Angkor Wat & the Temple Cities
by Marla Norman, Publisher
Flying into Siem Reap I’m dazzled by green rolling hills, rice paddies and then suddenly – the immense towers of Angkor Wat — forming a grand silhouette against a jungle backdrop. Even a quick glimpse confirms that the structures are every bit as magnificent as they are legendary.
Outside the airport, I meet the tour guide, a young Cambodian who introduces himself as Saroun. The fact that he’s barely 5-feet tall makes him seem even younger. He speaks English fluently and continuously — barely taking a breath between sentences. The Chinese driver, Mr. Yung, is tall, rotund and always smiling, but as silent as Saroun is loquacious. An endearing study in opposites, these two will accompany me for the next four days.
I climb into the spotlessly clean Ford and Mr. Yung heads towards Siem Reap. It’s at this point I realize Saroun’s English isn’t quite as flawless as I’d originally thought. In the midst of his chatter about Cambodian culture, he smiles broadly at me and says: “By the way, your hooters are gross.”
“Excuse me!” I say – knowing, of course, he is utterly innocent as to what he’s just said. But, on the other hand, I have no idea what he could possibly have meant.
Saroun is silent (at last) for two seconds, sensing the faux pas. He tries again. “We’re very near Raffles, your hooter.”
I breath a sigh of relief, and a few minutes later pull in front of the Raffles Grand Hotel d’Angkor. The lobby is a chic blend of French Colonial design and Cambodian art. Crystal chandeliers, oriental carpets and heavy teak furniture compliment European and Asian sensibilities. I half expect Catherine Deneuve to sweep through the lobby in a scene out of the movie Indochine.
I spend what’s left of the day wandering the hotel gardens, set on a sprawling 15 acres, dreaming of the ancient Khmer Empire.
SMILING KHMER KINGS
Early the following morning, I meet Saroun and Mr. Yung. Over breakfast, Saroun explains that during the 9th to the 13th centuries, Angkor was the largest and wealthiest capital in Southeast Asia. At its peak, the population included over two million inhabitants. The Khmer were an advanced society, with hospitals, libraries and schools. Large agriculture communities were served by sophisticated irrigation systems, huge dams and water reservoirs.
By the 15th Century, however, Khmer rule was in decline and the temples were ultimately abandoned. In the early 1860’s, French naturalist Henri Mouhot brought world-wide attention to the deserted structures and restoration projects were begun.
Over 300 monuments are scattered throughout the jungle. We begin our tour at Angkor Thom. A defensive wall and enormous moat (2 miles by 2 miles) surround the complex. The moat is so large, I mistake it for a river. “Is that the Mekong?” I ask Saroun.
Saroun and Mr. Yung laugh as if they’ve head the best joke ever. “No, no! The Mekong is miles from here.”
We cross the moat via a bridge lined with massive stone statues holding a fierce snake. At the center of Angkor Thom is a large, ornate structure with 54 small towers, each of which is topped with a gigantic, four-sided smiling Buddha — in other words, 216 smiling faces. Incredible! And impossible not to smile back.
In the late 12th Century, the Khmer became trading partners with the Chinese, who historians believe, influenced a conversion from Hinduism to Buddhism, hence the smiling Buddhas. The Angkor temples, however, remained dedicated to the Hindu gods — Shiva, Vishnu and Brahma — still reflecting the original Indian influence. Sanskrit writing is visible on many of the walls and doorways, as are Apsara, or traditional Hindu dancing girls.
Another impressive structure, known as the Elephant Terrace, is also Hindu. The terrace once formed the foundation for the royal audience hall. The original platform has long since disappeared, but three-headed, stone elephants remain. A bas-relief portraying mythical Hindu creatures, half-men/half-bird, still exists as well.
As we continue to tour the temple grounds, I notice that a number of the statues are missing. Saerun nods solemnly, “Many were stolen after the cities were discovered in the 1800’s. And what wasn’t stolen then, was sold off later by the revolutionary Khmer Rouge when they controlled Cambodia from 1975-1979.” Saerun goes on to explain that the Khmer Rouge didn’t damage the temples directly, but the violence during their reign halted the restoration work. As the Khmer Rouge retreated to the Thai border, they placed hundreds of land mines around the temples and Angkors. Several years were required to remove the mines so that workers could again clear the jungle growth and reconstruct buildings. The statues of course are gone forever.
A CONVERSATION WITH SPIDER-MAN
Almost three million people — over one-third of the total population — died under the mad genocidal reign of Pol Pot, leader of the Khmer Rouge. I ponder that horrible statistic as we walk back to the car, where a large group of children wait for us. They spring forward to sell an assortment of scarves, books, shirts and sodas.
One particularly bright child steps up insistently. “Where are you from?” he asks.
“Florida,” I tell him.
“Oh, really,” he replies. “Well I’m from Washington D.C. That’s the capital of the United States. The capital of Florida is Tallahassee. Would you like to buy one of my books?”
I’m flabbergasted. This child on the other side of the world speaks perfect English and even knows the capital of Florida.
He eyes me patiently, then repeats. “Want to buy one of my books?”
“Sure. But tell me your name.”
“It’s Spider-Man. And the books are $20.00,” he says, handing me a flimsy, tattered paperback.
His audacity is irresistible…but still…“Wow, Spider-Man! That’s a lot for this book, isn’t it? What if I give you $5.00 and you keep your book.” I hand the pile of torn pages back to him.
Spider-Man persists. “No. I think you need this book.” He has the confidence of a salesman who’s sized up his customer and knows he can close the deal. “Plus this is my last copy. I want you to have it.”
We chat a bit more about his family and unusual name. Spider-Man, he insists, is his given name. Eventually, I succumb and hand him a $20.00 bill. “Alright. Here you go. But share with the other kids.”
Waving the cash, Spider-Man rejoins the group of children. As I walk back to the car, I turn around to have one last look at the adorable little boy. At the same time, he’s reaching into a large plastic bag to retrieve not one, but a handful of books! I can’t help but laugh. He grins virtuously and waves, “Bye, nice lady!”
Saroun, who had remained uncharacteristically quiet while watching the scene play out, gives me a big wink: “So, now you know about our Lady Checkpoints.”
And he’s right. Every stop has a small crowd of beautiful Cambodian children, all with unforgettable stories.
THE GRANDEST WAT
It’s Day 3 in Siem Reap. We’ve sweated and tramped around the jungle to see the nine major Ankors that existed during the Khmer Empire. Finally today, we’ll visit the most impressive of them all — Angkor Wat — jewel of the Khmer temples and, in fact, the world’s largest religious monument.
Built at the beginning of the 12th century by King Suryavarman II, Angkor Wat was also dedicated to the Hindu god Vishnu. The King, determined that the dimensions of the temple should be appropriately grand, outdid himself. The compound covers a staggering area — 4,920 feet by 4,265 feet.
A beautifully constructed bridge crosses a moat that is almost 600 feet wide. Along both sides are statues holding snakes that extend the length of the entire bridge — another 600 feet. In the middle of the complex is a giant lotus bud formed by five beehive-like towers. Within the towers is a three-story pyramid with shrines, galleries and eight huge pools.
Saroun shows us extensive bas-relief work covering the exterior walls. Particularly impressive are the scenes on the outer front wall celebrating epic battles of Hindu mythology and the creation of the world. There are also an astounding 2,000 Apsara, or Hindu dancers, depicted throughout the temple complex.
After showing us around the lower levels of the Angkor, Saroun tell us to climb to the top of the pyramid. “You’re not coming?” I ask. “No,” he replies. “My knees hurt today. I’ll wait for you.”
A few seconds after I begin climbing, I understand why he waited below. The stairs are enormous and treacherously narrow. You don’t walk up them. You literally climb them. There’s no railing to hang on to and the incline is almost vertical. As usual, the temperatures are unbelievably hot and steamy.
To add to my discomfort, I get stuck behind a big German. He groans loudly as he labors up the steps. “If he loses his balance,” I think, “It’s gonna be a long way down for both of us.” I try to inch across the stairs to get around him. Finally we reach the top! The spectacular views make all the effort worthwhile.
Our final stop is Ta Prohm or the “Jungle Temple” as it’s also known. Located in a dense forest of 600 year-old Silk-Cotton trees, the temple nave is flanked by four distinct galleries. The symmetry is exquisite. But even more striking are the trees, that have become so entwined with the stone structures, they resemble Paleolithic octopi. The engorged roots seem to hug and shelter the temple structures.
Incredibly, stone inscriptions reveal that the complex originally had 566 stone dwellings, including 39 major sanctuaries, and was attended by 13 high priests, 2,740 officials, 2,202 assistants, and 615 dancers. Now, amidst the ruins and dozens of camera-clicking tourists, you’ll have to look carefully to find the phantom traces of this once bustling community.
More recently, the temple was the inspiration for the movie Lara Croft: Tomb Raiders starring Angelina Jolie. To finish off our tour, we’re having dinner at The Red Piano, where Angelina and the film crew hung out. It’s a cute two-story structure, and the food is fantastic — the green curry in particular is a standout.
I order a round of Tomb Raider cocktails to toast Saroun and Mr. Yung. “Thank you so much,” Saroun says, clinking glasses exuberantly. “And thank you for your patience with my towel nations.”
“No problem,” I tell him. After four days sweating through the jungle together, I understand towel nations and translations — even those that are really peculiar. Most of all, I count myself lucky to have explored Cambodia’s ancient kingdom — may it have a long, endlessly peaceful reign.