Travel April 2002

The Splendor of Angkor

Now is the best time in many decades to visit Cambodia and its ancient Khmer capital

Angkor's most spectacular architectural achievement is Angkor Wat. Occupying a square mile of cleared jungle, surrounded by a wide moat, it is, according to some, the largest stone monument and the largest religious structure in the world. Virtually every inch of the mellow gray sandstone, inside and out, is carved with bas-reliefs—half a mile of them. The most famous relief, depicting a Hindu mythological scene called the "Churning of the Sea of Milk," is a masterpiece of world art, a superbly balanced composition and a carving of exceptionally high quality.

Angkor Wat is so enormous that it's hard to grasp its architectural plan at first. In a rising series of towers and courtyards, it is nothing less than a replica of the Hindu cosmos, culminating in the 213-foot-tall central tower, which symbolizes the mythological Mount Meru, the center of the universe, in the shape of a lotus blossom. No one is sure whether Angkor Wat was designed as a temple or as the tomb of King Suryavarman II, in whose reign it was built (completed circa 1150, it had been under construction for some thirty years); the controversy arises because the entrance is to the west, symbolic of death, whereas nearly all Hindu temples have eastern entrances. It's worth remembering that package tours usually do the Bayon in the morning and Angkor Wat in the evening, for the sunset; reverse the itinerary and you'll find fewer people around.

Just north of the Wat is Angkor Thom, a moated, walled city of nearly four square miles, which was for centuries the Khmer empire's seat of government—both its spiritual center and the site of the King's palace (constructed of wood, this vanished centuries ago). At the main gate are sculptural depictions of fifty-four gods on one side and the same number of demons on the other. Some of the figures are decapitated, their heads lopped off by looters. The Bayon, at the city's center, is at once the oldest and the most recent of Angkor Thom's relics. The brooding sculptured-stone mountain, occupying the site of a pre-Angkor Buddhist shrine, was the masterpiece of Jayavarman VII, the empire's last great ruler. He's a fascinating character, almost a Khmer version of Ramses II or Napoleon: in 1177, while Jayavarman was living abroad in exile, the Cham, the Khmer's rivals to the east, invaded, burning and plundering the city. Four years later Jayavarman ascended to the throne, repelled the Cham invaders, and took their king hostage. He ruled until he died, in 1219, at the age of ninety-five.

Before his rule the monuments of Angkor were Hindu, but Jayavarman, for reasons that can only be speculated on, converted to Buddhism and embarked on a mad building spree to celebrate his religion (and, of course, his reign), erecting a dozen major monuments in addition to the Bayon. Some of the most beautiful buildings are the temples and monasteries Jayavarman built in the forest, outside the walls of Angkor Thom. The two principal sites are Ta Prohm, a huge monastery dedicated to the cult of Jayavarman's mother, and Preah Khan, similar in design, devoted to his father.

These jungle temples are in a state of hopeless, fabulous disorder, the vines and roots of the luxuriant vegetation intertwining inextricably with the carved stone walls. The first time I visited Preah Khan, it was closed to tourists, so Russell Ciochon and I hired a military escort to take us there. The soldiers hacked away laboriously at the mass of vines to gain access, taking care not to damage the monument. What we found, when we finally entered, was an extensive series of galleries and courtyards, towers and freestanding pavilions, all covered with bas-reliefs of dancers and mystics, lush with lichen, much of it collapsed and at several points almost impassable.

Today Preah Khan is being restored under the supervision of the World Monuments Fund, an independent nonprofit organization, which has wisely decided to stabilize rather than to rebuild, leaving the intricate mass of art and nature more or less as it is. While I was there recently, I met John Sanday, the director of the project, who told me that the WMF, after ten years at Preah Khan, was gradually turning the project over to Cambodian scholars and artisans. Sanday is concerned about the growth of tourism. "Preah Khan is special," he said. "It's still surrounded by forest, a place to discover on one's own, to be quiet and alone. I want to keep it that way."

One never runs out of special places at Angkor. Ask most visitors which monument is their favorite, and they will speak of the magnificence of Angkor Wat and the intensely romantic atmosphere of the Bayon, and then tell you that Banteay Srei is the spot they love most. This tenth-century complex isn't a part of Angkor proper; it stands alone in the jungle about fifteen miles from Angkor Thom. Constructed of a pink, almost crimson sandstone, it has a distinctive style. It's tiny; a short person must stoop to enter the sanctuaries. Its architectural design is perfectly harmonious, the deeply carved bas-reliefs and freestanding sculptures at once elaborate and delicate. Floral and geometric patterns entwine gorgeously with vivid narrative scenes celebrating Shiva, to whom the temple is dedicated.

Banteay Srei was the scene of one of the first and most notorious cases of looting at Angkor, in 1923, when the young André Malraux carried out a major heist, hauling away large sections of the temple to sell. The colonial authorities tracked him down, confiscated the sculptures and returned them to the site, and put France's future Minister of Culture on trial. In his novel The Royal Way (1930), which was closely modeled on the incident, Malraux used poetic language to capture the experience of discovery still awaiting visitors to Angkor.

Before him lay a chaos of fallen stones ... it looked like a mason's yard invaded by the jungle. Here were lengths of wall in slabs of purple sandstone, some carved and others plain, all plumed with pendent ferns. Some bore a red patina, the aftermath of fire. Facing him he saw some bas-reliefs of the best period, marked by Indian influences—he was now close up to them—but very beautiful work; they were grouped round an old shrine, half hidden now behind a breastwork of fallen stones. It cost him an effort to take his eyes off them.
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