Angkor Wat : World Heritage Sites
Face of Avalokiteshvara (Jayavarman VII)
The Glory Days of the Khmer Empire
I flew into Siem Reap to visit the temples of Angkor in Cambodia
last year and I thought I would share some photos I took and mention highlights of the trip
since it ranks as one of the most interesting places I have ever visited. I found the people
to be very welcoming and genuinely interested in a cultural exchange of views.
Given what the people have been through and how relatively recent the days of Pol
Pot’s madness are, the Cambodians put on a brave face and try to put the past behind them.
Cambodians have endured more than a few historical battles of which they were mostly on the losing side after the decline of the Angkor Empire which spanned over 600 years, from 802AD until 1432, when the city of Angkor was sacked by the Thais who made off with a handsome booty.
Many Cambodians still loathe Thais for this historical event as well as the condescending view that Thais are perceived to hold for their weaker neighbor. The Vietnamese aren’t a whole lot more popular for historical reasons. But I don’t want to focus on the tragic history of Cambodia, the dark days of the Khmer Rouge or the current dispute between Thailand and Cambodia over the ancient temple, Prasat Preha Vihear. Instead I want to show the magnificent legacy of Angkor which echoes the ‘glory days’ of the empire of which the Cambodians are very proud.
I’ve also included some shots taken on a boat ride we took on Tonle Sap, said to be the ‘heartbeat of Cambodia’ and the biggest freshwater lake in Southeast Asia.
Two of the 216 Faces of Jayavarman - Bayon
The temples of Angkor are said to be the heart and soul of
the Kingdom of Cambodia. You really can’t imagine how
magnificent these incredibly ambitious and divinely inspired sculpted
temples are until you stand before them. The Cambodian Kings virtually deified
themselves and each god-king tried to out do his predecessor by virtue of the
grandeur of the temples they commissioned. In fact, Angkor Wat (wat means temple)
is the world’s largest religious structure and it is thought that the Bayon is one
of the most odd.
My wife and I spent a few days exploring the temples of Angkor but would have happily stayed longer and slowed the pace if we could have afforded to. At the time the heat was punishing and we were on a schedule.
Tonle Sap - The Largest Lake in SE Asia
Suggested Highlights of Angkor, Cambodia
Angkor Wat – Awesome in size as well as stunning for its symmetry and relief images. It is incredibly well preserved has magnificent bas-reliefs. It faces the west, which associated with death, and is thought to be the funerary temple for Suryavarman II to honor the Hindu god Vishnu, with whom he had formed a strong identification.
Bayon – This is one of my personal favorite temples despite the colossal ego and desire for self-aggrandizement of Jayavarman VII who commissioned it. There are 54 gothic towers decorated with 216 enormous faces of Jayavarman himself, under the guise of being representative of Avalokiteshvara, a bodhisattva of compassion in Mahayana Buddhism. With over 11,000 figures carved into the walls and bas-relief depicting vivid scenes of everyday life in 12th century Cambodia it is worth a few visits to take it all in.
Ta Prohm – Another must see! This is the place of childhood dreams of jungle adventures and Tomb Raider scenes. Whereas the immediate environment of other temples has been cleared, Ta Prohm has been mostly left swallowed in dense jungle, making for a very atmospheric experience. Thick roots of overhead trees have wound their way though the temple like vast muscular tentacles. I suggest an early morning visit to avoid the crowds and enjoy the eerie serenity of the jungle as it wakes up.
Banteay Srei – Many regard Banteay Srei to offer the very best of Angkorian art. It’s a Hindu temple devoted to Shiva and the level of detail in the carved pinkish sandstone is highly impressive. Art critics around the world agree that it boasts some of the finest stone carvings on the planet. Banteay Srei translates to 'Citadel of the Women' and it has been argued that the carvings are of such delicacy that they could only have been made by the hands of a woman. Construction began in 967AD and unlike most other temples, was not commissioned by a king but by a Brahman, thought to be a tutor to Jayavarman V. Sculptures include breathtaking images of women with lotus flowers in their hair and scenes from the Ramayana, the Hindu epic.
A Little Research Will Make for a Richer Experience
These are really just places that I highly recommend amongst a host of other places also very worthy of a visit. It's worth doing a little background reading and then talking to a guide once you arrive in Siem Reap so that you can prioritize sites to make the best of your available time. It’s far better to see a few places properly without rushing than to race from one to next. I actually saw a few folk in a sweat running from one temple to the next, snapping off a few shots, and then hitting the next, the last having barely registered an impression.
Having a good local guide as we did made the experience all the richer. We were blessed with a really intelligent and experienced guide, who after getting over the fact that we lived in Thailand, was very good to us and made sure we got the most out of the experience – tips like where to catch the best sunset and sunrise and how best to avoid the hoards.
I hope you enjoyed this little run down and as a side note – if you make the trip to Cambodia, try to give a few bucks to the unfortunate people without limbs who are victims of the many, many landmines that were laid during the days of the Khmer Rouge. They play traditional music outside some of the temples and earn their living this way. The Cambodians are bravely carrying on with everyday life with smiles on their faces and hopes for a better future.
Some other hubs related to Southeast Asia that you may enjoy are: