Hedonistic with the Gods - Amansara, Angkor - Part 2
Part 2 continues...
Wasting no time, well, after a very pleasant late lunch first, we were introduced to our personal guide for our entire stay. The team of drivers whisked us off in Amansara's wonderfully restored (somewhat modified) World War II era US Army Jeeps—our impressive motorcade seemingly parting the traffic unhindered at a clip to the "Great City" and ancient Khmer capital, Angkor Thom. The capital was established in the late twelfth century by King Jayavarman VII, with its three main temples: the northernmost Lolei surrounded by an active wat (moat), Preah Ko (Sacred Bull), and Bakong—the first temple mountain built by the rulers of the Khmer empire.
Amansara recommends Angkor Thom as the ideal starting point for Angkorian exploring, as it is relatively quiet compared to the other more popular temples, which becomes patently obvious when you encounter the relentless hordes of tourists (over two million annually) and countless locals thronging around them at Angkor Wat.
Indeed, we were practically the only people at Lolei, which in itself is serendipitous as one's first encounter with Angkor architecture and its surroundings needs a good deal of meditative space, as it is a thoroughly ruminating experience. It also gave our guide the opportunity to talk at length, effectively giving us the 101 on Khmer culture, religion, history, engineering… Kings building, Kings demolishing—some Kings building to reach the sky, others bringing it back to substratum—and all the wars and a multitude of transgressions in between.
No amount of research prior to your trip, or post-trip for that matter, will equip you for what you are about to experience visually, emotionally, intellectually and every other human perception. And should you go away contemplating embarking on a PhD on the Khmer empire, it's probably likely that we (humans) will have discovered or visited a new civilization in another Universe by the time we work out exactly what happened here in Angkor.
Even as a travel writer, and history and anthropology enthusiast, it would be futile to write anything on Angkor other than our personal experience, words will simply never do it justice. Everyone will take away their individual reflections and theories on Angkor, and doubtless there will be compelling aspects that impress or intrigue more than others.
It could well be the sheer magnitude of Angkor, which is 1,000 square kilometers (390 square miles) of urban sprawl and the largest pre-industrial city in the world. Our guide proudly tells us this was the largest place of worship in the world, as big as the city of New York with in an estimated 750,000 to one million people connected by an elaborate infrastructure system.
It might be the complex architecture with its mind-boggling scale and extraordinary accomplishment of construction, surely as impressive as the Great Pyramid of Giza. Or it could be the colossal water engineering feat; Angkor is considered to be a "hydraulic city" with its complicated water management network—the lifeblood of this civilization. It was used for systematically stabilizing, storing and dispersing water throughout the area, and effectively combating the unpredictable monsoon season.
Many will of course associate with the religious cultures of Hinduism, Vaishnavism, Shaivism, Buddhism, Theravada Buddhism and the worshipping of gods. Hindu gods live in heaven or their own worlds, thus the early temples were built to reach up into the sky for the Kings to communicate with the gods. That said, it is thought that the Khmer empire began with the Angkorian period in AD 802 when the Khmer Hindu monarch Jayavarman II declared himself a "god-king"—one assumes to make it even easier to communicate with the gods on the same level!
Where it gets even more intriguing is that some believe Jayavarman I from Funan was the first king of the Khmer empire, a Buddhist King, illustrating that both Buddhism and Hinduism coexisted relatively peacefully throughout ancient Cambodia under the dominant Hindu Kings, even if the occasional Buddhist King redesigned or rebuilt many Hindu temples with an "earthier" connection.
For me, the most compelling aspect of Angkor, indeed utterly captivating, is the fig trees and how (they) and the jungle engulfed an entire kingdom; these fig trees with their lava-like roots overpower massive stone structures over thousands of years, the ruins lost for all time.
Some of the most alluring literature and photography illustrating this can be found in Angkor – A Photographic Portrait by Jaroslav Poncar and the chapter "Angkor: Forest of Dreams," where Angkor greets the visitor not with buildings but trees. Silver-smooth, the flanged and buttressed trunks march in chaotic colonnades across the forest floor. Their scale is intimidating" (John Keay).
Equally enchanting is Pierre Loti, Un Pélerin d'Angkor 1912: "It is this fig tree that is lord of
Angkor today. Everywhere, over palaces and over temples, which it patiently
breaks apart, it spreads in triumph its pale smooth branches with their
snake-like markings and its broad dome leaves. It started life as no more than
a tiny seed, sown by the wind on a frieze or at the top of a tower. But as soon
as it could germinate its roots thrust like delicate filaments between the
stones and made their way downwards, guided by an unerring instinct, towards
the earth and when, at last, they meet it and rapidly swelled with life-giving
sap until they became enormous, breaking everything apart, destabilizing
everything, rending immense walls from top to bottom. From the moment the
building was lost, its fate sealed…"
It was about 4:00pm by now and the burning April afternoon sun was bearing down on us, permeating through the trees and jungle foliage, but that does not deter us from our exploring and archaeology, as if we stumbled onto a lost civilization all by ourselves...and at times it felt like we were on the set of Rudyard Kipling's Jungle Book or Lara Croft Tomb Raiders.
Heading back to Amansara, our guide suggested we do a drive-by of the most popular of all temples, Angkor Wat, warning us that it was best to avoid the throngs of tourists all looking for the ultimate sunset photo with its massive moat and structure bathed in the early evening sun; unlike most Angkorian temples, Angkor Wat is orientated to the west. Rather cryptically, our guide tells us not to worry about missing out on Angkor Wat, as we would be back tomorrow morning and have it all to ourselves.
Missed Part 1 of Hedonistic with the Gods?
Check it out here: Hedonistic with the Gods - Amansara, Angkor - Part 1
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