Angkor Wat

Angkor Wat was the last temple complex used during the Angkorian period of the Khmer empire.  However the UNESCO world heritage site is massive, using satellite imagery, the network of temple complexes extends over 1,000 square kilometers (329 square miles).  Our driver Chantra told us there were over 1,000 temples.  (There are just under 100 named temple complexes, each having multiple temples within the compound – some having as many as 50 in one compound).  Nearly all of these were built between the 9th and 13th centuries.

Most people use a bus or a tuk tuk to go from site to site, although we did see walkers and bicyclists.  Our driver Chantra was wonderful!  He gave us plenty of time at each site, make great recommendations about what to see, and never pressured us to leave.  He even had great stories and kernels of information about each of the sites we visited.

The Bayon Complex: The temple with a thousand faces.
Banteay Srei:  Rose sandstone helped the carvings, but it also made for some glorious viewing when splashed with sun.

Large stones quarried over 60 kilometers away in the mountains were moved by human and elephant power to form these amazing structures.

Not too far from where they quarried the stones was the 1000 Lingas waterway.  Carved into the creek bed were Lingas and alters.  Fantastic.  These carvings went on for at least 100 meters.

Kbal Spean: 1000 Lingas
Kbal Spean: 1000 Lingas along the riverbed.

Equally as impressive were the large constructed waterways, lakes, pools, and moats — all lined with the same large stones.  The size and scope alone of this was impressive.  As we were sweating at 10am walking around this place, I thought about the laborers who moved and carved heavy stone all day in the sweltering heat.

Carvings in Ta Prohm
Banteay Kdei Intricate carvings
Banteay Srei: The carvings here were stunning. Rose Sandstone with some black oxidation made for a wonderful effect.  However, we could not figure out how this was carved.  The dimensional nature of the carvings was incredible.
Pre Rup: Intricate carvings over a doorway.
Bayon Complex carvings
Angkor Wat Carvings
Angkor Wat color and carvings.  The single line on her belly indicates having one child.
Bayon Complex facing East.  Each of the 49 towers had giant four meter faces carved.  Each one faced one of the cardinal compass points.
Ta Prohm’s stegosaurus? (About this click here)
Srah Srang: Kylie, a little fed up with temples pauses to look across the artificial lake made during the Angkorian Era.  All long the banks of the lake lie giant stones like the one she sits upon.  There were many of these lakes, large and small.  All were massive public works projects undertaken by the kings of the Angkor Era.

Most of the early temples were erected during a time of Hinduism in the region; however the later temples were Buddhist, with many of the earlier temples being re-purposed to Buddhism.

Sunrise at Angkor Wat.  Originally a Hindu Temple, the center chambers were filled in with sandstone, then Buddhist images were carved.
The Baphuon Complex was also originally Hindu; however the stone on the back side of this massive temple was disassembled and reassembled into a reclining Buddha. This shot is the from the second level looking up at levels three and four.
This temple was especially massive.  It was 34 meters tall (50 if it’s tower was still standing). It’s base measured 120 x 100 meters.  Compare this to El Castillo in Chichen Itza which had a 55 meter square base stood 30 meters high.

Getting up and down these temples was a challenge.  The steps were steep and narrow.

My size 13s didn’t fit on a single step.  Who can I call for building code enforcement?  Actually, the steps in all the temples were designed to be steep and narrow.  They believed one should be on their knees as they approach the house honoring gods.
Ta Keo, one of the tallest and most recently restored temple.  The steps were just as steep and narrow as temples the Maya built.  Here you can see the difference beween the original stone (black and worn) with the restored stone which looked more green-gray.  A Chinese group was assisting with the restoration of this temple.
Prasat Preah Palilay was a small temple Kylie, Alyssa, and I encounted on a jungle explore.  Here you can see two things.  1: How steep and large the steps were.  2: Kylie was first to adventure up the temple that was in the process of being reclaimed by nature.

The temples were not just for paying homage to deities.  There were libraries and hospitals as well as other public works projects.  The size and sheer scope of projects were amazing.

Pre Rup was largely free from the grasps of nature.  It towered over the canopy.

Preah Khan for example was the temporary royal residence while the king’s palace was being built.  He later gifted it to his parents.

Preah Khan Temple from the east
Preah Khan Temple: This Stupa used to house the remains of ancestors . Note the holes in the walls.  Throughout many of these temples we saw similar holes and couldn’t figure out what they were until a guide told us that the holes were filled with precious jewels!

Entrances to temple complexes were equally as impressive.

Tonle Om Southern Gate was a spectacular entrance with gods on the west and demons on the east, each holding a giant naga snake.  This represented an important episode in Hinduism: The churning of the ocean
Tonle Om demons on the East
Ta Som gateway was typical of many of the temple complexes.
Eastern Gateway to Ankor Thom still had the demons and gods with their naga snake, but is was smaller in scale.

Many of these large structures had long hallways.  I found them captivating.

Ta Prohm: The hallway was amazing enough, however the roof overhead is tiled to look like a giant Naga snake.
Banteay Kdei: Long hallways with doorway after doorway
Preah Khan Temple: Long hallways
Angkor Wat: Here I am walking through the large vaulted hallways.  In the central level, the halls are filled with recovered statues and historical remnants.   The carved sandstone pillars acted as shudders providing both shade and protection from the elements.

Westerners have been captivated as to why all these temples were abandoned.  When I first read about Angkor Wat in the 80s, it was a big mystery.  “Why did the people leave?”  The same book had the same questions about the Maya.  The perspective was one of capitalism and why turn away from such a large investment unless something forced them to make the change.

There is no great mystery here.  According to placards in the National History Museum,  a new king moved the capital city from Angkor to Phenom Penh.  There were foreign pressures from the Champa and Siamese Kingdoms.  In fact, in the 1400s the Siamese Kingdom sacked Angkor Wat.

In conjunction with this, property upkeep was expensive.  An army of workers weeded waterways by hand, cut grass with a sickle, swept mounds of accumulated leaves, and climbed over the temples to weed by hand.  It was no wonder the price of a three day visit increased from $40 to $62 in the last two years.

Phimeanakas: Many worker weed and clean Baphoun”s courtyard pool.  No motorized equipment was used.

Without upkeep, nature wins.  Since the 1400s nature has been busy reclaiming the land and the temples.

Prasat suor prat were a collection of 12 of these unrestored structures across from the Elephant Terrace in Angkor Thom.  They still don’t know what purpose they served.  According to the customs of Cambodia by Zhou Daguan, they were a method of dispute resolution (Click Here).  However, a lone paragraph in his book from the 1300s is unsubstantiated by any other source.
Ta Prohm: Nature reclaiming property
Ta Prohm: Nature reclaiming property
Ta Som Eastern Gate was in the process of being reclaimed by nature.
A giant golden orb weaver spider set up shop in the rafters of Preah Khan (This particular spider, among the largest of its kind, was the size of my outstretched hand).
Ta Nei largely unrestored and being taken over by nature’s forces.

There was too much history and too many details to absorb.  Most of the time we spent walking and exploring.

Banteay Kdei: Pausing for snapshots!
East Mebon, built in the same era as Pre Rup.  Kylie explores the collapsed hallways and steps up to the main temple area.
Angkor Wat: “Who designed all this: Amazing”

In all it was a three day temple smorgasbord.  We looked and learned until the tropical heat beat us into submission.  Gobsmacked by the amount of building done withing a 400 period really made me wonder about the government and the wealth of the Ankorian Kingdom.  In three days we still didn’t even get to a quarter of the structures.

Day 1
Ta Prohm
Banteay Kdei
Srah Srang
Ta Som
Pre Rup
East Mebon
Ta Keo

Day 2
Angkor Wat – Sunrise
Tonle Om (South Gate Angkor Tom)
Bayon Complex
Prasat Preah Palilay
Terrace of the Elephants
Preah Khan Temple
Angkor Wat
Eastern Gateway to ankor thom
Prasat Suor Prat

Day 3:
Kbal Spean – The 1000 Lingas
Bantereay Srei
Ta Kei

Early Civilization Timeline


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