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The Angkor complex of temples, monasteries and archaeological sites in northwestern Cambodia offers a rich history of Southeast Asian culture and architecture that is probably unfamiliar to many Westerners. The best known is Angkor Wat, but the great royal city of Angkor Thom -- with walls decorated in thousands of bas relief carvings, Bantay Srei's jewel-like sandstone temples and shrines, and unrestored Ta Prohm with giant tree roots consuming the fallen terraces -- are but a sampling of what is in store for the visitor. The Angkor Archaeological Park covers some 77 square miles near the town of Siem Reap and includes the ruins of over 100 temples.
The Khmer empire flourished from the 9th to the 15th centuries, and the culture was heavily influenced by India's concepts of kingship and the art and architecture of the Hindu and Buddhist religions. When the Khmer court was threatened by Thai advances, it left Angkor and moved to the southeast, leaving the cities and many temples to the mercy of the encroaching jungle. Angkor was probably never totally abandoned, and some temples -- particularly Angkor Wat -- continued to be used by Buddhist monks. The French explorer Henri Mouhot visited Angkor in 1860 and spread the word to the Western world that he had "discovered" the lost city. French expeditions subsequently surveyed the area, and restoration efforts took place from the late 1860s through the 1970s, when war interrupted the work and the jungle reclaimed the architectural treasures. In 1992, Angkor was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and since then, many international efforts -- including the World Monuments Fund, working with Cambodian archeologists and government organizations -- have been conducting ongoing restoration programs.
Khmer god-kings built their temples to symbolize their power and their relationship with the divinity. The temples were an earthly version of the Hindu's mythical Mount Meru, the sacred home of the gods, and served as a link between man and gods. Mount Meru is a five-tiered mountain at the center of the universe (the temple), surrounded by seven chains of mountains (the enclosure walls), and further surrounded by the sea (the moat). Temples were built symmetrically around a central axis and oriented to the cardinal points with emphasis on east-west, the rising and setting of the sun. A causeway over the moat led to the gopura or gateway through the enclosure walls and was a dramatic entrance to the temple. It featured the naga (a multi-headed protective snake) balustrade with stone sculptures of the gods on one side and demons on the other carrying the long sinuous body of the serpent.
Building materials for the temple complexes included brick, timber, stucco, sandstone and laterite. Grey-green sandstone, quarried from the Kulen hills 19 miles northeast of Angkor, was used for decorating door and window openings and for the intricate bas-relief and high-relief carvings found throughout all of the temples. It replaced brick in the 10th century and its use was extended to facades, roofs and galleries. Laterite, a mud stone that is soft when quarried but hardens in the sun, was used for foundations, the internal structure of thick walls, plinths, bridges and roads.
As you approach the entrance, the beautifully proportioned symmetry of the temple draws your eye to the left, to the right and then up to the tower. Walking along the causeway, you pass through a great courtyard where there are two jewel-like buildings, referred to as libraries, on either side -- each perfectly proportioned in the shape of a cross with a large central area, four porches, columns and steps. But this still doesn't yet reached the temple proper.
The central sanctuary is built on three levels, with galleries featuring thousands of bas-relief carvings in sandstone. In one gallery, over 1,500 apsaras (celestial dancers) perform their joyous rituals. The initial effect is overwhelming and on close inspection, it becomes clear that they are all different -- hair styles, jewelry, headdresses and costumes all vary from figure to figure. In the largest of the galleries, there are 12,900 square feet of sandstone carvings depicting stories based on Indian epics, sacred books and warfare of the Angkor period. Mythical battle scenes show troops marching, hand-to-hand combat, flying arrows and commanders giving orders from the backs of elephants.
The third level of the sanctuary is the base of the five towers. There are 12 sets of stairs with 40 steps in each that ascend at a 70-degree angle to the top. Looking up, the climb is a daunting proposition -- especially if you're carrying two cameras and have film, lenses and guidebook stuffed in your pockets. But once at the top, the reward of the spectacular view of all Angkor Wat is well worth it. From that height, the overall plan of the temple becomes clear, and its beautiful symmetry and pleasing proportions demonstrate the mastery of the Khmer artists and architects.
The best approach to Angkor Thom, the "Great Capital City," is through the south gate, where 108 stone figures -- gods on the left and demons on the right -- hold the scaly body of the naga, with its nine heads spread in the shape of a fan to guard the entrance to the city. Enclosed by a laterite wall two miles long on each side and surrounded by a 328-foot-wide moat, the city may have held a population as large as one million people. Called splendid and opulent by writers of its history, the city served as the religious and administrative center of the Khmer Empire at the end of the 12th century. Within its walls are some of the greatest monumental structures remaining in Southeast Asia.
The Bayon is the Buddhist temple that dates to the 13th century and was built 100 years after Angkor Wat. There are 200 large faces carved on its 54 towers, with enigmatic smiles that leave one pondering their significance and meaning. Two great galleries of sandstone bas relief carvings depict scenes from everyday life, important battles and the lives of the gods. Nearly life-size bas reliefs of elephants hunting and fighting off tigers grace the facade of the Terrace of the Elephants that may once have served as the base for wooden pavilions. The Terrace of the Leper King, whose naked figure is depicted in a seated statue with its right knee raised, may have been the royal crematorium.
The exquisite 10th century temple of Bantay Srei -- the "citadel of the women" -- sits in the forest about 20 miles outside of the main Angkor complex. The intricate decorative carvings cover the pink sandstone temples and shrines like a fairy tale tapestry. Unlike the massive proportions of the other Angkor temples, Bantay Srei is petite, remarkably well preserved, and has been called the jewel of Khmer art. Hardly any space has been left uncarved with delicate foliage designs entwined with geometric patterns. Relief narrative scenes are carved in the tympanums and on the frames of arches, doors and windows. Standing figures in the niches are male and female gods; the females richly bejeweled with heavy earrings, necklaces, arm and ankle bracelets while the males, dressed in simple loincloths stand guard holding a lance, a lotus or another icon.
There are many other temples within the Angkor complex that deserve special attention and exploration -- Neak Pean, the Khmer equivalent of a spa where pilgrims could take the waters; Preah Khan, a monastery and teaching center that guards the sacred sword; Preah Rup, a temple-mountain symbolizing Mount Meru that is associated with funeral and cremation rites; but unless one is moved to spend a month or more in exploration, time simply runs out.