Angkor Wat, the Temple City. Arguably the greatest religious building ever made, and certainly the largest, it was built by the vanished Khmer empire, during the reign of King Suryavarman II (1113 to at least 1145).
The temple grounds span 1300 meters north-south, and 1500 meters east-west. Unusually, the entrance faces west in the direction associated with Vishnu. Visitors first approach a causeway across a 200 meter wide moat. On the opposite side, an entrance pavilion spans 230 meters north-south. Its central bays include three passages that elephants could fit through for royal processions. A second causeway decorated with naga runs for over 300 meters.
It was one of life’s great privileges to visit this incredible work at a time when there were next to no visitors. While I have seen many of the world’s great buildings -Taj Mahal, the pyramids, Bagan- enjoying Angkor in almost total peace remains one of my travelling highlights.
The world's largest religious building, Angkor Wat.
Enclosed by a moat, surrounded by rice fields and forests, it has sat for 1000 years to the north of Cambodia's Tonle Sap lake.
South East Asia's most powerful kingdom was based here.
The world's first city of a million people grew here, supported by advanced irrigation engineering.
But nothing lasts forever.
The Khmer capital shifted over the centuries in response to its own growing weakness and neighbours east and west.
French occupation saved the Khmer kingdom from being split between the Thais and Vietnamese.
The mighty temple city faded in memory and importance.
Decades of modern war began in the 1960s, accompanied by the inevitable decades of looting.
After the KR take-over, visitors were restricted to handfuls of party cadres, Yugoslav diplomats and western apologists, until the late 1980s.
The Untied Nations Transitional period brough the first "influx", although that meant a couple of dozen daily visitors.
I made a second and final visit in late 1994, and was shocked at the growth in tourist numbers, indicated by this car park!
In 2019, 2.6 million visitors gazed in wonder at the pinnacle of Khmer civilization.
When Suryavarman took the throne, the existing Baphuon temple was dedicated to Shiva. The new king worshipped Vishnu.
Suryavarman's Vishnu temple took 28 years to complete.
The moat around the temple acts as a counter to the massive weight of the temple building.
Between the moat and the second causeway sits a 230 north-south pavilion, with central bays boasting passages that could fit elephants for royal processions.
The grandeur and the proportions of Angkor are remarkable, but the astonsihing smorgasbord of stone carved walls make compelling viewing.
Sitting on a 1m sandstone plinth, the temple proper is surrounded by walls with over a kilometre of bas reliefs.
The walls can talk, and tell tales of legend as well as victory of the Khmer enemies, the Cham.
The classic image of Angkorian carving is the apsara, the heavenly dancers.
Despite the ravages of time, wanton Khmer Rouge destruction and looting, at least 1800 of these figures remain on Angkor Wat.
Intricate carvings also mark the passages between the various enclosures and rooms of the temple.
Smaller, isolated buildings in the inner and outer courtyard are often called "libraries", although their purpose is unknown.
Throuh a series of enclosures, entries and courtyards, the temple rises.
The second enclosure rests on 5.8m high base. The inner enclosure rests on a two-tiered pyramid 11 meters tall. The central tower is 65 meters above ground level.
Stairs on a 70 degree angle lead up the central tower. Truly frightening.
Five towers jut from the upper tier in a quincunx arrangement (like five dots on a pair of dice)
The Khmers wer not just engineers, architects or soldiers.
They were also advanced astronomers- the sun rises perfectly behind the central tower on the summer solstice.
Angkor Wat not only represents what mankind can achieve.
It also ironically shows just how far civilization can fall.
While it is said that they apsara are figures who fell from heaven.....
....the real life children of 20th centruy Cambodia who fell foul of history.
Visitors now fill these scenes, bringing money and hope, but also problems.
The Khmers built their wealth and temples on mastery of watery. The very stability of Angkor is now undermined by tourists' thirst for water.