Majestic relics of the Khmer kingdom’s civilization, in the form of countless stone temples and hydraulic systems (such as canals, dykes and reservoirs), spread across some 400 sq km of Cambodia’s northern, Siem Reap, province. These monuments are remnants of a glorious past, and the immense Khmer empire that stretched over much of the South East Asian peninsula, from Myanmar to Vietnam.
It was Jayavarman II who unified the two states that covered modern day Cambodia in the 9th century, and lay the foundations for the Khmer empire which would be the major power of South East Asia for the next five centuries.
Angkor became a World Heritage site in 1992, at the same time that it was also acknowledged as a World Heritage in Danger, after a destructive period of pillaging, illegal excavations and land mines. UNESCO launched an international restoration campaign in 1993, and in 2004, within ten years, it had been removed from this endangered sites list.
The jungle surrounding Angkor is essentially a store of archeological remains, and in some cases the jungle has taken claim over the stone structures, making them seem far more ancient than they are, and incredibly magical to wander through and get lost in.
Photos by Ben Journee
In 1923, Banteay Srey was looted by a bankrupt, French writer and Asian art connoisseur called Andre Malraux. With his wife and friend, he masqueraded as an official archeologist and stole sections of the temple’s, now renowned, bas reliefs. After this, attention was given to the temple, and a clearing campaign begun.
The largely red sandstone, and highly decorated, temple was built in the 10th century by a courtier and counselor to King Rajendravarman II. The temple is dedicated to Lord Shiva, and the name itself means ‘citadel of the women’, perhaps because of the small proportions of the structure and the highly detailed and refined embellishments carved into the stone. The other, less romantic, theory of the name's origin is that there had been a phonetic transformation over time from Banteay Sri (meaning ‘auspicious city’) to Banteay Srey (‘city of women’).
That the current name acknowledges the decorative features of the temple is not an inappropriate situation. The minute and highly ornamented details are staggeringly elegant, and that the skill of the artisans has been salvaged, with their images still etched and furrowed into the pink and yellow tinged stone, is such a fortune.
Angkor Wat: ‘city of temples’, the centrepiece and heart of Angkor, source of national pride, image on the Cambodian flag and ‘eighth wonder of the world’.
The largest religious building in the world was made by King Suryavarman II in the early 12th century and dedicated to Lord Vishnu. The 19th century French naturalist and explorer, Henri Mouhot, wrote that Angkor Wat was “erected by some ancient Michelangelo” and, in true romantic fashion, added that it “is grander than anything left to us by Greece and Rome.” He interestingly misdated the structure to the same era as ancient Rome, probably because it had lay somewhat neglected since the 16th century, and to this day has a sense of being more ancient than it is.
The scale of Angkor Wat is staggering, with an outer wall measuring 1024m by 802m and the moat surrounding the temple grounds is 190m wide. It is this same enormous moat that has helped preserve Angkor throughout its years of relative neglect, as it prevented the jungle encroaching upon the temple too extensively.
Architecturally, the temple is symbolic of Mount Meru, which is the home of the gods in Hinduism. This ‘temple mountain’ was the dominant scheme for Angkorian temple architecture, and it was a style influenced by the temple design of the Indian subcontinent. The five central, pyramidal towers represent the five peaks of the mountain, the walls around the sanctuary symbolise the mountain ranges and the moat stands for the ocean.
Decoratively, Angkor is considerably more conservative and depictions comparatively static to other temples at Angkor, but the utterly mindblowing scale of the structure, the immense and impenetrable series of walls, the grand moat and expansive greenspace, probably best experienced from a distance, is astounding.
Angkor Thom and Bayon
Probably one of the most dominant figureheads of the Khmer empire’s history is Jayavarman VII, unusual for being a Buddhist rather than a Hindu king. This king is known for his defeat over the Chams (who sacked the Khmers in 1177), his compassionate reign as the ‘Buddharaja’ (‘Buddha King’), and a number of incredibly impressive and deservedly popular temples, namely the city of Angkor Thom with Bayon, Ta Phrom and Preah Khan.
Angkor Thom is a massive complex of temples that served as the centre of Jayavarman’s capital, and at its centre is the famous Bayon. Bayon is best known for its multitude of stone faces, 216 of them, positioned all around the temple and gazing out in different directions, in some cases toward the jungle, and in some cases toward visitors. It has been concluded by some that the faces are representations of Jayavarman himself, and by others that they represent the bodhisattva of compassion, but the conflation of these two representations suits the mythology around Jayavarman as the compassionate ‘Buddha King’. The faces are both haunting and intriguing, and sometimes seem coy, cheeky, peaceful and aloof. But whichever way you are inclined to read the faces, they are undoubtedly stirring and curious.
Ta Phrom is known as the Tomb Raider temple, though actually the film was shot in a multitude of spots around Angkor. The temple has rather eerie qualities, and is perhaps most notable for the massive tree growing out of the temple’s centre, with its roots enveloping the stones as if it were a python squeezing its prey. The temple has been left half swallowed by the jungle, but interestingly been given infrastructural supports to keep it from vanishing entirely and maintain the ‘picturesque’ appearance of neglect.
Baphuon and Preah Khan
Whilst these photographs show an Angkor that's largely devoid of people, we feel it necessary to warn any would-be Angkor visitors that this is one of the most famous and visited places in the world. The few images below give a more accurate representation of the amount of fellow tourists you will have to wade through during your visit.
So how do you get a photo with no one in it then? You wait..... and wait. Below is an example of the longest we waited for an image, about 7 minutes from framing to (finally) getting a break in the crowd.
But don't let the crowds scare you off. The temples of Angkor are as monumental as historic sites get, demanding on your stamina but just as rewarding because of that. Each temple would be a centrepiece were it placed on its own, and allowing yourself time to enjoy each structure is important, not only for your own enjoyment, but also to ensure you appreciate that these marvels have been salvaged for the world to treasure.