Temples

Cambodian’s Temples

Siem Reap, is a province located in northwestern Cambodia, on the shores of the Tonle Sap lake. The provincial capital is Siem Reap. The name literally means Siamese defeated referring to the victory of the Khmer Empire over the army of the Thai kingdom of Ayutthaya in the 17th Century. Today it is most widely known for being the closest city to the ruins of the temples of Angkor.
Overview
Located in northwest Cambodia, Siem Reap is the major tourist hub in Cambodia, as it is the closest city to the temples of Angkor. The most recognizable of the temples, Angkor Wat, literally Capital Temple, built by King Suryavarman II during the early 12th century provides the largest tourist draw. Recently the city has seen a great deal of expansion; hundreds of hotels, restaurants and shops, catering to both international and Cambodian tourists have opened to serve the influx of visitors. Also, King Norodom Sihamoni and the Cambodian royal family maintain a residence in the town. The Angkor temple complex is north of the city.
Other sites of interest near Siem Reap include Angkor Thom built by Jayavarman VII, Banteay Srei, Ta Prohm, as well as hundreds of other temple ruins. Angkor, and the surrounding area that would later become known as Siem Reap, faced repeated invasions from the Thais, and ceased to be the capital after a seven-month siege in 1431. The capital was moved to Phnom Penh in 1432, and then to Lovek and Oudong, before moving back to Phnom Penh in 1866. The temple ruins were visited by Western explorers and missionaries before the 19th century, but Henri Mouhot is generally seen as having “discovered” Angkor Wat in 1860.
Downtown Siem Reap’s abundant French colonial architecture.Siem Reap City is the capital of Siem Reap Province, Cambodia.Siem Reap has colonial and Chinese-style architecture in the Old French Quarter, and around the Old Market. In town, there are Apsara dance performances, craft shops, silk farms, rice-paddy countryside, fishing villages and a bird sanctuary near the Tonle Sap Lake.

Siem Reap today, being a popular tourist destination, has a large number of hotels and restaurants. Most smaller establishments are concentrated around the Old Market area, while more expensive hotels are located between Siem Reap-Angkor International Airport and the town along National Road 6. There are a variety of mid-range hotels and restaurants along Sivatha, and budget to mid-range hotels in the Phsar Leu area.
History
Siem Reap wood carving
The name Siem Reap means the ‘Defeat of Siam‘ —today’s Thailand —and refers to a centuries-old bloodbath, commemorated in stone in the celebrated bas relief carvings of the monuments. There is controversy over the name, as in a -very- slightly different pronunciation in Thai (Sayam Raap), the name means the “plains of Siam”.
In 1901 the École Française d’Extrême Orient (EFEO) began a long association with Angkor by funding an expedition to the Bayon. In 1907 Angkor, which had been under Thai control, was returned to Cambodia and the EFEO took responsibility for clearing and restoring the whole site. In the same year, the first tourists arrived in Angkor – an unprecedented 200 of them in three months. Angkor had been ‘rescued’ from the jungle and was assuming its place in the modern world.
Siem Reap was little more than a village when the first French explorers re-discovered Angkor in the 19th century. With the return of Angkor to Cambodian, or should that be French control in 1907, Siem Reap began to grow, absorbing the first wave of tourists. The Grand Hotel d’Angkor opened its doors in 1929 and the temples of Angkor remained one of Asia’s leading draws until the late 1960s, luring visitors like Charlie Chaplin and Jackie Kennedy. In 1975, Siem Reap, along with the rest of the cities and towns in Cambodia, its population was evacuated by the communist Khmer Rouge and driven into the countryside.

Traffic in downtown Siem Reap

As with the rest of the country, Siem Reap’s history (and the memories of its people) is coloured by spectre of the brutal Khmer Rouge Regime, though since Pol Pot‘s death in 1998, relative stability and a rejuvenated tourist industry have been important steps in an important, if tentative, journey forward to recovery. With the advent of war, Siem Reap entered a long slumber from which it only began to awake in the mid-1990s.
Today, Siem Reap is undoubtedly Cambodia’s fastest growing city and serves as a small charming gateway town to the world famous heritage of the Angkor temples. Thanks to those attractions, Siem Reap has transformed itself into a major tourist hub. Siem Reap nowadays is a vibrant town with modern hotels and architectures. Despite international influences, Siem Reap and its people have conserved much of the town’s image, culture and traditions.
The Wat and the river
The town is a cluster of small villages along the Siem Reap River. These villages were originally developed around Buddhist pagodas (Wat) which are almost evenly spaced along the river from Wat Preah En Kau Sei in the north to Wat Phnom Krom in the south, where the Siem Reap River meets the great Tonle Sap Lake.The main town is concentrated around Sivutha Street and the Psar Chas area (Old Market area) where there are old colonial buildings, shopping and commercial districts. The Wat Bo area is now full of guesthouses and restaurants while the Psar Leu area is often crowded with jewellery and handicraft shops, selling from ruby to woodcarving. Other fast developing areas are the airport road and main road to Angkor where a number of large hotels and resorts can be found.

Tourism
Businesses centered around tourism have flourished thanks to the tourism boom. There are a wide range of hotels, ranging from several 5-star hotels and chic resorts to hundreds of budget guesthouses. A large selection of restaurants offer many kinds of food, including Italian, Indian, French, German, Russian, Thai, Korean, Japanese, and Burmese. Plenty of shopping opportunities exist around the Psar Chas area while the nightlife is often vibrant with a number of western-styled pubs and bars.
Siem Reap-Angkor International Airport in Siem Reap now serves the most tourist passengers to Cambodia. Most tourists come to Siem Reap to visit the Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom, (about 6Km north of the city), and other Angkor ruins. While those are still the main attractions, there are plenty of other things to experience, such as a dinner with an Apsara Dance performance, a trip to fishing villages and bird sanctuary, a visit to a craft workshop and silk farm, or a bicycle tour around the rice paddies in the countryside.
Angkor Wat
Angkor Wat (Angkor temple) is the central feature of the Angkor UNESCO World Heritage Site containing the magnificent remains of the Khmer civilization. Angkor Wat’s rising series of five towers culminates in an impressive central tower that symbolizes mythical Mount Meru. Thousands of feet of wall space are covered with intricate carving depicting scenes from Hindu mythology.
Angkor (UNESCO World Heritage Site)
State Party
Cambodia
Type
Cultural
Criteria
i, ii, iii, iv
Reference
668
Region**
Asia-Pacific
Inscription history
Inscription
1992 (16th Session)
Endangered
1992-2004
* Name as inscribed on World Heritage List.** Region as classified by UNESCO.
Angkor is a name conventionally applied to the region of Cambodia serving as the seat of the Khmer empire that flourished from approximately the 9th century to the 15th century A.D. (The word “Angkor” itself is derived from the Sanskrit “nagara,” meaning “city.”)[1] More precisely, the Angkorian period may be defined as the period from 802 A.D., when the Khmer Hindu monarch Jayavarman II declared himself the “universal monarch” and “god-king” of Cambodia, until 1431 A.D., when Thai invaders sacked the Khmer capital, causing its population to migrate south to the area of Phnom Penh.
The ruins of Angkor are located amid forests and farmland to the north of the Great Lake (Tonle Sap) and south of the Kulen Hills, near modern day Siem Reap (13°24’N, 103°51’E), and are a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The temples of the Angkor area number over one thousand, ranging in scale from nondescript piles of brick rubble scattered through rice fields to the magnificent Angkor Wat, said to be the world’s largest single religious monument. Many of the temples at Angkor have been restored, and together they comprise the most significant site of Khmer architecture. Visitor numbers approach two million annually.
In 2007 an international team of researchers using satellite photographs and other modern techniques concluded that Angkor had been the largest pre-industrial city in the world with an urban sprawl of 400 square miles. The closest rival to Angkor, the Mayan city of Tikal in Guatemala, was roughly 50 square miles in total size.
Construction of Angkor Wat
The principal temple of the Angkorian region, Angkor Wat, was built between 1113 and 1150 by King Suryavarman II. Suryavarman ascended to the throne after prevailing in a battle with a rival prince. An inscription says that in the course of combat, Suryavarman lept onto his rival’s war elephant and killed him, just as the mythical bird-man Garuda slays a serpent.
After consolidating his political position through military campaigns, diplomacy, and a firm domestic administration, Suryavarman launched into the construction of Angkor Wat as his personal temple mausoleum. Breaking with the tradition of the Khmer kings, and influenced perhaps by the concurrent rise of Vaisnavism in India, he dedicated the temple to Vishnu rather than to Siva. With walls nearly one-half mile long on each side, Angkor Wat grandly portrays the Hindu cosmology, with the central towers representing Mount Meru, home of the gods; the outer walls, the mountains enclosing the world; and the moat, the oceans beyond. The traditional theme of identifying the Cambodian devaraja with the gods, and his residence with that of the celestials, is very much in evidence. The measurements themselves of the temple and its parts in relation to one another have cosmological significance.[11] Suryavarman had the walls of the temple decorated with bas reliefs depicting not only scenes from mythology, but also from the life of his own imperial court. In one of the scenes, the king himself is portrayed as larger in size than his subjects, sitting cross legged on an elevated throne and holding court, while a bevy of attendants make him comfortable with the aid of parasols and fans.
Angkor Wat is visually, architecturally and artistically breathtaking. It is a massive three-tiered pyramid crowned by five lotus-like towers rising 65 meters from ground level. Angkor Wat is the centerpiece of any visit to the temples of Angkor. At the apex of Khmer political and military dominance in the region, Suryavarman II constructed Angkor Wat in the form of a massive ‘temple-mountain’ dedicated to the Hindu god, Vishnu. It served as his state temple, though the temple’s uncommon westward orientation has led some to suggest that it was constructed as Suryavarman II’s funerary temple.

Other temples of the same style and period include Thommanon, Banteay Samre, Wat Atwea and Beng Melea, which may have served as a prototype to Angkor Wat.Angkor Wat is surrounded by a moat and an exterior wall measuring 1300 meters x 1500 meters. The temple itself is 1 km square and consists of three levels surmounted by a central tower. The walls of the temple are covered inside and out with bas-reliefs and carvings. Nearly 2000 distinctively rendered apsara carvings adorn the walls throughout the temple and represent some of the finest examples of apsara carvings in Angkorian era art. But it is the exterior walls of the lower level that display the most extraordinary bas-reliefs, depicting stories and characters from Hindu mythology and the historical wars of Suryavarman II. It is in the viewing of the bas-reliefs that a tour guide can be very helpful. The northern reflecting pool in front is the most popular sunrise location.

For sunrise, arrive very early, well before sunrise begins. The sun will rise behind Angkor Wat providing a silhouette of Angkor’s distinctively shaped towers against a colored sunrise sky. Some of the best colors appear just before the sun breaks over the horizon. The visual impact of Angkor Wat, particularly on one’s first visit, is awesome. As you pass through the outer gate and get your first glimpse, its size and architecture make it appear two dimensional, like a giant postcard photo against the sky.

After you cross through the gate and approach the temple along the walkway it slowly gains depth and complexity. To maximize this effect you should make your first visit in optimal lighting conditions, i.e. after 2:00PM. Do not make your first visit to Angkor Wat in the morning when the backlighting obscures the view. The first level of is the most artistically interesting. Most visitors begin their exploration with the bas-reliefs that cover the exterior wall of the first level, following the bas-reliefs counterclockwise around the temple. Bas-relief highlights include the mythological Battle of Kuru on the west wall; the historical march of the army of Suryavarman II, builder of Angkor Wat, against the Cham, followed by scenes from Heaven and Hell on the south wall; and the classic ‘Churning of the Ocean Milk’ on the eastwall.The temple interior is not as densely carved as the first level exterior, but still sports hundreds of fine carvings of apsaras and scenes from Hindu mythology. A guide can be quite helpful in explaining the stories of the various chambers, statues and architectural forms to be found in the interior. At the upper-most of your tour of the temple, the central tower on the third level houses four Buddha images, each facing a different cardinal point, highlighting the fact that though Angkor Wat was constructed as a Hindu temple, it has served as a Buddhist temple since Buddhism became Cambodia’s dominant religion in the 14th century. Some say that it is good luck to pay homage to all four Buddha images before departing Angkor.

Prasat Ak Yom
The historically important ruins of a small brick and sandstone temple in very poor condition. The earliest elements date from the pre-Angkorian 8th century. Inscriptions indicate that a temple dedicated to the Hindu ‘god of the depths’ was previously located on the same spot. Ak Yom is the earliest known example of the ‘temple-mountain’ architectural design formula, which was to become a primary design formula for many of the Angkorian period temples including Angkor Wat.
Angkor Thom
Angkor Thom (Big Angkor) is a 3km2 walled and moated royal city and was the last capital of the Angkorian empire. After Jayavarman VII recaptured the Angkorian capital from the Cham invaders in 1181, he began a massive building campaign across the empire, constructing Angkor Thom as his new capital city. He began with existing structures such as Baphuon and Phimeanakas and built a grand enclosed city around them, adding the outer wall/moat and some of Angkor’s greatest temples including his state-temple, Bayon, set at the center of the city. There are five entrances (gates) to the city, one for each cardinal point, and the victory gate leading to the Royal Palace area. Each gate is crowned with 4 giant faces. The South Gate is often the first stop on a tour.

Bayon

If you see only two temples, Angkor Wat and Bayon should be the ones. The giant stone faces of Bayon have become one of the most recognizable images connected to classic Khmer art and architecture. There are 37 standing towers, most but not all sporting four carved faces oriented toward the cardinal points. Who the faces represent is a matter of debate but they may be Loksvara, Mahayana Buddhism’s compassionate Bodhisattva, or perhaps a combination of Buddha and Jayavarman VII. Bayon was the Jayavarman VII’s state-temple and in many ways represents the pinnacle of his massive building campaign. It appears to be, and is to some degree, an architectural muddle, in part because it was constructed in a somewhat piecemeal fashion for over a century. The best of Bayon are the bas-reliefs on the exterior walls of the lower level and on the upper level where the stone faces reside. The bas-reliefs on the southern wall contain real-life scenes from the historical sea battle between the Khmer and the Cham. It is not clear whether this represents the Cham invasion of 1177AD or a later battle in which the Khmer were victorious. Even more interesting are extensive carvings of unique and revealing scenes of everyday life that are interspersed among the battle scenes, including market scenes, cockfighting, chess games and childbirth. Also note the unfinished carvings on other walls, likely indicating the death of Jayavarman VII and the subsequent end of his building campaign. Some of the reliefs on the inner walls were carved at a later date under the Hindu king Jayavarman VIII. The surrounding tall jungle makes Bayon a bit dark and flat for photographs near sunrise and sunset.

Banteay Srey
Banteay Srey loosely translates to ‘citadel of the women,’ but this is a modern appellation that probably refers to the delicate beauty of the carvings. Built at a time when the Khmer Empire was gaining significant power and territory, the temple was constructed by a Brahmin counselor under a powerful king, Rajendravarman and later under Jayavarman V. Banteay Srey displays some of the finest examples of classical Khmer art. The walls are densely covered with some of the most beautiful, deep and intricate carvings of any Angkorian temple. The temple’s relatively small size, pink sandstone construction and ornate design give it a fairyland ambiance. The colors are best before 10:30 AM and after 2:00 PM, but there are fewer tourists in the afternoon. This temple was discovered by French archaeologists relatively late, in 1914. The temple area closes at 5:00 PM. Banteay Srey lies 38 km from Siem Reap, requiring extra travel time. Drivers usually charge a fee in addition to their normal daily charge for the trip. Banteay Srey is well worth the extra effort. Combine a visit to Banteay Srey with Banteay Samre.

Baksei Chamkrong

A towering 12-meter tall brick and laterite step-pyramid. Harshavarman I began construction or perhaps dedicated statues at the site in the early 10th century. It was later improved/restored by Rajendravarman II shortly after the capital was returned to Angkor from Koh Ker. According to inscriptions on the doorway, Rajendravarman II consecrated the temple with the installation of a golden Shiva image in 947AD. It may have also served as a funerary temple. Combine with a visit to the South Gate in the morning or Phnom Bakheng in the evening. Lighting is best in the morning.
Chau Say Thevoda
Chau Say Tevoda is a small temple of similar design and floor plan to that of Thommanon located across the street (except for additional gopuras and library), but for years appeared as Thommanon’s neglected sister, languishing in significantly worse condition than Thommanon, which had been restored back in the 1960s. Chau Say Tevoda is now undergoing an extensive restoration project, for the moment allowing the visitor a close up look at the restoration process.
The small section of the temple pictured to the left is currently in the process of being reconstructed. Chau Say Tevoda seems to stand in partnership with Thommanon, but in fact was built much later in Suryavarman II’s rule. Chau Say Tevoda displays some well-executed carvings that are in still fair condition, especially those on the eastern gopura. Though most carvings are Hindu-themed, there are also some Buddhist-themed reliefs. The eastern walkway from the temple leads to the Siem Reap River a few hundred meters away.
Prasat Thommanon
Small, attractive temple in very good condition, built at the same time as Angkor Wat. The Angkor Wat style is most easily seen in the style of the towers and carved devatas. Thommanon seems to stand in conjunction with Chau Say Tevoda across the street, but was built decades earlier. Thommanon is currently in much better condition than Chau Say Tevoda, in part because archaeologists heavily restored it in the 1960’s. But even before restoration, Thommanon was in better shape than Chau Say Tevoda due in part to the lack of the stone-enclosed wood beams in Thommanon’s super-structure that were used in Chau Say Tevoda’s construction. Many of Thommanon’s carvings are in excellent condition. The colors of the age stained sandstone against the jungle are very photogenic, particularly in the wet season.

Bakong (in the Roluos Group)
Roluos Group: The most impressive member of the Roluos Group, sitting at the center of the first Angkorian capital, Hariharalaya. Bakong stands 15 meters tall and is 650x850m at the outer wall. Constructed by the third Angkorian-era king as his state-temple, Bakong represents the first application of the temple-mountain architectural formula on a grand scale and set the architectural tone for the next 400 years. The temple displays a very early use of stone rather than brick. Though begun by Indravarman I, Bakong received additions and was expanded by later kings. The uppermost section and tower may have been added as late as the 12th century AD. Some of the lintel carvings, particularly on the outer towers, are in very good shape. Picturesque moat and vegetation surround Bakong.

Phnom Bakheng
The construction of this temple mountain on Phnom Bakheng (Bakheng Hill), the first major temple to be constructed in the Angkor area, marked the move of the capital of the Khmer empire from Roluos to Angkor in the late 9th century AD. It served as King Yasovarman I’s state-temple at the center of his new capital city Yasodharapura.
The foundation of Bakheng is carved from the existing rock edifice rather than the laterite and earthfill of most other temples. Bakheng’s hilltop location makes it the most popular sunset location in the area, offering a view of the Tonle Sap Lake and a distant Angkor Wat in the jungle. (A good photo of Angkor Wat in the distance requires at least a 400mm lens.) The temple is usually overcrowded at sunset, sometimes even completely overrun by tourists. Due to overuse and damage, the main stairway up the mountain has been closed and an alternate path to the top has been opened. Elephant rides up and down the hill are also available from about 4:00PM till sunset. $15/person up the mountain. $10 per person down the mountain.
Srah Srang
Picturesque baray opposite the east entrance of Banteay Kdei. Originally constructed by the same architect that built Pre Rup. Remodeled in the 12th century as part of Jayavarman VII’s massive building campaign. A multi-tiered landing platform on the west edge of the baray is adorned with naga balustrades and guardian lions. The very sparse remains of an island temple can be seen poking out of the middle of the lake during the dry season when the water is low. Srah Srang offers a pleasant, much less touristed sunrise alternative to Angkor Wat.
Tep Pranam
A long walkway with a Buddha figure at the far end. Tep Pranam was originally a Buddhist shrine in the 9th century under Yasovarman I, the king that moved the capital to Angkor.

It was expanded over the years with 12th century balustrades, 13th century lions and significant post-Angkorian modifications and additions. The Buddha statue at the western end is made from reused material. It is unclear how long that particular Buddha has been there.

Ta Prohm
Of similar design to the later Jayavarman VII temples of Preah Khan and Banteay Kdei, this quiet, sprawling monastic complex is only partially cleared of jungle overgrowth. Intentionally left partially unrestored, massive fig and silk-cotton trees grow from the towers and corridors offering some of the best ‘tree-in-temple’ photo opportunities at Angkor.
Flocks of noisy parrots flit from tree to tree adding to the jungle atmosphere. Ta Prohm is well worth an extended exploration of its dark corridors and open plazas. This temple was one of Jayavarman VII’s first major temple projects. Ta Prohm was dedicated to his mother. (Preah Khan, built shortly after Ta Prohm in the same general style, was dedicated to Jayavarman VII’s father.)
yyTa Prohm was originally constructed as a Buddhist monastery and was enormously wealthy in its time, boasting of control over 3000 villages, thousands of support staff and vast stores of jewels and gold. Of the monastic complex style temples, Ta Prohm is a superior example and should be included in almost any temple itinerary.
Ta Keo
Towering but plainly decorated temple-mountain dedicated to Shiva. Known in its time as ‘the mountain with golden peaks.’ The first to be constructed wholly of sandstone, this temple employing huge sandstone blocks.
Constructed under three kings, begun by Jayavarman V as his state-temple and continued under Jayaviravarman and Suryavarman I. When Jayavarman V first constructed Ta Keo, he part ways with previous kings, constructing his state temple outside of his main capital area. Construction on Ta Keo seems to have stopped particularly early in the decoration phase as evidenced by the lack of carvings. Ta Keo is well worth a visit, but if you are pressed for time, see Pre Rup instead.

Pre Rup
Architecturally and artistically superior temple-mountain beautifully carved false doors on upper level, as well as an excellent view of the surrounding countryside. Richly detailed, well-preserved carvings.
Traditionally believed to be a funerary temple, but in fact the state temple of Rajendravarman II. Historically important in that it was the second temple built after the capital was returned to Angkor from Koh Ker after a period of political upheaval. The artistically similar East Mebon was the first to be constructed after the return to Angkor, less than a decade earlier.
Preah Khan
Preah Khan is a huge, highly explorable monastic complex. Full of carvings, passages and photo opportunities. It originally served as a Buddhist monastery and school, engaging over 1000 monks. For a short period it was also the residence of King Jayavarman VII during the reconstruction of his permanent home in Angkor Thom. Preah Khan means ‘sacred sword.’ In harmony with the architecturally similar Ta Prohm, which was dedicated to Jayavarman VII’s mother, Preah Khan is dedicated to his father.
Features of note: like most of Jayavarman VII’s monuments, the Buddha images were vandalized in the later Hindu resurgence. Some Buddha carvings in the central corridor have been crudely carved over with Bodhisattvas, and in a couple of odd cases, a lotus flower and a linga. Also note the cylindrical columns on the building west of the main temple. It is one of the only examples of round columns and may be from a later period.
Terrace of the Elephants
Terrace of the Elephants is an impressive, two and a half-meter tall, 300 meter long terrace wall adorned with carved elephants and garudas that spans the heart of Angkor Thom in front of Baphuon, Phimeanakas and the Royal Palace area.
The northern section of the wall displays some particularly fine sculpture including the five headed horse and scenes of warriors and dancers. Constructed in part by Jayavarman VII and extended by his successor. The wall faces east so the best lighting for photography before noon. The Terrace of the Leper King is at the north end of the Terrace of the Elephants.
Ta Som
Small, classic Bayon-style monastic complex consisting of a relatively flat enclosure, face tower gopuras and cruciform interior sanctuaries much like a miniature version of Ta Prohm. Many of the carvings are in good condition and display particularly fine execution for late 12th century works.
Take note of the devata carvings which show an uncommon individuality. A huge tree grows from the top of the eastern gopura. It is destroying the gate but it is a photo classic. Best photographed in the afternoon. Ta Som is the most distant temple on the Grand Circuit.
Prasat Prei
It’s a small, untouristed temple ruins in a forest setting near Neak Pean. Remains of a gopura , the central tower and halls, and the vestiges of a library and surrounding wall. Some apsara and lintel carvings. A quiet, peaceful location.

Neak Pean
A small island temple located in the middle of the last baray (the Preah Khan Baray or Jayatataka) to be constructed by a Khmer king in the Angkor area. The central temple sits at the axis of a cross or lotus pattern of eight pools. Originally known as Rajasri, Neak Pean took its modern appellation, which means ‘coiled serpents,’ from the encoiled nagas that encircled the temple. The temple is faced by a statue of the horse, Balaha, saving drowning sailors.
Though originally dedicated to Buddha, Neak Pean contains several Hindu images. Neak Pean may have served an absolution function, and the waters were thought to have healing properties. During the dry season when the water is low, check out the animal and human headwater spouts at the outside center of each pool. Neak Pean is most photogenic in the wet season when the pools are full.

East Prasat Top
Architecturally unimpressive but historically important small tower. Also known as ‘Monument 487’ and ‘Mangalartha’ in honor of a powerful monk, Jayamangalartha, who was the son of one of Jayavarman VII’s Brahman monks. Originally commissioned by Jayavarman VII, it was not consecrated until 1295AD, decades after his death.
This temple was the final Brahmanic temple built in the Angkor area, marking the end of an era. Constructed in the historically hazy period of Hindu resurgence after the death of Jayavarman VII.
West Prasat Top
Small, ruined towers standing in an quiet section of Angkor Thom. Inscriptions indicate that the site was used as early as the 9th century, but the present structure is post Angkorian. The materials from the 10th and 11th were reused for the current structure which was probably assembled in the late 13th century. The few carvings that still exist are Buddhist some dating as late as the 17th century.

Banteay Kdei
Sprawling, largely unrestored, monastic complex in much the same style as Ta Prohm. It was originally constructed over the site of an earlier temple, and functioned as a Buddhist monastery under Jayavarman VII.
As with other works of Jayavarman VII’s era, it is a tightly packed architectural muddle, which like Bayon, suffered from several changes in the plans at the time of construction. It was also built using an inferior grade of sandstone and using poor construction techniques, leading to much of the deterioration visible today. A restoration project is underway on many of the towers and corridors, and some areas are blocked off. The foundation stele of the temple has not been found so there is no record of to whom it is dedicated. The 13th century vandalism of Buddha images that is seen on many Jayavarman VII temples is quite apparent on Banteay Kdei. Combine with a visit to Srah Srang, which is just opposite the east entrance.
Banteay Prei
Small, untouristed temple near Neak Pean. Similar to Ta Som in architectural/artistic style and scale. Some of the apsara and Buddhist-themed lintel carvings are in pretty good condition. Oddly small doors and windows. Quiet, meditative spot.

Krol Ko
A small temple with a single central tower surrounded by two laterite walls. Pediments displaying the most interesting carvings at the site are on the ground along the enclosure wall. Krol Ko is comparatively untouristed, offering a peaceful respite.
Kbal Spean
A river of 1000 lingas’ is at Phnom Kulen. There are also carvings of Buddha and Buddhist images in the rock that date from a later period than the lingas. Entrance to the area closes at 3:00PM. Combine with a visit to Banteay Srey and allow a half-day for the two. Take the road straight past Banteay Srey about 12km. Look for the sign and parking area on the left side. Requires a moderately easy 45-minute uphill walk though the woods.
Phimeanakas
Impressive laterite and sandstone pyramid. The lack of surviving carvings leaves it artistically uninteresting, but it is the tallest scalable temple in Angkor Thom, providing a nice view from the top. The western staircase (at the back) is the most easily ascended. Located inside the ancient Royal Palace compound, Phimeanakas served as the king’s temple. Legend has it that the golden tower crowned the temple and was inhabited by a serpent, which would transform into a woman. The kings of Angkor were required to make love with the serpent every night, lest disaster befall him or the kingdom.

Kutisvara
Three prasats in a severe state of ruin with some come carvings still visible. Kutisvara is historically significant in that it was mentioned in an inscription in connection with the 9th century during the reign of Jayavarman II, the founder of the Angkor Empire. This is one of the earliest reference to an Angkor area temple. The central tower displays Preah Ko style. The outer towers are in Pre Rup style. Not many tourists visit this temple and some of the drivers don’t know it. Just point it out on the map. It’s a bit off the main road back amongst some rice paddies. During the wet season when the paddies are full, motos can’t get all the way to the temple, requiring a short but potentially wet walk from the road to the temple.
Roluos Group
The Roluos Group is a collection of monuments representing the remains of Hariharalaya, the first major capital of the Angkorian-era Khmer Empire. It has become known as the ‘Roluos Group’ due to its proximity to the modern town of Roluos.
The ancient capital was named for Hari-Hara, a synthesis of the Hindu gods Shiva and Vishnu. Though there was an existing settlement in the area before the rise of Angkor, Hariharalaya was established as a capital city by Jayavarman II and served as the Khmer capital for over 70 years under four successive kings. Setting the pattern for the next four centuries, the first great Khmer temples (Bakong, Preah Ko, Lolei) and baray (reservoir) were constructed at Hariharalaya.
The last king at Hariharalaya, Yasovarman I, built the first major temple at Angkor, Phnom Bakheng, and moved the capital to the Bakheng area in 905 C.E. With the exception of a 20 year interruption in the 10th century, the capital would remain at Angkor until 1422 C.E., 12km southeast of Siem Reap.
Lolei (in the Roluos Group)
Roluos Group: Ruins of an island-temple built in the middle of a now dry baray, Indratataka, the first large-scale baray constructed by a Khmer king. Lolei consists of four brick towers on a double laterite platform. It was the last major temple built at Roluos before Yasovarman I moved the capital to the Angkor area. Though the towers are in poor condition, there are some lintel carvings in very good condition displaying the distinctively detailed Preah Ko style. An active pagoda has been built amongst the ruins. Of the Roluos Group ruins, allocate the least time Lolei.
Preah Ko (in the Roluos Group)
Roluos Group. Six towers displaying set on a platform, all beautifully preserved carvings . Originally surrounded by walls and gopuras of which only vestiges remain. Preah Ko was one of the first major temples of the empire at the early Khmer capital of Hariharalaya. Preah Ko (Sacred Bull) derives its name from the statues of bulls at the front of the central towers.
Prasat Kravan
East-facing brick towers containing unique bas-reliefs of Vishnu and Lakshmi rendered in brick – the only example of brick bas-reliefs in the Angkor area. Prasat Kravan was originally constructed by noblemen rather than a king and has a twin sister in Takeo Province south of Phnom Penh, Prasat Neang Khmau, which contained painting rather than bas-reliefs, some of which still survives. Prasat Kravan was reconstructed by archaeologists in the early 20th century. Look for modern replacement bricks labeled “CA.”.
Prasat Suor Prat
Twelve nearly identical laterite and sandstone towers that stand opposite and parallel to the Terrace of the Elephants. The artistic and architectural style of the towers is somewhat unique, defying easy classification and dating. Construction may have begun under Jayavarman VII, but the towers do not display the classic Bayon-style characteristics. It has been argued that they may be post-Bayon or perhaps much earlier, as early the 11th century. The original function of the towers is a matter of debate but in the 13th century classic, “Customs of Cambodia,” Chinese emissary to Angkor, Zhou Daguan, gives a romantic but dubious first hand account of their function. He wrote that the towers were used to settle legal disputes and matters of criminal justice. The belligerent parties were kept in the towers for a few days. The one to emerge in ill health was declared the loser, guilty by divine decree. The best photographed is in the late afternoon.
Ta Nei
Small (55m x 47m), semi-ruined, untouristed jungle temple reminiscent of Ta Som, and displaying classic Jayavarman VII artistry. Some of the apsara and lintel carvings are in pretty good condition. In much rougher shape than most of the temples on the main tour circuit. The primary road to Ta Nei from where it meets the Grand Circuit road near the southeast corner of Ta Keo was closed on last inspection.
To get to Ta Nei, park at the end of the road near Ta Keo and walk the dirt road about 1km to Ta Nei, or by motorcycle, follow unmarked dirt road from just outside the Victory Gate of Angkor Thom to the ‘French Dam.’ Cross the dam and proceed 200m up a small path.
Terrace of the Leper King
A double terrace wall at the north end of the Terrace of Elephants with deeply carved nagas, demons and other mythological beings. The inner wall is an earlier version of the outer wall that was covered at the time the outer wall was added. The inner wall was excavated by French archaeologists in the late 1990s. The terrace was named for the statue of the ‘Leper King’ that sits on top. Why the statue is known as the ‘leper king’ is a matter of debate. Some argue that when the statue was found, its lichen-eaten condition gave it the appearance of leprosy. Others have argued that it is a statue of the leper king of Khmer legend, or that the condition of the statue inspired its connection to the legend.
The model for the statue is also a matter of debate. Suggestions include a couple of different Hindu gods,
and the Khmer kings Yasovarman I and Jayavarman VII. Recent scholarship favors a combination of Jayavarman VII and Buddha. The statue of the leper king on display at the terrace is a replica. The original resides in the National Museum in Phnom Penh.
Thma Bay Kaek
The spare remains of a brick prasat, now disappeared, leaving only a doorframe, lintel and a bit of the terrace. A sacred relic of five gold leaves, one bearing the image of Nandi (Shiva’s bull), was discovered at this site. Combine with visit to Prasat Bei and Baksei Chamkrong.
Wat Atwea
Though lacking carvings, this laterite and sandstone temple is still in relatively good condition. It bears no inscriptions to allow precise dating but seems to have been constructed employing Angkor Wat architectural style, which is particularly apparent in the towers, suggestive of late 11th century construction. This temple seems to have been left unfinished as evidenced in part by the lack of carvings. Some of the Apsara carvings were abandoned half finished. It is next to an active wat of the same name. Because it is well outside the regular temple complex, it is relatively untouristed. Located 7km south of town, 200m off the main road from town to the Tonle Sap. Look for a white concrete arch/sign at the turnoff to the wat. For a countryside sunset, follow the dirt road for a kilometer or two past the wat. Palm trees and small huts lining the road open to rice paddies and Phnom Krom on the horizon.
East Mebon
East Mebon is a large temple-mountain-like ruin, rising three levels and crowned by five towers. Jayavarman IV, a usurper to the throne, moved the capital from Angkor to Koh Ker in 928AD. Sixteen years later Rajendravarman II returned the capital to Angkor and shortly thereafter constructed East Mebon on an island in the middle of the now dry Eastern Baray. The temple is dedicated to Shiva in honor of the king’s parents. Inscriptions indicate that it was also built to help reestablish the continuity of kingship at Angkor in light of the interruption that occurred when the seat of power had been moved to Koh Ker. There seems to be some scholarly debate as to whether East Mebon should be categorized as a temple-mountain. Inscriptions record activity at the temple as early as 947AD, but East Mebon was not consecrated until 952AD.
West Mebon
Ruins of the central island temple of the West Baray, West Mebon is in poor shape, consisting primarily of a single wall displaying some carvings in fair condition. The carvings exhibit some of the first examples of carvings of animals in natural, non-mythological scenes, reminiscent of carving on Baphuon. West Mebon may have originally housed a renowned bronze Buddha statue which is now held at the National Museum in Phnom Penh. The West Baray, though ancient, is filled with water year round and has become a local recreational area. Take route #6 west from town. Turn right about 3 km past the airport turnoff. A short boat ride is necessary to visit the ruins.
Banteay Samre
Large, comparatively flat temple displaying distinctively Angkor Wat-style architecture and artistry. The temple underwent extensive restoration this century by archaeologists using the anastylosis method. Banteay Samre was constructed around the same time as Angkor Wat. The style of the towers and balustrades bear strong resemblance to the towers of Angkor Wat and even more so to Khmer temple of Phimai in Thailand. Many of the carvings are in excellent condition. Banteay Samre is a bit off the Grand Circuit, near the southeast corner of the East Baray. The trip there is a nice little 3km road excursion through villages and paddies. Combine a visit to Banteay Srey with a stop at Banteay Samre on the way back.
Baphuon
Angkor Thom: Huge temple-mountain in the heart of Angkor Thom. Largely collapsed and in ruined condition, the main temple area is undergoing extensive restoration and is not open to the public.
The exterior entry gate and elevated walkway are open. Note the unique animal carvings at the walkway entrance, and the large reclining Buddha on the west side, added to the temple at a much later period.
Bat Chum
Trio of small brick towers on a platform with two surviving lintels in pretty good condition. Bat Chum is a historically unique early Buddhist temple constructed at a time when Hinduism dominated. The inscriptions on the doorways note the Buddhist dedication, praise the architect (who was also the architect for East Mebon and Pre Rup,) and admonishes local elephant handlers to keep their beasts off the dikes, like an ancient ‘keep off the grass’ sign. Follow unmarked dirt road between Pre Rup and Srah Srang about 1 km.
Beng Melea
Sprawling jungle temple covering over one square kilometer. The temple is largely overrun by vegetation and very lightly touristed, giving it an adventurous, ‘lost temple’ feel. Photographers: trees growing from the broken towers and galleries offer some of the best ‘tree in temple’ shots aside from Ta Prohm. Constructed in a distinctly Angkor Wat style under the same king that built Angkor Wat, Beng Melea preceded and may have served as a prototype of sorts for Angkor Wat.
Though there are some lintel and doorway carvings, there are no bas-reliefs and the carvings are comparatively sparse. When the temple was active, the walls may have been covered, painted or had frescos. In its time, Beng Melea was at the crossroads of several major highways that ran to Angkor, Koh Ker, Preah Vihear (in northern Cambodia) and northern Vietnam. Regular admission ticket are not required but there is a separate $5 entrance fee.Beng Melea is located 63km east of town. The road is now in good condition and the trip from Siem Reap takes 1-2 hours. Graded dirt road with occasional flooding in the rainy season.

Chapel of the Hospital
102 hospitals were built throughout the empire under Jayavarman VII. The hospital itself was probably constructed of perishable materials such as wood and bamboo, which has long since disappeared, leaving only the sandstone hospital temple or ‘chapel’ for the ages. This temple and the one at Ta Prohm Kel opposite Angkor Wat offer two examples of hospital temples. Constructed of sandstone, this Chapel of the Hospital is in rough condition but some carvings are still visible. A quiet, meditative spot, easily accessible but visited by few tourists.

Khleangs (North and South)
Rectangular sandstone buildings set opposite the Terrace of Elephants, behind the Prasat Suor Prat. ‘Kleang’ means ‘storeroom’ but it is unlikely that this was its actual function. A royal oath of allegiance carved into the doorway indicates that they may have served as reception areas or even housing for visiting noblemen and ambassadors. The North Kleang was built in wood under Rajendravarman II and then rebuilt in stone by Jayavarman V, probably before the construction of the South Kleang. It also contains the best preserved carvings. The South Kleang was never completed. The Kleangs are unremarkable upon close inspection but picturesque from a distance, standing among the Prasat Suor Prat. Best photographed in the afternoon.
Preah Pithu
Five small temples set in a quiet area. One of the temples is Buddhist and may date from the 14th century. The temples are in rough shape but there are interesting carved lintels scattered on the ground. Located in central Angkor Thom but not as touristed as the other temples in the area. Peaceful little jungle area behind the group.
Spean Thma
‘Spean Thma’ literally translates to ‘Stone Bridge’. Remnants of an ancient bridge over the Siem Reap River. Reconstructed several times over the centuries. As it currently stands the bridge is of post-Angkorian construction, employing carved stone from earlier temples. It sits just to the side of the river, indicating how much the course of the river has shifted over the years, possibly in part due to the obstruction and sediment build up caused by the bridge.
Jayavarman VII
Following the death of Suryavarman around 1150 A.D., the kingdom fell into a period of internal strife. Its neighbors to the east, the Cham of what is now southern Vietnam, took advantage of the situation in 1177 to launch a seaborne invasion up the Mekong River and across Tonle Sap.The Cham forces were successful in sacking the Khmer capital of Yasodharapura and in killing the reigning king. However, a Khmer prince who was to become King Jayavarman VII rallied his people and defeated the Cham in battles on the lake and on the land. In 1181, Jayavarman assumed the throne. He was to be the greatest of the Angkorian kings.

Over the ruins of Yasodharapura, Jayavarman constructed the walled city of Angkor Thom, as well as its geographic and spiritual center, the temple known as the Bayon. Bas-reliefs at the Bayon depict not only the king’s battles with the Cham, but also scenes from the life of Khmer villagers and courtiers. In addition, Jayavarman constructed the well-known temples of Ta Prohm and Preah Khan, dedicating them to his parents. This massive program of construction coincided with a transition in the state religion from Hinduism to Mahayana Buddhism, since Jayavarman himself had adopted the latter as his personal faith. During Jayavarman’s reign, Hindu temples were altered to display images of the Buddha, and Angkor Wat briefly became a Buddhist shrine. Following his death, a Hindu revival included a large-scale campaign of desecrating Buddhist images, until Theravada Buddhism became established as the land’s dominant religion from the 14th century.

Zhou Daguan
The year 1296 marked the arrival at Angkor of the Chinese diplomat Zhou Daguan. Zhou’s one-year sojourn in the Khmer capital during the reign of King Indravarman III is historically significant, because he penned a still-surviving account of approximately 40 pages detailing his observations of Khmer society. Some of the topics he addressed in the account were those of religion, justice, kingship, agriculture, slavery, birds, vegetables, bathing, clothing, tools, draft animals, and commerce.

In one passage, he described a royal procession consisting of soldiers, numerous servant women and concubines, ministers and princes, and finally “the sovereign, standing on an elephant, holding his sacred sword in his hand.” Together with the inscriptions that have been found on Angkorian stelas, temples and other monuments, and together with the bas-reliefs at the Bayon and Angkor Wat, Zhou’s journal is our most significant source of information about everyday life at Angkor. Filled as it is with vivid anecdotes and sometimes incredulous observations of a civilization that struck Zhou as colorful and exotic, it is an entertaining travel memoire as well.

End of the Angkorian period
The end of the Angkorian period is generally set at 1431 A.D., the year Angkor was sacked and looted by Thai invaders, though the civilization already had been in decline in the 13th and 14th centuries. In the course of the 15th century, nearly all of Angkor was abandoned, except for Angkor Wat, which remained a Buddhist shrine. Several theories have been advanced to account for the decline and abandonment of Angkor.
War with the Thai
It is widely believed that the abandonment of the Khmer capital occurred as a result of Siamese invasions. Ongoing wars with the Siamese were already sapping the strength of Angkor at the time of Zhou Daguan toward the end of the 13th century. In his memoirs, Zhou reported that the country had been completely devastated by such a war, in which the entire population had been obligated to participate. After the collapse of Angkor in 1431, many persons, texts and institutions were taken to the Thai capital of Ayutthaya in the west, while others departed for the new center of Khmer society at Phnom Penh in the south.
Erosion of the state religion
Some scholars have connected the decline of Angkor with the conversion of Cambodia to Theravada Buddhism following the reign of Jayavarman VII, arguing that this religious transition eroded the Hindu conception of kingship that undergirded the Angkorian civilization. According to Angkor scholar George Coedès, Theravada Buddhism’s denial of the ultimate reality of the individual served to sap the vitality of the royal personality cult which had provided the inspiration for the grand monuments of Angkor.
Neglect of public works
According to George Coedès, the weakening of Angkor’s royal government by ongoing war and the erosion of the cult of the devaraja undermined the government’s ability to engage in important public works, such as the construction and maintenance of the waterways essential for irrigation of the rice fields upon which Angkor’s large population depended for its sustenance. As a result, Angkorian civilization suffered from a reduced economic base, and the population was forced to scatter.
Natural disaster
Other scholars attempting to account for the rapid decline and abandonment of Angkor have hypothesized natural disasters such as earthquakes, inundations, or drastic climate changes as the relevant agents of destruction. Recent research by Australian archaeologists suggests that the decline may have been due to a shortage of water caused by the transition from the medieval warm period to the little ice age. Coedès rejects such meteorological hypotheses as unnecessary, and insists that the decline of Angkor is fully explained by the deleterious effects of war and the erosion of the state religion.
Restoration and preservation
The great city and temples remained largely cloaked by the forest until the late 19th century when French archaeologists began a long restoration process. From 1907 to 1970 work was under the direction of the École française d’Extrême-Orient, which cleared away the forest, repaired foundations, and installed drains to protect the buildings from water damage. In addition, scholars associated with the school and including George Coedès, Maurice Glaize, Paul Mus, Philippe Stern and others initiated a program of historical scholarship and interpretation that is fundamental to the current understanding of Angkor.
Work resumed after the end of the Cambodia civil war, and since 1993 has been jointly co-ordinated by the French and Japanese and UNESCO through the International Co-ordinating Committee on the Safeguarding and Development of the Historic Site of Angkor (ICC), while Cambodian work is carried out by the Authority for the Protection and Management of Angkor and the Region of Siem Reap (APSARA), created in 1995.
Some temples have been carefully taken apart stone by stone and reassembled on concrete foundations, in accordance with the method of anastylosis. World Monuments Fund has aided Preah Khan, the Churning of the Sea of Milk (a 49-meter-long bas-relief frieze in Angkor Wat), Ta Som, and Phnom Bakheng. International tourism to Angkor has increased significantly in recent years, with visitor numbers reaching 900,000 in 2006; this poses additional conservation problems but has also provided financial assistance to restoration.[22]
Religious history
Historical Angkor was more than a site for religious art and architecture. It was the site of vast cities that responded to all the needs of a people, not only to specifically religious needs. Aside from a few old bridges, however, all of the remaining monuments are religious edifices. In Angkorian times, all non-religious buildings, including the residence of the king himself, were constructed of perishable materials, such as wood, “because only the gods had a right to residences made of stone.”[23] Similarly, the vast majority of the surviving stone inscriptions are about the religious foundations of kings and other potentates.[24] As a result, it is easier to write the history of Angkorian state religion than it is to write that of just about any other aspect of Angkorian society.
Several religious movements contributed to the historical development of religion at Angkor:
Indigenous religious cults, including those centered on worship of the ancestors and of the lingam;
A royal personality cult, identifying the king with the deity, characteristic not only of Angkor, but of other Indic civilizations in southeast Asia, such as Champa and Java.
Hinduism, especially Shaivism, the form of Hinduism focussed on the worship of Shiva and the lingam as the symbol of Shiva, but also Vaishnavism, the form of Hinduism focussed on the worship of Vishnu;
Buddhism, in both its Mahayana and Theravada varieties.
Pre-Angkorian religion
The religion of pre-Angkorian Cambodia, known to the Chinese as Funan (first century A.D. to ca. 550) and Chenla (ca. 550 – ca.800 A.D.), included elements of Hinduism, Buddhism and indigenous ancestor cults.
Temples from the period of Chenla bear stone inscriptions, in both Sanskrit and Khmer, naming both Hindu and local ancestral deities, with Shiva supreme among the former. The cult of Harihara was prominent; Buddhism was not, because, as reported by the Chinese pilgrim Yi Jing, a “wicked king” had destroyed it. Characteristic of the religion of Chenla also was the cult of the lingam, or stone phallus that patronized and guaranteed fertility to the community in which it was located.
Shiva and the Lingam
The Khmer king Jayavarman II, whose assumption of power around 800 A.D. marks the beginning of the Angkorian period, established his capital at a place called Hariharalaya (today known as Roluos), at the northern end of the great lake, Tonle Sap. Harihara is the name of a deity that combines the essence of Vishnu (Hari) with that of Shiva (Hara) and that was much favored by the Khmer kings. Jayavarman II’s adoption of the epithet “devaraja” (god-king) signified the monarch’s special connection with Shiva.
The beginning of the Angkorian period was also marked by changes in religious architecture. During the reign of Jayavarman II, the single-chambered sanctuaries typical of Chenla gave way to temples constructed as a series of raised platforms bearing multiple towers. Increasingly impressive temple pyramids came to represent Mount Meru, the home of the Hindu gods, with the moats surrounding the temples representing the mythological oceans.
Typically, a lingam served as the central religious image of the Angkorian temple-mountain. The temple-mountain was the center of the city, and the lingam in the main sanctuary was the focus of the temple. The name of the central lingam was the name of the king himself, combined with the suffix “-esvara” which designated Shiva. Through the worship of the lingam, the king was identified with Shiva, and Shaivism became the state religion. Thus, an inscription dated 881 A.D. indicates that king Indravarman I erected a lingam named “Indresvara.” Another inscription tells us that Indravarman erected eight lingams in his courts, and that they were named for the “eight elements of Shiva.” Similarly, Rajendravarman, whose reign began in 944 A.D., constructed the temple of Pre Rup, the central tower of which housed the royal lingam called “Rajendrabhadresvara.”
Vaishnavism
In the early days of Angkor, the worship of Vishnu was secondary to that of Shiva. The relationship seems to have changed with the construction of Angkor Wat by King Suryavarman II as his personal mausoluem at the beginning of the 12th century A.D. The central religious image of Angkor Wat was an image of Vishnu, and an inscription identifies Suryavarman as “Paramavishnuloka,” or “he who enters the heavenly world of Vishnu.”
Religious syncretism, however, remained thoroughgoing in Khmer society: the state religion of Shaivism was not necessarily abrogated by Suryavarman’s turn to Vishnu, and the temple may well have housed a royal lingam. Furthermore, the turn to Vaishnavism did not abrogate the royal personality cult of Angkor by which the reigning king was identified with the deity.
According to Angkor scholar George Coedès, “Angkor Wat is, if you like, a vaishnavite sanctuary, but the Vishnu venerated there was not the ancient Hindu deity nor even one of the deity’s traditional incarnations, but the king Suryavarman II posthumously identified with Vishnu, consubstantial with him, residing in a mausoleum decorated with the graceful figures of apsaras just like Vishnu in his celestial palace.”[42] Suryavarman proclaimed his identity with Vishnu, just as his predecessors had claimed consubstantiality with Shiva.
Mahayana Buddhism
In the last quarter of the 12th century, King Jayavarman VII departed radically from the tradition of his predecessors when he adopted Mahayana Buddhism as his personal faith. Jayavarman also made Buddhism the state religion of his kingdom when he constructed the Buddhist temple known as the Bayon at the heart of his new capital city of Angkor Thom. In the famous face towers of the Bayon, the king represented himself as the bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara moved by compassion for his subjects. Thus, Jayavarman was able to perpetuate the royal personality cult of Angkor, while identifying the divine component of the cult with the bodhisattva rather than with Shiva.
Hindu restoration
The Hindu restoration began around 1243 A.D., with the death of Jayavarman VII’s successor Indravarman II. The next king Jayavarman VIII was a Shaivite iconoclast who specialized in destroying Buddhist images and in reestablishing the Hindu shrines that his illustrious predecessor had converted to Buddhism. During the restoration, the Bayon was made a temple to Shiva, and its image of the Buddha was cast to the bottom of a well. Everywhere, cultic statues of the Buddha were replaced by lingams.
Religious pluralism
When Chinese traveller Zhou Daguan came to Angkor in A.D. 1296, he found what he took to be three separate religious groups. The dominant religion was that of Theravada Buddhism. Zhou observed that the monks had shaven heads and wore yellow robes. The Buddhist temples impressed Zhou with their simplicity. He noted that the images of Buddha were made of gilded plaster. The other two groups identified by Zhou appear to have been those of the Brahmans and of the Shaivites (lingam worshippers). About the Brahmans Zhou had little to say, except that they were often employed as high officials. Of the Shaivites, whom he called “Taoists,” Zhou wrote, “the only image which they revere is a block of stone analogous to the stone found in shrines of the god of the soil in China.”
Theravada Buddhism
In the course of the 13th century, Theravada Buddhism coming from Siam (Thailand) made its appearance at Angkor. Gradually it became the dominant religion of Cambodia, displacing both Mahayana Buddhism and Shaivism. The practice of Theravada Buddhism at Angkor continues until this day.
Jayavarman II
Jayavarman II , a 9th Century Khmer king, is widely recognized as the founder of the Khmer Empire, which ruled much of the Southeast Asian mainland for more than six hundred years. Historians commonly date his reign as running from 802 A.D. to 835-850 A.D. An inscription recounts that on a mountaintop Jayavarman had a Brahman priest conduct a religious rite that created an independent Khmer state, with Jayavarman as its head. The text also recounts establishment of the Hindu court ritual known as the cult of the devajara , continued by successive Khmer monarchs. He appears to have reigned in more than one capital, including Hariharalaya near the present-day village of Roulous, southeast of the main Angkor complex that was later the empire’s capital.
Despite this key role in Khmer history, few firm facts survive about Jayavarman. No inscriptions authored by him have been found, but he is mentioned in numerous others, some of them written long after his death. He appears to have been of aristocratic birth, beginning his career of conquest in the southeast of present-day Cambodia. He may have been known as Jayavarman Ibis at that time. “For the prosperity of the people in this perfectly pure royal race, great lotus which no longer has a stalk, he rose like a new flower,” declares one inscription. Various other details are recounted in inscriptions: he married a woman named Hyang Amrita; he dedicated a temple at Lobok Srot, in the southeast.
Taken in sum, the record suggests that Jayavarman and his followers moved over the course of some years from southeast Cambodia to the northwest, subduing various principalities along the way. Historian Claude Jacques writes that he first seized the city of Vyadhapura in the southeast, then pushed up the Mekong to take Sambhupura. He later installed himself at another city state, now known as Banteay Prei Nokor, near present-day Kompong Cham. Jacques believes that from there he pressed on to Wat Pu, seat of a city-state in present-day southern Laos, then moved along the Dangrek Mountains to arrive in the Angkor region. Later he brought pressure on local Khmer leaders located to the west, but they fought back and drove him to seek refuge on the summit of present-day Mount Kulen, about 50 kilometers east of from Angkor, where the Brahman declared the independent state. Jacques suggests that this step might have been intended to affirm Jayavarman’s authority in the face of strong resistance.
Once established in the Angkor region, he appears to have reigned not only in Hariharalaya, located just north of the Tonle Sap lake, but also at a place that inscriptions call Amarendrapura. It has not been positively identified, though some historians believe it to be a now lost settlement at the western end of the West Baray, the eight kilometer-long holy reservoir that was built about two centuries after his death. No single temple is positively associated with Jayavarman, but some historians suggest he may have built Ak Yum, a brick stepped pyramid, now largely ruined, at the southern edge of the West Baray. The temple was a forerunner to the mountain-temple architectural form of later Khmer kings.
The most valuable inscription concerning Jayavarman II is one dated 1052 A.D., two centuries after his death, and found at the Sdok Kak Thom temple in present day Thailand. “When His Majesty Paramesvara came from Java to reign in the royal city of Indrapura,…Sivakaivalya, the family’s learned patriarch, was serving as his guru and held the post of royal chaplain to His Majesty,” states the inscription, using the king’s posthumous name. In a later passage, the text says that a Brahman named Hiranyadama, “proficient in the lore of magic power, came from Janapada in response to His Majesty’s having invited him to perform a sublime rite which would release Kambujadesa [the kingdom] from being any longer subject to Java.” The text also recounts the creation of the cult of the devaraja, the key religious ceremony in the court of Jayavarman and subsequent Khmer monarchs.
The word “Java” has caused endless debate among scholars. Many, such as Charles Higham, doubt that it refers to the island of that name in present-day Indonesia. They believe it means some other foreign place which at the time had a similar-sounding name, perhaps the kingdom of Champa to the east. Or perhaps it referred to a place on the Malay peninsula then under the rule of Java. Others scholars, such as Lawrence Palmer Briggs, have taken it to mean the island. If Jayavarman did come from there, he would have likely been influenced by the refined art and culture of the Sailendra dynasty that was in power at the time, including the concept of the devajara.
Writings attributed to an Arab merchant named Sulayman, who is said to have traveled in the region in the Ninth Century, contain a detailed story of a “maharaja,” apparently an Eighth Century Javanese king, who heard that a Khmer king had expressed a desired to see the maharaja’s head on a platter. In response, the maharaja stealthily came to the Khmer kingdom with soldiers, captured the offending monarch, sat on his throne and had him beheaded. The embalmed head was left behind as a warning to later Khmer kings. Early scholars of Khmer history theorized that this tale, though likely embellished, described basic historical events that played a role in Jayavarman’s own personal history. He was successor to the beheaded king, they suggested. He embarked for Java to pay tribute, but declared independence after his return.
The Sdok Kak Thom inscription states that Jayavarman II died at Haraharilaya. After him, the throne was held by his son Jayavarman III and two other kings of the family into which he had married. He is formally honored along with these two kings and their wives in the Preah Ko temple in Roulous, built by King Indravarman I and inaugurated in 880 A.D.
Debate continues concerning Jayavarman II’s dates. The Sdok Kak Thom inscription puts his accession to the throne in 802 A.D., a date now generally accepted by scholars. But an inscription from the reign of the 10th Century monarch Rajendravarman II dates the event to 791/792 A.D. None of these dates, however are mentioned in inscriptions of Indravarman I. Similar ambiguity exists concerning the date of his death.
More broadly, debate continues as to whether Jayavarman II’s rule truly represented a seminal turning point in Khmer history, the creation of an independent unified state from small feuding principalities, or was instead part of a long process toward that end. Certainly inscriptions indicate that later Khmer kings treated him as the august first in their line and font of their own legitimacy. But Hindu civilization had existed already for centuries in the region; the fact that Jayavarman was the second monarch to carry that name is a sign that there was already long line of kings of significant states in the region.
Apsara
An Apsara, plural apsarasaḥ, stem apsaras, a feminine consonant stem) is a female spirit of the clouds and waters in Hindu and Buddhist mythology. Frequently encountered English translations of the word “Apsara” are “nymph,” “celestial nymph,” and “celestial maiden.”Apsaras are supernatural beings: they appear as young women of great beauty and elegance who are proficient in the art of dancing. They are the wives of the Gandharvas, court servants of Indra. They dance to the music made by their husbands, usually in the palaces of the gods, and entertain gods and fallen heroes. In their assignment as caretakers of fallen heroes, they may be compared to the valkyries of Norse mythology.
Apsaras are said to be able to change their shapes at will, and specially rule over the fortunes of gaming and gambling. Urvasi, Menaka, Rambha and Tilottama are the most famous among them. Apsaras are sometimes compared to the muses of ancient Greece, with each of the 26 Apsaras at Indra’s court representing a distinct aspect of the performing arts. Apsaras are associated with water; thus, they may be compared to the nymphs, dryads and naiads of ancient Greece. They are also associated with fertility rites. In Hinduism, the lower Apsaras are sometimes regarded as nature spirits who may lure men to their deaths; in this respect they may be compared to the Slavic Rusalki or the Greek sirens.

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