When exploring Cambodia with its refreshing authenticity, its tropical lowland diversity, and the genuine warmth of its kind and gentle people, the jewel in the crown and the main destination can only be Angkor Wat. Everyone knows that Angkor Wat, which means “Temple of the City” in Khmer, is one of the most architecturally magnificent structures in the world, as well as the largest temple in the world. It is also well understood that Angkor Wat was uncovered from the Southeast Asian jungles only in the middle of the 19th century, when French naturalist and explorer Henri Mouhot “rediscovered” Angkor Wat for the European world. But few people realize that Angkor Wat is just one of numerous spectacular temples that litter the Central Cambodian landscape, built by different kings at different stages of prosperity and architectural ability, and for different purposes, all spanning the six hundred years of the great Khmer civilization between the 8th and 14th centuries.
So when exploring Cambodia, don’t make the mistake of only allowing a single day to visit Angkor Wat, for once you arrive you will want to see much more of the entire Temple Complex of Angkor, if not delving further out into the Cambodian countryside to explore the most remote and outlying temples.
Angkor Wat is of course the biggest, and as the most architecturally balanced, probably the pinnacle of Khmer stone carving and architecture. Built by King Suryavarman II in the 12th century, at the same time that the great Gothic cathedrals were being built in Europe, Angkor Wat deserves the myriad accolades and descriptive adjectives that are showered upon it. If possible, make the most of your visit and be there as the temple emerges with the light of dawn.
But once you’ve seen Angkor Wat, you are just beginning, for there are other temples in the neighborhood that are far more mysterious or intriguing. Nearby is the great temple city of Angkor Thom, which means “big city”, and within its moat, surrounding walls and towers, are the 216 haunting faces of the Bayon, one face facing each of the four directions on each of 54 towers. When you first approach, you don’t see the faces in the weathered sandstone, but somehow you feel them. And then, not without an eerie discomfort, you get your first glimpse of the “smile of Angkor”, the face that you’ll see on every Cambodian guidebook, with the strangely peaceful but enigmatic half smile looking down at you. And then you see another, and looking left, another. Up, over there, another, and suddenly you realize that you are surrounded by this quizzical smile staring at you from all directions. It is an unforgettable sensation, all brought to you by the great temple-building king Jayavarman VII of the late 12th century, a couple of generations after Angkor Wat.
For something completely different, nearby the great Khmer city of Angkor Thom is the much smaller but perhaps most fascinating temple, Ta Prohm, built by Jayavarman VII to honor his ancestors. When French archaeologists began the incredibly daunting task of excavating and restoring the Temple Complex of Angkor, and wresting the ruins from the grips of centuries of jungle growth, they decided to leave some sites as they found them. At Ta Prohm you cannot help but feel that you are on an Indiana Jones expedition, coming across an ancient and secret temple reclaimed by the jungle. Surely there must be snakes lurking in every crevice, and treasure for certain. In fact, this was the site of the filming of Tomb Raider, and the eerie and hallucinogenic roots and vines will leave an everlasting impression on you.
And for pure artistic stone carving, the red sandstone of the temple of Banteay Srei is the photographer’s favorite. Deeply carved Khmer dancers, or apsara, and a pantheon of Hindu animal gods take on a lively motion when seen in late afternoon light.
This is just a sampling of some of the diverse and most accessible sites of the Temple Complex at Angkor, but there are many more. And they are all set well outside of the commercial hub of Siem Reap, so a journey in a tuk tuk reveals the true Cambodian people and countryside stilted dwellings and agriculture. So if you are interested in exploring Cambodia, make sure that you give yourself at least three days to explore the Temple Complex at Angkor, and don’t think of it as a visit to see Angkor Wat. It is a deep and expansive journey into an intriguing empire civilization that has left its mark into the 21st century.
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