Angkor Wat's ancient temples an archeological delight
Ancient city was once largest in the world
Banyan tree roots are bigger than the buildings they engulf at Ta Phrom.
Photograph by: Michael McCarthy
It’s known as one of the great wonders of the modern world. Angkor Wat is buried deep in the jungles of northern Cambodia — the remains of a fabulous 12th century temple complex, slowly emerging from the sleep of centuries as archeologists carefully dig through the remains of what was once the world’s largest city.
Located just outside the rapidly growing tourist town of Siem Reap that has recently sprung up to serve the tourist trade, Angkor can easily be reached these days by international flights that touch down in the capital of Phnom Penh, itself an architectural delight still maintaining French colonial charm and well worth an extended visit. From Phnom Penh there are one-hour flights onward to Siem Reap.
‘Wat’ means temple or holy city in Khmer, the Cambodian language, and Angkor actually refers to a vast complex of temples that stretch for more than 50 kilometres throughout the steamy jungle, many still in a state of total disrepair. Touring all the temples in one visit is literally impossible; the heat, humidity, crowds and touts are quite draining. While Angkor may not be well known here in the west, certainly Chinese and Japanese tourists have discovered it by the busload. Main temples can be crowded on any day of the year.
Three-day passes can be bought directly at the gates, an easy 10-minute ride from Siem Reap by tuk tuk. This form of two-wheel motorcycle rickshaw is the best way to tour the complex. You can simply hop on and off the tuk tuk as your driver wends his way through the myriad jungle paths. Walking in this heat is not recommended. The vast city complex goes on forever, so even a three-day pass will only reveal hints at Angkor’s ancient glory.
The artwork carved into the stone walls, the leering faces perched atop piles of decaying rock, the crumbling temples, all add up to create a sense of awe. The Angkor Wat temples were built between 800 to 1300 AD by the Khmer Empire, one of the greatest powers in Southeast Asia in those ages. It is estimated that at its height of rule, the population contained more than a million people. During this time, 27 kings ruled a great empire, but the temples were abandoned around the 15th century. Why? No one knows. The temples are not only impressive because of their beauty, but it’s amazing to marvel at the vast waterworks and military defenses that were put in place, far advanced for their time.
The main temple, usually referred to as Angkor Wat, is unrivalled in its vast scale and serene beauty. Its magnificence indicates a level of pomp and luxury surpassing that of the Egyptian pyramids or the Taj Mahal in India.
Anyone who saw the movie Tomb Raider, starring Angelina Jolie, will recognize Ta Phrom, the eeriest temple in the jungle complex, and especially the enormous banyan trees that grow out of it. Just the roots of the trees are bigger than the buildings they engulf. Ta Phrom looks like the setting for something out of a science fiction movie.
Which, I guess, it was.
Ta Phrom was discovered by a French archeologist a century ago and ordered by the Ecole Francaise d’extreme-orient to be left in its natural state as an example of how most of Angkor looked upon its discovery by westerners in the 19th century. This was an inspired decision and involved a significant amount of work to prevent further collapse and enough clearing of vegetation to allow tourism. Ta Phrom has been maintained ever since in this condition of apparent neglect.
Guides to Angkor are available in Siem Reap and at the site itself. Those interested in history or archeology might be well served to research the topic of guides in advance. Most important would be to find one that speaks good English and who can explain the incredible history of what was once one of the most important cities in the world. Why was it built in such a strange location in the middle of the jungle? Why did it disappear? Who lived here?
Be prepared for extreme heat, bring lots of water, and plan to avoid exertion in the mid-day sun. This is a true tropical jungle.
Sunset over the spooky jungle palaces of Angkor is an experience not to be missed.
The downtown area of nearby Siem Reap, rapidly expanding with franchise hotels and guest houses, still maintains some of its old colonial French charm, and the small, easily walked downtown district is full of attractive restaurants, bars, markets and art galleries, all well worth a visit. Take a break, relax, shower after a hard day of climbing and exploring crumbling structures in the sizzling heat, and enjoy. It’s a wonder more people haven’t heard about such an extraordinary destination. Well, now you have.
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