Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Ankgor Archaeological Park, Cambodia: Carved in Stone

Shrouded in mystery, the Angkor Archaeological Park is a site that literally changed the way I perceived my life, and life in general. It stretches over 400 square kilometres, and was the largest pre-industrial city in history. Bri and I wandered and pondered through the ancient complex in constant contemplation, utterly amazed. Every traveller knows this is a must see alongside the world's greatest sights, which isn't surprising considering it's one of the seven wonders of the world. We awoke around 4 o'clock in the morning and met our tuk-tuk driver outside our hostel while the air was still heavy with moisture, and the sun was still waiting to make its mark on the day. We arrived at Angkor Wat, the crown jewel of this religious complex, shortly before sunrise and made our way towards the temple. I've been lucky enough to see some remarkable things in this world, but this may very well be at the top of the list. The sun silhouetted the iconic structure, and I couldn't help feel an overwhelming sense of awe, appreciation, and disbelief.

Angkor Wat, just outside of Siem Reap, is the world's largest religious monument. Stop for a moment and think about how significant that is. Hindu in origin, there is simply no other sight as beloved by the Cambodian people. Take their flag as proof:


While there, I actually bought a book on the Angkor complex to help provide context, and ultimately help me accurately write about it afterwards. The book is Michael Freeman and Claude Jacques's "Ancient Angkor," and it describes Angkor Wat as a "microcosm of the Hindu universe." The moat represents the oceans, the galleries represent the mountain ranges surrounding mythical Mount Meru, and the towers represent the mountain peaks themselves. I should quickly note that Mount Meru is the home of the gods in Hindu mythology. Other temples similarly use this symbolism, but the sheer size of Angkor Wat enabled a full scale representation of the Hindu universe. Perhaps all that isn't terribly enticing to you, but what I wanted to note is that from the early 12th century (the oldest temple in the complex was constructed even earlier - in the 9th century),  this place was meticulously planned and executed with brilliant Khmer architecture. Everything is symbolic, and the detail is incredulous. Angkor Wat, perhaps unsurprisingly, translates into "temple city."

Angkor Thom was one of the largest of all the Khmer cities, and also apparently the most enduring. It's highlighted by the "The Bayon," or "Bayon Temple." It's known as one of the most powerful religious sights in the world, and is an incredibly enticing sight for tourists because of all the "faces" carved into the stone. I was baffled by this temple, and Bri and I spent a significant amount of time taking in all that we could. I can't remember writing this, but in my notebook I wrote, "I can't decide if these places are a symbol of the mortality of man or immortality."

Make no mistake, this will be a photograph heavy entry, and that's largely because many of these temples are indescribable. Even just looking over these photographs again gives me goosebumps, and sparks intense emotion in me. I'm not entirely sure what that emotion is. It's likely a mix of respect, awe, passion, contemplation and amazement. Whatever it is, my heart begins to beat a little faster.

Northwest of Bayon, but still inside Angkor Thom, lies Baphoun Temple. This temple isn't in remarkable shape but that's only to be expected for anything constructed in the 11th century. A lot of the buildings would be in better condition had the Khmer Rouge (mentioned in my post on Phnom Penh) not interrupted the restoration efforts when they came to power. I have a strong feeling that the progress of the whole country was horribly interrupted by the actions of the Khmer Rouge. Alas, I digress, The Baphoun Temple is three tiered, imbued in symbolism, and completed with a dramatic walkway leading to its entrance.

If I describe all the temples I visited in lavish detail, then we'll be here all day, so I'm going to push the proverbial fast forward button on a few locations. It's not that they weren't interesting, but as the aforementioned point suggests, it's in all of our best interest. We briefly stopped at Phimeanakas (which sounded more Greek than Khmer to me), Chao Say Tevoda, and Thommanon on our way to Ta Keo.

What makes Ta Keo, also known as Ta Keo Temple Mountain, interesting is that it's almost entirely devoid of external carvings and decorations. It's a stark contrast to something like the intricate, detail-oriented Bayon Temple. From what I understand, the artists were just beginning to carve when it was struck by lightning, so they took that as a sign that they should abandon the project. That could be folklore, but that's what some locals told us in Siem Reap, and it would make sense considering how closely the ancient Khmer people observed signs, rituals etc...It's a large temple that is noted for its five sanctuary towers in the middle. I think it's also notable for it's steep, somewhat treacherous steps.

Ta Prohm is what many people envision when they hear about the Ankgor Archaeological Park. It's one of the most visited temples, and many people would recognize it from the movie Tomb Raider, where Angelina Jolie makes use of its bizarre and wonderful qualities. It's an example of a sight that has been reclaimed by nature. Stones intertwine with vines, and enormous tree roots struggle through, around, and over the sandstone. This temple was left in roughly the same condition it was found in for this very reason. It is astonishing. Bri and I took our time weaving through the impressive ruins, once again in deep contemplation. I found it interesting that the most awe-inspiring temple was actually the one closest to ruin, in the greatest disrepair. Perhaps I can say that it's in a state of perfect collapse

It was remarkably easy for me to conjure up the emotions I felt about this place even months after the fact because visiting it is an unforgettable experience. I even remember small, peculiar details of the day. For example, I vividly recall overhearing a father trying to instill to his young son what this place really meant to the world. "Try to think about where you are," he kept saying. And that's the mantra I also chose to abide by - to constantly try to place myself on the map and in time. It isn't particularly hard to bring yourself back to another time and place when the structures around you smell of history, and enormous roots of prehistoric trees leave you humbled with your own mortality. I tried to think about what citizens of these cities thought about time, their own place in history.  I don't think I ever came up with a concrete answer, but how could I, after all? The magic of the Angkor Archaeological Park isn't just the structures, it's the induced thought process that makes you realize that no one is immortal, humility is essential, and that in the present day it's important to put down the gadget of the moment, and occasionally look to the past instead of the future.