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Posted by Tim on May 11, 2009
Angkor What?

The temples of Angkor are some of the most stunning architectural gems in the world. Most of that world, though, had never heard of them until they were featured as a backdrop for the 2001 movie Tomb Raider. I will humbly admit that when we began planning our trip, I didn't even know what country they were in.

A Brief Overview

Ok, first things first: what you saw in Tomb Raider was not Angkor Wat, but actually the nearby temple of Ta Phrom. There are in fact dozens and dozens of temples in the Angkor region, all built a thousand or so years ago. I'll touch on the "big three" of them in a moment, but first a quick note as to where they are located.

'Siem Reap is located in the northern shore of Tonlé Sap Lake

On the norther shore of Cambodia's Tonlé Sap Lake lies the city of Siem Reap, home to three-quarters of a million people and the base of operations for any exploration of the temples of Angkor.

The name Siem Reap ("Thailand defeated") sheds a little insight into the relationship Cambodia has had with its neighbor to the west. As the Lonely Planet guide points out, just imagine Birmingham with the name "Germany Defeated." Not all that diplomatic.

(It was probably with a certain amount of indignation that Thailand sacked the city in 1431, forcing the Khmers to move their capital down to Phnom Penh. Thailand wound up controlling basically the western third of Cambodia by the nineteenth century, and didn't give it back until pressured to do so by the French in 1907.)

North of the city lies the amazing region of Angkor, the heart of the Khmer Empire from around 800 AD until it was conquered by the Thais in the 1500s.

'The many temples of Angkor

Angkor was an astonishingly vast place. A study published in 2007 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences declared it to have been in excess of 3,000 square kilometers! That's not just the largest pre-industrial city ever known: nothing else even comes close. Number two on that list is the ancient Mayan city of Tikal (in present-day Guatamala), which was a mere 100–150 square kilometers. Angkor was more than twenty times as big.

We spent five days exploring the temples of Angkor – mostly on foot, walking dozens of kilometers per day. For now, though, I'll just touch on the three most famous sights there.

Angkor Wat

This is the biggest religious structure in the world – and again, it's not even close. St. Peter's Basilica in Rome covers an area of 23,000 square meters. Larger still is the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine in Manhattan, the world's largest Christian church, which covers 47,000 square meters. The Great Pyramid of Giza bests even that, with a footprint of about 53,000 square meters.

Angkor Wat covers over 800,000 square meters. It is surrounded by a vast moat (not counted in the footprint above) and a massive exterior wall. Inside is an enormous collection of temples and buildings, and in the center is the cyclopean temple itself.

'Angkor Wat, the largest religous building in the world It was built to honor Vishnu in the 12th century, by King Suryavarman II.
(All of the god-kings of Angkor had superhero names: Suryavarman, Jayavarman, Aquaman, etc. Ok, I made one of those up.)

Angkor Wat is a source of intense pride in Cambodia, and has featured on every flag the country has flown since the 1860s. (And in the 1860s, remember, Angkor Wat was located in Thailand. But real fans don't quit just because their team is losing.)

'The long, winding tunnels of Angkor Wat The place is simply stunning. The interior of the temple's outer wall is covered by around 13,000 square meters of bas-relief sculptures depicting scenes from Hindu mythology. Myriad labyrinthine tunnels weave their way through the structure, making it very easy to lose your way.

Tourists have stumbled onto Angkor Wat, and the number who visit it every year has been increasing geometrically. Despite all the folks who were there at the same time as us, though, it didn't feel busy. It's such a huge place that all those people are able to fan out into what turns out to be a pretty thin crowd. And there's a quietness, too, that the place exudes, an almost sacred calmness that washes over you as you explore it. I kept finding myself holding my breath, as if hoping not to disturb whatever denizens might have lain within those massive walls.

Angkor Wat is a place that makes you exhaust your available superlatives fairly quickly. I'm just not used to architecture on that scale. It's humbling.

Angkor Thom and Bayon

Now, some of you are looking at the map of Angkor above and saying to yourselves, hang on, what's this Angkor Thom thing? It looks way bigger than Angkor Wat. (Or at least, that's about what I was thinking when I first saw a map of the area.)

The answer is that where Angkor Wat is a single, enormous structure, Angkor Thom is an entire city. Or at least it once was one, and it was home to an estimated million or so people back when London had a population of barely 50,000.

Today, Angkor Thom is so choked with jungle that it's impossible to get a feel for how huge it is. There are giant gates on the north, south, and east sides, but that's often all you'll see of the vast wall that surrounds it. Within a number of amazing archaeological sites have been uncovered: places with intriguing names like The Terrace of the Elephants or The Terrace of the Leper King... but the star of the show is the glorious temple of Bayon.

'Bayon, a massive temple in the ancient city of Angkor ThomBayon stands at the exact center of Angkor Thom, and is considered by many to be the most beautiful temple in all of Angkor. Like Angkor Wat, the walls here are covered in bas-reliefs, but instead of Hindu mythology the subject of choice here is scenes of regular life in 12th-century Cambodia.

Bayon was Jessica's favorite temple in Angkor. This may or may not have been influenced by the fact that Lonely Planet sniffed that it looked like a "glorified pile of rubble" when viewed from a distance. She's always had a fondness for the stuffy that fell on the floor.

'The mighty stone faces of Bayon Bayon is most famous, and justifiably so, for the 216 enormous stone faces that smile down upon it from atop 54 stone columns. They're just everywhere there: staring down at you from above or unexpectedly appearing at eye-level when you round a corner. Some seem to be genuinely happy, while other smile coldly, almost frighteningly. Like Angkor Wat, Bayon is a mystical place with an other-worldly atmosphere.

Ta Prohm

While Bayon was Jessica's favorite, Ta Prohm was mine: the "Tomb Raider" temple itself.

'Strangler figs decorate the walls at Ta ProhmWhat makes this place so amazing isn't so much the temple itself as what's been done with it. Or, more to the point, what hasn't been done with it.

When the French "École française d'Extrême-Orient" began restoring the temples of Angkor in the early 20th century, they decided to leave Ta Prohm as it was. Today, it is a reminder that this is what all of the temples looked like before being restored, after centuries of neglect had allowed them to be swalled whole by the surrounding jungle.

Strangler figs dominate here, running down the temple walls like water and choking off doors and windows. Enormous piles of rubble are strewn through otherwise empty courtyards, looking for all the world like the walls were hit by cannon fire, or perhaps by a troll wielding a warhammer. The devastation is staggering.

'At Ta Prohm, the jungle has been declared victorIt's amazing that all of this wreckage was caused not by gunpowder or steel or by people at all, but by the slow, inexorable invasion of the jungle. Vines have wrapped around columns like fingers, pulling them apart and bringing down rooftops in the process. It's hard to look at scenes like that and not start to think of the trees as sentient, of doing it all on purpose. And if they're not malevolent, then they are at the very least quite grumpy.

While the atmosphere at Angkor Wat and Bayon was almost spiritual, the feeling pervading Ta Prohm took that mysticism to a whole other level. We spoke mostly in whispers there, not so as not to disturb anyone else (we were there early in the morning, and had the place mostly to ourselves), but more out of reverence for our surroundings.

Awe and Wonder

As we've mentioned countless times before, the temples of Angkor were one of the four "anchors" we'd selected for our trip (along with Machu Picchu, the Galapagos Islands, and a balloon ride over Cappadocia). We spent five days there, walked dozens of kilometers, and we barely scratched the surface of the place. We could have spent five months there and not been close to seeing it all.

The future for this amazing place is an uncertain one. Hopefully, tourism there will be controlled (much as Peru is attempting to control tourism at Machu Picchu) so as not to destroy this archaeological treasure. Only time will tell.

When I started looking through our notes and photos to write this entry, I was overwhelmed with echoes of the feelings of awe and wonder I had when we were exploring Angkor. I know that I may already be a little too quick to jump to words like "amazing" and "spectacular" when describing things, and I know that trying to put down my feelings about Angkor has led me to abuse this manner of word to an almost ludicrous degree.

But that's what it feels like there. And I can't say the words "amazing" and "spectacular" nearly often enough to do it justice.

May 13, 2009 at 10:48am
Tim, wonderful description of this truly 'amazing' and 'spectacular' place.

I can't resist putting in a plug for my friend Saron, who is a fantastic guide in Siem Reap. He can even tell you the stories behind all the bas-relief images carved on the temples. If anybody is traveling there, use him as a guide: www.sarontours.com (btw the site is in the process of getting re-done)

Tim the hedgehog
May 13, 2009 at 11:20am
Thanks, Deb! :)

Saron has such a remarkable story, and I imagine he'd be a wonderful guide. We're on the Lonely Planet message boards over at ThornTree a bit these days. I'll make sure to recommend him there too when the next opportunity comes up! :)

Jessica the hedgehog
May 13, 2009 at 11:31am
Looking at the pictures on his website makes me miss Cambodia even more! :)
June 10, 2009 at 1:53am
Hi! I'm Cambodian and I just happen to stumble on your blog lolz! I just want let you know that Angkor is just a mere size of what the map that you posted up look like lolz! There are lost cities outside of Angkor that is way more grander then Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom! If you go deep more into the jungles of Preah Vihear province you will encounter a place called " The Island of Glory"! There you have a lost city built by one of the Khmer King in the 9th century in order to rival the city Angkor! If you go there you will see a seven step Pyramid temple that resembles the Mayan pyramid! In that city alone there are over 100 temples left in the jungles! If you go back, try to check it out! It won't disappoint you because there are no tourist there! Good Luck on your travel lolz!
Tim the hedgehog
June 10, 2009 at 10:43am
Hi T! :)

That's a great recommendation! When we were in Siem Reap we'd thought about going up there (we knew it by the name Koh Ker), but we were a little nervous about how heavily mined it was reported to be.

It looks like the de-mining effort has been going on up there for several years now, though, and it's definitely a place we hope to visit on our next trip to Cambodia.

(We can't wait to go back to Cambodia – of all the countries we visited on our trip, it was by far our favorite!)

June 12, 2009 at 3:33am
Hey Tim thankx for responding back lolz! If you go to Koh Ker you will find a temple called Beng Melea! This temple itself was used entirely to filmed in a Hollywood movie called "The Two Brothers"! If you like Ta Prohm you will like this even more! This temple is left to the jungles and it was built by Suryavarman which serves to be the second largest temple in Angkor! But now all there is left are a bunch of stone piles on the floor but it's worth it! Legend has it that Tigers once live there! After your done exploring the temples, there are way more stuff to do in Cambodia! People go to Cambodia just for temples but they are missing out on alot of stuff! I will tell you this right now Tim if you go back! There are two main Islands in Cambodia called Koh Rong and Koh Rong Samloeun which can rival any beaches in Asia! Most people go to Thailand or Vietnam for beaches because they think Cambodia is a land-lock country with no beaches! These beaches are UNTOUCHED AND NO TOURIST ONLY YOU AND WHOEVER WITH YOU LOLZ! They don't advertise these beaches so go there now for the best vacation you will ever have! I gaurantee you!
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