Temples of Angkor

May 2004

Angkor literally means 'Capital City' or 'Holy City' and Khmer refers to the dominant ethnic group in both ancient and modern Cambodia. So generally, Angkor refers to the capital city of the Khmer Empire between the 9th and 14th centuries, which at its peak extended from the tip of southern Vietnam on the east to the Bay of Bengal in the west, and north to Yunnan in China. Today, an area encompassing hundreds of square kilometers around the Cambodian town of Siem Riep is filled with thousand-year old temple ruins of the long-vanished empire. The Angkor Archeological Park has been designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.
I really didn't know what to expect; I have to admit that, skeptic that I am, I was pretty impressed.

I've arranged these photos chronologically, according to construction era, so you can get an idea of the historical progression (see 'Angkorian Monarchs' table near bottom of page to get an overall sense of the 'Angkorian Period.')

The 'King's Temple.' Constructed in the late 10th Century, it is the tallest scaleable temple in the area. According to legend, it was crowned by a golden tower and inhabited by a serpent, which would transform into a woman. The kings of Angkor were required to make love with the serpent every night, lest disaster befall him or the kingdom.

Phimeanakas Phimeanakas

Huge temple-mountain in Angkor Thom, constructed in the mid-11th Century. Largely collapsed, and presently undergoing extensive restoration; not open to the public. Walking around gave me a good idea of what's involved in restoring one of these temples; BIG job.

Baphuon Baphuon

Angkor Wat
At nearly a mile square, Angkor Wat is claimed to be the largest religious structure in the world. It was begun in 1113 at the start of Suryavarman II's reign, and not finished until after his death in 1150. "At the apex of Khmer political and military dominance in the region, Suryavarman constructed Angkor Wat in the form of a massive temple-mountain dedicated to the Hindu god, Vishnu." The core of the temple is a huge three-tiered pyramid crowned by five beehive-like towers rising 65 meters above the ground. These towers are believed to represent the five peaks of Mount Meru, the Home of Gods and Center of the Hindu Universe. Angkor Wat features the longest continuous bas-relief in the world, which runs along the outer gallery walls, narrating stories from Hindu Mythology. With the decline of the Ancient Khmer Empire, Angkor Wat was turned into a Buddhist Temple and continuously maintained, which helped its preservation. When the temle was "discovered" by French explorer Henri Mouhot in 1860, it was a "prosperous monastery...tended by more than 1000 hereditary slaves."

Angkor Wat

Even crowded with tourists, Angkor Wat is stunning.

Angkor Wat Angkor Wat

The monks sure seem to like it.

Angkor Wat Angkor Wat

...my favorites were the bas-relief carvings.

Angkor Wat carvings Angkor Wat carvings

These are from the Hindu epic "Ramayana." I believe the first is Vishnu.

Angkor Wat carvings Angkor Wat carvings

Angkor's greatest king (or most megalomaniacal, depending on how you view history) was Jayavarman VII, who embarked on a dizzying list of construction projects. He created the fortified city of Angkor Thom, 3 km across and surrounded by walls and a moat. The city may have had a regional population of one million, and contained most of the following temples.

Victory Gate on the east side of the city.

Victory Gate

The Bayon
Occupying the very center of the city, the Bayon was built as Jayavarman's state temple. It has 37 standing towers.

The Bayon The Bayon

The Bayon's giant stone faces have become one of the most recognizable images of classic Khmer art and architecture. Archeologists continue to debate who they represent: they may be Lokvara (a Hindu god) or Bodhisattva (Buddha), or even a combination of Buddha and Jayavarman VII.

The Bayon The Bayon

The Bayon has incredible carved bas-reliefs around the outer walls. These include battle-scenes from a historical sea-battle between the Khmer (Cambodians) and the Cham (historic enemies who lived in present-day Vietnam); and also scenes of everyday life in Angkor.

The Bayon The Bayon

Terrace of the Elephants
A seven-foot tall wall covered with carved elephants and giant garudas.

Terrace of the Elephants Terrace of the Elephants

Terrace of the Leper King
The terrace was named for the statue sitting on top, but nobody is quite sure why it has this name. It may be a statue of the 'leper king' of Khmer legend, or perhaps the statue's lichen-covered appearance gave it the appearance of leprosy.

Terrace of the Leper King

Ta Prohm
Like the others built under Jayavarman VII, Ta Prohm was a Buddhist temple. It was dedicated to his mother. It is my Angkor favorite temple, because it's been left to be swallowed by the jungle. It supposedly looks very much the way most of Angkor appeared when European explorers first stumbled upon it.

Ta Prohm Ta Prohm

...cows and all.

cows and all

Preah Khan
Preah Khan means 'sacred sword' and was dedicated to Jayavarman VII's father.

Preah Khan Preah Khan

Banteay Kdei
Constructed in the late 12th / early 13th century, it is another massive Buddhist temple. It was constructed quickly, and is in a ruinous state (and presently being swallowed by the jungle.)

Banteay Kdei Banteay Kdei

Sras Srang
This was the last place I visited. The name means Pool of Ablutions, and was used only by the king. It measures 800m by 400m, and there is the ruin of a small temple at the center (just visible in the photo.) I walked all around the pool looking for a reputed Khmer Rouge Killing Field, but couldn't find it. This little waif named Keo followed me the whole way, telling me stories about ghosts inhabiting the area. She was very happy I couldn't find the killing field.

Sras Srang Sras Srang

While walking amidst the ruins, the tourist is continously confronted by beggars, peddlers and musicians trying to eke out a few Riels. The band on the right, made up of landmine amputees, were also peddling their own CD.

peddler band

My first day of touring, first thing I did, upon arriving at the temple complex, was to get separated from the Irishmen I was going to see the temples with. But this was partially compensated by encountering a Cambodian film crew making a religious-action movie (apparently a popular genre.) See, the monk was in love with one of the prince's concubines, but the prince wasn't too happy about that, so next thing you know, Mr. Barefoot Saffron Robe gets a messa' knife holes through his perty little robe....

movie production

And finally....here are some apsaras (celestial nymphs), available to the god-king for recreational purposes upon his ascent into the afterlife.

apsaras apsaras


Angkorian Monarchs
King Dates of Reign Temples built
Jayavarman II 802-850
Jayavarman III 850-877
Indravarman I 877-889 Preah Ko, Roluos Bakong
Yasovarman I 889-910 Phnom Bakeng, Lolei
Harshavarman I 910-928
Jayavarman IV 928-942
Harshavarman II 942-944
Rajendravarman II 944-968 Phimeanakas, E. Mebon, Pre Rup
Jayavarman V 968-1001 Ta Keo, Banteay Srei
Udayadityavarman I 1001-1002
Suryavarman I 1002-1049
Udayadityavarman II 1049-1065 Baphuon, West Mabon
Hasharvarman III 1065-1090
Jayarvarman VI 1090-1108
Dharanindravarman I 1108-1112
Suryavarman II 1112-1152 Angkor Wat, Banteay Samre
Harsharvarman IV 1152
Dharanindravarman II 1152-1177
Jayavarman VII 1181-1219 Angkor Thom, Ta Nei, Preah Khan, Preah Paillay, Ta Prohm, Banteay Kdei
Indravarman II 1219-1243
Jayavarman VIII 1243-1295
Sri-Indravarman 1295-1307
Sri-Indrajayavarman 1307
Jayavarman Paramesvara mid-1300's

Editorial Opinion:
After three days of enthusiastic temple exploring, I feel pretty ambivalent about this place:
On the one hand, the massive and geometrically pleasing temple architecture, the beautiful carvings and bas-reliefs, and the strange beauty of the jungle "devouring" stone towers and walls, has a sublime effect on the visitor. As the guidebook says, "The temples of Angkor are the heart and soul of the Kingdom of Cambodia, a souce of inspiration and national pride to all Khmers....no tourist will want to miss their extravagant beauty when passing through the region." Yes, of course.
But then on the other hand....
The whole time I was wandering around the temples, I kept thinking "Who built these, and how did they do it?" The guidebooks relate that all the sandstone for the many temples of Jayavarman VII was brought by boat from 50 miles away. Fifty miles! This happened a thousand years ago, which means it was all done by hand. So how many hundreds of thousands of slaves devoted their entire lives to quarrying, hauling, lifting, and carving the millions of tons of rock which went into the construction of the buildings?
I came to Angkor fresh from visits to Tuol Sleng and Choeung Ek, respectively the interrogation center and "killing field" of the Khmer Rouge in Phnom Penh. The four years of Khmer Rouge rule (1975-79) were a period during which Pol Pot had an opportunity to use the population of Cambodia to enact his vision of Cambodia as a pure, collective agrarian society. In other words, an entire people for his personal chess pieces.
The guidebooks proclaim that Angkor is "a manifestation of man's love for his gods..." But for which man? Perhaps for the god-kings who commanded their subjects (slaves) to spend their lifetimes pounding rock or pulling 5-ton blocks of stone through the jungle; but what did those slaves think?
As I walked around the Angkor temples, I wondered about the difference between their construction and the creation of a "new Cambodia" during "Pol Pot time" as it's called. The god-kings ordered these huge temples built to impress their subjects and enemies, or perhaps to try to cut themselves a better deal with the gods for a better afterlife. Who knows exactly, but it seems like it all comes down to roughly the same thing: Jayavarman with his jungle-temples, Pol Pot with his torture centers, George W. Bush with his famous carrier landing on the Abraham Lincoln; all megalomaniacs using millions of other lives to act out their own desires for godhood. Who needs it?

Chris Pforr, May 27, 2004

While wandering around the temples I discovered a previously-unknown branch of my family tree; clearly an ancestor!

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