The Small Circuit’s Major Temples
Angkor Wat, the granddaddy of all Cambodia’s temples, was originally built by Suryavarman II as a Hindu temple dedicated to Vishnu. The temple’s unusual westward orientation might have been because Vishnu was associated with the west, though this has also led some to believe that the temple also served as the king’s mausoleum, as the west was seen to be the direction of the setting sun and, hence, death. The temple complex symbolizes the Hinduist view of the universe, with the moat surrounding the outer walls representing the ocean, the temple itself representing the continents, and the towers representing the five peaks of Mount Meru, where the gods reside – basically the Olympus of Hinduism.
The Bayon, one of the most iconic image of Cambodia related to the ancient Khmer period, is located at the center of Angkor Thom, and is the first temple you come across when you enter the compound’s south gate. The focal points of the temple are its 37 towers, most of them carved with faces that look at the four cardinal directions, reflecting the figures on the Angkor Thom’s gates. While there is still debate on who the faces represent, there are some scholars who claim they might be of Jayavarman VII’s, owing to the fact that it stands at the center of the emperor’s capital and embodies his immense building campaign. Scholars are also unsure of the temple’s function and symbolism. What is clear, though, is that standing in the midst of the faces – all 216 of them – bearing enigmatic smiles and looking at all directions can be somewhat unnerving.
Ta Prohm (literally “old Brahma”) bears the architecture and design of latter Jayavarman VII temples, though its most distinguishing features in modern times have nothing to do with anything the Khmers originally intended. Abandoned for centuries in the middle of a jungle, large fig and silk-cotton trees have grown on its walls, knocking loose piles of rubble on pathways and rendering some corridors impassable. Moss has also partially obscured some of the wall carvings. If nothing else, the place is a testament to the dynamism of the earth, a reminder of what nature is capable of despite man’s best efforts to wield power over her.
The Grand Circuit‘s Major Temples
The Banteay Samre, just east off of the Big Circuit, has a style very similar to that of the Angkor Wat, albeit on a much smaller scale.
The East Mebon, a temple mountain adorned with five towers just like the Angkor Wat, is a Shivaite temple in the middle of the Eastern Baray, a now-dry body of water east of Angkor Thom.
The Preah Khan is what remains of a former Buddhist monastery. It’s the first major temple you encounter when exiting Angkor Thom in the north.
The Neak Pean is a small temple surrounded by eight pools with coiled nagas (serpent gods) encircling the structure.
The Ta Som, another largely unrestored temple in the mold of Ta Prohm and Preah Khan, was built by Jayavarman VII in honor of his father Dharanindravarman II.
Beyond the Grand Circuit
The Banteay Srey lies further north of the Angkor complex. Its name roughly translates as “Citadel of the Women,” perhaps referring to the delicate beauty of its carvings.
From a blog entry first published on Travel Blog on April 28, 2013.