Twelve hundred years ago a powerful king rose from his throne in the jungle and proclaimed himself to be the “Universal Monarch” … king of the world. He and his successors decided that semi-divine universal monarchs need a cities that worthy of them, and over the next three hundred years they built the city of Angkor (which means “city” in Khmer), deep in the jungles of what is now Cambodia. This was to become the largest city in the world at the time, with over one million inhabitants. In the center of it all they built a temple, “the City Temple”, or “Angkor Wat.” This was to become (and still is) the largest religious construction in the world and one of the most beautiful buildings ever conceived by man.
By the fifteenth century the Khmer Empire had lost much of its influence, sandwiched between the powerful Thai and Vietnamese kingdoms on either side. They had abandoned Angkor, too close to Thailand, and moved to Phnom Penh. With the people gone, the jungle took over and quickly engulfed the site. Ankgor Wat, the great temple, was less affected, both because it had remained a center of Buddhist worship, tended by resilient monks, and because it was surrounded by a wide moat that helped to slow the jungle down.
A few hundred years later, the first Europeans came upon the ruins of Angkor. Unable to believe that the local people could have built such a thing, they thought they had found proof that Alexander the Great had made it all the way to Southeast Asia, for surely such monumental architecture was the work of the ancient Greeks or Romans. After all, the locals were far too Asian. Why exactly Alexander the Great would have built temples to the glory of Shiva or Buddha was apparently a question that didn’t occur to them.
By the late nineteenth century, the ruins of Angkor began to be cleared, the jungle driven back and the stones allowed once more to speak. Much of the city was built of wood and is gone, but the temples were built of stone and they remain, all crowned by the greatest of them all, Angkor Wat.
You think cathedrals are impressive? Do Greek temples woo you? Do you go “ooh” and “aah” when you see the Buddhist temples of Japan or the Hindu temples of India? How about the Blue Mosque? Piffle. You have to see Angkor Wat. Imagine any of these edifices, spread over hundreds of acres, with every square inch of the stone work carved in delicate detail, showing designs, flowers, battles, scenes of enlightenment and endless female guardians, each with a mysterious smile on her stone lips, all of which is surrounded by a moat almost two hundred meters wide in which lotus flowers float like gifts to the gods.
Angkor Wat is one of the wonders of the world. A number of people I know who live in Southeast Asia go there again and again and again; it’s not rare to find someone who lives in, say, Vietnam or Bangkok who has been to Angkor ten or fifteen times to stare at the endless bas reliefs or trace the finery of the doorway carvings with trembling fingers. Angkor Wat doesn’t tower over you like Notre Dame (although it must be said that it does its share of towering), it’s the extent of it, and mostly, the endless beauty of the carvings that throw your mind for a loop. Go there and marvel at it, please. In the meantime, since it is rather well documented, I’ll tell you about some of the other temples at Angkor.
Such as Preah Khan. You must first understand that Ankgor was enormous, roughly the size of modern Los Angeles. As such, these temples tend to be really far from one another. At the city’s peak, the spaces in between were probably filled with dwellings, or the enormous Saray’s (reservoirs) built by the kings. Today, they are filled with jungle, and you get from one to the other via tuk-tuk (note that the tuk-tuks in Cambodia are different from those in other Asian countries, they tend to consist of normal motorbikes fitted with a kind of harness, pulling a four-person, two-wheeled wagon behind them. It’s kind of nice, actually, and since no one in Cambodia drives over 30 kilometers an hour, they’re not as dangerous as those you’ll find elsewhere). Preah Khan is a few minutes from Angkor Wat by tuk-tuk.
Preah Khan was a Buddhist monastery, a center of learning. It is a vast network of passages crossing each other in a complex pattern that stretches the imagination by its very conception. But what is unique about Preah Khan is that it was largely left in the state in which it was found by the first archeologists to visit the region. The other sites had the jungle whacked away, but Preah Khan was left in its grip.
You approach Preah Kahn via a long path with lush vegetation on either side. After a while, over a moat that has become a jungle swamp, you see stones rising out of the vines. This is the entrance to Preah Kahn, shrouded by greenery and little red dragonflies that buzz low over the water.
This is, of course, irresistible. A wooden walkway has all the same been erected to allow you to cross the water, and once you’ve done so then you can penetrate into the tangle of crumbling walls, shrouded passageways, and mysterious statues lurking in the shadows. From time to time you’ll emerge from a covered passage to find yourself in a courtyard where giant spunk trees grip the walls with their oversized roots, as if they were the tentacles of a race of aliens. Underneath, great stones lie in heaps – the crumbs of the trees’ feast. Angkor Wat overwhelms you with man’s potential; Preah Kahn overwhelms you with nature’s ultimate primacy. It is strikingly beautiful.
And then there’s Pre Rup, a pyramid of carved elegance that rises above the jungle like a beacon. You should visit Pre Rup at sunset, sitting near its peak and gazing west across the tops of the trees, which seem to go on forever. I was there with a dear friend from France, who lives in Taipei with his charming Taiwanese wife. As we explored Pre Rup, waiting for the sunset, we ran across a cow grazing on the temple grass, well inside its walls. This, needless to say, was unexpected. It was a pretty good-looking cow, as cows go: A typical Cambodian cow, beige on top and cream colored underneath with big brown eyes. The cow had a rope around its neck, but the other end was just dragging along. It was a placid type of cow (but then, most cows are pretty placid) and it was clearly enjoying the grass.
As we watched the cow, one of the inevitable little girls who hang around Cambodian temples selling post cards came up to try to entice us into buying some of her wares. We politely told her we weren’t interested, and she sat next to us to watch the cow. After a while, the cow’s rope got stuck between a couple of rocks, and the girl helped set the animal free, which enabled it to continue its munching of grass.
“You want cow?” She asked. “One dollar cow.” This seemed pretty light for a cow.
“Is that your cow?” I asked.
She laughed and shook her head. “No.” Then she sat down next to us again and watched the cow some more. Finally she got up, said goodbye, and went to look for more fruitful tourists.
“I once met a cow,” my friend said, as the sun grew lower in the sky, “who was very important in my life. It was when I was living in India. I was walking down a road in a village and I realized that a cow was walking next to me. I looked at the cow and the cow looked at me, and we just continued walking on our way. I started to think to myself, How is this creature different from me? She has a place she’s going, I have a place I’m going. I was thinking about this as I walked along. After a while, the road came to its end and I turned right and she turned left. After a few steps I stopped and turned around to look at her and at that very moment, she stopped and turned around and looked at me.”
He then stopped speaking and we both turned to the west to watch the sun dip below the distant trees. “I never forgot that,” he said.
Nor will I.