Nevertheless, unlikely as it seemed, as the plane made its descent towards Siem Reap airport I was looking down on the heartland of the Khmer Empire which had dominated a sizeable chunk of Indochina for much of the Middle Ages.
It was the remains of the ancient capital of this empire, Angkor, that we had come to see. It is a site that draws visitors in their hundreds of thousands and like me most of them doubtless share the incredulity of the man whose diaries captured the popular western imagination with his description of their magnificence. Henri Mouhot, an accomplished young linguist, naturalist and pioneering photographer struck out in 1859 to explore the interior of Indochina, discovering a new species of beetle in the process. The interior of the region was a virtual blank on European maps at the time, known only to a few intrepid missionaries. With backing from the Royal Geographical Society Mouhot left his English wife and home in Jersey for an adventure from which he would not return, dying from malaria in Laos in 1861 aged just 35. His diaries, handed to the French consul in Bangkok by Mouhot's servants who had buried him beside the Mekong river, were eventually published and the world learned the name of Angkor.
In the province still bearing the name of Angkor, which is situated eastward of the great lake Tonle Sap...there are...ruins of such grandeur, remains of structures which must have been raised at such an immense cost of labour, that, at the first view, one is filled with profound admiration, and cannot but ask what has become of this powerful race, so civilised, so enlightened, the authors of these gigantic works.
Henri Mouhot 1826-1861
So who indeed were the creators of these works that so impressed Mouhot? The empire of Khmer was brought into being through the unification of a number of disparate states under the rule of one Jayavarman II, a Khmer prince who had returned from Java. It is unclear whether the Java referred to is the island of Java, at that time the pre-eminent power of South East Asia, where he had perhaps spent time as a political hostage, or a small kingdom in the Malay peninsula by the same name, which perhaps seems more likely. Jayavarman waged a campaign of conquest and unification and in 802 AD, just as Charlemagne was consolidating his position as Holy Roman Emperor in western Europe, Jayavarman was acclaimed upon the sacred mountain of Phnom Kulen as God King. He ruled over a kingdom which comprised much of modern Cambodia and extended into what is now Thailand and Laos.
Jayavarman established his capital at Roulos to the north of the great Tonle Sap lake, where some temples still stand which date to his reign or at least that of his immediate successors. His great-grandson Yasovarman I, who came to the throne in 889 moved the capital to Angkor, which would remain the heart of the empire throughout its golden age. Following a period of disunity in the Eleventh Century in which the capital briefly moved to Kho Ker to the north, the kings of Angkor embarked on increasingly lavish projects of construction.
Baphouon temple commenced by Suryavarman I
Angkor would in time grow to be a truly vast city, covering an area equivalent to modern day Los Angeles, albeit with a far lower population density. It was made possible by excellent water management. A huge network of canals and reservoirs known as barays, the largest of which was commenced in the reign of Suryavarman I (1010-1050) and is five miles long, allowed the Khmer to cope with the extremes of monsoon and dry season between which the water table rose and fell by five metres. Large reserves of fresh water allowed the Khmer to cultivate sufficient rice to feed their burgeoning urban population and supply large forces of workers and soldiers as they went about the business of construction and conquest. The kings of the Khmer were great road builders too, indeed, roads and watercourses often developed side by side, with roads established atop the earth embankments raised to channel and contain the waters. Six principle roads raised on earth banks led out from Angkor like the spokes of a wheel, at their greatest extent covering 1000km between them. Stone bridges were constructed to span rivers and shrines which served as regular rest stops were established every half day's journey. As well as sourcing the essentials of civilisation such as salt, copper and tin from the neighbouring kingdoms of the region, the Khmer were engaged in long distance trade with India and China and Tang Dynasty ceramics have been found in Angkor.
Suryavarman II from relief at Angkor Wat
In 1113 there came to the throne a usurper who took the name of Suryavarman II. Having either murdered his uncle Dharanindravarman I or possibly slain him personally in battle and seen off the challenge of a rival, Suryavarman set out to legitimise his reign through a grand construction project. The temple of Angkor Wat was Suryavarman's signature project and may have served as his mortuary temple. The temple was based on an existing Khmer blueprint of three terraces built one atop the other with the central sanctuary comprising five towers, symbolising the sacred Mt Meru of Hindu belief. It is unusually west-facing in accordance with its dedication to Vishnu.
Building Angkor Wat was a huge undertaking taking 300,000 workers an estimated 35 years to construct. Much of the underlying structure of the temple is built from laterite; blocks of iron rich soil left to harden in the sun which were easy to cut and light to move. Nevertheless the temple still required five million tons of sandstone for its outer walls and towers and this was brought from the quarry at Mt Kulen some thirty miles away. A 21 mile long canal was dug to facilitate the movement of sandstone blocks to the site. Angkor Wat is surrounded by a moat 190 metres wide, the digging of which represented a major challenge in itself. The moat serves to maintain the water level in the ground under the temple, preventing the collapse the buildings which would inevitably occur over centuries as the water table rose and fell dramatically beneath it.
Army of Suryavarman II from relief at Angkor Wat
Suryavarman's army is depicted in bas-relief on the southern gallery of Angkor Wat in beautiful detail, marching in procession, as their king and his court look on. The generals ride upon war elephants whilst the soldiers march in neat ranks and the cavalry prance about, with details of weapons and equipment beautifully clear. The rest of the galleries feature beautifully executed scenes from Hindu mythology and afterlife. For myself, spectacular as the temple itself is, the reliefs were the greatest treasure, offering as they do a window into the world of the people who built them. Their accuracy is attested by the account of Zhou Daguan, a Chinese diplomat sent by the Yuan Dynasty to the Khmer court in 1296 and who witnessed a parade just such as this.
Army of Suryavarman II from relief at Angkor Wat
Suryavarman may have presided over unprecedented conquests but trouble was in store as the Cham of South Vietnam, whose capital he had sacked in 1144, plotted their revenge. In 1177 a Cham fleet sailed up the Mekong onto Tonle Sap lake and carried out an amphibious assault on Angkor. Surprise and defeat were total and the city was overrun and sacked in turn. Salvation came in the form of the man who would be crowned Jayavarman VII, regarded as the greatest Khmer ruler. Having turned the tables on the Cham and sent them to the bottom of Tonle Sap or fleeing back to Champa, Jayavarman, who was crowned in 1181, presided over the establishment of Buddhism as the state religion. The new king, in accordance with his beliefs, devoted his efforts at first to the wellbeing of the state and people. Under his rule the road system and waterways reached their greatest extent. He built over one hundred hospitals and rest houses. He would doubtless be pleased to see the prosperity brought to the people of Siem Reap today by the presence of the temples and accompanying tourist trade as he serves them still. Having served his people well, Jayavarman then turned his attention to his great project of the temple of Bayon.
The enigmatic faces of Bayon
Approaching Bayon, the first impression is of a great jumbled mountain of stone. Only as you proceed inside does the structure reveal itself as the standard three terrace plan. The upper terrace is circular and is decorated with 54 towers in various states of repair. Two hundred enigmatic faces look out in all directions, giving one the distinct impression of being watched. They take the form of the bodhisattva of compassion but are thought at the same time to resemble Jayavarman's own features. Here then is the compassionate ruler watching over his people, whilst leaving them in no doubt as to his omnipotence. The lower galley of Bayon too is decorated with bas reliefs although they have not survived as well as those at Angkor Wat. One shows a battle on the lake, presumably the victory over the Cham. In 1203 the capital of the Cham was once again sacked by Jayavarman's troops. Under Jayavarman the Khmer empire reached its greatest extent and the height of its power and prosperity. He died in 1219. If Bayon endures as a symbol of the power of the Khmer Empire, the temple of Ta Phrom, which Jayavarman raised as a mortuary temple for his mother, has become the ultimate symbol of its decline as it is prised apart stone by stone by the irresistible fingers of the jungle. It served as the backdrop for Tomb Raider.
Ta Phrom - built by Jayavarman VII, made famous by Angelina Jolie
Under the rule of Jayavarman's son Indravarman II, who welcomed Zhou Daguan to Angkor, the decline of the empire began. The frontiers began to be pushed back as territory conquered under Suryavarman and Jayavarman was abandoned. The kingdom of Khmer would neverthess survive for another two centuries. In the end a combination of factors spelled the end of the kingdom but the most significant seems to have been climatic. A prolonged drought in the early part of the 15th Century proved fatal to this empire built on the management of water. Extensive deforestation for timber and land clearance had also played a significant part. Soil washed from the deforested mountain slopes had resulted in the silting up of the canals and barays until the system could no longer support the urban population and the Khmer rulers could no longer keep on top of the losing battle of maintaining the waterways. The final blow came from the immerging power of the Thai, who had migrated southward to claim the land that now bears their name. Initially vassals of the Khmer, in the 14th century they had shaken off the yoke. The army of the Thai kingdom of Ayutthaya conquered Angkor in 1431. The Khmer rulers fled south, establishing a new capital at Phnom Penn, leaving their great city to be consumed by the merciless jungle. Angkor Wat was never forgotten or entirely abandoned however and was maintained as a temple by generations of Buddhist monks until a curious European bug collector emerged from the jungle and was awestruck by its magnificence. It has not lost its power.
Mouhot on Angkor Wat
Rise of the Khmer Empire
Building Angkor Wat
Decline of the Khmer Empire