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.