Travel Spotlight

Discovering Angkor Wat

Roman statesman Cicero once said that history, “illuminates reality, vitalizes memory, provides guidance in daily life and brings us tidings of antiquity.” The chance to observe the ruins of ancient civilizations like Cicero’s through the prism of modern times allows us to see our own culture and lives in a completely different, and altogether illuminating, way. That’s why it was such a miracle when the ruins of Angkor — thousands of magnificent temples built by the Khmer empire between 802 A.D. and 1431 A.D.— were brought to international attention in the late 1800s by a French explorer.

Here, in the middle of the Cambodian jungle, were ancient works of overwhelming beauty that somehow spoke to so many issues we face today: religious struggles, family life, war, the human condition writ large through monuments. Today, a visit to the 12th-century temple of Angkor Wat, the best preserved of the ruins, has become a pilgrimage of sorts. “There’s a grandeur and almost a Palladian quality to it,” says Dena Kaye, a writer based in Aspen. “You feel awe, respect, wonder and curiosity as to what enabled them to build such an incredible structure.” For one thing, it’s simply enormous: the perimeter of the outer walls exceeds two miles and the quincunx of towers, each carved in the shape of a lotus, soar more than 150 feet high. Step closer and you’ll see that the entire complex is covered with intricate carvings, such as devatas (goddesses). Particularly interesting to historians are the bas-relief friezes showing battles and other scenes from Hindu mythology (the temple was dedicated to Vishnu and now contains an active Buddhist monastery).

Angkor Wat is just one of the treasures that travelers are rediscovering since Cambodia has recovered from its brutal civil war in the 1970s. Much more intimate in scale is the 10th-century temple Banteay Srei (the name means “citadel of the woman”), made of elaborately carved red sandstone. Angkor Thom, an ancient royal city, contains the Temple of Bayon, known for its four gargantuan heads. To properly see the ruins, base yourself in nearby Siem Reap (which is a short flight from Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh), and

Consider not only the time of year (dry season runs from December to April), but time of day (avoid the heat and crowds of mid-day). Our insider tip: Some temples are open as early at 6 am, so rise early and beat the crowds.

Published onFebruary 11, 2014

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