Angkor Away!

hee hee hee.. “angkor away” … oh hoo hoo hoo im so funny

Angkor Wat Sunrise

That’s my obligatory Angkor-Wat-at-Sunrise photo. And yes I did actually get up before sunrise to take it. Me! It was a herculean effort on my part, but I persevered, staved off my tiredness and finally overcame all odds to take the same photo as a bazillion other tourists before me. Plus my groggy state was perfectly suited to take in the majesty and quiet grandeur of the place, making it seem like something from a dream, from a childhood story you dont quite remember, something you’ve seen a million times before but cant quite place.

And of course we all have seen the Angkor temples a million times before, in like every adventure movie ever made. The architecture, the carvings. They’re all almost cliched now. Like how many movies are there where our intrepid explorer hero happens across this face covered by vines in the jungle?

Bayon Head

or has to climb into a tiny doorway overgrown with tree roots?

Ta Prohm Roots

Angkor is the archetype for our collective idea of what a jungle temple is. And I had no idea just how pervasive its architectural style really is in popular culture until I went there. Half the time walking around the ruins you feel just like you’re Indiana Jones or Lara Croft. I mean I thought I was Indiana Jones. Other people who arnt me may see themselves more the Lara Croft type. I mean… never mind.

Anyway, of course Angkor’s fame is well-deserved. Its pretty much a ridiculously incredible place. It’s the most significant archaeological site in Southeast Asia, and one of humanity’s greatest artistic and architectural achievements. It’s a monument to the human capacity for creation, our drive to beauty, and shared desire to aspire to the miraculous. Its as awe-inspiring today as it must have been when it was first built a thousand years ago, and surely will remain so a millennium from now.

So, you know.. it’s pretty cool I spose.

It really is an amazing site though. We’ve all seen the photos of the Angkor Wat towers in silhouette, and the big jungle faces and all that. But what you dont get from the photos is the enormous scale of the place. Angkor Wat is absolutely massive. My guidebook says it is the largest religious building in the world, and that’s not hard to believe.

Angkor Wat

that’s one wing of the front entrance.

Angkor Wat

that’s a small outlying auxiliary “library” building.

Angkor Wat Stairs

It’s really hard to tell from those photos, but the towers of Angkor Wat are enormous, and the galleries around the outside go on for ever and ever. Plus thats just the inner temple. There’s a whole other system of walls and moat and more walls beyond that. To think about the amount of labor needed to construct such a place, the amount of wealth and power, ego, and fervent religious belief required to mobilize a populace to such a task boggles the mind. Plus imagining it in its heyday, when the walls were painted and the wooden roofings and secondary structures had not decayed, when it was the center of a thriving city and the temple was home to active ceremony, pomp and adulation—it’s unfathomable.

Hollywood has made a lot of adventure movies about ruined jungle temples, but I’ve never seen one about the Khmer Empire and Angkor in its prime. Hey Dreamworks people! It JK ever wants to do another Prince of Egypt, steer him this way. You could make it beautiful.

But while Angkor Wat is the most famous of the temples, and pretty awe-inspiring, what’s truly impressive is that in the immediate area there are literally dozens and dozens of other temples, each unique and interesting in its own way. Angkor was the center of the Khmer Empire which ruled much of southeast asia from the 9th to 15th centuries. And pretty much every successive Angkorian king would build a big fancy temple to serve as the center of his capital, and show how he was better than the last king.

Angkor Wat was built by Suryvarman II, who was followed half a century later by Jayavarman VII who built the even-bigger Angkor Thom, which contains the famous Bayon:

The Bayon

each of whose towers has many of those massive heads on it. I always thought those heads were Buddha or Krishna or something, but it turns out they’re all portraits of ol’ Jayavarman VII, put there to keep an eye on his subjects. I like the way he thought. Wait’ll you see what my mansion looks like.

Plus in Angkor Thom there’s the Baphuon (currently being taken apart and reassembled piece-by-piece by very patient archaeologists):

Baphuon

and the Phimeanakas:

Phimeanakas

and the Terrace of Elephants:

Terrace of Elephants

and Preah Palilay:

Preah Palilay

in addition to tons of other stuff. Then in close proximity to Angkor Thom there’s Preah Khan:

Preah Khan Wall

and Preah Neak Pean:

Preah Neak Pean

and Ta Keo:

Taylor at Ta Keo

and Ta Prohm:

Ta Prohm Entrance

and Banteay Kdei:

Banteay Kdei

and East Mebon:

East Mebon Elephant

and Banteay Srei:

Banteay Srei

and Pre Rup:

Pre Rup

and Ta Som:

Taylor at Ta Som

You get the idea.

Each of those is a huge, complicated temple complex in its own right. And those are just some of the ones I visited in three days, and only a small fraction of all the temples and other ruins in the area. The place is extensive and deep with history. You could easily spend a week or more exploring.

But the really impressive thing was that most of those temples were at one time covered floor-to-ceiling with complicated religious carvings and reliefs, many of which are still very well-preserved.

Angkor Wat Devatas

Bayon Bas Relief

Terrace of the Leper King Carvings

Bantey Srei Pediment

I mean imagine entire buildings with all the walls covered in carvings like that. Imagine how much work that would be! It sorta makes me wish ornate decoration hadnt gone out of style and wasnt thought of as sentimental bourgeois crap by the modern architecture world. It must have been so spectacular.

The carvings are predominantly Hindu, though the later temples have some Buddhist imagery as well. They also often represent the achievements of the various kings, or local animals like elephants or snakes or whatever. They also include this, the weirdest and most perplexing carving in the entire area:

Stegosaurus Carving

A fucking Stegosaurus! How’d that get there, and why did the Khmer people carve it? How did they know what a stegosaurus looked like? Fossils? A missing link still living a thousand years ago? Bizarre.

But by and large the carvings are of Hindu gods and myths, and the temples are constructed as architectural representations of Hindu mythology. Most of them have a quincrux of a central tower surrounded by four smaller towers, representing Mt Meru and surrounding peaks, surrounded by galleries (representing the continents) and moats (the oceans). So the temple functions as a map of hindu mythology—a earthly representation of the world of the gods. They are literally intended to be a house for the gods, not men. So whereas Christian churches are built as a place to worship, with enormous halls that can fit hundreds of people, the actual rooms in an Angkorian temple dont have much space inside. They’re enormous piles of solid stone reaching skyward, but at the top is usually just a little tiny room with only enough space for the statue of whatever god resided there. The actual worshiping would have happened in surrounding buildings made of some un-godly substance like wood which are now mostly decayed and lost.

The temple mountain itself is not a place for humans. It is very literally a House of God. And in their scale and majesty, the Angkor temples convey that idea with a powerful clarity. They truly are places fit for gods. Which, of course, is why I fit right in.

Taylor and Angkor Wat

See my full (very large) Angkor flickr set below:

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  1. rebecca
    Oct 21st, 2007at7:36 pm

    this is my new favorite blog.
    as i was eating vietnamese food yesterday i thought to myself “taylor’s getting the real deal.” then I pushed the table over, smashed all the plates and stormed out of the restaurant in a jealous huff.
    i linked you on my blog as “adventures of taylor shaw”

 

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