the great city

angkor thom

Though Angkor Wat is the largest of the Angkor temples, 12th century Angkor Thom is the most dramatic. Covering close to 4 square miles, Angkor Thom – literal translation: the Great City – was the last and most enduring capital city of the Khmer empire. Encircled by 25-foot tall walls and flanked by a moat, there are gates at each of the four cardinal points, from which roads lead to the striking Bayon temple at the center of the city.

angkor thom - bayon temple

angkor thom  - prasat chrung

angkor thom - gate

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three monks alighting on a temple

three monks

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more angkor

entrance to angkor

More than just temple ruins, Angkor is in fact an entire region of Cambodia, which served as the seat of the Khmer Empire. Flourishing from the 9th to 15th centuries it was the largest preindustrial city in the world, with an elaborate infrastructure connecting a sprawl of almost 400 square miles to the well-known temples at its core. Those temples, buried amid forests and farmlands, number over a thousand – from piles of brick rubble unearthed in rice paddies to the magnificently restored Angkor Wat, the largest religious monument in the world. Followers of this blog will note the similarities Angkor Wat shares in design – if not scale – with Wat Chaiwatthanaram in Ayutthaya. Both follow the basic plans of Khmer architecture: a temple mountain (“Mount Meru”) bounded by raised rectangular galleries, all within a moat and an outer wall – and all richly ornamented with decorative elements and statuary. Built in the first half of the 12th century, Angkor Wat is even more unusual in that although the site was neglected it has never been completely abandoned, remaining a significant religious centre through Hindu then Buddhist kingdoms, colonialism, and civil war – its preservation abetted by the expansive moat which kept the encroaching jungle at bay.

angkor wat

angkor courtyard

angkor wat - interior panorama

angkor way 4

apsara dancer detail

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sunrise, angkor wat

sunrise, angkor wat

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all this and siem reap, too

grand hotel d'angkor

Built in 1932 to provide accommodations for the first wave of travelers to whom the Angkor Temples were an obligatory stopover, Raffles Grand Hotel d’Angkor is hands down the place to stay in Siem Reap. Spread over acres of landscaped French gardens, it exudes an old-world Cambodian grandeur updated with all the mod cons and comforts. Behind the unassuming façade is an understated elegance of art deco tile hallways, languorous ceiling fans, colonial style furnishings, and what must surely be the country’s most magnificent swimming pool, surrounded by fragrant frangipani trees. This hotel has style to spare – and the steamy weather only adds to the atmospheric allure. I keep expecting to find Somerset Maugham in evening attire, smoking in the Elephant Bar or Bette Davis peering through louvered shutters, clutching a scandalous letter. I’m in heaven to say the least. They don’t make them like this anymore.

grand hotel swimming pool

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ayutthaya

The historic second capital of Thailand, then known as the Kingdom of Ayutthaya, was founded in 1350. Glorified as one of the biggest cities in Southeast Asia and a regional power for some 400 years, it reached its apex in terms of military might, wealth, culture, and commerce in the 16th century, when the Kingdom’s territory extended into and beyond present-day Laos, Cambodia, and Myanmar. Ayutthaya had diplomatic relations with Louis XIV of France and was courted by Dutch, Portuguese, English, Chinese and Japanese merchants. Conquered by Burmese invaders in the late 18th century many of the city’s magnificent structures were almost completely destroyed and the ruins which remain were abandoned after a new king liberated the Kingdom and moved the capital to Thonburi, across the river from modern-day Bangkok. A UNESCO’s World Heritage site, the ruins of Ayutthaya are today one of Thailand’s archaeological highlights, with three palaces and over 400 temples strategically located on an island surrounded by three rivers connecting the city to the sea. The architecture is a fascinating mix of Khmer and early Sukhothai styles. Some cactus-shaped obelisks, called prangs or reliquary towers, denote Khmer influence and look something like the famous towers of Angkor Wat. The more pointed towers, called stupas, are ascribed to the early Sukhothai influence. And everywhere you look there is praise to Buddha.

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