Angkor Wat - the Magnificence of a Lost Civilization
"Angkor Wat, in its beauty and state of preservation is unrivalled. Its mightiness and magnificence bespeak a pomp luxury surpassing that of a Pharaoh or a Shah Jahan, an impressiveness greater than that of the Pyramids, an artistic dimension as fine as that of the Taj Mahal" - D.H. Dickson
The grandeur of Angkor Wat’s temples and palaces, the majestic stone faces of the Bayon, the moat surrounded shrine of Angkor Wat and the great walled city of Angkor Thom all still bear witness to the splendour of what was once the most magnificent empire in Southeast Asia. The kingdom of Cambodia is enchanting and magical, a land where rivers flow uphill and villages float in the lake, a civilization as old as history still supported by the centuries old temples and gardens their history spelt out in stone carvings depicting their legends and gods.
The Angkor Kingdom was founded in 802 A.D. by Prince Jayavarman II, who pronounced himself a “god-king,” thereby giving himself “power” and demanding complete loyalty from his subjects. He was the predecessor of many such god-kings, and between the 9th century until the 13th, palaces and fine temples were constructed by successive god-kings, each competing to build grander, more magnificent structures than his predecessor. The many images adorning the temples include dancing nymphs, characters from mythology, phallic symbols, lotus flowers, elephants, and ancient Sanskrit texts, the intricately carved temples are geometrically perfect and decorated with flattened gold leaves and semi precious gems. The turning point came when Henri Mahout, the French explorer discovered this surreal city of temples and palaces, they were in a state of ruin. Many had crumbled and destroyed by the jungle. Mahout published a book on Angkor in 1868 which included rough hand-drawn sketches, and thus enabled restoration to take place. The Khmer Rouge’s takeover and the civil war tearing the country apart caused the work to be abruptly stopped. The temples were abandoned to the jungle and many irreplaceable documents were ruined. After the civil war ended, Cambodia opened its doors to the thousands of tourists that visited the city to wonder at the phenomenon that was Angkor Wat. The city of temples is remarkably well preserved, it looks like a fairy palace in the middle of a dark, mysterious forest, so serene that you can close your eyes and imagine the glory of the bygone era.
The “Great Walled City” or Angkor Thom, the capital of Angkor, was built by King Jayavarman VII said to be the mightiest ruler. Spread over ten square kilometres and enclosed by a hundred meters wide moat also home to beastly crocodiles. Four colossal gates, each large enough to allow the Kings procession to pass by complete with elephants, horse riders and a band, faced in all four directions. The Baryon temple is unparalleled in its sheer size with fifty four towers built to represent the 54 districts of Angkor Wat. Each tower has one face on each of its four sides to represent compassion, knowledge, equality and simplicity. The enigmatic heads of the Bayon, It’s labelled its crowning glory, took twenty one years and many hours of labour to build. The Baryon temple is almost as impacting as Angkor Wat, the carving is not as precise as that of Angkor Wat, which was built forty years before the Baryon, but the influence is just as impressionable.
Angkor Wat is one large temple also the largest religious structure in the world, the mystery and beauty of which are unrivalled in the precise and perfect proportions of its architecture. Angkor Wat was built around the early 12th century and never completely abandoned which is why this exquisite marvel of architecture is well preserved. One can walk the courtyards aimlessly and explore the narrow galleries and hidden staircases. Compared to the surrounding temples which were deserted to the advancing forest, the charm of Angkor Wat lies in the fact that it was used and repaired over the course of time. Angkor Wat is still very much in use by the many statues of Buddha or character from the Ramayana adorning its many corners and flights of stairs, the statues are clothed and worshipped with fragrant incense burning around it. The local people flock here in the evenings to bask in the pride of their heritage, the only remnants of the once mighty and grand empire. Just a haunting memory of what once was and will never be again. ...
When Angkor was dissipated to the intruding forests, the temples lay neglected and discarded for over 400 years, while the jungles fiercely marked their territory. Later the restoration teams and archeologists painstakingly cleared away the intrusive jungles at most of the temples, but a few, like Ta Prohm, were intentionally left as they were found.
The un-restored temple of Ta Prohm transports tourists into another world, the ruins are delightfully exquisite like a childhood fantasy come true. In the bosom of the enchanting jungle, a very short length from Angkor Thom, lies Ta Prohm in exactly the same shape as it had been discovered by the French naturalists close to a hundred and forty five years ago. Vegetation and trees cover the temples, each corner conquered by half a century old trees which grow right over the crumbling temples, their entrances blocked by creepers and littered with the stone remnants of now destroyed temples. Elephantine Banyan tree look alikes commonly known as "sponges" grow on the terraces of these structures, their tentacle like roots enveloping the walls look like they are in the process of swallowing the mortar structure but still giving the place an ethereal presence, every corner revealing the co-existence of nature and man in perfect albeit destructive harmony, the many wonders of nature embracing man made art.
The central structure of Banteay Srei is not half as grand as that of Angkor Wat or Ta Prohm. Located twenty-five kilometers out of Siem Riep, it is slightly inconveniencing to travel to, many visitors tend to leave this tenth century temple out of their tightly packed schedules.
However the temple is well worth a visit, the intimate structure is stunning with its deep red hues and intricate sandstone carvings. Banteay Srei is one of the oldest of the Angkor temples, and best depicts the role India played in influencing the religious and spiritual outlook of early Khmer society. The architecture and art is heavily dominated by Indian character.
There are many other temples and structures in Angkor Wat. Phnom Bakheng is supposed to be famous for its sunsets, the brilliant colors of the sun illuminating the Angkor Wat.
Ta Keo is another unique temple in Angkor Wat because it was never finished. A theory says that as it is regularly struck by lightning, it might have frightened the builders and considered it a bad omen. The absence of all decorations accentuate the clean lines of this unfinished structure..
For most of us traveling is beyond just sight seeing, the main reasons for visiting far away lands is to see the culture and lifestyle of people as well. Angkor Wat is a fascinating place with the perfect blend of the old and new with no distinction between realism and fantasy. You can visit one of the many villages and watch people going by their lives, the simplicity of cooking without microwaves, communicating without cellular phones and sleeping without air conditioners. The country side is beautiful with sprawling rice fields dotted with water buffaloes, men and women with their garments bunched up, standing in thigh high water, children splashing in the ponds, their cheerful faces brightly lit at the sight of you. You can even opt to stay here and learn about organic rice and fish farming. The lifestyle enables you to follow them completely, from shopping at local bazaars, choosing chilies and tomatoes fresh from the garden to experiment with ethnic cuisine. Similarly you can spend evening eating at the many restaurants in town or attending a performance of traditional music and dance. Nearly all of the classical performers were killed during the war because the regime wanted to wipe out all traces of the past. Today the few who survived are passing their skills and knowledge to the next generation, so this hundreds of year’s old art will not die. Cambodian classical dance plays a very important part in Cambodian culture. It has been associated with the Royal Court of Cambodia for over a thousand years. Recognized by its graceful, elegant gestures and the rich silk costumes, elaborately detailed with embroidery, this beautiful dance form has come to embody the historical traditions and values of Khmer throughout the world
The children in Cambodia only go to school for half a day since they are required to go and help earn money for their poverty stricken families. All schooling is free so most of the children attend classes. You can volunteer to teach and play with the children or donate food, notebooks etc. Any help is greatly appreciated. The Landmine museum in Siem Reap is a learning experience, it runs purely on donations, which also helps support those children disabled by landmines. You can visit the after-school classes where the young children learn foreign languages and a multitude of volunteers teach them.
At the Angkor Silk Fair, silk producers from all over the country get together to exhibit their latest collections and many festivities are organized to celebrate the ancient heritage of Khmer silk weaving in Cambodia. The show is held in February every year and if you happen to be in town do visit it for their stunning designs.
One of the best hotels is the Grand Hotel d’Angkor, whose recent renovation by Singapore’s Raffles Group has restored its lost luster. The Grand sits across a garden from King Sihanouk’s palace, only seven miles from the much famed Angkor Wat.
Smiley guest house suits the mid budget traveler, it’s comfortable and warm with a large garden restaurant, great food and very helpful staff. Many other bed and breakfast options can be found near by.
Angkor is truly awe inspiring, rightly called the eighth wonder of the World. What is remarkable about Angkor is that it is so magnificently grand compard to any structure in the history of mankind, the sheer size with the majority of the temples covers an area of about 200 square miles and yet so accessible and comparatively well preserved.
Leaving the fairy land of Angkor is difficult; the setting sun descends on the temple kingdom casting a fiery red glow over the distant Tonle Sap Lake. Words fail to describe the beauty of the structures, beckoning you to visit the magnificent remnants of the architectural masterpieces again and again. Not just stones and mortar, the essence of the city is woven into the fabric that is life.