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The Cities of Angkor
On this trip, we had already visited 3 World Heritage Sites: temple and palace Vat Phou and the old capital Luang Prabang in Laos and the town of Hoi An in Vietnam. The big highlight we had left for the end of our South East Asia trip: the Cities of Angkor.
We have all seen the silhouette of the main attraction of Angkor Wat: the 5 towers, looking like giant pinecones. But seeing it in the early morning light with your own eyes is breath-taking. It doesn’t matter that hundreds of other tourists want to see the temple and that the sun already makes you sweat, this view is worth almost any trouble.
Angkor was once the centre of the Khmer civilization. Between the 8th and the 13th centuries, several Khmer kings built their palaces and temples and cities in this area. What we see today are mainly the temples, they were built of stones. All wooden structures are long gone; many of the more recent buildings collapsed or even vanished in the jungle. There was so much construction going on, that after a few centuries, there was no quarry with quality sandstone left in the area.
A lot of what we know about the temples and the Khmer history comes from carvings and inscriptions that can still be seen. For instance, several walls of the Bayon (the temple) at Angkor Thom are covered with carvings, so called bas-reliefs, that tell episodes of Khmer history but also about daily life. By the way, these reliefs are the second breath-taker. We came across a scene of a sea battle, where the crocodiles are eating the warriors that fall in the water. We later learned that this shows a famous battle between Khmer and Chams on the great Lake of Tonle Sap. The aggressors had come up the Mekong and thru the lake, just like we had done a week earlier. After several years of fighting, the Khmer got Angkor back. The new king, Jayavarman VII, wanted an even bigger, even more impressive city with many temples. Angkor Thom was build during this reign around 1200. Our Mekong cruiser was named after him.
Our guidebook listed 7 temples as must-see 3-star-sites. In two mornings we managed to see 4 of them. But we very much also enjoyed the little temples where you are on your own where you can study little reliefs and architecture features while listening to the sounds of the jungle. Feels like have having your private Angkor Wat.
We had to restrict our visits to the mornings, at noon the temperature raised above 40 C, quite normal for May, but not for April when we were there. But, even with normal temperatures, we recommend to start your visit with the rising of the sun. And rent a tuk-tuk for the day. You can do guided tours. But we wanted to visit at our own speed and bought the guidebook “Ancient Angkor”, the extended edition of 2003.
Forget the Cathedral of St Peter in Rome, Angkor Wat is the largest religious building complex in the world. It is only when you get inside you realize how large the place is.
It is hard to imagine what the city of Angkor would have looked like in its heyday. Scholars believe that the colours did resemble the golden and the red that can be seen on temples throughout the region. This picture shows a temple in the Lao capital of Vientiane.
Colours are not totally absent, however. The statues at Angkor Wat often get decorated for religious purposes.
The authors admiring the view from the highest level.
The treasures of Angkor Wat have been vandalized many times throughout history, from the Cham invasion in 1170ies to the Khmer Rouge in the 1970ies.
Many vandals have had financial motives, and not only religious or political ones. Many statues have had their heads chopped off and sold on the world’s illegal antique markets.
This is the entrance to Angkor Thom, a city within the Angkor complex that was built in the late 1100s. The four entrances to the city were all guarded by huge stone figures carrying a gigantic snake.
The tower above the south entrance to Angkor Thom.
An important event in Khmer history is the battle of Tonle Sap Lake, not far from Siem Reap and the city of Angkor. It was here that the Khmer king Jayavarman VII defeated the Cham invaders (the then Cham kingdom is today part of South Vietnam) who had raided Angkor Wat. To prevent this from happening again Jayavarman built the fortress city of Angkor Thom. On a wall in Angkor Thom this relief showing scenes from the battle can be found.
Dead Cham warriors sink to the bottom of Tonle Sap and get eaten by crocodiles.
The Bayon, Jayavarmans temple inside Angkor Thom is characterized by towers with giant faces on all sides.
An Apsara, an image of a topless beauty, guards a doorway at Angkor Thom.
Two tired and sweating visitors by the Elephant terrace at Angkor Thom. We came here in the sweltering April heat, and by 0900 in the morning the temperature was already approaching 40 centigrade.
The Elephant terrace is a large stone platform decorated with live size elephant statues and images.
ES in some good company
Ta Phrom is characterized by large trees embracing the buildings and the walls. They were left there by the archaeologists who did the restoration in order to preserve the image of how the buildings once were taken over by the jungle.
Still Ta Phrom. This was also the location for parts of the Tomb Raider movie
DHH, like most other men, has nothing but admiration for the Apsara figures.