Abby and I ran the Khmer Empire Marathon in Siem Reap, Cambodia, home of the fabled Angkor Wat temple. The marathon itself ran past many of the monuments—of which Angkor Wat in only the most famous—but we arrived a few days early so we could explore them at our own pace.
Angkor Wat was built in the early 12th century as a Hindu temple, and converted to a Buddhist temple by King Jayavarman VII at the end of the 12th century. By the 16th century, however, it began to fall into disuse and was probably completely abandoned (although not forgotten) by the 19th century.
Khmer temples are built on three levels: the outer, lowest pavilion represents the underworld, the central temple on its pedestal represents the earth, and the central tower represents the sky. Given that the crush of tourists was thickest on the lowest level, I’d say this representation was pretty accurate.
Here are some more traditional sorts of photographs:
Although there are Buddha statues that are worshipped in the temple today, they are very simple. Angkor Wat, like other temples, was looted after it fell into disuse: first, for the treasures that that were stored under the central altars or the gold and jewels embedded in the Buddha statues and walls; and, later, for the Buddha statues that were either taken to foreign museums or sold as antiquities. When looters couldn’t take the whole statue, they would at least hack off the head or hands to sell. However, many of the statues already lacked heads when the looters came: Jayavarman VIII, Jayavarman VII’s grandson, had attempted to convert the country back to Hinduism when he came to power, and he destroyed the Buddha faces carved on the temples as part of his campaign. The country then suffered droughts which led to the abandonment of Siem Reap as the capital of the Khmer Empire. Coincidence?