The Angkor Archeological Park is one of the most fascinating destinations in the world for tourists with a taste for the historical, the grand and the exotic. This 400 square kilometer park, which has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1992, contains enduring remnants of what was once one of the most influential and resplendent eras of the ancient world – the rule of the Angkor Kings, the golden age of the Khmer Empire.
This former kingdom contains not just one but many citadels whose construction appears to date from the 9th century through to the 15th. For laymen, the image of Angkor appears as towering stone ruins whose every surface is covered in the most intricate and elaborate engravings and sculpture, half-hidden by lush wilderness. This is an accurate summation, yet the explorer who delves deeper will find that Angkor has more than meets the eye.
The temples of Angkor are the only structures still remaining in this kingdom that once teemed with thousands of commoners, courtiers and noblemen. The 100 standing stone temples withstood the test of time long after the wooden palaces and houses had crumbled to dust. After the sacking of the city by the Thais in the 15th century, Angkor had remained abandoned and forgotten until travelling Buddhist monks stumbled upon its ruins and were so awed at the echoes of its magnificence that they thought it a lost city created by the gods themselves. Their tales passed into legends and the lost city of the Khmer Kings was thought to be a myth, until French explorer Henri Mouhot rediscovered it in 1860. The French scholars, entranced by the splendor and detail conveyed by the ruins, launched a programme for its restoration to which is owed the finely-preserved condition the temples exist in today.
Although it was initially thought that the Angkor kingdom’s plan and situation were the result of its strategic and agricultural convenience, later studies unveiled mysteries ever more astounding. It appears that the structures are laid out in a way that exactly corresponds to the position of the stars in the Draco constellation – in the spring equinox of 10,500BC! This is a theme that reappears in the positioning of the three Rolous temples of Bakong, Prei Monli and Prah Ko, which mirror the three stars of the Corona Borealis of the same time. Taken in conjunction with the recurrent sculpture motifs of the demons and deities, the complex appears as a bid to architecturally synchronize the celestial and the earthly.
Whether one can only spare a half a day’s exploration of this intriguing kingdom or the requisite full three days, the Angkor Wat is the one place that must certainly figure in one’s travel itinerary. The best-preserved temple in the country is also one of its foremost icons and remains a site of both Hindu and Buddhist pilgrimage to this day. The mountain-temple concept, representing the mythical Mount Meru, forms the basis for its architectural layout, complete with the outer moat, three sequentially raised galleries within and the five central towers. The sunrise and sunset of the day see this site at its most spectacular, resuming for a few moments the mantle of glory and majesty it donned in the days of old. Angkor Thom, the last capital of the Angkor Empire, and the Buddhist temple of Bayon at its centre, are close behind in historical importance and aesthetic beauty. Ta Phrom, thought to be the earthly counterpart to the Eta Draconis star, is a restored monastery and temple deliberately left in the stranglehold of jungle tree-roots, presenting one of the most uniquely photogenic sites in the area.
There are many more temples and temple complexes in and around the area, some restored, some abandoned to the wilderness but all boasting some of the most impressive bas-relief and intricate adornments ever seen in the ancient world. These are best viewed on elephant-back (an opportunity that presents itself for hire as a complement to the intrigue of the exploration) or while hiking through the many historical gems hidden away in the overgrowth. The unspoiled tropical scenery of mountains and rivers and the rural charm of the local villages all serve to enhance the sensation of truly having stepped through the looking glass.