After making our last purchases at the Night Bazaar in Chiang Mai Saturday night, we headed off early Sunday morning for Cambodia, not quite really believing it was happening. Picked up at the hotel and driven to the airport, then flying first to Bangkok the hub of southeast Asia, then in a smaller prop plane to Siem Riep in Cambodia. Greeted by stern military men in Cambodia. Uh oh! A reflection of the Khmer Rouge. Laurie cracked a joke and they all laughed. It seems the military posture is just a facade. We are picked up at the airport and taken to our hotel by our tour guide, who introduced himself as Sopheap.
Sopheap and the driver drop us off at the Angkor City Hotel, renamed to attract tourist business. It used to be called Kok Thlok, a historical Cambodian name, meaning ‘Land of the Thlok Tree’. He says he will return about 3PM to take us to see Angkor Wat. It seems that our guide, and perhaps all of Cambodia, has lunch about 1PM and then shuts down until 3PM at which time activities pick up again. Regardless, this was our daily pattern, which was quite pleasant.
At 3PM Sopheap and the driver picked us up to go to see Angkor Wat. By this time we know that 'wat' means temple to the Thai. The names of the temples in Thailand all contain the word Wat as the last word of their proper name. Well guess Wat, we were about to visit Angkor Wat in Cambodia. The Thai named the temple in their ascendance as the Khmer empire was in its decline.
Enormous security at the gateway to get in - It seems that the Angkor complex attracts treasure hunters, poachers, thieves, smugglers, whatever you want to call them, from all over the world to steal artifacts, which can bring lucrative rewards for those that are successful.
However, there are dangers. Land mines from all the fighting that has gone on over the last few decades in Cambodia, from when the Americans were in Vietnam, are supposedly sprinkled randomly throughout the forested environment. 'Keep on the marked trails. Don't stray too far off the beaten path. Take a guide.' There are rumors that there are land mines surrounding the complex, which are turned on at night and turned off during the day.
Sopheap: "Angkor was discovered by the French for the Western world in the late 1800s - its marvelous temples covered over by the jungle - everything in a state of decay. While the temples had not been maintained, Buddhist monks had inhabited them continuously. So Angkor had never been lost, contrary to popular opinion. The French began the renovation of the temples and the research into the Khmer empire, and continue to do so. There is still much restoration work being done, most of it by the French. Another point needs clarifying. Angkor is the name for the whole complex of temples, which covers over 70 square miles and contains over 40 structures. Today we are going to see Angkor Wat, the most famous of the temples, but not the only one. Angkor also refers to the Khmer Empire in its glory."
Past the guarded entrance, we now have laminated picture IDs, which establishes us as legitimate visitors to this architectural splendor. Angkor was reopened to the world in 1994 after being closed for a quarter of a century, since the Vietnam War of the late 60s and early 70s.
Besides no one wants to vacation and sight see in a country that is in the midst of war.
"Martha Look. The natives are in the midst of one of their traditional battles."
"How quaint. Regional rivalries coming to the surface."
"Look at that hatred on their faces. Fighting to the death."
"Great to be seeing all this authentic native interaction, eh George?
"George? George!?! Ahhhhh ..."
Tour guide: "Lose more tourists that way. This damn war has been terrible for business.
Sopheap, our guide. barely survived the war.
Sopheap: “Battling armies burned down my village twice in my lifetime.”
“How old are you?”
“28. In many ways it is a miracle that I am still alive. I was caught in the middle of gunfire three times; the last time was 1997 - four years ago. One of my friends didn't survive. I never joined the army on either side, because I was too young and then a student.”
“Which side were you on?”
“I don’t take sides.”
He assured us that Cambodians liked Americans, but didn't like the Vietnamese.
"We blame the Vietnamese for the American involvement. The Vietnamese have always been the aggressors in this area. They were granted independence from China and immediately began expanding into southward. What is called South Vietnam used to be part of Cambodia. The Mekong River flows right through Cambodia. Vietnam conquered the Mekong River delta from the Cambodians."
Actually the Cham had a nation centered in South Vietnam. The Vietnamese attacked them from the north and the Cambodians from the west. Eventually these more aggressive cultures conquered the kingdom and absorbed the people – in similar fashion to the Mon culture in Thailand. To say that the Mekong was traditionally Cambodian would be as false as it would be to say that it was traditionally Vietnamese. It was actually neither. Even today the Cham speakers make up the biggest minority in South Vietnam and in southern Cambodia.
Driving a short distance through the forest, we see what seems to be a big river, in which people are swimming and bathing. Turns out it is the moat around Angkor Wat. It is almost two football fields wide. Manmade and square. Awesome. We drive to the entrance. Many people of multiple races are milling around including the omnipresent official looking guards.
Don: "Is it safe to swim in the moat?"
Sopheap: "Yes. People cleanse themselves in it. It symbolizes the ocean, which surrounds Mount Meru, the center of the universe, where the gods live. Angkor Wat is meant to represent Mount Meru. Angkor means capital. Wat means temple. Angkor Wat was supposed to be the central temple, or capital temple of the Khmer Empire. The Hindu gods were thought to have incarnated themselves as the rulers of the Khmer. They built Angkor as their home on this planet. The construction of these temples established themselves as god-kings, for all to see. "
Don: "The kings felt themselves as representing the gods?"
Sopheap: "For the Cambodians there is really no separation between the gods and the kings. Most Cambodians will worship anything. They believe everything has a spirit."
Don: "Do people have spirit houses here, like they do in Thailand."
Sopheap: "Yes, of course."
Sopheap: "Most, especially the old people. The people worshipped the king, not as the representative of Vishnu, but as Vishnu himself."
Don: "In the west the Catholics view the Pope as a man who is closest to God and can actually speak for him."
Sopheap: "In Cambodia, in these times, especially, it is thought that the people viewed the King as an actual incarnation of the God. The king probably felt so too. We'll talk more about this when we see the friezes, especially the one portraying the Ramayana."
From outside the moat, the temple Angkor looks like one structure all made of gray sandstone with multiple levels. It has a vegetal fractal pattern, which duplicates itself regularly and harmoniously on small and large levels. For instance there are small spires within the larger spires, each with a similar pattern. These fractal replications are very pleasing to the eye, mimicking the shape of a lotus flower. One must remind oneself that this vegetal pattern is made of stone that has lasted in the jungle without care for nearly 1000 years. Awesome that stone becomes and remains a flower for so long.
Across the middle of the moat were enormous blocks of sandstone, rising perhaps six feet high or so above the moat, which allowed one to cross without getting wet. Walking up to the entrance of this walkway, first there are statues of lions on guard and then again the Naga serpents, as balustrades. But this time the serpents' bodies stretched across the entire length of the moat, approximately 200 yards, up to the entrance of what seemed to be the Angkor temple. The causeway was 12 meters wide, large enough for elephants to cross.
The right half of the bridge had been replaced with new stones, while the left half had not been restored. This balance of restored and unrestored was a theme that we frequently saw. We mentioned the temple with the tall spire in Thailand. They had restored three sides of the temple but were going to leave the last as a ruin, as an example. In this way, one gets a sense of both the old and new. When something is completely restored, one loses touch with the ancient, no matter how accurate the touchup. There is something sacred about that which has been ravaged by time, but still retains the integrity of its original self. It is like the wrinkles of an old person versus the face-lift. While the face-lift looks young, it erases the history off the face. Some people would like their history erased, for instance smokers. But there are others who like to see the history, untouched. A temple that has been restored has lost its recent history of decay. It has lost its wrinkles. A temple that has not been restored retains its history, but loses its youth. Restoring a temple, allows it to regain its youth. Thus to restore one part and not the other, allows one to see youth and old age simultaneously. How glorious! (However, as we were to find out the restored part had only been taken to middle age, not even close to its prime.)
As one crosses the moat over the causeway, one comes to a gateway tower or wall, which seems to be immediately in front of the wat, the temple behind it. In fact the temple is another 300 yards behind this towered gateway. When one passes thru this entry tower to see the temple still so far away, the Mind is boggled. The Mind had created a mental temple based upon smaller dimensions, employing standard trigonometric techniques to project an altitude for the whole structure based upon the illusion that the entry tower is immediately in front of the temple. Walking thru this entryway, one is startled to see the temple another 300 yards away. The Mind must immediately make new altitude projections based upon the new information that had been hidden. The temple instantaneously doubles in height. One gasps in amazement, letting out a deep sigh, that anything so incredible could have been created.
There are different times when one experiences this type of phenomenon. When driving one might see a mountain in the distance. Because of the lack of visual cues one imagines it smaller. Driving for hours, one begins to appreciate its true height. In San Francisco one see the Golden Gate Bridge in the distance. It doesn't seem too far away. Why not walk over to it with my wife and two daughters ages 5 and 9 years of age. After walking for an hour, it seemed that we weren't getting very much closer. Again because of the lack of appropriate visual cues, my Person's Mind projected a smaller bridge with a smaller distance to get to it. While the mountain and the Golden Gate Bridge tricked one's mind because of lack of relevant visual cues, the builders of Angkor Wat, deliberately tricked the Mind by creating misleading visual cues. In this case the gateway tower of the entry wall tricked the mind into minimizing the size of Angkor Wat.
Moving thru this gate, the veil of illusion is immediately removed from the Mind. One is able to appreciate the real proportions of the structure. One is awed, bowing down to pray. This state of illusion is constantly played with throughout the temple complex. On the first level, stone is pretending to be a flower. On this next level the structure pretends to be shorter than it is. Now that we are the Initiates, having passed thru this veil of illusion, we now are able to see the real dimensions. - At least for this level of awareness.
When fully absorbed this experience reveals the limitations of the mind. The deductive Mind creates scenarios from the limited data that he receives. This same Mind projects both glorious and depressing futures based upon these same inadequate data points, connecting the dots and creating arrows which 'predict' what reality consists of. In this particular case the creators of this masterpiece incorporated an illusion breaker into the architecture. One is stunned when one's first veil of illusion is instantly stripped away as one sees another 300 yards to the temple when one expected to find the temple immediately behind the first wall. The insight one should have is that the Mind is limited, frequently creating illusions based upon insufficient data.
In defense of the Mind, as if he needs it: Upon entering Angkor Wat the Mind is bewildered and then overwhelmed by the complexity of the data that he receives.. The Mind is overloaded attempting to create some kind of order from all this misleading information. Knowing instinctually that there is order, the Mind tries to discover it - Hopeless but still attempting - The architects incorporated so many illusions into the architecture that one's Mind should be humbled - but is probably not.
Another architectural illusion has to do with how many spires there are. From the front one only sees three - a central spire rising above the surrounding ones. Because of their placing, from many directions one only sees three spires, while there is actually one main spire and 4 lesser spires. From 8 directions, the spires in the back are hidden by the ones in the front. The five spires only peak out from the correct angles, if you know what you are looking for and are not too distracted by the statuary. Thus as one walks and drives around the outside of the complex the five spires pass in and out of your view depending upon your vantage point.
Sopheap: "The motif of three represents the three Hindu gods, Shiva, Vishnu, and Brahma. From every direction you can see at least three. Sometimes they multiply into five, representing their miraculous powers.”
Again because of a lack of visual information there are no cues as to the exact location of the spires with respect to each other. In approaching the complex from the front, the Mind puts the three spires it sees into the same plane. This has a tendency to shrink the temple in one's mind's eye, at least. When looking at the plan of Angkor it appears that there were also meant to be four more smaller spires, which have yet to be renovated, around the perimeter of the complex, which would have provided more extremely confusing information as spires disappear and reappear depending upon which direction one views the complex.
While the Mind has been humbled, he is still proud. Passing through the gateway after the moat, one sees the Angkor Temple in the distance, past another triple football field of grass, Confusing the Mind, as in the moat of the initial approach, are bodies of water which seamlessly reflect the magnificent structure which looms ahead. Still confident, the Mind imagines this inner structure of Angkor Wat as one temple, projecting altitudes with our inborn trigonometric techniques. Perhaps we think it is a type of cathedral or a pyramid.
Sopheap: "We have passed the Ocean, the moat. We entered into the Earth, through the gateway. We are now walking over the earth on the inner causeway to the temple, Mount Meru, where the gods live. The center of the universe, Angkor Wat."
As we walked across these sandstone blocks of this inner causeway, it started to rain, heightening the mystical nature of the experience. The soft noise of the raindrops was the sound of the universe buzzing. Further the veil of rain sealed us off from the rest of the world. We were certainly in the center of the Universe.
We finally reach the temple itself, having walked over a third of a mile from the entrance to the moat. Walking up to the edifice the spires disappear as one approaches the intricate bas relief that decorates the walls, distracting the Mind from his projections.
Sopheap: "This is called the Gallery of Bas-Reliefs because there are sculptures etched into the sandstone of the walls which surround the temple. Mount Meru, residence of the Gods in Hindu mythology, had seven levels which are reflected in the architecture of Angkor. The first level which we are entering has friezes sculpted into the stone on the sides of each wall. One of those friezes tells the story of the Ramayana. In it Rama, who is the incarnation of Vishnu, becomes the king. This was a very important story in our culture. It came from India. The king and the people felt that he was the incarnation of Vishnu, not just another human. He was not a symbolic god, but an actual divinity."
Climbing a few steps to get inside, on our right we see a greater than life-sized statue with six arms.
Sopheap: "That's Vishnu, the god that this temple was dedicated to."
In front of Vishnu are local peasant ladies who are bowing and praying before this deity offering him their incense and flowers. One looks at us, as if in a trance, eyes glazed over, only looking at the sculpture of Vishnu. It seems that we've gone into the past. They could just as easily be worshipping Jupiter, Zeus, or some ancient image of a calf. This type of religious devotion has been destroyed or gone underground in the West due to science and the education that supports it. The scientists tell us that this is primitive superstition, while we are in the Age of Reason, where the Left Brain's deductive logic reigns supreme. To the scientist the statue is just a rock with history. To these ladies this statue is filled with a spirit that they seem to be experiencing directly without the Left Brain filter.
Sopheap: "One of the arms of the statue was accidentally shot by the Khmer Rouge when they were fighting. It is in the process of being repaired. Overall the Khmer Rouge respected Angkor. It was the military rulers who followed who did most of the looting of the temples here."
Don: "Do those ladies even know that we are here."
S: "Probably not. Cambodians will worship anything. The statue's head is not the original either. When the country converted to Theravada Buddhism, they replaced Vishnu's head with a Buddha head."
Walking thru this wonderland of sculpture, Sopheap eventually leads us to the next level, further away than we expected and of course bigger also. The Mind has again underestimated the enormity of the temple complex because of deliberately misleading visual cues. Humbled but not daunted the Mind again creates a single temple to project its trigonometric functions upon.
On the outside of the first temple level there were exquisite carvings everywhere. The outside of the second level was plain, but inside the second level, again one's Mind is dazzled by the sculpture on the walls. And then in the middle one sees the final platform with sharply rising steps.
One's Body, anxious to reach the top, reaches the bottom of the third layer. The Body climbs up the steep stairs, made slippery by the soft rain, carefully hanging onto the guard rail so as not to fall and break our crown, ruining everybody's day and vacation.
One's Person has finally reached the central complex of towers which contain the 5 spires that were seen from a distance as we drove up. They are much more enormous than our Mind's had imagined. The Mind had been tricked by the same visual tricks so many times that he laughs at himself. He realizes that his mental powers have been regularly and easily tricked by this pile of stone. The Mind laughs at himself; his mental projections were totally inadequate for the task of imagining the enormous reality of Angkor Wat. The Mind is humbled by the limitations of his main tool, deductive logic. This Left Brain deductive Mind, which the scientists value so highly, has been fooled by a heap of rocks.
Before going on let us reflect upon the true dimensions of Angkor Wat. The whole rectangular complex is about one mile on each side including the surrounding moat. The causeway over the moat is 250 meters (820 feet (270 yards) yards) long and 12 meters (39 feet (13 yards)) wide. The initial wall inside the moat is just a little less than a mile on each side, about 1400 meters. The inner causeway is longer than the outer causeway at over 350 meters (1150 feet (380 yards)) long and a little narrower at 9 meters (30 feet (10 yards)) wide. The first platform of the inner temple is 215 by 187 meters (705 by 614 feet (230 by 200 yards)), approximately two football fields long and wide. The second platform is 100 by 115 meters (330 by 380 feet (110 by 120 yards), approximately one football field. The inner third platform is a square 60 by 60 meters (197 feet (65 yards)), about 2/3 of a football field. The length of the first platform, where the Gallery of Bas Reliefs is found, is about 1/7 the size of the outer wall and about 1/8 of entire area including the moat. The length of the second platform is about half of the first. The third platform, upon which the central spires rest, is about half of the second. While seeming so small compared to the rest, the inner platform is still about 10,000 square feet - large enough to fit 10 small houses inside.
The height of the central spire of the complex is 65 meters (213 feet (70 yards)) above ground level - about the same height as the tallest cathedrals of Europe. Although the first layers of the temple rise gradually above ground level, the third level rises sharply above the rest. To reach this third level from the second platform there are 12 stairways with 40 steps each, which rise at a sharp 70 degree angle. It seems that about a third of the 70 yard rise occurs gradually from ground level to the second platform. The second third of the rise occurs from the second to the third, while the last third of the final altitude is achieved by the central spire rising above the third platform.
"There it is, the spectacular mass of stone that makes Angkor Wat, the largest religious monument ever constructed."