Saturday, December 14, 2002

Angkor Wat

Friends: I've spent two full days ruin-hopping, and I still haven't seen them all. I was even at it by 6:15 this morning and nearly put in a twelve hour day at it. I thought I had to be among the first out there this morning, but the guard at the entry said a couple of people who were truly intent on seeing them at first light preceded me by better than an hour.

These ruins attract fanatics from all over the world, especially the Japanese. I'd seen virtually none in the past two months, but they are here by the bus load. Now when people ask me where I'm from it is a risk to say "Japan" as the asker might speak a little Japanese. I've long ago grown bored with responding to the "Where are you from?" question by saying"America", as its just a perfunctory question like "how are you". So I've taken to saying I'm from Japan to see what kind of reaction I'll get. Most don't react in the least, though occasionally someone will doubt me and want to know if I was born in Japan or if I speak Japanese.

These ruins may truly be "the most impressive site in the world of edifices" as they have been called. Their entry fee of $20 for one day or $40 for three days certainly puts them in that category. It is truly a king's ransom compared to the cost of other things in these parts. My hotel is three dollars a night, and rarely do I spend even ten dollars a day. I had been told that someone on a bicycle could see the majority of the ruins in a day if he got an early start. I had made a reconnaissance of them the day before by slithering in through a back entrance. It was a slight risk as there are signs posted that intruders will be fined $30. I had heard though that passes were only checked when one left the road and went wandering among the ruins. There was an 18-mile road linking many of them. There are dozens and dozens of Buddhist temples and shrines dating to the twelveth and thirteenth centuries spread out over seventy-seven square miles. Many of the outlying ones do not have a fee, some of which I visited yesterday as well. Another trick was to purchase one's pass at four the day before when they go on sale good for use the next day and use it for a couple of hours then. I was confident I could cover the majority of those in the fee zone if I didn't wilt from the heat or fatigue.

I was absolutely enraptured just bicycling past all these incredible monuments. Equally awesome are the stately towering trees surrounding many of the ruins. Such trees I had not seen since the Redwoods. All such trees in this region other than in this protected area had long ago been logged. They attracted my camera as much as the ruins. They added a great degree of solemnity to the setting. Many had forced their way up through the ruins.

Despite the hundreds of tourists they were so well scattered they didn't undermine the experience at all. Even at the premier ruins, the actual Angkor Wat,where hundreds were milling about, they added to the grandeur of the setting rather than detracted from it. Angkor Wat alone comprises 500 acres. It is surrounded by a moat two football fields wide and a four mile wall. There is a half-mile promenade to the temple complex. Its centerpiece is a 213-foot tower flanked by four slightly lesser towers. It is the largest religious monument ever constructed. Over a million people lived in this region until the fifteenth century, when like the Mayan ruins of the Yucatan, the region was inexplicably abandoned. The ruins weren't rediscovered until the end of the nineteenth century.

There are dozens of other remarkable and significant edifices and complexes nearby, but they all pale in comparison to Angkor Wat like the many spectacular natural wonders near and within the Grand Canyon. Many still had my jaw dropping at their size and audacity. There seemed to be a competition among the builders and rulers of the time to outdo one another. There were massive gateways to other temples, some preceded by rows and rows of various mythical creatures. Many of the creatures had had their heads sawn off, however, by looters. One former Buddhist monastery had a hallway that went on for half a mile with doors to room after room along the way. There is much reconstruction to be done, but it is still fascinating to see them in whatever their condition. It is impossible for words or even photos to adequately capture the majesty and power of this place. I paced myself by sitting and reading a novel on preserving the antiquities of Venice in quiet corners here and there. The area is so vast it didn't even allow for much eavesdropping on guides or tourists. I had been forewarned that none of the similar ruins I had seen in Thailand could prepare me for these. If I had seen these first, none of them would have mattered.

Tomorrow I begin the last one hundred miles of Cambodia, said to be the worst of all. Back home in less than ten days.

Later, George

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