The impressive stone temples at Angkor are all that remains of a thriving metropolis. Once the capital of the most advanced civilisation of its time, the Khmer empire. An empire I had no idea ever existed till recently. But while Europe was knocking up the odd church the Khmer people were building temples like Angkor Wat in a clear demonstration of their power.
Me, Doug and Bret spent three days exploring the temple ruins left behind. Ruins that span an area the size of LA! We did the small tour first, visiting the three main temples. Angkor Wat, Bayon and Ta Prohm. These were incredible but we didn’t know have the context to fully appreciated them. That evening we watched a BBC documentary about Angkor. Not the most exciting but full of some mind blowing facts and information about Angkor and the Khmer.
The Khmer people built an empire across most of South East Asia between the 9th and the 15th century. They were the empire of their era. To appreciate the power of this empire one only needs to look at Angkor. To imagine it in all its glory. A city where each temple is linked together by the sprawling urbanisation that comes with a city. Stone buildings were saved for the gods so all that is left of Angkor are its temples. But the scale and number of them leave you in no doubt that this once was a great place.
In fact, it was the largest city inhabited until the 19th century, housing up to 1 million people. This was build in the 10th.
The Khmer people managed to master their environment which enabled them to thrive. They used the power of the monsoon to their advantage. Building two huge reservoirs (one of them is still the largest man made reservoir in the world today) to store water through the dry season and prevent flooding in the wet season. This water was distributed throughout the city via a clever network of canals. It is believed that their mastery of water allowed the city to prosper through a reliable, plentiful harvest.
All that is left of the city today is the grand temples. They are awe inspiring. The precision. The size. It is ridiculous to imagine how they managed such a feat. I think we would struggle to replicate it today.
Angkor Wat is particularly impressive. It’s in pristine condition considering it has been in use since it was built, around 900 years ago. The mortarless joints between huge slabs of rock are seamless. And all are intricately carved. Furthermore, it only took them forty years to build. That is crazy. An average cathedral in Europe took 100–300 years to build and few come close to the scale of Angkor Wat.
Angkor Wat was the first of what I would call the major temples. It was a Hindu temple. Then Jayavarman the VII came to power and changed the game. He started building temple after temple. And they were Buddhist.
He built the temples inside of Angkor Thom, a huge walled area. This was the heart of the city and the centre of Khmer rule. The major temple in here is the Bayon, where multiple faces of the ruler, Jayavarman, looks out across the walled area of Angkor Thom.
He also built Ta Prohm, the Tomb Raider temple. This temple has been partially reclaimed by the jungle. Gnarled roots can be seen growing from the stone structures as if alien hands are working to rip down these ancient buildings.
You really have to see these temples in the flesh to understand their scale.
After a day off we set out on the long tour. This tour helps you appreciate the size of the city fully. There are stone temples all over the place. Even the clearly minor ones are impressive. You need either a Tuk Tuk or a scooter to get around. The distance is too great.
You have to imagine all these temple sights were just areas in a vast city, like Big Ben and St Pauls Cathedral are both locations in London.
Here are some of my favourite shots.
To see this place at its height would have been incredible.
On our last day of the tour, we decided to venture further out. Over 40km away in the Kulen hills to where the Khmer people had an older city. We went in search of carvings in a riverbed above a waterfall. Proof of the Kmers obsession with water. The theory is that these carvings blessed the water, their lifeblood, before it arrived in Angkor.
We also visited an older temple nearby called Banteay Srei. This was interesting as it is a similar style to Angkor Wat and highlights the clear progression in building skill, ambition and power of the Khmer people.
We did plan to go to Angkor Wat with a new appreciation for its craftsmanship and skill on the way back but we got caught in a torrential downpour and decided against it.
Visiting these temples was an eye opening experience. I would definitely recommend the 3-day pass. It can be used anytime over 10 days and means you don’t need to rush through it all. You can take your time to stop, think and appreciate the power of such a civilization.
To me, it also shows the world is full of secrets at which we can only really guess the answers. I knew nothing about this place other than it was a big temple in Cambodia. I certainly had never heard of the Khmer empire before. It’s interesting finding out about a completely new topic, helps you remember how much there is you don’t know.
How much we all don’t know.
It’s certainly an era of history I would love to learn more about.
If you are going to visit do some research before hand. Watch a documentary, read a book. Learn something about this magical place so you can appreciate it for what it once was, not what it is now.
Although what it is now is still very impressive.