"Go to Angkor, my friend, to its ruins and to its dreams."
P. Jennerat de Beerski, 1924
The Angkor temples were built by the kings of the Khmer Empire over a period of about five centuries, beginning in 879 AD. The Khmer were almost constantly at war with their neighbors, the Siamese (Thailand) and the state of Champa (Viet Nam). During the period of their greatest power and prosperity, the Khmer kings built lavish temples on a grand scale. When their Empire was finally defeated, the temples and cities of Angkor were pillaged, burned, and abandoned to the jungle. The ruins were described by visiting foreigners for several centuries, but no effort was made to preserve them. They were rediscovered by French explorers in the late 1800's and restoration work began in the early 20th century. The current state of the temples varies considerably. Angkor Wat was occupied by Buddhist monks for much of its life and is in the best condition. Many temples have been rebuilt to one extent or another. Others, such as Beng Melea, are just heaps of stone in the jungle.
During our stay in Cambodia we visited 31 of the temples, but included only the best 25 here. There are others that we did not have time, or desire, to see. Cambodia has only recently emerged from a very long period of civil war and the Angkor temples have been re-opened to tourists for just a few years. (Beng Melea was finally cleared of land mines just last year. We were told that two people had been killed by a mine within a few feet of the path we followed around that temple.) Most of the roads to the temples have been paved in recent years and are in generally good condition.
Tourists who wish to visit the temples must purchase a ticket for 1 day ($20), 3 days ($40), or 7 days ($60). We chose the 7 day ticket, and spent every day tramping through the temples, climbing the pyramids, and generally working very hard in the hot tropical sun. The Angkor temples are more interesting than the temples we visited in Bagan, Burma. For one thing, the Angkor temples were mostly built with stone, and the intricate carvings are still visible. Nearly all of the Burmese temples were built of brick and decorated with plaster or stucco. Today, mostly just the brick remains. Also, the temples of Angkor are more varied than those of Bagan. Each one is different in some way from the others, often dramatically different. Most were built as Hindu temples; some during the 12th and 13th centuries were Buddhist.
The stone carvings are in various states of repair. As religious fashions changed, the Buddhist temples were vandalized by later Hindu zealots who chiseled away all of the Buddha images. There must have been tens of thousands of them. Only a few images escaped destruction. Most of the stone lions that guarded temple entrances were vandalized, and weathering has softened the edges of the carvings, in some cases making the orignal design difficult to see. The Cambodian Cultural Village has modern replicas of some of the statues to allow us to see how they appeared when they were new.
The temple names can be confusing, and many of the parts of the temples have names you may not know. For this reason, we have provided a glossary of terms, with pictures when appropriate, to make it easier to understand our descriptions of the temples. Below the glossary is a chronological list of the temples we visited with information about their style and the king that had them built. The dates come from inscriptions at the temples, when available. For each temple, we have included a rating from a local visitors' guide which combines estimates of the temple's historical importance, interest to visitors, and accessability. Angkor Wat and Bayon are at the top of the list, of course.
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