In the enchanted forests of Cambodia lie the elegant, ancient temples of Angkor mesmerising all who visit. The charming structures date back to the 9th century when the ancient civilisation, Khmer, advocated the region. Angkor was the capital city of the Khmer Empire, and at its height the area contained more than one million people.
The Khmer people are first known from around 802 AD and at their peak, the empire ruled vast amounts of land including Cambodia, Thailand, Laos and southern Vietnam. Legend says that powerful neighbouring kingdoms were a threat and throughout their time in power, the Khmer Kingdom fought many wars and suffered many invasions until a final attack from a Thai army seized control in 1431 and the Khmer people were forced to abandon the area. It’s said that through the 15th – 19th centuries Theravada Buddhist monks came across the temples remains and cared for the structures. In the late 19th-century French explorer, Henri Mouhot began a major renovation project to restore the temple helping the site to become a famous tourist attraction, and the reason for approximately 50% of Cambodian tourism each year. In 1992 the whole of Angkor – which stretches over an area of some 400km2 – was placed under UNESCO World Heritage protection.
The Angkor Archaeological Park boasts hundreds of temples with the most famously recognised being Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom’s Bayon Temple, Banteay Srei and Ta Prohm, however, an exciting recent discovery has exposed multiple cities aged between 900 and 1,400 years that were previously unknown, some of which have been reported (in June 2016) to be as large as New York City. Many of these medieval cities hidden beneath the enthralling tropical jungle still hold remains of houses, gardens and waterways. This thriving discovery was made by archaeologist Dr Damian Evans with the assistance of APSARA (Authority for the Protection and Management of Angkor and the Region of Siem Reap) by using airborne laser scanning technology connected to the bottom of a helicopter.
Angkor Wat, otherwise recognised as the largest religious monument in the world spanning over 500 acres on enchanted land, is the best-preserved and largest in scale of the numerous temples found on the Angkor complex and is still used as a place of Buddhist worship today. The temple was originally built by the King Suryavarman II around 800 and 1100 AD in dedication to the Hindu god, Vishnu, and is presumed to have taken 300,000 workers and 30 years to construct.
The structure consists of a grand 213-foot tall central tower, four smaller size towers and numerous beautiful stone – this design resembles Mount Meru, a legendary place in the Himalayas and home of the Hindu gods. Angkor Wat is also surrounded by a beautiful 650-foot wide and 13-foot deep moat, assisting in keeping the temple’s foundation in place by preventing groundwater rising or falling too much. It is thought that in the 14th century the temple was converted from Hindu to Theravada Buddhist religion, with grand Buddha statues being added to the design by Cambodian people.
Along with Angkor Wat, the Khmer people also constructed the fascinating Angkor Thom, a Great City and capital of the Khmer Empire. At the heart of Angkor Thom the incredible 12th-century Bayon Temple resides, originally built as the state temple of the powerful 13th-century ruler, King Jayavarman VII this awe-inspiring monument showcases unique décor dedicated to Buddha beliefs.
The structure consists of 54 towers resembling the Khmer provinces with four faces of bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara carved in the stone of each magnificent tower – however some argue that the faces are of Jayavarman VII himself. After King Jayavarman VII’s death, the temple underwent alterations during the reign of Jayavarman VIII to revert the complex to support Hinduism; one of the most drastic transformations being the Buddha statue in the central shine of Bayon being replaced with a statue of the Hindu god Harihara. The remarkable temple is still intact today, and visitors can view the enchanting history and Golden age of the Khmer Empire, as well as being able to see the two religions worshipped in this awe-inspiring temple.
One of the smallest sites of Angkor, Banteay Srei is particularly fascinating with legend telling us this is the only major temple not to be built for a King, but rather for King Rajendravarman’s counsellor, Yajnyavahara.
The 10th century temple is situated 23 miles north from Angkor Wat and is dedicated to Hindu gods Shiva and Vishnu. The pink sandstone structure is square and has both east and west entrances and includes elaborately-decorated libraries, and three extravagant towers all embellished with lavish classical carvings including women holding lotus flowers in their hands and outstanding reworks of Ramayana. With every inch of the interior buildings covered in these immaculate, detailed carvings it is no wonder the temple is considered by archaeologists as the ‘jewel in Khmer art’.
Ta Prohm, the most iconic temple of Angkor with its large vines strangling the temple ruins, it has even been used as a film set – in the film Tomb Raider and Indiana Jones – due to its incredibly unique appearance. Building supposedly began around 1186 AD by King Jayavarman VII to create a Buddhist monastery and structure dedicated to the King’s mother. This fascinating temple lost in the jungle boasts 39 towers linked by various galleries and a maze of courtyards of dark corridors.
Phnom Bakheng, a state temple built by King Yasovarman I in the late 9th and early 10th-century, was originally constructed to be the centrepiece of Yasovarman’s new capital, however it was abandoned only a few decades after its build but due to the breathtaking hilltop location, the structure has remained a popular Angkor temple as visitors can capture outstanding panoramic views of the beautiful ruins of Angkor. The creativity of the masterpiece is remarkable having been built to resemble the home of the Hindu gods, Mount Meru including shrines, guarding lion statues and exquisite terraces on five levels to create a pyramid.
Whichever is chosen to visit, all the fascinating temples of Angkor make an awe-inspiring discovery of the Khmer Empire and two beautiful faiths of Buddhism and Hinduism.