To the North of the Great Lake, and just south of the Kulen Hills, buried deep into tropical Cambodian forests and farmland, sits the great temples of Angkor. This historical site has been a tourist hotspot for generations, attracting over 2 million a year, to what’s left of the numerous and varied temples and their reconstruction.
This month sees the release of a guidebook 3 years in the making. Andrew Booth the author of The Angkor guidebook has, along with his team of historians created an informative and interactive guide to all things Angkor and what one needs to know to fully comprehend the majestic religious site.
The guidebooks most exciting feature is the images created that show what the temples would have looked like when they were first created. Brightly painted and standing tall, these interactive before and after reconstructions show just how highly skilled the architecture and design of these temples were. Through a consensus of opinion between ceramic and architectural experts, images of the highly decorated, gelded temples of the early century time period have been produced to allow a better comprehension on just what these ancient structures once were.
Cambodia, situated in South-East Asia, neighbouring Vietnam, Laos and Thailand is a country of forested mountains, tropical monsoons and an eclectic biosphere. With tourism being its second largest income, the Siem Reap region, home to Angkor is over half the tourist populations’ main base point. Trekking through the tropical heat and dense jungle of Siem Reap, offers up the reward of entering into the remains of one of the largest religious sites in the world, and the main historical mark of the Khmer Empire.
Angkor’s first curator was Jean Commaille in 1909 who immediately set out stripping away the tangled jungle. Jean Commaille was a main member of the École Française d’Extrême-Orient (EFEO), a French institute dedicated to the studying of Asian societies. They first began reconstruction work of the temples in the early 20th century, thus most of what people view today, a triumph due to their diligent piece by piece academic reconstruction of the main temples and alters.
Evidence of this may be found from black and white photos of the early 1900’s where in particular the temple of Preah Khan was rebuilt, the picture showing the building with one tier, when it is currently the only two-tiered temple in Angkor. East Meban, a mid-10th century towering temple, with crumbling stone lion guardians has no steps to ground, surrounded instead by palm forests and rice paddles, as it was originally an island temple accessed only by boat. The temple continues to serve as a site for Hindus to persuade the god Indra to send rain at the end of the dry North-East monsoon.
These Cambodian temples were built to honour the Gods of the 9th-15th century Khmer Empire, as such, they were both grand in scale and décor, making them detailed pieces of craftsmanship and architecture. A Chinese emissary, Zhou Daguan wrote about the King in the 13th century, worshipping at the royal enclosure of Phimeanakas which was a ‘magnificent gold topped temple’. This demonstrated the decadence and quality these temples might have been designed in and thanks to EFEO, has been marginally restored to partial former glory.
Thanks to Booth’s guidebook, Angkor may be viewed in a whole new light, allowing visitors to fully appreciate what they witness and just how impressive these ancient temples had been. What was once the Mecca of the Khmer Hindu Kingdom, is now a rich, UNESCO protected site that, regardless of time and decay, still holds deep roots of culture, human accomplishment, history and legend for Cambodia.
What other ancient sites may be beneficial to view in their former glory?