Angkor Wat, Cambodia: Jewel in the Jungle
By Kathleen Broadhurst
Long ago there was a great a powerful empire called Khmer in South East Asia and its capital was the holy city of Angkor. While Europe struggled through the cold dark years of the 12th century (think Eleanor of Aquitaine, Richard the Lionhearted and the onset of the Crusades), Angkor was a living testament to the architectural and engineering ingenuity of humanity.
During the Angkor period which lasted from the 9th to the 15th centuries Angkor formed the capital of the Khmer Empire. King Suryavarman II’s reign from 1112-1152 was one of the most prosperous and it is he who is credited with the construction of Angkor Wat, the most famous temple in a city of temples.
However spectacular Angkor Wat may be it is but one of dozens of temples, palaces and ruins that dot the jungle outside of Siam Reap. Angkor is unique in that its temples are dedicated to both Buddhist and Hindu deities, as it was Suryavarman II who changed the state religion from Hinduism to Buddhism.
Strangely, although today Angkor attracts thousands of
visitors a day it was only (relatively) recently rediscovered. After Khmer Empire lost power the city was sack and destroyed. The jungle quickly reclaimed its walls and it wasn’t until the late 1800’s that a curious Frenchman in search of some jungle wildlife, stumbled across the vine covered remains.
Many of the temples have been carefully taken back from the grips of the jungle, and most have been repaired or reconstructed so that as you are walking around you are on steady footing but the feeling of wildness and mystery still clings to the walls and hallways, echoes of a former life. Even with hundreds of tourists shoving and vying for a snapshot of a bass relief you can’t help but feel like the jungle is the true master and you are only there on its invitation.
Angkor Wat is a large complex with one temple claiming center stage while Angkor Thom, also part of the capital city is filled with several temples worth seeing. If you are going to be visiting and because each one is so large, and they are not all that close together its worth spending the extra cash and getting a three day or week long pass to the park. You can see the big ones in one day but you’ll be rushing.
The ruins that make of Angkor Thom are some of the most picturesque and iconic images of Cambodia. The lights streaming through jungle tress, shade and sunshine juxtaposed on moss covered rocks will leave you spellbound. Cross over a bridge guarded by gods and demons and Wander through the many temples as rediscover the magic of a fallen kingdom.
Half eaten by the jungle the most photogenic temple in Angkor Thom is Ta Prom, the Temple of Brahma, better known to both tourist and tout guides as the Angelina Jolie Temple. Ta Prom was used in scenes of Tomb Raider and watching tourist post as Lara Croft I couldn’t help but wonder if in the future history will remember it by its new name rather than the old.
More than just a casual photo stop Ta Prom is a moving sanctuary where light filters through the trees and water drips onto emerald moss. It’s strange to see huge plants make their way through solid stone, breaking it slowly apart.
Paradoxically the very trees that make Ta Prom so photogenic will be its undoing. When the trees die or are knocked down, the temple goes with them leaving piles of rubble instead of a Unesco World Heritage site.
For the adventurous head to the Temple of the Snake Maiden, where the King used to come every night to sleep and consummate his kingship with the otherworldly snake maiden that would visit his sacred chamber. After an arduous climb up incredibly steep steps to can get a fantastic view of the surrounding jungle from what used to be the King’s bedroom. The palace room that once sat on top is long since rotted away, stone was only used for building temples, any place dedicated to mortals whether commoner of king was built from wood.
The Bayon in Angkor Thom, constructed by Jayavarman VII, was one of the last temples constructed and was utilized as the state temple. It is another often pictured Angkor temple, with the four faced heads of Avalokiteshvara popping out of stone every few feet or so. Avalokiteshvara is a bodhisattva, a person who has attained enlightenment but forgoes Nirvana in order to help others crawl out of their repeating lives.
There are many bodhisattvas but Avalokiteshvara is one of the most famous, known for his loving compassion. The faces bear a striking resemblance to the historic king Jayavarman VII.
Angkor Wat itself is massive, filled with intricate bas reliefs of Hindu and Buddhist mythology from the Churning of the Sea of Milk to the gruesome depictions of Buddhist hell. Watching and waiting from the trees are troops of monkeys who love to be in photos, and love even more to grab shiny cameras, so watch out unless you’re really good at climbing trees.
Climbing to the top of the Angkor Wat is a feat best not attempted by those with vertigo as the stairways, though now covered with modern wooden stairs is quite steep. The view form the top is magnificent and its very moving to go to each compass direction and pay respects at the different Buddha’s seated their. The courtyards have a peaceful feel even when crowded.
The ruins may be historically fascinating but they may also be the one of the best places on earth to explore, faces popping out of rock, trees encasing whole buildings. In the Angkor Park though you’ll have hard time catching a moment by yourself, even if you go at dawn.
For an Indian Jones temple experience head to Bang Maelea also known as “ Little Angkor”. Located about 70km outside of Siam Reap this was the prototype of Angkor Wat. It was here that the building of the magnificent capital first commenced and when the King abruptly changed his mind and chose a new location, Bang Maelea was left to the jungle. Unguarded and unpoliced you can climb amongst the tumbled rocks, scale the toppling walls and have that adventure experience you wanted to at Angkor.
On hand to give you a hand, or a lift or a push, are children who operate as guides. They will follow you whether or not you want them to so it’s better just to give in and enjoy their company. Many have surprisingly good English and will take you to the sights of former libraries and galleries, there are also very handy at identifying what is or is not poisonous.
If you’re lucky and get an older child as a guide they can show you more than just their favorite haunts and hideaways. They can show you which towers were destroyed by falling trees, and by human hands. They get very serious, in stark contrast to their usual selves, when they tell you about the violence committed there by the Khmer Rouge in their battles with the Vietnamese army and the destruction it wrought to the structures. Guns and mines destroyed a significant portion of the standing monuments.
But like most Khmer they don’t let the past get them down for long. As soon as they have shown you passed them they are smiling from ear to ear and ready with a joke to lighten the mood Hoping along on the ancient ruins you’ll get to know the real meaning of “jungle gym”.
Kathleen Broadhurst is currently hurtling around South East Asia as she prepares to start a new adventure teaching English in Thailand. Follow her exploits on her blog, www.travelvicarious.blogspot.com