blocks of huge crumbling walls, tree roots seem to ooze through solid
surfaces. A tall tree grows atop a
temple roof as its long, silvery trunk engulfs the sides of the structure like
grasping tentacles of an ancient omnipotent force. This scene is much like the
one that greeted French naturalists who first rediscovered the temples of Siem
Reap, Cambodia in 1860. Here, Ta Prohm, one of several temples from the Khmer
empire (9th-15th century), has purposefully been left
untouched, not only to allow visitors to experience that initial sense of
wonder at seeing the jungle site, but also to preserve the structures that are
so inextricably intertwined. The natural
and manmade have a symbiotic relationship. Yet, like a giant jigsaw puzzle,
fallen pieces are being repositioned when possible. Ta Phrom Temple gained
celebrity status as the setting of the 2001 movie, Tomb Raiders, starring Angelina Jolie.
the other side of an impressive man-made river lies Angkor Thom (Great City), built
by King Jayavarman VII in the late 12th century. Almost two miles
long on each side, this symmetrical city is surrounded by a 26-foot high wall
and 328-foot wide moat. At the height of Khmer Empire, the walled city of
Angkor Thom was home to more than one million people. The temple’s five entry towers (each 75ft tall)
greet visitor with huge smiling stone faces. A long causeway linking the towers is guarded
by 108 mythical stone figures of demons and gods.
Within the city
walls are temples and terraces, including Banyon temple, an amazing structure
featuring beautifully preserved bas reliefs and more than 172 giant faces. This
complex also contains large open spaces once used for sporting events, such as
the most visited Khmer temple, however, is Angkor Wat. (Angkor means city; Wat
means temple). Although now considered a Buddhist temple, it was originally
built in the 12th century to honor the Hindu god, Vishnu. Thus, it follows Indian architectural design,
modified for Buddhist practices. Measuring one mile on each side, and also surrounded
by a wall and moat, it is considered the largest religious monument in the
world. The basic plan is that of an Indian mandala, or diagram of the cosmic
realm. The main temple building rises in three steps. The first level is
wrapped with the longest continuous bas relief in the world, 12, 917 square
feet. Among the sandstone figures are warriors and more than 3000 Apsaras dancers—part
female, part celestial nymph—each wearing individually designed headgear. The
costumes and dance moves of these ancient apsaras are preserved today by young
performers who keep the Khmer traditions alive.
The second level, entered for meditation, is mostly devoid of distracting
ornamentation. Reached by a steep staircase, the third level, 699 feet tall,
offers panoramic views of the temple complex.
monuments of Angkor Archaeological Park, covering 500 acres, have been declared
a UNESCO world heritage site, voted Lonely Planet’s #1 World Sight, and
understandably designated by some as one of the Seven Wonders of the World.
Today, Siem Reap is a busy city with a bustling night life and a growing
tourist industry that brings two million visitors each year to its modern
hotels and restaurants and to these ancient temples.