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 – an astonishing profusion of ancient monuments 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.
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).