HCMC Dining Guide

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

The Ruins of Man

I've been thinking a lot about my time in Cambodia recently, and realized that I never gave my visit to Angkor the coverage it warranted. For those that don't know, I first came to Southeast Asia last August, and my first two weeks were spent in Cambodia. While there I visited the ancient city of Angkor, outside of Siem Reap, about 6 hours north of Phnom Penh.

My hard drive fried the first night I was in Phnom Penh, so I had limited access to a computer until I bought a new one after arriving in Saigon. Therefore, I only wrote a short entry with just a couple pictures about Angkor, way back in September. Time to give this amazing place the treatment it deserves. (Warning: this post is image-heavy.)

Angkor was built by the ancient Khmer empire, one of the most powerful empires in Southeast Asian history, over 800 years ago. The high point of the Khmers lasted from the 9th to the 13th century; during this time period they ruled large parts of modern-day Burma, Thailand, Laos, Malaysia, Vietnam and, obviously, Cambodia. Thanks to this extensive empire, the Khmers became extremely wealthy, so they clearly needed to built an ostentatious capital city. Thus, Angkor was born.

Modern archaeological research has shown that Angkor was stunningly massive during its heyday, covering an area of almost 1,000 square kilometers, making it by far the largest pre-Industrial Revolution city in history. The grounds are also home to nearly 1,000 temples, although they vary widely in how well-preserved they are. After the fall of the Khmer, the dense Cambodian jungle reclaimed large parts of the city, but European explorers eventually stumbled upon the remains, and their shock is evident in their words. For example, a Portuguese monk had this to say after seeing Angkor in 1586: "(it) is of such extraordinary construction that it is not possible to describe it with a pen, particularly since it is like no other building in the world. It has towers and decoration and all the refinements which the human genius can conceive of." Henri Mouhot, the French writer whose descriptions of the city brought worldwide recognition to Angkor in the 19th century, said that: "One of these temples—a rival to that of Solomon, and erected by some ancient Michelangelo—might take an honourable place beside our most beautiful buildings. It is grander than anything left to us by Greece or Rome..."

It is certainly true that Angkor is impossible to adequately describe through writing. It is even hard to capture through film, as Anthony Bourdain noted when he said that "at Angkor, I simply stopped taking pictures." The scale of human achievement on display is simply mind-blowing. How were such massive, complex, and detailed temples and buildings constructed, when the only tools at the disposal of the Khmers were simple machines, elephants, and raw manpower. That being said, I will now try my best to portray the power of Angkor through images and words.

On our trip, we toured four different temples inside Angkor, and another that sits outside of Siem Reap. First up was Bayon, an incredible introduction to the ancient city. Still in decent condition, this temple features huge faces carved out of gray rock, and staggeringly detailed bas-reliefs, depicting tales of epic battles and images of daily Angkorian life, carved into the walls.
The entrance gate to Angkor Thom, within which Bayon is located.

Soldiers and elephants marching off to battle.

I'm not sure what the second temple we visited is called, but it was also located within Angkor Thom. This temple featured a long, narrow walkway over what surely used to be a moat. The rear of the temple also features a huge reclining buddha, formed by curves in the bricks the structure was built with. The Buddha was tough to see in person, and impossible to see through pictures, since it has crumbled significantly and is currently being restored.

This was a small temple, near the previous one, that we were able to climb to the top of.
Our third major temple was Ta Prohm, which is in worse condition than Bayon, but still absolutely amazing. Enormous trees have taken over large chunks of the temple, leading to some jaw-dropping sights, as thick roots snake out of the walls and drape themselves over the ancient carvings. A monsoon had also just passed as we got to Ta Prohm, and the entire floor of the temple, except for the walkway, was flooded, which gave everyone the sense that we were walking through a movie; such a sight is truly impossible to describe.

Our tour guide took my camera and zoomed in for this one, otherwise we would've missed it.

Epic tree roots.
The last temple on our Angkor tour was Angkor Wat, one of the most famous historical sites in the world, and justifiably so. Surrounding the complex is a huge moat, which you cross on an impressive walkway, leading you to the entrance gate. Once you pass through the gate, you are greeted by a magnificent sight: another lengthy walkway, this time leading up the iconic center of the complex, with its trifecta of central domes and initmidating walls. There are also several smaller structures in the fields to the path's left and right. Absolutely stunning.
The entrance to Angkor Wat
The entrance to the complex from inside the temple.

Just in case that wasn't enough ancient history to soak in, on our way out of Siem Reap we stopped at Beng Mealea, about 40 km from Angkor. This complex was heavily damaged by the brutal Khmer Rouge, and it now sits in a state of almost complete disrepair. Many pillars have been knocked down, and you have to scamper over huge piles of destroyed stones in the temple's interior. However, the walls still remain, and the damage gives visitors a totally unique visual experience, which is, typically, difficult to articulate. A great finish to the trip.
The ruined entrance to Beng Mealea

Beautiful destruction

More awesome tree roots.
Well, that was probably the longest post I've written, thanks to the pictures, but Angkor deserves it. Everyone should try their hardest to see this place before they die; it truly is a must-see, one of the top experiences of my life so far. I'm sure my words failed to even come close to describing it, in fact I basically ran out of adjectives in trying to portray Angkor, but hopefully you will at least enjoy the pictures.

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