Ancient Temples have always fascinated me… how did they build them? How was it possible for the Great Wall of China to be so large it can be seen from Space? How did Machu Picchu perch itself in the sky? Chichen Itza, Stonehenge, the Great Pyramid of Giza… all built with such precision, planning and detail, in a Time void of Technology and yet they have withstood..at least in discernable form, for Millennia. …. immensely powerful places all, built as much with Stone, as with historical importance, providing millions with a Place to glimpse something Bigger, over Generations.
It was no surprise from this growing sense of wonder throughout my Life, that one day I found myself at another mysterious and magical place, Angkor Wat, in Cambodia. ..Rich in Architectural splendour and fascinating Khmer history, it is actually the Largest Religious structure in the World and the 8th Wonder of the World…
Starting out from Kuala Lumpur, I booked a flight to Siem Reap International Airport, and once on the Ground, less than 20-minutes later, I was in the centre of Siem Reap itself, a gateway city for tourists, free to explore the historical UNESCO World Heritage Site of the former Khmer Empire or just enjoy the natural beauty of Southeast Asia’s largest freshwater lake, ‘Tonlé Sap’ also known as Cambodia’s “Great Lake”.
Up until half a decade ago, Siem Reap was just a provincial town in Cambodia, then tourist inflows started to pour into the city, mainly in search of those magnificent Angkorian temples.
The accompanying Economic Boom for the Country and City in particular from that Boom transformed the Landscape and Society within it… Nowadays it is a place boasting expensive boutique and chain hotels, that have sprung up everywhere, along with budget hotels, to house such a vast and lucrative tourist industry.
Where there are Tourists, you usually have Nightlife…and The Pub Street area is for them, and famous for its vibrant atmosphere. Here you can find an abundance of Backpacker Party Pads or hip hotels in every side street and square… Siem Reap can claim a World-class dining experience too, with a large range of cuisines, sumptuous Spas, local shopping markets, all open 24/7, along with Eco-Tours to suit all types of Adventurers.
So, after the actual Menu…what’s on the Menu, in terms of Activities?Well, you could check out Cambodia’s leading Circus, or pay a visit to the Angkor Wat National Museum, for an even deeper insight into Angkor’s history, before starting your Temple explorations.
Since you’re in the area, try not to miss ‘Wat Preah Prohm Roth’, a traditional Buddhist temple in the heart of Siem Reap, right outside Pub Street area.
So to Angkor Wat itself…not too far off the city centre, where within a 7km radius you will discover one of the most iconic ancient Temple complexes in Cambodia: the ultimate expression of Khmer architectural genius – an awe-inspiring, Grand-scale complex, but still with stunning, intricate details everywhere.
The Angkor Archaeological Park is also a marvel: spreading over and area of more than 400 km²…It was popularised in the West by the French naturalist Henri Mouhot’s 1860 evocative writing ‘Travels in Siam, Cambodia and Laos‘ complete with detailed sketches, comparing Angkor to the Pyramids, he said:
At Ongcor, there are …ruins of such grandeur… that, at the first view, one is filled with profound admiration, and cannot but ask what has become of this powerful race, so civilized, so enlightened, the authors of these gigantic works?
But the True history of Angkor Wat was pieced together much earlier than by Mouhot, or the French exploration… Recent discoveries have concluded that the Temples date back to between the early 9th to early 15th centuries, and represent the largest collective complex of Religious monuments on Earth. Originally built as a sacred dwelling dedicated to the Hindu god Vishnu, Angkor Wat represented the King’s State Temple, the City capital of the Khmer Empire, eventually becoming a mausoleum for the King himself. Only towards the end of the 12th century, gradually, did it transform into a Buddhist shrine.
The birthplace of the Khmer Empire, that lasted for more than 600 years, would now cover modern-day Cambodia and Laos, as well as extensive parts of Vietnam and Thailand, and it was cared for by Buddhist monks, between the 15th and the 19th century. It is solely thanks to them that the complex it has been preserved so well, to this day.
Top 3 Must-see Temples at Angkor Wat
Angkor Wat Temple
Built by the Khmer King Suryavarman II in the early 12th century, Angkor Wat temple was designed to represent Mt. Meru, home of ‘Devas’ (Deities) in Hindu mythology, with a similar importance to Khmers, as Mt. Olympus was to Greeks…. Again, for it’s Time, it’s Architecturally ambitious, and resonates with spiritual Hindu devotion, helped by its unique Temple mountain shape.
There have been no other dwellings, houses or other settlements… including cooking utensils, weapons, or clothing found at the site….which sits with the evidence of the monuments themselves, possibly used by the High Priests and the King, alone. The remarkable bas-reliefs surrounding the Brahmanic funeral rituals, indicating that the temple was, indeed, intended to serve as some part of the King’s funeral arrangements, from the start…much like the Pyramids…
The Temple has drawn praise for its classic symmetrical proportions and intricately carved elements, with its’ Towers shaped like Lotus buds, leading to axial galleries and broad-chambered passageways, engraved with bas-reliefs of narrative scenes – dancing figures, prancing animals and devatas (deities), depicting episodes from the Hindu mythology – Ramayana and the Mahabharata. Virtually all surfaces, columns and roofs were carved in kilometres of reliefs illustrating scenes from the Indian literature.
The entire Complex has an outer wall, boxing off an area of around 800 sqm, along with the Western-facing Centre Structure. The second level of the enclosure is thought to have been originally flooded with water to represent the ocean around Mt Meru. Three sets of steps, one on each side, lead up to the Gopuras (Temple towers) of the inner gallery, while the very steep stairways and their height represent the difficulty of ascending to the Kingdom of the Gods.
The four small courtyards may have originally been filled with water.
The Khmer Architects used sandstone as their main building material, with a binding agent that is still unknown!..but they point towards natural resins or slaked lime. Some of the blocks were held together by mortise and tenon joints, and just Gravity in some cases, and must have been put in place by a combination of elephants, ropes, pulleys and bamboo scaffolding…as that was pretty much all they had to work with back then..… According to local legend, though… it was believed that the Temple was constructed in a single night, from the hand of a Divine architect.
Calculations have revealed that the Monument was probably made out of around 5 to 10 million sandstone blocks, with a maximum weight of 1.5 tonnes each….an Incredible amount of Material, in the middle of the Jungle… In fact, the entire city of Angkor uses up far greater amounts of stone than all the Egyptian pyramids combined, while occupying an area significantly greater than modern-day Paris!… Moreover, unlike the Pyramids, which used limestone blocks quarried from relatively close by, the city of Angkor was built with sandstone blocks..meaning they must have been brought from 40-90km away! That would mean a labour force required to quarry, transport, carve and set in place all the blocks and decorative elements, that must have numbered in the thousands…
Today, it has become a major UNESCO World Heritage Site, and attracts more than 2.5million people every year and approx. 60% of the foreign tourists entering Cambodia.
Covering hundreds of square kilometres, this site will surely keep many visitors busy for days.
Gateway to Angkor Thom
As successive Khmer kings strived to overshadow their ancestors through more and more colossal constructions, with grander creative depictions of mythological events or Khmer history, during King Jayavarman VIIs’ rule, in the late 12th century, The Bayon Temple was constructed.
Apsaras, divine nymphs or celestial dancing girls, are characters from Indian mythology.
Surrounded by over 200 gigantic smiling faces of ‘Avalokiteshvara’, also known as the “Lord who looks down” – the Lord who created the Sun & Moon, Shiva, Brahma, the Earth and the Sky, signifying that Bayon was the first Angkor shrine dedicated to Buddha, incorporating a synergy of Hindu and Buddhist elements of cosmology.
Some have said that maybe King Jayavarman VII regarded himself as Devaraja or ‘god-king’ and identified with Buddha and the Bodhisattva, by portraying the faces as representations of his own self.
‘Ta Prohm’ is a Majestic Buddhist Temple in the heart of Angkor Thom. Built in 1186, it was originally known as ‘Rajavihara’ or the ‘Monastery of the King’ and the personification of wisdom, modelled after the King’s mother.
The sanctuary sheltered more than 12,000 people, supported by a population of 80,000 people who worked in nearby villages to provide food and supplies, all of which are depicted in the Temples’ inscriptions.
But what is truly fascinating about Ta Prohm, is its fascinating mixture between Chaos and Structure, what’s Organic and Man-made, what’s Wood and Stone. …This Temple, surrounded by hundreds of year old, setting for endless, tree trunks sprouting through the Ruins…. is setting for Indiana Jones or Alan Quartermain.… Silk-cotton and Strangler Fig trees snake their roots deep into the stones of the Temple itself, which was incredibly built entirely, without mortar.
In fact, the entire Sanctuary was recovered and rehabilitated from the Jungle itself, as Nature’s order had to be claimed back and re-established, over the centuries. This Temple state is purposely and delicately maintained, and by doing so, reveals an astonishing merger of Nature and Architecture.
Nature not only re-shaped Ta Prohm, but it has also lent a depth of mysticism and haunting charm, entwined in its bas-reliefs, carped with moss, lichen and other plants, casting a greenish pall over the whole scene.
To me: the entire Archaeological Park of Angkor is the epitome of strength and creative beauty, with an element that stands out the most and you simply cannot miss – Ta Prohm’s charming setting: You can almost feel the Roots of Adventure itself, burrowing into the Ground here.
How to get there
Aside from the enchanting widely spread Ancient Ruins, I was surprised by the ease and safety of getting around and exploring areas, which not long ago, were, literally, uncharted Jungle territory. There is actually a multitude of options you can use to travel, but the most convenient way of discovering the countryside is by motor, horse, bicycle or tuk-tuk. Each will cost you between $10 and $15 for a whole day, and they are perfect if you’re planning Photography and Nature tours.
Having that in mind: I can say that Siem Reap is very safe, friendly and welcoming for all types of travellers, with a seemingly endless choice of Entertainment, Dining and Accommodation, It’s an embodiment of contrasts, that reminds me of some of Thailand’s most popular areas (Krabi, Koh Samui, Chiang Mai). In other places, it resembles the quiet, serene Life of, say, the Philippines’s, with small Communities sustaining themselves through farming and fishing.
What is my most memorable thought I have from my trip to Siem Reap and Angkor Wat? ..the level of complexity in Architecture, of sophistication in Art and precision, from Houses to handicraft. Majestic work that has lived through different Eras, centuries of wars and battles, not just with Mankind, but with Nature itself…Who knows, ultimately how they were built ..but one thing is for certain: they were, are, and always will be Masterpieces that will stand as the Cornerstones of Culture, for Generations to follow and Respect.