The temples of Angkor, built from the 9th to the 13th centuries by the great Khmer Empire, covers an area the size of Manhattan Island and represents one of mankind’s greatest achievements. The grandeur of scale and the perfection of detail is really quite extraordinary. Visiting Angkor was truly an experience of a lifetime. The 100 or so temples constitute the sacred skeleton of a much larger and spectacular administrative and religious center whose houses, public buildings and palaces were constructed out of wood – now long decayed – because the right to dwell in structures of brick or stone was reserved for the gods. Restoration of the temples began early this century under the French and continues today under the auspices of the UN.
Our first visit was to Angkor Thom, the fortified city approximately 10 square km in extent. It was built by Angkor’s greatest builder, Jayavarman VII (J7), who came to power in the 12th century just after the disastrous sacking of the previous Khmer capital, centered on the Baphuon, by the Chams (people who settled in Vietnam). The city has five monumental gates, one each in the north, west and south walls (the entrance we came through) and two in the east wall. Below is the South Entrance to Angkor Thom which is lined with 54 statues of Gods and Demons.
The most outstanding feature of the Bayon, which was built by J7 in the exact center of the city of Angkor Thom, is the eerie and unsettling third level, with its icily smiling, gargantuan faces of Avalokitesvara (reputed to be based on J7). Almost as extraordinary are the Bayon’s 1,200m of bas-reliefs, incorporating over 11,000 figures. The famous carvings on the outer wall of the first level depict vivid scenes of life in the 12th century Cambodia.
Terrace of Elephants
The 350 meter long Terrace of Elephants was used as a giant reviewing stand for public ceremonies and served as a base for the king’s grand audience hall. The middle section of the retaining wall is decorated with human-sized garudas (mythical human birds) and lions. Towards either end as the two parts of the famous Parade of Elephants.
Terrace of the Leper King
The Terrace of the Leper King, just north of the Terrace of Elephants, is a platform seven meters in height on top of which stands a nude (though sexless) statue (actually a copy). The figure, possibly of Shiva, is believed by locals to be of Yasovarman, a Khmer ruler whom legend says died of leprosy.
The Baphuon, a pyramidal representation of Mount Meru, is 200 meters north west of the Bayon. It was constructed by Udayadityavarman II (reigned 1050-66) at the center of the his city, the third built at Angkor. The decor of the Baphuon, including the door frames, lintels and octagonal columns, is particularly fine. On the western side of the temple, the retaining wall of the second level was fashioned – apparently in the 15th century – into a reclining Buddha 40m in length.
Angkor Wat, with its soaring towers and extraordinary bas-reliefs, is considered by many to be one of the most inspired and spectacular monuments ever conceived by the human mind. It was built by Suryavarman II (1112-52) to honor Vishnu(with whom he, as a god-king, was identified) and for use as his funerary temple. The central temple complex consists of three storeys, each of which encloses a square surrounded by intricately interlinked galleries. Rising 31m above the third level and 55m above the ground is the central tower, which gives the whole ensemble its sublime unity. Stretching around the outside of the central temple complex is an 800m long series of extraordinary bas-reliefs. Also located outside the temple is a Bodhi tree which is a symbol of the Tree of Enlightenment.
The most famous scene, the Churning of the Ocean of Milk, is along the southern section of the east gallery. This carving depicts 88 asuras (devils) on the left and 92 devas (gods) with crested helmets on the right, churning up the sea in order to extract the elixir of immortality, which both groups covet. I have a picture of it below along with other bas-reliefs of Apsaras and other interesting carvings.
In the morning we drove through the lush countryside to Banteay Srei, or the Citadel of the Women, which is a small architectural gem with unusually deep stone relief. Its located some 25km northeast of the main cluster of temples but takes over an hour to get to because the roads are so poorly made. The construction of this temple spanned two kingships – Rajendravarman II and Jayavarman V. The temple was built out of hard pink sandstone. The five structures at the center of the complex are amazing and the carvings are exquisite. The library to the south presents scenes of Ravana shaking Mount Kailusa.
The 17th century Buddhist temple of Ta Prohm is one of the largest Khmer
edifices of the Angkorian period and looks like something straight out of Indiana Jones. It has been left just as it looked when the first French explorers set eyes on its over a century ago. Whereas the other major monuments of Angkor have been preserved and made suitable for scholarly research by a massive program to clear away the jungle, this Buddhist temple has been left to the jungle. There is also a 500 years old acorn (last picture in the series below). Don’t miss this one!!