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Angkor, Cambodia

Angkor, Cambodia

This mystical temple city in the jungle has captured the imagination since it was rediscovered by Henri Mouhot in 1860 (although the Khmers never ‘lost’ it) to present day scenes immortalised it on the big screen in Tomb Raider.

It is so vast that it is impossible to cover this UNESCO World Heritage Site in the few days most tourists have here. However, it is home to a fascinating period in history where this was the centre of South East Asia, the most powerful rice city state, ruled by God Kings from 802 – 1431, and built to mirror the stars.

Angkor001

Story of a Kingdom

The seeds of the kingdom started being sewn in the 1st Century when Indian traders started arriving and Hinduism started to spread across Indochina. The founding of the Angkorian Era did not start until the 7th Century with the return of the mythological king Jayavarman II from Java, Indonesia.

He was crowned in the rivers north of Siem Reap with the Hindu lingum as a devaraja or ‘god-king’ and laid the foundations for what is now known as Angkor. He moved the capital to near the Tonle Sap River where it remained for 600 years.

This proximity to one of the only rivers that actually changes flow once a year is how Angkor thrived, through an intricate system of irrigation and rice farming that supported the empire and was exported to create this lavish complex of temples and palaces. The following the God King tradition many kings constructed monuments to religion and monuments to their reign.

It was only with the founding of the new Kingdoms and war with modern day Thailand that saw the centres move south and the decline of the kingdom and its rulers.

Angkor002

Sacred Structures

The most famous temple is Angkor Wat, built by Suryavarman II as the state capital and a temple to Vishnu in the early part of the 12th Century.It is a beautiful temple mountain approached across a causeway straddling the irrigation waterways, so during the approach you can appreciate the sheer scale and beauty. It stretches over 200 hectares and it is one of the largest religious monuments in the world. It is famous for its bass reliefs which are carved into the walls and depict great Hindu epics, such as the Churning of the Ocean of Milk’ where the ocean is stirred to create the nectar of immortal life.

It was built as one of the great Hindu temples in the world, but was converted to a Buddhist temple when Jayavarman VII centuries later converted from Hinduism to Theravada Buddhism. It is a breathtaking vision watching the sun rise over the peaks of the main temple and give yourself a few days to truly discover the hidden beauty and story of the temple.

The Bayon is the temple of many faces, those of Jayavarman VII thought to be blended with Buddha. Built in the 12th Century, he was the God King who converted the empire to a Mahayana Buddhist and is the only temple that was dedicated to the new religion. With over 200 face reliefs it is entrancing and eerie wandering around the ruins.

Now everyone knows Ta Phromn as the temple from Tomb Raider and its beautiful trees intertwined with the temples. It was built in 1186 for Jayavarman VII mother and provides inscriptions that remind us that Angkor was a living, working city and this particular complex was home to 12,500 inhabitants. It is also an ode to the power of nature as the roots creep over the man made structures over centuries. A magical place where the jungle and history combine.

Angkor Thom (literally the ‘Great City’) was built after a surprise invasion of Angkor Wat to make sure the kingdom was secure. Approached over the southern bridge flanked by fifty four gods on one side and fifty four demons on the other that run through a gate topped with another head of the great Jayavarman VII himself, probably the most prolific architect of the Angkor Kings.

There are hundreds of temples within and outside the main Angkor complex, other temples well worth the visit are Preah Khan, Banteay Strey & Phnom Bakheng. The Cambodian guides are wonderful and have great historical knowledge of the temples and their history so to get the most out of your stay here it is best to take a five day pass and a local guide for a few days as well as taking time to explore this mystical temple mountains of the jungle.

 

Angkor003Sanctuary

Although they say Angkor was discovered in in 1860 the khmer people and even the infamously brutal khmer rouge regime had hidden amongst the myriad of buildings throughout the earliest days of time, it is also one of the most revered and holy places of Cambodia with monasteries scattered throughout.

Most of the monasteries are within the largest Angkor Wat complex and it is empting for tourists to invade their holy sanctuaries for photos. Most are more than happy to oblige within the temple complex but it is considerate to ask before entering the monastery complexes and always leave a donation.

 

Stars & Cosmology

Much like the pyramids there is a great amount of cosmology behind the alignment and architecture of the temples of Angkor. Its temples were a microcosm of the Hindu universe with Angkor Wat representing the five peaks of Mount Meru, the Hindu nirvana with the waterways representing the oceans. Its axis was built to coincide directly with the rising and setting of the sun on the temple during equinoxes.

A less well known fact about the placement of Angkor is that it an exact replica of the star system of Draco as it would have been on the spring equinox in 10500 BC. Ancient civilizations were great astronomers and the Khmers were no exception. This is no coincidence and was seen to be part of the balance of constructing the kingdom to create a mirror on earth of the heavens.

Although many interpret the many faces of the temples as being narcissistic edifices to the god kings they are all mini representations of Hindu heavens. Jayavarman VII said he built

“full of deep sympathy for the good of the world, so as to bestow on men the ambrosia of remedies to win them immortality….By virtue of these good works would that I might rescue all those who are struggling in the ocean of existence.”

 

Slow Travel

There are no buses or large motorised vehicles allowed into the World Heritage Site that comprises of the major palaces and temples such as Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom and Ta Prohmn so you can choose to explore the complex via bicycle, motorised tuk tuk, a slow sunset cruise on a palatial barge or even an elephant through the forest.

This not only is set in pace to preserve the area from further damage but it also has the affect of slowing down time whilst meandering through the tree shaded lanes of these incredible monuments. That does not mean it does not get incredibly crowded. Tour groups are allowed in stretch golf buggies and can overrun the main temples in the late morning and early afternoon.

The best way to enjoy a bit of solitude and take a tiny glimpse into the past is to wake up before sunrise, head out whilst it is still dark, take the obligatory photograph of the sun rising over Angkor Wat and then move on to one of the lesser known temples to wander the intriguing ruins by yourself, with the stone reflecting the changing light and only the sounds of the forest waking up to accompany you.

Angkor004

 
 
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