No historical icons in South-East Asia captured my attention like Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom, located near modern-day Siem Reap, Cambodia. Some say the Angkor complex stands in a class by itself since this site has so much archaeological significance; others claim that the place's majesty lies in its religious significance.
I can't say that I found the locals' affection for Angkor surprising. A facsimile of Angkor Wat is, after all, on the country's flag. That affection stood out as I strolled about the site as my charter guide for the day waiting for me to finish my excursion, other tourists snapping photos one after another.
Without a doubt, the Angkor Archaeological Park ranks among the most visually striking, breathtaking UNESCO World Heritage sites on the planet.
Covering about 400-square kilometers, Angkor features dozens of different temples, canals, reservoirs, and stone stairs. It's one of the most expansive archaeological sites recognized by UNESCO as historically significant to all humanity.
It's a common misconception to dub the whole site Angkor Wat, but the truth is that Angkor Wat refers to an iconic Hindu-Buddhist temple. Similarly, while not as well known as Angkor Wat, the Angkor Thom temple demands a viewing from first-time visitors who want to take in peace and serenity like no other time in their lives. Even after this time, I can't decide which temple – both imbued with a particular harmony and raw charm not present at other UNESCO World Heritage sites – had the most significant effect.
Of all the emotions I experienced during my visit to the Angkor Archaeological Park, a sense of serenity, calm, and awe grew with every step.
I can only imagine what it must've been like in its prime, but today, Angkor is as bustling as any tourist destination in South-East Asia. Approximately 2.6 million people tour the Angkor Archaeological Park each year. Will you join them as I did the next time you feel the urge for an adventure?
The Kingdom of Wonder – A brief history of Angkor
Not many visitors know that the Angkor complex, including Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom, developed over time, spanning centuries of construction and varied cultural influences.
King Suryavarman II of the infamous Khmer Empire built the site about the 12th century, designing Angkor as a recreation of the Hindu cosmos. Interestingly, King Suryavarman II took control of the Khmer Empire at only 14-years old by assassinating his uncle.
According to my guide, the king was looking for a way to ingratiate himself to his new subjects – and secure his seat in the Hindu pantheon of Gods. Forcing an untold number into hard labor, the king ordered the temple's construction to shepherd his soul to the afterlife.
The task was so arduous, I discovered, that archaeologists say five million tons of sandstone were needed to complete the site.
But no one knows why the complex fell into disrepair and faded into the jungle, which swallowed Angkor's temples for centuries.King Suryavarman II didn't live to see his ambition's fruition, and there isn't a clear answer as to why the Khmer people stopped worshiping at the site and never finished building it.
It wasn't until the French Colonial period when Henri Mouhot accidentally rediscovered the site. His written account of what he saw piqued the French's curiosity, who initially dismissed local myths about giants or gods constructing sites in the jungle.
Visiting Angkor Wat
In the Hindu-Buddhist tradition, numerology plays a big part in the religious significance of Angkor's once-thriving city. There are five main towers at Angkor Wat, each representing peaks of the Hindu pantheon's mythical mountains.
Angkor Wat features 108 towers in total like look like lotus flowers and buds. This number might seem odd in our modern-day, but it carries much significance, just like the number seven in Judaeo-Christian traditions. Upon entering the temple, I saw depictions of mythological battles and spectacularly intricate reliefs and nymphs figures, which populate the entire Angkor complex. There is a vibe inside Angkor Wat that is comparable to visiting one of the world's great churches, like Saint Peter's Basilica and Notre Dame.
However, Angkor Wat has a unique charm since its sandstone architecture remains as mysterious as during its inception. The craftsmanship of Gods and Goddesses has no compliment in our modern era.
Visiting Angkor Thom
Before visiting the Angkor Archaeological Park, I had never heard of Angkor Thom. Like most of us, I assumed Angkor Wat referred to the entire site, not an iconic temple.
But if you're going to take-in Angkor Wat for a day, make sure that you save time to see Angkor Thom, too. Archaeologists say that Angkor Thom was the final seat of the Khmer Empire. The site even contains a royal palace and administrative sections, including three temples within Angkor Thom itself.
I recommend that travelers first see Angkor Wat and then traverse to Angkor Thom to see the subtle, yet significant, differences between them.
Approaching Angkor Thom, I felt as if I were walking into the past, a time when men worshiped and feared the Gods of the Hindu culture. Statues of demons and serpents flank one side of the path; the benevolent, yet capricious Gods stand along the other side. The highlight of my tour was undoubtedly the Bayon temple, located inside of Angkor Thom. There are 37 towers alone in the complex, which makes it distinct archaeologically from Angkor Wat.
I'll never forget my first excursion to Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom and will surely return to see the entire park in all its majesty.
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