The number one thing that drew us—and most visitors—to Cambodia is Angkor Wat, a large complex of temples built by Khmer kings between about 800 and 1200 AD. At times during that period, the Khmer empire covered virtually all of mainland Southeast Asia, including much of what is now Vietnam, Laos, and Thailand.
One way a new king asserted his supremacy was to move the capital city a few miles and commission the building of new state temples. As a result, temples accumulated over time all around northwestern Cambodia, the most fertile part of the country. The temples were dedicated to various Hindu gods and later to Buddha, as the state religion switched back and forth several times between Hinduism and Buddhism (both religions were brought to Cambodia by traders from India). When the Khmer empire dwindled in later centuries, many temples were abandoned and left in ruins; other remained centers of Buddhist worship through the years. Some of the temples have been stabilized and partially rebuilt by European or Cambodian archeologists since about 1900.
The main temples of the Angkor Wat complex are scattered around a wooded area roughly 4 miles by 5 miles. Interspersed with them are other structures from the Khmer empire: moats and reservoirs, monasteries, smaller buildings used as shrines or for other purposes, and ceremonial terraces. Originally, they would also have been surrounded by palaces and all of the buildings of a flourishing city, but those structures were made of wood and bamboo and palm thatch and did not survive. Only the stone and brick temples, with their intricate carvings and inscriptions, remain to illustrate a time when Cambodia was a center of military power, religion, and artistic culture for much of Southeast Asia.
The temples of the Angkor Wat complex are too large and numerous to see in one day—though plenty of the 2 million tourists who come here each year give it a try. Even a two-day visit keeps people moving at a steady pace through the midday heat and misses some of the important outlying temples. Since we have the luxury of time, we bought a pass good for seven days in a one-month period and are exploring the temples gradually.
Our strategy is to start with some of the smaller or farther away (but still significant) structures and then work our way up to the main ones, so we learn about Khmer art and architecture a little at a time and don’t make ourselves jaded by seeing the biggest and best examples first. (That would be like getting your first taste of Western art at the Uffizi Gallery or the Louvre; subsequent museums would suffer by comparison.) We’re also limiting ourselves to two- to four-hour visits first thing in the morning (the sites open at 5:30 a.m.) or late in the afternoon to avoid the heat. And we’re interspersing temple days with other activities or with down time. That way, we hope to able to experience a lot while staving off “temple fatigue”—a common problem here when people see so many sites so fast that they all run together. So far, our strategy seems to be working really well.
We’ll share our photo galleries with you the same way: one visit’s worth of temples at a time, interspersed with the other things we’re doing in Cambodia. Enjoy!