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Temples of Angkor, Cambodia’s Greatest Khmer Ancient City
The Temples of Angkor, located in the north west of Cambodia, represent the most important archeological site remaining from the Khmer culture; they are a tangible standing monument to the glory of the Khmer empire that once thrived in the heart and soul of Southeast Asia and are, up till today, a national pride for the Cambodian people. During the Khmer Rouge terror that took hold of Cambodia not so long ago (1975-1979), most of the Khmer cultural items were destroyed, but even the unstoppable rage of Pol Pot –its leader and instigator- was held by the greatness and immeasurable value of the Angkor Temples, which were fortunately saved.
Temples of Angkor: Preah KhanClick thumbnail to view full-size
Khmer Temples: The Beauty of Angkor
The Temples of Angkor have been designated the Eighth Wonder of the World and encompass a group of religious buildings and complexes spread throughout the forest; they were once the worship centers of the Khmer empire’s nucleus and were located within a flourishing city. Stone was reserved as raw material for the gods and this is the reason why today we can only see the remains of religious buildings, with no trace of the commoner’s housing.
During the Angkorian period, the Khmer empire was the regional power and its culture was dominant over the territory which today encompasses Thailand and Vietnam, with Cambodia at its core. Khmer people were organized in a God-King Monarchy, where religion was tightly related to politics; most of the artistic production had to do with elements of divine worship. Because of the commerce between India and China, Cambodia was influenced by the Indian culture and religion: its influence is visible in the Hindu religion elements present in their temple’s design, along with Buddhism traits. In fact, one of the great Angkor Kings “Suryavarman II" was inspired by the Hindu deity Vishnu to create Angkor Wat, while King Jayavarman VII was led by his Buddhist devotion to the construction of Angkor Thom. Today, the majority of Khmers follow the Theravada branch of Buddhism; nevertheless, Hinduism is still threaded into it in different ways (ceremonies, legends, sculptures).
Angkor Cambodia: Khmer CultureClick thumbnail to view full-size
The archeological site is located in an extensive are of thick, luscious jungle that makes the visit even more pleasing to the eye, ear and mind. Each temple is wrapped in a peaceful natural silence disrupted only by the occasional fauna sounds of the vibrant green environment. The jungle has been penetrated by narrow red clay roads that facilitate the access, and are transited by bicycles, motors and Túk-Túks (motorized version of a rickshaw) which take visitors from temple to temple. Fortunately for us curious travelers, the area has such a big scale that it almost never feels crowded or uncomfortable.
Largest Religious Center in the World: Angkor WatClick thumbnail to view full-size
Angkor Wat is considered the largest religious center in the world and it is Khmer’s national symbol. The temple was build from sandstone blocks picked up more than 50km away and transported through the Stung Siem Reap river on rafts, which is quite an undertaking. Unlike the other Angkor temples, it has been continually used since it was built up to this day and it is in better conditions than other temples that where abandoned and invaded by nature.
One of Angkor Wat’s most cherished sculptures is an 800m long series of bas relief related to Angkor mythology. The most famous scene “The Churning of the Ocean of Milk” depicts 88 demons versus 92 gods, holding opposite ends of a massive serpent and stirring up the sea to extract the elixir of immortality.
Temple of BayonClick thumbnail to view full-size
Angkor Thom is a fortified city containing different temples and ceremony centers:
- Bayon, a temple characterized by the enormous faces decorating the gothic towers.
- Bauphon, which was taken apart by a team of archeologists working on it, and whose records were destroyed by the Khmer Rouge destructive madness.; this made it almost impossible to rebuild it, but now, after years of reconstruction, this temple has finally been restored.
- Terrace of the Elephants
- Terrace of the Leper King
Ta Prohm is one of the most impressive temples of Angkor; all though it has been partially destroyed, its beauty lies mainly in the fusion between Khmer’s architectural art and the fecundity of the jungle that grows and expands, wherever it may need to anchor its roots, to exploit its powerful potential. Moss grows in every stone. Trees respect no boundaries. The vegetation at Ta Prohm reminds us just how old this human creation is.
Ta Prohm Archeological SiteClick thumbnail to view full-size
Bakong, AngkorClick thumbnail to view full-size
Bakong Temple, along with Preah Ko (see images above) belong to the Roluos Temples, which are the earliest big stone Khmer temples. Preah Ko belongs to the pre-Angkorian period. Bakong is dedicated to the Hindu deity Shiva. Both are made of brick and sandstone with plaster reliefs.
Bakong is surrounded by charming little houses here and there, with beautiful flowered gardens that bring more color to the scenery. The dark stone, red clay, bright colored bugambilias and vibrant green make a beautiful contrasted composition.
Angkor Archeological Sites & Siem Reap
Siem Reap is the town from which one can visit the Temples of Angkor. Old French architecture, international restaurants and a rather well organized central core make it quite a pleasant destination. Here is where you can arrange transport and guidance into the Temples of Angkor which can be visited by foot, bike, motor or Túk-Túks (please avoid cars, it takes all the charm away and they are far to big for the roads).
Temple of Bakong
I wouldn’t recommend walking your way through the temples at all, bicycles are nice only if you are very, very fit; there are big distances between temples, plus you have to (a) walk quite a lot in the temple and its surroundings -which also tires you out-, and (b) you’ll have to peddle from and back to the hotel, which will probably be in Siem Reap (all of this while carrying water and all of your stuff). I hugely advice making a deal with a Túk-Túk driver who can pick you up at the hotel or guesthouse in which you are staying and take you around the temples all day. It is comfortable, it shades you from the sun and you can rest for a while between one temple exploration and the next, you can leave your stuff in it and freely take a look at the temples without having to carry everything you brought with you; and last, but not least, it remains a charming vehicle and a nice face to face contact with a true Cambodian with whom you can have an individual to individual experience.
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