What is the Angkor Complex?

Brendan McGuigan
Brendan McGuigan
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Woman waving

The Angkor Complex is a large collection of ruins in northern Cambodia. The Angkor Complex is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and has been since 1992. For a period of twelve years, between 1992 and 2004, the site was considered endangered, but it has since been sufficiently restored and protected, and is now considered in good health.

The Angkor Complex houses many different structures which served as the capitals of the immense Khmer Empire at different times between the 9th and 15th centuries. Various kings ruled from Angkor, or nearby regions, over an empire that at times included much of present day Cambodia and Laos, and parts of present day Thailand, Vietnam, and Malaysia.

The Angkor complex itself covers an area of some 1,200 square miles (3100 sq. km), or nearly 800,000 acres. This is an area roughly the size of modern-day Los Angeles, and makes it quite easily the largest complex of its type in the world. There are more than 70 distinct structures in the Angkor complex, in various stages of decay, with some being nearly perfectly preserved. Aside from the Angkor complex itself, a number of other regions are considered a part of the same legacy, and are administered by the same park service.

The first great king of the Khmer Empire was Jayavarman II, who declared himself the god-king of the Empire, and established his capital at Roluos, near the present-day Angkor Complex. Near the end of the 9th century, another great builder king took power, King Yasovarman I. Yasovarman was responsible for the first of the great building projects within the Angkor complex itself. Yasovarman constructed a mighty temple on the hill of Phnom Bakheng, built the capital city of Yasodharapura, and built the immense East Baray, a reservoir measuring nearly 5 miles (7.5km) by 1 mile (1.8km).

In the early-12th century, King Suryavarman II began building the most ambitious of the temples constructed at Angkor, Angkor Wat. Angkor Wat is built as a reflection of the mythic Mount Meru, and the entire structure and grounds are steeped in religious symbolism and adorned with religious figures.

After Suryavarman’s death, the Khmer Empire faced incursions from nearby hostile powers. A leader took power, however, in the form of Jayavarman VII, who would go on to become the greatest of all of the Khmer kings, and the one who would give the most to the Angkor complex. Jayavarman VII is responsible for the construction of Angkor Thom, the enormous Bayon, Preah Khan, Ta Prohm, and various other smaller structures throughout the immense Angkor complex.

In the 15th century the Khmer Empire was defeated by the Thai, and most of the major cities were sacked. Over the next few centuries the buildings slowly collapsed into ruins, and in the modern age they suffered greatly from looters and from the Khmer Rouge. More recently, however, a great deal of work has gone into restoring the buildings, and clearing the encroaching jungle from most of them, with the notable exception of Ta Prohm, which has been allowed to remain roughly as it was found.

Passes for the Angkor complex are available for one day, three days, or one week. Guided tours range from rudimentary drives on motorbike around the area with little interaction, to detailed academic histories of the various carvings and frescoes.

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