Angkor: an Anthropology Student’s (Day)Dream Come True…

A UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1992, Angkor Archaeological Park in northwest Cambodia is an anthropology student’s (day)dream come true. Seeing Angkor has been on my bucket list since it’s name first appeared to me on a lecture-hall PowerPoint during an Introduction-to-Anthropology course at UofS, circa 2008. For me, it would be better than a classroom or library, better than a playground, better than the history channel. I guess by now you’ve probably guessed that I went there. And boy, did I get my nerd on.

(Read to end for a few more photos!)

Angkor Wat at sunrise

Maybe you’ve heard of Angkor Wat, the largest religious monument in the world. But Angkor Wat is only one of more than a hundred equally fascinating monuments scattered across a massive area. These stone edifices are the royal and religious remains of Angkor, a medieval mega-city and the capitol of the once great and prosperous Khmer Empire. At it’s peak, the Khmer Empire controlled most of continental Southeast Asia. Archaeologists and historians have been studying the remains of this empire and it’s capitol for decades and consider it to have been one of the greatest civilizations of all time.

Visiting Angkor Archeological Park is no one-stop shop. No no, seeing Angkor properly would take more than two days. It is bigger in real life than I ever could have imagined after reading textbooks with little pictures of old temples. This medieval metropolis once covered an area of 400 square kilometers (!) and was home to a million people, making it by far the largest pre-industrial city in the world.

Because it is so vast, most people visit only the main cluster of ruin sites that once made up the royal, religious, and administrative center of Angkor. This makes for a very full and enjoyable day of visiting large, thousand-year-old monuments. While the splendor of these monuments dazzled, defied, and seduced my imagination, they were swarming with bustling tourists. Those of you who have traveled with me know that I don’t do well in tourist crowds. My three-day pass, and also my 5am wakeup alarm, allowed me to visit some of the lesser visited (but no less impressive) temple ruins and escape the hoards of bus tour groups with selfie-sticks, flash-photography, fanny packs, sun visors, and I ❤ Cambodia T-shirts.

Pre Rup Temple

It was not until I visited some of these outlying monuments that I really began to grasp just how expansive Angkor was. The central cluster of ruins are spaced apart by a 5–20 minute walk, and some of the father ones are separated by several kilometers. Consequently, the only practical way to see the Angkor ruins is to hire a tuk tuk for the day to drive you around to all the sites you want to visit. The land between the temple sites is filled with agricultural fields, small villages, and forest. It is hard to imagine that all of this land used to be thick with neighborhoods and sprawling suburbs of wood, thatch and bamboo structures, which have long since perished. Almost nothing of the lives of ordinary citizens is left behind — only the stone structures ordained by kings are left standing today. However, accounts of what life looked like for the majority of Angkor’s lay population can be found amongst some of the inscriptions and engraved art of several of the temples walls.

I did a lot of independent research before, during and after my visits to learn more about the temples and the empire as a whole. What made the city of Angkor so powerful? What allowed Angkor to flourish and grow so quickly was… rice, or rather, the ability to grow rice. The Khmer Empire did not have a monetary system and used rice as the economic currency for business and trade. Imagine, if you want to go to the market and buy some textiles, you’d pay with bundles of rice! Rice was also the primary source of food for this growing population. However, the people of Angkor were faced with the agricultural challenges of the annual monsoon season, which brought excessive amounts of water to the rice fields for a few months — sometimes so much rain that the fields flooded and the crop was spoiled — and absolutely no rain for the rest of the year. For the Khmer people, this meant one single growing season each year, which was both short and unreliable. Their solution was to design and build an extensive irrigation and drainage system of canals and waterways to manage and redirect the monsoon waters for storage and use throughout the year. This was very advanced for their time. The ingenuity of this hydraulic network indicated a level of advancement for their time, and is a big part of why archaeologists and historians hold Khmer civilization in such high regard.

I acknowledge that some of you might not find this stuff as intensely captivating as does my inner geek, but you’re reading this blog entry, aren’t you? And since you’ve come this far, why not read on just a little longer to find out what really tickles my fancy about Angkor?

To say the temples of Angkor are old, huge, and beautiful is a colossal under-exaggeration. To say they are mysterious, fascinating and enchanting is an understatement.

All right, so Angkor’s temples are really old. The earliest ones were built when the empire was founded in the 9th century AD, and the biggest ones were built during the 12th and 13th centuries AD. The biggest one is the famous Angkor Wat — it is contained within a walled complex of 2 square kilometers. Just when you think youre approaching the main temple, you realize you’e actually only walking into the gate of the outer wall. Walking from the entrance of this site all the way down it’s outer causeway, through the outer gated wall, along the inner causeway and into the main temple structure was like walking across UofS campus twice. I was glad I wore my walking shoes.

halfway to the main temple, right after sunrise — almost no tourists!

Of course, the sheer size of some of these monuments is enough to impress, without taking into account the magnificent architecture and ornamentation of each one.

Highly sophisticated and elaborate architectural designs and meticulously detailed sculpted engravings are works of creative mastermind, engineering genius, and armies of labourers and artists numbering thousands (likely forced or unpaid labour, fulfilling religious duty or loyalty to the king). My favourite features included the 1800 detailed carvings of devata goddesses on the walls of Angkor Wat, each one unique, the many huge stone faces of the bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara at Bayon Temple, and the tales of the Mahabarata and the Ramayana depicted on the walls of Banteay Srei.

2 of 1800 unique devata goddesses carved into the walls of Angkor Wat
Macaque with two of the several giant stone faces of the bodhisattva of compassion, Bayon Temple
Depiction of Indra riding the three headed elephant Airavata, Banteay Srei Temple

Due to technical problems with my camera on my second day at the park, I was not able to take any photos. At first I was devastated by this — but only for a moment. I soon realized this was a blessing in disguise. Although I have no photos of all the amazing ruins I saw that day, I was able to fully appreciate their splendor without being distracted by my camera. Instead of focusing on capturing amazing photos and seeing the monuments through the lens of my camera, I was focusing on the experience of being there; being present. Noticing, thinking, feeling.

I wondered what life would have looked like for me if I had lived here when the city flourished. I imagined witnessing a royal procession amongst the backdrop of the white-painted temples with gold plated stupas. My mind’s eye saw majestic elephants marching in line before rows of noblemen carrying the king’s party on a decorated palanquins, being fanned by palm leaves, admired and adored by a crowd of loyal subjects. I imagined music playing and people singing, and I imagined myself feeling reverence for the king under the heat of the sun. I wonder what I would have worn, where I would have lived, and what my role would have been as a young woman in a prosperous society. My imagination ran wild that day. My experience of the temples was full and lively, and it was wonderful. For this reason, I am glad my camera was temporarily out of commission.

The biggest question remains — what happened to the Khmer civilization at Angkor? While there are many theories as to why the city was abandoned over the course of the 15th century, the answer remains a mystery. Whatever the case, they left their legacy in the ruins of Angkor. What would they think if they knew their city would become one of Asia’s biggest tourist attractions hundreds of years after they were gone?

Preah Khan Temple

Angkor Wat is the symbol of Cambodia, pictured on their national flag since 1850. The temples of Angkor is the primary reason that most international tourists visit Cambodia. Angkor Archaeological Park tourism fuels the Cambodian economy, and there is growing concern that the precious asset of Angkor Archaeological Park is being mismanaged. To properly preserve this precious cultural and historical treasure, it has been suggested that the park should put a limit to the number of daily visitors. Today, an average of two million people visit the park annually, with ticket sales averaging USD 40 million. Not bad, hunh?

Contrast: modernity vs. medieval (Note: elephants should never be ridden by tourists)
inscriptions on the walls of Angkor Wat
opportunistic macaque / garbage picker
outside Ta Phrom Temple, devoured by jungle
Banteay Srei Temple
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