Angkor Wat is just one structure, though arguably the most well know, in a complex of ancient temples found just outside of Siem Reap, Cambodia. In the 9th century, Jayavarman II united warring factions within ancient Cambodia and declared himself a god-king (I was thinking of doing the same..........) He was the first in a long line of 39 rulers that controlled the most powerful kingdom of South East Asia at the time, the so called Angkor Era. During the following centuries much time and resources were invested in building a series of inspirational temples, majestic palaces, a complex irrigation system and a series of walled cities. Much like what happened on Easter Island, it seems that the rulers of Angkor became so obsessed with building grander and more imposing temples to dedicate to the gods, that they developed tunnel vision and seemed to forget about the other aspects of ruling. Repeated incursions from neighbouring Siam became harder and harder to repel, and finally the great Kingdom of Angkor fell in the 15th century and was abandoned to be reclaimed by the jungle.
It wasn't until a French botanist "discovered" the ruins in the 19th century (the Khmers in the area had always known of its presence) that the West became fascinated by these structures. After years of work reclaiming the area from the jungle and restoring some of the more dilapidated structures, Angkor complex opened to the public. It is, without a doubt, Cambodia's most famous and well known tourist attraction, and recieves over 1,000,000 foreign visitors a year. Cambodians are so proud of Angkor Wat that its distinctive silohuette has become part of their national flag, the only building seen on a flag throughout the world. There are over 100 Angkorian monuments spread over some 3000 square kilometres to visit when you come to Siam Reap. The most famous include Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom and the jungle ravaged Ta Phrom, which was featured in the Tomb Raider movie starring Angela Jolie.
Most of the early temples were dedicated to Hindu worship when they were first constructed, and this is reflected in the extremely detailed bas relief carvings that adorn many surfaces. Many of the later designs also show elements of Vishnu worship, though most of the temples were dedicated Buddhist ones by the ends of their usage. Most are built with a large, imposing upright temple in the centre, representing Mount Meru, home of the gods in Hindu mythology. They are then surrounded by a walled compound and, in the case of Angkor Wat, a protective moat.
Many of the artifacts that decorate the temples are not the originals. Theft had always been common, though the process accelerated rapidly in the 1990's when peace, and therefore foreign trade, came to Cambodia. Because the Khmer Rouge valued the importance of the site, thefts were relatively rare until after they were overthrown. Some of the more valuable peices have been moved to the National Museum in Phnom Pehn to protect them. Sadly though, through out all the temples it is easy to see areas where carved statues have been dug out of the walls, leaving behind crude holes.
Interestingly, none of the structures built after the 13th century survive today, as these ones were built of wood, rather than stone. The type of stone used can help to date a temple (eg. sandstone was not used extensively until well into the 10th century) as well as the evolution of the decorations carved into the walls. A few of the temples, including Ta Phrom, have been left in the original condition they were discovered in (this is to say, overgrown and collapsing), while others have been restored to their former glory.
Angkor Wat in particularly has drawn much lavish praise over the past century, mainly for its detailed stone work and architectually pleasing symmetry. You approach the wat by passing over a large stone bridge that traverses the protective moat, then going through the outer walls. From here there is a 300m long causeway that leads to the temple itself. Sunrise and sunset at the site are the most popular times to visit, as the lighting casts the buildings in a reddish glow. Once inside the main temple you can tour the Gallery of Bas Reliefs, a truly amazing site of stone carvings that cover a wall 2 metres in height and over 700 metres long. Throughout the entire temple complex you must take extra care to look into corners and up high above graceful columns, as there are extrodinarily detailed carvings to be seen everywhere.
Angkor Thom was actually probably my favourite site. It's 2km north of Angkor Wat and was the last and greatest capital of the Angkor era, dating from the late 12th century. At this time quantity seemed to be more important than quality, so the extremely detailed bas releif carvings are missing. This is not to say that the stone carvings that make up the Terrace of the Elephants, or the Terrace of the Leper King are not magnificent, however. At the time of its glory, Angkor Thom was home to more than a million inhabitants, though most of the wooden buildings people lived in have rotted away. The Royal Compound remains intact, and is composed of a series of temples and palaces, all enclosed by a moat. The causeway over the moat is decorated with 54 carved gods and 54 carved demons, locked in an eternal struggle. The most impressive of the temples, Banyon, has 54 towers, with faces adorning all 4 sides of each. Though, in comparison to Angkor Wat, the workmanship is a bit shoddy, the smiling faces looking complacently down on you seem to be amused to be the object of so much interest.
Gilles on the other hand was more impressed by Ta Phrom. Still being gradually and systematically taken over by the surrounding jungle, it invites exploration amongst its ramshackle ruins. I imagine that the fact Angela Jolie wandered its corridors in the not too distant past helps too.
We stayed in Siam Reap for 4 days, 3 of them dedicated to visiting temples. For the first 2 we had hired a tuk tuk driver to take us around, but when he decided without warning that his price had increased for the third day, we told him to not bother and rented some bikes instead. Turns out this is a very leisurely and fun way to view the temples. Since it was rainy season you had to time things right to miss the afternoon showers, but on the bright side, it was not as hot as it could have been. The down side is that our "sunrise experience" at Angkor Wat just meant we woke up at 5AM to see a cloudy morning with thousands of our closest friends. We also had clouds and rain for sunset at Phnom Bakheng, the temple set high up on a hill and a "must see" in the late afternoon, early evening.
In a lot of ways, Siem Reap was like Cusco, very tourist driven, with plenty of nice hotels and European restaurants. Prices were a bit higher than the rest of Cambodia (which still means dirt cheap), but I think this will go down as one of our highlights on the trip, just by the sheer impressiveness of it.