The Angkor temple complex in Siem Reap is certainly one of the most important archaeological sites in the whole of South East Asia. It includes the incredible remains of the different capitals throughout the Khmer Empire, from the 9th to the 15th Century.
Going back to the beginning of the 9th Century there were two different states that occupied present-day Cambodia. These two territories were united by Jayavarman II which in turn laid the foundations for the Khmer Empire to be the major power in Southeast Asia for the next 500 years.
One of the most important sites in the new empire’s kingdom was established to the north of the great Tonle Sap lake some 50 years after Jayavarman II came to power. It was his son, Yashovarman, who would make the permanent capital of the Angkor Empire here, originally called Yashodapura and later called Angkor.
The city was originally built in the classical way of the time with a defensive fortress, a surrounding moat with a central state temple and palace. In addition, there would have been many secular buildings constructed almost entirely of wood.
The state temple at Roluos, Bakong and Preah Ko were all erected around 880 and all were constructed in the classical style. A decade later large reservoirs within the temple complexes were made standard in the design and a fourth temple was built at Phnom Bakeng, now known as Eastern Baray.
The second capital of the Khmer Empire was constructed by Rajendravarman in around 960 with the state temple being located at Pre Rup. He also made another temple, Eastern Mebon on a manmade island sat in the centre of the Eastern Baray reservoir. It was also during Rajendravarman reign that the beautiful Banteay Srei was built.
Rajendravarman’s son, Jayavarman V abandoned the Pre Rup site his father had commissioned and moved the state temple to the new site of Ta Keo, made in approximately 1000. Not long after it was built, Jayavarman V was overthrown by Suryavarman I who later built the formidable Phimeanakas and the great Western Baray.
In 1050 another impressive state temple was built in the form of the Baphuon and it was not until 1113 and the accession of Suryavarman II that the next great phase of construction was to begin. Suryavarman II was responsible for the greatest of all the Khmer Empire constructions, Angkor Wat.
Angkor Thom was started in the late twelfth century and finished in the early thirteenth century by Jayavarman VII. The whole site is approximately 9 square kilometres in area and is situated about 1.7 kilometres north of Angkor Wat and today is a major tourist attraction.
It was to be the last city of the Khmer Empire built by the most revered king the empire ever had, Jayavarman VII who ruled from 1181-1201. The causeway leading to Angkor Thom gives the visitor a feeling of magnificence with 108 statues (54 gods and 54 demons) guarding the way. These statues mark the Hindu story of the Churning of the Ocean of Milk with gods placed on one side and demons on the other representing good and evil.
Once you reach Angkor Thom you will see the site is enclosed by a square wall sitting 8 meters high and running 12 kilometres in length. The ancient capital is protected by a surrounding moat 100 meters wide which was once said to be infested with thousands of giant crocodiles!
Angkor Thom has five gates, one to the north, south and west and two to the east. It is to the left of the causeway that the 54 gods stand and to the right of the causeway where the 54 demons can be seen.
In the centre of the temple can be found some of the Khmer Empire’s most important monuments including Bayon temple, Baphuon, the Royal Enclosure, Phimeanakas and the Terrace of the Elephants.
Bayon temple is a beautifully decorated temple built between the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries. It was constructed at the very centre of King Jayavarman’s capital and was the last state temple to be built at Angkor.
Interestingly, Bayon temple was also the only Angkorian construction primarily dedicated to Mahayana Buddhism as opposed to other, originally Hindu buildings. After Jayavarman’s death, it was later modified first to depict Hindu gods and then later again augmented by Theravada Buddhist kings
The Bayon temple murals are famous for their scale and detail. There are over 1.2 kilometres of incredible bas-reliefs incorporating well over 11,000 different characters. The carvings on the outer wall of the first level depict fascinating scenes of what everyday life would have been like in 12th Century Cambodia.
Perhaps the most distinctive and famous feature of Bayon temple is the many gigantic stone faces on the many towers that peak out from the temple’s main tower.
There is still some mystery to who the famous face carvings are actually of. Some scholars say there is a strong resemblance to King Jayavarman himself whereas others believe it is a carving of Avalokitesvara, the Buddha of compassion.
Bayon is a must see temple and therefore extremely popular amongst tourists, try and visit early morning when the crowds are fewer in number.
Banteay Srei Temple
Banteay Srei is considered to be the finest example of any temple built in the Angkorian era. The temple is constructed from red sandstone and lends itself perfectly to the well preserved, intricate carvings, said to be some of the best from anywhere in the world.
Banteay Srei was consecrated on 22 April 967 A.D and was originally dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva. Banteay Srei translates as “Citadel of Women”, and it is said that the temple was built by women because the intricacy of the carvings was too fine for men to create.
Banteay Srei is one of the only temples in the Angkor Archaeological Complex not to be commissioned by a king. Instead, it was a brahman, supposedly a tutor to the Khmer king Jayavarman V, who paid for the temple’s construction.
The temple is square in design and has entrances to the east and west, with the east entrance approached by a causeway. Particular points of interest are the beautifully decorated libraries and the three central towers, which are decorated with male and female deities and stunning bas-relief work.
Some of the most notable carvings at Banteay Srei include posturing women with lotus flowers and traditional skirts that are still clearly visible today. In addition, there are highly detailed re-creations of scenes from the Ramayana contained in the library inlays above the lintel. One of the most remarkable things about Banteay Srei is the fact that almost every inch of the interior buildings are covered in fine decoration. Standing guard over the reams of perfectly preserved carvings over are the mythical guardian’s statues.
Banteay Srei has only rediscovered again in 1914 and was the location of a famous art theft when André Malraux stole four devatas statues in 1923. Thankfully, he was quickly arrested and the statues returned. The incident was the catalyst that stimulated international interest in the temple.
Banteay Srei was the first temple restoration undertaken by the EFEO (The École française d’Extrême-Orient, or French School of Asian Studies) in 1930, and as can be seen today, the project was a major success and soon led to other projects such as the restoration of Bayon temple. Banteay Srei was also the first temple to have been given tourist facilities such as a large car park, a dining and shopping area, clear visitor information and an exhibition centre on the history of the temple and its restoration. There is also a small lake behind the temple where local boat trips are possible through the lotus pond for $7 per person.
Preah Khan Temple
Preah Khan temple was built on the site and to commemorate King Jayavarman VII’s victory over the invading Cham armies.
After its construction, it was said to be at the centre of a huge organisation employing 100,000 officials and servants. The temple has many rectangular galleries built around a Buddhist sanctuary with Hindu satellite temples dotted around the complex.
The outer wall of Preah Khan is made of laterite and shows 72 garudas (half man, half bird) holding nagas (water serpents) at 50-meter intervals. The temple is surrounded by a moat measuring 800 by 700 meters and encloses a total area of over 138 acres.
Due to the fact that the anciently sacred sanctuary of Preah Khan is hidden in a deep forest, the temple complex remains largely unrestored. Although this is a less popular temple with many visitors, it’s still a must-see for the more adventurous traveller looking to explore the mysterious side to Angkor.
Ta Prohm Temple
Ta Prohm temple was built during a similar time as Bayon temple between the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries and was originally commissioned by King Jayavarman VII as a Mahayana Buddhist monastery and university. Different from many of the other Angkorian era temples, Ta Prohm has been left in the same condition in which it was found.
The unique atmosphere visitors get by walking around the temple as huge towering trees and their buttress roots entwine through the temple stones overhead.
It was originally named Rajavihara or Royal Temple and was one of the first temples built under a succession of construction works after the King’s ascension to the throne in 1811 AD. The temple was built as a dedication to the King’s family and the main image representing Prajnaparamita, the emanation of wisdom, was modelled on the King’s mother.
The northern and southern satellite temples were dedicated to the King’s guru and elder brother respectively. Ta Prohm is often twinned with another temple built at a similar time called Preah Kahn, consecrated in 1191 AD. Here the temple’s main image is one of Avelokitesvara, the Buddha of compassion, but is modelled on the King’s own father.
Ta Prohm was originally home to more than 12,000 people including 18 high priests and 615 full-time apsara dancers. In addition, it is thought that an estimated 80,000 people lived in the temple’s surrounding areas.