Siem Reap (Cambodia) is a scruffily exotic town that never threatens to over-stretch the adjective bank. For anyone who has been out of the tropics for a while, it’s charming enough, and the locals are pleasant, dignified folk. Our hotel, with its hints of French colonial heritage and lush foliage is more than OK (as long as you don’t make the mistake of testing their catering capabilities). Siem Reap, however, is just a jump-off point.
The Angkor sites, in contrast, incinerate all available positive adjectives within seconds, threatening speechlessness. It’s absolutely necessary to assume a front-rank wonders-of-the-world baseline in what follows, with awe-struck mind-melt accepted as the default perceptual mode (in the absence of, and in addition to, any explicit qualification). There might be more stunning spectacles to be found on this earth, but that would require a serious argument.
The Angkor temples were constructed over a period of 630 years, reaching a climactic golden age of architectural production in the 14th and early 15th centuries. Go read a history book (I still need to).
Angkor Thom is an entire temple city, with large tracts of rain forest within its walls, and a moat of lake-like scale without. One architectural feature well worth noting at an early stage follows from the fact that the Khmers never mastered the arch, so their internal spaces have a massy, geological character, often rising to impressive heights, but without culminating vaults. Technically, therefore, it is a kind of anti-gothic, ascending through sheer mountainous upsurge of stacked stone, rather than gravity-defying structure. It is if the earth were imperiously commanded to soar, without the slightest hint of sublimation into anything other than itself. These are fabulously sculpted artificial mountains — sacred mesas. According to my guidebook, there are 11,000 carved figures and 1.2km of bas reliefs on the Bayon — the core of Angkor Thom. These carvings were detailed to the level of fine textile design on the skirts of miniature dancers, while including giant enigmatic faces several meters across (and in great number).
Angkor Wat is not only a monumental aesthetic composition, but also an enthralling philosophical puzzle. As befits the final days of the snake year, it is a symbolic complex strung together by nagas. These seven-headed serpent monsters are arrayed around the site as guardians, rearing up from the end of every balustrade. They also figure prominently on the series of huge, continuous bas reliefs that wrap the main structure, and — truly provocatively — provide hoods for numerous Buddha statues throughout the site. (Angkor Wat is thought to be devoted primarily to Vishnu, with Buddhism present as a later arrival.) This hissing religious insidiousness needs futher attention at a future point.
(Five-headed nagas are atypical — this one was found at Ta Prohm.)
The third prominent naga moment occurs on the most revered of the bas reliefs, which depicts the ‘stirring of the ocean of milk’. A quick step back first …
Viewed panoramically, Angkor Wat epitomizes timeless serenity. Close examination of its narrative carvings, however, reveals an obsession with war. Armies clash, and parade, on earth and in the heavens. Even the torments of the underworld have the character of military atrocity — stabbings, slashings, and impalings. The cosmos depicted tends to a slaughterhouse.
It is here that the naga key can be inserted. The stirring of the ocean of milk (the Milky Way?) is a tug-of-war between gods and demons — a cosmic war, therefore, whose thread is the vast naga Vasuki, whose body is stretched across a hundred meters (?) of delicately-carved display space. Crucially, a central pivot, consisting of Mount Mandala resting upon the body of Vishnu in turtle-form, converts this conflictual back-and-forth into rotary dynamism — appropriating war to a celestial function …
ADDED: The third temple in the core of the Angkor complex is Ta Prohm. For sheeraesthetic rapture, it might be the most stunning. (I’m going to add some snaps as soon as bandwidth considerations allow that.)
Ta Prohm has been shattered and devoured by the jungle, with broken masonry fused (at once beautifully and hideously) with monstrous trees. It thus vividly presents a hard collision between culture and nature in the starkest possible terms. The trees conducting the slow-motion assault are known locally as ‘spung’ (botanically: tetramelesnudiflora). No director could have chosen better assailants than these behemoths, with massive, twisting roots. It was obvious from this spectacle that trees do tentacle horror even more impressively than cephalopods, if allowance is made for the inhuman time factor.
An almost equally superb example of semi-digested cyclopean civilization is found at Beng Mealea, a two-hour tuk tuk ride away, through jungle-fringe countryside. The heritage preservation problems of intervening in this titanic clash are fascinating to contemplate. How does one appropriately restore — or merely save — an intricately-carved shrine half-eaten by a colossal tree? Is a formula even imaginable?