The Mona Lisas of Angkor (20060708-10)
The temples of Angkor Wat have left tourists, travellers and adventurers slack-jawed and scrabbling for better adjectives to describe them since at least the middle of the 19th century, when they were visited for the first time since the fall of the Khmer empire in the 1600s. My Financial and Menu Adviser and I would be no different, despite the hordes of visitors who have been rumored to ruin the Angkorian experience. In fact, skipping a visit to Angkor would be like skipping the Taj Mahal. For better or worse, and I firmly believe this is A Good Thing, checking out the dozens of temples in the Angkor Wat area has become a smooth, easy experience. The FMA and I hired a tuk-tuk driver for three days through our guesthouse, which afforded us the freedom to do what we wanted with our schedule. This was an important issue for the FMA, whose migraines had been the bane of many a planned afternoon. So, for three days in a row we got up at 5:30 a.m. and headed out to the temples as soon as we were ready. We picked up our $40, three-day pass at the gate on our first day, where they took our photos and printed them on identification cards. The three-day passes seemed to be the best option. One day would be ridiculously short and expensive at $20, but the $60, seven-day pass seemed meant for hardcore Angkor enthusiasts, or archaelogical researchers. Since 90 percent of the temples are included on any of these three tickets, crashing the gate just wouldn't make much sense. Also, I'm not too sure about hiring a guide. If you're the kind of person who likes having stuff being dictated to you, then I suppose they're okay. It's not as if there weren't plenty of them around. Generally, though, they're as hit or miss as any guidebook. Angkor Wat makes the decision a real simple one. There were hundreds of vendors in Siem Reap and right in front of the temples, even, all selling guidebooks of varying qualities. Many, I'm sure you'll be shocked to learn, were photocopied from the originals. They all go for less than $10; mine cost $3.50. This doesn't mean I got the three-fifty tour of Angkor; I merely didn't have to pay through the nose for the uncomplicated operation of getting to the temples and looking around. It's not as if there are still Khmer priests performing rituals that need explainin, nor were the Khmer incompetent artists; I can see for myself that the bas-relief in front of me is of an elephant spearing a demon on his tusk. Angkor Wat itself was impressive, but not amazing. It's the world's largest religious building so even before seeing it the mind has pre-adjusted for an appropriate scale: Extra Large, Mega-Structure, Supersized Ancient House of Worship. The stairs leading from the second level to the third, where the central sanctuary is located and where only priests were allowed to go when the temple was in use, were treacherously steep. The stairs were so narrow I had to sidestep up and down. Why, I wondered, did I find the Taj Mahal to be amazing, despite having seen countless photos of it beforehand, yet Angkor Wat itself was merely impressive under the same cirumstances? Interesting, but not awe-inspiring? It comes down, I think, to two things. One of them is looks. The Taj is a massive white edifice, blindingly so. In design work, as the FMA has told me, white represents purity of form. This is one of the big reasons why Apple, for instance, refused to make their now-ubiquitous iPods in any color besides white for so long; that image has been indelibly burned into the consumer's consciousness. So too with the Taj. The photos of it do not do it any justice: it was so much more impressive in person than in imagery, I'd actually contemplated not visiting almost until I was actually standing before it. As balanced as its design is, and as memorable as the silhouette of three of its five conical towers is, it just didn't lay siege to a part of my imagination as the Taj did. The other reason is that all the hearsay and rumors, the photos, the travelogues and blogs and visiting flocks prepare the neophyte visitor in no small way for what is to come, regardless of how inaccurate or incomplete that preparation might be. It's kind of like how having a Naugahyde couch might prepare you for owning a leather one, had you never touched real cowhide before. There may be another reason for this betrayal of the hype: Timing. I saw Angkor Wat on the last day on my pass, anticipating it to be the font of impressive amazement that everybody had made it out to be. On my first day, though, I explored the Bayon temple, in the Angkor Thom complex. It was the first Angkorian temple that I saw, and it set the tone for all the other temples. Bayon is a massive temple built around half a century after Angkor Wat. It doesn't approach the dizzying heights of Angkor Wat, which is as tall as Notre Dame, but the artistry and complexity I found to be far more compelling. Like Angkor, walls with bas-reliefs encircle the temple, and the temple slowly ascends skywards on a series of platforms, each higher than the last. What distinguishes Bayon from every other Angkorian temple are the faces. Dozens of heads, as big and imposing as bull elephants, look not down on visitors, but straight ahead. Their lips are wide, and almost serious except for a slight curl at the each end. The heads are all depictions of Avalokitesvara, the bodhisattva embodying the compassion of all Buddhas, which would explain the lack of a change in expression. They are the Mona Lisas of Angkor, and they are utterly captivating. Inside the temple, too, Bayon grabbed my interest and just wouldn't let go. The interior was labyrinthine, although that may have more to do with a lack of upkeep for five hundred years and restoration efforts than anything else. Every hallway I went down, though, had several openings into courtyards of different sizes, different hues of early morning sunlight streaming through the cracks, and increased my curiousity about the place just that much more. The rest of the Angkor temples were interesting to varying degrees. Ta Prohm, which was the setting for some of the Tomb Raider movie, was exactly what I'd hoped more of Angkor would be: covered in trees, like something out of a Edgar Rice Burroughs story. The temples of the Rolous Group, the first Khmer temples built in the area and the forefathers to the monuments at Angkor, were interesting for their simplicity. No matter how large or small, I was able to find something about every temple I visited that was unique or captivating, either photographically or just mentally impressive. Better than any other analogy, the temples of Angkor are the Taj Mahal of Southeast Asia. They are at least as impressive as the Taj, both singular architectural accomplishments that have become the modern symbols of their respective civilizations. Unfortunately, the host cities of both are also strikingly similar. Siem Reap has become the Southeast Asian Agra, seemingly with all the worst of Cambodia flocking to its doorstep. Guest houses offering services of questionable quality and outrageous prices were everywhere; also ubiquitous were crappy restaurants serving crappy Western food. Just about everything has been marked up for tourist consumption, and although I wish I could've spent more time at the temples, I couldn't wait to leave Siem Reap.