|Our Really Big Adventure|
| Making our way through
the rainforest and coming upon an ancient, collapsing temple fighting a
doomed battle against the encroaching jungle, it was easy to think we had
just discovered a lost city. Indeed, Angkor Wat once was a lost city. At
its peak it ruled over the vast Khmer Empire and was unrivalled by any city
in Europe. Home to over a million people, it was world renowned for its
power and wealth.
Like all empires however, the Khmer empire fell, the city abandoned, forgotten and some say lost for hundreds of years. It must have been humbling for the first Western explorers, now masters of a race that had that had been so great.
Angkor Wat covers an area of over 200 square kilometres of jungle wilderness and beautifully landscaped parkland. Luckily good roads, that outshine Cambodia economic arteries, pierce the jungle and connect the fifty or so temples that have outlived but not outlasted the ravages of time. For $6 apiece we hired guides for the day and quickly sped from temple to temple on the backs of their motorbikes. With Angkor being so large, isolation was easy to come upon, but the more popular sites had armies of vendors who greeted us with a ruckus like chickens at feeding time. This was competition gone mad; with so many touts shouting, no one message could be understood. If it wasnt for their underlying sense of desperation we would have felt like so much prey.
The temples themselves are spectacular in their scale, beauty and detail, many taking hours just to explore. Some have been levelled and all that remain are stones scattered amongst the undergrowth, numbered by international archaeologists in hopes of rebuilding. Others are entirely intact retaining even the smallest detail over a thousand years. There is reconstruction and preservation taking place all over Angkor but one cannot help but think it is futile and the jungles advance is inevitable. The power of the jungle is epitomised by its trees growing improbably out of the stone, their roots forcing aside massive columns and buckling stone floors in search of water underneath.
Reconstruction of Angkor started with the French, but this was not the first time that the face of Angkor had been changed. The spread of Hinduism eastward, in the 13th century, swept its predecessor, Buddhism, before it, and the style of building at Angkor changed dramatically. Not content to let the past be, the old Buddhist buildings were defaced with 13th century graffiti, albeit with a skill approaching that of the original craftsmen. The Buddhas that decorated the halls and corridors of the older buildings were altered and given beards to resemble more suitable Hindu holy men.
The base for exploring Angkor is the town of Siem Reap or Siam Defeated. However, it was in a different age that the Khmer saw victory over the Siamese. The power and vitality of their empire had gradually waned since the death of King Jayavarman. With Theravada Buddhism on the rise and the vast armies of expansionist Ayutthaya (Siam) established on the western sections of the empire it was only a matter of time till Angkor fell. The city was sacked, its many riches bursting the coffers of the new South East Asian power. By the 16th century, when the next available firsthand description was written, the city had long been abandoned, in favor of a capital that put more distance between the Khmer heartland and the still feared Siamese. All that remained of Angkor was the jungle-covered remnants of the ancient temples and the ruins of the once-magnificent system of reservoirs and waterways.
But it is Angkors time again. This time it is not its power that is held in awe but its historical and cultural significance. The international community has adopted Angkor, with each temples reconstruction seemingly sponsored by a wealthy country. A board outside one temple lists its private and corporate sponsors. Donations start at over $250,000 and anything less than $10,000 doesnt get a mention. The rich of the world are conspiring to make Angkor great again. The abundance of $2000 a night rooms, in a town that has little more to offer, shows that Angkor has more than cultural significance to the Khmer.
A country that has been devastated by a millennium of war needs a history to be proud of and the reconstruction of Angkor is symbolic of the rebuilding of Cambodia. Many things have come full circle since the fall of the Khmer empire. Cambodia is now Buddhist again, with little trace of Hinduism. The borders of Siam have contracted to what is now modern day Thailand and Cambodia is once again in a period of growth. Whether Cambodia will ever again be a major force in the region has yet to be seen.