Cambodia — A Temporal Drive-by of the Khmer Empire
Properly done, travel can be more than simply moving about physical locations, it can be a form of time travel. Seeing ancient sites gives me a feeling of connection to our shared history and humanity. The sites around Siep Reap, Cambodia is rich with such possiblities.
From about 700 to 1,000 years ago, the world saw many historical events. Pope Urban issued the first of nine crusades to the Holy Land in 1095. The Mongol Empire was established in 1206 and the Ottoman Empire in 1299. The Black Death began ravaging Europe in 1347, eventually wiping out as much as half of Europe’s population. While not nearly as well known, during this same period, the largest urban population center on the planet at this time was established at Angkor, the capital of the Khmer Empire.
While the zenith of the Khmer Empire was from the 11th to 13th centuries, it lasted from the 9th to 16thcenturies. At times this empire controlled most of the region from Vietnam to Myanmar and from the southern tip of the Indochinese peninsula up to China’s Yunnan province. This empire occupied an area of roughly one million square kilometers.
My first experience in Cambodia came as a result of travel from South Korea. After working in Seoul for several years, and with no real idea of when I would be back at work, I decided to take a circuitous route back to the United States. Rather than the normal flight from Seoul to New York, I decided to go the opposite direction. I took the next month or so to travel through the Philippines, Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia, India, Turkey, Denmark, Sweden, and finally home. Of course, there is so much more to see in Cambodia, but my time there was short, so I focused on three main sites for this visit; Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom, and Ta Prohm. This entire area was added to the list of UNESCO World Heritage sites in 1992.
Like many Americans, I was somewhat familiar with Angkor Wat. But, also like many Americans, I was not aware that some of the best things to see were actually in the other two locations. I spent half my time at Angkor Wat, actually looking for a photo op that was at Angkor Thom. I had seen photos before of ancient Khmer ruins being retaken by the jungle. When I was unsuccessful at finding this, a constructive local citizen kindly told me how to find the site I was seeking.
Angkor Wat, the largest religious monument in the world, is one of the most amazing sites I’ve ever visited. Thanks to some great advice from the friendly folks at the hotel, I arrived before sunrise. The early arrival allowed me to both beat the crowd and to capture some of the photos during the golden hour when the lighting was best for photos.
Located in Siem Reap, Angkor Wat is truly massive. The outer wall is over two miles long and beyond that is a moat that is three miles long. Construction began on this site in the 12th century, and while it was initially centered around Hinduism, the focus shifted to Buddhism, and that remains until this day. While largely neglected for long periods, it was never completely abandoned and is an active site of Buddhist worship.
Not as famous as Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom was the last capital of the Khmer Empire and is an impressive sight in its own right. The south gate of Angkor Thom is located just under two kilometers from Angkor Wat. Three-kilometer-long, twenty-four foot high walls line each side of this enormous complex. Four massive gates controlled entry into the city, each over sixty feet tall, at the north, south, east, and west. The effort to create these walls and gates must have been incredible. While each of the sites visited on this trip had their appeal, at this one, the stone carvings were remarkable.
Ta Prohm is perhaps most famous to moviegoers as the temple from Raiders of the Lost Ark. The first thing that caught my attention at this site was that, unlike the two previous locations, Ta Prohm had been left largely unrestored. Seeing the ancient structures partially reclaimed by the jungle left a very different impression from the restored Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom. This was, by the way, a conscious decision on the part of the local authorities. The decision was made owing to the way Ta Prohm had, “…best merged with the jungle, but not yet to the point of becoming a part of it.”
While my visit to Cambodia was limited to these three sites near the city of Siem Reap, it was a memorable visit. This is a place I want to see again and for a much more in-depth exploration. Cambodia is a small country and has a population of only around 15 million people, not a lot more than the city limits of Seoul, where I had just left. It is for this reason, combined with the distance from most of the travelers I know in the US and Europe, I recommend Cambodia be visited as part of a larger trip to the region.