You have a choice Bunat told us as our van pulled into a busy local market at the base of Phnom Bakheng. “You can either hire an elephant or walk.” Betty and Heather chose the elephant, I elected to walk — a long sweaty climb that left me doubting the wisdom of my choice. The elephant docked near the top shortly after I arrived and the two women, still fresh and raring to go, led the way up a series of incredibly steep stone steps to the third terrace of the summit temple where we settled down on a comfortable west-facing ledge and waited for the sun to set.
Below us, about a kilometre to the southeast, the cone-shaped towers of Angkor Wat rise high above the forest, and still farther south the town of Siem Reap is barely visible in the distance. To the north the Bayon with its multitude of towers and giant stone faces resembles a small, many-pinnacled mountain at the very centre of Angkor Tom. And off to the west the waters of West Baray reflect the first blush of the setting sun. Bunat points out a few other temples but most of Angkor’s ancient structures are hidden beneath the jungle canopy. “A thousand years ago” he tells us, “when Angkor was the capital of Cambodia’s vast Khmer Empire, more than a million people lived here. Their wooden houses disappeared long ago. Only the stone monuments dedicated to their Gods have survived.”
No one knows exactly when or why the god-kings and their subjects abandoned the great city of Angkor or when the pilgrims and holy men, who briefly occupied it later, also departed. What is known — the temples of Angkor lay empty, at the mercy of the encroaching jungle for centuries — until they were “rediscovered” by French explorer Henri Mouhot in 1860. But though the decline of Angkor is shrouded in mystery and speculation its rise to power and long period of glory is not. Each of Angkor’s all-powerful rulers made sure that his achievements — his wars, his public works, his gods — were duly recorded in stone. The history of Angkor, carved into the walls of its temples, is the history of one of Southeast Asia’s most powerful empires.
The Archeological story begins with Jayavarman II, who unified Cambodia’s competing states and declared himself supreme sovereign of the Khmer Empire in AD 802. He was the first in a mind-boggling succession of devaraja or “god-kings” who exercised absolute power over an empire that once extended over much of Southeast Asia. One of his successors, Yasovarman I (899-910), moved the capital to Angkor and built Phnom Bakheng, the temple where we have come to watch the sunset. Literally carved from the sandstone of the mountain itself, it was the first of Angkor’s temple-mountains. But as successive devaraja strove to build ever more extravagant monuments to themselves and their gods the number, size and complexity of Angkor’s temples continued to grow along with its burgeoning population.