Angkor Archaeological Park, one of the most important archaeological sites in South-East Asia.

Angkor Archaeological Park, one of the most important archaeological sites in South-East Asia.

Angkor Archaeological Park, located in northern Cambodia, is one of the most important archaeological sites in South-East Asia.

Stretching over some 400 sq. km, including forested area, Angkor contains the magnificent remains of several capitals of the Khmer Empire, from the 9th to the 15th century CE. These include the famous Temple of Angkor Wat and, at Angkor Thom, the Bayon Temple with its countless sculptural decorations.

Angkor was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1992 - the same year it was also placed on the List of World Heritage in Danger. UNESCO has now set up a wide-ranging programme to safeguard this symbolic site and its surroundings.

Angkor itself has no accommodations and few facilities; the nearby town of Siem Reap is the tourist hub for the area.

The temples of Angkor are highly symbolic structures. The foremost Hindu concept is the temple-mountain, where the temple is built as a representation of the mythical Mount Meru: this is why so many temples, including Angkor Wat itself, are surrounded by moats, built in a mountain-like pyramidal shape and topped by precisely five towers, representing the five peaks of Mount Meru. The linga (phallus), representing the god Shiva, was also critical and while the lingas themselves have largely gone, linga stands (carved, table-like blocks of stone) can be found in many if not most rooms in the temples. There was also a political element to it all: most kings wanted to build their own state temples to symbolize their kingdom and their rule.

While early Angkor temples were built as Hindu temples, Jayavarman VII converted to Mahayana Buddhism c. 1200 and embarked on a prodigious building spree, building the new capital city of Angkor Thom including Bayon, Ta Prohm, Preah Khan and many more as Buddhist structures. However, his successor Jayavarman VIII returned to Hinduism and embarked on an equally massive spree of destruction, systematically defacing Buddhist images and even crudely altering some to be Hindu again. Hinduism eventually lost out to Buddhism again, but the (few) Buddha images in the temples today are later Theraveda additions.

One element that continues to mystify archeaologists is the baray, or water reservoir, built in a grand scale around Angkor: for example, the West Baray is a mind-boggling 8 km by 2.3 km in size. While it has long been assumed that they were used for irrigation, some historians argue that their primary function was political or religious. Today, the moat around Angkor and the West Baray still contains water, but the rest have dried up.

Respect:
Some of Angkor's sites were originally built as Hindu temples, while some were built as Buddhist temples, and yet others were converted over the years. Today, most of Angkor's major temples house at least a few Buddha statues (nearly all added later) and draw a steady stream of monks and worshippers. You may be approached for donations, but you are under no obligation to pay unless you actually choose to accept incense sticks or other offerings.

Because these are still holy spaces for the Khmers (Cambodian people), it is best to follow the dress code of "long pants/skirt and covered shoulders." This is the dress code that the Khmers follow when visiting any temple or holy space. Most Khmers are non-confrontational so this rule is not strictly enforced, but wearing inappropriate clothing sends a message of disrespect. A good rule of thumb is "Would I wear this to my own house of worship?" If not, it may be poor etiquette to wear it to someone else's holy site. As an added benefit, long pants and covered shoulders provide better protection from the sun, insects, and brambles when walking around and between the sites.

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