In Cambodia, the grandest temple of all returns from the ruins, as a nation turns its back on the troubles of the past, reports Alan Solomon
SIEM REAP, Cambodia – The first approach, no matter how you approach it, isn’t all that impressive. From the main road, the profile beyond its moat is low, like a very rough pencil sketch of Parliament along the Thames but less grand and imposing. The three visible spires, leaden in color, plump and oddly mottled at this distance, don’t inspire at all. The camera comes out because it must. Through the viewfinder, it all looks even lower and longer and like less of a wonder.
But then … wow.
“Where are the words,” wrote French naturalist-explorer Henri Mouhot, who famously happened upon nearly forgotten Angkor Wat in 1861, “to praise a work of art that may not have its equal anywhere on the globe?”
Angkor Wat is a temple. More accurately, it was a temple, built by a Khmer king in the 1100s to honor the Hindu god Vishnu and to hold his own ashes, later rededicated to Buddha as the regional religious dynamic changed, still later a ruin, and today essentially an incense-scented museum.
It is massive. It is magnificent. But it takes a closer look to appreciate. Angkor Wat’s greatness sneaks up on you, comes at you in stages.
That it comes at you at all – that you’re welcome to visit – is a relatively recent phenomenon.
Angkor Wat was built between 1113 and 1150 by Khmer King Suryavarman II, then largely abandoned after Thai armies attacked in 1431. For most of the next 400 years, the temple sat there, watched over by the occasional monk and the odd monkey, looted of its more portable riches and, slowly but literally, falling apart.
When Henri Mouhot sent back excited reports of its grandeur – and as the French (supplanting the Siamese) were establishing a colonial presence in Cambodia in the mid-1800s – more Europeans came to see for themselves.Meanwhile, French archeologists launched restoration efforts at Angkor Wat, at the shrines within nearby Angkor Thom and at others in the region.
That went on, with a few interruptions, until the onset of World War II. The Japanese weren’t much interested in public works during their period in residence. When the French tried to reassert control after the Japanese surrender, pockets of indigenous fighters resisted.
While all this internal skirmishing was going on, and even as the situation in neighboring Vietnam was turning into what it turned into, restoration by the French heroically continued until the communist Khmer Rouge finally booted them back to Paris in 1970.
Over the next 20-plus years, more grief followed for Cambodia. The legacy of two decades’ worth of bombings, coups, invasion, occupation and civil war includes memories of unimaginable suffering and killing, and millions of land mines that, even today, continue to tear limbs off children’s bodies.
Through all this, of course, tourism wasn’t exactly a burgeoning enterprise. “From 1970,” said an information officer with the tourist office in Siem Reap, “no one came to see Cambodia.”With some exceptions.
In 1986, according to government figures, a total of 565 tourists came to see Angkor Wat. Most of the visitors were from Russia and Cuba. Cambodia, at the time, was occupied uneasily by the communist Vietnamese army, which was battling the communist Khmer Rouge and other armies representing other factions.
It was not an easy time – nor an easy visit. Tourists came, when they came at all, on day trips from the capital, Phnom Penh, 250km away.
“You couldn’t spend the night,” said an American-based tour operator who has been bringing people here since 1987. “It was too dangerous.”
The only hotel in Siem Reap – the now-luxury Grand Hotel d’Angkor – “was a $10 hotel that was worth $2. You had to haul water to the rooms to flush the toilets.”
Snipers haunted the jungles on the peripheries of the temples. As recently as January 1995, a tourist from Texas and her driver were shot and killed, and the tourist’s husband wounded, by gunmen near Banteay Srei temple, 30km from Angkor Wat. That year, the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC) had just completed an 18-month stay that the world hoped would bring a stabilizing presence in this political mess of a country. It didn’t quite – more coups and violence followed – but in 1995, the tourist count had reached 44,808.
In 1999 – a year after the death (of natural causes, maybe) of Khmer Rouge strongman Pol Pot – the total was 85,460. “After he died,” said the tourism spokesman, “we’ve seen major investment.”
What was one badly faded hotel in Siem Reap 10 years ago became, as of late last year, 56 hotels in all price ranges, including backpacker lodges but also two five-stars, for a total of 3,000 rooms. As you read this, almost certainly there are more. Hotel construction was and is ongoing and everywhere.
“It’s good to see the reputation is changing,” said Bruno L’Hoste, French-born operator of Le Tigre de Papier, one of Siem Reap’s more sophisticated watering holes. “It’s good to get out of the `war zone.’”
War zone. In a stone pillar just to the right of the West Gate of Angkor Wat: bullet holes. By the standards of today, they are old.
The moat is more than 200 metres wide and 7km around. Visitors walk a stone causeway over the water to the West Gate, the main entrance. Beyond the gate are what look to be three spires of moderate size, two flanking a central tower.
The West Gate leads to another causeway, this one 10m wide and 360m long over a grass field, the walkway bordered by a series of great carved nagas, the multiheaded snakes linked to Vishnu and found at so many sites here. Two stone libraries, in varying states of disrepair and resembling small museums, stand as sentries on either side.
Only now does the sheer size of this complex kick in. Vatican City could fit nearly five times on the 500 acres within the walls protecting the temple.
Walking along and looking ahead, you get a first good view of Angkor Wat itself. From here, the towers are commanding. And seen from an angle, it becomes clear they are five: Four lesser (relatively speaking) spires boxed around a soaring central tower.
There will be another terrace, and then yet another wall surrounding the temple – this one actually a gallery.
Along its corridors are eight bas-reliefs, carvings in that same gray stone – in all, more than kilometre’s worth – each telling epic stories: of the Battle of Kurukshetra, of the Battle of Lanka, of victories and pageantry, elephants and gods and invasions, of heaven and hell …
The carvings weren’t always gray, just as the friezes around the Parthenon weren’t always bleached white.
“They were painted at that time,” said my guide, Sokun. “You can still see some color.”
Archeologists estimate it took 37 years to complete Angkor Wat. Its sandstone came from a quarry 40km away, hauled here by elephants and horses and humans, but that was the easy part. As much as the temple’s massiveness, it’s the carvings – in number, in detail and in quality – that boggle. Although to get here we have passed nagas, a few stone lions and not a few celestial dancers (apsaras), this is where they really start to kick in: This is the heart of the structure, the temple pyramid – three levels, each with enclosures, terraces, towers, galleries and quirks (including a “hall of echoes” activated by a firm thump of the chest, ideally your own).
It is useless to try to describe all this in words. Even when on the site, with perspective being provided by a quality guide, it’s impossible to grasp what’s here.
That said, we’re going to try.
Every surface is adorned with something carved by ancient hands – dancers, gods and goddesses, demons and kings. Thousands of them.
All that shapeless “mottle” we see from the road is, seen up close, art.The years have done what years do. The elements have softened some edges. Religious conflicts have left Buddhas damaged and Hindu lingas (ritual phalluses) shattered. Rubbings have done some harm and have left unwanted residue. Pillars are gone.
Heads are missing from torsos, most sold for profit and scattered around the world.
Does that matter? Of course.
But looking up at the central tower from the third level …
It rises 70m above the ground, just 3m shorter than the towers of Paris’ Notre Dame Cathedral, which was begun soon after the completion of Angkor Wat. The Wat looks higher, probably due to the pyramid arrangement. It certainly feels higher.
The climb up narrow steps to the base of the central tower is frightening to all but those with inordinately fine balance or remarkably small feet. There are four stairways up; at just one, the south stairway, has a railing has been installed to assist descent by the nervous.
Only children and fools bypass the railing.
When this was the sanctuary of Khmer kings, only they and high priests could walk on this higher ground. That we can walk here makes it no less humbling. From that highest point, all is visible.
No wonder the Khmer Rouge army held it for years during the civil war. It was its strategic position, and its emotional position. To Cambodians, there is no more powerful national symbol than this.
In 1992, the year U.N. peacekeepers came in, Angkor was added to UNESCO’s World Heritage list. When UNESCO speaks of Angkor, it is of an archeological park that includes not only Angkor Wat but hundreds of temples and lesser structures – with restorations in progress by the nations of the world – scattered over more than 230 square miles.
Among them: the shrines of Angkor Thom, notably Bayon, with its own bas-reliefs and its prominent heads emerging seemingly from everywhere; Ta Prohm, still in the grip of strangler figs; Banteay Srei, whose pink delicacy gives it its own charm.
Here in Greater Angkor are terraces etched with elephants and platforms guarded by stone lions, and ruins that once were temples but now are little more than piles of stone blocks in a jungle pocked with red signs warning of land mines … and soon, perhaps, to be packed with tourists.
“Come now,” urged Canadian ex-pat Michelle Vachon, a reporter for the Cambodia Daily in Phnom Penh. “The place is changing so fast. Come now before they Disney-ize the place.”
Is that possible?
“Our tourism is cultural and natural,” said Thy, another guide, with confidence. “We have learned from other places.”
So that is Angkor.
But here, too, are rice fields and water buffalo and fishermen and thatch houses on stilts, villages where men wear sarongs and mothers nurse as they gossip and where children play naked in the rivers – where they laugh as children laugh everywhere when there is peace and there is food.
This is the Cambodia of today along the roads not far beyond Angkor Wat.
Sometimes it is difficult to know which, truly, is the wonder.