Siem Reap, Cambodia
April 25, 2008
I found myself alone in cloistered hallways. Only whispering zephyrs were within earshot. The moment conjured up the centuries past. In the silent, stone-dead here and now, I sat still on ancient landings, imagining what it must have been like 900 years ago. This gallery must have echoed the pitter-patter of scurrying monks. This courtyard must have seen bare-breasted women dancing as apsaras or performing rituals as devatas. This terrace must have borne the pomp and power of King Suryavarman II himself, the builder of Angkor Wat.
My Angkorian adventure, however, was fraught with uninformed decisions and bad judgment. First off, I failed to consider its overwhelming size. Angkor Wat was not just one temple, but one of 50 or so major ones in the sprawling Angkor Archaeological Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, some 400 square kilometers in area, more than twice the size of my hometown, Quezon City! Angkor Wat, after all, meant “temple city.” Alas, I bought a one-day pass for $20, but a three-day pass for $40 would have been recommended for culture vultures like me. A seven-day pass for $60 was for hardcore temple enthusiasts. Without a guide or a plan, I was no better than a blind mouse navigating its way through a maze – an amazing one at that. I did not know where to see what and how.
Blind mouse or enlightened traveler, I would never forget the visual tour de force of Angkor Wat. Gazing at the majestic edifice was akin to looking at a larger-than-life photograph. The sight was all the more awe-inspiring when I learned it was built nearly a millennium ago while Europe was still in the clutches of the Dark Ages.
That should not have come as a surprise because Angkor Wat was designed as an earthly representation of the universe. A microcosm of the cosmos, as it were. Perhaps it was the ancient Khmers’ way of making sense of the universe and creating order amidst natural and political chaos. Hindu in origin, the wat was converted into a Buddhist temple centuries later by succeeding rulers. I saw at least two Buddha images, but missed the statue of Vishnu to whom this temple was dedicated!
It would have been a flagrant mistake to think of Angkor Wat as merely a colossal temple. It was, in fact, a temple-mountain, and should be seen and appreciated as such. The structure symbolized the five peaks of Meru, a cosmic mountain in Hindu mythology. Each tower, shaped like an erect lotus, was positioned in such a way that only from certain angles were all five visible. Approaching Angkor from the front, I saw only three towers forming a silhouette against the morning sky. As I made it to the back, I was surprised there were two other towers I had completely missed.
A pair of ruined structures, called the Library of Nine Planets, flanked the entry causeway as did naga balustrades, stone carvings of a serpent said to be the progenitor of the Khmer race. The entire temple area was surrounded by lush rainforest that was conspicuously absent in the road trip I just had taken through Cambodia.
The interior of the temple-mountain was a maze. This wide-eyed blind mouse was lost in amazement, not knowing which dark hallway led to which gallery. Angkor Wat, being three-tiered, shared the form of a pyramid or ziggurat with each tier smaller than the one below it. The walls were carved with intricate bas-relief that required an eye for detail and, at least, some working knowledge of Hindu traditional stories, such as the Ramayana and The Churning of the Ocean of Milk. The carved images read like a scroll that unraveled at the pace of my steps.
Exiting the Angkor grounds, I chanced upon a reflecting pool. Here I beheld two images of Angkor Wat: one was a reflection, the other reality. One was set against the sky, the other against the water. Both images were representations of the universe: reality and illusion. One had its elements cast in stone, its divinities etched in solid rock, the other only a mirage – drawn on water, distorted by ripples, and beyond grasp. I could not resist waxing philosophical: Was the universe real, or was it an illusion? Modern people referred to the universe as divine energy. I wondered which side of the pool they were looking at.
I may have been a clueless traveler in Angkor Wat, but I did get more out of my Angkorian adventure than I had thought.