Cambodia, The Temples of Angkor
October 18-21, 2005

Cradling a puppy near Angkor Wat Cradling a puppy near Angkor Wat
Angkor Wat Angkor Wat
Popular history tells of the lost temples of Angkor, rediscovered in the mid-nineteenth century. In reality, the temples were never lost. In fact, when a publication by French naturalist Henri Mouhot brought Angkor Wat to the public's attention in 1860, the massive complex was in use as a monastery, just as it had been for hundreds of years.

Regardless, when walking through some of the more remote regions of Angkor, any visitor might feel like they're the first person to lay eyes the ancient monuments in hundreds of years. In the walled temples of Ta Prohm and Preah Khan, nature has gone largely unchecked with towering trees dominating the monolithic architecture. Cambodian spong trees have sprouted from the tops of the walls, their roots draping like melted wax, enshrouding the grey bricks in a dense tangle of wood. Younger roots reach into the slender cracks like tiny hands, intent on prying the bricks apart to reclaim the land for the jungle.

To get from temple to temple, I rented a rusty women's one-speed bicycle, complete with a basked on the front. Except for the nice mountain bikes used by the police, the rental variety is pretty much the only type available, as evidenced by the hundreds of identical copies roaming the streets of the adjacent town of Siem Reap.

Within the Angkor complex, there are dozens of individual temples erected by a long series of kings from the 9th to the 13th Centuries, each trying to outdo his predecessors. Each building has its own unique personality. At Bayon, the jumble of towers is dominated by 216 enormous stone faces, several of which are visible at any given time, making it impossible to escape the omnicient stare of the ancient king. Banteay Srei is known for its intricate carvings, deeply etched into pink stone. Because of the depth of the figures and the selection of stone, the detailed works of art have survived the centuries far better than their grey sandstone counterparts at other temples of Angkor.

The most famous monument is the sprawling Angkor Wat, the world's largest religious structure, enclosed in rectangular moat stretching 1.5 km east to west and 1.3 km north to south. Weathering the centuries with remarkable resilience, 800 meters of exquisitely carved bas reliefs, stretching the entire length around the central temple, depict intricate scenes from history and religious lore. Proceeding to the innermost part of the complex, the steps become tall and steep -- a formidable barrier separating acrophobic visitors from the central tower that rises 55 meters above ground level. Monks wander the corridors, their bright orange robes dwarfed by the grey stone towers around them.

But despite its monumental stature, Angkor Wat didn't top my list of favorite temples, simply because it is positively overrun by visitors. In my experience, there are two basic types of tourists. Adventure Seekers travel alone or in small groups, seeking out solitude at far-flung destinations while quietly mingling with the locals and deliberately seeking new cultural experiences. Comfort Zoners hop from location to location on a massive air-conditioned tour bus, reluctant to do anything that isn't explicitly included in the guided tour and never wandering far from the rest of the group. They are disproportionately overweight westerners doning overpriced gift shop T-shirt and taking full advantage of the fact that east Asia doesn't have no-smoking areas. Angkor Wat has unfortunately fallen victim to the latter variety.

Thankfully, just a short bike ride away, it's possible to escape the crowds and tour buses while finding enough privacy to feel like an explorer, miles away from the modern world. Escaping the tenacious vendors is a little more difficult. At one temple, a young girl followed me for the entire duration of my stay -- about thirty minutes -- as I pondered a getaway from the continuous offers for cheap scarves and postcards.

Cuter but equally mischievous are the monkeys, which tend to frequent the area to the south of the Bayon temple. As I knelt down to snap a photo of one playful macaque, two others hopped up on my back and shoulders as they went after my shiny blue sunglasses. Snatching the glasses away from their greedy paws, they tugged on my ears and hung on my arms, asking to play. Personally, I was really amused by the whole ordeal, but I could hear my friend Jeff's voice in my head, screaming, "Disease vector! Run away!"

While Rob Jagnow photographed other monkeys, this guy ambushed him While I photographed other monkeys, this guy ambushed me
Ta Keo Ta Keo
Angkor Thom Angkor Thom
Despite my Adventure-Seeker tendencies to wander off the beaten path, I was constrained to taking the trails in Cambodia. Even today, after extensive government clean-up efforts, the country is still littered with thousands of stray mines left by the Khmer Rouge, as well as unexploded ordnance left over from when the United States carpet bombed Cambodia in the 1970s. At the land mine museum in Siem Reap, I saw overflowing piles of deactivated mines that have been discovered over the last decade. Giving the tour was a young victim, probably not older than 15, who found a mine in the fields near his home. Not realizing what it was, he accidentally detonated the device, costing him his right arm and left eye. Today, more than 600 Cambodians are killed every year by stray mines.

Even the sacred temples of Angkor didn't escape the destruction of the Khmer Rouge. Most of the Buddha statues in the area were beheaded in conjunction with the eradication of the Buddhist monks who, as educated men, were considered a threat to the ideals of the Khmer Rouge. In preparation for restoration, the temple of Baphuon was partially disassembled with the enormous stone bricks laid out around the temple and carefully catalogued. But with the reconstruction records destroyed by the Khmer Rouge, the temple is now a massive jigsaw puzzle that's waited decades to be pieced back together.

Of course, the most tragic legacy of the Khmer Rouge is the innocent victims -- political dissidents and anyone with an education -- who were seen as a threat to their twisted ideals. Between one and three million were savagely murdered betwen 1975 and 1979, their bodies dumped into unmarked mass graves. At one of the killing fields, just south of the Angkor complex, a pagoda has been build as a simple memorial to the victims. Through the glass windows is a tall pile of bones that barely starts to convey the scale of the massacre.

Thanks to the tourist dollar, Cambodia has finally started to recover from its violent history. The ancient ancestors of its modern residents left Cambodia with a priceless treasure -- monumental temples where anyone can feel like an explorer, wandering through stone corridors where a slow-motion battle between man and nature has been waged for more than a thousand years, creating a place like nowhere else on earth.

Preah Khan Preah Khan
Spent incense Spent incense
Phnom Bakheng, just after sunrise Phnom Bakheng, just after sunrise
Baksei Chamkrong Baksei Chamkrong
Inscriptions at Baksei Chamkrong Inscriptions at Baksei Chamkrong
Bantay Srei Bantay Srei
The elaborate carvings of Bantay Srei The elaborate carvings of Bantay Srei
The massive gates to Angkor Thom The massive gates to Angkor Thom
Preah Khan Preah Khan
Toilet instructions Just in case you weren't sure
Ta Som Ta Som
Doorway at Pre Rup Doorway at Pre Rup
Sunset at Eastern Mebon Sunset at Eastern Mebon
Banteay Kdei Banteay Kdei
A thunderstorm approaches at Ta Keo A thunderstorm approaches at Ta Keo
At Wat Thmei, a memorial to those murdered by the Khmer Rouge At Wat Thmei, a memorial to those murdered by the Khmer Rouge
Young monk near Angkor Wat Young monk near Angkor Wat
Angkor Wat Angkor Wat
A tourist rests in a doorway facing steep steps at Angkor Wat A tourist rests in a doorway facing steep steps at Angkor Wat
Ascending monks at Angkor Wat Ascending monks at Angkor Wat
Saffron-robed Buddhist monks at Angkor Wat Saffron-robed Buddhist monks at Angkor Wat

© Copyright 2005-2007, Rob Jagnow.