The Wonders of Angkor Wat
Angkor is one of those places where no matter how many times you visit, you can never get bored of it, or experience everything this magnificent temple complex has to offer. Located near the town of Siam Reap in Cambodia, Angkor stretches over 400 km2 and includes some of the most important historical temples in the world, including the most famous, Angkor Wat, as well as Angkor Thom and the Bayon. Whilst these are the three most famous temple complexes in the archaeological park, there are literally thousands of other temples, structures, hydraulic structures, statues, and roads.
Angkor was for centuries the centre of the Khmer civilization, which at one point stretched into Thailand and Laos and influenced much of South East Asia. Each temple complex was built by one particular leader with its own unique style, design and symbolic significance. The fact that each temple is so unique is what makes Angkor so special, and unlike anywhere on the planet. A recent visit to Cambodia and Angkor Wat was my 4th time and despite the visible increase in visitors it is still possible to find plenty of places seemingly deserted and hours literally fly by as I explored the ruins of the temples. Whilst the more popular and famous temples are indeed spectacular, as I visit more and more, I find myself seeking out the lesser known temples where crumbled ruins often hide a multitude of beautiful carvings and structures and with far fewer people.
It is still as awe inspiring as ever to drive past the mighty Angkor Wat however. Built by Suryavarman II during one of the greatest building phases of the Khmer empire, this imposing structure was dedicated to Vishnu and still remains the largest religious structure in the world. After a period of un-rest, Jayavarman VII started another phase of unprecedented building, with Angkor Thom being the latest capitol and the Bayon being built and dedicated to Buddha. These temples are as impressive as anything on earth and people are always torn between which one they prefer – is it the mystique of Ta Phrom, with giant buttress roots swallowing the temples, or the enigmatic faces of the Bayon, gazing out over the empire? Or the sheer scale and beauty of the carvings at Angkor Wat?
If people are visiting for just a day, the trip usually encompasses Angkor Wat, Ta Phrom and the Bayon and whilst a day is not sufficient to even touch the surface, it is a perfect way to get an overall picture of Angkor archeological park. Another popular option is the 3 day pass whereby people can spend much longer at the main temples complexes, but also visit other impressive areas, such as the Terrace of the Elephants. This stunning structure is part of the walled city of Angkor Thom and was used by Jayavarman VII as a platform to watch over his victorious army processions. The terrace is 350m long and covered with carvings including those of elephants of which the terrace is named after. The Terrace of the Elephants is another favourite of mine, with some of the bas reliefs looking like they were carved just yesterday. As you stand on the terrace there are a number of structures on the plain which add to the grandeur of this part of Angkor. To think that what is left is just a fraction of the overall structure (most of which was made of wood) boggles the mind.
Another stunning temple near the Terrace of the Elephants is The Baphuon. If you visit the terrace then you should find the time to visit this, few people make the effort and often you will have the majority of the complex to yourself. The Baphuon was built in the mid 11th century as a state temple of Udayadityavarman II and dedicated to the Hindu god of Shiva. The temple stands 34m tall now, however in its hayday there would have been an additional tower making it 50m tall. What makes The Baphuon more interesting is that it was converted to a Buddhist temple, and this is evident on the rear of the temple where its just possible to make out a large reclining Buddha, 9m high and 70m long.
If you have time on your hands, one of the most memorable temples in all my trips to Angkor is Banteay Srei, which is a 10th century temple dedicated to the Hidu god of Shiva. The distance of Banteay Srei to the main temples of Angkor (25km) puts most people off, but the journey is worthwhile to see some of the most amazing carvings in all of Angkor. The stone used is red sandstone which also makes the temple stand out, and the buildings are miniature compared to other temples, however, every square cm of stone is intricately carved in the finest detail, again making it hard to believe this is a 1000 year old temple! Unusually, Banteay Srei was not built by a monarch, instead it was built in 967AD by a courtier named Yajnavaraha who served as a counselor to King Rajendravarman II. The temple was originally surrounded by a town, but as the principle material for most of the Khmer structures was wood, this has long since disappeared.
There are now even more things to do in Cambodia, with the opening of Flight of the Gibbon in 2013, it is now possible to zipline in Cambodia within the archeological park. Visitors can soar through the rainforest canopy from platform to platform among the stunning temples of Angkor. The town of Siam Reap has also developed a lot over the years to cater for the growing number of tourists and has a range of accommodation to suit all budgets, as well as great dining options and entertainment. Living in Thailand means a trip to Cambodia is never more than an hour away and I will no doubt continue to visit Angkor again and again.