Angkor, Cambodia, may well be the most important temple complex in the world, and also one of the most impressive man-made wonders in its history. The typical gateway for visitors to the area is the town of Siem Reap. Keep in mind that a visit to the area usually requires more than a single day, to appreciate the richness of the sight.
The temple complex was built over six centuries. Begun in the 9th century, it was not completed until the 15th. The ruins were abandoned and not rediscovered until the mid-nineteenth century. Because accessibility has significantly improved recently, the numbers of tourists is steadily increasing.
The most popular and probably most important temple in the complex is Angkor Wat, which is over 200 meters (600 feet) tall and is thought to represent the universe in miniature. The symbolism within the entire complex is extremely important in understanding the significance of the sights, so the tourist should prepare ahead of time to become familiar with at least the major themes or hire a guide who can adequately explain everything. The Wat has three levels which should all be explored. The ground level contains numerous, intricate stone relief carvings which represent scenes from various religious epics as well as the history of Angkor. Perhaps the most interesting scene depicts the legend of “The churning of the ocean of milk” in which 88 demons and 92 gods churn up the sea in order to make ambrosia which will confer immortality on those who drink it. On the second level, one will find the Gallery of 1000 Buddhas (of which little remains) and the Hall of Echoes. The third level’s claim to fame is its glorious view of the entire complex.
Just north of Angkor Wat is the Angkor Thom complex. Entry is via a causeway lined with over 50 statues. In the center of this complex is the Bayon, another building whose walls contain carvings which depict legends from Buddhism and Hinduism, as well as everyday life in Angkor. It has a 45 meter (135 foot) tower surrounded by 51 smaller towers.
Other highlights within the ancient city complex include the Terrace of the Elephants, with its rows of sculpted “garudas” (half-man, half-bird vehicles which transport Vishnu), the Terrace of the Leper King, whose centerpiece is a reproduction of a statue of Yama, the naked god of death, Ta Prohm, which has been left in ruins entwined by jungle and probably represents the way the entire complex must have looked when rediscovered, Neak Pean, a small temple surrounded by five ponds which seems to be floating on a holy snake (naga), and Preah Khan, which means “holy sword”. This large temple complex was thought to be the location of a famous battle in Khmer history.
1. Sunrise and/or sunset are perhaps the best times to visit Angkor since the interplay of light on the temples is both magical and awe-inspiring.
2. Recently opened Banteay Srei makes a great day trip from the Angkor area. It is about 30 kilometers (20 miles) from the Angkor complex. This complex of pinkish temples, known as the “Citadel of Women” also contains exquisite rock carvings.