The ancient city of Angkor , built in brick and sandstone by the Khmer empire, is spread over 40+ miles around the modern day city of Siem Reap near the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh. Built from around 800’s-1200 ce it is now believed to have once held one million residents before it was deserted in the 15th century.
For centuries the dense jungles in Cambodia kept the secret cities of the legendary Khmer empire hidden. The local populace believed Angkor to be built by gods or giants, visiting foreigners attributed the temple complex of Angkor Wat to lost kings who built it for pleasure palaces, but Henri Mahout’s visit in 1860 changed these legends into a factual empire and drew the fascination of the entire world.
With the subsequent centuries the Sanskrit inscriptions have been translated and much has been deciphered and learned about the now extinct city. Today Angkor is a lost legacy of crumbling ruins and under constant threat from destruction by the encroaching jungle, damaging tourism, land mines left over from the Khmer Rouge’s rampage and perhaps worst of all the illegal antiquities traders.
After the ice age (12,000 bc) this region was one of surrounding areas settled and known as the ‘Indo Chinese’. Inhabited by Australoid peoples due to land bridges between Malaya, Indonesian Islands and Australia, after general migration patterns it was settled by the ‘Mon Khmer’ peoples.
Angkor gradually developed into a thriving city and home of the royal families and palaces and it’s importance as the capital city of the Khmer empire caused gradual immigration, building the population slowly while areas of the jungles outside the city proper were converted into expanding farmland to feed the region.
Today conservation efforts are under way to restore Angkor and it’s temples, UNESCO has placed it as a world heritage site in 1992 and simultaneously placing it on the endangered heritage list. The incredible monuments are still under constant threat from black market antiquities dealers who hack away large portions of the magnificent sculptures and designs carved in sandstone to sell outside the country and the entire area was the stage for the worst atrocities Cambodia ever saw under the Khmer Rouge who’s remnant army even used Angkor Wat as a defensive fortification.
Today visitors to Angkor meet with an equal measure of awe and heartbreak as the magnificent pyramidal temples ascend into the sky above land still rife with land mines in some parts and monuments to those murdered by the Khmer Rouge regime. It is in many ways a perfect example of the incredible desire of man to achieve, the Cambodian peoples fine tradition of art, and our inability as a society to maintain a way of life.