The temples of Angkor

“In the past, to reach the ancient capital, several days’ travel on elephant or by pirogue were needed, using a machete to clear the way and carefully avoiding snakes”. More than 100 years ago, the 19th Century French naval officer and novelist, Pierre Loti, narrated his trip from Siem Reap to mysterious Angkor, hidden in the jungle a few leagues away from Tonle Sap Lake. A hundred years later, it was a lot less difficult for Angelina Jolie to access the sacred temples, where the famous film Tomb Raider was filmed. Wearing a black top and carrying a backpack, everyone can remember the cult scene: in the morning light, the beautiful Lara Croft is creeping between the ruins covered in roots and banyans. Undulating like huge snakes, the pale tentacles twist and wind between the stones, dislocating and covering them. This intimate relationship between nature and human endeavour is one of the images that symbolizes Angkor, considered the eighth wonder of the world. “Can anyone reveal the name of the Michelangelo of the Orient, who create such a masterpiece?”, marveled the French explorer Henri Mouhot, when he discovered the site in 1861.


Our coach is leaving Siem Reap. The road that now connects the ancient “Lost City” to Siem Reap was only opened to the public twenty years ago. Time enough for the UN’s blue helmets to clear the mines once and for all, the last pocket of resistance sabotaged by the Khmer Rouge. Irrigated rice fields, colorful pagodas, domesticated oxen, and school children wearing their uniform riding bicycles too big for them, with pink backpacks for girls and blue backpacks for boys make up the scenery along our way to the site. The traffic is getting busier. In the horizon, emerging between interlacing thick branches, the first contours of Angkor can be seen, a site so rich and huge (almost 400 square meters, the biggest on Earth), that several days are needed to see the essential areas. “At its peak, Angkor covered a zone three times bigger and had more than one million inhabitants, making it the largest city in the medieval world”, tells us our guide for the day, Ma Nyl.

Here, from the 9th to the 14th century, each Khmer ruler successively marked his territory by having several monuments built, rivaling in beauty and size. This was to venerate their God (Angkor is where Hinduism and Buddhism happily coexist), and protect the kingdom within their lifetime and prepare their afterlife, giving the site its strong metaphysical dimension. Just like the spectacular Ta Phrom sanctuary, caught in the strangler fig trees, which shelter hundreds of mythical creatures and divine figures, including Prajnaparamita, who personifies wisdom. Another Buddhist temple, the Bayon, “sumptuous and magnetic forest Palace” fascinates visitors with its silent stone guardians of the place: 54 towers bearing 4 faces stroked by the sun’s yellow rays of light. “Those who can make sense of their enigmatic smile can make sense of the origin of the world”, following the local legend.

A few meters away, behind the imposing Terrace of the Elephants, where royal ceremonies and parades used to take place, raises the Baphuon, whose west wall features a massive reclining Buddha. Erected on an artificial hill to venerate Shiva, the steep staircase of this impressive black pyramid shoots towards the sky. “These steps are very high so that humans have to crouch to walk up, as if they were bowing. Then they have to walk down backwards, so that they never show their back to the divinty”, explains Ma Nyl. The French 20th century literary and political figure André Malraux, future Minister of Culture, violated this respect to Gods by stealing several sculptures in Banteay Srei, the “Citadel of the women”, which could have cost him some time in prison.

However, the best is yet to come, the biggest and the most famous of all the temples, the one whose name is often confused with the name of the entire complex: Angkor Wat. The reflection of the monument made out of sandstone blocks in the surrounding moat at sunrise reveal this gem’s full dimension. Built under the reign of Suryavarman II, Angkor Wat ("City/Capital of Temples”), the peak of Khmer art and a symbol of the entire nation, is the pride of Cambodia and appears on the country’s national flag. Facing west and surrounded by a moat symbolizing the ocean, this majestic construction was dedicated to Vishnu, the eight-armed God. Five towers disposed like a lotus flower raise up in the center of the site, the highest symbolizing Mount Meru, the residence of Gods in Hinduism. The towers are connected by enclosed galleries covered in fabulous bas-reliefs, ancient stone-carved stories depicting Angkor’s glories, battles, myths and epic tales, like the Judgement of Yama and Churning of the Ocean of Milk.

As the day slowly retreats into a golden dusk, dazzled by so much beauty, the last tourists mingle with the monks in saffron robes. Nature has reclaimed its rights over the site. Beyond this ancient city, the great trees unite their foliage, in order to better protect this precious site from the jungle and the noise. Confronted with dangers of the night, the eyes of the statues never close. Enthralling and rustling with endless secrets, Angkor is falling back into silence, like the centuries when it was forgotten from the rest of the world.