Siem Reap & Angkor Wat Travel guide (Part 2)
Angkorian Culture & Lifestyles
Not much is known about the heyday of the Khmer empire that was centered on the Angkor complex. There are bits and pieces of written material scattered across Southeast Asia, carvings and bas-reliefs on temple walls depicting day-to-day and religious life, and one fairly comprehensive written record. The written record is interesting, but it comes from near the very end of the Angkorian period. In 1296, Chou Ta-kuan came as an emissary from the Chinese court. He kept detailed records of the lifestyles and people he encountered, and from his impressions it seems the Angkorian court was an impressive and very sophisticated society, even as it was rapidly declining.
The dominating influence at most of the Angkor sites is Indian. Although they did not attempt to colonize the area known today as Cambodia, their widespread trading network and the appeal of the Hindu beliefs spread their influence to much of Southeast Asia. The influence on the architecture is clear, but this influence didn’t spread to the culture and art forms. Toward the end of the Angkorian period the influence shifted to Mahayana Buddhism.
Seeing the Temples
If you want to get the most out of your visit you really should hire an official guide for at least one day, and hire a car and driver, too. Angkor Conservation trains guides and you can hire them from the Angkor Guide Association right across from the Grand Hotel D’Angkor (tel. 063-964347).
These guides cost $20-$25 (Y 2006). You can also hire an unofficial guide at many places – the airport, your hotel or guesthouse, other hotels, and so on.
If you do this, you need to quiz the person to make sure he (almost all guides are male) speaks your language in an understandable manner, and ask questions based on what you’ve read in this book and learned from other travelers to make sure he knows the site.
If you go to the temple complexes on your own you are likely to be surrounded by children wanting to show you “their” temple and wanting you to give them a small tip and/or buy their postcards and souvenirs.
You will also be dogged by scooter drivers wanting to take you around.
Bayon Temple (details)
Caution: Cambodia has been heavily mined – landmined, that is! – by various groups over the past half-century. Although great effort has been made to locate and destroy the mines, they still exist all over the country, even around Angkor. Stay on well-trodden paths! Don’t head off into the jungle, even with a guide, unless the path is clearly well-used.
Cambodia has several poisonous snakes. The most deadly one, found all around Angkor, is the nasty green Hanuman snake. It is most prevalent during the dry season but can be encountered at any time.
Don’t even think about trying to take out souvenirs from Angkor, or any other banned items or antiquities. You will find yourself in a very unappealing jail so fast your head will spin, and Cambodian jails are very detrimental to your life expectancy. They are also hard to get out of. Sentence commutation or reduction is virtually unheard of. Your embassy can’t do much for you, either.
The Temples of Angkor
From the time of its rediscovery by Henri Mouhot in 1860, there were attempts to restore the Angkor Temples. Part of this “restoration” involved removing many treasures (mostly statues) to France in the 1870s. To date few if any of these statues have been returned to the Cambodians.
As part of their efforts to find and remove the best statues from the Angkor complex, the French began a “restoration” effort in 1898 under the auspices of the École Francaise d’Extreme Orient (the French School of the Far East). The scholars cleared the jungle, mapped the complex, and inventoried much of the site. They found about 400 temples, walls, and tombs.
In the mid-1980s, while the communist Vietnamese held sway, they decided further restoration of Angkorian temples was in order. Although their intentions were noble, the contractors they hired did an incredible amount of damage to the entire site.
A group of Indian archaeologists was hired to clean and restore a number of buildings and galleries at Angkor Wat. They used the same techniques applied so disastrously in much of Incan Peru – chemical stripping and concrete for repair work. As a result much of the wonderful patina of the old stone was removed, fine carvings were scrubbed almost out of existence, and damage was patched with concrete rather than laterite and sandstone. Only after a number of years of this haphazard, destructive “restoration” did the rest of the world wake up to the possible damage being done.
Following the signing of the Paris Peace Accords in 1991 an international group, overseen and coordinated by UNESCO, began working on the newly-declared World Heritage Site.
The influence of the Chenla (see Cambodia history) predecessors can be seen in the temples of Angkor. Since these temples were modeled after Indian ones, the influence carried over to the Angkorian temples. The first temples at Angkor were simple designs, but over time they evolved to the elaborate pillars, galleries and features seen at Angkor Wat and other wats in the complex today.
Many of the temples in the Angkor complex share features of Indian Hindu and Buddhist structures. The domed or hipped appearance is intended to symbolize MountMeru’s peaks, and most of the temples are surrounded by a wall representing the earth, with moats to represent the oceans. The central area in a temple was the residence of the god-king (devaraja).
The central tower was the keeping place for the images of the Hindu gods to which the temple was dedicated. These statues are largely gone – to museums and collectors in France and other parts of the world. Very few are still in their original sites, or even in Cambodian museums. Also kept within the central temple structures were sacred scriptures and other materials.
These temples were not for worship but rather places to store and safeguard the images of the gods. Only priests entered them; the common people stayed outside in long-vanished wooden structures.
As you walk around and through the Angkor temples you will quickly discover almost all the windows and doors are false, so there is little light inside the temples. After all, why bother providing light in a place almost no one ever got to visit? Mortar was not used and the concepts of the arch and flying buttress (integral to Angkor Wat’s contemporary – Notre Dame) were unknown. Instead, the temples use a technique called corbelling – a primitive form of vaulting that severely limited the height of buildings and the load-bearing ability of the walls.
As the shift from Hinduism to Mahayana Buddhism occurred (12th century), the building styles didn’t change much, but the gods inside did. A good example of the changes can be seen at Bayon.
Statues, Carvings, Bas-Reliefs & Sculpture
Roluos Temple statue
As the temples evolved from their simple Chenla period precursors into ornate monuments, so did the ornamenting change and become more intricate.
Carvings progressed from simple figures to ornate lintels, carved columns at doorways, to elaborate bas-reliefs depicting Hindu stories.
Baphoun is an excellent example of some of these allegorical Hindu stories in bas-relief.
A good guide is invaluable to explain what you are seeing and how the carvings (and buildings) evolved.
Although early buildings (Preah Ko) are largely built of brick, the next iteration of buildings was made of the soft sandstone found in the area.
Sandstone was much easier to carve and inscribe than brick, so the bas-reliefs and other carving and statuary became ever more elaborate.
Moats and foundations were laid with laterite, a stone
easy to cut and shape, and common to the area around Angkor.
As the Angkor period ended, buildings were increasingly constructed from wood. This wood was ornately carved, but very little survives today – the humid climate is not conducive to long-term survival of anything made of organic matter.
Siem Reap and Angkor Wat Travel Guide
Part 1 : Introduction & How to get there
Part 3 : Visiting Angkor Temples
Part 4 : Visiting Angkor Wat
Angkor Temples map
Picture of Banteay Srei Temple
City and region guide homepage
Cambodia travel guide homepage