The greatest of all human delusions is that there is a tangible goal, and not just direction towards an ideal aim. The idea that a goal can be attained perpetually frustrates human beings, who are disappointed at never getting there, never being able to stop.
-Stephen Spender, World Within World
To truly understand the Khmer Empire that ruled over most of Southeast Asia from 800 BC to the 1400s, it is best to visit the ruins of the capital city, Angkor. Located north of Siem Reap in Cambodia, the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Angkor boasts the stunning remains of the different capitals of the Khmer Empire, from the 9th to the 15th century. What remains of the grand, ancient monuments symbolizes the empire's abundance of power, wealth, culture, architectural skills, and belief systems. Recent studies show that Angkor, during its zenith in the 11th to 13th centuries, was the largest pre-industrial urban center in the world supporting nearly one million people over 1,000 square kilometers (390 square miles). Most notably, and still visible today, the ancient city had a complicated water management network used to control water in the area and provide a stable source of irrigation during unpredictable monsoon seasons and population increases.
Angkor has more than one thousand temples, from small piles of bricks to carefully restored complexes. The UNESCO site is spread out and requires a ticket to enter. And ticket prices are not cheap, especially after a significant price hike last year: a one-day ticket is $37, three-day $62 and seven-day $72. (Although considering the negative impacts of increasing tourism in Angkor, the price increases are justified.) I purchased the one-day ticket and therefore only saw a sliver of the ancient city's offerings, but in that short period of time I was able to get a flavor of Cambodia's glorious past tucked into lush jungles.
Siem Reap is a moderately-sized (250,000 people) river town in northwest Cambodia, and where most people stay when visiting Angkor. So it's safe to say that the town is very touristy, but a great stop in and of itself. Siem Reap was founded in the early 800s and still has much of its original colonial and Chinese-style architecture in the Old French Quarter, and around the Old Market. I liked Siem Reap more than Phnom Penh, probably because the downtown had more historic buildings and trees.
Siem Reap & Angkor by tuk tuk
Touch (pronounced "Took") in his tuk tuk greeted me when I arrived by bus in Siem Reap, and he graciously acted as my guide the next day in Angkor. He was a super-friendly Cambodian and knew just the right temples to squeeze into one day (just ignore my tourist outfit; I gave up in the heat). His WhatsApp is +855 17 787 532 for anyone looking for an excellent guide and tuk tuk driver in Siem Reap :)
Ta Prohm Temple
Ta Prohm was built in the Bayon style in the late 12th and early 13th centuries to serve as a Mahayana Buddhist monastery and university (Wikipedia). The site is best known for the surreal trees (tetrameles) growing from ancient stone ruins; set in the jungle, a visit to Ta Prohm makes for quite the unique experience. Most of buildings are in their original state although portions of the site have been restored thanks to an archaeological partnership with India.
Smaller and less complex than Ta Prohm, Banteay Kdei is just as splendid and romantic; interestingly enough, this former Buddhist monastic complex was home to monks until the 1960s. Of the handful of temples I visited, I liked this one the best because I saw so many unexpected things. First, one of the local guys who hangs around inside the temple latched onto me and guided me through cracks and crevices to point out hidden spots and take my picture by a particularly gorgeous tree (well worth the suggested tip of a dollar or two). Then, I walked a ways to the edge of the site, where the Srah Srang reservoir treated me to gorgeous views of the lush jungle surroundings.
By far the most popular of Angkor's temples, Angkor Wat is truly a spectacle to behold. This Indianized temple complex is the largest religious monument in the world, and it is easy to get lost once inside the thick stone walls. But despite the crowds, it wasn't difficult to get away from them and find breathtaking spots to explore alone. Wikipedia sums up the site well:
The 12th-century temple of Angkor Wat is the masterpiece of Angkorian architecture. Constructed under the direction of the Khmer king Suryavarman II, it was to serve as the monarch's personal mausoleum and as a temple to the Hindu god Vishnu. Based on Dravidian architecture, it was designed as a pyramid representing the structure of the universe: the highest level at the center of the temple represented Mount Meru, the home of the Hindu gods, with the five towers on the highest level representing the five peaks of the mountain. The broad moat around the complex represented the oceans that surround the world.
This temple to Hindu gods is most notable for its miniaturized buildings and red sandstone, a material that allows for the elaborate wall carvings still observable today. Banteay Srei was built in 967 and restored in the 1930s, although much of the temple has sadly been pilfered and vandalized since then.
Angkor Thom, or the Bayon Temple, is notable for its countless sculptural decorations, especially the smiling faces adorning gates and towers.
The Cambodia Landmine Museum
This museum and school works to educate visitors on the importance of clearing landmines around the world, especially in Cambodia. The Cambodia Landmine Museum estimates that there are still 5,000,000 active landmines in Cambodia. The museum's founder, Aki Ra, was once a soldier laying landmines but after the war he began clearing landmines on his own. His efforts expanded into the landmine museum and global outreach on landmines; quite an impressive career. Museum entrance is $5, which goes towards the school (for landmine victims) and museum.