The ruins of the ancient city of Angkor, capital of the Khmer kingdom from A.D. 802 until A.D. 1295, are one of the world's greatest marvels. The "City of God-Kings," Angkor boasts some of the largest religious monuments ever constructed. Angkor Wat itself, the largest religious building in the world, represents Mount Meru. In Hindu mythology this was the home of the gods and the kings of Angkor were gods. Angkor was created from a fusion of feudalism, animism, and Hinduism that impelled the god-kings to create celestial glory on earth to honor their own divinity.
Angkor is a vast and mysterious complex of soaring towers, mysterious faces, and exquisite sculptures. The location was unknown to the outside world until French naturalist Henri Mouhot literally stumbled onto it in 1861. The half knowledge and half rumor of Angkor existed for centuries only as a myth. Although Angkor was abandoned for 600 years, the Khmers knew exactly where it was and had no wish to disturb the power of slumbering spirits. After Mahout made his discovery, archaeologists flocked here. With war and conflict after 1970, Angkor was once again often lost and more often damaged. Many temples were pillaged. Once the wars subsided tourists became the invaders. Today the sight is totally mobbed, but you might still find those quiet moments to contemplate the awesome eeriness of this amazing man-made wonder.
The temple complex covers some 97 sq. km (60 sq. miles) and carries the remains of passageways, moats, temples, and palaces that represent centuries of building. Originally the stone would have been interspersed with wooden buildings and all the bustle of a living city. A millennium later what there was is gone, eaten by the fierce, humid jungle, and what remains is a magnificent stone skeleton.
The temples are served by the nearby town of Siem Reap, some 6km (3 1/2 miles) to the south. Siem Reap means "Siam Defeated" and refers to the 16th-century victory that solidified the Khmer kingdom, even though the Thais were to triumph once again as empires ebbed and flowed. Animosity between the two neighbors remains to this day. All of western Cambodia was once under Thai control, and Khmer people are very proud of their survival in the face of so many invaders, the very reason that an image of Angkor Wat graces the national flag.
Siem Reap, not long ago a quiet, dusty town of rutted roads and dark nights, now supports a host of large five-star hotels and resorts, numerous restaurants, and the kind of goods, services, shops, galleries, and spas that make the little city a new island of luxury in parched western Cambodia. The town's markets have become a great stop for souvenir purchases as well as more traditional fare such as pig's heads and car parts, and the nearby downtown area is throbbing.
A 3- or 4-day visit will suffice (though many do it in less time) to come away with a newfound love for mystery, religion, and some of the most spectacular sunrises known to man. The sunrise over Angkor Wat itself is often stunning and justifiably famous -- a blaze of red and orange silhouetting the central towers. It is a photographer's dream, although these days you will have an awful lot of other photographers in the frame. There are good options for visiting more far-flung temple ruins, and the Bayon always remains sublime.
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