Featured Image: Entrance to The Bayon, Buddhist Temple, Angkor Thom
Breadtag Sagas ©: Author Tony, 1 December 2022
Angkor Guide 2023
We are thinking of going to Siem Reap and Angkor in Cambodia again as part of a trip to Thailand in January 2023. We went there for the first time ten years ago in 2013.
Over the years, I’ve been to many historical sites representing vanished empires for example Borobudur (9th C) in Java, many Greek and Roman cities, Macchu Picchu (15th C) and Cuzco in Peru, Aztec ruins of Teotihuacan near Mexico city, many historical sites such as Khujaraho (885-1000 CE) and Hampi (6-14th C) in India, Taxila in Pakistan (1300 BCE to 540 CE) and others. And, these are only some of many around the world.
The Angkor Archeological Park listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site is the equivalent of any of them. It is huge and it is beautiful and certainly a must see, if possible.
Angkor Area and Angkor Wat
Angkor Wat — the city that became a pagoda — is not only the grandest of all the Khmer temples but also a city in its own right.
The Angkor Archaeological Park is spread out over 400 square kilometres and contains innumerable temples. It is the site of the famous city and temples of the Khmer Empire.
The area was dangerous not long ago and battles were fought nearby in the 1970s, when the Khmer Rouge and Pol Pot were in power. Cambodia hasn’t recovered and is one of the poorest countries in Asia.
The ruins of Angkor cover a dynasty of 26 Khmer rulers from 800 BCE to the early 1300s, the empire reached its peak in the 11th to 13th centuries. Its competitors at its most prosperous were the Siamese to the west and the Cham from Vietnam in the East, particularly the latter.
Figure 1 gives a chronology of the Khmer kings and the temples they built.
A researcher at the university of Oregon analysed the area thoroughly and gave a population estimate of the Khmer empire of Angkor, around Angkor Wat, in the 13th C of about 700,000 to 900,000 people.
You’ll notice on the map the moats and barays man-made lakes. (The Eastern Baray doesn’t exist as a reservoir anymore.) The Khmer were a hydrological empire and very conversant with water storage and its use in agriculture. Unlike the Thais their water resources were less secure.
The Virtual Angkor Project
During the Covid lockdown, several media stories and other outlets suggested virtual tours around the world as a way of visiting sites, museums and art galleries that you wanted to go to, but could not in 2020. I visited some then and also attended zoom discussions on art at the National Portrait Gallery in Canberra, which were terrific.
We also paid for a tour of a Goya drawings exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV). This consisted of travels along corridors and then supposed close ups of the images, which were too far away to actually observe any of the detail. A regrettable mistake.
I mention the NGV experience because my visits to virtual heritage sites, museums and galleries were disappointing in 2020 and hadn’t improved much when I searched the other day. The galleries are especially bad. Much better just to look up the art works in their archive.
The Virtual Angkor project produced by SensiLab at Monash University recreates the sprawling Cambodian metropolis of Angkor at the height of the Khmer empire’s power and influence around 1300 C.E.
Built for the classroom, the virtual reality experience takes students into a 3D world.
The site is obviously an experimental site and incomplete but what they have done is interesting and creditable. If you explore, it will give you a good idea of what you will see at Angkor and the scenes explore daily life circa 1300.
In 2013 we stayed in a comfortable medium to down-market lodging house about 5 minutes walk from the centre. There is much more fancy and luxurious accommodation and eating further out but much of it is soulless.
The centre of Siem Reap in 2013 was lively and though geared entirely to tourism kept some flavour of the dusty village of the past. I remember Vientiane in Laos which we visited in 2000 and again in 2001. It was a dusty little town. I met an miner from Laos in Chiang Mai about ten years ago. He said I should go back. I wouldn’t recognise the place. Siem Reap has been a tourist destination for a long time with a break during the Pol Pot era. I suspect it won’t have changed much except out of the centre.
The restaurants and bars in the centre were excellent from memory and the place had a relaxed colonial style ambience.
We hired our driver across the road from our guesthouse. He was a lovely young man, bright and well-educated. He took us around the temples for five days and we enjoyed his company. But, he was desperate to get out of Cambodia to take a low paid depressing job in Korea. There is still not much future for young people in Cambodia, despite improvements in the economy over the past ten years.
Indian customs, culture and religion spread much more widely than we were taught under the British tradition. A form of Hindu religion was practiced in mainland South East Asia, as it was in Bali. The Khmer kings adopted Hinduism in a modified form early in their civilisation and it was central to their legitimacy.
Jayavarman VII the creator of Angkor Thom converted to Buddhism and crammed a massive building program into his thirty year rule.
Jayavaram VIII was responsible for the destruction of so much Buddhist imagery and tried to restore important Hindu temples.
Perhaps Hinduism was key to the legitimacy of the Khmer kings because the empire declined quickly thereafter. Nothing else has survived at Angkor from later than the 13th century. Following the rise of Theravda Bhuddism only wooden temples were made and it is thus difficult to measure the wealth of Angkor beyond this time.
Date: Early 12th century (between 1113 and 1150) with later additions
Style: Angkor Wat
Reign: Suryavarman II
The most famous and main palace and temple complex surrounded by a moat
Date: Late 12th century (excluding some earlier monuments inside, such as Bapuon and Phimeanakas) with later additions
Reign: Jayavarman VII and successors
Religion: Buddist (mainly)
One of the largest of all Khmer cities contains many temples terraces and other structures inside its walls and gates.
Date: Late 12th to Late 13th century construction probably started about 1200
Reign: Jayavarman VII to Jayavarman VIII
Inside Angkor Thom, the Bayon to my mind is the most spectacular (Jayavarman VII to Jayavarman VIII) but Bapuon (1060), the elephant terrace, the leper king terrace, Phimeanakas and the royal place (late 10th to early 11th centuries) are also marvellous.
Date: Late 12th to 13th centuries
Reign: Jayavarman VII, enlarged by Indravarman II
This was the temple chosen by the École Française d’Extrême-Orient to be left in its ‘natural state’, as an example of how most of Angkor looked on its discovery in the 19th century. A brilliant decision to my mind.
Preah Khan late 12th C (1191), Bayon, Jayavarman VII with alterations by Jayavarman VIII
Pre Rup, Middle of the 10th C (961), Ta Keo ( late 10th and early 11th) and many others are also well-worth seeing.
Some of the earliest temples are at Roluos.
We went on a whole day birding trip to Ang Trapeang Thmor. Once you leave Siem Reap into the countryside rural poverty is evident. The man with his horse is possibly a symbol of this. International tourism is essential for peoples’ livelihood in Cambodia.
Nevertheless, Angkor is essential for a fuller understanding of human history and certainly to move away from the British imperialist history we grew up with. Angkor is so large and magnificent that it should be a must see for everyone.
Key Words: Siem Reap, Angkor, Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom, Cambodia, Angkor Archeological Park, UNESCO World Heritage site, city, temples, Khmer Empire, Khmer rulers, Siamese, Cham, Thailand, Vietnam, Virtual Angkor Project, Phimeanakas, three-tiered Hindu temple, guardian lions, nagas, relief carvings, gate, Hinduism, Buddhism, colonnades, Terrace of the Leper King, Elephant Terrace, Royal Square, The Bayon, faces, Ta Prohm, École Française d’Extrême-Orient, Preah Khan, Pre Rup, Ta Keo, Roluos, Jayavarman, Indravarman
I used Michael Freeman and Claude Jacques Ancient Angkor Guide 2008. There are plenty of Guides to Angkor. It is useful to read about Angkor before going and consult a pocket guide whilst visiting Angkor. There are also Apps to download.
Posted in Canberra