Undertake a historical pilgrimage to Angkor, home to the greatest concentration of architectural riches anywhere on earth.
Angkor Wat, the Mother of All Temples
Angkor Wat is everywhere in Cambodia, the symbol of a nation and a source of national pride. It’s on the flag, it’s the national beer, it features in almost every hotel name in Siem Reap, gateway to the majestic temples. It’s a statement to the world that no matter how far the country has descended into darkness, let no-one forget that Cambodians built Angkor Wat, the world’s largest religious building.
Many visitors focus on the Mother of all Temples, but Angkor is more than its wat. Visitors are staggered by the sheer scale of Angkor, the incredible volume of temples and the diversity in design from one era to another. Angkor has the epic proportions of the Great Wall of China, the detail and intricacy of the Taj Mahal and the symbolism and symmetry of the pyramids, all rolled into one.
The hundreds of temples surviving today are but the sacred skeleton of a sophisticated empire (802-1432) that at its height stretched from the shores of Burma in the west to the South China Sea to the east. In the 12th century, Angkor boasted a population of one million when London could muster a mere 50,000 inhabitants. Holding sway over the empire were the deva-rajas or God Kings, representatives of the Hindu deities on earth.
The traveller’s first glimpse of Angkor Wat, the ultimate expression of Khmer genius, is matched by only a few select spots on earth such as Macchu Picchu or the Pyramids. When it comes to sheer size, scale and symmetry, it is a vision that overwhelms the senses. Wrapped around its base are a series of monumental bas-reliefs depicting myths and legends, breathing life into the ancient sandstone walls. Stretching for almost one kilometre, they must be a candidate for the world’s longest piece of art.
Angkor Wat was the inspiration of Suryavarman II (1113-1152), one of Cambodia’s greatest kings, although his military acumen was not quite the equal of his architectural audacity. He launched a military campaign against the Dai Viet (Vietnamese), which was to spark a rivalry which has persisted for 800 years. Cambodia has ended up the loser on more than one occasion, the Cambodian village of Prey Nokor better known as Saigon these days.
It is hard to imagine any building bigger or more blessed than Angkor Wat, but in Angkor Thom the sum of the parts add up a greater whole. The gates are flanked by a monumental representation of the Churning of the Ocean of Milk, 54 demons and 54 gods engaged in a titanic tug of war along the causeway.
At the heart of the ancient city is Bayon, the mesmerising and mind-bending state temple of Jayavarman VII (1181-1219). He was a conquering king and planned to promote a new religion, so what better way to do it than outdoing all your predecessors with the most surreal structure at Angkor, complete with 216 enigmatic faces keeping watch over the population?
Jayavarman VII is revered by Cambodians, a national icon and benevolent leader who built schools, hospitals and rest houses throughout the empire, and abolished the divisive caste system. But his obsession with temple construction left the state coffers drained and the nobility divided into Buddhist and Hindu. As the irrigation network began to choke and the Siamese pushed south to flee the rampaging Mongol armies, the Angkor empire imploded.
Nothing epitomises this decline better than iconic Ta Prohm, the original jungle temple of Angkor, left by conservationists as a testament to the force of nature. Ancient corridors groan under the weight of immense trees, the root systems serpentine, slowly and stealthily strangling the life out of the stones. It is an Indiana Jones fantasy where visitors can experience the awe of the early explorers.
Ta Prohm is a reminder that while empires rise and fall, the riotous power of nature marches on, oblivious to the dramas of human history. Left as it was ‘discovered’ by French explorer Henri Mouhout in 1860, man has first conquered nature to create, nature later conquering man to destroy.
Angkor briefly gained celebrity status in the 20th century when a string of luminaries such as Charlie Chaplin, Somerset Maughm and Jackie Kennedy cam to visit, but war and genocide wiped it from the map. However, it has rightfully reclaimed its place among the stellar attractions of Asia, a map of the cosmos writ in stone.
The ancient Khmers were the Romans of South-East Asia. They came, they saw, they conquered. They dominated the mainland, spreading the culture and civilisation of the Indian subcontinent throughout the region. They built long, straight highways criss-crossing their empire, linking the important cities of the day. They left temples to their Gods as far afield as Thailand and Laos, and successive empires claimed their old capitals as their own. If Europe owes a debt of gratitude to the Romans, so too must South-East Asia thank the Khmers.
This article, written by Lonely Planet author Nick Ray, originally appeared in the BBC History magazine in 2008.