The Khmer empire, predecessor of modern Cambodia, ruled much of what is now Vietnam, Laos, and Thailand from the 9th to the 14th centuries. This Indianized state strongly influenced the culture, art, and political institutions of Southeast Asia. At about the time that the French were laying the cornerstone of Notre-Dame de Paris, the Khmer kings were finishing the great temple complex of Angkor Wat, an architectural triumph whose central tower is as tall as the spires of Notre-Dame. Angkor Wat is also the largest temple in the world, with a volume of stone equaling that of the Cheops pyramid in Egypt. Sacked and abandoned to the jungle in the mid-15th century, these temples are one of the world’s greatest lost, but now found, treasures.
Angkor, the capital of this vast empire, was a 75-square-mile complex linked by a sophisticated system of reservoirs and irrigation canals. A succession of kings built a complex of 72 major monuments of brick or stone to honor their gods and assure their own immortality. The most spectacular, Angkor Wat, was built as an architectural microcosm of the mythic world: its soaring central towers representing Mount Meru, the home of the gods in Hindu cosmology; the outer walls are the distant mountains; the surrounding moat represents the ocean; and the esplanade around the central temple houses an extraordinary series of bas reliefs, depicting historic and mythic scenes.
Also within the Angkor complex, the fortified city of Angkor Thom; the last capital of the Khmer Empire built near the end of the 12th century, was once home to a million people—more than any European city of that time. The over 200 smiling faces on the central towers at the Bayon Temple are those of the Buddhist deity Avalokitesvara, reflecting a loss of faith in the Hindu gods after a military defeat.
No one knows why Angkor was abandoned, but scientists believe that two major droughts, followed by severe monsoons, led to the city’s decline. Luckily, Angkor Wat was protected from pillage and encroaching vegetation by Buddhist monks, who lived there after the Khmers moved their capital to Phnom Penh in the mid-15th century. Now reclaimed from the surrounding forest, Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom stand remarkably intact, among the most impressive monuments left by any civilization.
To visit this massive complex is like stepping back in time—its scale and scope must be experienced to be believed.