Monday, January 30, 2006

Encore for Ankor Wat

Young Buddhist Monks at Ankor Wat

Even though I have traveled extensively throughout Asia and have lived in Southeast Asia for more than a year and half, I still had not visited one of the most amazing man-made structures which had captivated me for close to a decade. Ankor Wat, located near the town of Siem Reap in Cambodia, had a virtual lock on the top spot of my Must See List. Built by the Khemer Empire in the 12th century, these temple structures represent the craftsmanship and power of a vast civilization that covered what is today Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos, Burma, Thailand, Malaysia, & Indonesia. A few weeks ago, I left Singapore with my co-worker, James, and spent a weekend exploring this historical place.

Our local Cambodian tour guide was very interesting and informative, not to mention full of conspiracy theories as well. He took us to one of the perimeter gates of Ankor that included a bridge lined with images of the King that ruled during this period. The king's simple smile was adorned on many facades and imagery that we would encounter that weekend.

I had seen many ancient temple structures before in Thailand, but what was different about the temples at Ankor was their age and the survival of their sense of detail and ornateness. Exquisite reliefs were visible everywhere that detailed the Khemer's rule, their way of life, their allies, and their enemies. Entire wall surfaces were dedicated to the powerful people and images that assisted in the capture and re-telling of the history of the Khemer.

What was interesting to learn was that Ankor Wat itself is not merely a singular temple structure. Ankor, in Khemer language, means city and I truly felt that I was in the midst of this ancient metropolis. The famous image of Ankor Wat that catches our attention on TV and in books is just one of many temple structures that make up this sprawling complex. There is variety in these structures, as well as the people you may encounter there. In some areas, you may see young monks rushing from place to place, and in others you may see the elderly selling inscents for a small donation, and still in others you may hear the delightful local music played by a collective band of land mine victims who have suffered horrific physical injury but still have it within themselves to create lovely sounds.

The people of Cambodia have born witness to the decline of their Khemer civilization, felt the boot of colonialization, and the heartless insanity of extermination. This has left many of them, including our tour guide, suspicious of certain foreign governments, especially the Vietnamese. Our guide believed that the Vietnamese had infiltrated the highest levels of the Cambodian government and were slowly robbing Cambodia of its resources as well as its chances at prosperity. He even noted that the $40 we paid for a weekend pass into Ankor Wat went directly to a company owned and operated by Vietnamese. I have no way of verifying one way or the other if my tour guide's fears were justified, but his life has been a rough one shaped by the fears of starvation and death, so his perceptions obviously run deep and true.

Happier and peaceful times were apparent in the architecture and reliefs of Ankor Wat. The ancient and wise kings of the day realized that it was often religion that drove a wedge between the people of the kingdom. Hence, in many of the structures within Ankor Wat, the temples celebrate both of the religions of the day. Hinduism and Buddhism were celebrated on equal footing preserving a lasting peace that lasted for several generations.

The lotus flower can be found in many places around Ankor Wat, whether it be in the artistic expressions or within the actual temple grounds themselves floating in the reflective ponds. The lotus is the true representation of renewal and a fresh start, as the bloom sprouts skyward in the early morning to later release its colorful flora, only to close back again in the evening.

Another amazing feature of some of the ancient temples of Ankor Wat is their association with the jungle that had long kept the site a secret for hundreds of years. Many of the temples had been reclaimed by the fast growing jungle which surrounds the area. Many had only been rediscovered during the French colonial period, when the jungle was peeled back to reveal the true gems which these structures most certainly are.

Some buildings however appeared to take on a hybrid look both representing carved stone and living trees all at the same time. Many trees, and their system of fast growing roots, have taken hold within the cracks and crevasses of the structures. This gives an almost alien looks as the roots contort and seemingly strangle the physical structure. It is also very destructive to the buildings themselves as the roots push up on foundational stones, causing the entire structure to become unstable or even topple over. Even within the suffocating presence of the tree roots, some carvings struggle for breath. One specific location featuring this unearthly combination of trees and stones was actually captured in the movie Tomb Raider, which starred Angelina Jolie.

The Khemer people built a civilization that often gets overlooked by historians who try to rank the individual importance and relevance of man's development. Modern day Cambodia is looking to recapture its once proud heritage while attempting to throw off its colonial yoke. Yet even as they outlasted the French, much bloodier times followed in the form of the Killing Fields of the Khemer Rouge. Even today, Cambodia ranks as the most mined country in the world and many signs and notices have been posted for locals to hand over any military equipment they may encounter.

These historical facts and struggles do not take away from my enjoyment of Ankor Wat in the least. It is one of the most impressive places that I have ever seen. The locals are rightfully proud of this place and even the UN has christened it a World Heritage Zone. There may come a time when people will not be allowed to come as close as I did to Ankor Wat. I am glad that my trip to see this place eventually came. It is truly one of those places that lives beyond the hype and the pomp and circumstance. If you let it, it will inspire you and make you think. Even if you don't, it will make you wonder.

For more photos of Ankor Wat, click on the link at the upper right hand side of the Blog that is entitled "Photo Archive". From here, you can scroll down until you see a list of over 75 photos from Ankor Wat. I hope you enjoy taking a look as much as I did capturing them.


At 5:56 PM, Blogger Liz said...

Finally... Truly amazing David.

At 8:20 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Its always a pleasure reading your entries. Especially loved 'Through the eyes of a child'. Keep blogging :)


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