Angkor, Part I: Change, Culture, and Nature
Trip Start Mar 21, 2005
351Trip End Ongoing
The importance of Angkor to the Cambodians is immeasurable. Angkor Wat is depicted on their national flag. Their beer is named Angkor. Many of their livelihoods depend on tourism dollars and Angkor is the prime destination for most coming to Cambodia.
Eating lunch from a local food stall just outside Pre Rup temple, I talked with the boy working there, part of a family from nearby. He was the spitting image of one of the ancient Khmer face carvings at Bayon:
"You look just like one of the Bayon faces," I said
"Maybe you're a prince..." but what went unsaid was that, now, because of years of civil war, massacres, and attacks from the Cham (Vietnam) and Thai armies, the Cambodian people were now some of the poorest people in the world, as measured by GDP per capita, for what that's worth. And, although he may have felt like a prince, he was still working hard to make a living selling food to tourists.
Almost one thousand years ago, this boy, in a previous reincarnation, would have been a prince of one of the richest empires in the world, an empire that covered most of Southeast Asia. It's capitol, Angkor, was then a sprawling city of almost a million people, although researchers still are trying to learn more about the extent of the city, which approximated the size of the Big Apple.
Despite not partaking in any archaeological digs, I still tried to picture what the city of Angkor would have been. The temple ruins, the bas-relief carvings, the immense moats and city walls, the statues, and the arrangement of the temples and roads provided a glimpse into this past.
I pictured a city very unlike city-states of ancient Greece or China, but instead one that extended to Lake Tonle Sap with its fishing communities and was a network of farming communities surrounding the temple complexes, all connected with an elaborate system of roads and canals
Cambodia, however, has had many capitals over the years, depending perhaps on the depletion of local forests or the whim of the current king or the relative power of neighboring states. When the Thai strengthened and moved their capital to Ayudhya, near Angkor, in 1350, one hundred years of war followed and Cambodia eventually moved their capital to the east, near present day Phnom Penh.
I looked at the bas-relief carvings at Bayon, depicting the sack of Angkor Thom by the Chams and pictured the entire city engulfed in flames, residents speared at the hands of the warriors. Back then, there was no United Nations Human Rights Commission either.
Slowly the treasures of the Khmer left Cambodia, whether to Thailand or Vietnam or, later, France
I saw in the food stall boy's eyes the past, present, and future of Cambodia. This boy already was trilingual, at least, knowing how to make money from Chinese- and English-speaking tourists, maybe more. After years of selling stirfries and sodas, he and others like him will hopefully bring his country back from years of oppression, war, poverty, and disease.
You can see it in their eyes, the polite desparation of a people wanting your money, but being as polite about it as possible, in most cases. One exception was a young girl who was selling books. When I said "no," she said "I don't like man from United States." When I said "that's not a way to sell a book," she said "I love you."
Tourism has its downfalls, too: it's a love-hate relationship.
So now the tourists flock to Angkor Wat and the other temples following years of civil war and oppression and are greeted with ruins in the middle of ancient forests, rice fields, and marshes. These forests were once cities. These rice fields were once baray or reservoirs
Nature has reclaimed the ancient city of Angkor.
Osprey dive for fish in Angkor Wat's massive moat. Monkeys feed near the roadside. Deer run through the jungles. Parakeets fly over head. The dipterocarp trees stretch over 100 feet into the air, shading many of the temples.
Fifty-four generations from now, many of the temples of Angkor will be eroded despite restoration efforts. More and more faces and heads will be buttressed and cemented to prevent change and nature and erosion from destroying them further.
But, by then, other civilizations will have collapsed and the people of tomorrow will be visiting their ruins. Where will the tourist spots of the future be located?