Ruins fascinate people. We fly halfway around the world to marvel at the achievements and mysteries of defunct civilizations, and shake our heads in disbelief that there were predecessors capable of producing structures that would present an insurmountable challenge to modern architects and engineers. We stand humbled.
Strange as it is that anyone would wish to spend a vacation steeped in a feeling of profound humility, the booming popularity of the ruins of Angkor in Cambodia are testament to that fact.
This mind-numbing collection of massive stone temples, built between the 9th and 13th centuries, was rediscovered by French explorers in the Cambodian jungle in the 1860s and enjoyed in popularity with scholars and adventurers early in the last century.
However, from the mid-seventies until just a couple of years ago, Cambodia’s political turmoil made it impossible to go there without risk of being killed or taken hostage by the Khmer Rouge. Fortunately, that tragic chapter in the country’s history has been brought to a close and the temples are now safe and accessible. Suddenly, the site has become the must-see of Southeast Asia.
But unlike a lot of stylish travel destinations, this one lives up to the hype.
Here is the fact about visiting the ruins: There are lots of them, covering an area of 400 square kilometers, though most visit only a handful of temples, which are thankfully very close to each other.
The three most magnificent (and popular) temples are the Angkor Wat, the Bayon and Ta Prohm.
Angkor Wat: An Exercise in Belief
Nothing can prepare you for the impact when you first clap eyes on Angkor Wat. It is a massive square structure covering 500 acres, and as you get closer, it only gets bigger.
The structure represents a Hindu conception of the universe, an earth-bound model of the cosmic world. The center symbolizes Mount Meru, the five surrounding towers form the mountain’s peaks, the main wall portrays the mountains at the edge of the world and the moat the infinite oceans beyond.
It is not just the sheer size that impresses though. The presentation sets your heart a-flutter with anticipation. The long walk up the causeway to the main entrance builds the excitement, and as you enter, you find you have only just passed an outer wall. Going further, distracted and awed by the bas reliefs on every surface, is the first of three concentric chambers with hallways 400 meters long, and covered with thousands of bas relief sculptures.
Venturing further inward and upward, the center section looms overhead leading to the inner sanctum, a central tower shaped like a giant lotus bud more than 200 meters tall.
It’s a cause for reflection. The execution of such a structure would certainly have eaten up much of the Empire’s resources. Indeed, some scholars believe that the building of Angkor eventually led to its downfall. Social necessities would have to be well sorted out before undertaking such a project.
Imagine the coordination of the massive workforce cutting huge blocks of stone from hillsides, dragging them into place, and then of course the logistics of assembling thousands of stone masons, persuading them to chip out identical carvings and then heaving them into place. What on earth were they thinking?
Angkor Thom: City of a Thousand Faces
Within walking distance of Angkor Wat is the former city of Angkor Thom, which rivaled Ancient Rome in size and population. This contains a few significant ruins, including the Terrace of the Leper King, is a huge stone platform probably used for public events, and the Terrace of the Elephants, which is also believed to have served as a stage for large public ceremonies. Both feature meticulously executed stone carvings of both human and mythical figures.
The most fascinating section though is The Bayon, a temple built in the 12th century. Where Angkor Wat knocks you off your feet with its sheer size, the Bayon is eerily different. Its many towers feature more than 200 huge faces of the God-King Jayavarman rendered as Boddhisatva – the Buddha — staring down through lidded eyes brimming with beatific confidence. It’s difficult not to be intimidated.
The outer walls are covered in carvings depicting vivid scenes of everyday life in 12th century Cambodia – from harvesting to battle. The inner temple is a maze of dark corridors. The lights at the ends of the tunnels open onto elevated courtyards, where that omnipresent face gazes down with benevolent disapproval.
Ta Phrom: Mother Nature Always Wins
While Angkor Wat was preserved by the continuous inhabitation of monks using machetes to keep the jungle at bay, or other structures undergoing restoration, the 12th century temple of Ta Phrom is in the same state as when it was first discovered by the 19th century explorers.
The temple roof caved in hundreds of years back and tree roots have patiently burst through the moss-encrusted stonewalls. Visitors must clamber over fallen blocks the size of Volkswagens.
There’s a lesson in here, and this is why Ta Phrom has been left untouched. Even the most impressive achievements of humans are dwarfed by nature’s relentlessness. However much we may conquer and subdue the earth, it persists in conquering and subduing us back.
If global society were to crumble tomorrow, (and it just might), the historians of some future civilization would sift through the rubble of New York City, marveling at the skeletal ruins of the World Trade Center and the Empire State Building and easily deduce much about the civilization that built them. After all, they were intended to make a statement in the first place.
The leaders of that civilization may even charge admission to look at our ruins, using the money to erect ambitious tributes to whatever it is that summons their own sense of awe.
It goes to show you. Previous civilizations have built great structures and committed great follies – usually at the same time. Chances are that so are we, and the ruins of the Khmer Empire are a profound reminder of that fact – and perhaps one of the best reasons to go see them.
Here is your chance to experience Angkor Wat
Adventure tours in Cambodia: Active Travel Cambodia
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