As I approached Angkor Wat, I paused on a causeway over the moat that surrounds it. Reflections of the monument’s five spires shimmered below, each shaped like the delicate, pink lotus buds that floated on the water’s surface. The quintet represents the five peaks of Mount Meru, the mythical center of the Hindu universe that’s home to a pantheon of powerful deities. The weathered stones of this vast temple complex, originally dedicated to the Hindu god Vishnu, blend harmoniously with the lush, verdant landscape.
One glance, and I was spellbound.
Determined to get the perfect shot, I clicked my camera until my husband, Wesley, reminded me that the religious site sprawls across more than 400 acres, and we had yet to step inside. (Angkor Wat is the world’s largest religious structure; Vatican City, by contrast, encompasses a mere 108 acres.) I reluctantly moved along, madly waving the cheap fan I had bought at a local market in a vain attempt to keep the oppressive tropical heat at bay.
Hundreds of temple ruins dot Angkor. Its Angkor Archaeological Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, contains the remains of several capitals of the Khmer Empire that flourished from the ninth to the 15th centuries. But Angkor Wat, at the epicenter of the once grand city, is the most famous landmark by far. It is such a source of national pride that the Cambodian flag features it prominently.
The temple embodies a time when the Khmer Empire was the region’s superpower. Back then, Angkor was a bustling metropolis that covered an area about the size of New York’s five boroughs, making it the largest pre-industrial city in the world. An innovative system of canals and reservoirs helped produce sizable rice harvests, enough to support an estimated population of around 1 million.
Today, a landscape strewn with stone temple ruins is all that remains of the flourishing civilization that suddenly vanished about 500 years ago, an enigma for 21st-century archaeologists.
French naturalist Henri Mouhot is credited with discovering the lost city in 1860 as he searched for exotic tropical insects, though Cambodians knew of it all along. Mouhot’s journals, published posthumously in 1863, provided intriguing descriptions of Angkor Wat and captured the imagination of the West just as the French began their colonial expansion into Southeast Asia.
New discoveries are still being made. A centuries-old, 440-pound statue of a guard was unearthed in the archaeological park last July. Astoundingly, it was almost perfectly intact.
Imagining an earlier time
At Wesley’s urging, I gathered up my temple-appropriate skirt and started through the maze that is Angkor Wat, ducking through doorways, climbing narrow stairs and squeezing past others in dusky corridors.
I tried to envision the temple as it was during its heyday, when the streaked gray sandstone was as white as ivory and the gilded towers gleamed in the blazing sun, an ostentatious symbol of the powerful Khmer dynasty that included parts of present-day Vietnam, Laos, Thailand, Myanmar and the Malay Peninsula.
I imagined a glittering royal entourage riding to the temple on elephants draped in brilliantly hued, gem-encrusted silks, an awe-inspiring spectacle for Angkor’s ordinary citizens.
King Suryavarman II — venerated as an incarnation of Vishnu, protector of the universe — built Angkor Wat as his mausoleum in the middle of the 12th century, the zenith of the Khmer Empire, much as the Egyptian pharaohs built the pyramids as their final resting place centuries earlier. However, a temple mausoleum must have been an eccentricity of this particular monarch, because it’s the only one in the region.
Perspiration trickled from the base of my neck and down my spine as I pondered the laborers that toiled in this hostile climate to create this marvel of Khmer architecture. The temple’s sandstone blocks were quarried from the holy mountain of Phnom Kulen, about 30 miles away, and floated down the Siem Reap River on rafts. Could they have fathomed that the product of their labor would be standing centuries later, drawing visitors from all over the world?
With history swirling in my head, I examined elaborate floor-to-ceiling bas-relief carvings, masterpieces of Khmer art that took hundreds of carvers decades to complete. The most famous of these is the “Churning of the Ocean of Milk,” which depicts a Hindu legend where Vishnu, surrounded by deities representing good and evil, churns the cosmic sea to extract the elixir of immortality. This churning produces apsaras, beautiful celestial nymphs that are as ubiquitous in Cambodian temples as tourists in elephant-print pants.
I stumbled through a series of dark, narrow passages and suddenly emerged into the startling sunlight of an open courtyard. A Buddhist monk bestowed a blessing on a couple of Asian tourists, his saffron robe glowing against the backdrop of weathered sandstone. The women sat with their heads bowed. I slipped past, silent as the crumbling statues.
In the 14th century, Theravada Buddhism overshadowed Hinduism (95 percent of modern Cambodians are Buddhist), and the temple was adapted for Buddhist worship. Now the two religions mingle seamlessly.
Wesley and I next decided to see Angkor Wat’s piece de resistance, Bakan Sanctuary, at the temple summit. We climbed stairs so steep they are practically as vertical as a ladder. Our reward was a sweeping view of this vast sacred site.
Beauty beyond Angkor Wat
Long before Leonardo da Vinci painted Mona Lisa’s enigmatic smile, 216 larger-than-life carved stone faces were smiling benevolently on Buddhist worshipers at Bayon, the 12th-century state temple at the heart of the final and most enduring capital city, Angkor Thom.
Most of the 54 towers are surrounded by four faces, one looking in each direction. It’s believed they are representations of King Jayavarman VII as Avalokiteshvara, the bodhisattva of compassion, and a reminder of the omnipresence of this great god-king who reigned from 1181-1218. I meandered beneath their inescapable gaze.
The king also built temples to honor his parents. Preah Kahn was dedicated to his father and Ta Prohm to his mother. Preah Kahn means “sacred sword,” and the inscription indicates it was built on the battleground where the king’s army defeated enemy invaders.
I passed through a doorway guarded by two headless statues and stepped into the ethereal realm of Preah Kahn. This elegantly decaying structure was once an institute of Buddhist studies and housed more than 1,000 monks.
After the collapse of the Khmer Empire, it was devoured by the jungle and practically forgotten. Enormous tree roots grasp at the temple like talons from some mythical bird of prey.
Ta Prohm met a similar fate. Seedlings that dropped on the roof centuries ago are now massive trees crushing the temple under their weight. Roots drape over walls and doorways. Paradoxically, some of these roots are holding the temple together, presenting a dilemma for restorers. Remove the trees or let them stay? In either case, the temple could fall.
I can’t imagine Ta Prohm separated from the shadowy wilderness that gives it such an eerie mystique — but I am not sure which approach will be best for the temple.
As Wesley and I walked toward the exit, I realized that I had examined the past, but I yearned to see the future. How many temples will be restored 100 years from now? Will Ta Prohm still be standing? How many more artifacts will be discovered? At Angkor, the future, like so much of the past, is a mystery.
Tracey Teo, an Indiana-based travel writer, has traveled extensively throughout Southeast Asia.