I'm no geologist, but sometimes I love to study rocks.
Like last week, when I had a torrid three-day love affair with the stone remains of Angkor's dozens of Hindu temples. The sprawling ancient metropolis, probably the world's largest pre-industrial city, is mostly mystery now, its massive religious constructions the only pieces a millennium has handed down to us. We can meet the smiling four-faced towers of the Bayon temple in Angkor Thom (right), but can never know at what they smile.
I armed myself with two guidebooks and a history book, determined to put the laterite and sandstone into historical context; I knew that without them temple fatigue would set in after one day. (India taught me that.) The thing is, even scholars who spend entire careers studying and reconstructing the temples to understand Angkor are very ignorant about the society that built them. Inscriptions are incomplete and biased. There's no serious glimpse of Angkor beyond the realm of Gods and Kings.
And that's fine; I wasn't expecting to find absolute knowledge/understanding of Angkor in the space of three days. I just wanted to be a bit more than a tourist looking for photos and that overrated adjective "exotic."
One of the best things about Angkor's temples is not mentioned in any of the guidebooks: They are excellent and unusual exercise. Photos and scholars won't tell you this, but it's a very good reason to explore Cambodia's ancient history. They are not, and never will be, handicapped accessible. But they are, if you want to shed a few pounds and lots of water, a full-contact sport. Embrace the heat and sweat, beware twisted ankles, and climb the stone jungle for days.
The temples were made of stone and are/were home to Hindu Gods (usually Vishnu or Shiva); now they are mostly home to the jungle. Strangler trees can grow on, through and above stone. There is no stopping life in the tropics. Some of the temples - most notably Angkor Wat - have been fully reclaimed by and for people, and Cambodians claim the whole region as their greatest patrimony. But the jungle will always be Angkor's true heir.
The true beauty of Angkor's temples is in what time has done to them. They must have been mesmerizing just after completion, between the 9th and 13th centuries, often sparkling with white plaster finish and accompanied by a full roster of statues (looters have stolen many through the centuries). But I found it hard to imagine their former glory when what is visible today is so overwhelming -- the colors, the architecture, the improvised accretions of time and jungle (left).
It's impossible to exaggerate the complexity and wealth of Angkor's architecture and carvings. Photos are meager substitutes, alas. Angkor's line of rulers had three things today's leaders and builders rarely have: unlimited power, construction schedules measured in decades rather than months, and a virtually unlimited supply of slave labor.
While touring the temples, I kept telling myself that the fact modern
societies so rarely construct sublime buildings that will last a
millennium has as much to do with political rights as it does with
a lack of imagination. I hope I was lying to myself. Slave labor shouldn't be required to build a city of Angkor's caliber.
I grew fond of walking both through and around the various temples. Each angle revealing new colors, shadows and sculpted lintels and pediments. The original layout and symmetry of each structure is easier to grasp when you do more than walk through central passageways and glance left and right.
A one-day tour of Angkor is insulting. A three-day tour is reasonably respectful. I think four days would have been ideal for the 22 temples I took in, but time wouldn't allow me to stay one more day. True Angkor adventurers could comfortably explore 35 sites in five days, I think. Many people would probably find five days in Angkor to be painfully gratuitous at best, suicide at worst. Perhaps it's natural to enjoy the present more than the past. Shopping malls are certainly more understandable and accessible than Angkor. Still, a tour of Angkor should be mandatory for all those can afford it. Call me eccentric, but I would much rather stumble through Cambodia's humid heat than an air-conditioned mall if this cascade of sculpture is waiting for me, nearly 1,000 years after it was carved for the Gods: