[Postscript: Anxious as I have been to publish this post, it has stubbornly resisted even to successfully load minor editorial updates I have been making. Given its high volume of pictures and my present technological limitations, all requests repeatedly time out. In case the publication does go through soon, I write this note with fingers crossed that all of the photos will be included. Apologies for any content that may be missing.]
It was certainly a powerful experience sauntering around great structures in the twilight, eyes tracing the scattering limbs of root networks where trees have patiently claimed their places through years of growth in conversation with eroding stone, all the while thinking to myself: this is the most ancient human-made structure I have ever set foot upon.
Having done too little wandering out of California throughout my life, and by no means across great distances on such occasions, I have so far lacked opportunities to visit sites that can boast of such deep history. Visiting Cambodia’s Angkor Wat—the worlds largest religious monument—along with many of the surrounding temples, was definitely a worthy starting point.
Most of the structures I visited date back to the 12th century, during the reigns of king Suryavarman II and Jayavarman VII—the second and third kings of the Khmer Empire, which once stretched across a region covering not only Cambodia, but much of modern-day Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, and Vietnam as well.
The older temples I got to see go back to the 10th century (and the construction of one them goes as far back as the 9th).
Having originally noted down the names of the various sites (in improvised spelling) after after hearing them verbally (and barely comprehensibly) from my Tuk Tuk driver, Luy, it has proven a formidable task returning to the mass of photos I took in order to identify the temples and sort them accordingly.
Below are photos from 10 of the temple sites I visited on the outskirts of Siem Reap over the course of three days.
(Note: due to a thinning density of fellow tourists and increasingly beautiful sights that lured me out of my prior lazier photography, the quality of the pictures get better further along.)
1)Angkor Wat (Overseen by Suryavarman II: Early-mid 12th Century)
Angkor Wat means “Capital Temple” in Khmer. Originally it was a Hindu temple devoted to Vishnu (marking a break from the Shaivsm of earlier kings), but later transitioned to a Theravada Buddhist temple following Buddhism’s rise to prominence in the Khmer Empire. The deep historical confluence of Hindu and Buddhist elements present at this site can also be felt throughout the wider region.
I came here to catch the sunrise, but the weather didn’t quite afford the picturesque moments like those in many photos I have seen where the sun hovers as a blood-red orb over the high turrets. Still, it was beautiful.
Any visitor of Angkor Wat, as I’m sure most already imagine, will inevitably show up as a member of a mass tourist-swarm. All part of the experience. It certainly poses a challenge for those who strive for minimally populated photographs.
While I found Angkor Wat itself impressive, it was among other surrounding temples that I really found the rich experience I was hoping for. Not only do they afford opportunities for comparatively greater amounts of solitude, but I found the beauty incomparable.
2)Bayon (Overseen by Jayavarman VII: Late 12th-Early 13th Centuries)
This temple had stood at the center of Angkor Thom—Jayavarman’s capital. It is famous for the many protruding stone faces that decorate it.
3)Ta Prohm (Jayavarman VII: Late 12th-Early 13th Centuries)
Originally, this site served as a Buddhist monastery and university outside Angkor Thom. It is one of the most visited temples in the Angkor region. It was given a boost of fame—I rather hate to say it—after being featured in the film Tomb Raider. Even so, it is easy enough to navigate into pockets of solitude and find unpopulated frames for the eyes to enjoy. While certain temples have seen varying degrees of restoration, this one has been left largely untouched from the time it was rediscovered. It is truly an incredible place.
4)Preah Kahn (Jayavarman VII: Late 12th Century)
Preah Kahn means “Royal Sword” in Khmer. Like Ta Prohm, it is largely unrestored, and carries a similar feeling. In addition to the temple itself, there was a lot of beauty to be found in the surrounding areas.
5)Neak Pean (Jayavarman VII: Late 12th Century)
To reach this temple, whose name means “The Entwined Serpents,” one first has to walk the span of a long wooden bridge reaching accross a large, shallow lake.
It was built to sit as a circular island in a surrounding moat, with the figures of seven-headed stone serpents (a very common image in the region) surrounding key points of the perimeter.
From what I’ve gathered, this temple had fairly alchemical origins. Apparently it was created for healing purposes, as bathing in the pools was held to balance the elements in an ailed individual, restoring them to health. Four connected pools represent the four basic elements—Earth, Air, Fire, Water.
It is said that four great animals—an Elephant, Bull, Horse and Lion (corresponding to the four cardinal directions)—originally stood in the surrounding moat. The horse is the only statue that still remains.
While I consistently wondered what all of the sites had been like during the living height of the Khmer Empire, I hold particular curiosity of what once took place here at Neak Pean.
6)Ta Som (Jayavarman VII: Late 12th Century)
This temple was dedicated to Dharanindravarman II, father of Jayavarman VII, who had been King of the empire some years earlier in the mid 12th century. It is another one left considerably untouched from the time of its discovery.
7)East Mebon (Overseen by Rajendravarman II: Late 10th Century)
This is the first of the temples I visited pre-dating the introduction of Buddhism in the empire. It was built in devotion to Shiva.
8)Banteay Srei (Overseen by Yajnavaraha: Late-mid 10th Century)
This pre-Buddhist temple of red sandstone was also built in devotion to Shiva, and is the only temple in the Angkor area that is not attributed to a monarch. Yajnavaraha, a scholar and philanthropist, was the grandson of King Harasvarman and served as counsellor to King Rajendravarman II—to whom East Mebon (above) is attributed.
9)Banteay Samre (Suryavarman II: Early-mid 12th Century)
This temple is attributed to the same king who oversaw the commencement of construction on Angkor Wat. There is a huge amount of surrounding land to explore at this site.
The earliest in its origins of all the temples I visited, it is a symbolic representation of Mount Meru dedicated to Shiva. Its mountaintop location makes it a highly popular tourist destination for sunset.
A mass of human bodies obscured the actual structure at all times, so there were few opportunities for good photos.
The sunset from Phnom Bakheng marked the completion of my visitations of Cambodia’s Angkor temples (for now).