Well, Angkor is a week or so behind me, but the experience and the ruins definitely deserve a word or two. But how to begin my tale? By the time I had reached the remaining temples at Angkor, I had already done a fair amount of research. My dear friend Lauren, of Vermont days of old, was my temple-hunting partner. For two days we hired a local guide who had a good knowledge of the temples and helped to answer our questions. On the third and my final day at Angkor, I rented a bicycle to cruise a few out-of-the-way temples that I had not yet seen. Despite some hectic traffic on the main road and a flat tire way far out in the park, riding a bike again was a great joy, and a great way to see the temples.
First, a word on my photos of the temples. An accurate perspective of Angkor is hard to capture considering the many obstructed views, not to mention the sheer scale of the complex. The spatial intesification that takes place over scores of kilometers — moving from wide open spaces to intense, intricate detail — is spectacular, but hard to grasp without aerial perspective. Hence, many of my photos are closeups — far shots cannot do justice. However, this allows for a closer look at the excruciating detail on every facade. The symbology depicted is overwhelming. Friezes and lintels, chedi and stuppa all bear the marks of some truly cosmic and transcendant intentions.
One of the most interesting aspects of Angkor is the checkered past of religious dedication at each temple. Starting around 800 B.C., the modern era of temple building began with devotion and homage to Hindu deities, in particular Shiva and Vishnu. Temples were dedicated not only to important ancestors, but also one or many Hindu gods and goddesses. Eventually, the tides turned and Mahayana Buddhism became the en vogue religion, with images of Buddha much more prevalent. Briefly, towards the end of the Angkor empire around the 12th centure, Hinduism was again dominant. Even with all of this flip-flopping, the amazing cast of gods, demi-gods and magical creatures is self-consistent within both Hinduism and Buddhism and makes for an incredible array of carvings, structures and statues.
Unfortunately, the depth of these religious motifs are lost to many tourists. Instead, it would seem they perceive the ruins as an amusement wonderland of sorts, rather than religious edifice. Take sunrise at Angkor Wat, for example, a hallowed tradition amongst pilgrims to the park. Not so sacred, as it turns out — throngs of visitors line the reflecting pools, many laughing, some yelling, most disturbing the early morning calm while waiting to snap the same photo taken by thousands before them. The amusement park side of Angkor can also be seen in the rampant development of Siem Reap, the entry point for the Angkor Archaeological Park. As it is in most places, money charts the course of development, and usually that course is short-sighted and vacuous. Seeing the condo-ization of Siem Reap, I hope for the best, but I also wonder about other possibilities. What if the ruins were approached with solemnity and awe instead of quick cash draw? I only wish I could have visited a decade previous.
The temples are stunning, though, and I was fortunate to have a few experiences outside of the tourist throngs, most notably an early morning at the Bayon. While Angkor Wat (‘temple city’) is probably the most famous temple of the lot, I was stunned by the Bayon’s delicate intracacy. Lying at the heart of the sprawling square of Angkor Thom (‘great city’), recent archaeoastronomical research suggests that the Bayon may well be a represention of the ecliptic pole around with the zodiacal constellations rotate over periods of millennia. With a circular inner sanctuary, rare for Khmer temples, it is obvious that this construction is meant to represent something vast, perhaps even the incomprehendable itself. The Bayon sanctuary, decorated by 54 temples on three leveles, each with four smiling faces, encompasses a wonderful engima, embodied in laterite and sandstone.
As easy as the ruins are to enjoy, they are just as hard to interpret, given not only the temporal divide, but also the cultural. The three days I spent touring Angkor I was entirely absorbed by the ruins. I barely checked my email and I rarely went into town (our “splurge” hotel had all the amenities, including a pool, so I had little need to leave). The sheer profundity of the ruins allowed little else but looking at them, reading about them, and trying to think about them. Processing their meaning at that time was beyond my mental reach. Upon leaving Angkor, with some time and distance, I began to put the temples into some perspective, although their meaning is still shrouded in mystery. Struggling to ground the Angkor temples in our modern world, I wondered what structures of the modern age can compare? Surely nothing matching the complexity on so many levels – precise site orientation and layout, advanced construction methods, religious motifs and symbology. Even Catholic churches, resplendant with with iconography and vaulted space, built for the most solemn of purposes, are dwarfed by the achievements at Angkor.
What exactly was afoot during the Angkor Empire? I can only conceive such small words which offer so little explanation. Intuitively, though, I can sense an intention of reaching upwards to the sky in order to find an inner space of revelation and awareness. Even though orthodox anthropologists insist that these temples were built to worship ancestors and the egos of god-kings, I felt something different at Angkor. I felt a culture that was expressing a grand appreciation for the beauty of life in a focussed effort to achieve understanding and enlightenment. Such a message contained within stone and space still stands against the waves of time, if we only look beyond the wonderland and into the wonder, with openness and awe.