June 22nd-24th
First, a little historical background. The Khmer Empire was built by Buddhist and Hindu kings shortly after the region first came into contact with Indian merchants in the 9th century. The Empire reached the pinnacle of its power in the 11th century as its borders expanded to encompass modern-day Cambodia, Laos, southern Vietnam, most of Thailand, and part of Malaysia. The capital was a complex of stone buildings and temples, a place we today call Angkor Wat (Angkor Wat is actually the name of just one temple -- what the temple complex was called at the time remains a mystery). The 30-some square-mile complex of temples and palaces was the home to an estimated one million people a thousand years ago.

The Empire peaked at about the same time William the Conqueror invaded England. Its power waned over the next few hundred years. By the 14th century, Thai bandits and mercenaries were regularly raiding the city. The Cambodians fled east to set up the modern-day capital of Phnom Penh and forgot about the capital of their old empire. The royal family briefly restored one of the buildings, the Buddhist temple of Angkor Wat, in the 16th century, and thus that temple is the best-preserved and most well-known of the cityfs many monuments. But that too was later abandoned and forgotten as the jungle took over. When the French grediscoveredh the ruins in the 19th century, it is said that most Cambodians believed the complex was built eons ago by an extinct race of giant men.

Our driver said that it would be best to see Angkor Wat at sunrise for our first day, which required us to wake up at 4:30am (we ultimately did this for all three days we were there). On our first day we went to Angkor Wat proper, the temple that was restored by the Cambodians in the 16th century. How can I describe such a colossal monument of Southeast Asian civilization? Not only do these temples cover thirty-square miles, but some structures are hundreds of feet high, and every inch is etched in exquisite detail. Words can only say so much, so Ifll let the photos speak for me. This was sunrise at Angkor Wat.

The temple library:

The surrounding jungle is thick, and, as pictures below show, are consuming the temple grounds.

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Going past Angkor Wat itself, the entrance to the densest concentration of stone structures is through the South Gate.

The entrance is "guarded" by two rows of statues. Ifm no expert on Cambodiafs mix of Hindu and Buddhist lore, but according to Lonely Planet, the statues are holding a hydra. On the left side of the gate there is a row of men (pictured below), and on the right (second picture) demons tugging the other way. The two sides are engaged in a sea-churning tug of war . (Literally -- the hydra is wrapped around a wooden block that is churning a sea of milk.)

A well-preserved Hydra statue, one of the more common animal statues.

Restored elephant statutes.

Many of the temples are slowly being geatenh by the jungle. The roots of skyscraping trees have crept into the walls to such a degree that it is impossible to separate them without destroying the buildings.

Of course, this is destroying the temples, as you can see in this picture where it has lead to the collapse of this roof.

The sunset on our second day at the temple complex.

More than twenty miles to the north of the main complex is a different type of temple carved out of red rock. The carving at this temple is far more intricate than what is found at the main Angkor Wat temple complex, and our driver told us it was because they were carved by women (I can neither confirm nor deny the truth of that rumor).

Compared with my hand, the level of detail is pretty obvious.

C. 2005