I visited Angkor Wat at a strange time in my life. I’d dreamed about visiting for years, but the trip was planned with the shortest possible notice. I had no bookings in place and only the vaguest sense of how I would be spending my time. Added to that I had several stressful and mildly traumatic work experiences immediately prior to departure (like, 8 hours prior). The end result was that when I landed I was all at sixes and sevens and didn’t know which way was up.
My confusion seemed to attract others around me who were equally at a crossroads. I find that this is often the case. Within a few days I had formed a team with two English people who I took to be couple, but who were actually temporary travelling companions. They bickered like they had been married for thirty years, which I felt was due to unrequited love on the part of at least one of them. Also in our little group was a British soldier, a veteran of some quite significant encounters in Iraq and Afghanistan. He drank like he was trying to ward off death and slept hardly at all. We pootled across the border from Vietnam in a boat and made our way up to the ancient Khmer capital.
There was a time in the 12th century when the ruin we now know as Angkor was one of the largest, if not the largest, city in the world. And yet, by the 16th century it was largely abandoned and inhabited only by a few monks. Straight away, before even viewing the site, that fact astonished me.
Can you imagine if New York or London or Tokyo were to vanish from the world so totally that in a few centuries they would be forgotten? It seems intuitively impossible to me, but I know enough about history to understand that it happens all the time. The site was “rediscovered” in the 19th century but isolation and the Cambodian civil war meant that it has only become easily accessible in the last 25 years or so. At its height the Khmer Empire, of which Angkor was the capital, ruled over most of what we now think of as South-East Asia. Its dominance over, and eventual destruction by, Vietnamese and Thai cultures underly much of the politics of the region today.
The ruins of Angkor are sensational. Most people will be familiar with the images of vine-draped ruins and strange stone faces. It’s impossibly fecund, the creepers cover anything that stays still long enough and the trees look like they’ve been poured into a mould. In the middle of the day the heat and humidity feel like meteorological hammer crushing you into a red earth anvil. At dawn and dusk the birds and insects swarm and deafen the visitor and are loud enough to leave your ears ringing. My English friends were flushed and confused in the heat, apart from the Veteran who continued drinking Angkor brand beer.
What isn’t immediately apparent on the first visit is just how big this property is. Photos make it look like a handful of temples, but the site is actually the entire ancient city. It goes on for miles, and much of it is still overgrown or half-buried. Walking around I found it really hard to get a feel for the geography of the place. I’d ride my bike along a little road which I took to be a minor pathway and then come across a giant causeway or lake. The sense of personal discovery is palpable – I felt a little like Indiana Jones, as if a small detour into the jungle and digging a hole in the right place would reveal a previously undiscovered structure of great significance. And possibly a giant stone ball rolling towards me.
I also found the religious background of this site fascinating. Like modern Bali, Angkor is an island of Indian-derived Hindu culture surrounded by Confucian-Vietnamese culture to the East and Thai Buddhist culture to the West. It feels somehow wrong and out of place, like finding a Roman road in Sydney. The Khmer empire had a late change to Buddhism as its state religion, which is in keeping with the current religious climate of the region, but still feels odd with the clearly Hindu-derived architectural forms.
My experience as a tourist was surprisingly easy. Given that Cambodia is still very poor, even compared to its neighbours, the usual swarms of touts were everywhere. However there must have been some very strict law-enforcement going on because they stuck strictly to their designated touting zones and didn’t harass people looking at the temples. No doubt there is some police bastardry going on here, but it made the experience far more positive than the Pyramids in Egypt. Since the tourist infrastructure isn’t great and the site is vast, the experience was less bottled up and pre-digested than elsewhere.
My travelling friends and I finished our visit by negotiating with a smallholder for the use of some deck chairs and a steady supply of beer, which we consumed while watching the sun set over the ruins. The Veteran had on the cans all day of course, but we had come to expect that. Even a gigantic temple-city can’t overcome a severe case of PTSD overnight. The English couple bickered quietly which strangely added to the feeling of being on another planet.
We made friends with the two women running the stall and ended up going out for dinner with them afterwards and getting a guided tour of Siem Reap from a Cambodian perspective. Even the Veteran was somewhat mollified – despite being located in a horribly war-torn part of the world, basic human connection won out.
Wherever you go, people are still people.