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10 mysterious Angkor temples

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Angkor Thom: The walled city of Jayavarman VII.
Construction time: late 12th C.E.
Religion: Buddhism
Period kingdom: Bayon
Architecture style: Angkor Thom
Temple location: Angkor Thom
Duration for visit: 2 hours
Notes for photos: morning.
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Angkor Thom (the Big Angkor) is a 3km2 walled and moated royal city and was the last capital of the Angkor empire. After Jayavarman VII recaptured the Angkor 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 built a grand enclosed city around them, adding the outer wall. He then constructed 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.

Angkor Wat: The centerpiece of Angkor.

Construction time: mid 12th C.E.
Religion: Hinduism
Period kingdom: Suryavarman II
Architecture style: Angkor Wat
Location: 6 km north of Siem Reap, nearest major temple to town.
Duration for visit: 2 hours
Notes for photos: Sunrise and few visitors in the morning. Best light in the afternoon.

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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.

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 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 east wall.

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. The northern reflecting pool in front of Angkor Wat is the most popular (and crowded) sunrise location. The sun rises behind Angkor Wat providing a silhouette of the temple’s distinctively shaped towers against a colored 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, after 2:00PM when the sun is on the face of the temple. Do not make your first visit to Angkor Wat in the morning when the backlighting obscures the view.

Banteay Srei: Citadel of Women. Some of the most beautiful carvings at Angkor.
Construction time: late 10th C.E.
Religion: Hinduism
Period kingdom: Rajendravarman
Architecture style: Banteay Srei
Location: outside the main park area, 37 km north of Siem Reap.
Duration for visit: 45 minutes
Notes for photos: Many of the carvings are roped off. So bring a telephoto lens, tripod for carvings.
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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. Banteay Srey was built at a time when the Khmer empire was gaining significant power and territory, constructed by a Brahmin counselor under a powerful king, Rajendravarman, and later under Jayavarman V. The temple displays some of the finest examples of classical Khmer art – the walls 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. 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. 

Baphuon: Newly restored and reopened. Look for the reclining Buddha on west side.
Construction time: mid 11th C.E.
Religion: Hinduism
Period: Udayadityavarman II
Architecture style: Baphuon
Location: central Angkor Thom
Duration for visit: 30 minutes
Notes for photos: morning.
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Large temple-mountain in Angkor Thom, recently reopened after an extensive and troubled restoration. The project began in the early 1970s with archaeologists dismantling much it, but abandoned in 1975 due the war. The records were lost during the war years, leaving an enormous jigsaw puzzle of rock. The restoration restarted in the 1990s and the temple finally reopened in 2011. Note the unique animal carvings at the walkway entrance, similar carvings are visible on west Mebon. Also note the impressively large reclining Buddha on the west side, which was added to the temple in the 16th century.

Bayon: The temple of faces at the center of Angkor Thom.
Construction time: late 12th C.E.
Religion: Buddhism
Period kingdom: Jayavarman VII
Architecture style: Bayon
Location: central Angkor Thom
Duration for visit: 45 minutes
Notes for photos: morning.
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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 might represent is a matter of debate but it has been argued it 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 1177 A.D 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, cock-fighting, 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.

Phnom Bakheng: The traditional sunset hill, though very over-touristed at sunset.
Construction time: early 10th A.D.
Religion: Hinduism
Period kingdom: Yasovarman I
Architecture style: Bakheng
Temple location: near the Angkor Thom south gate.
Duration for visit: 1 hour
Notes for photos: Sunset over the Tonle Sap lake. Angkor Wat set in the jungle 1km away, bring a long lens (400mm).
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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. Quiet the rest of the day. Elephant rides up the hill are available for sunset. Always over crowded at sunset, so much so that authorities are now limiting the number of visitors at sunset. Consider a alternative sunset location. 

Preah Khan: Sprawling monastic-complex style temple.
Construction time: late 12th C.E.
Religion: Buddhism
Period kingdom: Jayavarman VII
Architecture style: Bayon
Location: north of Angkor Thom
Duration for visit: 1 hour
Notes for photos: morning.
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Preah Khan, meaning “sacred sword” 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. In harmony with the architecturally similar Ta Prohm that 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.

Ta Prohm: The jungle temple. 
Construction time: 12th – 13th C.E.
Religion: Buddhism
Period kingdom: Jayavarman VII
Architecture style: Bayon
Duration for visit: 45 minutes
Notes for photos: morning.
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Sprawling monastic-complex, much of the original jungle overgrowth left in place. Classic “giant tree on temple” shots. Of similar design to the later Jayavarman VII temples of Preah Khan and Banteay Kdei, this 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 a ‘jungle atmosphere’ and some of the best “tree-in-temple” photo opportunities at Angkor. 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 in the same general style, was dedicated to Jayavarman VII’s father.) Ta 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.

Terrace of the Elephants: Elephants and garudas, lots of them.

Construction time: late 12th C.E.
Religion: Buddhism
Period kingdom: Jayavarman VII
Architecture style: Bayon
Location: central of Angkor Thom
Duration for visit: 15 minutes
Notes for photos: morning.

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Terrace of the Elephants is an impressive, two and a half-meter tall, 300 meter long terrace wall adorned with carved elephants and garudas spanning the front of Baphuon, Phimeanakas and the Royal Palace area at the heart of Angkor Thom. 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. 

Terrace of the Leper King: Deep, well-executed carvings.
Construction time: late 12th C.E.
Religion: Buddhism
Period kingdom: Jayavarman VII
Architecture style: Bayon
Location: central of Angkor Thom
Duration for visit: 15 minutes
Notes for photos: morning.
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Terrace of the Elephants is an impressive, two and a half-meter tall, 300 meter long terrace wall adorned with carved elephants and garudas spanning the front of Baphuon, Phimeanakas and the Royal Palace area at the heart of Angkor Thom. 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.

(Refer from: Candy Publications)

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