Today, we visited the ancient capital city of the Khmer Empire, Angkor. The word Angkor means “city” in Sanskrit. This is by far Cambodia’s top attraction. Angkor is one of the wonders of the world, exhibiting large-scale, well-preserved monuments and temples that are rivaled by few places in the world. Angkor is protected as a UNESCO World Heritage site. It is a short drive from Siem Reap where we are staying.
 
Lonely Planet said it best, “Angkor is one of the world’s foremost ancient sites, with the epic proportions of the Great Wall of China, the detail and intricacy of the Taj Mahal, and the symbolism and symmetry of the pyramids, all rolled into one.” Having been to the Great Wall and The Taj, I agree wholeheartedly.
 
The temples and monuments provide insight into the Khmer culture, the ancient people of Cambodia. The temples date back to the golden age of the Khmer civilization, between AD 800 and 1400. Researchers believe that Angkor had been the largest pre-industrial city in the world at the time, with an elaborate infrastructure and water storage and drainage system. They also had four hospitals and had developed sophisticated roadways and waterways. Researchers believe the population living in the 390-square mile region of Angkor might have approached one million.
 
There are thousands of temples and monuments scattered around Angkor. We focused on four of the most important sites today, including Angkor Thom (meaning large city), the Bayon Temple (meaning Banyan Tree), the King’s Terrace (nicknamed the Elephant Terrace because of all of the elephants carved on the wall), and Angkor Wat (reportedly the largest single religious monument in the world).
 
Angkor Thom was built by King Jayavarman VII in the late 12th Century to replace the previous capital that had been demolished by the war with the ancient Cham people, their biggest enemy. The site is surrounded with a large moat and fortified walls. There are five entrances to the site, with each entrance having a long causeway crossing the moat to the entrances. Each causeway is flanked by 54 imposing stone figures on each side, with gods on the left and demons on the right.
 
The five entry towers at the end of each causeway stand an impressive 75 ft. high toward the sky. The towers each have four faces on them, one facing each Cardinal direction. There is some controversy about what the faces mean, but I like what our guide told us. Each face represents charity, compassion, sympathy and equality. The lower half of each tower has a sculpture of an elephant with three heads. The carvings, the details and the scale of this place is like nothing I have seen before.
 
Within Angkor Thom, there are two important places to visit, including the King’s Viewing Terrace (comprised of the Elephant Terrace and the wall of the Leper King) and the Bayon Temple. The King’s Terrace was used by the King as a platform for him to review his army. Part of the wall is inscribed with elephants and the other portion, carvings of the Leper King.
 
The Bayon Temple was built in the late 12th, early 13th century, and was the official state temple of the King. The most distinctive feature of this temple are the over 2,000 serene, smiling faces on the 54 towers (representing the 54 provinces in the Khmer Kingdom at the time) that are elevated throughout the temple. There are galleries of carvings throughout the temple, each depicting a mythical story or characteristic of Khmer life. It’s just unbelievable how sophisticated the carvings are.
 
The final stop was the famous Angkor Wat, with the temple complex spanning over 402 acres, this is the largest single religious monument in the world. The temple was built by the Khmer King Suryavarman in the early 12th century. Angkor Wat is approximately 100 years older than Angkor Thom. One of the famous features of Angkor Wat are it’s more than 3,000 carvings of heavenly nymphs. Along the outside of the base temple, there are over 2,600 ft. of intricately detailed carvings depicting mythological stories or historical events. The temple was built for the Hindu God Vishnu, one of the three main Hindu Gods. There are five large towers jutting out of the complex that, given the right light, reflect into the moat below, providing a grandiose and spectacular picture. The scale of this temple was simply spectacular. Pictures cannot possible do it justice.
 
More from Siem Reap tomorrow.