I slipped the smiling woman behind the booth $40 and waited for my Angkor temple pass to print.
“So this works a bit like a ski-pass?” I asked my Skinny Friend.
“It’s better than a ski-pass. It means you can roam around one of the wonders of the world ‘till your heart’s content, plus it’s a lot cheaper”, he replied. Up ahead the walls of Angkor Wat loomed above us and blotted out the sun as if they were sleeping giants.
Through a colossal archway and onto an uneven sandstone bridge we trotted. Although it was glaringly obvious that this crossing was ancient, it sure as hell wasn’t fragile or weak. As I stopped to admire one of the sculptures two fully grown elephants plodded in convoy across to the curved entrance of Angkor Wat without a care in the universe for the pull of gravity on weathered surfaces.
I was flanked on both sides by statues demonstrating the Hindu creation myth, the churning of the sea of milk. Apparently, the angels and demons of the world underwent a dredging operation to rediscover the elixir of life in the depths of the ocean. The whole commotion looked like some kind of supernatural tug of war. Divine beings queued on the side nearest me directly facing the swarms of demons in the distance that lined the opposite side of the bridge as the forces of good and evil pulled on the tail of Vasuki, a leviathan serpent for all their immortal worth. I’ll spare you the history lecture, but to cut a long story short Vasuki offered himself up as the ‘churning stick’ (a neutral position between the divine and the dammed) in the battle to recapture the elixir of life.
The obelisks of Angkor Wat rose into the Cambodian skyline as though they were hulking stone pineapples. Words failed me so I hit the shutter button on my camera at the hope of capturing every given moment.
The temple complex was constructed over eight centuries ago without the help of scaffolding, instant concrete mix or building regulations and yet the striking grandiosity of the structure had me mesmerized. Astonishing. Who’d be crazy enough to hang off a 65 meter high citadel with nothing but a sky hook and a sandstone slab for company? Not me.
Inscriptions are everywhere and aren’t limited to specific, closed off sacred areas. However, it’s the exterior of Angkor Wat which fascinates me. From a distance it signifies how advanced the Angkor civilisation was in the 12th century, but up close it tells a different, darker story.
In 1979 the Khmer Rouge fled from mainland Cambodia to Angkor Wat. It was here that the tyrannical leader, Pol Pot, made his final stronghold. Bullet holes litter the sandstone and laterite carvings of aspsaras (celestial dancers). These are the last panicked shots of Khmer Rouge soldiers as the Vietnamese army swept south to rid Cambodia of the man responsible for one of the greatest human atrocities of the 20th century. It’s no surprise that Angkor Wat remains a pillar of Cambodian national identity. It’s seen it all; from the dawn of Khmer civilisation to the last gasps of a revolution.
‘Angkor’ is a Khmer term that translates into English as ‘city’. Likewise, ‘Wat’ is a Khmer term meaning (Buddhist) ‘temple’. Hence, the title ‘Angkor Wat’ would roughly translate into English as ‘Temple City’. It’s a common misunderstanding that Angkor Wat is the only temple in the surrounding area of Angkor, granted it might be the most striking of the hundred or so monuments reclaimed from 300 square kilometres of surrounding jungle, but it isn’t the only one. Let’s get this clear. The Angkor temples were designed to house an estimated population of a million people (bigger than any European city at the time) and as a result there are numerous other edifices worth exploring.
Spanning an impressive 12 kilometres, Angkor Thom is often overlooked. Each single face-tower depicts the ruler of Angkor, the self proclaimed ‘God-King’, Jayavarman II looking out in four separate directions; north, south, east, west. This was built to demonstrate to the people that the eyes of the sovereign were everywhere, watching constantly.
Indeed, it could be argued that Angkor Thom is proof that Orwell’s literary masterpiece of 1984 actually happened in the 12th Century; using the image of an omnipresent God-King as a surveillance mechanism similar to Big Brother in the depths of the Cambodian rainforest. Who’d have thought that even in the middle ages society was being shaped and controlled by a fear of authority?
Angkor Thom is being gradually reclaimed by the jungle. Tremendous trees stretch their bulbous roots across the dense walls of the temple. Smashing, squeezing and crushing the once infallible fortifications into clumps of grey rubble. It’s here that Paramount Pictures decided to shoot scenes from the recent blockbuster Lara Croft: Tomb Raider. And why not? The Angkor temples ooze a sense of mystery and nourish the idea that man’s claim to understand everything about the world is devoid.
Top Tip: Get down and watch the sunrise at Angkor Wat. Not only is it considerably less congested, but it’s a rare spectacle whereby human intervention enhances natural beauty.
Published on Where & Now
Written by Seb King