Angkor Archaeological Park

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Angkor Archaeological Park

Included on theWorld Heritage list in 1992, Angkor is not only one of the most important archaeological sites in Southeast Asia, but also widely regarded as the most beautiful. Covering over 400 sq. km, Angkor Archaeological Park contains the superb remains of the different capitals of the Khmer Empire. Spanning a time period from the 9th to the 15th centuries, these include the famous Temple of Angkor Wat and the Bayon Temple, with its innumerable sculptural decorations. The site of Angkor contains some of the world’s most magnificent architectural masterpieces.

We chose a three-day pass ($40/person) to visit the site. With over 100 temples, there was a lot to see, and even with three days, we saw only the main temples. Public buildings, palaces, and houses – all made of wood – used to be inside the temple walls, but have since disappeared. Only the temples have remained. This is because they were made of brick and stone, materials reserved for the gods.

History of Angkor:
The Angkor period, from 802-1432, was the epoch of the construction of temples and the accession of the Khmer Empire among the great powers of Southeast Asia. It is marked by period of decline, rebirth, and wars against rivals Vietnam, Thailand, and Burma.

Jayavarman II was the first king (802-850) and called himself a god- king, in the image of the Hindu god Shiva. He erected a temple- mountain to symbolize the sacred mountain, Mt. Meru. Most of the following rulers adopted the Hindu cult of the god-king, although Suryavarman II (1112-1152) adopted the cult of Vishnu instead of Shiva. His reign is considered one of the greatest moments of the Empire, during which time he consecrated the Angkor Wat to Vishnu. The construction considerably drained the resources of the kingdom, however, as did his failed campaign against Vietnam.

In 1177, the subjugated Cham of southern Vietnam rose up against Angkor and sacked the city, burning it and taking its riches. Jayavarman VII reconquered Angkor four years later, building new temples and the fortified city of Angkor Thom, with Bayon at the center. This ruler converted to Buddhism and placed himself under the auspices of Avalokiteshvara, the Buddha of Compassion. This was a big departure from his predecessors, and it is thought that he was just converting to a cult already popular among his subjects and needed new life infused into the cult and belief of the god-king, which was considerably weakened after the destruction of Angkor.

After his death in 1219, the Empire entered into a period of decline. Hinduism became the state religion for over one century and a large number of Buddhist sculptures built under the monarch were ruined or destroyed. The Thais pillaged Angkor in 1351 and 1431, after which time the Khmer sovereigns moved to Phnom Penh. The site was mostly abandoned, and nature took over.

The “Discovery” of Angkor:
Although the French are credited for having “discovered” Angkor in the 1860’s during the colonial era, the Portuguese had already reached Angkor on their expeditions and called it the “fortified city” and a Japanese traveler made a detailed map of Angkor Wat in the 17th century (although he thought that it was located in India).

France began to finance expeditions to Angkor in the 1870’s, and Angkor became known for its archaeological importance. Angkor was under Thai domain until 1907, at which point it was returned to Cambodia. The site received its first visitors the same year and it wasn’t long before it became known around the world.

Angkor Wat underwent some restoration in the 16th century, but had then been abandoned to the jungle for several centuries. The sandstone used in construction dissolves with humidity, bat excrement damaged the temples, and sporadic pillages of sculptures didn’t help.

In clearing the vegetation, teams put certain structures in peril, which stood only with the help of tree roots. Once the jungle was cleared, it didn’t take long for it to take over once again. In the 1920’s, the teams decided upon a coherent strategy. They decided to reconstruct the temples with the same material originally used and in the original architectural style. The first large-scale undertaking was in the 1930s. It was such a success that it continued, and culminated with the restoration of Angkor Wat in the 1960’s.

During the Khmer Rouge years and the civil war, many statues were removed for safe-keeping. The war didn’t touch Angkor as much as might be expected, but the restoration and maintenance work was interrupted, during which time the jungle once again intervened. Angkor Conservation houses the nicest statues, including 5000 linga (phallic statues that are worshipped), protecting them from pillaging. Unfortunately, these can only be seen by the public if they have a contact on site.

Architectural Styles:

Different styles can be seen with each new monarch. The monuments are classified according to nine epochs. The architecture is organized around the construction of a temple-mountain. The mountain is represented by a tower at the summit of a building, where the central sanctuary is found, with an opening on the eastern side. Naga (mythical serpents) and other religious representations are often in evidence in the sculptures and chiseled rock.

As the temples grew in size, the central tower lost a bit of importance as smaller towers were added to gateways and angles of walls. Their number had a religious and astrological signification. In every building, the corridors and passageways are very straight, seeming even to eclipse the central tower. The apogee of temple building in Angkor was to be seen in Angkor Wat, which has a bit of each style to be found in Angkor. The Bayon of Angkor Thom, built during a later period and after the pillaging and burning of Angkor, closely follows the traditional model, however.

Memorable Visits:
Angkor Wat is considered the world’s largest religious building, and is the best preserved and most impressive of monuments at Angkor. It was never completely abandoned, and restoration work was completed in the 1960’s. What makes Angkor Wat unique is that is is oriented towards the west, which symbolizes death, and many specialists conclude that it was therefore originally constructed as a tomb and mausoleum for Suryavarman II. This idea is supported by the fact that the bas-reliefs of the temple are meant to be viewed in the counter-clockwise direction, following a common practice of ancient Hindu funerary rites. It was also constructed in honor of Vishnu, who is often associated with the west.

A long platform, bordered by a long balustrade of naga, takes you over the moat to the principal entrance. The central temple consists of three levels. The first has an impressive series of bas-reliefs: the battles of Kurukshetra, an extract from the Indian epic “Mahaborata,” with infantry and officers on elephants; the triumphant progression of Suryavarman II’s armies with its Thai mercenaries fighting the Cham; a Heaven and Hell scene that shows how we are treated when we go to one of the 32 hells or 37 heavens (the people in hell are tortured and punished, while the men in heaven are served by women, children, and servants); the Churning of the Sea of Milk, which represents 88 bad creatures and 92 gods, who stir the sea in order to extract the elixir of immortality, which both demons and gods covet; battles between gods and demons; and the battle of Lanka, in which the Hindu diety Rama and his monkey army fight Ravana.

The second level has many Buddha statues, including a very large one that receives offerings from devout Buddhists. The third and final level is reached by very steep steps, to show that the path towards the kingdom of the gods is not easy. They are so steep and perilous that several visitors have fallen victims in the past.

The temple is enormous (a giant rectangle 1.5 km. X 1.3 km.), surrounded by a large moat 190 m. wide. The enormity can’t be stressed enough – Stephane and I lost each other for several hours – inside of the temple!

The monks inside of Angkor Wat were very nice. In fact, those monks from the countryside who wish to learn English come to Siem Reap especially for that purpose – to talk to tourists. They were young – teenagers or young men in their early twenties. Many of them begged me to sit and talk with them, but I unfortunately always moved on because I was looking for Stephane. Several of them helped me to look for him, and by the time that I found him several hours later, I had the impression that most of the monks in the place had been put on the alert, because each one that I passed asked me if I had found him yet! Most of the monks were very excited to find out that I was American. They lit up, bubbling, “I love Americans. I want to have the same pronunciation as you. I want to talk just like you!”

The fortified city of Angkor Thom, 10 sq. km., was built just after the pillage of Angkor. Organized around the Bayon and widely considered to be the second most beautiful structure after Angkor Wat, it looks like a pile of stones from afar but is impressive close up. The detailed bas-reliefs on the exterior wall describe scenes from daily life in 12th century Cambodia: foot soldiers, officers on horseback or elephant, Jayavarman VII surrounded by legions of concubines, Hindus praying before a Buddha-cum-linga, naval battles between the Khmers and Chams, a cock fight, playing chess, women selling fish at the market, preparing and serving meals, Brahmans chased by tigers, civil war, a circus, and the pillage of Angkor. The whole is formed by steep staircases, straight passageways, and 54 gothic towers decorated with 216 huge, smiling faces of Avalokiteshvara, the Buddha of Compassion.

Not far is the Terrace of Elephants, which is adorned with sculpted elephants all along the front wall and served as a public hall and a giant tribunal for public ceremonies. The celebrated parade of elephants is represented at each extremity.

Just above is the Terrace of the Leper King, whose statue represents Yama, god of the dead. The terrace served as royal crematorium.

Next to the terrace is a labyrinthine passageway that boasts beautiful sculptures of women, gods, and naga.

Ta Prohm is the one monument at Angkor that has been left, for the most part, to the jungle. One can imagine how the rest of the site must have looked when the European explorers first discovered it. Huge trees top some of the walls, and the walls and towers are held together by tree roots. The large trees cover the temple in shade. Many of the corridors are impassable, blocked by fallen blocks of stone. The bas-reliefs are now covered by moss and plant growth. It is because of its abandonment to the jungle that it holds interest.

There were many young children, generally between the ages of 5 and 10, inside of the site of Angkor who sold bracelets, cold drinks, T-shirts, postcards, scarves, and guide books. They were adorable and almost always very friendly, but could sometimes be very persistent: “You already have postcards? But these are different. Ten for $1. Ten for $1. Please? Please? Please, sir. Please, lady. You didn’t buy from me yet. Can you? Can you? Can you? Only one dollar. One dollar. One dollar….” One girl demanded that I give her my umbrella and when I said no, she told me, “Oh, you a bad type. You a very bad type. You don’t give me your umbrella.”

They always lived “very far.” One girl told me, “I live very far – 7 km.” “8 km.,” her friend corrected her. A 19-year old man told me, “I live very, very, very far. 40 km. (24 mi.)!”