Standing on the shoulders of giants: an alternative guide to exploring Angkor
Carvings and bas-reliefs
Carvings and bas-reliefs at a number of temples can depict scenes from Angkorian times approximately 1,000 years agoSource: Carvings and bas-reliefs at a number of temples can depict scenes from Angkorian times approximately 1,000 years ago
Getting a new perspective on Cambodia’s famed temples
Words by Ellie Dyer Photography by Sam Jam
Sunrise at Angkor Wat: a burning orb slowly rises from behind the great temple’s tiered towers, lighting up the early morning sky with flashes of rich blues, pale pinks and honey-hued yellows as it ascends into the heavens.
Bathed in light, the building transforms; the detail of its mottled stones and sumptuous carvings gradually revealed and then perfectly reflected in the shimmering pools that front the 12th-century complex.
Majestic and mesmerising, the sight is an ethereal vision of both beauty and power, and one that offers many modern-day travellers their first glimpse into the ancient world of the Khmer Empire – a powerful civilisation that once dominated large swathes of Southeast Asia.
While there may be no perfect way to tour the 400-square-kilometre Angkor Archaeological Park – every guide has their own favourite temple or hidden spot – there will always be something magical about being on your own amongst great stone edifices that have borne witness to the twists and turns of history.
For those aiming to escape the melee of umbrella-carrying tour guides and the
accompanying cacophony of camera clicks, the first step is to purchase your ticket after 5pm, which gives you access to the park for both sunset of that day and the subsequent duration of your one-, three- or seven-day pass.
As the sun sinks and the songs of cicadas echo across the treetops, many visitors climb the steep track to the hilltop temple of Phnom Bakheng, which offers sweeping views of the countryside below. But, for a more secluded experience, take this opportunity to visit Bayon, a spectacular 12th- to 13th-century temple where 216 colossal faces, each hewn in stone and said to resemble King Jayavarman VII who built the temple, stare enigmatically into the distance with lips gently curled.
At dusk, the complex is often deserted, allowing visitors the chance to stroll alone amongst hundreds of serene visages basking in the warm evening light. When exploring the multi-level site, keep an eye out for one of Bayon’s most fascinating features: carvings of day-to-day life in the 12th century, showing Angkorian citizens boiling plump pigs, lighting fires and playing instruments.
It’s a society that has been brought to life in fascinating detail by Zhou Daguan, a Chinese envoy who spent nearly a year at Angkor from 1296-1297 and later penned a travelogue of
Slaves, officials, monks, concubines and market traders are all described by Daguan, who, alongside observations of ordinary life – from childbirth practices to ‘lascivious’ women, firework displays and the daily washing habits of locals – portrays the opulence of his surrounds in magnificent detail.
Bayon itself is said to have featured a “gold tower” and a golden bridge flanked by golden lions, while the nearby temple of Baphuon – recently reconstructed by modern experts – was an “exquisite” tower of bronze. King Indravarman III, meanwhile, is described as wearing a four-pound pearl around his neck, with gold bracelets and rings inlaid with cat’s eye gemstones on his wrists, ankles, fingers and toes, and bearing a “gold sword in his hand”.
Although the accounts of this temporary visitor should be taken with a grain of salt, the vivid log offers important insights into life in this complex society.
And it’s a subject being explored further by the many archaeologists working in Cambodia, who have hit global headlines in recent years thanks to new insights gained from the use of LiDAR, a technology that utilises lasers to survey topography.
Dr Alison Kyra Carter, a visiting assistant professor at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign who has been investigating Angkorian residential spaces as part of the Greater Angkor Project (Gap), explains that experts had long known that the landscape surrounding the temples was inhabited by thousands of people. Dense forest cover, however, “made it difficult to see these patterns clearly”.
“What LiDAR has done has made these patterns visible and clear,” the archaeologist says, explaining that it has helped the Gap to pinpoint and focus excavations. “Now we can see the planned and organised landscape that the Angkorians constructed, which included house mounds, neighbourhoods, streets and maybe even large public garden spaces.”
A picture of this working city – described as a “low-density urban centre” – is essential to bear in mind when exploring today’s park, which is still dotted with functioning temples and communities, all connected by a network of roads that can be easily navigated by tuk tuk.
The early mornings are perhaps best spent at Angkor Wat, where it is worth braving the throngs to witness a fiery sunrise and explore the great monument dedicated to the Hindu god Vishnu. Try entering the main building through the back or side entrances to buck the crowds and inspect the long galleries of bas-reliefs, showing scenes such as the Battle of Kurukshetra from the Indian epic of the Mahabharata, in relative peace.
Walk through to the central courtyard, past the many celestial apsara dancers carved in stone, and ascend the steep steps to the principal sanctuary of the Bakan. Visitor numbers are restricted at this most sacred space, but those braving the vertiginous stairs are greeted by a sense of gravitas, serenity and wonderful views of the grandiose complex stretching out below.
And while Angkor Wat appears in breathtaking condition today, other temples have been taken over by the environment in a spectacular connection between the worlds of man and nature.
At the atmospheric ‘Tomb Raider’ temple of Ta Prohm, roots spear through ancient stones to create an Ozymandias-like effect. Surrounded by lush forest and dappled light, it is an enduringly popular spot, and perhaps best visited in the early mornings before the larger tour groups arrive. While winding your way through the site, seek out one of the temple’s oddities – a carving that appears to show a Stegosaurus. The ‘dinosaur’ has, over the years, sparked a hubbub of creationist fervour, but many believe it’s less Jurassic Park and more likely a chameleon or a rhino bedecked in leaves.
A less-frequented alternative comes in the form of Preah Khan – the temple of the sacred sword, constructed in the time of the devout Buddhist ‘builder king’ Jayavarman VII. Guarded by 72 mighty stone garudas – each half-bird, half-man – visitors must walk over a naga causeway, marking the bridge between heaven and earth, to reach a central temple alive with symbolism. Long, covered stone corridors lead visitors through the site, where a corps of 1,000 dancers was once thought to have performed.
Indeed, Carter describes a more dense, specialised population – perhaps “ritual specialists, religious scholars, temple dancers… and craftsmen” – being centred inside Angkor Thom and temples such as Angkor Wat and Ta Prohm, and supported by rice farmers working in the wider landscape.
Centuries on, the grain is a still a staple of Cambodia and, for those with more time to explore, a half-day is well spent visiting Banteay Srei – a small but perfectly formed temple known as the citadel of women that dates back to the late 10th century.
The tuk tuk ride to the site gives visitors an insight into modern rural life, with the road snaking past glistening paddies, communities of weavers and plump buffaloes lazing in waterholes. To extend the trip, incorporate a visit to Kbal Spean, where a short trek leads explorers to a jungle riverbed carved with hundreds of lingas, or phallic representations of Shiva.
Banteay Srei itself, described as “one of the jewels of Khmer art”, is an ancient pilgrimage site built from beautiful pink sandstone that features startlingly clear carvings. To see it best, ascend the viewing platform that lies just outside the main exterior wall and take in a sweeping panorama of the compact temple in all its rose-tinted glory.
Wandering past the emerald rice fields and towering trees surrounding Banteay Srei, it can be tempting to draw comparisons between Cambodia then and Cambodia now.
“Maybe one thing everyone could agree on is what a significant accomplishment Angkor Wat is, and how awe-inspiring it is,” Carter says. “We can imagine that ancient Angkorians felt proud of this temple, and certainly people never stopped visiting this place, even after the capital moved out of Angkor.”