There’s an ancient city in the jungle. Beautiful, abandoned, and open for visitors….
If you’re going to see just one thing in South-East Asia, this should be it. Without a doubt, Cambodia’s Angkor ruins is one of the most wonderful things I have ever seen. Located about five kilometres from the township of Siem Reap, this ancient city is a labyrinth of stonework that twists and turns into the surrounding jungle and farmland of Cambodia.
Deriving from the Sanskrit word for city, Angkor, which was the largest pre-industrial city in the world, flourished from the 9th to the 15th centuries. Built by the Khmer Empire, the city originally covered over 1000 square kilometres. Today, the site hosts over 1000 temples, ranging from curious piles of rubble to aesthetically marvellous structures that could belong in a fairy tale.
Besides its masterful handiwork, what’s also astonishing about the city is its resolve to endure. Surviving hundreds of years at the mercy of the jungle, and much later, the bloody regime of the Khmer Rouge, the city remains largely intact. Realising the immense value of the place, organisations such as the Archaeological Survey of India aided the process by beginning restoration in 1986.
Organising your trip
Siem Reap is the place to organise your visit. Stay in one of the many places in town, and organise a tour and/or transport to and from Angkor. My partner and I decided to hire a motorbike and go on our own. Making the most of our visit, we purchased a three-day pass for US $40, departing before dawn and returning each day after sunset.
Riding from Siem Reap into Angkor Archaeological Park at dawn is a thrill in itself, however the temples and their atmosphere are truly an elixir for the eyeballs. The famous centrepiece, Angkor Wat, was originally built as a shrine to the Hindu god Vishnu, but changed to serve as a Theravada Buddhist temple during its lifetime. Protected by a moat and an outer wall that’s 3.6 kilometres long, Angkor Wat is the largest religious monument in the world, and a devastatingly handsome one at that.
Angkor’s temples are too numerous to mention here. Highlights include Ta Prohm – where hulking trees have gnarled their way in and around a sunken, severely charismatic looking structure. Ta Prohm is also famous for having Angelina Jolie run around in tights, yielding weapons for her part in Tomb Raider. Other popular temples include Bayon, which harbours huge faces that appear to spring to life when the light is low, either at dawn or dusk.
The city of Angkor, it seems, was built by gods, thrived for 600 years, then abandoned to the tumultuous nature of the Cambodian jungle and history, until today it serves as a striking window to another time. It’s one of the most popular attractions in South-East Asia and is a huge support to the Cambodian economy. It’s also proudly displayed on their national flag.
Have you been? Put it at the top of your list if you’re anywhere near the area.