Angkor – the largest town of the Middle Ages?

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The Khmers are the most numerous ethnic group of Cambodia.

Between the 9th and the 12th century, when the buildings of Angkor were erected, their empire spanned the majority of what is today Southeast Asia. It included the present day states of Thailand, Vietnam and Laos, and was one of the largest and most powerful empires of Asia.

A thousand years ago, when London had a population of some fifteen thousand,

in the territory of Angkor there were more than a million inhabitants.

The irrigation system and very fertile land yielding up to four rice harvests a year fed the population easily, and the influence of Angkor spread far beyond its borders.

While Europe suffered in the poverty of the dark Middle Ages, here art and culture flourished.

Indian merchants brought not only their merchandise, but their religion as well. Hinduism and Buddhism fell on fertile ground here.

Buddhism is to this day the most important religion of Cambodia. The golden age of Angkor began in 1181 with the crowning of king Jayavarman VII. Having declared Buddhism to be the official religion and expelling the people of Cham from his empire, he initiated the era of prosperity.

In the forty-odd years of his rule, hundreds of monuments were erected, as well as some of the most important temples: Bayon with its well-known large faces of Buddha, and around it the new city of Angkor Thom. Following his death in 1220, many temples remained unfinished, and the beginning of the end of the mighty empire was signaled by the arrival of king Jayavarman VIII, who brought back Hinduism. This resulted in the massive destruction of Buddha’s statues, so that to this day one can see many beheaded statues which are known to have represented the figure of Buddha. After the king’s death, Buddhism made its reappearance, but this time through the warriors of Siam who had repeatedly attacked the capital of Angkor. After a seven-month siege, in 1431 the Khmers left Angkor and moved the capital to the present day capital of Cambodia, Phnom Penh. The temples of Angkor remained functional, but only in the religions sense.

The city for the most part became overgrown in jungle and forgotten.  

A few white men had visited Angkor previously, but the “discovery” was attributed to the Frenchman Henri Mouhot in 1860. His book, “Travels in Siam, Cambodia and Laos”, brought the first European tourists to this region. The nearby town of Siem Reap soon became the second most important place in the country. The discoveries continue, and the recently published images from space show that Angkor is much bigger than it was thought and was probably home to about two million people.

Only a few kilometers from Siem Reap is one of the biggest and most important lakes of Asia – Tonlé Sap. During the rainy season, when it covers an area of over 12,000 square kilometers, it looks like a sea.

It is interesting that the river Tonlé Sap that flows from it in the spring, after the snows of Tibet have melted and with the huge amounts of water coming through the Mekong river, of which it is a tributary, changes direction and flows in the opposite direction, thus filling the lake. To this day, along the lake people live a semi-nomadic life because they move around by a few kilometers every once in a while, following the lake’s water level.

Angkor Wat represents one of the wonders of the world and should be visited as soon as possible, before it is flooded by vast masses of tourists, and while you can still feel the atmosphere present today.

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