If you asked me just a few months ago where Cambodia was situated, I almost definitely would have said (embarrassingly) a country in Africa. That is a testament to how truly ignorant I am; however, I am trying to change. I now know that Cambodia is a country in South East Asia, bordered by Laos to the North, Vietnam to the East, and Thailand to the West. It is a country that has been riddled with war and is only now recovering from the economic impact of these struggles for power.
Cambodia is now most widely recognized for its ancient temples and remnants of its cities, some dating back as far as the 7th century. Angkor Wat is the most famous of the bunch, and is a United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) world heritage site, along with The Great Wall of China, the Galápagos Islands, and the city of Venice (to name a few of the popular ones). It serves as the country’s national symbol, and is the pride of Cambodia. In the city of Siem Reap, where Angkor Wat is located, no buildings can rise higher than the temple at Angkor.
The Khmer empire was the dominant empire in South East Asia during the 12th century, but met its demise when invaded by the Ayutthaya Empire of Thailand, and was eventually abandoned in the mid 15th century. At the peak of its power, Angkor was the largest pre-industrial city, spanning an area of almost 3000 square kilometres, with the resources to support as many as one million citizens. All that remains now are damaged structures and a lot of rubble.
We visited only a handful of the 3000+ temples in Cambodia, and they were truly awe-inspiring even now, after decaying in the jungle and being buried for centuries. These temple complexes were usually reserved for the elite members of society, while the lower class villages dotted the countryside outside the walls. Common homes were built from perishable materials so were unable to survive hundreds of years under the earth, but evidence of support post holes for houses and fragments of tools and earthenware allow anthropologists to approximate how the citizens of Angkor lived.
Angor Wat is a sight to behold — its enormity cannot be captured in pictures and its complexity is impossible to describe. But you know I’ll try.
Imagine a long interlaid stone bridge, raised several feet off the ground, its thick balustrades adorned with giant, leering seven-headed snake Nagas carved in what were once limestone blocks weighing several tons. On either side of the bridge is a murky moat, now overgrown with lotus. The sun sparkles off its mirror-like surface. You see the three trademark pagodas of Angkor Wat on the horizon at the end of the bridge, small and unremarkable, but approach the temple and they rise slowly from the earth, revealing their true enormity and their true dominance. Climb the smooth uneven steps and enter through a soaring archway, each stone precisely placed, each flower delicately carved on their surfaces. Inside the temple it is shady and cool. Bats screech in the high ceilings. Gloomy corridors are lined with stone Buddhas, some toppled, some headless, some missing. Impressive columns are engraved from floor to ceiling in fine, intricate Sanskrit and Khmer script, their once vibrant colours now faded. As you float through the maze of rooms and tunnels and courtyards, you try to envision the inhabitants of this once sacred, majestic place, try to plot their movements and their tasks, but your imagination will fail you. Modern monks in bright orange robes light incense and kneel on woven mats at the feet of golden statues, but you know this is not what Angkor was. When Angkor fell, its secrets were fractured, and we are still trying to reassemble the damaged fragments that remain. You are left wondering.
I will not describe each temple we visited, but I can say that they were unique and in varying states of ruin, all impressive, but not equally so. There was my favourite, the temple of Bayon at Angkor Thom, a marvel of architecture and art, its countless grey stone pagodas carved with faces on all four sides. There was Ta Phrom (a.k.a. the Tomb Raider temple) that has been reclaimed by the jungle, with giant trees with pale barks and roots that have wound themselves around columns and through stone walls, seeming to sprout from the rock itself. There was Preah Kahn, with its gates flanked by tall stone guardians, and immense limestone bridges with balustrades in the form of snakes being supported by more sinister looking statues.
There is ongoing work on many of the temples, as various countries fund the efforts to conserve the portions that are still standing and to rebuild areas from disorganized piles of rubble, while maintaining the authenticity of the original structure. But it is still important that the public be able to experience these ruins in depth, as they are a part of our heritage that would have otherwise been lost. Visitors can access the majority of areas within the temples, and are often free to climb treacherously steep steps to reach the top of a pagoda and soak in the green landscape below. But because these are all religious sites, visitors must dress modestly, keeping their knees and shoulders covered out of respect (unless you’re male, then the rule becomes “just don’t go shirtless”).
Paul and I explored Angkor over the span of three days and visited about a dozen temples. I’m probably going to use this word a lot going forward, but it really was a humbling experience to stand in the shadow of these gargantuan ruins, knowing that each limestone block was cut and heaved and placed and carved entirely by hand, without the use of modern machinery. Each site could have easily taken years to build.
I’m not really sure how to end this, but I will say that I’m very behind in writing because it tends to be very time consuming for me. I am not quite a perfectionist, but I care about what I write and how I write it, and oftentimes I just can’t get it right, or the vocabulary escapes me. I know that what I’ve written thus far has not been perfect, and I know this because I’ve jealously pored over established travel blogs with thousands of followers. I am still in the process of discovering my own style, so I may try new things and I suppose my readers are my Guinea pigs. I appreciate everyone who continues to follow me on my travels. Thank you for reading, and thank you for your comments. They make me want to continue writing because I know you’ll all be less harsh critics than I.
More on Cambodia to come!