Words and Photographs by Amron Gravett
Traveling north from Siem Reap I sit sidesaddle on the back of a motorbike as we speed out of the jungle and run straight into a massive body of water. Its arresting and my first thought is that this must be the northern coastline of the Tonle Sap, the lake in northern Cambodia that is so large it actually changes direction twice a year. I quickly realize that we are too far north to be in its floodplain and that this, in fact, is the three-and-a-half-mile moat that surrounds Angkor Wat. Its deep, still water takes my breath away.
As we approach the gated entrance to the palace, a young girl selling postcards welcomes us. “What is your name?” she asks me in impeccable English. I tell her as I smile. She turns and runs off, and I am aware that this will not be the last time we see her. We step through the towering stone-carved archways, or gopuras, and walk out onto the stone causeway. Promenades lined with statues of Vishnu, Buddha, and Naga, the fierce multiple-headed serpent deity, welcome and warn us. Although we see no Khmer kings parading by on elephants, hurried servants carrying gilded palanquins or classical apsara dancers flexing their fingernails, it is easy to see how this mythical place was once the center of a powerful kingdom.
Angkor Wat and the vast surrounding temple region of northern Cambodia is a land of surrealism. Here the temple’s city center showcases the enormous island palace that is pictured on the Cambodian national flag. From the ninth to the fifteenth century, Angkor was the hub of the Khmer Empire; there remains evidence that it was once the largest city in the pre-industrial world encompassing over a thousand square kilometers and supporting nearly a million people at its zenith. Its historical importance and archaeological legacy cannot be denied.
Walking around the inner temple, the magnificent bas-reliefs tell stories of the life and spirituality of this earlier civilization. Twelve-thousand square feet of sandstone carvings depict scenes from the Ramayana—the classic Indian epic—and illustrate animals, gods, life and warfare. Adding to Angkor Wat’s mystique is that, despite its age and the bloody violence and pillaging that have taken place in the surrounding temple compounds since, the architecture here remains profoundly intact; most of the roofs have not caved nor walls destroyed, and carvings have not lost their depth from years of weather and wear. Except for a few large statues that were looted and narrow columns that have collapsed, the stairs, galleries, walls, and towers remain largely undamaged. Even more astounding, the central complex has been undisturbed by the surrounding jungle; the walls have not been swallowed up by the crushing strength of the banyan trees as has happened in other Angkor temples. It is truly unparalleled among archaeological structures.
After hours of exploring, we walk out along the causeway, and just as we expected, our young friend is waiting for us. She hands me a postcard with my name on it, and smiles.
What to Read
For a wonderful reading on the art, architecture, and culture of the Khmer civilization, grab a copy of Thierry Zephir’s Khmer, The Lost Empire of Cambodia. Those interested in the more recent history of the war and the Khmer Rouge, would appreciate the full-spectrum book titled When the War Was Over: Cambodia and the Khmer Rouge Revolution by Elizabeth Becker. For a more personal account, I highly recommend Loung Ung’s First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers.