One of the great wonders of the ancient world, Angkor Wat is the largest religious structure on earth. Construction began during the reign of Suryavarman II (reigned 1113-c.1150) and took about thirty years to complete. A Hindu temple-city dedicated to Vishnu, Angkor Wat might also have served as a mausoleum for the king after his death. It is the most famous of all the temples of Angkor, receiving thousands of visitors each day. Buddhist monks have maintained the temple since the 16th century.
Wat Atvea is a Hindu temple dating to the late-12th or perhaps early-13th century. As no inscriptions have been found, it is not known precisely when it was dedicated or to what purpose. It has been suggested by some archaeologists that this temple was not completed. There are unfinished carvings, and many columns and lintels lack adornment. Also notable is the enormous size of the blocks used in the construction of this rather small temple. Located to the south of Siem Reap and most other Angkor sites, this temple receives little visitation. I explored the temple at length on a Saturday afternoon and was the only visitor present. A modern Buddhist pagoda is located next to the ruin site.
Preah Khan ("Sacred Sword") was built in 1191 as a monastery and school by King Jayavarman VII (reigned 1181-1220), who dedicated it to his father Dharaindravarman. This 138-acre Buddhist complex served as the nucleus of a temple community that included Neak Pean and Ta Som, which are located along Jayataka Baray, the last of the great reservoirs constructed at Angkor. The garuda is the symbolic guardian and protector of Preah Khan. There are 72 of these 5-meter high statues along the wall that surrounds Preah Khan. Each garuda holds in either hand a three-headed naga. In Hindu mythology, the half-man, half-bird figure is the mount of Vishnu and is the mortal enemy of the naga. Buddhist mythology aligns the two here as protectors of the ground and water (naga) and the heavenly realm (garuda).
Bayon is a Buddhist "temple-mountain" built by the great Khmer king, Jayavarman VII (reigned 1181-1220 CE). It is iconic among the temples of Angkor, notable for its ubiquitous towers with four faces (there are over 200 faces on 54 towers). While it is generally accepted that the faces depict the king and signify his omnipresence, some have argued that they represent the Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara, embodiment of compassion. Given the benevolent nature of Jayavarman's rule (he built hospitals, schools, and many public works), it is possible that king envisioned himself as the Bodhisattva. The temple also contains many fine bas-reliefs depicting scenes of war (the naval victory over the Chams led by Jayavarman VII in 1181) and of daily life in ancient Angkor.
A Buddhist monastic complex built by Jayavarman VII sometime in the late 12th and early 13th centuries. No inscription stone has ever been found so it is not known precisely when it was dedicated or for whom it was built. Faultily constructed of poor quality sandstone, the ruin is crumbling. Towers are bound with cable, and various supporting structures are in place to keep the temple from further degradation. Nevertheless, the site has its own charm and enigmatic beauty. Similar in aesthetic and purpose to the nearby, but much larger, Ta Prohm, Banteay Kdei is an important Buddhist site. It has been occupied by monks for centuries, except in the 1960s when it was apparently home to a herd of dangerous wild deer. That's right. Dangerous wild deer.
The monastic complex of Ta Prohm is one of the largest sites at Angkor and one of the most intriguing. Built in the second half of the 12th century by Jayavarman VII, this Buddhist temple was dedicated to the mother of the king. It employed over 12,000 people, mostly monks, and was supported by nearly 80,000 people residing in the villages that belonged to the temple. Left mostly untouched by archaeologists after its discovery in modern times, the site holds a special fascination and mystery. The structures have been invaded by fig, banyan, and kapok trees, the giant roots of which probe the cracks in the walls and terraces, while their branches and leaves form a vibrant canopy overhead. As in other Buddhist temples, a nun caretaker is often present to give blessings and assist those who wish to make offerings. The nun who blessed me was delightful and laughed when I showed her the picture she happily allowed me to take.
A Hindu temple-mountain dedicated to Shiva in 961 by Rajendravarman II (reigned 944-968). Many Cambodians believe that this temple was associated specifically with funeral rites and cremation, but modern archaeological evidence in support of this theory is scant, and the exact function of this impressive structure remains unknown.
Pre Rup is one of a few temples, including Angkor Wat, that opens early (5 a.m.) so that visitors may view the sunrise. Hundreds, if not thousands, flock to Angkor Wat for this purpose each morning. When I visited Pre Rup early one Sunday morning in mid-June, I was surprised and delighted to find that I was the only tourist there. I watched the sunrise over the Kulen Hills, accompanied only by the sound of birds, crickets, and the occasional whine of a distant motorbike.
Phnom Krom is approximately 12 kilometers south of Siem Reap, on the northern edge of the great lake Tonle Sap. To access, on foot, the ruins that sit atop the mountain, one must ascend a long set of stairs to a reach a narrow road that climbs circuitously to the courtyard of a small modern pagoda. (Motorbikes and small cars can take this road from the bottom but tuks-tuks cannot.) From the courtyard another short flight of stairs leads to the ruin site. This temple is one of three built by Yasovarman I (reigned 889-910) on hills that dominate the Angkorean plain -- Bahkeng (near Angkor Thom), Phnom Bok (near Banteay Srei), and Phnom Krom. Built in the late 9th and early 10th centuries, this temple was dedicated to the Hindu trinity--Brahma, Shiva, and Vishnu. The mountain is a popular spot with young Khmer who come to picnic and watch the sunset.
I visited Phnom Krom on an extremely hot Saturday afternoon. I was the only foreigner on the mountain, a madman in a palm-leaf hat, kroma drooped around my neck, trudging up the hill in the pitiless sun. I passed a group of young Khmer men sitting in the shade of a small tree. "Dtau naa?" They called over to me. "Where you going?" "Right to the top", I replied assuredly with a broad smile. They laughed and went back to drinking their beer. Angkor Beer. "My, country, my beer."
Jayavarman IV, who reigned from 928 to 941, divided the Khmer kingdom by establishing a new capital in the remote location of Chok Gargyar ("Island of Glory", present-day Koh Ker), just east of the southern tip of Phnom Kulen.* It has been suggested that Jayavarman IV was a usurper to the Khmer throne, but there is no clear evidence of this. However, it is certain that he wielded a great deal of military power. (Inscriptions reveal that he ruled over the territories of Battamabang, Siemreap, Kampong Thom, Kampong Cham, and Ta Kev.) Called 'Lingapura' in inscriptions, this royal ceremonial complex was built on a grand scale and originally contained some of the largest sculpture ever created by the Khmer. Not surprisingly, over the centuries most of the sculpture has been looted or moved to museums. Some of these pieces are on view at the Angkor National Museum in Siem Reap. Although Koh Ker's most prominent feature is the great pyramid, Prasat Thom, there are some intriguing outlying ruins as well, including Prasat Neang Khmau and root-covered Prasat Pram.
*The Khmer capital was moved from Chok Gargyar back to Angkor by Jayavarman IV's successor, Harshavarman II (reigned 941-944).
Located near the present-day village of Roluos, Bakong is a Hindu temple-mountain built by King Indravarman I (reigned 877-889). It was center of Hariharalaya, the capital of the Khmer Empire before it was transferred to Yasodharapura (Angkor) by Yasovarman I (reigned 889-c.900). Constructed on an artificial mound, the temple is an earthly representation of mythical Mount Meru, a mountain of five peaks, sacred in Hindu cosmology. It is now used by Buddhists, and a modern Buddhist pagoda stands adjacent to the ruin site.
The morning I visited the site, the guard was kind enough to allow me entrance some fifteen minutes early. I was alone in the temple save for two young Khmer girls who were collecting the remains of yellow candles that had been placed throughout the temple and lit for a ceremony the previous evening. How I would have liked to have seen the temple aglow in such fashion. A beautiful flowering tree (Delonix regia - royal poinciana) near the pagoda was alive with butterflies.
Preah Ko ("The Sacred Bull") was built as a funerary monument to the mother and father of King Indravarman I (reigned 877-889 CE). This ancestral temple also honors the king's maternal grandparents as well as his predecessor, King Jayavarman II, and his wife. Dedicated to Shiva, it was completed in the late 9th century. One of the oldest Khmer temples, it is also one of the best preserved and most beautiful. The carving on the columns, lintels, and false doors is superb. Ornate niches shelter skillfully rendered dvarapalas (male guardians) and devatas (female guardians). Intricate floral and geometric elements abound in the lintels, as do depictions of various mythic monsters including kala, makara, naga, and garuda.*
When I arrived at Preah Ko, on a cloudy morning of intermittent rain, the site was aswarm with tourists, including a large group of Koreans that was being quite loud. However, within minutes of my arrival the rain began to fall again, and the Koreans were compelled to retreat to their tour bus, leaving the temple much less crowded and much quieter. The rain brought out the rich colors of the stone as well as the heady perfumes of the forest. It was lovely and intoxicating. I told one of the guards, in my beginner's Khmer, that I like the rain: "Kñom jool-jet pliang." He flashed a quizzical smile. Speaking Khmer, I tried to explain where I was from and what the weather is like. I do not think he had heard of Oregon.
* Kala - jawless monster resembling a lion's head with two bulging eyes often depicted devouring floral garlands. Makara - a strange hybrid of crocodile, fish, tapir, bird, and elephant depicted in profile and placed at the ends of lintels. Naga - Cobra with odd-numbered heads (usually five, seven, or nine), serpent god of the waters, an important and ubiquitous figure in Khmer sculpture. Garuda - An anthropomorphic eagle creature, enemy of the Naga, revered as the mount of Vishnu, also very common in Angkorean sculpture.
Banteay Srei ("Citadel of the Women") is a Hindu temple dedicated to Shiva, constructed in the latter half of the 10th century CE. Originally called 'Isvarapura', it was commissioned by a Brahmin of royal descent, Yajnavaraha, who served as tutor to the royal prince, Jayavarman V (968-1001). Construction began during the reign of Jayavarman's predecessor, Rajendravarman II (reigned 944-968), but the temple was not dedicated until after his death in 968. The red sandstone used in the construction of Banteay Srei makes it unique among the temples of Angkor. Also unique is the enigmatically small scale on which it was built. The doors in the towers measure less than 5 feet high. However, the carvings on the lintels, pediments, false doors, pilasters, and columns are some of the finest in Angkor. These masterworks depict lively scenes from the Hindu epics and Puranas. They display not only great skill, aesthetics, and artistry but also a deep familiarity with Hindu mythology and literature.
I visited this temple on my first trip to Cambodia in 2014. Our group toured the site in the evening when many other tourists were present. I felt that visit to be rather rushed and so was grateful for the opportunity to visit the temple again on my most recent trip. My two friends and I were the first to enter the temple on a beautiful, if rather warm, Saturday morning (most Angkor temples open at 7:30). The golden light of early day and clouds scattered across the blue sky made for a captivating scene, silent and serene.