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Tuesday, Feb. 26, 2002

The other treasures of Angkor


Special to The Japan Times

SIEM REAP, Cambodia An enormous complex located on a vast wooded plain, Cambodia's spectacular Angkor was built between the ninth and the 14th centuries by the Khmers as an administrative and religious center. From here, the early Khmer kings ruled over a vast territory that extended from what is now Vietnam across to the Bay of Bengal, and up into China as far as Yunnan. Remaining after the collapse of the Khmers are nearly 300 temples and palaces, some 30 of which have been cleared of forest and can be visited.

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The reconstructed face of the bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara at Ta Som

The most famous, and splendid, of these is the largest remaining structure, Angkor Wat. Nearest of all the sites to the town of Siem Reap, where the traveler will stay, this enormous compound is indeed one of the wonders of the ancient world. But around it, though often at some distance, are many other sites that are often just as interesting, and occasionally even more beautiful.

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Angkor Thom, with an area of 10 sq. km, was a fortified royal city, once completely walled and with a wide moat said to have been stocked with crocodiles. Five great guarded gates led into it and these have survived more or less intact for eight centuries. Some are crowned with four gargantuan faces of the bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara, each facing a cardinal direction.

Avalokiteshvara is even more thoroughly present in the Bayon, an inner monument comprising 54 towers decorated with his giant face -- some 200 visages in all. His expression is enigmatic -- some have seen only eyes watching, some have seen the famous Khmer smile. The French diplomat Paul Claudel found it merely "evil" when viewing it in the 1920s, but many (including, presumably, the Bayon's builder, Jayavarman VII) discovered only the compassion associated with Buddhism -- the then new religion that contended for a time with the native Hinduism, until the two amalgamated.

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Children play in the ruins of the Bayon at Angkor Thom.

Clambering over the ruins (the Bayon is much less reconstructed than Angkor Wat), wandering through the long corridors, climbing the steep stairways, the visitor is always observed by these giant faces. Wherever one turns one sees a profile, or a puzzling half-smile, or just half a countenance, riven by a giant tree root. Perhaps this continual surveillance is what Claudel perceived as malignant, but the regard could just as easily be interpreted as benign.

Here is architecture as image. The highest tower is known as Mount Meru, and the entire structure is a mandala with a statue of Buddha at the center. The faces are an assembly of the deities. The Chinese envoy Zhou Daguan, who visited the place in 1296, said that the Buddhas were immense, that the colonnades and corridors stretched forever and that where the sovereign sat in the royal palace there was a great golden window that opened onto a splendid court. Here "men and women alike are anointed with perfumes compounded of sandalwood, musk and other essences, and the worth of the Buddha is universal."

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The ruins of Ta Prohm

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Banteay Srie, a Hindu temple dedicated to Shiva

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The Terrace of the Leper King

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Stonework at Ta Som riven by giant tree roots

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One of the approaches to Angkor Thom

Nonetheless, said Zhou, this vast population was served by slaves -- richer families owned more than 100 -- and if a husband discovered that his wife was committing adultery, he had the lover's feet squeezed until the pain grew unendurable and he surrendered all his property as a price for liberation.

The palace itself has been swallowed up by the forest and its remains are scattered about Angkor Thom's enormous park, a ceremonial space filled over the centuries with examples of civic endeavor. Here is the Terrace of the Elephants, perhaps once a viewing stand for public ceremonies. One may imagine the chariots, the cavalry, the infantry -- the flags, pennants, all those carapaced elephants and what Zhou Daguan described as a whole forest of ceremonial umbrellas, those with gold handles reserved for the highest rank.

Here, too, is the famous Terrace of the Leper King. Perhaps the name derives from the later lichen growth on the statue of Yama, god of death (a copy of which is still there, though the original is now housed in the National Museum in Phnom Penh). Indeed, it is thought that the structure may once have housed the royal crematorium. Climbing down the stairs leading to a winding corridor, narrow but open to the sky, it is easy to think of death, and the wailing flute from somewhere ahead seems to celebrate it. Turning a corner we see the flutist, a maimed man, his cap set optimistically in front of him.

Dotted about the park -- so oddly reminiscent of Versailles, another ceremonial showplace -- are other temples and palaces. New, these would have embodied insufferable ostentation, with their slave labor, their bright colors, and their gold leaf. But the color has vanished along with the gold and now we are looking at ruins. These are morally consoling -- pride has had its fall.

Ta Prohm, not far distant, is Angkor as it was "discovered" by the first French explorers (for people in the neighborhood, of course, Angkor had never been lost). It is a mighty pile of ruins: crumbling towers, closed courtyards, narrow corridors, the stones pushed by the roots of the enormous trees, all lined with lichen and carpeted with moss.

Built at the end of the 12th century, again by Jayavarman VII, this vast ruin was once home to some 80,000 people, including, say the records, over 600 dancers. Now it is filled only with tourists, and -- adding to the picturesque nature of the site -- children. These are the guides who will lead you to the best location to take photos and insure against you becoming lost in the mazes of the place.

(The days of begging children at Angkor are over. The children now sell guidebooks and postcards and act as guides; they behave with dignity and self-respect. Likewise, adult beggars are no more. I saw just one and that was in Siem Riep. The indigent, the maimed and the blind have been formed into bands, small orchestras that play traditional Cambodian music from pavilions as the tourists tour the sites. After listening to this magical addition to the sorcery of the place, one is glad to give.)

Ta Prohm is romantic in its ruin; overgrown, with towering trees dappling the fallen stones, and sunlight turning to black in the shadows. It is all extravagantly impressive. My guide, seeking to augment, tells me that "Lara Croft: Tomb Raider" was filmed here, but even this information could not lesson the tremendous dignity of the place.

Banteay Srei, much further off (20 km from the Bayon), was built in the 10th century, but is the best preserved of all the structures in Angkor. A Hindu temple dedicated to Shiva, it is constructed from a variety of red sandstone that weathers particularly well. Nowhere else in the Angkor complex are the carvings so sharp, so crisp: Pink and stippled with green verdigris, the temple stands almost pristine. If one thinks of the Petite Trianon at Versailles, it is because of this miniature perfection, and also because after the heavy Baroque of Angkor Wat and the Bayon, it appears Rococo -- something refreshingly, even divertingly human among the monolithic aspirations.

Another reason for its freshness is that until relatively recently it was kept off the tourist map by Khmer Rouge activity. Now, however, that lethal organization is no more (or rather, assimilated -- I was told that some ex-Khmer Rouge soldiers are now tour guides) and the place is safe.

Kobal Spien, a 15-minute drive from Banteay Srei (plus an hourlong mountain climb) is usually called "The River of a Thousand Lingas" in English. Once you have made the exhausting trek to the top, there they are, lots of smallish phallic-shaped stones, submerged in the river, right beside the modest waterfall. Obviously the site is Hindu -- Buddhism never made much of lingas, and besides there are also images of Vishnu, Rama, Lakshmi, Hanuman, and so on. What they are doing there and why I never discovered. The interested tourist will him or herself decide whether the reward is worth the exertion.

Preah Khan, the "Temple of the Sacred Sword," is in good condition for a structure dedicated in 1191. It even contains a standing, open, two-story structure. The tourist is guided in through the original back door, but knowledgeable visitors will want to walk around the Preah Khan, admiring the two-story columned structure from the outside, and then enter through the main East Gate door. In this way the place can be seen as intended, and one may imagine what it must once have been like. Over 500 divinities (Hindu) were worshipped there, and during the course of the year there were nearly 20 major festivals, whose preparation required teams of thousands. Now it is empty, filled only with the calls of the birds, the noises of the cicadas, the suffocating greenery and the sunlit scamperings of the lizards.

Preah Neak Pean, nearby, actually a part of Preah Khan, is a large square pool at the center of which is a round "island," created by the two encircling naga "snakes" whose intertwined tails give the place its name. Until last year it was difficult to get to. A new road has now been opened and the tourists are trickling in. Water also once flowed in, through the four large spouts from four reservoirs at the compass points of the pool itself. It was used for ritual purification rites, and although only a few shallow pools remain today, during the rainy season sometimes it fills up again and becomes just as it was.

The water level was low when I visited, but my guide saw something jump in one of the pools and seconds later was in the sacred mud wrestling with a large, stranded catfish. With the fish writhing in his upraised fist, he suddenly looked like one of the people -- fishermen, farmers -- on the friezes of the Bayon, and the gulf of a millennium was erased. Accompanying this sudden vision from the past came the timeless thumps and bangs of classical Cambodian music, as under their pavilion of thatch the armless, legless, eyeless orchestra played its ageless tunes and I sat in the ruins and rested.

Ta Som is now being reconstructed by the World Heritage Foundation. A late (13th century) Buddhist temple, it is famous for a single image -- the giant visage of Avalokiteshvara riven by a great anacondalike root from an ancient liep tree. Reconstruction has removed the root and put the face back together again, but there are lots of other examples of temple walls, gates and arches slowly disintegrating in the coils of the trees.

Not only do the liep trees force apart the ancient masonry, they also often bring down whole temple complexes during the rainy season when the trees frequently fall (the roots being all aboveground). One side of Ta Som lies scattered in this way like the pieces of a puzzle. Each piece is now being numbered and then, jigsawlike, hoisted into its hopefully proper position.

Reconstructed work, too, is threatened by tree overgrowth. One whole series of chambers, put together in the 1920s, was recently destroyed by falling trees. It was thought that these could be easily put back together by using the records left by the French archaeologists, until it was discovered that these had been destroyed, like so much else, by the Khmer Rouge.

Pre Rup is another pyramid-shaped temple mountain with five shrines at the top and lines of steep stairways, a ruined Grand Central Station of beige and gray devoted, in this case, to death. The name means "turning the corpse" and refers to a traditional means of cremation. East Mebon is another enormous pile with maimed elephants in white stone and pillars like stacked soup plates. Thammanon looks like an abandoned country house (palace though it was), its black and tan facade so severely French 17th century that one expects a marble bust of dramatist Pierre Corneille. One can understand the excitement of the 19th-century French -- it must have seemed like time travel to them.

On and on and on the ruins stretch, each one, among other things, a magnificent monument to futility. Claudel was, indeed, silly in his observation, but it is at the same time impossible not to think of death, which seems in Angkor somehow close. In Egypt it is equally near, but it is sterilized by the dryness, the heat, the distance from our times. Angkor was, however, not -- as these things go -- all that long ago (it was inhabited until the 15th century).

Further, the clinical fact thrust at you at once is that Angkor is organic. It is all twisted, writhing roots, as intimate as bowels, everything alive and rotting. Death is dramatized and you will find it upsetting only if you find death sinister, which you need not.

The Khmer Rouge and its killing fields left only 7 million or so people alive in Cambodia. Now, a quarter century later, my guide tells me, there are close to 14 million. This population is poor but surviving: The farmer makes the equivalent of $100 a month, the shopkeeper maybe $200; my guide, he tells me, $400.

Four hundred dollars would not get you very far in Tokyo, but prices are low in Cambodia. And the native currency is not the preferred one. The tourist comes and goes (at least this one did) without acquiring any Cambodian riels at all, except as small change. U.S. dollars and Thai baht are the currencies of choice and will get you everywhere.

Whether dollars or baht, small denominations are necessary (nearly everything seems to cost, somehow, $1) and are used for transportation, without which you can see nothing of the place. There are no taxis, only a few Thai tuk-tuk and the distances are too vast for rented bicycles. One consequently climbs on motorbikes and holds onto the driver as he whizzes you to where you want to go and then holds out his hand for his dollars.

This (or an agency hired car) is the way to see the other treasures of Angkor, spread as they are over such a vast space. Even so, it is difficult to comprehend the sheer size of this enormous political, religious and administrative area. It covers an area roughly that of inner Washington, D.C., another administrative capital, and one of the ways to apprehend Angkor would be to imagine that American city in ruins . . .

There is the dome of the Capital, still intact and just visible above the forest; some distance away is the exquisite White House, seen through Virginia creeper and much as it always was, a privileged palace; further off is all that remains of the colonnaded Lincoln Memorial, with its seated, brooding ruler, and in straight, linear progression (suggesting some early U.S. prowess in sacred geometry), rearing out of the oak and the pine, is that great, inexplicable linga that we know only by its mysterious name: the Washington Monument.



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