The Golden Age of the Khmer Empire at Angkor

For cultural travelers, there is nothing more exciting than the first view of one of the world’s most iconic spiritual and historic sites. Whether it’s Rome’s Colisseum, the Pyramids of Giza, Beijing’s Forbidden City, or the Empire State Building, there is a rash of goosebumps when it finally comes into sight. The spires of the Khmer Temple of Angkor Wat are in this league. It is immediately recognizable. Considered by some experts to be the largest religious monument in the World, this specific structure is actually dwarfed by the extent of the entire Angkor metropolis, mostly built about eight hundred to a thousand years ago. Current scholastic estimates put the Khmer population of Angkor at a million people at a time when London had 150,000. It is possible Angkor was the largest city in the world in its prime.

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Angkor Wat, the largest religious monument in the world

The classic Khmer Angkor period began with the unification of the Khmer kingdoms by Jayavarman II in 802 CE. It took almost one hundred years before the Chakravartin (Universal Monarch) successors moved the court to the current site of Angkor, establishing the royal city of Yashodharapura. The first temples and infrastructure were built around 900 CE. Aside from one short period of disruption, the capitol stayed at Angkor for over four hundred years. Some of the early temples include Phnom Bakheng, Banteay Srei, Pre Rup, and Baphuon. The Royal Palace of Suryavarman I was built during his reign of 1011-1049 CE.

The huge temple complex of Angkor Wat was built a hundred years later by Suryavarman II. It is dedicated to the Hindu god, Vishnu. This was a departure from the custom of building temples to Shiva. The buildings are covered with carvings of bas-relief scenes from Hindu epics, the king’s life, the Ramayana, and defining themes of Hindu beliefs. The detail and artistry is astounding. Like the stained glass windows of Europe’s Gothic cathedrals, the murals were intended to teach the lessons of Hindu belief to the masses. The scenes and characters would have been instantly recognizable to all visitors. From an architectural perspective, it is interesting to note that the entire complex was built without the use of keystone archways or weight-bearing buttresses. This accounts for its relatively dense and upright profile.

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The Buddhist temple of Bayon

The central temple structure has five “spires” which represent the five peaks of the sacred Mount Meru. The five peaks are dedicated to 1) Vishnu, 2) Shiva and his consort Uma, 3) Brahma, 4) Lakshmi, the consort to Vishnu, and 5) Saraswati, consort to Brahma. There are numerous images of the mythical beasts of Hinduism: the Singha Lion, the Naga ( a many headed serpent) and the Garuda ( a flying beast with a man’s body). The requisite number of comely maidens adorn many walls and niches. The exposed spires and surfaces are showing the wear of time. However, many of the bas-relief murals are in amazingly good shape. A knowing eye would easily discern the images and story lines.

Some of the most extensive construction in the greater city was done after Angkor Wat was finished. The Khmer empire reached its furthest boundaries, covering most of modern-day Thailand, Cambodia and Laos, with Jayavarman VII, whose long reign lasted 37 years, to 1218 . He turned the capitol into Angkor Thom (Angkor the Great). A Mahayanist Buddhist, he added Bayon Temple and the monasteries of Ta Prohm and Preah Khan. Much of what can still be seen today are the remains of these more recent structures.

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The ornate carvings in the cloisters of Ta Prohm

After the passing of Jayavarman VII, tensions between Buddhist and Hindu factions and military pressure from the Central Vietnamese Champa weakened the Khmer Empire. By 1327, it was overrun by the rising Thai empire of Ayutthaya and never regained its glory.

Excellent resources for your trip to Angkor include Angkor and the Khmer Civilization (Ancient Peoples and Places), and Angkor: Cambodia’s Wondrous Khmer Temples (Sixth Edition) (Odyssey Illustrated Guides). The definitive 1944 website is www.theangkorguide.com.

Today, the extensive archaeological site is a national park. You’ll have to work to get there. If you are arriving by cruiseship, an extended overland trip will be required. Ours was three days from Sihanoukville to Ho Chi Minh City, via Phnom Penh and Siem Reap. You do not need to be concerned about quality. These are real airplanes and five star hotels. For the most part, buying a package tour will be your best bet. It is absolutely worth the detour.