UNESCO certainly are kept busy in this neck of the woods and Cambodia is no exception. Deep within the thick Cambodian jungle lies a city that, from around the 9th to 15th centuries, served as the seat of the Khmer Empire and flourished with life. It was forgotten to civilization for 400 years and slowly disappeared due to encroaching jungle covering all parts of it. This was a magnificent ancient city covering 322 km2. This was Angkor.
Frenchman Henri Mouhot is often mistakenly credited with "discovering" Angkor in January 1860. However, this is not correct because Angkor was never lost — the location and existence of the entire series of Angkor sites was always known to the Khmers and had been visited by several westerners since the 16th century. This included missionaries, a Portuguese trader and a Portuguese Monk. It is therefore more accurate to say that Mouhot popularized Angkor in the West.
The word Angkor is derived from the Sanskrit nagara, meaning "city". The Angkorian period began in AD 802, when the Khmer Hindu monarch Jayavarman VII declared himself a "universal monarch" and "god-king", which was rather ballsy of him. Talk about an inflated ego?!?
The ruins of Angkor are located amid forests and farmland to the north of the Great Lake (Tonlé Sap) near Siem Reap. There are over 1000 temples ranging in scale from nondescript piles of rubble scattered through paddy fields to the magnificent Angkor Wat, said to be the world's largest single religious monument. Many of the temples at Angkor have been restored to showcase the most significant site of Khmer architecture. It is believed that Angkor was the largest preindustrial city in the world, with an urban sprawl of at least 1,000 km2. The closest rival to Angkor, the Mayan city of Tikal in Guatemala which I visited and was astounded by in 2008, was between 100 and 150 km2 in total size.
Today, after years of being on my ever-expanding bucket list, I finally got my itchy feet to Angkor. I even braided my hair Lara Croft-style to get my Tomb Raider on. A 3-day pass costs $40USD and ensures that you can take your time seeing the big guns one day, come back for a sunrise one morning plus visit some of the smaller sites. One day just won't cut it, get at least a 3 day pass. When you purchase your pass you have to pose for a photo as this gets printed onto your pass. Naturally you look like you're dead. This photo pass is one of the measures they're taking to stop scams from occurring and doesn't take long to do.
Angkor Wat is truly a symbol of Cambodia, explaining why it is on the national flag. When I first saw the familiar sight I said "oh wow"... Loudly. I don't think my descriptive could do justice to what you lay your eyes upon. So, you are just going to have to go and see it for yourself. It should be on everyone's bucket list! It surpassed my expectations and you can't help but feel a sense of amazement at being here. Unlike some ancient sites, they let you in to just just about any part of the temple. However they're really strict about dressing appropriately, which some people shamelessly ignored to their disadvantage, and you WILL be refused entry to certain parts.
The artwork carved into the sandstone walls throughout the temple is overwhelmingly beautiful and the architecture itself is mind-blowing, it is all based on exact astronomical measurements and sacred geometry. The rock from which this astounding monument was built was quarried more than 50km away and floated down the river on rafts.
The upper level is open again to "modern pilgrims" that are cleverly disguised as tourists, like me *cough*, but your visits are strictly timed to 20 minutes. The entire complex is huge, 1.5km by 1.3km, so take your time... and lots of water, sunblock and Deet!
If I was astounded by Angkor Wat then I was naïvely unprepared for Angkor Thom. The gate grabs you first, either side of you along the causeway there are these neat looking 54 demon and 54 god statues engaged in a representation of the Churning of the Ocean of Milk. However, there was no cream to be seen anywhere......
At the centre of Angkor Thom is the Bayon, the temple of the rather egocentric Jayavarman VII. This temple will stand out in your memory. This temple is stunningly beautiful. This temple is mesmerizing as the carvings are very different from the other temples. This is the temple of faces. Approaching the temple from afar, they begin to come into focus. There are 216 coldly smiling faces of Avalokiteshvara decorating 54 towers and they're enormous. You can climb up and view many of them at eye level, which is a bit of a mind ending experience. The crowd can get large here and I suspect you often have to queue to take photo with the faces. Thankfully I got there just before the rush. This was definitely one of my favourite of the temples visited.
Nerd alert: Out of all those carved faces, only one is truly smiling! My guide challenged me to find it... it will probably not be as much of a challenge if there are lots of tourists as they will be all queuing to take photos with it.
Ta Prohm is Tomb Raider and Indiana Jones all rolled into one! Incidentally Angelina Jolie filmed here, the Bayon and Angkor Wat plus a few other places around Angkor for the 2001 movie. Ta Prohm was left largely as it was rediscovered in the early 21st century. The Archaeological Survey of India is currently restoring more of the temple in the back of the complex one brick at a time, a very costly endeavour I'm sure but makes you realize how important your entrance fee is. This is the temple where you can see the jungle itself devouring this 12th century monastery and university, leaving you in awe of nature's power. It's also where the heaven's opened with a torrential downpour and I fled in fear of my camera gear exploding as opposed to being chased by the Illuminati. See! An excellent reason for a 3 day pass, I can make a second attempt tomorrow!
After a day of temple trekking I'm heading out to sample some Khmer cuisine in Siem Reap at Le Tigre de Papier.