Angkor Wat: Postcards from the Old Kingdom

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I kept wondering what the old kingdom must have been like, how life played out against a backdrop of imperial edifices and lush jungle. But there was little else aside from the complexes of dying temples and frozen stone faces to give insight to the daily tableau of ancient Angkor. Now, all that populates and bears witness to the splendor of the ruined kingdom are modern-day hordes of tourists, touts, and peddlers. Yet, the remains of Angkor, the seat of the once flourishing Khmer Empire, stand nothing short of being awe-inspiring.

At Angkor Wat, considered to be the largest religious monument in the world, throngs of foreign visitors littered the temple grounds. I made my way through each of the concentric galleries surrounding the central temple building, stopping by statues of the Hindu god Vishnu to take photos and gazing at intricate bas-reliefs carved along expansive stretches of the corridor walls. I strained to overhear local tour guides lecturing to their charge of tourists in order to make sense of what I was seeing.

Built by the ancient Khmer King Suryavarman II as his state temple and eventual mausoleum, Angkor Wat was a grand portrayal of the Hindu cosmology as well as the king’s theocratic rule with bas-reliefs narrating stories from Hindu mythology and depicting life in the imperial court. It is peculiar among the many Angkorian temple complexes in that it faces west instead of east, an aspect attributed to the fact that the temple was dedicated to Vishnu, the preserver, who was associated with the west.

A tour of the grounds of Angkor Wat seemed like a pilgrimage of sort. The entire temple complex was designed to represent Mount Meru, the mythological home of the gods according to Hindu lore. The quincunx of towers symbolizes the five peaks of the mountain, while the temple’s enclosing walls and moat represent surrounding mountain ranges and oceans.

I made my way further inward to the site’s central structures, anticipating to learn and to see more of the temple. But my enthusiasm and interest were easily quelled by the sight of a swarm of tourists queuing their way up to the innermost shrine. I pondered then on the reality that whatever religious significance that Angkor Wat bore in its olden times was now diluted in the third world socio-economic conundrum of mass tourism.

I took my bicycle, one that I have rented back at the central district of nearby Siem Reap, and proceeded to another one of the greater Angkorian temple complexes, Angkor Thom.

Established by the Buddhist King Jayavarman VII, Angkor Thom—its name literally meaning “Great City”—was the last and most enduring capital of the Khmer Empire. Approaching the ancient city’s South Gate, I was ushered in by a silent retinue of stone figures lining the causeway that spanned over the city’s surrounding moat. The gate entrance was narrow, while high overhead at the gate’s lintel was a giant stone face that serenely stood stolid watch over all who passed through.

A while after entering the city gate, I eventually came upon the Bayon, Javayarman’s state temple standing at the very center of the ancient city. At the south side of the temple, some massive restoration operation was taking place as workers in hard hats and with heavy machinery tended to a quarry of what appears to be torn down stone blocks from the temple structure. At the eastern terrace, I took notice of the temple’s disarray of mislaid stones, crumbled arches, and scaffoldings of wooden planks and steel pipes. The intricate motifs of dancing female deities carved onto standing pillars were defaced with chisel marks and scars left by stone cutters. For all its stately splendor and aesthetic richness, this centerpiece of Cambodia’s cultural heritage was in a delicate state of disrepair.

I continued into the Bayon, passing through its cramped passageways and climbing its steep temple steps. All throughout the entire temple grounds, massive stone faces frozen in placid countenance kept their perpetual vigil. They are silent sentinels which, throughout the centuries, have borne witness to the rise of a kingdom, its demise and surrender to the jungle, and its eventual reopening to a modern world.

Scholars have debated upon the intended representation of the faces. Some argue that these were depictions of King Jayavarman VII himself, while others counterclaim that these were images of Buddha and the bodhisattva. Meanwhile, others reason that the two hypotheses need not be regarded as mutually exclusive as Jayavarman may have stood squarely upon the custom of Khmer monarchs in thinking of himself as a “god-king.”

I chanced upon a contingent of Buddhist monks touring the temple along with all the other foreign tourists who were snapping away their cameras at the orange-robed ascetics with as much attention as what they were giving to the temple’s infrastructure. There, amidst a flood of commercialism, I somehow managed to see traces of the spiritual significance that Angkor once held.

Angkor Thom held other monuments. I proceeded to the Baphuon and Phimeanakas complexes which were temple assemblies constructed by earlier kings. There were still a lot more ground to cover, but after having spent the entire day touring even just a few parts of Angkor by bike and on foot, I was content to merely take cursory explorations of the remaining buildings.

I strolled through the Phimeanakas grounds, making my way to the garden edges where the outer fringes of the temple complex and the jungle met. There, by the decaying walls that enclosed the temple surroundings, the jungle stood quietly, as if patiently lying in wait for the time when it can once again freely welcome itself into the domains of the ancient kingdom.

The line of food stalls where I parked my bike was already closing shop by the time I got back. It was five in the afternoon, and the shrill ringing of an alarm blared all around to announce the park’s closing. The din and hubbub of the day had finally subsided as the remaining people trickled out. In the somnolent tranquillity of the day’s end, I could almost hear the stone monuments whispering their stories as I slowly made my way back to the modern town and time of nearby Siem Reap, leaving the remains of a lost and found kingdom back to the care of the jungle.

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