There are two great complexes of ancient temples in Southeast Asia, one at Bagan in Myanmar, the other at Angkor in Cambodia. The temples of Angkor, built by the Khmer civilization between 802 and 1220 AD, represent one of humankind's most astonishing and enduring architectural achievements. From Angkor the Khmer kings ruled over a vast domain that reached from Vietnam to China to the Bay of Bengal. The structures one sees at Angkor today, more than 100 stone temples in all, are the surviving remains of a grand religious, social and administrative metropolis whose other buildings - palaces, public buildings, and houses - were built of wood and have long since decayed and disappeared.
What most people don't realize is that Angkor is more than just the temple of Angkor Wat, although it is the most famous for a reason. During the 12th century, when London had a population of around 20,000, it is estimated that the area of Angkor and its surrounding temples had a population of hundreds of thousands, with some estimates at nearly three-quarters of a million people. The Khmer's mastery over the natural landscape was perhaps their greatest achievement, and recent mapping has exposed complex levels of terraforming and water management systems that were way ahead of any other settlement of the era.
Angkor Wat itself is surrounded by a moat over 600 feet wide, almost 15 feet deep, and encompasses a perimeter of more than 3 miles. To create the moat around the temple, over 50 million cubic feet of sand and silt were moved, a task that would have required thousands of people working at one time. The moat itself actually has a more important role than beauty or protection. Due to the surrounding lands being more of a marsh than solid rock, the moat actually helps stabilize the temple's foundation, preventing groundwater from rising too high or falling too low.
The temple itself was built to be a replica of the universe, but done in stone. It also represents an earthly model of the cosmic world. The 200 ft. tall central tower is surrounded by four smaller towers and a series of enclosure walls, a layout that recreates the image of Mount Meru, a legendary place in Hindu mythology that is said to lie beyond the Himalayas and be the home of the gods.
Even more amazing than the grand size of the temple, once you get up close you realize the entire structure is covered in intricate carvings and reliefs. These decorations on the walls of the temple have a uniquely Hindu story, composed of fables and myths that tell of the origin of the Hindu religion. Today, the site is used and maintained by Buddhists, with a few statues added later which add some confusion to the site.
After wandering the grounds, it is still difficult to comprehend the entire structure. From a distance Angkor Wat appears to be a colossal mass of stone on one level with a long causeway leading to the center, but up close it is a series of elevated towers, covered galleries, chambers, porches and courtyards on different levels, linked by stairways, and covered in sculpture and reliefs. It is the largest monument of the Angkor group and the best preserved, an architectural masterpiece. Its perfection in composition, balance, proportions, reliefs and sculpture make it one of the finest monuments in the world.
The ultimate Indiana Jones fantasy, Ta Prohm is cloaked in the shadow of the jungle, its crumbling towers and walls locked in the slow muscular embrace of vast root systems.
It is a temple of towers, closed courtyards and narrow corridors. Many of the corridors are impassable, clogged with jumbled piles of delicately carved stone blocks dislodged by the roots of long-decayed trees. Bas-reliefs on bulging walls are carpeted with lichen, moss and creeping plants, and shrubs sprout from the roofs of monumental porches. Trees, hundreds of years old, tower overhead, their leaves filtering the sunlight and casting a greenish pall over the whole scene.
The most popular of the many strangulating root formations is that on the inside of the easternmost entrance, nicknamed the Crocodile Tree. This spot is also known as the Tomb Raider tree, where Angelina Jolie's Lara Croft searched for ancient artifacts.
The site has largely been left as it was found, showing exactly what the jungle can do when it takes over. The roots of the trees attach to the porous sandstone, extracting the water from the stones. The roots are firmly placed on the buildings themselves, slowly crushing but also supporting them at the same time. It is this unique mix that makes for a truly magical place.
While we were touring the site a large thunderstorm quickly surrounded us and we had to take shelter within the temple itself. It created a mesmerizing atmosphere as the temple grounds were completely empty, and the rain and mist enveloped the entire scene.
Bayon, in the center of the ancient city of Angkor Thom, is best known as the "smiling temple" for the gigantic face sculptures that adorn its towers, facing each direction of the compass. The temple is surrounded by two long walls bearing an extraordinary collection of bas-relief scenes of legendary and historical events. In all, there are a total of more than 11,000 carved figures over almost half of a mile of wall. They were probably originally painted and gilded, but this has long since faded.
Considered by many to be the jewel in the crown of Angkorian art, Banteay Srei is cut from stone of a pinkish hue and includes some of the finest stone carving anywhere on earth. Begun in AD 967, it is one of the smallest sites at Angkor, but what it lacks in size it makes up for in stature. The art gallery of Angkor, Banteay Srei, a Hindu temple dedicated to Shiva, is wonderfully well preserved and many of its carvings are three-dimensional.
Banteay Srei means Citadel of the Women and it is said that it must have been built by a woman, as the elaborate carvings are supposedly too fine for the hand of a man.