If walls could speak . . .

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BEAUTIFUL SUNRISE  — Angkor Wat looms in brightening violet dawn, monument to a powerful ancient civilization of long ago.  I-O Photo Courtesy of Cindy Peterson

 

 

 

 

Special to the I-O by Cindy Habets Peterson

I am often amazed at huge swaths of world history and peoples I simply know little or nothing about.

I recall learning about the Roman Empire, ancient Egypt, the Incans and the Mayans.  The histories of Alexander the Great, Hannibal, and Napoleon are tucked away somewhere in the recesses of my high school knowledge.  But standing in front of the Angkor Wat temple, center of the large and powerful Khmer empire, I can drudge up no memories of this fascinating and mysterious civilization.

Was I asleep through that part of 9th grade World History (sorry Mr. Makelky), or did this society simply fade in and out of the pages of history without a significant mention?

Sunrise comes early near the equator.  In Siem Reap, Cambodia, the alarm is set for 4:30 a.m.  We stumble out to meet our tuk-tuk driver, and wake him from a half dose.  Never much of a talker, he mumbles “Ready?” in heavily accented English and we zoom off toward Angkor Wat Park.  For the moment we relish the cool jungle air whipping by, in a few short hours we will be hot, sticky and searching for shade.

Angkor Wat looms in brightening violet dawn, monument to a powerful ancient civilization of long ago.  The five temple towers stretch to the sky, a representation of Mt. Meru, home to the Hindu gods.  A vast moat surrounds the temple, symbolizing the oceans encircling the residence of the deities.  By 5:00 a.m., sleepy visitors are already trudging across the moat, racing the sunrise and the crowds.  As the sun peaks over the jungle canopy, the temple walls come alive, each proudly displaying their own story.

Here was the heart of an empire.

The Khmer built a society out of the rice paddies and jungle of Southeast Asia.

From the 9th to the 14th century, the Khmer monarchy was at the height of its power, and Angkor was the cultural center of the empire.  The Khmer ruled most of what are now modern-day Vietnam, Myanmar, Laos, Thailand and Malaysia.  At the heart of the empire lies Cambodia; a country that to this day retains the spoken and written language of their ancestors. At its peak, Angkor City was the largest pre-industrial city in the world.

European explorers rediscovered the temples in the 1800’s, camouflaged by centuries of jungle growth and neglect.  One of these intrepid explorers, a French man named Mouhot, wrote this of Angkor Wat:

45_khmer_2“One of these temples—a rival to that of Solomon, and erected by some ancient Michelangelo—might take an honorable place beside our most beautiful buildings.”

Restoration and clearing of the temples began in the 20th century.  Major restoration work wasn’t completed until 1992, when Angkor became a Unesco World Heritage Site.

While the most famous, Angkor Wat (‘wat’ translates as temple) is only one of a number of temples hidden among the jungle landscape and rice fields of central Cambodia.  Many of the larger temples represent the capital for each successive king, while some of the smaller temples hold other religious significance.

The temples themselves were constructed of limestone brought over 25 miles from a quarry on the nearby Mt. Kulen.  Much like the pyramids of Egypt, these temples were constructed with no mortar, simply by fitting each perfectly carved stone into place.

But unlike the smooth pyramid walls, virtually every inch of the Khmer temples are covered with elaborate carvings and huge murals depicting mythological and historical sagas.  Not just laborers, but thousands of highly skilled artisans were required to complete each of the temples of the Khmer capital.  Each stone whispers the stories of the Khmer who laid them here and brought them to life.

Most visitors spend at least two to three days to explore the largest and most famous temples of Angkor Park and the surrounding area. The most simple and economical approach to view the temples is to hire a tuk-tuk (a motorcycle-powered rickshaw) and driver for the day.

The most well known temple is Angkor Wat, but many are worth exploring.

45_khmer_3Strangler fig tree roots weave through the stone ruins of Ta Prohm, a backdrop for the Tomb Raider movie, making it a prime tourist destination.  But if you ask me, the Khmer spirits reside at the temple of Bayon.  At least one of the 214 identical huge faces protecting each of Bayon’s towers are said to be watching you at all times.  You can’t help but feel them staring down at you.

Worth the extra 15-mile trip, the best example of the Khmer stone carver’s skills can be seen at the miniaturized Banteay Srei temple.  Almost a scale model of the larger temples, every sandstone surface of this breathtaking temple is carved in fine, sophisticated detail.  Some say that the small size and intricacy of the carvings proves they could only have been made by the delicate hands of women.

Over the course of several days, we explored, climbed and pondered the vastness of Angkor City and the civilization it held.  They may not have been the world’s mightiest people, and their eventual fate remains a mystery. But the archeological feats the Khmer left behind in the middle of this vast jungle remains a testament to the complexity and beauty of their society.  The Khmer deserve their place in history.  Visit Angkor, and you will understand why.

Getting there and away:  The Angkor Wat Park is approximately four miles north of the Cambodian city of Siem Reap.  Daily entrance fees to the park are $20/day, or a three-day pass can be obtained for $40.

Tourism is the major economic business for Siem Reap – dining and accommodations can be found in the full range from budget to five-star resorts.

Siem Reap can be accessed by air through most major airports in SE Asia including Bangkok, Ho Chi Min City and Phnom Penh.

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Happy Traveling!