Stone legends and dancing nymphs

Have you ever dreamed of joining Indiana Jones in “The Temple of Doom” or Lara Croft in “Tomb Raider” in their adventures through the jungle looking for lost cities and treasures? There is a magic place in Asia where your dreams will come true - Angkor, the capital city of the powerful Hindu-Buddhist Khmer empire (the predecessor state to modern Cambodia) which flourished from approximately the 9th to 15th centuries and at times ruled over most of mainland Southeast Asia, playing a crucial role in the political and cultural development of the region. All that remains of that civilization today is its rich heritage of cult structures in brick and stone.

  

One of the largest religious monuments in the world extending over approximately 400 square kilometres (!), also known as the “Lost City”, Angkor is a mindblowing treasure of treasures - a sophisticated complex of temples, reservoirs, bassins, canals, gates, bridges and routes! The flip of the coin is that you will not be the only one there - the UNESCO World Heritage Site receives millions of visitors every year! However, you can beat the crowd if you want - the secret is to go there really early (and when I say early I mean before sunrise) and start from the end of the normal circuit therefore going against the crowd flow! The early (and clever) bird catches the worm - you will be rewarded with a stunning sunrise and the privilege of being alone deep in the lush jungle surrounded by hundreds of years of beauty!

  

The temples of Angkor were built mainly from sandstone by different kings between the 9th and the 14th century, abandoned after the fall of the empire and rediscovered by a European explorer in 1860. Some of them are Hindu temples (dedicated to the Hindu gods Vishnu or Shiva), others are Mahayana or Theravada Buddhist temples (dedicated to Buddha). Each temple has a different shape, size and restoration status...

However, all these architectural masterpieces have one thing in common - they are like an open book! Every single stone and every single carving is telling a story - the ancient Indian fairy tales of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, the legends of famous battles and extravagant celebrations but above all the story of a great empire which fell into decline and then slowly disappeared…

    

Nature is gaining over these sublime human creations testifying of an exceptional civilisation...

As you walk around the remains, you will be transported in ancient times of kings, queens, gods and goddesses, in a world of exquisite elegance and finesse, breathtaking beauty and almost extraterrestrial for this time architecture and art.

  

The bewilderment will be mixed with sadness and longing for this sophisticated world now long gone...

You will almost feel the presence of all those kings who wanted to be gods and understand their aspirations and passions which were also the reason for their destruction.

Religious conversion from Hinduism to Buddhism that affected social and political systems, incessant internal power struggles among Khmer kings, foreign invasion, plague, and ecological breakdown are amongst the many causes advanced by historians for this destruction. Whatever happened, the disappearance of the Khmer empire illustrates the doctrine that both Hinduism and Buddhism share - life is an illusion, nothing lasts and everything is in constant state of change…

There are dozens of temples in Angkor and even though most people visit the famous ones such as Angkor Wat, Bayon and Ta Prohm which form part of the so called 17-kilometer “Small Circuit”, staying for at least another day and discovering the less famous but sometimes even more spectacular temples of the 26-kilometer “Grand Circuit” is more than worth it!

Whether you have time for the Grand Circuit or not, start your day of bewilderment with a sunrise! We chose Srah Srang, a reservoir dug in the 10th century, as our spot and witnessed the pink and blue magic of the rising sun before the most stunning moment of our visit - Ta Prohm, the most mysterious of all temples, hidden in the jungle and slowly revealing itself to us - the only visitors - in the light of the early morning and the intensifying glow of the sunrays.

Ta Prohm (“ancestor Brahma”), also known as the location used in the film “Tomb Raider”, was built in the 12th century by the Khmer king Jayavarman VII as a Mahayana Buddhist monastery and university and is still in much the same condition it was found, with giant trees growing out of the ruins in a sculpture where nature and human creations have merged into one! 

  

Jayavarman VII, who stands as the last of the great kings of Angkor who unified the empire and carried out impressive building projects, constructed Ta Prohm in honour of his mother. The temple is flat (as opposed to the so called temple-mountains the inner levels of which are higher than the outer) and has many beautiful even though eroded bas-reliefs.

  

Just take your time walking around this maze of beauty and enjoy the calm of being alone in the early morning in the middle of the jungle! It is priceless!

Still overwhelmed by your first encounter with the remains of the Khmer empire, your senses will not be put to rest by what will follow.

A little bit further by tuk-tuk ride, the sandstone temple-mountain Ta Keo (“the mountain with golden summits”) is waiting for you. It was built in the 10th century in honour of the Hindu god Shiva - the destroyer. It has five sanctuary towers built on the uppermost level of a five-tiered pyramid consisting of overlapping terraces, as a symbolic depiction of Mount Meru - the sacred five-peaked mountain of Hindu and Buddhist cosmology considered to be the center of all the physical, metaphysical and spiritual universes. The final pyramid of the temple stands at 21.5 m above the ground and the stairs are quite steep!

Next on our way are Thommanon and Chau Say Tevoda, two small but very elegant 12th-century Hindu temples dedicated to Shiva - the destroyer and Vishnu - the preserver (the two gods are part of the Hindu trinity that also includes Brahma - the creator).

The two temples are opposite each other, single-towered and similar in design. The images of devatas, female deities, are everywhere, holding flowers and carrying beautiful necklaces. The mudras or hand gestures of the carvings are exquisite. You can also see images of the Ramayana heroes, as well as some Buddha representations which were enshrined at a later stage.

We fell in love with these temples and didn't really want to leave but it is time to visit Angkor Thom (“Great City”), a huge 9 km2 walled and moated city built in the 12th century by Jayavarman VII and the last capital of the Khmer empire.

You can enter the city by one of the five gates (one for each cardinal point - North, South, East and West, plus the Victory Gate), each crowned with impressive giant faces and leading to bridges with naga sculptures (deities taking the form of a snake).

There are many different buildings in Angkor Thom. The temple-mountain Bayon, the only state temple built primarily as a Mahayana Buddhist shrine by Jayavarman VII, is at the centre of it and for a reason. It will cast its spell on you at first sight...

Archaeologists still cannot figure out whether the multitude (more than 200!) of similar serene stone faces smiling mysteriously at you and following you everywhere represent the king himself or the bodhisattva of compassion (a human being who was on the point of reaching nirvana - the state of highest happiness along with the liberation from samsara, the repeating cycle of birth, life and death, but decided to stay on earth and help the others on their path to nirvana).

Both theories may be true since the Khmer kings regarded themselves as god-kings (Shiva for the Hindu kings or Buddha or a bodhisattva for the Buddhist kings)...

  

The bas-reliefs of the temple depicting historical and mythological events and everyday life scenes are impressive.

  

What makes the temple even more fascinating is that following Jayavarman VII’s death, it was modified and augmented by later Hindu and Theravada Buddhist kings in accordance with their own religious preferences. You will spot the Hindu gods Shiva, Vishnu and Brahma, Garuda - the bird-like vehicle mount of Vishnu, the apsaras - these celestial supernatural beautiful and elegant female dancers in Hindu and Buddhist cultures, as well as scenes from the Ramayana. You will come out of the temple with a strange feeling of complete tranquillity and a sort of enlightenment...

There are other monuments to see in Angkor Thom. Jayavarman VII built its capital around some already existing beautiful temples the most famous of which are Baphuon and Phimeanakas.

Baphuon is an 11th-century three-tiered temple-mountain, around 50-meter tall, dedicated to Vishnu.

Like other temples in Angkor and following the shifting of state religion in the empire, the temple was converted to a Buddhist temple in the 15th century and a 70 meter long impressive statue of a reclining Buddha was built on the second level of the temple.

Some parts of the temple were probably made of wood which contrary to the sandstone has not survived. The most impressive fact about this temple is its restoration - since much of the temple had collapsed, archaeologists had to completely dismantle it in order to reinforce its structure before reconstructing it again. Due to the Khmer Rouge conflict, the project was temporarily abandoned and the plans identifying the pieces lost. It took 16 years to the archaeologists to complete the project after the end of the conflict. Many stones still lie around the temple waiting for their place in the imposing structure...

The other famous temple in Angkor Thom already existing when Jayavarman VII decided to built its capital is the 10th-century Hindu temple Phimeanakas (“celestial temple”).

  

Before leaving Angkor Thom, do not miss the Terrace of the Leper King (there is a legend of a king who fought a snake and contracted leprosy due to the venom) and the Terrace of the Elephants (used by the king as a platform for greeting his victorious army and other public ceremonies).

Just next to Angkor Thom is the picture you see in all guidebooks and on all postcards - Angkor Wat (“temple city”), the largest single religious monument in the world! It is a symbol of Cambodia and appears on its national flag and even on local beer bottles!

  

It was built in the early 12th century by king Suryavarman II as a Hindu temple dedicated to the god Vishnu, gradually transformed by Jayavarman VII into a Buddhist temple towards the end of the 12th century. It is a temple-mountain surrounded by later galleries, with a quincunx (a geometric pattern of five points - four of them forming a square and a fifth at its center) of towers at the center symbolizing the five peaks of Mount Meru, the home of the gods. If you want to climb to the top, do not wear a short skirt or pants - only a long skirt will do!

  

Unlike most Khmer temples, Angkor Wat is oriented to the west rather than the east and the bas-reliefs are in a counter-clockwise direction (the reverse of the normal order for Hindus), which made many archaeologists conclude that Suryavarman II intended it to serve as his funerary temple. 

Above all, Angkor Wat is unusual among the Angkor temples in that although it was somewhat neglected after the 16th century it was never completely abandoned. You can wander around and admire the well-preserved devatas and bas-reliefs of the temple for hours if not days…

  

The sandstone walls of the galleries will tell you stories from the Hindu epics of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, the life of Krishna and the famous story of the Churning of the Sea of Milk showing gods (devas) fighting the demons (asuras) in order to prevent evil from becoming eternal and preserve the good. It is like reading fairy tales in the stones wandering around centuries of history...It is magic...Images of apsaras are dancing in front of your eyes to complement the spell. The moment cannot become more perfect...

If at the beginning of the visit you naively thought that Angkor Wat, Bayon and Ta Prohm were the only temples you wanted to visit, you will discover that some much less known temples of the Grand Circuit are hidden jewels in a huge jewellery box!

  

Ta Som is a 12th-century temple that Jayavarman VII dedicated to his father.

Like Ta Prohm dedicated to his mother, the single shrine was left unrestored and centuries-old trees are growing amongst the ruins! It is a spectacular place!

There is also Preah Neak Pean, an artificial island with a Buddhist temple on it, originally built by Jayavarman VII as a hospital. It represents the balance in the middle of the four connected pools symbolizing Water, Earth, Fire and Wind.

A little bit further is Preah Khan (“holy sword”), another temple built in the 12th century by Jayavarman VII to honor his father and also left to the jungle.

   

Angkor is all these temples and many more, but it is also the Cambodian people who despite the Khmer Rouge conflict kept their culture and identity and above all their smiles! Cambodia is not just an empire which had disappeared long ago, but people who survived a tragedy and managed to preserve their beautiful, kind and warm smiles to welcome their visitors from all around the world.

  

To see this, you can take a trip to one of the floating villages on Tonle Sap lake very early in the morning. Kampong Phluk is one of those villages with its police office, town hall, school and houses built on stilts and is full of charm.

  

Stop for a (very early) breakfast on a local floating restaurant (you can try the crocodile meat which, we were told, tastes like chicken....) and go deep in the mangrove forests with one of the local women on a flat boat (you will need some balance to sit on it at the beginning…).

  

The light of the sunrise on the houses and the smiles of the bathing children are stunning.

  

In the evening attend one of the apsara dances shows and you will see the apsaras from the temple walls dancing in front of you in magnificent attires and with incredible elegance and grace, narrating myths and fairytales with each of their mystic gestures.

  

They will transport you hundreds of years ago in another epoch, in the king’s ballroom or in the middle of a fierce battle, and you will not want to come back…

  

Cambodia, we miss your beauty but above all we miss the smiles of your people and we will come back one day.

  

It is time to visit another country of Southeast Asia still quite unknown and where people have smiles at least as beautiful as in Cambodia. Come with us to the Golden Country!

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