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Angkor Wat, Cambodia

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Angkor Wat, Cambodia.

Angkor Wat is the collective name given to a group of ruined monasteries, temples and other monuments in the jungles of northwestern Cambodia, just north of Tonle Sap lake and close to the regional capital Siem Reap1. It is also the name given specifically to the central temple complex of the group.

Angkor was founded in 802 AD, and remained the capital (with one brief interlude) until 1432, when it was largely abandoned. However, it was never truly deserted, and at the time of its 'discovery' by Henri Mouhot, it was the site of an active monastery housing over a thousand people.

Taken as a group, these remains form one of the most extensive ruined cities in the world (according to a recent report, the city at its peak was three times the area of any other pre-industrial city) and are a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The jungle setting adds to the atmosphere, and a few of the temples have deliberately been left largely unrestored. Combined with easy road access from Siem Reap (less than 5km away), this makes it one of the most popular tourist sites in Asia.


The remaining ruins are primarily of temple complexes, as other buildings - even including royal palaces - tended to be made of wood, which has long since decayed. This arose out of the belief that only the gods were deserving of residences made of stone. The Khmer civilisation was initially Hindu, but later rulers adopted the Buddhist faith2. There are thus numerous temples of both religions.


The Khmer Empire was established as an independent state by Jayavarman II (ruler from 802 - 850), a nobleman from the Shaliendes court in Java. He ruled from Roluos, now counted as part of the Angkor site, and built the surviving Roluos monuments along with Mount Kulen, 40km to the north-east. He founded a city in the region, which he named Yasodharapura, and established the tradition of identifying the ruler with Shiva. By a combination of diplomacy and warfare, he laid successful claim to all the land from China to the sea, and from Champa (roughly equivalent to modern Vietnam) to Siam (parts of Thailand, with the border varying through history). These would remain the approximate borders of the Khmer Empire throughout its existence and cover modern Cambodia, Laos and much of Thailand.

The next ruler of significance was Indravarman I (877 - 899), who probably usurped the throne. He built a Baray3, probably for a mixture of practical and ceremonial purposes. He also constructed the first temple-mountain in the region, Preah Ko, and the Bakong.

Following the reign of Yasovarman I (899 - 910) the capital was moved to Koh Ker, 80km to the north, where it remained from 910 to 944. Rajesdravarman II (944 - 968) moved it back to Angkor and constructed Pre Rup; his son, Jayavarman V (968 - 1001) was on the throne while the beautiful Banteay Srei was constructed.


It is believed that the next ruler, Suryavarman I (1002 - 1049) usurped the throne. He adopted the Hindu religion, but may have had a Buddhist background. He and his son, Udayadityavarman II (1049 - 1065), were responsible for the military expansion that provided the basis for the classic Khmer period. The Baphuon and Western Mebon were built during Udayadityavarman's reign, but after his death the kingdom became divided.

It was reunited by Suryavarman II (1112 - 1152), who broke with tradition by taking Vishnu as his personal deity. He oversaw the construction of Angkor Wat itself. This took most of his reign, and, combined with a series of wars of conquest that were initially highly successful, he over-stretched the water supply to the city. He also suffered military defeats against the Chams.

In 1177, the Chams sacked Angkor and destroyed the original city of Yasodharapura.

Jayavarman VII (1181 - 1201) expelled the foreign invaders and took the throne for himself. He was a Mahayana Buddhist, and took Avalokiteshvara, the Buddha of Compassion, as his personal deity. He built a new city, Angkor Thom, on the site of the old one. He also built Ta Prohm. After his successor Indravarman II (1201 - 1243)'s death, the Empire was converted back to Hinduism.

In 1352, the Thais sacked Angkor. Around this time, the population became mainly Theravada Buddhist. Finally, in 1431 the entire civilisation was crushed by invading Siamese forces. Angkor was largely abandoned and reclaimed by the jungle; the population largely moved south to Phnom Penh, although Angkor Wat continued to be used as a monastery.

Rediscovery and Preservation

In 1296, the Japanese traveller Zhou Daguan wrote a 40-page account of the city, which is our primary document. Foreign visitors continued to arrive periodically, including the Portuguese in the 16th Century and the Japanese in the 17th. Charles Emile Bouillevaux, a French missionary, visited in 1858 and wrote an account. However, the ruins were not widely known in the west until Henri Mouhot wrote Voyage a Siam et le Cambodge in 1868. This caused a massive upsurge in interest in France (which ruled the region at the time).

Between 1907 and 1970, the École Française d'Extrême-Orient carried out restoration work, often literally taking the temples apart brick by brick and rebuilding them. This came to an end with the rise of the Khmer Rouge and the expulsion of all foreigners. Some very minor damage was caused by skirmishes with Khmer Rouge forces, though the site was fortunate to escape wholesale destruction during the Pol Pot years. Since 1993, the French, Japanese and UNESCO have been jointly overseeing restoration work as the International Co-ordinating Committee on the Safeguarding and Development of the Historic Site of Angkor (ICC), while Cambodian work is carried out by the Authority for the Protection and Management of Angkor and the Region of Siem Reap (APSARA)4, created in 1995.

The site is once again open to visitors, and millions each year take the opportunity to explore one of the great archaeological splendours of the world.

Angkor Wat ('City Temple')

Believed to be the largest single religious monument in the world, Angkor Wat is different to other Angkorian temples in more than just size. It is dedicated to Vishnu, rather than Shiva, and faces west, the direction of death (which means it catches the setting sun), rather than east as all the other temples do. Its triple-peaked facade is emblematic of Cambodia and appears on everything from banknotes to the national flag.

Its central structure is peaked, and represents Mount Meru, believed by Hindus to be the centre of the world and the abode of the gods. Around it are ornamental lakes, and beyond them are walls; these represent the oceans and the mountains believed to encircle the world. The blackened walls run for over two kilometres and are covered in carved friezes of exceptional quality. The whole rectangular complex is then surrounded by a moat, with the only entrance being a causeway on the west side.

The most famous - and most symmetric - scene depicted on the walls is the Churning of the Sea of Milk. In this scene from Hindu scripture, the gods battle the demons in a gigantic tug-of-war, using a snake wrapped around the world-mountain, Mount Mandara, which is in turn resting on Vishnu, in the form of a turtle. As first one side then the other gains the advantage, the mountain rotates, churning the sea up and giving rise to all living things.

Like most of the surrounding temples, the Wat is essentially a low ziggurat, decorated on each level with elaborate prasats5. This gives a rococo effect and a complex outline to the structure.

Angkor Thom ('Great City')

The walled city known as Angkor Thom forms a perfect square. The walls are aligned to the cardinal points of the compass, with a gate in the centre of each. From these gates, roads lead directly to the main plaza, which is central within the walls. The gates themselves are highly ornate. Four-faced Buddhas top them, and lines of gods and demons pulling a naga6 form a balustrade to the bridge across the moat.

The Bayon is slightly newer than Angkor Wat, and is Buddhist rather than Hindu. From a distance, it cannot compare to its more famous cousin, but it comes to life when viewed from within. Buddha-heads line the roof, each with four faces to represent the all-seeing nature of the Avalokiteshvara aspect of the deity. Their arrangement has a complex symmetry, and alignments of three or more heads can appear unexpectedly as the visitor moves around the temple-top. It is impossible to ever be out of line-of-sight of several faces at once, so the architecture reflects and emphasises the divine omniscience of the Buddha.

The Bayon, like Angkor Wat, has an outer wall covered with several hundred metres of friezes. Here, however, they reflect more earthly pursuits than the legends and myths of the Wat. Battles feature heavily, with the ranks of generals and kings being shown by how many parasols they have. Traditional enemies such as Chams and Khmers7 are defeated on land and water. Perhaps most fascinating, however, are the depictions of daily life - acrobats, markets and the royal court, filled with tiny details for the sharp-eyed.

Outside, there would once have been a central plaza, although this is now simply a clearing in the jungle that has taken over even within the walls. One side of this area is defined by a pair of adjacent flat platforms with decorated sides. The Terrace of the Leper-King is the largest of the two, and features apsaras8 in several tiers. Excavation has shown this to be built over another, similar terrace which, although smaller, is better preserved. A trench now runs inside the later wall, to allow visitors to inspect the inner terrace. There was once a statue atop the terrace which gave it its name, though this has now been replaced by a replica.

The Elephant Terrace, named for the procession depicted on its side, shows a parade through the central square, with the guests of honour placed on top of the terraces.

The other sides of the plaza are marked by several small stupas9; the North and South Kleangs, and the 12 Prasats Suor Prat.

The Baphuon is a pyramid-temple adjacent to the royal palaces. It is the third-largest of the temples here, after Angkor Wat and the Bayon.

Phimeanukas10 was once the location of the royal residences, but now only the masonry platforms on which they were built remain.

The Roluos Group

The Roluos Group is a cluster of monuments to the south-east of the main site. It consists of The Bakong (a monastery) and Preah Ko (a temple-mountain). They are the oldest structures of note in the region, and are located at the site of the original capital of Jayavarman II's independent Khmer Empire. An active Buddhist temple now shares the site.

Other Ruins

There are literally hundreds of (possibly over a thousand) other ruined structures in the area, falling into three broad categories. There are monasteries dating from both the Hindu and Buddhist periods, although the temples tend to be primarily Hindu. Next are temples, and finally the ubiquitous 'other' category.


The monasteries are all rectangular in layout and highly symmetric, with a series of rooms linked by arched corridors. They are surrounded by walls, which would once have given temple grounds or gardens.

Examples include Hindu structures like Banteay Samre and Banteay Kdei, as well Buddhist versions at Preah Khan and Ta Prohm, which have been left unrestored and literally have tree roots framing the doorways in some places11.

Banteay Srei is a small Hindu temple, built by a nobleman some distance from the main sites. It is noted for the quality and intricacy of its carvings, which make it one of the highlights of the region. Sadly, in recent years these magnificent friezes have been roped off and visitor access restricted.


Many of the temples are simple shrines, comprising a single prasat or stupa. They increase in complexity and size up to multi-layered ziggurats covered with further small prasats. They are not usually walled. Many of them are built as symbolic representations of Mount Meru, although this is far from clear in the smaller structures.

Examples include the Hindu Ta Keo, Thommanon, Prasat Kravan and Preah Ko, and the Buddhist tower of Preah Palilay.

Phnom Bakheng was the first temple-mountain, and was built on an earthen mound. It now has a view of Angkor Wat, and hordes of tourists make the tiring climb up its near-vertical steps.


Spean Thma is a stone bridge, one of the few surviving examples of its kind. It is located just outside the city walls, and is in a very poor state of repair.

Preah Neak Pean was a bathing pool for the Emperor. Water entered from the central island through four founts in the shape of elephant, horse, lion and human heads.

There are two large, rectangular reservoirs associated with the ruins, known as the Eastern and Western Barays. Only the Western Baray is still flooded. At over a kilometre long each, they dominate the site. Each as a small temple on an island at its centre; these are known as the East and West Mebons. The West Mebon is still an island and beyond easy access during the wet season, although due to the draining of the East Baray, the East Mebon is easily reached by road throughout the year.

1Or Siemreab - the name means 'Siam Defeated'.2It is a matter of debate whether the population may have been substantially Buddhist before the replacement of the rulers.3Reservoir.4Possibly the most stretched acronym in archaeology.5Ceremonial spires, often containing a holy relic.6A mythical seven-headed snake.7Thais and Vietnamese.8Heavenly dancing nymphs unique to Cambodian art.9Pointed shrines often containing a holy relic.10'Celestial Palace'.11Ta Prohm may also be familiar to fans of the Tomb Raider movie, as some location filming was done there.

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