Cambodia’s Angkor archaeological park

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My Island in the Sun
by Dr Sanjiva Wijesinha

Cambodia’s Angkor Archaeological Park which was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1992 can be easily accessed from the international airport in the town of Siem Reap – and is a destination that is well within reach of the Sri Lankan traveller.

The Park contains well preserved archaeological ruins from between the 9th and 15th century, when the Khmer Empire extended from the tip of the Malayan peninsula in the south to what is now China’s Yunnan province in the north – and from the eastern shores of Vietnam to the Bay of Bengal in the west.

The highlight of a visit here is the magnificent temple whose image is featured on the Cambodian national flag – Angkor Wat (whose literal translation means the City which is a Temple). Approaching from the east, the sheer size and grandeur of this monument cannot fail to move the visitor. The whole complex extends over 500 acres and is protected by a 200 metre wide moat. Its central towers – thought to represent Mount Meru – rise to a stupendous 65 metres. Originally constructed in the early 12th century as a Hindu temple by King Suryavarman II, it became a place of Buddhist worship under his successors. Sadly, most of the Buddha statues were destroyed by the Khmer Rouge in the nineteen seventies – but the extraordinary well preserved bas relief carvings in Angkor Wat’s galleries are still so intricate and beautiful that it is hard to imagine they were created centuries ago.

Probably the most photographed monument in the Angkor complex is the south gateway to Angkor Thom, the original fortified city of King Jayavarnman VII (1181-1215). This gopura (tower) bears four enormous faces believed to represent the King himself, facing the four cardinal directions. At the centre of Angkor Thom is the famous Bayon temple with its 54 towers decorated with over 200 serene stone faces, again thought to represent the omnipresent King.

Other sites – the miniature temple complex of Banteay Srei with its delicately carved pink sandstone motifs, the lake temple of Preah Neak Pahn (“Coiled Serrpents”) with its four sculpted waterspouts in the form of human and animal heads, the aerial palace of Phimeanakas – are well worth seeing. However, to get a real feel for these ruins, which until a few decades ago had been engulfed by the tropical jungle, visit the monastery of Ta Prom or the temple of Ta Som. They are a living example of the power of nature to smother man-made buildings.

Here, massive fig and silk cotton trees can be seen growing out of the very walls of the buildings. In some places the tree roots cling to the sides of the buildings, in others the huge roots bind the crumbling edifices together. Germinating as tiny seeds dropped by birds into the crevices of these buildings, the massive trees have grown and flourished over the centuries, allowing the encroaching jungle to slowly swallow up the works of man.

The engulfing trees serve as a reminder of the impermanence of man’s creations – even those as painstakingly crafted as these temples – and the inexorable power of Nature, assisted by Time, to reclaim them for herself.

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