For centuries, Angkor was the center of the Khmer Empire. With impressive monuments and sophisticated urban plans, it demonstrates the development of a formidable kingdom and its exceptional civilization. Today, the site is one of the most important archaeological sites in South-East Asia. And no traveler to the region will want to miss this extravagant beauty.
Hiding in the jungle of Cambodia’s northern province Siem Reap, Angkor (ប្រាសាទអង្គរ) is one of the most important archaeological sites in South-East Asia. It contains the magnificent remains of different Khmer Empire capitals, from the 9th to the 15th century. The whole complex covers an area of more than 400 km², including multiple temple complexes and forested areas. According to the Cambodian, Angkor is the embodiment of Mt Meru, home of the gods in Hinduism. Therefore, it exemplifies cultural, religious, and symbolic significance, as well as high architectural and artistic value.
Of all temples in the archaeological site, Angkor Wat (អង្គរវត្ត) or “Capital Temple” is probably the best-preserved architecture. Built in the early 12th century by King Suryavarman II, it was dedicated to Vishnu – one of the three major deities in Hinduism. The temple complex stretches over 162 hectares, with quincunx of towers at the center. The architects’ calculation was so precise, that from afar, only three towers are visible. The towers are then surrounded by three rectangular galleries, kilometers long wall, and a wide moat.
Near the end of the 12th century, the “Capital Temple” fell into the hand of Cham invaders. It suffered some damage, but quickly recovered thanks to King Jayavarman VII. However, the temple was converted into a Buddist temple, because the King was a faithful Buddhist. When the Khmer Empire was demised in the 15th century, the temple gradually receded into the jungle. Yet its role as a religious center has not waned over centuries.
I must admit I was not prepared for the enormous size and overwhelming beauty of Angkor Wat. The temple is the ultimate expression of Khmer genius, which in turn becomes the source of inspiration as well as the national pride of all Cambodians. Therefore, it is no surprise to see the temple proudly standing at the center of the country’s flag.
After reclaiming the empire in the late 12th century, King Jayavarman VII – Cambodia’s most celebrated king – established a new capital just several kilometers north of Angkor Wat. He named it Angkor Thom (អង្គរធំ), which means “The Great City”. And it was indeed the last and most enduring capital in Khmer Empire’s history (nearly 300 years).
Covering an area of over 9 km², the ancient city was built in a nearly perfect square. It was protected by a multi-layered system, including gates, high walls, and a wide moat. During its heyday, Angkor Thom might have a population of one million people.
Standing exactly at the heart of this city is the mesmerizing Bayon Temple – the intersection between Heaven and Earth. Constructed in the late 12th or early 13th century, it served as the official state temple of Jayavarman’s kingdom. The temple is known for its 216 gargantuan smiling stone faces of Avalokiteshvara – a bodhisattva who embodies the compassion of all Buddhas. They were carved on the many towers which jut out from the upper terrace and cluster around its central peak. The curious smiling image was thought by many to be the portrait of the King himself.
With enormous tree roots embracing crumbling towers and systems of vines strangulate walls, Ta Prohm ( ប្រាសាទតាព្រហ្ម) does look otherworldly. Known as Rajavihara (Monastery of the King), the 12th-century Buddhist complex lies approximately one kilometer east of Angkor Thom and was dedicated to the family of King Jayavarman VII. The complex is filled with temples, closed courtyards, and narrow corridors where more than 12,500 people are called home.
After the fall of the Khmer Empire in the 15th century, Ta Prohm was abandoned and neglected for centuries. Unlike other monuments in the area, it’s in much the same condition which it was discovered by European explorers in the 1800s. Hundred of years old trees tower overhead, their leaves filter the sunlight and cast shadows over the whole scene. The temple is literally swallowed by the jungle, making it the most atmospheric ruins in the Angkor Archeological Park.
Tips for visiting Angkor
- An Angkor Pass is required to visit temples and sites in the Angkor Archeological Park. It can be purchased directly at the main entrance on the road to Angkor Wat. Please note that the cashier only accept crisply bills.
- It’s recommended to buy the ticket the day before to avoid the massive crowd in the morning. The pass will be checked at the entrance of each major temple, so keep the pass with you. If you get caught at the site without a pass, you may get a considerable fine.
- The park is opened at 5:00 and closed at 18:00. Some temples might be closed earlier.
- As most of the temples face east, the best lighting condition is in the morning, except for Angkor Wat. But the sunrise at Angkor Wat is still pretty amazing. Temples surrounded by jungle such as Ta Prohm can also be photographed when the sun is overhead.
- The whole complex is enormous. Therefore, taking a Tuk Tuk to travel from temple to temple might be a wise choice. The cost is affordable (around 10-15$ for the whole day). A taxi might cost around 35$ per day.
- When in Siem Reap, I would recommend watching a show of Phare – the Cambodian circus. The performance is great and easy to understand. There are also subtitles in both French and English. Furthermore, the ticket sale is donated to orphanages, from which the artists originate.