Pang, a 17th-century Cambodian poet, in a tribute to the ancient temples that dwell in the jungles of his country, wrote that visitors gazing upon the ancient ruins will be filled “with such emotion that the eye is never wearied, the soul is renewed, and the heart sated!” You don’t have to be a poet to enjoy Cambodia’s temples, but as you gaze upon these vast cities of the past, you might become one.
Cambodia’s volatility, which once prompted travel warnings, has waned significantly, and the country is enjoying peace and prosperity under a stabilized government. Thankfully much of the country’s cultural heritage survived the Khmer Rouge’s destructive regime of the 1970s, including the temples of Angkor, the ancient capital of the Khmer empire between the 9th and 13th centuries, near present day Siem Reap.
Glorifying a grand succession of Khmer kings, the temples now stand as testaments to one of the world’s greatest civilizations. Photographic treasure hunters, amateur Indiana Jones’s and all sightseers inspired by beauty enjoy exploring these highly decorative strongholds of stone deep in the jungles, where more than 100 Angkor temples still loom. Before embarking on such a quest, trekkers should first visit a skilled travel agent to devise a master plan, for travel agents know which temples are ruined piles of rock and which ones are ruins that simply rock.
Of all of the temples in Angkor, and possibly the world, Angkor Wat is the most impressive. Rivaling the Great Pyramids in scope and the Taj Mahal in artistry, the celebrated temples of Angkor Wat are the largest of the Angkor group and arguably the best preserved. Simply put, Angkor Wat is one of the greatest man-made creations on Earth.
Built as a miniature replica of the universe, the site consists of elevated towers, covered galleries, decorated chambers and statue-studded courtyards. A giant wall covered in elaborate bas-reliefs depicting an exotic morality tale filled with monsters and dancing angels surrounds the intricately-designed structures, while a moat encompasses the entire complex, including the small group of shaven-headed monks in saffron robes that maintain the temple grounds.
Angkor Thorn and the Terrace of Elephants
After Angkor Wat, the most celebrated temple is Angkor Thom, home to the giant, smiling faces on the temple Bayon and the renowned Terrace of the Elephants. Once the residence of the king’s family, Angkor Thom is protected by an eight-meter high wall and a 100-meter wide moat. Visitors enter over five great causeways lined with 54 gods on the left and 54 demons on the right, each holding the body of a serpent to form a balustrade.
Sticking to the numeric motif, Angkor Thom’s central temple, Bayon, a visitor favorite, has 54 towers covered in massive stone faces. Some believe the four faces on each tower are images of the bodhisattva Avalokitesvara, signifying the omnipresence of the king. The faces may just be trying to catch a glimpse of the Terrace of the Elephants, a 1,000 foot long terrace edged with balustrades and flanked by 3-headed elephants gathering lotus flowers with their trunks.
Ta Prohm, the ‘Jungle Temple’
Real elephants could not walk through the tangled maze at the present day site of Ta Prohm. Known as the “Jungle Temple,” Ta Prohm has been relatively untouched by archeologists, leaving in tact the epic battle of nature versus temple. Gigantic roots of fig, banyan and kapok trees spread over the stones, probing walls and pushing terraces apart, as their branches intertwine to form roofs over some of the structures. The resulting beauty is ethereal, and your friends back home may not believe what they’re seeing when they view your incredible photos.
You’ll snap even more photos at the little jewel of Bantaey Srei, the Citadel of Woman, for many refer to this richly detailed shrine as the most beautiful of all the Angkor temples. Set in the heart of an immense forest as if out of a fairy tale, Bantaey Srei is renowned for the intricate carvings on hard, fine-grained pink sandstone that cover the walls like tapestries.
In 1924, P. Jennerat de Beerski wrote, “Go to Angkor, my friend, to its ruins and to its dreams.” Cambodia’s temples create a mesmerizing destination for travelers of all types, and all types of travelers will benefit greatly by consulting a travel agent to help plan the adventure. Travel agents will set up an ideal itinerary and centralize your hotel, so you can easily discover the best ruins without needing a machete to hack through the underbrush.