Angkor is alive. Unlike many of the world’s ancient monuments that have been fenced off, sanitized, childproofed and labeled for tourism, the temples of Angkor are still mostly open and wild. Scattered over a wide swath of tropical forest in northern Cambodia, Angkor pulsates with life from the jungle, the people living within it and the spirits of history and myth.
Angkor, meaning Holy City, was the heart of the Khmer Empire that flourished between the 9th and 15th centuries and then mysteriously vanished. Engineered with a sophisticated hydraulic system used for transportation, communication and rice cultivation, Angkor became the world’s largest pre-industrial city. The temple centerpiece of the Khmer Empire was Angkor Wat, an architectural embodiment of Hindu cosmology and the single largest religious monument in the world. Over 70 other sites are scattered around the area known as Angkor, and several hundred more are sprinkled in the jungles beyond.
Constructed over a span of six centuries, Angkor’s temples reflect the region’s complex religious history that embraced forms of animism, Hinduism, Buddhism and “god king” worship. Many sites are now being restored by international teams of conservationists, but most are left in their natural states of decay and engulfment by the jungle, and the effect is sublime. The people living around the temples are mostly poor rice farmers who live in a way much like their ancestors who built the temples centuries ago. One sees in their faces the same faces in the thousands of statues that grace the temples, and eventually I understood them as a single, living Khmer history.
Vibrations of power, beauty, life, death and otherworldliness permeate Angkor. At Bayon, over 150 gigantic face towers of King Jayavarman VII, represented as Avalokitesvara, the Buddhist bodhisattva of compassion, look down at you provocatively. Some faces seem to be smiling in bliss, while others seem to be snickering, watching or spying. The grand Hindu triumvirate of Brahman, Vishnu and Shiva are deified in stone all around Angkor, protected by Hanuman (the monkey god), garuda (the guardian bird of Mount Meru, the center of all universes), nagas (multi-headed snakes) and other mythic creatures of the ancient world. Beautiful women grace the temples in the forms of apsaras (celestial dancers) and devatas (temple guardians). Angkor Wat has over 2,000 apsaras wearing 37 different Khmer hairstyles carved into its doors and walls. Each woman is unique. Their individual characters are unmistakable.
Tragedy permeates Angkor too. The Khmer Rouge genocide took the lives of at least 1.5 million Cambodians, left 40,000 people limbless, and created the most heavily mined country on earth. Cambodia is plagued by poverty and corruption, and the government uses Angkor to garner international aid and tourist money, which does both harm and good. Millions of tourists visit Angkor every year, threatening the well-being and protection of the sites. Angkor Wat is sinking from their weight. Looting is rampant — Cambodians are paid to carry out the thefts — and countless apsara and devata statues have been beheaded to be sold on the black market. On the other hand, tourism is reviving traditional arts, such as Khmer dancing and silk handloom weaving, and creating jobs and economic opportunities for Cambodians.
Anybody who visits Angkor to see the temples cannot escape the heart. All around Angkor, rice farmers do back-breaking work under the hot sun while air-conditioned buses filled with well-fed tourists roll by. Locals burst into smiles and wave happily at tourists for no apparent reason. In front of the temples, swarms of children selling books, postcards, handmade bracelets and other trinkets swarm around tourists calling out, “One dollar. Sir, you buy from me. One dollar. I need money go to school. Sir. Please. Only one dollar.” They pout if you refuse to buy, but for a dollar, why not? Land mine victims play traditional music with bowls set out for donations. Bright young speaking chunks of many languages work as unofficial temple guides, making a few precious dollars for their families. Ancient-looking women caretake small shrines and collect donations. Local people huddle around the fortune tellers at Angkor Wat listening intensely.
After India, Angkor felt unexpectedly fresh, light and even therapeutic. It was totally calm. There was no hassle. The people were easygoing. The temples were magnificent and clean. The air was delicious. There weren’t too many tourists. I plunged into solitude and spoke very little for a good long while. It was exactly what I needed at that moment: peace, art, nature, new faces and a little adventure among the ruins and spirits of Angkor.