The story of finding Angkor is a long sequence. With a retinue of bearers, eccentric French naturalist Henri Mouhot hacked his way through the Cambodian jungle in January 1860, in search of beetles and butterflies. Though his interest lay more in insects than antiquities, he spent three weeks exploring the ruins of Angkor. He arrive by way of Lake Tonle Sap, where, he noted, fish were so abundant that they impeded the progress of his boat. As a collector, Mouhot was entranced by butterflies with the size of soup plates lazing on the stones. He was also intrigued by the stones themselves. In his diaries he claimed Angkor's ruins were grander than those of ancient Greece or Rome. He raved about a monument equal to the temple of Solomon, erected by some ancient Michelangelo. The sight of the ruins, he wrote in his diary, made the traveler 'forget all the fatigues of the journey, filling him with admiration and delight, such as would be experienced in finding a verdant oasis in the sandy desert. Suddenly, and as if by enchantment, he seems to be transported from barbarism to civilization, from profound darkness into light.'
Mouhot was not the first European to visit Angkor. A long line of traders, missionaries, and travelers had passed this way before him in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries. In fact, Mouhot's visit was inspired by the travels of French missionary Charle - Emile Bouillevaux, who visited in 1854. For some reasons, the reports of others had gone unnoticed by the West. Mouhot, traveling under the auspices of England's Royal Geographical Society, was the most publicity conscious of the visitors. He died in Laos in 1861 from a malarial fever; his diaries and tale correspondence was published posthumously 1863 in magazine called 'Le tour du Mond', triggering European interest. More writings, focusing as much on natural wonders as on archaeology, appeared in a book 'Voyage in Siam' in 1868. Englishman John Thomson took the first photographs of Angkor in 1886, and the ruins exercised a powerful hold on the 19th century European imagination. The image of ruined temples emerging from thick jungle vegetation became part of colonial romanticism the lost city rediscover.
It was not until after World War II, when archaeologist Bernard Groslier made aerial surveys of the area, that the full extent of Angkor was realized. Angkor comprises 70 monuments scattered over an area of 200 square Km. The complex tombs, temple, palaces, moats reservoirs, and causeway was built over a period of 400 years; only Egypt's Nile Valley can compare to this array of monuments.
There's nothing like Angkor in Southeast Asia. Only two monument complexes come close: 9th-century Borobodur in Indonesia, and 11th century Pagan in Burma. The French could not imagine that the Khmer kings were responsible for such monumental work. The theories as to who constructed Angkor's monument ranged from the ancient Romans to Alexander the Great. Indeed, the structures echo styles from other monumental ruins. Angkor Wat is built in classical Indian style, with elements of the Java ziggurat of Borobodur, and yet the numerous bas-reliefs have a strangely Egyptian character. The columns and arches at Preach Khan Temple, evoke those of the Greeks and Romans, while the Pyramid of Phimeanakas resembles those of the Maya at Tikal, Guatemala.
The inspiration for Angkor architecture come from a unique mix of Hinduism and Buddhism. The early rules of Angkor promoted various Hindu sects, mainly dedicated to Shiva and Vishnu. Shiva was initially the most favored deity, but by the 12th century, Vishnu had replaced him. At the same time the king encouraged Buddhist scholarship; Jayavaman VII introduced Mahayana Buddhism as the court religion by the end of the 12th century. Layered onto these concepts was the tradition of deification of kings in sculptural form. This mix resulted in Angkorian structures that have no parallel, such as the fantastic South Gate of Angkor Thom and the bizarre Bayon.
How were the colossal works constructed? The caste system of the Khmers was similar to the hierarchy extant in ancient Egypt and Mexico when the Pharaohs and Maya erected their Pyramids. There was a line of kings, a class of priests and merchants, and a caste of thousands of slaves (captives of war), laborers, masons, sculptors, and decorators. Artisans, including architects, belonged to the lower echelons of society. They remain anonymous-nothing is know of the stone masons and sculptors who worked for the Angkorian kings.
Wooden buildings in Angkor area have not survived. The use of brick or stone was reserved for sacred temples and monuments. Architects must have worked with priests on the design of such buildings: a number of temple-mountains representing the paradise of Mount Meru, center of the universe in Hindu-Buddhist commonly. Rigidly geometric and symmetric pattern radiating in concentric circles compose the ground of plans of a number of Angkor buildings. The effect is similar to a mandala or sacred diagram of the cosmos, with Mount Meru at the centre. To translate these concepts into three-dimensional form, Angkor's architects probably worked from wax models.
East Angkor buildings were made of large bricks, with mortar of vegetable-based adhesive. From the 10thcentury sandstone foundations were laid, and laterite was used in walls. Laterite is a red, porous material that is actually a kind of iron-bearing soil. It is easily quarried up, cut into large blocks, then left to harden upon exposure to the air. Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom rest on laterite foundations; the temples were mostly fashioned from sandstone quarried at Phnom Kulen, 45 km northeast of Angkor. The sandstone exhibits a wide range of coloration, from gray to pinkish, yellowish buff to greenish. The sandstone was floated down the Siem Reap river and dragged to the building site using ropes, roller, and winches. A bas-relief in the west inner gallery of the Bayon depicts the hauling and polishing of sandstone. The roughly dressed blocks were perfectly fitted, smoothed off, and the surfaces decorated with bas-reliefs. Some stones were held in place with bronze clamps, others relied entirely on gravity.
The name of 'Angkor' surfaced in the 16th century - the place was called Anjog, Onco, Anckoor, Ongcor, Angcor, and Vat Nokor by Western explores. Angkor is believed to be a corruption of the Khmer Nokor (nakhon in Thai, and nagara in Sanskrit), meaning the Royal City of the Khmer Empire. It was built between the 9thand 14th centuries as the administrative and religious center of the powerful Khmer Empire. Bas-reliefs like those at the Bayon and Angkor Wat provide clues about life at Angkor.
This capital of the Khmer Empire, was undoubtedly as splendid as many European cities. But much is missing today. No wooden buildings have survived, and all the residential compounds have disappeared. In 1431 the conquering Siamese killed, looted, and destroyed, carrying off thousands of slaves, tripping the palaces and temples of their statuary and ornaments encrusted with precious stones, and removing the gold coatings from towers and rooftops. Gone are the wooden palaces and dwellings with their terracotta roof tiles; gone are the sumptuous carpets and furnishings, Chinese pottery and ceramics, bronze weapons and cult objects, jewelry and utensils, silk beds and parasols.
What remains are the huge sandstone blocks that could not be carted away. Some artifacts-statuary, jewelry, ritual objects-are on display at the National Museum in Phnom Penh. The rest-the vast kingdom peopled by priests, celestial dancers, astronomers, ministers, and generals, and the court of Angkor with its banquets, music, dancing, rich tapestries and paintings, merchants coming and going-is left for you to conjure. In the haunting contrast between past grandeur and present decay lies the perverse pleasure of ruins.
You could spend an entire week in Angkor, sunup to sundown, and still not see it all. Siem Reap itself is slow-paced and relaxing, with reasonable restaurants and lots of countryside. It's a good place to sit on the front porch, swap tales with other travelers, and watch the geckos climb the walls.
Angkor and Siem Reap are the kind of places you have to tear yourself away from. If your time is short, concentrate on the two main complexes, Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom. Options vary on the rest; everybody seems to have a personal favorite.
The soundest advice on touring Angkor is, in a word, variety. Avoid concentrations on a series of temples in the same style, as your may become blas'and won't be able to remember one from the other later. Angkor Wat is very different in style from Angkor Thom, and the jungle-locked ruins of Ta Prohm and Preah Khan are worlds away again. For a different perspective, hike up to a viewpoint, or visit an artificial lake like Neak Pean. With more time you can spend a day at the ruins, then take a day to visit the rural areas around Siem Reap.
Following are the star sites:
Angkor Wat: Large and classical, this awesome site is the world's largest temple, with the world's longest bas-relief panels. On the second terrace are friezes of celestial dancers. Expect to spend at least half a day here, or make several visits.
» Angkor Thom: This cluster of sites is another must-see, and will again easily consume at least half a day. The spectacular South Gate is the best-preserved entry to Angkor Thom. The central temple, the Bayon, is small in scale, but bizarre, mysterious, and imaginative-the favorite of many visitors. North of the Bayon are fine friezes at the Leper King terrace.
» Aerial Views: A hike up Phnom Bakheng affords fine sunset views of Angkor Wat. North of the Bayon is a hike to a hilltop behind Baphuon temple. Both hilltops give you a sense of jungle and forest vegetation.
» Jungle-locked Ruins: Preah Khan and Ta Prohm are romantic and spooky sites, covered by centuries of vegetation. The French left Ta Prohm untouched to give an impression of how Angkor looked in the 19th century, with tree roots and foliage winding through the stonework.
» Artificial Lakes: To get an idea of the waterworks in the Angkor region, visit the ceremonial bathing sites of Neak Pean and Sra Srang or journey to the West Baray for boating or swimming.
» Rural Living: Take a road in any direction from Siem Reap and you're in the countryside. Best excursions are 13 km east to Rolous, where you can view village life, or 15 km south to Lake Tonle Sap to see floating houses waving over fish-holding pens.
Angkor Archaeological Park consists of 70 ruins in an area of 200 square km, although the key ruins are clustered in a zone of some 60 square km. The French engineered routes of hard-packed earth around the Angkor area in the 1920s to facilitate visits by car. Several roads were later paved, and dubbed Le Petit Circuit (The Little Circuit) and Le Grand Circuit (the Grand Circuit), but there are really no set patterns. You can mix and match, or come up with your own routes.
Start early. The heat of the day can get to you even by 09.00. Fortunately there are well-shaded sections, especially around the Bayon, and if you move along by bicycle or motorcycle you get some breeze. It's a good idea to take a siesta in a cool spot : find a food stall selling noodles (the biggest collection of food stalls is opposite the main gates to Angkor) from 1100-1400, or just go back to town and rest. Dawn and dusk add special magic to Angkor. Angkor Wat at the break of dawn is awesome. A little later, at the Bayon, it's misty and mysterious, with the sun filtering through the forest canopy, illuminating enigmatic smiling faces; the chirping of birds breaks the silence. The last glows of the setting sun over Angkor Wat are dramatic, viewed from either the causeway or the viewpoint of Phnom Bakheng. Then sound the frogs and cicadas, the birds and the bats.
Angkor Wat is overwhelming. The mind cannot take it in at one visit. Neither will your camera-attempts to fit Angkor into a standard lens viewfinder are frustrating. Angkor can monopolize your time, consuming half a day or more. You're better off making several visits to Angkor Wat. Drop in and walk down the causeway to get acquainted, then take off to smaller ruins up north like the Bayon, and maybe return to Angkor Wat in the late afternoon to take in a bit more.
Limiting factors on routes are available time, hot spells, transportation, and road conditions. The best road conditions are found going north from Angkor Wat to Preah Khan an the northern axis, and east from Baphuon to Ta Prohm on an eastern axis. Other roads are in bad shape and potholed, slowing progress. Some ideas for routes follow, but you can chop, change, or add destinations to suit.
In a car you can cover the Little Circuit in an hour of actual travel time; by bicycle, you'll need 2.5 hours for the same route. From the Grand Hotel to the west entrance of Angkor Wat is seven km. For the following routes, the start and finish point in Siem Reap is the Grand Hotel.
» Northern Axis: Siem Reap (Grand Hotel), Angkor Thom (South gate, Bayon, Baphuon, Leper King Terrace), Preah Khan, back south to Angkor Wat west entrance, Phnom Bakheng (sunset), Siem Reap. Distance: 29 km.
» Little Circuit: Siem Reap, Angkor Wat west gate, Bayon, Victory Gate, Takeo, Ta Prohm, Sra Srang, Angkor Wat east entrance, Siem Reap. Distance: 30 km.
» North and East Axis: Siem Reap, Angkor Wat west entrance, Bayon, Preah Khan, back to Leper King Terrace, Victory Gate, Chau Say Tevoda, Takeo, Ta Prohm, retrace route to Elephant Terrace, Angkor Wat again, Siem Reap. This erratic route is designed to take advantage of the best road conditions, especially if cycling. Distance: 38 km; if Preah Khan is eliminated, 32 km.
» Grand Circuit: Siem Reap, Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom (South Gate, Bayon, Baphuon, Leper King Terrace), Preah Khan, Neak Pean, Sra Srang, Angkor Wat east entrance, Siem Reap. Distance: 40 km.
» Combination Circuit: Siem Reap, Angkor Thom (South gate, Bayon, Leper King Terrace), Preah Khan, Neak Pean, Sra Srang, Ta Prohm, Victory Gate, Elephant Terrace, Angkor Wat west entrance, Siem Reap. Distance: 45 km.