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Cambodia’s Magnificent Angkor Wat

by John Webber

A Field Guide to ANGKOR WAT

For 600 years, starting in the ninth century, the Khmer Empire dominated swathes of current-day Laos, Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia and Burma. A succession of Khmer kings built monuments to themselves in the form of temples, the best-known, best-preserved example being Angkor Wat. Constructed at the behest of Suryavarman II (r. 1113–c. 1150), it was originally dedicated to the Hindu god Vishnu. Jayavarman VII (r. 1181–c. 1220), the creator of neighboring Angkor Thom, gave it a Buddhist conversion. A 15,681,600-square-foot space, the sheer size can be overwhelming. A few tips and facts to keep in mind.

Passes to Angkor Wat are issued at the entrance gates. A weeklong pass is $60 (cash only) and valid for most of the neighboring temples as well.

The main entrance faces west, which is unusual for a Hindu temple (they normally face east). Entering through the back way, the eastern side, at dawn is best for avoiding the crowds. The five lotus-shaped towers symbolize Mount Meru and its surroundings peaks, the center of the Hindu universe. The design of Angkor Wat was very much influenced by the architecture of Indian temples.

The stairways between the three levels are precariously steep and narrow. Representing heaven, the top level, Bakan, is only open certain hours, and only to the modestly dressed (skirts and shorts no shorter than knee-length; covered shoulders). After the conversion to Buddhism, Angkor Wat’s second level came to feature the Hall of a Thousand Buddhas, with stone Buddhas standing sentinel along the corridor. Some were decapitated by the Khmer Rouge, their heads eventually turning up on the black market in Thailand.

The nearly 2,000 apsaras, or heavenly maidens, carved into the walls have among them 36 hairstyles, which are copied by Cambodian women at their weddings. Perhaps the most fascinating details are the elaborately carved bas-reliefs, especially the one depicting the “Churning of the Sea of Milk,” a myth from Hindu scripture.

Temples around ANGKOR WAT

Many of Angkor Wat’s neighbors are just as remarkable.

Angkor Thom: Built in the late 12th century by King Jayavarman VII, Angkor Thom was once a thriving city of nearly one million inhabitants, the last capital of the Khmer Empire. Most famously, the towers at the entryways are topped by enormous faces staring out in all four cardinal directions. Bayon, Jayavarman VII’s state temple, features fascinating bas-reliefs that, instead of myths and parables, detail life in the 12th- and 13th-century Khmer Empire. Baphuon, one of the few Hindu temples within Angkor Thom’s gates, dates to the 1060s and was recently reopened after being restored. Partially overrun by undergrowth, 900-year-old Preah Khan was dedicated to Jayavarman VII’s father. At one point, around 1,000 Buddhist monks lived there; later, Hindu partisans scratched out many of the temple’s Buddha faces. The tenth-century brick towers of pyramid-shaped Pre Rup are a great perch for watching the sunset.

Ta Prohm: Ta Prohm got its Hollywood moment in Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, and justly so: It’s exceedingly dramatic. A tangle of tree roots sprouts from the walls and threatens to consume them. Built in 1186 in honor of Jayavarman VII’s mother, Ta Prohm is unsurprisingly popular with tourists; as with Angkor Wat, it’s important to visit early in the morning.

Banteay Srei: Because of the strength and durability of the stunning pink sandstone, Banteay Srei’s intricate carvings are exceedingly well preserved, despite being more than 1,000 years old.

Roluos Group: The site of the ancient city of Hariharalaya, the Roluos Group, about 15 miles from Angkor, has only recently become fully accessible, with the construction of a paved road. Dedicated to Shiva, Preah Ko is an early Hindu temple that was built in 879 by King Indravarman I. Neighboring Bakong was built two years later as Indravarman’s state temple.

Kbal Spean: About an hour’s drive northeast of Siem Reap, followed by a 45-minute hike up the mountainside, is the river of a 1,000 lingas, the phallic symbol associated with Shiva, carved directly into the stone riverbed. The water that rushes over these 11th-century carvings is considered holy.    @wbbrjp

Beng Mealea: Reaching Beng Mealea from Siem Reap was once a journey of up to six hours. Thanks to a new highway, it now takes an hour or so to make the 45-mile trip. The 900-year-old temple is mostly collapsed and overgrown, but it’s thick with atmosphere and refreshingly free of tourists.

“Do not go where the path leads, travel instead where there is no path and leave a trail.”

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