Under the spell of Angkor Wat

Jeff Greenwald revels in the astonishing ruins and riches of Angkor Wat.

By Jeff Greenwald

Published March 3, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

There are certain sounds that must have been ubiquitous and comforting to far-flung travelers of every age. The sound of ice cracking, maybe, or the pealing of bells; a steamship blast, or the whistle of a train. Here in Siem Reap, 125 miles north of Phnom Penh, it's the prattle of CNN. In every outdoor restaurant and guest house lobby, live Academy Awards nominations coverage (not to mention Penisgate, the Olympics and Iran) competes with the geckos and frogs, creating a buzz of background noise that satisfies both the cerebral cortex and reptilian brain. The TV shimmers as I write -- a long umbilicus to a distant planet.

Beyond the Diamond Hotel, the Cambodian jungle gleams beneath the full moon. Less than five miles away lies Angkor Wat, where hundreds of sandstone apsaras -- celestial maidens, each one subtly different -- dance before the moonlit towers of the monument, as they have done for eight centuries. I, meanwhile, labor by the glow of a desk lamp decorated with an illuminated plastic bunny. It's classic Asia kitsch, far from UL approved. After 10 minutes, the plastic rabbit is hot enough to fry an Easter egg.

(There's a weird little relationship here. Earlier, watching the moon rise above the spectacular monument, I realized that from this near-equatorial perspective the Earth's satellite appears canted slightly onto its side. As a result, the visual pattern formed by the seas and craters is different from what one sees in the northern latitudes. Instead of a man in the moon, the people of South Asia perceive a rabbit -- and I have to admit, it's a pretty good resemblance.)

Siem Reap seems to have changed little since my last visit here, almost exactly five years ago. The same kids leap and splash in the river, the same women squat by their baskets of pineapples, paw-paws and tamarind. I easily relocate my favorite bar, where bottles of Angkor clink beneath a halo of Chinese lanterns. Strange, how a place one visited so briefly and so long ago can seem so instantly familiar.

And it was the same with Angkor Wat. Passing through the western gate, I remembered with absolute clarity the tightly fitted stones of the enormous (and seemingly endless) causeway, the cows grazing by the lotus pond, and the ranks of delicious apsaras with their adolescent breasts, pendant earrings and Dr. Seuss hairdos.

What's different about this visit is that I'm with John Sanday, the Kathmandu-based architect who lately escorted Prince Charles through the palaces of Patan. Charged with conserving the temple of Preah Khan (one of the main sites within the sprawling Angkor complex), Sanday is an expert on the 8th-to-14th century Khmer ruins. This afternoon he led me on a grueling tour of Southeast Asia's most famous ruin, describing the construction and deterioration of Angkor Wat's stonework in great detail.

Cambodia -- if what Sanday says is true -- has never experienced a major earthquake. The toppled stones and broken lintels that fill the Angkor ruins were not unseated by tremors. More gradual forces brought down those walls: water seepage, salt crystallization, the serpentine invasion of roots. The end result is a rather artful decrepitude, a kind of conspiracy between earth and monument. Stated less poetically, it's like Jeff Goldblum at the end of "The Fly": a weird hybrid of organic and inorganic elements, monstrous and heartbreaking.

The ruins at Angkor cover an area of 77 square miles. Many are being conserved or restored; some are still overgrown by jungle, just as Andri Malraux found them in 1923. (Malraux was expelled from Cambodia for looting Angkor's sculpture; he would return years later, as French minister of culture.) The big cheese of these monuments, of course, is Angkor Wat itself: a single gigantic Vishnu temple, built in the early 12th century by a Hindu king named Suryavarman II.

Even in this day and age, certain monuments have an almost metaphysical power. If you enter Angkor Wat at just the right time -- before the tourists arrive, the vendors set up and the land-mine victims arrange themselves along the broad sandstone causeway leading to the central towers -- it overwhelms you. It wipes your slate. You forget you ever heard of cloning, or anthrax, or Monica Lewinsky. Something echoes back to you, though you haven't made a sound. Lotuses bloom in the reflecting pool; a breath of incense trails the air; an ankle bracelet rattles behind you. Along the inner gallery walls, exposed to the rising sun, the bas-relief apsaras gesture with seductive smiles. The air seems perfectly still, and your eyes sting in the climbing light. It's vivid to the point of transcendence: you and Angkor Wat, alone at last.

It's like winning the lottery, you think to yourself, or getting stuck in an elevator with Janeane Garofalo.

An airplane whines by, snapping the moment. And when the spell breaks in Cambodia, it stays broken. The beggars and waifs and water-sellers filter in, tugging you back into these last stumbling years of the millennium. How impossible it is to imagine the place in its heyday: back in the 1100s, when the vast open courtyards were filled with wooden houses, animals, shops and cafes. Of those lives, nothing remains; time has annihilated all but the stone. In the harsh sunlight, there is something unsettling about the naked lawns of the Angkor Wat compound. Like so much of Cambodia, it seems inhabited by ghosts.

And here's the rub: Despite the charms of Angkor, Cambodia is not a charming place. The civil war that drove millions of people to the killing fields in the 1970s and 1980s was not an isolated incident. From their earliest records, the Khmers have been a warlike people, obsessed with battle and victory, torture and death. They fought the Vietnamese, the Thais, the Chinese. Sometimes they lost; often they won. The glorious Angkor reservoirs and monuments, Buddhist temples included, were built by captured slaves. Angkor Wat alone represents at least 30 years of hard labor. Knowing this, I admit to a nagging sense of guilt. The Chinese and Burmese use slave labor today; will future generations gawk in admiration of their efforts?

Woke up later than usual on my final morning and joined Sanday for a trip
to the Rolous Group, a 30-minute drive from Siem Reap. These are the
oldest monuments at Angkor, built nearly three centuries before Angkor
Wat. I loved their grace and simplicity, the beautifully detailed lintels that,
luckily carved from a high grade of sandstone, look as if they were
finished last month.

More than the ruins, though, I relished the too-short drive into the
countryside: past the covered market with its baskets of bananas, past
the elegant wooden houses resting on timber stilts, past the dry rice
paddies, the lean sweet cows, the farmers' daughters with red welts
of therapeutic cupping on their cheeks and foreheads.

Once again, the idyllic appearance of the countryside is belied by
Sanday's description of what lies beneath. Much of the region is still
seeded with anti-personnel mines, designed to kill or maim.
De-mining the region is a herculean task; it takes the United Nations
teams nearly an hour to sweep each square meter of land. The only metal
part of many mines is the detonator -- but any bottle cap or bit of
foil, however small, will set off the detector. When this happens, the
offending area must be probed with long needles, and the cause of the
alarm discerned. When an actual mine is discovered, an attempt is made
to neutralize the detonator. This is often impossible. The mines are
painstakingly extracted from the ground, placed in a pile and blown up
at the end of the workday. Sanday has heard several such blasts, which
rattle the windows of his World Monuments Fund office.

What is it with this country? What is the root of its terrible luck?
Sanday suggests that the Khmer -- like some equally unfortunate African
nations -- are bedeviled by bad karma: locked into a demonic cycle of
tribal war and self-destruction. (Declarations like these seem
completely convincing here in Asia, where such concepts are not New Age
platitudes but the bread and butter of spiritual life.) During my brief
visit to central Cambodia, warnings of local Khmer Rouge activity were
updated on a daily basis. Mine victims -- many of them children -- are
everywhere. As recently as last July, political tensions in Phnom Penh
erupted into violence, claiming more than 40 lives. Most telling of
all, an entire generation of inhabitants seems to be missing, erased
during the black reign of Pol Pot. Cambodia -- like much of Europe after
the Second World War -- is a nation of the young and the old.

But there is, of course, the odd note of redemption amid the decay: the
knowledge that renewal, at least on a historical scale, is inevitable.
This is especially evident at Ta Prohm: a magical, lushly romantic
temple that Malraux (in his avatar as minister of culture)
declared should be left in its "natural," overgrown state.

Entering the ruin -- with its pale gum trees emerging from vaulted stone
rooftops, root-laced bas-reliefs and mountains of broken stone pillars
-- is like wandering onto the set of an Indiana Jones film. True chaos
has a kind of innate perfection, and nowhere on Earth is it better
expressed. Doug Coupland (I think it was he) once observed that colors
in nature never clash. A true ruin, I realize, displays the same
mysterious, unerring aesthetic. Every element seems in place.

And this is true on several levels. To step into Ta Prohm and explore
its narrow passageways is to experience the awed, breathless rush that
the first explorers must have felt when they located the famed Angkor
ruins in the jungle. The place is a maze, full of dangers and surprises:
The place looks static, but a loose stone -- or hidden Hanuman snake --
could kill you. The temple is also a case study, an illustrated textbook
of the fate awaiting unrestored monuments.

Most compelling of all, though, is the view of impermanence the ruin
provides. At loose in Ta Prohm, it's easy to imagine one is walking
through the remains of Shea Stadium, or San Francisco's Financial
District. Bulbuls hoot, and monkeys scream in the trees; the fallen
buddhas and apsaras seem like natural denizens of the jungle. Only 800 years after its glory days, there is nothing here that did not
belong to nature in the first place. At peace in a land of warring camps
and mine fields, Ta Prohm provides an uncompromising example of the
planet's ability to restore itself ...

A few days back from Cambodia I wake to a mild, almost caressing tremor --
that slight samba shimmy in the roof beams and walls. The quake is so
subtle that my housemate, Chrissie, doesn't even feel it; but by the
afternoon it's the talk of Kathmandu.

It makes sense that this southern edge of the Himalaya -- the world's
youngest, most active mountain chain, rising at the breakneck pace of
inches per year -- would be rocking constantly, and it amazes me that
blood-curdling tremors are not a daily occurrence. Nepal has already had
two devastating earthquakes this century: in 1934 and 1988.

The next one is due, if the royal astrologers are correct, within
15 days. Their prediction is being taken seriously; the past weeks
have seen killer quakes in nearby Afghanistan and Pakistan. Smart expats
are assembling their earthquake kits, complete with spare rupees,
leather gloves and Pepto Bismol. The American Embassy has issued a
"preparedness" report, advising that bathrooms are the safest place to
hide and informing American citizens where the evacuation helicopters
will be landing. Getting to them will be the problem; Kathmandu is a
hasty erection of bricks, beams and poorly reinforced concrete, rising
amid an octopus-ink linguine of power lines.

But as in San Francisco, so it is in Nepal. Dawn brings another
Shangri-La morning. The bells ring down at the corner Ganesh shrine;
brown-eyed cows parade down the dirt lane outside my gate, nonplused by
the schoolgirls who touch them for a quick blessing. To the north, the
mountains ripple like meringue. Disaster seems impossibly far away.
What, me worry? It'll be like this until the summer monsoon -- bees and
banana trees, singing birds and snapdragons, even as we're digging
ourselves out of Ta Prohm-ish rubble.

Tomorrow is Shiva ratri: the dark new moon night of Lord Shiva, the
great Hindu creator/destroyer. The days following will witness the
celebrations of Lhosar, the Tibetan New Year. I'll report back from the
K@mandu cyber cafe in a couple of weeks -- if the place is still

Jeff Greenwald

Jeff Greenwalds latest book, "Future Perfect: How 'Star Trek' Conquered Planet Earth," was recently released in paperback by Penguin.

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