Southeast Asia Journal 15: April 9, 2010

Journal 14: April 9, 2010

Angkor Wat at sunrise

I heard a man say at a funeral once that we come into this world with nothing and we leave it the same way.  But I can’t say as I agree with that.   Whatever god that inspired that phrase, I believe that coming and going with nothing isn’t really good business if the idea is to get better with time.

For the last few years, after the many things I have seen, all the stories and memories and feelings of friends around the globe I believe that I will be leaving this world with much more than I had when I  came into it.

And, speaking of god and nothing:  God and nothing have a lot in common, I think.  And that is been exemplified in every new place I see.  People really want to believe that there is something greater than ourselves out there.  It’s essentially become a system of ethos.  It takes lots of forms and it’s believed in different lights no matter where you go.  Sometimes it’s resembled in golden relics; sometimes in the flora and fauna that surround a people in a given demographic; sometimes it’s embodied in the form of celestial manifestation connected in a web of shimmering specks woven across the night sky.

I tend to believe that because it may well be so much greater than us that we can’t begin to imagine its true greatness with our feeble, little minds, how, therefore, can we deify an object which we can comprehend in order to represent it?

300-year-old strangler figs have crept down over this entry way

In any case, this marvelous place has plenty of proof of worship to the higher order of things.  Of course, I am speaking of the temples of Angkor.  The sheer size of this place is almost unimaginable.  The entire city was once the bustling capitol of the Angkor Empire.  And it’s hard to imagine it but there are no definitive answers as to why it was abandoned.

Recent history has given us many clues as to why most of it has been demolished.  From World War Two to the Vietnam War when it was used as a stronghold, bombed by opposition and even defaced by the communist regime, it’s surprising that there is really any of it left.  Nevertheless, though, I did get to see the one place that I have been hoping to see ever since the July, 2009 edition of National Geographic came out, detailing the recent theories as to the ultimate demise of this wonderful city whose presence here dates back a thousand years.

To get the greater understanding of just how massive, organized and functional this place once was, you have to look at it from the bird’s-eye-view.  Actually, you would be better off seeing it from the satellites hovering over us in space.  The Mekong River, which I have already crossed once so far in my journey through this beautiful chunk of the planet, is the most powerful and life-giving resource to this area (aside from the sun, of course).  And to see its uses here is only too simplistic.  You must first understand that it starts high in the Tibetan ice fields.  So not only is it uninhibited by the climatic rollercoaster of monsoons, dry seasons and everything in between; it’s also a force that pushes water down to a gradually flattening plane.  And this is the greatest contributing factor that led to the success of the largest, organized, urban complex in the pre-industrialized world.

Angkor, itself, is a city that can be seen in its entirety if you rent a motorcycle and stay for a week of doing nothing but exploring.  So in my few days there it was simply impossible to take it all in.  However, there were some highlights that I couldn’t have gone without.

For my first day, I knew that I couldn’t wait to see the city’s center piece, Angkor Wat (or Angkor Temple).  I got up around 4:30 a.m. just to get the sunrise which, I was told, graces the Cambodian plains just behind it.  And, as with most of the temples throughout the Buddhist world, its symmetry is denoted by entrances in the four, cardinal directions.  Therefore, when the sun rises at one entrance, it will set at another.  There is almost always a body of water to the south and, if possible, mountains to the north.  This is what is accepted by most cultures in the Asean as good “Fung Shui.”  It ensures that the proper energy flow enters, fluidly disperses itself throughout the structure and then exits – all in an organized and coordinated way.

Firstly, even just traveling to get there is an adventure.  I hired a tuk-tuk

The flavor of Cambodia is evident everywhere

driver to take me through the three days of studying the monuments.  And all the while I was happy I did.  There are no dirty windows to ruin shots of the local flavor.  Monks on scooters, villagers selling goods, the nature as it exists and the culture as it moves through the days here is all something pretty amazing — and therefore worth every penny of the $10/day fee for the open-air, motorized coach known throughout Indochina as the “tuk-tuk.”

In Angkor’s construction, there was a large moat surrounding the entire temple.  It was massive.  To cross it, it must have been at least 100 meters.  But its circumference around the four entrances was the really impressive part.  Not only did the moat extend for about 500 meters on each side, it was lined all the way around with a series of continuous steps on either side of the water.  This made the entire thing look more like the grandest set of stadium stands ever created by the sweat of man.  The effort of bringing these huge, stone slabs alone must have been a marvel of organization and coordination.  Looking across the moat in 180 degrees of the visual peripheral plane while seated on one of these slabs, one can imagine endless tiers of orange robes draped over shaved, tanned heads encircling this beautiful monument at the epicenter of the Angkor Empire.


Not impressed yet?  Well, I haven’t described the wall that surrounds all of this, which is another 500 meters out from the moat.  This wall, which is overgrown by strangler figs and other flora, was, brick by brick, carved, crafted and carried from an area around the banks of the Mekong floodplain

Intricately carved walls surround the temple and the city

about 400 kilometers away.  The carvings depict huge figures from elephants to gods to people and when it was complete it told a story of the successes of the kingdom as it had once reigned supreme in that area – extending to reaches farther than that of the Roman Empire.

And if after all of this you’re still not impressed, there is another wall that surrounds the entire city.  It’s just as fascinating and about ten times as impressive.  It has entryways with inscriptions and little sculptures – each one unique – that number about 1500 or so on each overarching entryway.  Each one intricately crafted and looking as though its care and meticulous attention was the devoted focus of a single man’s entire lifetime.

But back to the success and ingenuity of this place:  In reading up on the history and archeological discoveries of the area, it has been found that there were many structures – since destroyed by floods, droughts, even the builders, themselves – that are impressive by today’s standards.  These included underground tunnels, viaducts, aqueducts, and several different types of mass-water pumps which kept water in the city throughout the long, rainless months.

There were pools, moats, ponds.  There were even four massive, rectangular barays (one in each cardinal direction pointing toward Angkor Wat) which diverted water from many sources including the Siem Reap River.  A thousand years ago, to build something as large as one of these barays, as many as 200,000 Khmer workers may have been needed to pile up nearly 16 million cubic yards of soil in embankments 300 feet wide and three stories tall. It was truly a massive undertaking.  And it was so well thought-out that it was planned down to the days when the last bit of saturated soil from the retreating monsoons was set to take place.  They even knew which areas had the siltier, sandier and loamier soil that would need to be moistened first in order to keep continuous rice production.

This was the defining factor in the Khmer people’s success in rice production throughout the dry months and, consequently, their ability to extend their rule into larger and larger portions of their surrounding nations.  As Angkor was a moneyless society, all their influence came from the money-dependent countries around them.   Even today Angkor remains the largest single religious monument in the history of the world.

But that’s enough about the history.  On to the present.

Millions of carvings line the walls and doorways of the Angkor temples

The temples, the carvings, the tile-work, the massive stone structures ensconced in pagodas and tens- and hundreds-of-meters-high temples; it was almost too much to take in.  But I did my best anyway.

The gallery below should show you a glimpse of some of the wonderful things there are to see here.  Aside from the guards posted at the front of most of the temples, there is really no one that walks around telling you that you can’t climb on things.  There are a few signs here and there, but for the most part, no one really watches over you.  So I climbed.  I scurried.  I risked a broken back.  But I got lots of great shots.

Please enjoy these as I have enjoyed being here and taking them.  And thanks again for reading.  It has brought me great pride and personal pleasure to have heard back from all of you about my trips.  Keep them coming and let me know what you think, what you might want to see more of and what are your favorite parts.

I will not likely be able to write again until I reach my next top-10 must-see location: Vietnam.

Until then, all my best!

[Gallery will be posted when photos finish uploading]

A grateful thanks and citing of information goes to the National Geographic Society for the July 2009 edition of their wonderful flagship publication, National Geographic Magazine.


One thought on “Southeast Asia Journal 15: April 9, 2010

  1. Angkor Wat at sunrise was worth the early morning wake up call! Very nice; one I’ve been lookng for! Between your narative nad photographs I think you are describing a great adventure. There should be a few sponsors that you could sign up to advertise on your site and help pay the expenses. I might be a little biases but I think you’re doing a great job! Z

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