The Splendor of Angkor's Empire

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A sandstone wall carving at Angkor Wat
A sandstone wall carving at Angkor Wat

Deep in the jungles of Cambodia, a thousand fairy tale temples testify to the splendor of an ancient empire that endured for 600 years. Journey to the spell-binding capital of the Khmer Empire, a collection of sky-scraping temples, colossal carvings and vast reflecting pools, a place without equal anywhere on earth: Angkor.

The Ton Le Sap River runs southward through the center of Cambodia, from Ton Le Sap Lake to Phnom Penh. There it joins the Mekong River and the two waters run together to the sea. Well, it does that for half of the year anyway. For the other half, the Ton Le Sap River literally changes direction and flows northward, doubling the size of the lake and flooding thousands of acres of land.

This oddity, the result of a seasonal water-jam at the confluence of the two rivers, is just one of many contradictions found in Cambodia, a nation and a people that have been witness to the pinnacle and the nadir of human invention. Perhaps it is fitting then, that a land marred by the horrors of"killing fields," should also be home to the astounding assembly of temples known as Angkor Wat.

With a thousand temples spread out over 120 square miles, the ruins of Angkor are a singularly awesome human achievement. There are forty temples open to visitors (of which "Angkor Wat" is just one, albeit the most famous), and are among the most breathtaking ancient structures in Asia, if not the world. As Cambodia proves itself to be a safe and accessible destination, many travelers in Southeast Asia are making sure their jaunts include a visit to Angkor Wat.

The Khmer Empire

The city-state of Angkor served for nearly 600 years as the cultural and political hub of the Khmer Empire, one of Southeast Asia's most important civilizations. The Khmers dominated the region of present-day Cambodia from the ninth to the fifteenth century AD, hitting their hey-day at the beginning of second millennium with the ascension of King Suryavarman I. In was during Suryavarman's rule, and the 200 years to follow, that Angkor's most auspicious temples were built.

Hinduism was the principal religion of the ancient Khmers, not Buddhism as is commonly assumed. Khmer kings were considered earthly representations of Hindu deities, and the Angkor temples were built for worship of both king and god. The temples themselves are models of the mythical Mount Meru, and structural features such as towers, terraces, and moats represent various elements of the Meru myth. Fables from Hindu mythology are depicted in the temples' wall-carvings and external decorations.

The"golden" period of the Khmer Empire was not a peaceful one, however, with rival powers from present-day Vietnam, Thailand, and Myanmar (Burma) vying with the Khmers for regional domination. Ironically, the Khmers' architectural prowess aided in their demise, as extensive temple construction, combined with frequent military conflicts, eventually drained the empire's resources. As the empire declined, Angkor was sacked several times, the last time occurring in 1432 at the hands of Thai armies.

The richness of Cambodia's ancient past is overshadowed by the horrors of its modern history. The regime of Pol Pot, and the tragedy of the Indochina conflict as a whole, is an indelible scar — if not a still-festering wound — on the Cambodian nation and people. It is only in the last two years that Cambodia has become reliably safe for average tourists.

There are towns and regions now open to travelers that only three years ago were totally off-limits to anyone fond of life and limb. Now that the Khmer Rouge is all but defunct, and the political system somewhat stable (though it took a coup-d'etat to achieve this) the government seems anxious to cast a new light on Cambodia, and cut itself a larger piece of Southeast Asia's burgeoning tourism pie.

Published: 28 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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