As a tour guide, I have had the privilege of sharing some of the classic, great travel moments with my clients, it’s what I enjoy most about my job. Ascending the Eiffel Tower. Exploring the Colosseum. The awe of St. Peter’s first thing in the morning. The look on people’s faces the first time they see the Valley of the Temples. There are too many great moments in travel to list. But how often am I, myself, truly blown away? I was in Cambodia, at Angkor Wat.
Angkor Wat has been on my to-do list for many years. I remember studying it in architecture school a million years ago. It seems so beautiful and foreign, so distant, like something out of an action/adventure movie. As it turns out, there’s a good reason that I have this impression. It has been in movies. It’s a symbol of something etherial and exotic. Imagine steamy jungles with vines creeping between ancient stones, the sound of monkeys chirping and bats soaring overhead. Put on your Indiana Jones fedora and grab your whip, you’re coming with me to visit Angkor.
Angkor the City
To call the site Angkor Wat is not entirely accurate. Wat means temple, and Angkor Wat refers to a specific temple within an ancient site. What I didn’t realize is that the ancient site is not just one, it is a huge series of sites spread out over a large area.
The Angkor area is in the northwest of Cambodia, a beautiful and complicated land. The nearest city is Siem Reap, a tourism hub that sits at the foot of the historic area. As I mentioned in my previous article, Siem Reap is surprisingly modern and comfortable, a big contrast with the historic sites.
Angkor is the civilization, a thriving kingdom that ceased to exist about 500 years ago. At its height in the 1200’s, it was likely home to more than a million people, at a time when cities in the west, like Paris, were considered metropolises with 30,000 inhabitants.
The importance of Angkor and its’ place in history may not be something you know about. It is likely the largest settlement in history, and if it’s second, it would only be Ancient Rome to exceed it. Angkor Wat, the temple, is said to be the largest religious structure of any kind in the world.
The history of the site lasts from about 800-1400. The Khmer Empire ruled from Angkor and included modern Cambodia, Laos and Thailand. The kings of the Khmer built the Angkor complex to glorify the empire, but also as burial places for themselves and monuments to their families. In one case, an existing structure was built by a king as a library for a particularly educated and beloved queen. She was his favorite wife. Isn’t that sweet?
The temples are all stone and masonry, carved with beautiful and intricate details. The patterns depict themes from the Hindu religion, some are inspired by Buddhism, which came later. Angkor Tom is a favorite, with soaring spires covered in smiling faces. Apparently, each smile is slightly different and has a meaning. They all sort of look the same to me, but I really like the idea of a smiling deity. A happy God, maybe that’s why the Cambodians seem like happy people.
As with medieval architecture in Europe, Angkor doesn’t look the way it was meant to look. What we see today is impressive, but it would have been stunning 500 years ago. The stone would not have been gray or red, everything would have been brightly painted. The Buddha faces that smile would have been covered in gold leaf, shimmering in the steaming afternoon sun. The carvings depicting ancient religious stories would have been like vivid and colorful storybooks. If you look close, you can find traces of the colors still today.
A striking feature of Angkor, even today, is the water. Most temples have some water element, such as a moat or lake nearby. The sophisticated Khmer kings created a system of canals and waterworks that could divert water as needed, channeling monsoon waters to keep them for use in the dry season. This, along with the fertile land surrounding Angkor that grows almost anything in a three-season cycle, can probably explain how a civilization in the Middle Ages could support a million people. Food and water. That’s how Ancient Rome grew to a million too.
The civilization eventually declined, although the reasons are not clear. It could have been the shift from Hindu to Buddhist religion. Perhaps it was the plague, which reached Asia about 10 years before it hit Europe. It could have been the constant fighting with neighbors, in particular, the neighbors who would eventually become Thailand and Burma. For whatever reason, after 600 years, the site was slowly abandoned and the Khmer relocated to a more defensible position near the modern Phnom Pen.
I could go into all of the historical details, but I won’t. I’d like to share the bigger picture I took away from my visit. It is the simple fact that there was an incredible, creative, wealthy empire with a huge population in the Middle Ages, and we learn almost nothing about it. To put it on a European time line, Angkor Wat was built about the same time as Notre Dame in Paris, or the Leaning Tower of Pisa. By the time St. Peter’s in Rome was started, Angkor was in decline.
The most analoguous timeline would be Venice. Established at the same time, around 800, at a peak 1200-1300, then in a slow decline through until 1500. These things were happening at the same time, a world apart. Did they know each other?
It seems to me that we have a blind spot in our education in the US. We learn about our country and a bit about Europe. We never really learn much about the other half of the world and how their histories connect. To try and understand history, I am finding, working hard at filling in that blind spot creates a much fuller, more vibrant view of the world. That’s the beauty of traveling to places that are strange and outside of your frame of reference.
I learned a bit about Angkor in my architectural history classes. It wasn’t until I saw it in person that I had any understanding of what it is, especially the scale. It is one of the most impressive sites I’ve been to.
The temples are in varying states of decay. Some are mostly together, damaged but alive. Some were damaged by gun fire during the recent civil wars.
The jungle has overtaken many sites. One site was damaged, not by earthquakes or looting, but by rampaging elephants and nesting tigers. I can imagine the earliest European visitors cutting through vines with machetes and running from angry beasts that they disturbed. The sites of Angkor make the imagination run wild.
It’s poetic, in a sense. I remember my favorite history professor in college once pointing out that the earth doesn’t need humans. He spoke of how all human ambition and monuments to greatness are just temporary. The earth will always reclaim what man can make. I’ve felt that in the Roman Forum. It was truly enlightening the see the same cycles in strange and foriegn lands as well.
History, architecture, nature and the melancholy of decay, it is visual poetry, a meditation on civilization. Angkor is indeed one of the great travel experiences.
Does this sound like your kind of adventure? Then come along with me in 2018! I’m guiding a tour of Thailand (with an extension to Cambodia) with Imprint Tours, more information here: http://imprinttours.com/tours/2013-tantalizing-thailand/