The Khmer Empire, now known as Cambodia, was perhaps the most powerful empire in Southeast Asia. The empire, which grew out of the former kingdom of Chenla, at times ruled over and/or vassalized parts of modern-day Laos, Thailand, southern Vietnam, Burma, and Malaysia. Its greatest legacy is Angkor, in present-day Cambodia, which was the site of the capital city during the empire’s zenith. Angkor bears testimony to the Khmer empire’s immense power and wealth, as well as the variety of belief systems that it patronised over time. The empire’s official religions included Hinduism and Mahayana Buddhism, until Theravada Buddhism prevailed, even among the lower classes, after its introduction from Sri Lanka in the 13th century. Recently satellite imaging has revealed Angkor to be the largest pre-industrial urban center in the world.
The history of Angkor as the central area of settlement of the historical kingdom of Kambujadesa is also the history of the Khmer from the 9th to the 13th centuries.
From Kambuja itself — and so also from the Angkor region — no written records have survived other than stone inscriptions. Therefore the current knowledge of the historical Khmer civilization is derived primarily from:
archaeological excavation, reconstruction and investigation
stone inscriptions (most important are foundation steles of temples), which report on the political and religious deeds of the kings
reliefs in a series of temple walls with depictions of military marches, life in the palace, market scenes and also the everyday lives of the population
reports and chronicles of Chinese diplomats, traders and travellers.
The beginning of the era of the Khmer Empire is conventionally dated to 802 AD. In this year, king Jayavarman II had himself declared chakravartin (“king of the world”, or “king of kings”) on Phnom Kulen. – source Wikipedia
I’ve been fortunate enough to travel and to see many places in the world – the Great pyramids of Giza, the Vatican City, the Coloseum, Stonehenge, Leaning tower of Pisa, Taj Mahal, the Great Barrier Reef, Kilimanjaro, Victoria Falls, Iguazu Falls , the Alhambra – not to mention the hundreds of cathedrals and ancient ruins of civilizations past scattered all over Europe, and I would say that Angkor tops my list of all time places to see.
Three days is not enough to take in the size and extent of what is to be seen, but its a great start. It’s hot, humid, arduous going at times as some of the temples are built-in the shapes of pyramids and the steps I had to climb up came up almost to my knee. I returned every night to the hotel feeling exhausted but elated and extremely privileged to have been allowed access and witness to this powerful, ancient civilization.
One of the things that I most enjoyed about Angkor is that many of the sites are literally next to the road and barring showing your three day pass to the security chap at the “entrance”, once inside you have the free reign to walk around and explore to your heart’s content.
I often worried that this should not be allowed. Surely these ancient stones, carvings and works of art should be protected and preserved? My sense is that with time and the increased interest and travel in and to Cambodia and Angkor, this may be the case in future.
We started our 3 day experience by visiting the smaller, lesser known temples and cities and working our way up to the grand finale of Angkor Wat at sunrise of day 3 followed by a morning visit, then onto Angkor Thom and the Bayon in the afternoon. I would highly recommend this approach, as I was able to appreciate the beauty of the smaller sites without being tarred by the memory and urge to compare to the grand Angkor Wat.
Regardless of the magnificence and splendor of Angkor Wat, it does not feature on my list of favorites. These would have to be, in order of preference, Ta Phrom, Prea Khan and Banteay Srei. There are not enough adjectives or superlatives that I can use to adequately describe the beauty of these sites and my experience visiting them.
Ta Phrom has the best of everything as far as I am concerned. Made famous by the film Indiana Jones, this temple is everything and more that the movie shows. Left for years, the jungle took over and when they found the site, huge tree roots had clambered over ancient stone walls like the claws of a huge vulture claiming back its prey. Every corner holds a surprise – delicate carvings on the walls, pillared halls casting long shadows in the early morning light, dappled light finding it way through the tree branches and leaves onto the ancient stone. I walked around mesmerized and completely in awe. We arrived early in the day just before the bus loads of tourists descended, and we were welcomed by the amazing twitter and chatter of hundreds of birds high up in the forest canopy. If you ever only see one place in Cambodia, let it be this.
Combined with the amazing smiles and welcome of the Cambodian people, the witty children trying to make a quick buck from the tourists by learning to speak Italian, English, German or any other language that foreigners visiting their country speak, the great quality of hotels and guest houses, the efficient, friendly, happy way of life, and lastly but by no means least, the great food, this is one experience that I won’t ever be forgetting.
I strongly recommend that this be your next travel destination before the best secret in town gets out!