33. Angkor - As You've Never Seen it Before (Part I)
The Angkor Archeological Park (henceforth referred to as Angkor) is a massive, 400-square mile complex of Hindu-Buddhist buildings, forests and wetlands created by the ancient Khmer people between the 9th and 15th centuries. You'll note that I did not use the more familiar term "Angkor Wat". That well-known temple constitutes just a tiny - albeit magnificent - part of the kingdom of ruins. It would be like referring to the entire city of Agra as the Taj Mahal.
There is no doubt that Angkor is one of the world's most popular archeological sites. It receives over two-million visitors annually, and that number is growing by 20 percent a year. It will accelerate even faster in coming years as China's bourgeoning middle-class grows in size and wealth, and enjoys its freedom to travel. Another boost will no doubt be provided by Hollywood, which has discovered that Angkor makes a powerful backdrop for its blockbusters like Laura Croft: Tomb Raider.
Yet to judge by the small range of photos published in media and showcased by photographers (over and over again) you'd think that Angkor was a relatively small place with a few beautifully carved buildings, some of them with huge Buddha-like heads, others a with long, meandering, gnarled roots covering and crushing their structures.
Whether or not you've been to Angkor, you've no doubt seen this photo or similar ones of the great Hindu temple of Angkor Wat - with its five soaring towers shaped liked lotus buds, and fronted by reflecting pools - the largest religious monument in the world:
It is, in fact, the most recognized face of Cambodia and sits prominently on the country's flag. Contrary to popular myth, Angkor Wat has been in continual use since its construction in the 12th century, and has never been "lost to the jungle".
You've also more than likely seen the many heads at Angkor Thom, each showcasing the hybridized face of the Buddha and Khmer King Jayavarman VII.
And the silk cotton tree roots that are either holding together or spreading apart (archeologists are still arguing this one out) this building at Ta Phrom:
Or the even much larger tree roots at Preah Khan:
You may even have seen some of the beautiful carvings Devatas (minor deities) and Asparas (celestial nymphs) like this one:
That's pretty much what everyone sees of Angkor, either in person or by photo. But now I'd like to show you some images of Angkor that I guarantee you've never seen. Like the mist-shrouded palms you'll view as you approach Angkor Wat at seven in the morning - the only time you should be arriving unless you want your Angkor moments dotted with busloads of Chinese tourists.
As much as Angkor is about stone, it's also about water. Without an enormous system of canals, dykes and reservoirs, the heart of the Khmer empire would not have lasted 60 years, much less six centuries. Yet I'm sure you've never seen images of the isolation and desolation in which some of the water is set:
And yet, what better location than an empty and eerie swamp for those treasured wedding photos. Angkor is the Central Park of Cambodia:
In this case, the bride was very calm and cooperative - it was the "fluffer" who was throwing hissy fits about her hair and dress, the lighting and the photo angles.
Angkor is also about red sandstone columns, carvings and windows:
and the light that passes through them to dance its way onto shadowed walls:
Angkor is about multi-terraced pyramids crowned by multiple towers like at East Mebon, which was built in the 950s and pre-dates Angkor Wat by some 200 years:
Each tower houses a vault protected by a stone lion and a rather strong-looking door:
Today's guardians of Angkor like to promote the site as a complex of peaceful temples. But as you might expect from a place with an entryway called "The Gate of Death" Angkor was as much about war as it was about peace - perhaps more so. The bas reliefs on the walls of Angkor provide a vivid illustration. Below, soldiers accompanied by war elephants and war horses head out to battle:
And here they are coming back with prisoners:
But as the old saying goes, he who lives by the sword, dies by the sword. The great Khmer empire that was born in Angkor in 802, went to its death in 1431 in a final siege by Thai invaders.
"The world is not a rectilinear world, it is a curvilinear world. The heavenly bodies go in a curve because that is the
-- George Bernard Shaw
"I am not attracted to straight angles or to the straight line, hard and inflexible, created by man. I am attracted to free-flowing, sensual curves. The curves that I find in the mountains of my country, in the sinuousness of its rivers, in the waves of the ocean, and on the body of the beloved woman. Curves make up the entire Universe, the curved Universe of Einstein."
-- Oscar Niemeyer