“Soaring skywards and surrounded by a moat that would make its European Castle counterparts blush, Angkor Wat is one of the most inspired and spectacular monuments ever conceived by the human mind.” ~Lonely Planet
You can look at all the pictures of what is often called the 8th Wonder of the World you want. But NOTHING compares to visiting Cambodia and seeing the expansively moving temples in person. Even Lara Croft can’t resist their charms.
Angkor (អង្គរ or នគរ, “Capital City”), as a preserve and park, is more than one of the most important archaeological sites in South-East Asia; it’s one of the most important in the world. Stretching over a massive region just outside of the city of Siem Reap, Angkor Archaeological Park contains the magnificent ruins of many different ancient capitals of the Khmer Empire from the 9th through the 15th centuries. As such, Angkor has been designated as a UNESCO world heritage site since 1992, and many programs have been emplaced to help safeguard this symbolic place along with much of its surroundings. While, yes, of course Angkor Wat is the most famous and perhaps best known, there are many, many more temple ruins that, in many ways, are even more fascinating than the prime tourist draw.
But please, for the love of god, don’t bring up Tomb Raider or what has become to be known as the “Angelina Jolie Temple.” Oh, right: too late. Our guide was only too happy to refer to the 12th century temple of Ta Prohm in just that way. I’ll admit, not being either a Tomb Raider or Angelina Jolie fan, I was almost completely unaware that filming had occurred there in 2000. But locals don’t suffer from such a lapse; they’ve renamed the temple from the scene above after her.
Ta Prohm, along with the more familiar Angkor Wat both served as the setting for a long sequence of scenes in Tomb Raider. Okay, okay, I admit that we did rent and watch Tomb Raider when we got home from our trip, and although I kept falling asleep during most of the flick (not a fan, ‘member?), the scenes involving Angkor were curious and noteworthy.
For the movie, sets were built around Angkor Wat, providing more of a nondescript Oriental feel than that of Khmer. An exotically bucolic village was built around the and on stilts in the waters of the reflecting pond in front of the iconic temple. The scenes of Lara Croft paddling a canoe through the village are idyllic, but it’s the scenes of Lara following a sassy child and magical butterflies through Ta Prohm that have stolen the imagination for modern-day visitors to that site.
The ruins of Angkor are located amid dense rain forests and fertile farmland to the north of Tonlé Sap lake near modern-day Siem Reap city. The temples found there number over a thousand, although many are barely recognizable piles of rubble or as yet unearthed mounds still relatively lost in the jungle. Angkor Wat, the centerpiece and pride of the capacious complex, is described as the world’s largest religious monument. The place can be so spiritually moving to experience that almost two million visit annually, a unstainable number given the soft sandstone that those four million feet are trampling upon.
Our guide was crafty about visiting the various temple sites. Saving Angkor Wat for almost last (that last visit will be featured in its own blog!), we entered from the rear of the temple, almost entirely alone, with blue skies beaming over the steep ruins with the sun in our faces. Having been there previously in 2007 (see Power in Poverty for more on that particular Far East Fling), I had expected the “usual” entrance, walking the long King’s causeway to the main temple entrance. However, that route is what everyone else takes, and can be quite chaotic. We literally had the temple much to ourselves for the first half of our tour there.
In the last decade international team of scientists and archeologists concluded that Angkor had been the largest pre-industrial city in the world approaching an area of 390 square miles of ancient urban sprawl, a figure of which any modern metropolis would be infamously proud. Angkor is perhaps best characterized as a “hydraulic city” due to its extensive water management construction and engineering which systematically stabilized, stored, and dispersed water throughout the area, key to sustaining such a large population by using irrigated agriculture. It is believed by some that the complex supported up to one million people, although the actual number is hotly debated and most likely will never be known with any degree of certainty.
The temple was much as I remembered, except there were many more visitors to Angkor than I experience eight years previous. The biggest change was the control exercised by park officials in controlling not only the number of guests allowed at any time in the highest central tower, but the enforcement of a respectable dress code, which required women to have skirts/dresses below their knees and their shoulders covered.
Angkor Wat was originally founded as a Hindu temple (Wat is Khmer for “temple grounds” or literally “enclosure”), but gradually transformed into a Buddhist temple toward the end of the 12th century, a not uncommon occurrence in ancient Khmer as different rulers declared different national approaches to religion. It was built by the Khmer King Suryavarman II in the early 12th century in the then capital of the Khmer Empire as his state temple and eventual mausoleum. It is, at once and without doubt, the best-preserved temple of Angkor, and is believed to be the only site to have remained a significant religious center since its foundation. It is so an indivisible part of Cambodia’s culture that it is the national symbol appearing on Cambodia’s flag.
The temple is at once a study in grandeur of architecture and harmony of purpose, and is known for its extensive bas-reliefs along the ground-floor galleries and for almost innumerable stone devata adorning its upper reaches. Angkor Wat combines two basic plans of Khmer temple architecture: the temple-mountain and the galleried temple. The center of the wat is meant to represent the quincunx of peaks of Mount Meru, home of the devas in Hindu mythology (devas are also a feature of Buddhism). Surrounding the temples central towers are three long rectangular galleries, each raised above the next. This layered approach elevates the already tall towers, resulting in a primeval yet enduring skyline well above the surrounding jungle. The sheer size of the structure is stunning; I continue to attempt to fathom how a people living on the edge of existence could build such massive stone structures without tools or machinery. Constructing Angkor Wat today would be tough, even using our modern approaches and equipment.
It seems that Tomb Raider has really not done any favors for Angkor. Tourists come and perhaps role play the part of Lara as an adventurer and explorer, often climbing over and otherwise treating Ta Prohm more as a movie set than a profoundly sacred site that which it is. In fact, you can find the temple actually called “Tomb Raider Temple” in some guide books, and every tuk-tuk driver knows exactly where to take you when the movie or Ms. Croft is referenced. Back in town in and around Siem Reap, tourists can easily find the “Tomb Raider cocktail,” nothing more than a mixture of Cointreau, soda and lime, but which is claimed to be one of the favored adult beverages of Angelina. These modern facets of visiting Angkor Wat blurs the boundaries of what is real and authentic, with that which is purely fiction. The result is that Angkor for some (or even many) is slowly being cheated of its culturally and historically importance known to the few, and becoming more of a disemboweled Hollywood visual spectacle to the masses.
Getting There: A 5-6 hour bus, taxi or boat ride gets you from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap. However, it’s the close and convenient airport in Siem Reap that offers the best option, providing regular service to Phnom Penh and abroad to international destinations such as Bangkok, Singapore, and Seoul.
Visiting: The bustling tourist town of Siem Reap is the gateway to Angkor. There one can find lodging, dining, and tour-packages to match any budget or taste. Those interested in exploring more remote and off-the-beaten-path areas can hire cars with guides, tuk-tuks for a day for about $20, or, as the cheapest option, motorbikes which provide perhaps the fastest if not most dangerously adventuresome way to tailor an itinerary. The yellow tethered Angkor balloon ride is a great way to get a unique aerial perspective of Angkor Wat, but only go in the afternoon when the sun favors the view from above. See Monkeying Around in Cambodia for a truly terrific zip-line experience that can be had within the archeological park..
When to Go: Peak tourist season runs late November through early February, during Cambodia’s dry season where temperatures and humidity are not so oppressive. “Feels-like” heat starts to soar in spring, peaking in April and holding steady through the monsoon season of May and June. Rains continue, albeit reduced, through the summer until October, becoming more sporadic the longer a traveler waits. In my opinion, avoiding the crushing crowds is worth risking a rain shower (or two). Plus, the surrounding fields turn green and rice paddies flood with the rains, although some of the more remote sites can be washed out due to poor roads and limited access.
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