers, this masterpiece of Khmer architecture, consecrated in about 1150 to Vishnu, is thought to have taken around thirty years to complete. Stunning from a distance, as you approach its intricacy becomes apparent, with every surfaced covered in fine detail. If time allows, it’s worth visiting at different times of day to see how the colours of the stone change with the light.

Experts have long debated whether Angkor Wat was built for worship or for funerary purposes, given that the site is approached from the west and the gallery of bas-reliefs is designed to be viewed anticlockwise, both of which are associated with death. Nowadays, it’s generally accepted that it was used by the king for worship during his lifetime, and became his mausoleum following his death.

Avoiding the crowds at Angkor Wat

As Angkor’s headline attraction, Angkor Wat is filled with crowds of tourists virtually every hour of the day, although fortunately there’s more space here to swallow up the visiting crowds than at places like the Bayon and Ta Prohm. The best time to visit is early morning from around 7–9am: after the sunrise watchers have left and before the first of the coach parties arrives.

Restoring Angkor

At the time of writing, parts of Angkor Wat (and some other temples, most notably Ta Prohm and Ta Keo) are undergoing extensive restoration, and some towers and other buildings are covered in scaffolding and/or cordoned off. In Angkor Wat, the northwestern quarter of the second level is currently inaccessible, while various works around Cruciform Cloister mean that you might find yourself diverted when entering the main temple.

Watching the sunset over Angkor Wat

In the late afternoon, hundreds of tourists make the trek up the steep, badly eroded rock-hewn steps of Phnom Bakheng to watch the sun set over Angkor Wat. You don’t have to walk, however: between 3 and 5pm elephants wait at the foot of the hill to ferry visitors up via a roundabout track ($20); downhill trips ($15) run between 5pm and 6pm.

Ta Prohm

The jungle-smothered ruins of Ta Phrohm are one of the most evocative of all Angkor’s ancient monuments – its courtyards and terraces half-consumed by the encroaching forest, with shrines and pavilions engulfed by giant strangler figs and the massive roots of kapok trees clinging to walls, framing doorways and prising apart giant stones. The temple richly fulfils every Indiana Jones-cum-Tomb Raiderish romantic cliché you could possibly imagine – a uniquely serendipitous combination of human artifice and raw nature working together in accidental harmony, with impossibly picturesque results.

That, at least, is what the films and photographs suggest – the reality is slightly less romantic. Crowds are a serious problem, while massive ongoing restoration means that parts of the temple currently resemble an enormous building site as conservationists attempt to walk the impossible tightrope between preserving Ta Prohm’s original lost-in-the-jungle atmosphere while preventing it from being obliterated entirely by the surrounding forest. It’s a magical place, even so, assuming you’re not expecting to be left alone to commune with nature, and especially if you can time your visit to avoid the worst of the coach parties.

Crowds at Ta Prohm

In tourist terms, Ta Prohm (along with Angkor Wat and the Bayon) is one of Angkor’s three big sights, and as such gets overwhelmed with visiting coach parties on a regular basis throughout most of the day. Meanwhile, the relative smallness of the site means that negotiating your way through the ruins’ narrow corridors and doorways in peak hours (roughly 10am–2pm) has all the charm of a visit to a major metropolitan subway station at the height of rush hour. The whole depressing spectacle probably isn’t why you came to Cambodia, and is best avoided, if possible. The best times to visit are in the early morning (between 7am and 9am) or in the late afternoon (after 4pm). Both early morning and late afternoon also offer the best photographic opportunities, as the light lowers and softens through the surrounding trees.

Banteay Srei

Even if you’re feeling pretty templed-out, you’ll probably be captivated by BANTEAY SREI, 35km northeast of Siem Reap (and which can be conveniently combined in a single day-trip with Kbal Spean). Built of fine-grained rose-pink sandstone, it’s the most elaborately decorated of all Angkor’s monuments, its walls, false doors, lintels and exotic soaring pediments all richly embellished with floral motifs and Ramayana scenes.

Banteay Srei is also unusual in having been built not by a king, but by two local dignitaries: Yajnavaraha, who was a trusted guru to the monarch, and his brother. It was Rajendravarman who granted them the land and permission for a temple to be built, but although the sanctuary was consecrated in 967 to Shiva, it wasn’t actually completed until the reign of Jayavarman V.

Angkor Thom

The wall of the city is some five miles in circumference. It has five gates each with double portals ... Outside the wall stretches a great moat, across which access to the city is given by massive causeways. Flanking the causeways on each side are fifty-four divinities resembling war-lords in stone, huge and terrifying...

Zhou Daguan, visited Angkor Thom 1296–97

The wall of the city is some five miles in circumference. It has five gates each with double portals… Outside the wall stretches a great moat, across which access to the city is given by massive causeways. Flanking the causeways on each side are fifty-four divinities resembling war-lords in stone, huge and terrifying…

Still recognizable from this description by the Chinese envoy Zhou Daguan, who visited the Khmer court at the end of the thirteenth century, the ruins of the great city of ANGKOR THOM form the physical and architectural centrepiece of Angkor, home to a trio of state temples – Baphuon, Phimeanakas and the spectacular Bayon – as well as numerous other royal, religious and secular structures. The former city itself covers an area of three square kilometres, enclosed by a wide moat and an 8m-high wall reinforced by a wide earth embankment (constructed by Jayavarman VII after the city had been sacked by the Cham in 1177). Sanctuary towers stand at each corner of the walls, which are pierced by five much-photographed entry gates – one per cardinal direction, plus an additional eastern portal, the Victory Gate. Each gate is topped by a tower carved with four huge faces looking out in the cardinal directions and approached via a causeway lined with huge naga balustrades. Nominally, these faces are said to represent the bodhisattva Lokesvara, although they also bear a certain similarity to carved images of Jayavarman VII himself, perhaps symbolizing the far-reaching gaze of the king over his lands and subjects.

The site is most usually approached from Angkor Wat through the 23m-high south gate and along a 100m-long stone causeway flanked by a massive naga balustrade, with 54 almond-eyed gods on one side, and 54 round-eyed demons on the other holding a pair of nine-headed nagas, which are said to protect the city’s wealth. Most of the heads here are replicas, the originals having been either stolen or removed for safety to the Angkor National Museum. The base of the gateway itself is decorated with sculptures of Indra on a three-headed elephant; the elephant’s trunks hold lotus blossoms that droop to the ground, doubling as improvised columns.

The Bayon

The state temple of Jayavarman VII and his immediate successors, the Bayon is one of Angkor’s most memorably mysterious and haunting sights, with its dozens of eroded towers carved with innumerable giant-sized images of the enigmatically half-smiling face of the bodhisattva Lokesvara. The design of the Bayon is unique among the state temples of Angkor. Instead of a huge central pyramid, an impression of ascending height is created by a dense cluster of towers, with the main sanctuary towers rising out of the centre of the complex like a kind of Matterhorn carved in stone – the ultimate architectural representation of the mythical Mount Meru. Approaching the temple, all you can initially see is a mass of ill-defined stone, dark and imposing, looking from a distance like some kind of bizarre natural rock formation. It’s only closer up that the intricacy of the design becomes apparent and you can begin to make out the 37 towers carved with their massive faces of Lokesvara. It is said that there are more than two hundred in all, although no one seems to know the exact number, and exactly why they are repeated so many times remains unclear.

Built in the late twelfth and/or early thirteenth century, the Bayon was intended to embrace all the religions of the kingdom, including the Islamic beliefs of the newly conquered Cham, but was consecrated as a Buddhist temple. When the state religion reverted to Hinduism, the Buddha in the central sanctuary was torn down and cast into the well below.

Exploring the Bayon

Most coach parties descend on the Bayon from mid-morning to early afternoon, meaning that the best time to visit is either early in the morning (around 7–9am) or later in the afternoon. A good plan is to arrive at Angkor Thom in time for lunch, then spend the first part of the afternoon exploring the city’s other sights (which will take at least a couple of hours) before heading to the Bayon at around 3/4pm, when the worst of the crowds have dispersed.

Drivers drop off passengers at various places at the beginning of visits to the Bayon and surrounding monuments. Make sure to know exactly where your driver is waiting to pick you up, as there’s an awful lot of transport about, and several different parking areas.

Exploring Angkor: temple itineraries

There are around two dozen or so major temple sites at Angkor, scattered over a considerable area. Package tours tend to follow rigid routes around the sites, although with a little ingenuity you can tweak established itineraries and enhance your experience considerably. Time is very much of the essence. It’s horribly easy to end up rushing around breathlessly, so that one site blends seamlessly into another and you end up templed-out and forgetting almost everything you’ve seen. All the major temples in the environs of Siem Reap can be seen in three days (see our recommended itinerary), although if you can spend longer than this – taking the temples at a more leisurely pace and visiting them during quieter periods of the day – you’ll be richly rewarded.

There are two traditional temple itineraries – the Small (or “Petit”) Circuit and the Grand Circuit – each sold as off-the-peg day-tours just about everywhere in town.

Small Circuit Around 30km. Starts at Angkor Wat, heads north to the Bayon and the rest of Angkor Thom before continuing east to Thommanon, Chau Say Tevoda, Ta Keo, Ta Prohm, Banteay Kdei, Srah Srang and Prasat Kravan. The Small Circuit is usually done in just one day, but really contains too many major monuments to properly appreciate in this time and is better broken up and combined with the Grand Circuit over two days.

Grand Circuit Around 36km, or 44km if you include Banteay Samre. Starts at Srah Srang then heads east, via Pre Rup, East Mebon (from where you can extend the circuit to Banteay Samre), Ta Som, Neak Pean and Preah Khan. The Grand Circuit can easily be explored in one day (even if you include outlying Banteay Samre), leaving you with a couple of hours to spare when you could visit one or two sights on the Small Circuit.

Roluos The temples of Roluos – in a slightly outlying area west of Siem Reap – are generally covered in a separate day-trip, although they could conceivably be combined with the Grand Circuit in a single, albeit long, day.

The following itinerary allows you to get the most out of three days.

Day One Tour the Grand Circuit in clockwise order, with the addition of Ta Prohm at the end (aiming to arrive at Ta Prohm after 4pm, when the worst of the crowds will have departed).

Day Two Tour the Small Circuit (minus Ta Prohm) in an anticlockwise direction, finishing at Angkor Wat (and visiting the Bayon at the end of your visit to Angkor Thom in order to avoid the crowds).

Day Three Visit the temples of Roluos, combined with a second visit to Angkor Wat (perhaps early in the morning, when the crowds are thinnest) and/or Angkor Thom and the Bayon (or, indeed, anywhere else that’s caught your particular fancy).

The temples of Angkor: structure and symbolism

First encounters with the temples of Angkor can be confusing, or worse. Myriad monuments survive, in varying states of ruin or otherwise, each with its own perplexing labyrinth of towers, enclosures, shrines, galleries, causeways and moats. Diverse and disorienting as they may initially appear, however – an effect exaggerated by the ravages of time – virtually all have numerous features in common, as well as a shared underlying structure and symbolism.

Models of the universe

Most ancient Khmer temples follow a similar pattern, serving as a miniature symbolic representation of the mythological Hindu cosmos. At the heart of each temple, the central sanctuary tower or towers (most commonly five of them, arranged in the characteristic “quincunx” pattern, like the five dots on a dice) represents the mythical Mount Meru, considered the home of the gods and the heart of the physical and spiritual universe in both Hindu and Buddhist cosmology. These towers are typically enclosed by a sequence of concentric enclosures, stacked within each other like a sequence of Russian dolls, symbolizing the further mountain ranges around Mount Meru, with the whole contained within a moat, representing the enclosing earthly ocean. Causeways cross these moats, often flanked by “naga balustrades” showing gods and demons tugging on the body of an enormous serpent, alluding to the famous legend of the Churning of the Ocean of Milk and perhaps providing a symbolic crossing point between the secular spaces outside the temple and the abode of the gods within.

In all but one instance, temples were designed to be approached from the east to catch the rays of the rising sun, symbolizing life. Angkor Wat, however, faces west, the direction of the setting sun – and death.

State temples and the cult of the devaraja

The majority of Angkor’s most memorable and famous monuments – including Angkor Wat, the Bayon, Baphuon, Ta Keo, Pre Rup and Bakheng – are so-called state temples – great pyramidal temple-mountains rising steeply through a series of sheer-sided storeys (equivalent to the enclosures of non-royal Khmer temples) towards a tower-topped summit. Each storey corresponds to one of the universes of Hindu cosmology, leading up to the topmost towers representing Mount Meru, the abode of the gods. All state temples were constructed by a particular king for his own use. Temples built by one king were seldom used by the next, who would build in a new location – which accounts for the constantly shifting capitals of the Angkorian period. State temples were not considered as a place of public worship but as the private abode of each king’s particular god – an aspect of the uniquely Khmer cult known as the devaraja, literally “god-king” (see Religion and beliefs).

Monasteries and shrines

The state temples are just one aspect of Angkorian architecture, however, and smaller temples, monasteries and other structures abound. Most famous are the sprawling monastic complexes of Ta Prohm, Banteay Kdei and Preah Khan. These were public rather than private shrines, serving as monasteries, universities and places of worship for the hoi polloi. Very different in effect from the soaring state temples, these “flat” temples (as they’re sometimes described) nevertheless follow the same basic layout, with a cluster of central towers contained within concentric enclosures, the whole bounded by a moat.

Laterite, brick and sandstone

The building materials used by the ancient Khmer changed over time. Laterite was the basic material, readily available and easy to quarry. This was used to construct walls and other functional structures, although its distinctively rough, pockmarked appearance made it unsuitable for fine decorative carving. Early Angkor-period temples were faced largely in brick (Sambor Prei Kuk and Prasat Kravan are two particularly notable examples), often carved with extraordinary finesse. Later on, the more valuable sandstone became the material of choice for the most important buildings, ranging from the delicate roseate sandstone used at Banteay Srei to the hard, slightly blackish stone at Ta Keo and the Baphuon. Wooden buildings would also have featured, although these have all long since vanished.

Gods and guardians

Much of the beauty of Angkor can be found in the detail, with prodigious quantities of sculpture covering (in the finest temples) virtually every surface. Doors were the main focus, particularly lintel panels above entrances, often fantastically carved with gods or scenes from Hindu mythology and often featured mythical beasts such as the kala and makara. In addition, many doors are flanked by guardian figures, known as dvarapalas. Heavenly apsaras are another favoured motif, while walls and door jambs are often decorated in the flamboyant floral designs so beloved of Khmer craftsmen. The famous narrative bas relief galleries of the Bayon and (especially) Angkor Wat are among the most celebrated instances of Angkorian carving, although they’re not found at any other temples. Perhaps most iconic of all, however, are the superhuman, enigmatic faces of the bodhisattva Lokesvara carved upon the towers of the Bayon, the gateways of Angkor Thom, and at various other locations around Angkor, smiling enigmatically in benign blessing over the lands beyond.

The sacred sword

The sacred sword, as the name of Preah Khan translates, is said to have been a weapon ceremonially passed by Jayavarman II to his heir, and Cambodians still believe that whoever possesses this sword has the right to the country’s throne – many believe a replica of the sword is kept under lock and key at the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh.

Baffling Baphuon

Angkor’s longest-running conservation saga, the fifty-year restoration of the Baphuon temple is a dramatic illustration of the pitfalls and perils of field archeology in action. Work on the temple began in 1959 under the supervision of French architects, who decided that the only way to save Baphuon from collapse was to dismantle the vast structure piece by piece and then put it all back together again – a technique known as “anastylosis”. The temple was therefore dismantled in preparation for its reconstruction, only for war to break out, after which work was abandoned in 1971.

All might have been well, even so, had the Khmer Rouge not decided, in a moment of whimsical iconoclasm, to destroy every last archeological record relating to work on the temple, including plans showing how the hundreds of thousands of stones that had been taken apart were intended to fit back together again. Meaning that when restoration work finally restarted in 1995 conservators were faced (as Pascal Royere, who oversaw the project, put it) with “a three-dimensional, 300,000-piece puzzle to which we had lost the picture”.

Progress, not surprisingly, was slow, and it wasn’t until 2011 that restorations were finally concluded (at a total cost of $14m) and the temple restored to something approaching its former glory. Numerous unindentified stones can still be seen laid out around the complex, even so – unplaced pieces in a great archeological jigsaw that will never entirely be solved.

The Churning of the Ocean of Milk

A popular theme in Khmer art is the Churning of the Ocean of Milk, a creation myth from the Hindu epic the Bhagavata-Purana, which describes the various incarnations of Vishnu. At the beginning of this episode, the devas (gods) and asuras (demons) are lined up on opposite sides, trying to use Mount Mandara to churn the ocean in order to produce amrita, the elixir of immortality. They tug on the serpent Vasuki, who is coiled around the mountain, but to no effect. Vishnu arrives and instructs them to pull rhythmically, but the mountain begins to sink. Things get worse when Vasuki vomits a deadly venom, which threatens to destroy the devas and asuras; Brahma asks Shiva to drink up the venom, which he does, but it burns his throat, which is blue thereafter. Vishnu meanwhile, in his incarnation as the tortoise Kurma, supports Mount Mandara, allowing the churning to continue for another thousand years, after which the amrita is finally produced. Unfortunately, the elixir is seized by the asuras, but Vishnu again comes to the rescue as the apparition Maya and regains the cup of elixir. The churning also results in the manifestation of mythical beings, including the three-headed elephant, Airavata; the goddess of beauty, Lakshmi, who becomes Vishnu’s wife; and the celestial dancers, the apsaras.

Angkor from the air

An exhilarating way to see Angkor is from the air. Although over-flying of the temples is not permitted, you can still get a wonderful overview by balloon, helicopter or microlight. Angkor passes are not required for any of these aerial excursions.

By balloon

The cheapest option is from the gondola of a tethered helium balloon ($15, children $7.50; 15min) located between the airport and Angkor Wat. Weather permitting the balloon ascends to 200m around thirty times a day, carrying up to thirty passengers at a time, offering a bird’s-eye view of Angkor Wat and nearby temples.

By helicopter

Thrilling 8min helicopter trips from Siem Reap’s airport (from $90/person) around the Angkor Wat area run by Helistar Cambodia (063 966072, helistarcambodia.com) and Helicopters Cambodia (063 963316, helicopterscambodia.com). Longer flights can also be arranged over the Tonle Sap, Kulen hills and so on.

By microlight

Most exciting of all are SkyVenture’s microlight trips (skyventure.org); flights start at $60/person for 15min around Roluos up to $180 for a 1hr “see it all” trip.

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Andy Turner
8/29/2020
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