Excerpt: The Temples of Angkor
Part 3, subchapter 41
I’ve wanted to see the temples of Angkor since reading, many years ago, an account of their uncovering from the cloak of the jungle by a team of French archaeologists.
My base of explorations has been the town of Siem Reap, 150 kilometres from the Thai border. Reaching that border from Bangkok involved an ultra-modern, air-conditioned double-decker coach. Then, on the Cambodian side, we transferred to a jalopy bus which navigated, very slowly, down comically bad, potholed roads for eight sweaty hours.
I decided to explore by bicycle (the term ‘cyclatron’ having yet to catch on here). As all cyclatrons need a name, I christened my new steed ‘Rhubarb’. The bicycle-hire person at the guest house assured me that three days of Cambodian sun and a daily 20-kilometres round trip would be too strenuous for an Englishman such as me. ‘Don’t worry,’ I said, ‘I know what I’m doing,’ and off I set.
Angkor (once a sprawl of residential districts, farms and ceremonial centres) was the largest pre-industrial city and seat of the Khmer Empire, which flourished between the ninth and thirteenth centuries: the classical period of Cambodian history. The temples, representing half a millennium of building, are dotted across the 3,000square kilometres the city once covered, all now swathed in tropical forest.
Technology drives civilisation. Generals and presidents may get into the history books, but if people didn’t invent stuff, we’d all still be living in caves. At Angkor it was their agricultural infrastructure which was the key. Towards the end of the first millennium, the Khmer began using a highly effective irrigation system which allowed the production of two rice crops per year. A large food surplus ensued.
Just as in Egypt four millennia earlier, that meant some members of Khmer society could start being more imaginative about what they did with their time. By the ninth century they were erecting some of the most spectacular monumental architecture the world has ever seen.
Rhubarb and I have just finished our second day of exploration. It’s world-class stuff – acre upon acre of Dr Seuss-style jungle filled with fairy-tale old things: bat-infested towers; stone-carved images of gods, men and monsters; ancient trees, plump with druidic power, their roots enveloping tumbledown ruins; and tiny, white-robed Buddhist nuns mooching about with joss sticks.
Angkor Wat, the most famous structure, and the only part of the city that was never lost to the forest, has been an Asian site of pilgrimage since the city was abandoned. It’s still the largest religious building in the world, filled with angelic devas and demonic asuras. The temple was erected by King Suryavarman II in the twelfth century to celebrate his symbolic union with Vishnu.
An excerpt from the travel and philosophy book, The Jolly Pilgrim.