Siam Reap is a tourist galaxy, and right at its core sit the monstrous temple complex of Angkor, sucking in the earth’s populace by the thousands each day.
You’ve seen them already, whether or not you’re a Nat Geo addict, an in-flight magazine page-flipper, a backpacking anthropologist, or scruffy-faced gamer: enormous blocks of sandstone hewn from the earth, dragged across the sweltering plains, and stacked impeccably atop one another in a complex series of arches and domes and columns and figures and structures that are amazing in themselves, even aside from their precise alignment with celestial phenomena or the intense literary symbolism worked every facet of the construction.
And that’s just one of them.
The entire temple complex stretches acre over acre, hectare past hectare, kilometer after blazing kilometer of roads and routes littered with red brick temples long past their former glory—but somehow still swallowing wide-eyed visitors by the dozens, by the hundreds, by the—you get the picture.
They come from all continents, cameras dangling from their sun-screened necks, sunglasses flashing, and hat perched atop their sweated mop heads. Yes, we are hopeless victims of the Angkor maelstrom, a couple more tallies to the thousands for the day, two more pair of flip-flops on the trail, another couple bikes in the parking stall.
Most come here, though, just to see where Angelina Jolie’s breakout hit Tomb Raider was filmed.
“Tomb Rider! Tomb Rider this way,” the skinny youths in Metallica T-shirts called to us among the crumbling arches and failing gods.
“Oooh, I want to see the Tomb Rider place!” Andy squealed in delight.
“OK, first of all,” I sighed, “it’s Tomb RAIDER—this TOMB RIDER sounds like some sort of zombie-biker B movie. Not that that could be any worse than the real Tomb Ra—
“This way!” She called over her shoulder from down the path.
“And two, you’ve never even seen that movie!”
But it was useless; we were already in the grip of Ta Prohm, one of the Big Three, must-see temples towering over the ancient jungle.
Yes, it’s the Tomb Raider place. And if thousands of years of human piety and slavish devotion and sweat poured into a sanctuary full of intricacies and complexities don’t draw the masses, then perhaps Angelina Jolie in black leggings and blasting handguns can do the trick. Here, in the carved porticoes and shaded alleys and incense-wafting rooms with a hundred strange, slobbering demons, the jungle squeezes into stone. Root tip by root tip, bud by bud and leaf by leaf, each year a precious centimeter more, the trees come cracking through the stone, prying bricks apart, stretching shadows of darkness, bathing all in the hue of the green kingdom.
At Ta Prohm, the jungle is slowly swallowing the stone.
And no one, not even a dozen Tomb Raiders in even skimpier leggings, would dream of stopping it.
“Get the tripod out! This has got to be the spot!”
Neither of us had seen the film, but indeed, this had to be something—a crazy wheel of stone entwined with an evil weave of roots crashing across its surface. Overhead, a monstrous canopy of leafy verdure sprawled across the smoking sky. If that majesty wasn’t clue enough, a line of Europeans a dozen long stretched out along the tiny brick pathway.
“Tooom Rider, ya? Want you the picture here too?”
I gritted my teeth.
We waited, we chatted up the others, we took our tripod selfie. Walking away, through another archway draped in another tree, we ran into a French duo.
“Perdon Moi, boot haav yoo seens the Tomb Rider?”
“Tomb Raaaiiider! RAY-DUR!” I screamed, then turned and hurled a stray brick at a nearby monkey. And then gnawed like mad at the nearest tree root.
“Eh. Americaahns,” they shrugged.
“This way!” Andy pointed for them, then gestured excitedly, then ran ahead. “I’ve never seen the movie, but—”
“Neezer haav wee!”
I was still gnawing on that tree when Andy came back.
But that’s the story of Ta Prohm: a miracle of engineering in stone, a marvelously detailed glory-land of intricacies slowly succumbing to the nature it was carved from, remembered for a movie that no one in the entire Angkor universe seems to have seen.
They might as well replace Vishnu with a few statues of Jolie.
She’d probably get more visitors.
We spent the afternoon strolling vaguely through the arching trees and drying monuments, snapping photos by the bucketful, dodging the crowds and caressing tree roots thicker than hippos.
Should you think such a place—filled with hundred-ton bricks be-decked with dozens of carved gods slowly being edged out of the ceiling and likely to come plummeting down on some poor sucker’s skull at any moment—might be dangerous, well… um.
I don’t know how to finish that thought.
Yes, there certainly are some buttresses and props and supports, but I think most of us prefer to see the trees do the work. Simply stand back and gawk at how the roots patiently edge out the mortar and insert themselves as a monument—singularly holding together the bricks of the wall they’re in the process of toppling.
A giant, thick-trunked giant, sprang from the wall of a collapsed roofline. We got in line and posed for a thousand picture there. Yonder, a courtyard blazing the greenest green canopy sighed beneath the cover of leafiness, while beneath waited the stone legends and stories and altars. We snapped another million pics.
A gaggle of young teens giggled and sang through the gateways, obviously more fascinated with one another than the history so magnificently vanishing around them.
This Ta Prohm, this clash of jungle and temple, this lonely incoherence of plan and organic, of rock and root and roof and leaf, is by many accounts the absolute favorite of the Angkor temples. It’s enormous. It’s a photographer’s thrill ride. It’s—dare I write it—
The home of the Tomb Rider.
We pedaled home in the dark, soaked our sore muscles in the bathtub—yep, we sprung for a nice room this leg of the trip—and planned tomorrow’s assault on Bayon.
Another of the Big Three temples, Bayon features a much different calling card: rather than jungle haven, Bayon was the temple of a thousand faces. Or, umm, several hundred faces at least—and huge faces at that. Faces bigger than you or me. Faces facing the four winds. Faces peering out over the city, across the temples, peering into lives and good and evil.
Or at least that’s what the builders would have you believe.
The scheme of the four faces, they say, hearkens wound on and the Angkor kings begin diluting their Hinduism with Buddhist rites and back to the Brahma and creation—the god seeing all ends of the earth and so forth. But as time scrolled on, the faces of the great Brahma became intermingled with that of the Angkor kings. Don’t ask me how they know, but the Angkor archeologists claim that the faces’ details reveal artistic variations designed to mimic the facial structures of the kings.
That’s right—they worked themselves into monuments for their gods.
Which is curious—a man who can’t control how his digestion works, who has no idea how to make his toenail grow, who can’t even create a rock for himself, would somehow have the audacity to level himself with the one he believes brought all existence into being.
But then again, maybe that sort of arrogance isn’t that uncommon. Maybe that’s really not so different than each of us spurning the Almighty in our own illicit ponderings and subconscious self-righteousness and pet sins. We might as well all be building temples to our own glory.
Perhaps that’s exactly what most of our lives are.
But back to Bayon—we scanned the maps, we routed and timed and calculated. We—ok, ok, you got me. We slept.
The morning found us sweating across Siem Reap on our trusty bikes once again, heading back to the entrance gate—featuring, by the way, what has to be the only 4-lane road in the nation—for Day Two of our three-day entrance ticket.
Fortunately, Bayon temple was only a few more miles inside the entrance gate. And there you can see the million faces facing four directions. Sounds crazy, but here’s how it works: each series of faces points to the four compass quadrants, each smiles eerily ahead as the sun and rain and heat blast at it year round, and each is one part of a complex myriad of spires and door and columns ad temples bestrewn with countless smaller carvings.
A discerning tourist will peruse these carvings, regale himself in the ancient tales of battles and courts and gods and creation and horrid demons screeching through it all. That would be a discerning tourist. We contented ourselves with accosting strangers with maps and asking where they shot Tomb Rider.
Or you could just snap a few selfies with the giant heads.
Who were the giants of these giant faces? Well, Angkor, apparently wasn’t built overnight. The earlier buildings hale from the grand old Hindu times and feature all the multi-armed and elephant-headed and trident-wielding deities you could shake a stick at. Over the centuries, though, the Hindu hand folded to the hotshot youngster Buddhism, leaving future kings to carve a more meditative countenance to the four winds—but a Buddha-style carving hearkening all the while back to the Brahma legend of the previous sway-holders.
For us, here’s what all that added up to: Again the tripod came out, and again the Canon went to work eating away at the poignant faces wasting slowly into oblivion. I tried to recite Shelley’s “Ozymandias” to myself, but gave up after failing on the first line. A coconut is a much better idea in Cambodia’s sauna.
The vendors jungle up in the shade outside the huge temples and hassle passers-by for their wares. Anything not cold enough to provoke crocodile drops of condensation doesn’t sell. Favorite items include, of course, the ubiquitous coconut, the ever-present blended fruit shake, and the increasing object of Andy’s and my obsession: sugarcane.
It’s kind of simple. You smash the cane, catch the juice, run it through a sieve, and serve over ice. It’s cold and it’s sweet and you’ll come back again and again to the cane-smashers for glass after glass of the sugar-juice.
And we needed it—by the time our photo shoot and explorations were finishing, the noontime sun was blazing across the Bayon, and our shirts were soaked through with a sweat that wouldn’t stop. Dern the bad luck; let’s head back for some more coconut!
Bayon, Bayon—I feel I’ve said so little to justify the work of so many hands crafting so carefully so many identical faces so perfect in their symmetry and so enigmatic in their gazes and grins. A testament to the patience of the ancients, and the meticulous attention paid to somehow mass-producing art into an industrial quantity and on a scale larger than an elephant’s butt and in a medium as bulky and heavy and cumbersome as, well, an elephant’s butt.
Stand back and gasp, my contemporaries, and behold industrial art for the purpose of worship—if today’s post-modern zeitgeist can stomach such a single-narrative truth lurking in the carvings.
Our world today—at least in the West, I’d say—offers more opportunities for art than the world has ever known, or ever possessed. We have digital media for writing, for drawing, for music. We have more forms and formats and means and methods for creating sensory perceptions for others intended to spark wonder and pleasure. Images surround us, music engulfs us, poetry and writing from all humanity rest little further than a few scrolls across your touchscreen.
Yet what do we have that will last more than five years?
File formats become obsolete. Computers crash. But mostly, we just forget. With a world of entertainment ready at our fingertips, we can’t possibly remember even half of wat we’d like to one get around to sampling.
Yesteryears’ grand monuments have evolved into piles of sand.
We shotgun art by the barrelful, chug it down at every down awkward pause in which we have to wait longer than eleven seconds, and somehow still will never leave the world anything at all that will last fifteen centuries hence. Bayon somehow found a way to invest a life into the stones, and to let these speak, and to keep them speaking, even as their very essence wavers and cracks and disintegrates back to the earth.
Maybe they speak even louder now.
And that’s not even the big daddy of them all.
This is the big daddy of them all—the largest temple ever built in Earth’s illustrious history of worship, the triple-towered silhouette who darkens a sunrise seeping from behind its central tower every spring equinox, the peach-orange pearl of its sleeping stones glowing in the jungle heat, the glory of its magnificent scale and the detail of its tiniest carvings curling over every square inch of its surface.
The trendy thing here is to snap a sunrise pic of the mammoth structure at sun-up. And it ought to be from the northwest reflecting pool. Andy and I had drooled over such shots—NatGeo makes them look so easy, as if every day trumpeted in the sun with a blaze of orange and red across the outstretched canvas of the sky, while beneath, the massive glory and brilliant curves of Angkor sing back in response the glorious potential of mankind.
Yes, come for the sunrise pics. But come ready to fight.
I found myself in the dark, slapping at the alarm and stumbling to find my shoes. Headlamp beam for my creaky bike, a dusty pedal through ghostly lanes, and a light sweat in the pleasant chill of the morning.
Eventually, the cars start passing. Then the tuk-tuks full of grumpy foreigners awoken too early. Then the motorbikes sputter by.
I pedaled faster—thoughts of the morning blaze lifting over the spires without me, thoughts of NatGeo’s next incredible sunrise shot slipping into nondescript day without my waiting lens burst into my mind.
Then more cars came honking and weaving past. Then the tuk-tuks pushed me further to the shoulder. Then more. Then still more. A steady stream of headlights washed my tiny lamp from the pavement. Crowds were gathering. The gray light came slipping over the eastern wall of the earth.
Huffing and sweating, I powered on toward the temple. I had to nail the shot.
But the odds weren’t looking good.
I rounded the final bend and beheld a parking massacre—jeeps and tuk-tuks and tourists spilling every angle and free space. I chuckled in revenge: the advantage of the bicycle, though, is that I got a front-row parking spot while the chumps who passed me ten minutes ago were still stuck in line for a drop-off and parking. Plus my legs were limbered up for the sprint inside.
Cradling the Canon like a rugby ball, I blasted through the first gap in the shuffling crowd and bounded straight up the shadowy stairs and over the boulevard-wide bridge leading to the temple.
I scrambled and dodged, I wove and spun and slipped by the masses. I may have concussed a kid with my with my tripod, and possibly sent an old lady in a sunhat splashing into the moat. I can’t be blamed, though—the hordes were pouring in, and I needed an unobstructed spot for the money shot.
The point is that these hordes, yes hordes, of foreigners stream through the enormous gate every graying pre-dawn, a strange photo-pilgrimage sparked by a strange desire to make friends jealous on facebook photo albums.
Inside the gate, they bump and elbow and cajole for spots near that aforementioned reflecting pool—and that’s exactly where I was headed: ground zero of the photographers’ meltdown.
Through the gate, I glimpsed Angkor’s a shadowing mass rising in the distance, and another kilometer to sprint—now across a raised pavement of rhino-sized boulders smoothly connected into a royal entrance to the temple.
Gray light seeping over the scene, my eyes gradually adjusting to details, I continued my madhouse rant toward my iconic shots—the ones that would define my Cambodia sojourn, the ones that would finally make my name and cement my place in photography halls of fame—if such things actually exists.
Reflecting pool. Reflecting pool. Reflecti—Where was it?
Was that it?
That tiny little cow-pond half-covered in algae?
Judging by the mass of rabid, half-woken gringos milling toward it, it had to be.
Sigh and slow to a walk. Then stop. Then think. Yes, it was, in fact, still dry season, and the best the parched temple could offer was a muddy puddle smaller than Grandpa’s fishing pond. The path leading up to its rim was well-padded by the feet from many dozen nations, and dusty as a stage five drought.
Pond-side spots had long since filled up, and the remaining crowds were left muttering curses or ordering coffees from the small army of local gals plying the crowds: “Hey meestaaaar. You want some coffee yeah?”
And I rushed by, she called, “I give you good price! I bring one to you, yeah?”
I got a dozen such offers as I scanned and shimmied and racked my brain for a creative angle for the upcoming sunrise. I settled in on a corner with a bit of elevation—perhaps I might skip the crowd’s I-phone lifted salute to the dawn. I sighed and wiped my brow. It might work.
The crowds buzzed on, thicker, ill-tempered. A blonde woman in front of me chatted with her tour guide and tried to entertain a pair of toddlers. “Yeah, he left earlier—put that down, Natalie. Tried to get a spot for the pictures. I guess he’s down—no, Trevor, that’s not for eating—there somewhere, at the water. I said down! Put it down. Yeah, actually I would like some coffee. Black. Very Bla—No! Natalie? What did I just say? Maybe two. Here, son, have some Cheerios.”
A backpacking college kid with a ill-fated mustache tried to look stoic and calm, like he’d been here before. His girlfriend shuffled in her elephant-print pants and yawned. A Japanese tour group tried—and succeeded—to bumble right in front of everyone’s picture.
The minutes dragged by. Sweat chilled, and I shivered. Still they came. Still we gathered and craved space, waiting for the promised light to dawn, waiting to snap that same picture snapped thousands of times before. We grumbled and waited. We craved that picture for ourselves—one we could gladly sign our own name to, even if it was so much like so many thousands spent before.
It’s the story of all life, really.
Well, almost all life.
The sunrise was pale and sickly. It lacked vigor. The horizon’s haze cut out the bursting, and the dry season’s lack of clouds left no upper mat to spread the golden light upon. I left early to peruse the temple in the cool.
Angkor was shadowy and nearly empty. It was definitely haunted. A few faint voices echoed between pillars and around columns, bouncing between gods and demons and epic deeds and unspoken beauty. Gray calm and whispers, footsteps slipping over stones, the stoic rites of morning breathed throughout the gods’ playpen.
If I had it all to do over, I’d skip that reflecting pool and await the sun from within the temple, among its shadows. Soon, those crowds would be here—the toddlers and the tourists, the grumpy and pretentious, the genuine and the clueless and the surreal and the awestruck. They’d be here very soon. Too soon.
I’d come back for a moment in Angkor with the shadows and without the crowds. A moment when Angkor is yet the realm of a thousand false gods.
Angkor, Angkor—how can I start to tell what I saw? Halls deep as tombs and thick as fortresses keep the air dense and cool and still. Cathedral echoes of footfalls on thousand-year stairwells creep through the gray. Courtyards spread a pre-day gloom, overshadowed by the towers above. And through it all, over it in, in every crevice and each new panel, gleam the thousand eyes of stone demons and dead gods, lifeless warriors and frozen dancers, all gazing after your every step.
That’s the kicker to Angkor—not only is it huge, it’s got five thousand years of mythology carved into its walls. Each new surface features angelic dancers singing the glory of creation, chilling demons thrashing mortal wrong-doers into a miserable afterlife, and squid-armed gods grasping various symbols of perversions and power.
The normal sculptures are one thing, but the chief draw are the eight hundred-meter stretches of finely-carved murals stretching their breadth and majesty around the colonnaded alcoves. That’s right—four such murals, each nearly a kilometer long, stretching around Angkor’s perimeter. The scale is massive, the detail incredible, and the consistency of the depictions—from what must have been dozens or hundreds of individual sculptors, impeccable.
On the east wall, I was alone with the story of creation. Gold sun spilled across the facets and the faces—armies of god and demons playing tug-of-war with a five-headed mystical serpent, churning a sea of milk into a buttery world of glory. King Vishnu in his war plumes oversaw the whole process, while dancing atop a giant turtle of course. Asparas—those ever-present topless nymphs—fluttered through the scene singing and occupying themselves with heavenly little nothings.
I shrugged and started in on the pictures.
Another fifteen minutes, and this type of solitude would be as hopeless as making rational sense of that dandy little myth.
On the other panels, retold for the masses are the battles of kings and mythic creatures: monsters and gods and animals, mythology and afterlives, monkey armies and demon lovers and judgment days all await in details so stunning that you wonder how anyone ever carved a ten-meter section of it—let alone the kilometers’ long expanse of it all.
Were the worshippers illiterate? Or were the kings just comic-book freaks before comic books came to be? Or are graphics the original medium of human tales, and the recent obsession with printed words a mere flash-in-the-pan fad likely to fizzle out in the next generation?
Consider—in the recent re-emergence of graphic novels as a viable literature form for us English teachers to consider in classrooms, it’s mostly forgotten that the image-based narrative once flourished under the Angkor sun, the visual stimuli sparking imaginations to the cosmic battles and kingly feats of power, the restless eye wandering absently over far too many tiny details to ever truly appreciate in a single life.
These kings and these images told the tales that united a kingdom in strange devotion to a set of shifting favorites among the Hindu deities, and between the eventual Buddhist takeover. The bizarrre ritualization of the rites, the amalgamation of hodgepodge creeds, included anthropomorphizing the gods themselves, as seen in Bayon, and sending up the demi-god king atop a glitzy nearby pyramid to get it on with a seductive snake woman witch every single night, lest the rains and crops fail if she spend the night displeased.
I don’t recall that little episode anywhere in Buddha’s eightfold path.
Sordid sorceresses aside, Angkor left us dizzy and sweated and exhausted from stairs upon stairs upon porticoes upon frescoes upon who knows what else is actually in there. To appreciate it all, it’d take a week of patience and a fine-toothed comb—and buckets of coffee to keep you attentive and wheelbarrows of coconuts to keep you hydrated, and by that time, you’d have to keep running out to pee so often that you’d never get to see anything anyway.
In the central tower, on days you’re allowed to climb, you can find a Buddha wrapped in orange and staring blankly over burning incense sticks and golden pots of candles and lighters and incense sticks waiting to the sold—for USD—and wafted up to the finicky nostril of the idle gods. The views are top-shelf, though, replete with panoramas and vistas fit to sate a lusty monarch for a few moments, perhaps even compelling enough to wrench a monk out of his folded lotus to wander over and gaze across the wonder of the temple spires splitting out of the forest canopy, the thousands upon thousands of five-headed snakes and gargantuan god-rocks, and the worming glaze of traffic melting across the sparse and pot-holed roads.
Snap the photos, chug some more water, and file those memories back into the sensory overload and heat stroke that are threatening to crash your brain’s operating system at any one of the next dozen moments. Yeah, it’s all more than a little surreal—in the most let’s-never-subject-ourselves-to-this-kind-of-surreality-again sort of way.
This, yes all this, is Angkor Wat—where the world arises from a sea of churning milk each new dawn, where the golden east’s rays spill across the tableau of the wildest myths I’ve witnessed since taking a class in Native American story-telling, where the wonder left us, even gigabyte-burning us, at a hopeless loss to try to capture it all.
The sun blazed on Angkor that mid-afternoon, and Andy and I struggled to decide what to photograph, and how to stand, and how to keep enough water in our bodies. Sweat dripped in profusion, and the crowds of sunscreened and sun-stricken passers-by who kept wandering into Andy’s photos did nothing to ease the frustrations of a lens that’s just never wide enough to fit the entire story in.
Outside, we sipped chilled coconuts and considered—were the kings really religious, or just addicted to stories of cosmic battles and freakish monsters? Were they alive today, would they make great heads of state or World of Warcraft addicts? And if I would somehow snub them, say they lacked sophistication and refinement in their worship, claim they subjected masses to their personal little pansy-whims of entertainment and pleasure at the expense of the helpless, toiling populace, would not they turn over in their moldy sarcophaguses and ask me what I’ll ever leave on this planet that will stand a thousand years and inspire a million minds and unite a nation in a common project of devotion to my God?
“What on earth, indeed, am I doing with my life?” I asked.
“Well, you can start by getting these coconuts split so we can eat the insides,” Andy replied.
She’s always got answers. Always good ones.