We gather all our patience, attention, and–yes–courage for the final push. It’s not going to be easy: slogging through the damp and dimly-lit passageways; pulling ourselves up the mountainous formations, the sun beating down hard on our backs. It’s like the final three miles of a marathon (or the final three miles of a three-mile run for Claudia). You’re probably as sick of hearing about temples as we are about talking about them, but take a deep breath, gather up your remaining fortitude, make sure you’re well hydrated, slam a GU, and join us.
Siem Reap, a large and cosmopolitan city in western Cambodia, is located just a few kilometers away from dozens of pre-medieval ruins, the only evidence left of the powerful and far-reaching Khmer empire of the 9th to 15th centuries. We spent two days biking and tuk-tuking between the historical temples, abodes and worship-places of the god-kings: first the expansive and impressive Angkor Thom; later the beautifully crumbling Ta Prohm, midway through the process of being engulfed by the dense jungle surrounding it; and finally to Angkor Wat, the largest religious building in the world, and an enduring symbol of devotion first to the Hindu deities, and later to the Buddha.
Angkor Thom is impressive and almost inconceivably huge. The last complex built by the Khmer kings, it is centered on the impressive Bayon, a monumental structure with numerous four-sided spires brandishing the malevolent faces of Khmer deities. On entering, it seems like a claustrophobic and haphazard jumble of un-unified features, but after doing a lap or two, its symmetry and the architectural prowess of its designers becomes ever more apparent. It’s easy to wander through the dark tunnels and turn a corner only to unexpectedly come across a small shrine with burning incense and a few worshipping devotees, or to pass through a doorway and look up to find yourself faced with an eight-foot god-head looking none-too-pleased by your presence.
Just a bit north stand two regal terraces. The first and larger terrace of the elephants was used by the Khmer kings to observe processions and sporting demonstrations in the field below. It contains some magnificent stone carving, especially (predictably) of figures of elephants, as well as some stonework that was undoubtedly mis-reconstructed at some point, looking more like a mismatched jumble of kids’ blocks or a clumsily solved jigsaw puzzle than the meticulous and deliberate artistic statement that the Khmers were capable of.
Surrounding and protecting the whole complex is an expansive moat, only passable through four gateways at the site’s sides. Each contains an ominous three-spired archway featuring more god-heads, and a bridge flanked on either side by dozens of muscular representations that we understand to be gods and demons locked in a tug-of-war over the “Churning of the Ocean of Milk”, part of a Hindu creation myth.
Quite a change from Angkor Thom, instead of the wonders of human devotion and engineering, what’s on display here is a somewhat more solemn message of the power of nature and the inevitability of collapse and destruction.
Perhaps it was left too long to decay before any serious reconstruction effort was underway, but the trees are clearly in control here, and not the humans. The temple is covered, choked, and strangled with the bulbous roots of tall trees. The root systems climb over spires, straddle walls, and pull individual stone blocks out of place one by one in their endless search for fresh soil.
It’s a humbling display of the power of nature, and also an experience that leads me to question how much restoration and upkeep have taken place with the other historical structures we’ve visited: If this is what’s possible in less than a thousand years, then how much does the well-intentioned but sometimes mistaken efforts of a few decades of historians, archaeologists, and modern engineers affect our experience of once-momentous structures?
Fun fact: much of the Angelina Jolie vehicle, Tomb Raider, was filmed at this temple.
Finally, the best-known and probably most technically impressive structure in the area: Angkor Wat. Massive in scale, the building towers over its surroundings; and yet meticulous in detail, it draws the eye to the hundreds of meters of detailed carvings no more than an arm’s reach away.
Angkor Wat’s scale and symmetry can be deceiving, even disorienting: after making a few laps of the various levels of interconnected terraces, it’s hard to tell how high up you are, and where in the expansive floorplan you’ve ended up. It’s the ultimate expression of Khmer engineering, and deserving of all the accolades bestowed upon it. It’s one of those places, like the Taj Mahal, or Machu Picchu, that looks impressive and almost impossibly beautiful in photos, and equally as impressive in person.