Oh, Angkor. Any ode to you that’s been brewing in my head ever since I heard of you years ago will not be ode enough. Any words I find to describe even a minuscule part of your physical grandeur or your geographical significance will do you no justice. Any description of how you dwarf the human who created you and glorify the god you stand for will just fall by the wayside in a pile of words. A blog is no place for you. Words are all I have to offer and they are nowhere close to painting a picture of even one stone in the mound of ruins or the soaring stones that we know by your name today. Forgive me, as I pay tribute in the only way I know how.
Angkor is much, much more than the main Angkor Wat. Haunting shells of former glorious temples dot the 400 square kilometres of this UNESCO heritage site (of which we saw only a tiny fraction). It is their size, structure and significance that boggled my mind. In its heyday a thousand years ago, Angkor was the largest city in the world. A million people toiled in the heart of the Khmer region, their faith moving the Kulen mountains to build monuments that their kings ordered. Their living gods. For what else can explain this massive human effort to raise brick and stone to the sky?
Angkor captured my imagination a decade ago and I’ve been dreaming of it ever since I moved to this region. It lent itself beautifully to a neat trip plan, and Lonely Planet and Travelfish ensured my kinda sunglasses-cap-and-map exploration.
And then it sucked the breath out of me.
Why am I drawn to historical sites like this one? It’s not like I take great photos or paint their panoramas, the essence of storytelling here. And it’s not like I remember much of history a few days after my trip. Yet there is a strange lure of the past that raises its head every once in a while, and reaches a crescendo till I give in and go. I honestly don’t know why. While I ponder that, B had a great time with his camera around the ruins. The pictures used in this post is our ode to Angkor, because well, I couldn’t help clicking away too!
There is a certain contradiction in Angkor, in my mind at least. It is a stark reminder of the impermanence of human creation, even if it is made of seemingly indestructible brick and stone. It’s haunting to see massive tree roots cheekily hug strong grey stone, as piles of rubble lie strewn around. On the other hand, it is also an example of how we restore and preserve these works of art even a thousand years after their creation (and six hundred years since their destruction). I guess it is a standing ovation to what we now call culture, a deep seated human need to understand where we came from and what we stand for. It’s amazing, this constant human search for our roots even as we look towards creating a better world for our children. No wonder it is so hard to live in the present!
The Khmer royal women are conspicuous by their absence. While there are numerous carvings of voluptuous apsaras all over the temples, there are no queen’s quarters or temples built for the ladies. Who are these mysterious women? Who are these forces that mothered powerful kings that ruled from Burma to Malaysia but are now lost to history? Even googling the royal women of the Khmer empire yields precious little. Why?
An ode to Preah Khan
Sadly, I was a tad underwhelmed by the top three. Too little time at Bayon, too many people at Ta Prohm (I disobeyed Lonely Planet’s route just that one time), and too long at Angkor Wat (including a sun that refused to peep out of the clouds). The smaller spots made up for this mightily. My favourite was Preah Khan.
Preah Khan begins with a strangeness to it, a fusion Hindu-Buddhist temple caught in the conflicts of kings changing faiths. Trees poke out of every nook while wild lizards sun themselves on hot stones and centipedes slither into mysterious gaps. As we walk through the restored narrow central corridor, window spaces frame piles of stones in the courtyards which we want to clamber over but can’t reach. A lichen covered half-restored chapel stares out at us, a massive tree root next to it prevents any further restoration.
An unexplained two-storey structure sits in the north-eastern corner, magnificent pillars holding up an equally magnificent platform with no space for human or animal between them. Cicadas screech in the background as a jungle path extends from the eerie south entrance into somewhere that we have no courage to poke into. I read that any further restoration will only guess how it stood since there are no records, so a delicate balance prevails between what we can infer and the ravenous jungles that destroyed the rest.
An attempt at conscious travel
I’m challenging myself to write about the environment and the economies of the places I visit, keeping a running account on this blog to see what I do about these on each trip. My philosophy is to do as much as I can, not to be perfect. It is the indifference of what can one person do that I hear all around me (and sometimes in my head too) that I’m trying to shove aside. It matters. Because of the sheer number of humans on this planet. One person, one small difference, it can add up in a big way.
We stayed at Sala Bai, a free hospitality training school for underprivileged youth. A stay or a meal here pays for their study as they train to be absorbed into the largest employment sector here – tourism. Vocational training is more relevant than a formal education to pull someone out of extreme poverty, and students here earn three times more when they graduate than their parents in the rural areas. We loved every minute of it. They even had glass water bottles in the rooms! The students were so helpful and even through their halting English, made us feel at home. I learnt my hellos and thank yous in Khmer and used it liberally here in between their English practice with us.
Remorks are by far the most common way to get around Siem Reap and Angkor. Now I think it is quite possible to have a network of shuttles to string together various temple circuits that independent/solo travelers can pay to use (we used a four-seater remark for the two of us). Sure, it would mean creating better parallel roads to the temples and arranging a one way system away from the tour busses, but it is possible. However, it would be a huge hit to the livelihoods of these remork drivers, and they wouldn’t allow such a system in place. So we still have remorks, regular taxis, large and small tour busses and potholed roads. It’s easy to think that a fun remork ride is as integral to the Angkor experience as the temples themselves 🙂 Next time, we’re thinking cycles, but only once we get the heat and distance logistics hashed out. I ponder about the drivers’ livelihood yanked away from him (there were no her) if more people do this, as I’m sure will happen a few decades from now. Perhaps a cycle rental surcharge/optional additional fee should go into training them as guides? Just a stray thought.
Our plastic casualties over three days – two half litre water bottles and two takeaway meals. I made my effort of washing and drying everything out and left Sala Bai a note to recycle these, the rest I leave to the universe 🙂
Book read on the trip: Erm, Lonely Planet 🙂 But around the trip, I read First They Killed My Father, a survivor’s account of the Khmer Rouge years. Loung Ung was five years old when her family was torn apart while running from the Khmer Rouge, and it made me stop every few pages to regroup and compose myself. As I looked into every senior local face on this trip, I wondered where they were in 1975 and what they did to keep themselves safe. But I was too chicken to bring up this topic with anyone.