Khmer Empires and Archeology Theives

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Angkor National Archeology Park is so much more than just Angkor Wat. It’s a national park that stretches 400 square kilometers, encompassing part of the Angkorean Kingdom of the Khmer, with its capital at the center. There are over  1,000 temples and ruins in the area, each one different and unique. Outside the park there are still ancient cities being discovered, all revolving around the control of water, which gave the Khmers so much power. They had two major growing seasons, and had a series of water works that irrigated the entire kingdom. It is believed that over a million people lived here at its height. The Khmers Empire lasted from the 9th to the 15th century.

Traveling via tuk tuk is probably the best way to see the Angkor National Park. There are so many temples in the area, that everywhere you look there is a head sticking out of the forest, or a pillar on its side, some ancient temple that had disappeared forever. There were so many temples in fact, that it’s easy to get temple fatigue. At first you are like a kid at Christmas, running and ripping through every present, but with most kids, at some point you just pass out in that pile of toys, too exhausted for the next one. That’s why its nice that they have three day passes, because one day is not near enough time to see the temples. It’s very easy to get ‘Templed Out’! Spread it out over a few weeks or even a few visits. At insanely hot temperatures, there’s no need to bake your self either by being outside all day. I chose to revisit a few of the select temples on my third day by bike. It was not a hard ride, though the heat made it rough. I loved that I had a guide for the first few days to get my bearings. Now I was able to explore and draw at my leisure, seeing and experiencing so much more.

We passed a few more temples after Angkor Wat , but we were trusting our guide to lead us straight, and he did not let us down. After passing through a gorgeous gateway with a large head sculpture staring down at you and bridge with a railing of men pulling a large Naga on either side, we entered the ancient city of Angkor Thom. This walled enclosure is about 4 times the size of Angkor Wat, with a moat going around it also. There was an entire city built in this section during the 12th century. Even though the common houses are long gone, the government buildings and temples built out of stone still exist.

We came to the Bayon temple, which had one central tower, with the iconic image of the four heads facing all four directions. There were between 47 to 54 towers with the heads peering out of all of them. It was not as put together as Angkor Wat, possible the damage over time was too great, so it resembled a sand castle on the edge of the shore. There was visible features marking it a temple, but most of it washed away. The main road looped around this temple, and there was a nice sized elephant lumbering around the ruins with various tourists riding in a basket on top of her back. It’s a very traditional image around here, and elephants are pictured on lots of the stones friezes. The main tower still had a room with a shrine in it. Tourists were crawling on this one like ants, making it really difficult to get that pristine picture.

Back in the tuk tuk, we drove through those gorgeous gates again, with the iconic head on top.  I jumped out of the tuk tuk, trying to get the best picture possible, and still have our tuk tuk in it. As I was backing up, my leg hit the back of a large stone block, pretty much taking my knee out. I flopped backward, coke and camera in hand, and fell back in slow motion. My coke flew up in lazy circles all over me, and I kept the camera up in the air. I was laughing as I fell back, until the solid thump of my back hitting the ground blasted the wind out of me. There was a lovely chunk of 2,000-year-old ruins right next to my head. It was sheer luck that I did not brain myself on the chunk of stone. As far as concern for my well-being, they had none.  They did have themselves a good laugh, funniest thing they had ever seen. So like any good sibling would do, I whipped a small stone at my brother, but he got the tuk tuk to drive off, so it bounced off the back harmlessly. Damn, better luck next time. With friends like this, who needs enemies?

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Next was Ta Prohm temple, which was set back about 100 meters in the woods. This is by far my favorite of the bunch. There is massive renovation going on here, though you would never guess it by the state of the temple. Back in the 1,900’s the French Archeologist Maurice Glaize convinced the École Française d’Extrême-orient (Institute for Asian Studies) to not restore the temple, but maintain it in its present state. I would love to know how he explained that to his superiors, “Well Pierre, you see, we want to keep le trees growing out of it, because it creates le feel that we are discovering it for le first time. No Pierre, really, one day you will merci me. They will even make moving pictures there, with a scantily clad woman walking through it.  No, no, I kid you not. We will need a million Francs to do it. Incredible! Now would you be so kind to pass me some absinthe, merci.”  This is the famous Tomb Raider temple, where Angelina Jolie strutted around fighting gangsters and what not, but it is so much more than that.

Ta Prohm delivers on its promise, and it goes to show why it’s the most visited temple in the national park. Massive silk-cotton trees grow out of the ruins, soaring hundreds of feet above them, with smaller strangler fig trees working their way under them. They seem to be part of a bio-industrial organism, one melding perfectly into the other. The roots look like melted wax just oozing down the sides and through the ruins. Some have described them to even look reptilian.  I often wish I was a better writer, to create the visual imagery for you, but my photos will just have to do. I always thought there were maybe one or two trees coming out of the ruins, but no, there are dozens. Each creating its own unique artistic blend. Again this is a must see for anyone. I enjoyed it so much I actually did it twice. The second time I came I brought my sketchbook and some inks and inked on site. Which was great and fun, but annoying because they’re always someone’s posterior blocking my view. I even tried to find an out of the way spot, off the main track.

Copyright Michael Bencik 2013

Copyright Michael Bencik 2013


We visited numerous other temples that day, some as small as two buildings next to each other, to massive mountain complexes, where the ground was built up so high that the temples soared above the jungle. All are in various states of restoration, a never-ending battle with the elements and time.  Some highlights were Bapoune Temple, at first sight not that special. You climb to the top, walk the sides, and then head back down. What you don’t realize is the entire back of the wall formed the shape of the Buddha sleeping. In fact, the entire back of the pyramid was the reclining Buddha, but to see it really good you have to leave the temple, and look from the distance. I would have never seen this if Jeff had not came back and told me about it, I totally missed it. The renovation was finished in 2011 for this temple.

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Another highlight was the Terrace of Elephants. This was a raised platform with tight mazes running through it with a complex sequential story all carved in stone. In addition there was numerous cool elephant sculptures holding up the platform in which Angkor’s king Jayavarman VII would watch his victorious armies return.

On our next tour we went about an hour away via tuktuk, to Banteay Srei Temple. This ride is great because you get to see how the locals live and work. They had all these clay stoves on the side of the road, cooking various meats and stews. Plus there are great local shops with tons of handicrafts.  Banteay Srei is famous for the red sandstone that was used for the outside of the temple. This sand stone is great for how easy it was to carve. This is why the details and imagery is so complex and gorgeous. It’s really a small temple, but the detail is beyond words. There are dancing asparas, tiger guards, naga reliefs, and entire scenes of armies fighting.

Back in the 1920’s, there was an out of work actor who decided he was going to get famous by taking some of the precious friezes from the temple. He flew out of Cambodia with his girlfriend, hired a crew of porters, and started to chip away the fronts of some of the friezes. He managed to get some away, but was caught in the airport trying to have them shipped. You have to give the guy some credit for having big balls to try to pull something off like that. OF course, tomb robbing is a horrible thing that is happening, and it destroys the history of the area, as well as ruin it for everyone else. It is short-term gain, but destroys so much for all future generations.

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