Friday, 11 November 2011

8. Wonder: Angkor Wat

For the preview on Angkor Wat, please go here.

In 1113AD, a new god-king of Angkor came to power. His name was Suryavarnam II and he had plans. Already established as a great warlord, he swept to power in a blaze of glory, defeating one rival and then turning on his great uncle. His great uncle happened to be the snappily named King Dharanindravarman, and Suryavarman despatched him too (possibly in battle, though its unclear). Family gatherings must surely have been a little awkward after that; then again, family loyalties never counted for much in the cut-throat world of ancient south-east Asian royal politics.

As with most of Angkor's history, this we know from surviving inscriptions, written in stone within the ruins of the many scattered temples. And thus, the accounts are somewhat of a winner's history, a selection of chest-beating boasts about power and opulence that need to be taken with some grains of salt. Just as a Donald Trump autobiography (he has six) would be assumed to merely be a selected version of events, so we can assume that Suryavarman's glorious reign and fabulous victories against the enemy may not always be the literal truth (surviving inscriptions by the enemy unsurprisingly differ on the details). But supporting Suryavarman's claims of greatness is evidence of a slightly more rock solid nature: temples, and lots of them. Upon coming to power, Suryavarman, when not embarking on glorious wars against this rivals, was one of these kings that went into overdrive with the large scale construction of huge buildings. The most celebrated of these is Angkor Wat. And, sorry "The Don", it's a little better than Trump Tower.

Angkor Wat could be described as the world's most extreme expenditure of energy on the disposal of a corpse. It is the largest religious building in the world, being a temple dedicated to the Hindu god Vishnu, and was built as Suryavarman's mausoleum. Around the same mass of stone as the Great Pyramid, it is a far more elaborate structure, with towers, hallways, galleries, statues, sculptures, and all within grounds surrounded by a moat four miles in circumference, with less than an inch of error. It's probably fair to say that Suryavarman wasn't a man of simple tastes.

Suryavarman's body, or any evidence of it or where it would have been is long gone. Angkor Wat, not to mention the other massive constructions, cost the kingdom a fortune. It might have looked glorious, but it was certainly a project that would have drawn quite considerable opposition in anywhere not ruled by a god-king with unquestioned authority. It would be like Prince William being made king, and immediately insisting the nation build him the biggest building anyone had ever seen, cover it in gold, and find a nice space for his coffin to go. It would include using all the country's available wealth and thousands upon thousands of highly expendable slaves. Even in today's Conservative government, this wouldn't wash. But in the world of the god-king, it was best not to argue and Suryavarman built his monumental folly and bankrupted the kingdom.

He got away with it in his lifetime, and enjoyed a 37-year reign that is generally regarded as one of the greatest of the Khmer empire, but his successors didn't deal with his weakened kingdom so well. After years of oppression, the slaves and peasant revolted, although they were quickly crushed. But worse, three kings and 27 years after Suryavarman II's reign, one of the traditional enemy, the Chams (now a small ethnic group in Camdodia and Vietnam) stormed Angkor in 1177, trashed the place and for four years the Angkor civilisation was put on hold. We don't know exactly what happened, but it's probably fair to assume that Angkor Wat was damaged, the gold from its stupas stripped, and possibly even Suryavarman's body stolen or desecrated. The kingdom recovered soon after, as Jayavarman VII came to power and outdid even Suryavarman when it came to construction, building a new city and numerous temples. But there's no evidence he made many repairs to Angkor Wat. About 150 years later, and after numerous attacks from a new enemy - the Siamese - Angkor Wat and the city of Angkor were abandoned, and left for time and the jungle to swallow them.

And that's the building we see now - a temple ruined by war and jungle. For it is ruins, and that was one of my first impressions - Angkor Wat was more ruined than I'd expected. Perhaps I'd been misled by photos, but I'd imagined it to be in quite good order. Indeed, it is in far better shape that many of the other Angkor temples, which are reduced to rubble, but it was still definitely rougher than I first pictured. This, coupled with the scaffolding which covers the front of the temple, made for a first impression that I was forced to reluctantly agree with Burness was a little disappointing.

That was my first visit of three in total, and was made to catch the sunset and because a late afternoon visit is free if you already have a ticket for the following day. It's a tempting offer - see sunset at Angkor Wat for free - but one I would steer people away from, as a first visit at least. Because the time before it gets dark only allows you to arrive, quickly walk around the temple, and leave, along with lots and lots of other people. It's a smash-and-grab visit without time for appreciation, and the steps to the raised inner gallery are by now closed. Plus, Angkor Wat isn't even a particularly good spot to watch sunset. Together with the massive expectation felt, it was all a little underwhelming.

Which is why: visit everything twice (or three times, in this case).

Mood, circumstance, and expectation can greatly affect judgement. Feeling a little tired or grumpy on an overcast day with a monument you're expecting the world of, and there's bound to be a little disappointment. I had the same with the Pyramids in 2001 - the culmination of four months of travel, they were built up to unreasonable levels. Tired by touts in Cairo and within the site itself, the Pyramid experience underwhelmed me. Five years later I returned (for work, but I had a few days at leisure) and so took a visit, without much expectation. I was blown away. The Pyramids are fabulous and I was a fool to have ever thought otherwise.

Angkor Wat is the same. Anywhere is the same. And happily, my second and third visits were much improved.

The second was the following day, on our day's guided tour with our unfortunately rubbish guide. But although he lacked enthusiasm and the ability to convey much of the sense and the meaning of Angkor, he did at least get the order of visit right and saved the best - Angkor Wat - till last. Having seen Angkor Thom and Ta Prohm before visiting Angkor Wat gave us a sense of the context that Angkor Wat was within. On this visit, it seemed far less ruined than before, and even with the scaffolding up I could feel a sense of wonder. Our guide also took us a far more interesting route into the temple, allowing us to see features we'd entirely missed on our previous, in-and-out, visit. This included the courtyards inside the east entrance, which as well as being pretty in their own right, includes many examples of devatas or apsaras. In a rare moment of lucidity, our guide explained that each apsara or devata - and there are hundreds of these sculptural reliefs all over Angkor Wat - have a different hairstyle. Some of the most exquisite examples, still in a remarkable state of preservation, were in these courtyards. Apsaras are a kind of Hindu or Buddhist heavenly nymph that enjoy dancing, and devatas are vaguely similar but with less dancing and more guardian spirit duties. Devatas are the most common in Angkor Wat, though to be honest I couldn't really differentiate, Because to the young man (I include myself in this category) they are more notable for one - no, two - things - titties!

Yes, topless nymphs scatter Angkor Wat, and while they were surely carved with the greatest piety, I can't help but suspect that Suryavarman was also just a fan of topless ladies. Indeed, a Chinese visitor to the kingdom, albeit almost two hundred years later, when writing his report, concluded with "Rice plentiful, women easy to find." Together with the suggestion that Suryavarman II and his posse were often intoxicated on drugs (when not warring or building vast temples), it rather seems that the Angkor civilisation was a somewhat decadent kingdom of vice. (And rice.)

The vast series of bas reliefs, a kind of shallow sculpting in stone, that line up along the inner walls of the outer gallery were also something our guide highlighted to us, and like many of the nymphs are in a fabulous condition. The detail is intricate and impressive, and illustrates Hindu myths as well as celebrating Suryavarman at war and enjoying court life. There are miles of these detailed reliefs in Angkor Wat and it is far too much to take in in one viewing; indeed, it is estimated that over 20,000 figures are depicted altogether. It's a bit like the Bayeux Tapestry was carved onto stone - over and over and over again. Angkor Wat is not just about the size and bulk, it is also about the artistry.

Our second visit to Angkor Wat culminated with climbing the steep steps to the inner gallery - effectively climbing into the heart of the temple. This is the area most noticeable in photos, the tall central tower with the four shorter towers surrounded symmetrically, representing the mythical Mount Meru. The towers once would have been gilded, at least in part, but the invasions and looting made sure none of that remains. Nonetheless, it is a magnificent area, raised above the surrounding area. The total height of the highest peak is 65 metres, the tallest of all the temples of Angkor, and in a moment of wisdom by the Cambodian authorities, also taller than anywhere in the surrounds, including Siem Reap, in which no building over that height is allowed to be built. Siem Reap is in the throes of change as the tourist money rolls in, but it may be saved that grim fate of many tourist towns, the high-rise hotel.

Our final visit was to Angkor Wat was a few days later, our final stop on a day's cycling around the area, and was a satisfactory conclusion. I took a wander to one of the libraries between the outer and inner galleries and enjoyed a rare moment of peace. Angkor Wat is a major tourist attraction and attracted last year, according to our guide during our earlier tour, 2.7m visitors. "80% Asian, 30% European," he informed, and repeated these statistics for us upon query. So perhaps let's not count him as an absolute authority, but it does appear that over two million tourists a year flock. Fortunately Angkor is a big area, and the numbers are spread out - I visited a small temple but still within the main area and was the only person there. Even Angkor Wat is spread out enough that as long as you don't get caught up in one of the many tour groups, it's not too congested. And so on this final day, I was pleased and a little surprised to find myself alone on the small library building upon ascending its steep stairway, and seeing nobody in sight whatsoever across the wide grassy area before the inner gallery. I had time and space to gaze up the five towers, with their distinctive lotus bud look, and appreciate the size, craftsmanship and the use of space between the galleries. It's too easy, especially when lots of tourists are bustling, to keep moving and to keep looking at lots of different things. Sometimes it's important to find somewhere quiet, and just stop and look for a while, and enjoy a single sight. This was that time, and Angkor Wat was immense and beautiful.

Angkor Wat was the lucky one. Although ravaged by time, neglect and looting, it was never heavily damaged by the jungle. In the 13th Century, as with the rest of Angkor, it converted to Buddhism, and even after the abandonment of the rest of the city, the battered old building continued to be inhabited by a few monks. From the 16th Century, while the rest of Angkor disappeared into obscurity, Angkor Wat continued to be in use, albeit at a low level, and the presiding monks prevented the jungle from having its way. As evidenced by on-site inscriptions, pilgrims came from as far as Burma and Japan. Therefore, the French explorer Henri Mouhot, usually given credit for its rediscovery in 1860, should more accurately be accredit with its popularisation and spreading awareness of it in the West.

Not that Cambodia, upon catching on to the West's interest, didn't develop their own sudden passion for it. To get an idea of Angkor Wat's importance to Cambodia, you just need to look at its flag. It's smack bang in the middle. Imagine Egypt did that with the Pyramids, or India with the Taj Mahal? It would be great. Cambodia was made a French Protectorate (a protectorate, or protected state, is a nation protected by a more powerful one, and in this case equates to a voluntary colonisation) in 1867 and its first flag featured Angkor Wat. All subsequent flags have done likewise, save for a brief spell in 1992-93 when the United Nations took over. Angkor Wat represents Cambodia at its greatest, when it was among the most glorious civilisations, if not the most glorious civilisation, in the world. Powerful, creative, and vast, Angkor Wat and the Angkor civilisation is an inspiration to modern Cambodia. It not only reminds of the past, but it gives hope to the future. As a symbol of Cambodia, it is the single icon that draws in the tourists. I spoke to one guy who had visited Angkor not realising it was more than one temple, being pleasantly surprised it was a vast complex. For him, Angkor was Angkor Wat, and I doubt he's the only tourist to have arrived with that misconception. In an impoverished nation of 14 million, getting the money from over two million tourists annually is a significant boost to the economy. Cambodia is on its way up, and like its flag, Angkor Wat is at the centre of it.

Angkor Wat also features on the nation's most popular beer, Angkor, but I'm not sure if I can attach as much symbolic significance to that.

For myself and Burness's final look at Angkor Wat, we decided to treat ourselves. Not far from the temple is a hot air balloon, on a fixed line to the ground, that cost $15 for a twenty minute ride. It was worth it. The view of Angkor Wat was splendid, allowing appreciation of the vast, square moat that surrounds it, and the symmetry of construction. How many words for magnificent can I think of? It deserves all of them.

The view also gave us a fantastic perspective of one of the man-made reservoirs - called "barays" - built during the Angkor time. About 8 by 2 kilometres, these huge, rectangular reservoirs had either a practical function, for irrigation, but were possibly entirely symbolic, meant to represent the oceans surrounding Mount Meru. Either way, they are hugely impressive constructions in their own right, and hundreds of years the unnatural geometry stands out against the jungle background.

Cycling back from the hot air balloon, we were also treated with a small realisation - this is the way to approach Angkor Wat. Cycling up the road, there Angkor Wat lay, straight ahead in the distance, massive, growing closer and closer and in clear view. What an improved approach as opposed to the standard one, which arrives at a corner of the moat and misses the anticipation of slow arrival. Therefore, if you ever visit Angkor Wat, please take this advice. With your ticket already arranged, don't go the standard route from Siem Reap, along one of two roads that arrive directly there; instead, ask your tuk-tuk driver or get your cycling legs ready, and take the longer route which goes via the airport. The approach is greatly more exciting.

Before visiting Angkor Wat, I expected it to be an instant hit. I was wrong - it's a grower. This was a surprise. Perhaps it was just a reflection of my mood and my expectations, and the misfortune that temporary scaffolding spoils the front and first view of the temple. But the structure is incredible, and over time it begins to sink in. It needs several visits, and even then that isn't enough time to check it all out. The detail and quality of the sculptural reliefs are brilliant, and the building is mammoth. More and more people are visiting it, and more and more is Angkor Wat becoming known to the world. To be honest, I need another visit, one day, in years to come. And like the Pyramids, I know I will like it more. Like the Pyramids, I hope my repeat visit will help me find the passion that so far, I have to admit, I don't quite have.

Criteria then.

Size: The biggest religious building in the world, with a volume of stone equal to the Great Pyramid. It's far shorter though, at 65-metres, but spread out, and part of a massive overall site enveloped by the moat. It's a big boy.
Engineering: An astounding feat, involving a great deal of manpower and technical expertise. The huge blocks of stone were taken from a quarry 25 miles away and cut so precisely to fit that the join between blocks can be hard to find. It would prove a major construction today, and so in a world where engineering involved bamboo scaffolding, elephants, and ropes, the effort and achievement is mind-boggling.
Artistry: It looks great from afar and from close up. From afar, the five distinctive lotus bud towers are the focal point, next to the overall symmetry. From close up, the vast amount of high quality carving is breathtaking.
Age/Durability: Around 850 years old, and the best preserved temple in Angkor.
Fame/Iconicity: So significant to Cambodia that it's on a flag (and they named a beer after it). In the wider world, Cambodia's obscurity means Angkor Wat lacks the profile of the more famous Western temples, but it is a rising star and is becoming more and more recognisable.
Context: Wow. Surrounded by a vast sprawl of ruined temples - some of which could be Wonders in their own right - as part of a lost civilisation, Angkor is just the focal point of days of temple exploration.
Back Story: The temple-mausoleum built by one of Angkor's greatest kings, that bankrupted the empire, but survived the centuries after conversion to Buddhism. That's just what we know, as much is a mystery and lost to time.
Originality: The architectural style is called simply "Angkor Wat style". Older temples have similarities in style, but Angkor Wat took these, magnified them, and made them its own.

In the overall picture of the Wonders I've seen so far, there can be no doubt that Angkor Wat tops the list. Everything about it is magnificent. But look closely, and you can see it crumbling a little under the weight of expectation. It is magnificent, but wasn't quite the punch-in-the-face smash-hit I was expecting. Like a person you've been told is terrific and that you'll get on like a house on fire but with first meeting leaving you just a smidgeon disappointed. Perhaps they seem a little shy, or you're still a little hungover from the previous night, but it takes a little longer for the house to catch alight. Angkor Wat didn't quite set my world ablaze, but at the same time, I know it's the best thing I've seen, and every time I see it I'll like it more. I thought it was going to be the greatest, and top my list by quite some margin, and maybe that expectation was unrealistic given that I rate the Sydney Opera House and Borobudur pretty highly. So it does still top the list, but only by a little. Angkor Wat is great, but it might not be the greatest. The game is still on for the ninety or so Wonders I've still to see.

The Seven Wonders of the World So Far
1. Angkor Wat
2. Sydney Opera House
3. Borobudur
4. Petronas Towers
5. Bodhi Tataung Standing Buddha
6. Shwedagon Pagoda
7. Ananda Temple in Bagan 

Interesting Places
Marina Bay Sands

1 comment:

  1. inspiring travelogue...spontaneous..

    "Angkor Wat could be described as the world's most extreme expenditure of energy on the disposal of a corpse"

    all such structures may have a purpose. to generate a kind of awe factor.

    without which u wouldn't have visited the place.

    i know u know.


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