Angkor's monuments are on a massive scaleContrary to popular belief, Angkor was never a ‘lost city’. References to it being ‘discovered’ by Henri Mouhot in the 1860’s are nonsense. The Cambodians were well aware of its existence: indeed, some of the temples, notably Angkor Wat, continued to be occupied by monks throughout its history.

Mouhot, a young and idealistic botanist, stumbled upon the ruins and made sketches of some of the temples.

He died of malaria soon after at the age of 34, but his ‘discovery’ unleashed an opportunity to plunder on an enormous scale. Within a few years, shiploads of Angkor's finest sculptures and bas-reliefs had been transported to Europe to ‘enrich French culture’.

Bas reliefs of dancing apsaras - in Hindu and Buddhist mythologyThe destruction and pillaging continued into the 20th century – that so much remains is a testament to the incredible scope of the original enterprise.

As with most of the world’s massive monuments to bygone glories, such a colossal undertaking could only be brought to fruition on the backs of forced labour on a grand scale – Angkor was no exception.

At its peak around the 12th century, over a million people inhabited Angkor. Today, experts debate why it was built in such an inhospitable location in the first place.

The entire complex is a masterpiece of civil engineeringApart from the hundreds of temples, the site included an advanced system of irrigation using an intricate network of canals, channels and artificial reservoirs, known locally as ‘barays’, thus creating a huge area for wet rice cultivation.

The nub of the academic argument is whether the temples were originally built to support the irrigation project or vice versa.

What is beyond doubt is the fabulous wealth of the Khmer Kingdom. Providing the resources and manpower to create Angkor surpasses the world's ancient wonders and dwarfs today's monumental showpieces.

Angkor WatAlthough it has given its name to the entire site, Angkor Wat is but one of the elements in an enormous complex of temples, terraces, lakes and monuments spread across the 200-square kilometre Plain of Angkor, albeit the most impressive.

Taking up an entire square kilometre, the volume of Angkor's sandstone masonry is equivalent to that of the Great Pyramid of Cheops, and nearly every stone surface is exquisitely decorated with figures, images and Hindu motifs.

Bayon Temple The nine square kilometres of Angkor Thom reflects the transition from Hinduism to Mahayana Buddhism and contains the remarkable Bayon, and the famous Elephant and Leper King Terraces.

Its size is beyond imagination: the Bayon alone, the ‘forbidden city’ of the God-King Jayavarman VII, was larger than the entire area of ancient Rome.

Detailed descriptions of the multitude of temples are available in guidebooks, but words, and even photographs, cannot convey the experience of Angkor. Many of the temples have been restored with varying success, others are awaiting ‘renovation’ and a few are still in pieces, dismantled by international conservationists for subsequent rebuilding but interrupted by the years of warfare.

Ta Prohm templeA particularly interesting temple is Ta Prohm, one of the few temples in more or less the same condition as in Mouhot’s day, and immortalised in film by Indiana Jones and Lara Croft.

The magnitude of Angkor usually overwhelms the non-professional – ‘temple fatigue’ sets in after two or three days.

The short circuit based upon Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom can be covered in a day and a half, the ‘grand’ circuit takes in some of the further temples and takes around three days.

An enthusiast, archaeologist or historian might like to spend more time following the fascinating development trail from the ancient pre-Angkor Indianised kingdoms of Funan and Chenla to the founding of Angkor by Jayavarman II around 800, reaching its zenith in the twelfth century under Jayavarman VII, and its rapid decline in the 13th century.


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