Angkor Wat: a monument for the ages

The 850-year-old temple overwhelms visitors with its scale and beauty

Destination: Southeast Asia

April 13, 2003|By Alan Solomon | Alan Solomon,Special to the Sun

The first approach, no matter how you approach it, isn't all that impressive.

From the main road, the profile beyond its moat is low, like a rough pencil sketch of Parliament along the Thames but less grand and imposing. The three visible spires, leaden in color, plump and oddly mottled at this distance, don't inspire.

The camera comes out because it must. Through the view-finder, it all looks even lower and longer and like less of a wonder.

But then -- wow.

"Where are the words," wrote French naturalist-explorer Henri Mouhot, who happened upon nearly forgotten Angkor Wat in Cambodia in 1861, "to praise a work of art that may not have its equal anywhere on the globe?"

Angkor Wat is a temple. More accurately, it was a temple, built by a Khmer king in the 1100s to honor the Hindu god Vishnu and to hold the king's ashes, later rededicated to Buddha as the regional religious dynamic changed, still later a ruin, and today essentially an incense-scented museum.

It is massive. It is magnificent. But it takes a closer look to appreciate. Unlike most other wonders of the world, Angkor Wat's greatness sneaks up on you, comes at you in stages.

That it comes at you at all -- that you're welcome to visit -- is a relatively recent phenomenon.

Angkor Wat was built between 1113 and 1150 by King Suryavarman II, then largely abandoned after Thai armies attacked in 1431. For most of the next 400 years, the temple sat there, watched over by the occasional monk and the odd monkey, looted of its more portable riches and, slowly but literally, falling apart.

When Mouhot sent back excited reports of its grandeur -- and as the French (supplanting the Siamese) were establishing a colonial presence in Cambodia in the mid-1800s -- more Europeans came to see for themselves.

Meanwhile, French archaeologists launched restoration efforts at Angkor Wat, at the shrines within nearby Angkor Thom and at others in the region around the city of Siem Reap.

That went on, with a few interruptions, until the onset of World War II. The Japanese weren't much interested in public works during their period in residence. When the French tried to reassert control after the Japanese surrender, pockets of indigenous fighters resisted.

While all this internal skirmishing was going on, and even as the situation in neighboring Vietnam was turning into war, restoration by the French heroically continued until the Khmer Rouge finally booted them back to Paris in 1970.

A long struggle

During the next 20-plus years, more grief followed for Cambodia. The legacy of two decades' worth of bombings, coups, invasion, occupation and civil war includes memories of unimaginable suffering and killing, and millions of land mines that, even today, continue to tear limbs off children's bodies.

Through all this, of course, tourism wasn't exactly a burgeoning enterprise.

In 1986, according to government figures, a total of 565 tourists came to see Angkor Wat.

It was not an easy time -- nor an easy visit. Tourists came, when they came at all, on day trips from the capital, Phnom Penh, 145 miles away.

"You couldn't spend the night," said an American-based tour operator who has been bringing people here since 1987. "It was too dangerous."

The only hotel in Siem Reap -- the now-luxury Grand Hotel d'Angkor -- "was a $10 hotel that was worth $2. You had to haul water to the rooms to flush the toilets," the tour operator recalled.

Snipers haunted the jungles on the peripheries of the temples. As recently as January 1995, a tourist from Texas and her driver were shot and killed, and the tourist's husband wounded, by gunmen near Banteay Srei temple, 20 miles from Angkor Wat.

In 1999 -- a year after the death of Khmer Rouge strongman Pol Pot -- the total tourism number was 85,460.

What was one badly faded hotel in Siem Reap 10 years ago became, as of late last year, 56 hotels in all price ranges, including backpacker lodges but also two five-stars, for a total of 3,000 rooms.

Expected final count of 2002 visitors: 500,000. Projections for 2003: 1 million. Before long, it is expected that there will be 10,000 hotel rooms.

"It's good to see the reputation is changing," said Bruno L'Hoste, French-born operator of Le Tigre de Papier, one of Siem Reap's more sophisticated watering holes. "It's good to get out of the 'war zone.' "

War zone. In a stone pillar just to the right of the West Gate of Angkor Wat there are bullet holes.

The temple's moat is more than 200 yards wide and 3.9 miles around. Visitors walk a stone causeway over the water to the West Gate, the main entrance. Beyond the gate are what looks to be three spires of moderate size, two flanking a central tower.

The West Gate leads to another causeway, this one 30 feet wide and 360 yards long over a grass field, the walkway bordered by a series of great carved nagas, the multiheaded snakes linked to Vishnu and found at so many sites here. Two stone libraries, in varying states of disrepair and resembling small museums, stand as sentries on either side.

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