Imagine. . . a land where rivers flow uphill. Imagine. . . a lake where fish get caught in the branches of trees. Imagine. . . an ancient city, the size of Manhattan, home to tens of thousands of people, supported by an intricate system of irrigation and crowned by carvings in stone depicting their lives and gods.All imaginary? Not a bit. Such a land once existed. It was known as the great kingdom of Angkor, in the country now known as Cambodia, and the magnificent remnants of it are there for you to visit. The mighty stone faces of the Bayon, the moated shrine of Angkor Wat and the great walled city of Angkor Thom all still bear witness to the magnificence of what was once the mightiest empire in Southeast Asia.The Angkor Kingdom was founded in 802 A.D. by Prince Jayavarman II, who returned to Cambodia from Java where he had spent most of his adult life and proclaimed his newly-formed nation independent. To strengthen his position, he arranged a coronation ceremony by a Brahmin priest and pronounced himself a “god-king,” thereby making himself “all powerful” and commanding complete allegiance from his subjects.
He was the first in a number of such god-kings, and during a period from the latter part of the 9th century until the 13th, this control made available a vast pool of labor that was used to build an advanced and prosperous agricultural civilization. Utilizing the unique flood patterns of nearby Tonle Sap Lake, the kingdom was able to coax up to three rice harvests per year from its rich ,soils.Houses, roads, canals and fine temples,were constructed by successive generations, each god-king competing with his predecessors to build more and more splendid structures. Depicting apsaras (dancing nymphs), linga (phallic symbols), lotus flowers, elephants, and sacred Sanskrit texts, the many ornate temples were geometrically perfect and at the time were probably decorated with gold leaf and precious gems.The Khmer empire continued its expansion, at times including a large part of Thailand, south Vietnam, Laos, part of the Malay peninsula and the borders of what is now Burma.Angkor Thom, the “Great Walled City” and capital of Angkor, was built by Angkor’s greatest king, Jayavarman VII and covered some 10 square kilometers (almost 4 square miles). It was enclosed by a square wall 8 meters (26 feet) high and 12 kilometers (7.5 miles) in length, topped by a terrace to hold troops when defending the city, and surrounded by a moat 100 meters (328 feet) wide which was said to have been inhabited by savage crocodiles. Four huge gates, each high enough to accommodate an elephant and riders, faced in each direction. Huge carvings of four-faced heads and three-headed elephants mounted watch in all directions.
At its peak, the city was said to contain maybe 50,000 residents. Its crowning glory, the enigmatic heads of the Bayon, took 21 years to build. To complete them, Jayavarman took thousands of peasant from the rice fields, thereby unintentionally signaling the beginning of the kingdom’s end. Rice yields decreased, and without resources to support it, the empire began a gradual decline.Over the next 200 years, a number of factors – the introduction of Theravada Buddhism, which undermined the prestige of the king and priests; the continuing aggression of the Siamese – combined to reduce the ability of any king to maintain complete control. The temples gradually decayed and the finely tuned agricultural system collapsed. Finally, the Siamese seized the initiative and captured Angkor in 1431, driving the Khmers away and merging the city into their own kingdom.From then until the mid-1860’s, not much is known about this huge city. The French colonialists who arrived at that time liked to credit themselves with its “discovery,” but certainly for the Khmers it continued throughout this period to be a place of great spiritual and religious significance. Monks still prayed in its temples, brought offerings and built monasteries in its grounds – indeed, at the time the French arrived there was a flourishing monastery of some 1,000 monks.
However, without the support of the royal family and its many followers, the city could not of course continue to be maintained. Its many wooden buildings decayed, the irrigation channels became silted and overgrown, the splendid painting and gilding faded and flaked away. When the French explorer Henri Mahout stumbled across this staggering collection of temples and buildings, many had collapsed or become completely consumed by the jungle.Mahout’s book on Angkor, published in 1868 and accompanied by hand-drawn sketches, caused an international sensation. France funded a number of expeditions, producing plans of the monuments and making initial attempts to clear some of the encroaching jungle vegetation. However, it was not until the 1930s that technology had advanced to a sufficient degree to enable major restoration to take place, and from this point a major project began – taking over 30 years and involving huge numbers of earth-moving machines, surveying equipment and international archaeology experts.Work was abruptly stopped by the takeover of the Khmer Rouge and the country’s slide into civil war. The jungle began to grow back, and many important documents were lost for ever. One of the most notable examples of this is the stone “jigsaw map” of the Baphuon temple, the symbolic representation of the fabled Mount Meru situated within Angkor Thom. Just before civil war broke out, archaeologists had dismantled this pyramid structure in order to reinforce its inner structure. Each stone, uniquely shaped, had been painstakingly removed, labelled, and its position charted. The teams returned to find no documentation – just a pile of stones, and no way of easily determining where each one went. Only recently, after years of painstaking effort, has the temple been reconstructed.
Since the end of the civil war in 1997, Cambodia has been gradually welcoming more and more visitors to marvel at these masterpieces of architecture, unparalleled anywhere in the world. Despite the ravages of time, an incredible amount of detail has been preserved. Walking through the small corridors, sitting looking at the reflections in the pools, studying the intricate bas-reliefs, you can just close your eyes a little bit and imagine yourself back in the time of the god-kings.
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