Travel April 2002

The Splendor of Angkor

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

Travelers have been compiling lists ever since Antipater of Sidon came up with his Seven Wonders of the World, in the second century B.C. On my own list of wonders no place would have a more secure claim than Angkor, the capital of the ancient Khmer kingdom. Occupying 120 square miles of tropical forest near the present-day town of Siem Reap, in northwestern Cambodia, the archaeological district of Angkor consists of hundreds of sculptured stone Buddhist and Hindu temples built by the Khmer from the ninth century through the thirteenth. Many of the temples are in a state of tumbledown disarray, snarled in jungle vegetation; others are inaccessible because of uncleared land mines from the wars that devastated the region during the second half of the twentieth century. But dozens of temples, palaces, and other state buildings, including all the most important ones, are in good condition and can now be safely and conveniently visited. The artistic accomplishment and philosophical profundity of these monuments place the Khmer on a par with the most advanced civilizations of their time, anywhere in the world.

I'll never forget my first night at Angkor. In 1989 I traveled there with an archaeologist buddy of mine, Russell Ciochon, of the University of Iowa, to report on the restoration work that was then under way. One night we hired some policemen to accompany us to the Bayon, a massive, rambling Buddhist temple whose looming silhouette resembles a mountain crowned with fifty-four towers; each has four faces peering into the dense forest in the cardinal directions, and every face wears a placid, enigmatic expression—the famous "Angkor smile." In harsh daylight it's difficult to make out some of the faces, which are covered with lichen and lined with cracks, but that night was a clear one, and a full moon shone directly overhead, illuminating the faces plainly, as though it were an ethereal spotlight. When the roar of the insects, lizards, and frogs mysteriously subsided for a moment, and the cool night breeze quickened, I shivered, feeling farther from home than I had ever been before, in a place that I would never really know.

An experience like that may not be possible today, because with a measure of peace and prosperity in Cambodia, tourism at Angkor is growing at a galloping pace. However, I won't even start with "You should've seen it before it was overrun with tourists": people who take that line about formerly remote places always fail to mention that in the good old days the food was inedible, the accommodations squalid, the electricity sporadic, and the roads wretched, and that police guards brazenly shook one down for "cigarette money."

On that visit Russell and I put ourselves up at the Grand Hotel d'Angkor, the only game in town. At the time, the hotel's name was ludicrous: the establishment was certainly grand, in the literal meaning of the French word (our rooms were enormous), but sparely furnished and lavishly mildewed. The Khmer Rouge were still active around Siem Reap, so except for a team of dour Russian engineers, we had the place to ourselves, attended by a staff of twenty gawping adolescent boys who were much more interested in practicing their English than in providing basic services.

The hotel was a sad relic of the golden age of the world traveler, which began early in the twentieth century, when the first great ocean liners made comfortable global travel possible. Romantic destinations such as Bombay and Rangoon became accessible to tourists—and no place in Asia was more exotic than the ruins of Angkor, which nineteenth-century French explorers such as Henri Mouhot and Louis Delaport had described in thrilling journals and depicted in engravings. The existence of venturesome travelers caused luxury hotels to be built throughout Southeast Asia; the Grand Hotel d'Angkor opened in 1932.

When I went back to Angkor recently, I was surprised to see so many tourists, but it didn't seem overcrowded in comparison with other destinations of its magnitude in the region. Anyway, there are certain advantages to a rise in tourism. The Grand had been restored to its original glory by new and highly competent owners, Raffles International, with an excellent kitchen and a beautiful pool and spa. My old room was now luxurious and tastefully decorated in tropical style. The Grand is unquestionably still the premier address here, but it has some competition: the French group Accor has opened a swish modern resort-style hotel, the Sofitel Royal Angkor, just down the road, with slightly lower rates. There are many decent budget accommodations; my favorite mid-range hotel is the Ta Prohm, with a pleasant riverside location in "downtown" Siem Reap. For convenience and the best rates, first-time visitors to Cambodia should consider making reservations through a specialized, experienced travel agent such as EastQuest (800-638-3449) or Diethelm, based in Bangkok (e-mail dto@dto.co.th).

Even the most remote monuments of Angkor proper can be reached in less than an hour by car from Siem Reap, but it takes several days to soak up a general impression of the glorious accomplishment of the Khmer. If you want to examine the major monuments carefully, climb a pyramid or two, and see some of the more interesting minor temples, allot five or six days. A visit to Angkor might aptly be compared to a tour of the relics of ancient Egypt, in that the long history of the Khmer produced a wide variety of artistic styles; visitors can go for days without finding a monument that looks just like what they saw yesterday or the day before. (Note that there's almost nothing to do in the evening, apart from visiting outdoor discos: bring books.)

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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