Angkor: Behind the Khmer Smile
Stumbling over uneven stone blocks, with only my torch and the sound of the rain drumming against the ground to disturb the dark silence of the jungle, I began to question my motives for waking to greet the sun that morning. Following the few murmured words that snaked down the human chain we had created, which informed me that we had reached our viewing point, I sat down on the now damp steps to sleepily await the promised dawn.
The sun climbed slowly over Angkor Wat; its arrival celebrated by hundreds of tourists who had swarmed in at the last moment, like the cicadas whose calls now filled the air, to witness the sun’s ascension. As the largest temple complex in the world, Angkor Wat is the most famous of the structures at Angkor which served as the Khmer capitals between the 9th and 15th centuries. However, despite recently being named by UNESCO as one of South-East Asia’s most treasured archaeological sites, nothing could have prepared me for the grandeur of the temple at sunrise. The masses of tourists and the oppressive heat did nothing to distract from the temple’s peaceful stillness or the picture-perfect reflection in the surrounding lake of the lotus-like silhouette of Angkor Wat against the morning sky.
Yet as I queued for the obligatory tourist photo with the smiling stone faces at Bayon, Angkor’s second most famous temple, and as I refused the numerous sellers who wandered the grounds, I was struck by the commercialism that has invaded this sanctuary. With only a day to explore a complex over five times the size of Nottingham, I decided then, that I would try to escape the tourist trail and explore the less visited monuments at Angkor.
I must admit that it was not the Khmer architecture that left the biggest impression on me as I continued to explore Angkor Archaeological Park, despite the innumerable reviews and blogs which celebrate the wondrous bas-reliefs and carvings at Angkor, including the model of the universe at Angkor Wat; the depictions of the stories and characters from Hindu and Buddhist mythology; the historical battle scenes; and even the mysterious and furiously debated ‘stegosaurus’ carving at Ta Prohm. Indeed, walking through Ta Prohm (made famous by the Tomb Raider film in 2001), I felt as though I had stepped into a lost world as I bore witness to the temples’ futile struggle against nature’s desire to reclaim the land. Strangler fig trees have reduced many of these structures to rubble, pulling down pillars and slowly suffocating these ancient relics.
Just as my day began with an awakening at Angkor Wat, so too did it end as I watched the sun set beside the reflecting pool. For just a few dollars I got the best seat for the most spectacularly beautiful evening of my life. A young Khmer woman who lived within Angkor’s walls gave me an Angkor beer (what else?) and a plastic chair to sit with her and her family and enjoy the sunset. Despite the language barrier, I spent my last hour in Angkor talking with this family and playing a version of ‘duck-duck-goose’ with local children who had gathered to play beside the temple.
As I left Angkor that night, it occurred to me that Angkor is much more than a monument of the proud Khmer Empire; Angkor is a true reflection of Cambodia’s turbulent history. The bodies of these structures are riddled with bullets from war with the Vietnamese, just as numerous monuments have been destroyed following the Khmer Rouge’s cultural cleansing of Cambodia and centuries of looting and religious conflict. Despite this, the people that live within Angkor’s grounds and indeed the people that I met throughout Cambodia were so friendly, so overwhelmingly positive, and proud of their cultural heritage, that it was impossible to not be affected by that infectious Khmer smile.
Angkor serves as a testament to the strength of the Khmer people and their enduring spirit. Despite the ancient beauty to be found wherever you look in Angkor, it is the Khmer people, their relationship with these ruins, and their kindness, which I will never forget.