How big was the Khmer Empire?

Much has been written over many years about the temples of Angkor but I remember how surprised I was when I learnt how far the Khmer Empire reached and how powerful its rulers were.  You don’t have to visit Cambodia to witness the legacy they left behind. When I went to North-East Thailand to live in 2009 I saw for myself.

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Phanom Rung Temple
Phanom Rung

The southern strip of land along the Cambodian border from the towns of Buriram to Ubon Ratchatani, and stretching further to the north, has many Khmer temple ruins, some, possibly dating back to the 8th century. It is a reminder of when much of Thailand was part of the powerful Khmer Empire. These Hindu-Buddhist ruins, built by an advanced ancient civilisation, are truly magnificent and the experience of visiting the ‘Phanom Rung’ National Park (400m above sea level) gave me a miniature idea of what to expect if I ever manage to visit Angkor and Angkor Wat at Siem Reap in Cambodia before I drop off the perch.

Built from sandstone and laterite between the 10th and 13th centuries, Phanom Rung – high on a hill – was a Hindhu shrine dedicated to the Hindhu god Shiva. The complex was restored between 1971 and 1988 and offered to be considered as a future ‘World Heritage’ site to UNESCO in 2005. It was quite a moving experience absorbing and trying to imagine the engineering and architectural skills such an ancient society needed to create these temple structures.

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Phanom Rung – Buriram – Thailand

I was struck immediately by the scale of the huge building blocks hewn from stone and not only how steep the steps all over the complex are but how deep. Anyone with short or ancient legs, like mine, really struggles to climb them which was of course intentional! I think this short video gives a better idea of the deep steps than my photographs do.

‘Phanom Rung’ co-ordinates: 14°31’57’N  102°56’30’E


The Khmer Empire (9th to the 15th century) emanated from its centre, the city of Angkor, in Cambodia (formerly Kampuchea) and at its height ruled most of SE Asia. Archaeologists have worked on the ground, and now in the air, since naturalist Henri Mouhot, in 1860, stumbled upon Angkor Wat (the largest religious monument in the world).

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United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Angkor city complex of temples and water systems at Angkor, built by the very aggressive King Suryavarmam II, was completed in 1145, and later abandoned to the jungle, when the Empire collapsed, But Angkor Wat was never abandoned. Since the rediscovery by Henri Mouhot 400 years later  archaeologists have been excavating temple ruins deep within jungles of Angkor for visitors to tour; peeling away vines from palaces for us to explore and unearthing riches to be displayed in museums ever since. Angkor, one of the most important archaeological sites in Sourh East Asia, covers 400 square kilometres of forest and swampland. It was the world’s largest urban conurbation prior to Britain’s 18th-century Industrial Revolution. Clearing the area alone would have been a mammoth task carried out by thousands of workers with primitive tools. Yet, amazingly, it took less than 35 years to build. It is easily accessible from where I lived, in Lam Plai Mat, near Buriram and I intended to drive there but I never made the time to visit, on my doorstep, one of the wonders of the world. I am rather ashamed to admit it which means I will have to make the short plane trip from Chiang Mai before too long. In the meantime I take solace from Jon Anderson’s beautiful song. Relax and listen.

If you want to learn more about Angkor this video is a must.



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