Angkor Wat

By Stan Persky | October 16, 2004

I’m a more-than-reluctant traveller. I have no desire to go anywhere. I just want to sit at my desk in Vancouver and read and write. Walking up to my local supermarket on 4th Avenue is my idea of a big adventure.

Yet, again and again, I’ve gone to the ends of the earth, as if possessed by an ancestral gene of the Wandering Jew. I never intend to go, since, as I say, I have no desire to go anywhere. So, how to account for my presence at various times, over many years, in Gdansk, Berlin, Tirana, Vilnius, Naples, Mexico City, Managua, Shanghai, Bangkok, Angkor Wat?

I always seem to back into destinations. It is as if it’s not me who wants to go to a particular place, but rather that the place is calling me to it. I know that is a romantic fantasy, but often that’s the way it feels. Take Angkor Wat, an abandoned once-thriving Cambodian city-civilization from about 800-1450 A.D., which surely meets the definition of the ends of the earth.

I was visiting Bangkok, Thailand, in early 2002—not because I wanted to, of course, but because a friend of mine, Dan Gawthrop, was living there, and encouraged me to visit him. At the Malaysia Hotel where I was staying, I met a friendly middle-aged American from Kansas City named Larry who, one morning at breakfast, told me he wanted to go to Angkor Wat in Cambodia and was looking for a travelling companion.

It hadn’t occurred to me to go there, But I saw when I located it on a map that Angkor Wat wasn’t far, just across the Thai-Cambodian border. What’s more, I’d vaguely heard it had recently been re-opened to tourists. This was after some three horrific decades in Cambodia: first, American invasion in the early 1970s, followed by civil war and the genocidal rule of the Khmer Rouge, then conquest by neighbouring Vietnam, and finally, a decade of "normalized" but bloody internecine politics. Now the situation was temporarily stable.

I was tempted, having heard of Angkor Wat as one of the fabled temple sites of Southeast Asia, one of the "seven wonders of the world." But for some minor reason—I think the airfare struck me as unreasonable—I held off. When Larry returned to Bangkok, just before heading home to the States, he gave me an enthusiastic account of his visit, and the idea of going there stayed in my mind.

A month later, in February 2002, I found myself at a Bangkok travel agency. It was just down the street from my hotel, a place I often passed on my way to the neighbourhood internet cafe in a narrow lane around the corner. The computer shop was a picturesque place filled with wall clocks, a large gloomy aquarium, and ten-year-old Thai kids playing Harry Potter video games. A rooster in a pen across the lane crowed regularly at an ear-splitting pitch. Passing the travel agency on the way back to the hotel, I thought nothing more profound than, Oh, what the hell, I’ll just check the fares; it doesn’t commit me to anything. So, I figuratively backed in. The overland fare was not only reasonable but ridiculously cheap.

A few days later, at 7 a.m., I was crammed into a mini-van with a half-dozen or so young foreign backpackers and we were on the highway to the border. I’m usually okay once I get to where I’m going but while in transit I assume the petrified posture of a frightened rabbit. The backpackers, dressed in shorts and floppies, were all in pairs, and at least thirty years younger than me, the only solitary traveller in the group. The American couple sitting next to me were "doing" Asia, a half-dozen destinations in two or three weeks, and seemed perfectly at home in the cramped vehicle, their feet propped up on their enormous rucksacks, eating junk food and mildly debating the comparative merits of the pop novelists whom they were respectively reading, John Grisham and Stephen King (they seemed to favour the literary merits of the horror writer King). They were slightly puzzled that I was staying in Bangkok for a couple of months—what could one possibly find to do there over such a long time?—and quickly turned their attention back to their grisly paperbacks.

After five or six hours on the road, we reached the border. There’s a Wild West frontier town, Popit (pronounced "Po-peet"), that you enter after going on foot through the usual complicated customs stations. Two things were immediately visible: gambling casinos and bread. The garish gambling palaces, built in the style of equivalent temples of chance in Las Vegas, are apparently for well-to-do Thai tourists. The bread, sold by kids who approach you as soon as you hit Cambodian customs, is a cultural vestige of French colonialism, since bread isn’t a major feature of southeast Asia’s rice-based cuisine. I bought a small loaf, which was crusty, delicious, and suddenly exotic after a couple of months of seldom seeing any bread except the toast that the hotel in Bangkok provided for Western breakfasts .

After getting our documents stamped, we were reassembled behind a corrugated metal fence in an empty lot that seemed to be a combination of garbage dump and informal bus depot, to wait for the vehicle taking us to Siem Reap, the Cambodian town closest to the Angkor Wat site. Through an arrangement between the Thai and Cambodian travel agencies, various tourists in the mini-vans are combined into a larger group and shifted onto a bus. While standing around, amid heaps of trash and various vehicles, waiting for our bus to appear, I reflected that the striking thing about travel is not just the landscapes but how you become familiar with an instant, if transient, group of people—backpackers, drivers, travel agents, vendors, guides and others just hanging about.

I was mainly and anxiously oriented to a young woman in her twenties named Ma, an obviously bright, efficient person who was in charge of the complicated business of ferrying the travellers across the border and recombining them onto the buses for the Cambodian stage of the trip. My anxiety about keeping her in sight diminished once we were at the assembly site and I was reasonably sure I wasn’t going to become a lost straggler, abandoned in the middle of nowhere. We had to wait an hour or so. I fell into conversation—in a sort of pidgin made up of various languages—with a teenage boy who was a guide in Popit. He bought a couple of meat kebobs from a passing vendor and immediately offered me one of them. The friendliness of his unexpected gesture jolted me out of my uneasy anticipation of the future back to the present and, within a few minutes in that bedraggled garbage-strewn lot, in the afternoon sun, I began to fantasize a sort of life that I might lead in that border town. I could see a table in a motel room at which I would sit, reading and writing. I think that’s the feature of travelling—in which we reconfigure our selves in an imaginary way—that changes us.

The vehicle was an ancient, unreliable-looking, battered school bus. The heat was 30-plus degrees outside and there was no air-conditioning. I sat up front, behind the driver. He kept the folding front door open to get some air circulating. At the last minute, as we were pulling out, a teenage boy hopped on, not the one I’d been talking with earlier.

The road on the Cambo side, in contrast to the smooth four-lane Thai highway, was unpaved, bumpy hard pan. It was the dry season and everything was coated in a layer of fine tan-coloured dust. Once the driver got the bus up to speed, he had to close the door to keep the dust out. It was hot inside, and there was nothing to do but settle in and gaze at the seemingly featureless landscape—seemingly featureless only because I didn’t know what I was looking for—as the bus headed in a descending direction down the long ribbon of mostly traffic-free hard pan. The Cambodian teenager introduced himself. His name was Vonnie, he spoke English, and was an Angkor Wat guide from Siem Reap. He came up to Popit regularly and rode the bus back with the aim of securing some business from the travellers headed to Angkor.

Every once in a while, the bus passed through an inhabited place. As you got near a town, the view changed into agricultural landscape. The rice fields were dry at this time of the year, so you could see the banked-up borders of hard earth that enclosed them, and a system of what looked to be irrigation channels and reservoir pits. The earth-rimmed fields were designed to keep the rice partially submerged in water during the growing season. The towns were a sudden jumble of life, startling after the long stretch of desolate road between habitations. The houses were made of wood and set on stilts because of the flood season, there were groves of banana and other trees, now covered in dust, and there were children everywhere, along with the occasional tethered water buffalo, wandering chickens, and pigs nosing about. It was a quick blur of liveliness—kids playing, people washing clothes, a bit of a marketplace—and then we were back on the empty jostling road.

It wasn’t until we passed through the third or fourth farming village that I realized that the whole point of going overland was to see precisely this: how the people lived. The noticeable feature of life was the enormous number of kids. I’d read somewhere that the population of Cambodia was 13 million now, about half again as many as the about 7 or 8 million it had been in the 1970s. And if more than half of them were under 15, that meant that the majority of the population hadn’t been born at the time of the genocide in Cambodia. For teens like Vonnie, the gruesome image of "the killing fields" was just a piece of history, as it was for most of the backpackers aboard the bus. Only a middle-aged woman I glimpsed for an instant in one of the villages, or an elderly traveller might have the horror as a direct or indirect memory. So, this is a divided society: grandparents and parents who lived through hell, and their children for whom the horror is stories.

It was a long ride, eight hours or more, with a late afternoon lunch break in the one sizeable town on the route, and a few rest stops along the way. As it was growing dark, something appeared in the distance that might be a city, but it was at least a couple hours away. Vonnie had circulated among the backpackers, looking for business, and now dropped into the seat next to mine for the end of the haul. It was dark when we reached Siem Reap. I had tried to memorize the map of the town in my guide book, but I quickly lost track of where I was as we turned this way and that through the streets. Instead of anything like a sense of direction all I have is the sort of blurry visual field that 19th century French impressionist painters invented. I couldn’t get any sense of the streets at night—there were only shadowy buildings and the occasional patch of light provided by a flicker of neon or a string of coloured lightbulbs. The bus rolled into a compound behind a backpacker hostel.

Since I was a middle-class tourist rather than a backpacker, I asked Vonnie if he knew how to find the hotel noted in my guide book, The Golden Angkor. He’d take me there on his motorbike, he told me. First he had to help unload the rucksacks from the bus. I stood at the edge of the bustling crowd of backpackers, people from the hostel, and various kids with motorbikes in the warm, anxiety-tinged night. Then I was on the back of Vonnie’s motorbike, clutching my satchel with one hand, and Vonnie with the other, weaving through the dark streets of Siem Reap.

My expectations of catastrophe, as almost always, were happily unfulfilled. We neither crashed nor was I abandoned in the middle of nowhere. The Golden Angkor, once we arrived, turned out to be a perfectly nice middle-class hotel, they had a room free, there was a Thai restaurant next door, and the room had a writing table. Angkor Wat, Vonnie explained, was about a half hour out of town. You could get there by motorbike—that’s how he made his living, taking tourists out to the site—or rent a car and driver. I preferred the latter. He said he would arrange for me to be picked up at 10 o’clock the next morning. So, there I was, safe for the night in the middle of nowhere—but not nowhere for Vonnie and the other people of Siem Reap, a city of about 800,000 people. Safe, showered, fed, seated at my writing table, memorizing basic greetings and numbers in Cambodian, which uses a system based on the number five. So, ten is double-five.


In the morning there was no problem getting a little metal tankard of coffee from the Thai restaurant next door and bringing it up to my room. After my morning coffee and reading, I took a walk through the streets of Siem Reap. In the hazy, soft sunlight, the villa-like buildings still carried a trace of the town’s French colonial provincial history, which had lasted until the mid-20th century. There were several construction sites with new hotels going up. The streets carried a surprising amount of traffic. Even though the map in my mind and the streets seemed to correlate, I wasn’t very venturesome, going just far enough to identify various nearby restaurants, a place that sold postcards and stamps, a drugstore. At 10, the car and its elderly driver appeared as promised, along with Vonnie on his bike. I asked Vonnie how much he charged for a day’s services, and hired him to walk me around the site, since the driver, who looked older than me and only spoke Cambodian, didn’t seem a likely guide. As a middle-class elderly foreigner who was only likely to see Angkor Wat once in his life, I wasn’t tempted to skimp.

The reason for this considerable narrative of utterly mundane travel details and the self-portrait of a timorous narrator-traveller is to make the contrast with the splendour of Angkor Wat as sharp as possible. Despite the fame of its great temple, Angkor isn’t just the gigantic, moat-surrounded, five-towered 12th century building that is mainly referred to by that name. Instead, Angkor is the name of a civilization that occupied a considerable interior region of Cambodia, from the once fish-filled Great Lake at the south to the Kulen Plateau in the north, all of it located partway between what would become the modern Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh to the southeast (and the Mekong River delta further south), and the Thai kingdom to the northwest. So, when you go through the toll station at the entrance to the Angkor grounds and pay the fee (in American dollars), you’re entering an area of a hundred square kilometres or more, with fifty or so temples, and the remains of the towns and water reservoirs built by successive dynasties over a 600-year period.

We drove along a fairly busy road for about ten minutes—already at that hour there were busloads of tourists, people on bicycles and motorbikes, pick-up trucks—until we were moving parallel to the moat, on the other side of which was Angkor Wat. The driver pulled into a large, dusty, tree-shaded parking lot opposite the temple. Behind the lot was a row of open, barn-like sheds with restaurants and souvenir stands. The tourists getting out of vehicles were quickly surrounded by groups of kids hawking postcards, T-shirts, and other items.

Vonnie took me to the low stone bridge across the moat that leads directly to the main entrance of the temple. The first sense of the magnitude of the place is the scale of the moat surrounding Angkor Wat. It is some 200 metres wide, and retained on both its inner and outer banks by walls of laterite and huge blocks of sandstone, cut to fit one against the next, all of which cover a distance of about 10 kilometres. At the moment, rather than reflect on the precise facts of the size of Angkor, I simply went on the impressions I had of the moat’s vast placid waters and the munificence of the bevelled towers ahead, located behind the arcaded outer walls of the temple. I picked up the details later on, reading Charles Higham, the leading Western archeological expert on the region, author of the rather dry but informative The Civilization of Angkor (University of California, 2001).

From the inner edge of the moat there’s a flat grassy expanse, beyond which stand the outer walls, about 4 or 5 metres high. The bridge across the moat is linked to the main entrance via a causeway whose balustrades are in the form of sculpted mythical beasts, dragon-like animals known as nagas. Inside the walls, there are a series of galleries, lotus towers, and various side temples that comprise the heart of the complex. The walls of the outermost gallery are covered with bas-reliefs illustrating the life of the king and his court at Angkor in the 12th century. Accompanied by Vonnie, I wandered through the labyrinth of the temple for two or three hours, clambering over stone doorsteps, ascending the towers, meeting statues of gods, wandering through sunlight into dark inner chambers.

So, what am I seeing, I asked myself at some point—or maybe at every point—in the process of moving from scene to scene within the temple. How does the site of this once-upon-a-time civilization mesh with the tangle of individual memory and imagination constructed over a lifetime? First, all travel that’s interesting is a kind of time-travel, or else it is merely two-dimensional. Here, it’s 2002 and at the same time, roughly 1150 A.D. Angkor is a faerie castle of childhood books, the Lost City in the jungle, the actual Magic Kingdom, as contrasted to kitschy, cartoon-based simulacra of various Disney theme parks around the world, safe holiday destinations for vacationing family ensembles.

There’s an important, complex oppositional relationship between sprawling actual historical sites—Angkor, the Acropolis at Athens, Egyptian Pyramids, those in Mexico, etc.—no matter how tarted up for tourists, and the carefully manufactured fakes. Nor are the theme parks only located in nations with relatively brief histories like the United States, which might otherwise be a reason for their popularity there. They also appear in societies with millennial-long traditions, and have become a phenomena of globalization. Ian Buruma, a Western scholar of Asian culture, points out that one of the cultural conundrums of contemporary China, Japan, Singapore, and other parts of East Asia is the craze for theme parks, an extraordinary proliferation of which are woven into the new commercial urban landscapes. "They are to East Asian capitalism what folk dancing festivals were to communism." They’re all over Asia, and "are sometimes as quickly abandoned as they were built, or even before they were finished… What is curious is not just the insatiable taste for these fantasy places, but the fact that they often blur seamlessly into the ‘real’ urban landscape."

Buruma is primarily interested in figuring out the political relationship between the theme parks, as well as other replications and simulacra, and the ultimately similar communist and capitalist regimes of the region. "So why are Chinese officials prepared, or even eager, to tear down physical evidence of a real past and replace it with copies?" he wonders. "Why do they appear to be happier with virtual history? And what lies behind the ubiquitous taste for Western theme parks, for creating an ersatz version of aboard at home?"

Whether considering authoritarian Singapore, the dubious democracy of Japan, or the communist version of capitalism of China, Buruma believes "there is something inherently authoritarian about theme parks, and especially the men who create them. Every theme park is a controlled utopia, a miniature world where everything can be made to look perfect… [and] nothing is left to chance."

The theme parks, like globalized mega-malls, are themselves utopian models for the societies in which they’re located, and which those societies are meant to increasingly resemble. As Buruma remarks, "Singapore, once likened to a Disneyland with the death penalty, is truly a place where nothing is left to chance." Everything is "subject to elaborate guidelines, more or less forecefully imposed." Among the uncertain political prospects of post-Maoist China, one of them, he suggests, is that the country, "as a continent-sized Singapore, will be the shining model of authoritarian capitalism, saluted by all illiberal regimes, corporate executives, and other PR men… the whole world as a gigantic theme park, where constant fun and games will make free thought redundant." (See Ian Buruma, "AsiaWorld," The New York Review, June 12, 2003.)

As-yet-undeveloped Cambodia, by contrast, has to make do with merely real history. Angkor Wat is relatively uncontrolled. There are a few paths marked off as not yet cleared of landmines, the occasional rope restraining barrier before the bas-reliefs on the walls of the galleries, and some uniformed official guides available for hire. Vonnie told me it was his ambition to ascend into their ranks one day. But the visitors were free to scramble around the site, skinning their knees on some precarious steep stairway up the side of a tower, free, in other words, to make whatever they can of the historical reality in which they find themselves. The first disjuncture, then, is one of ontology, of being in the presence of something real in a world whose character is increasingly virtual, not just by way of manufactured spectacle, but including all the digitalia of TV screens, computers, and relentless optics.

Second, as against the ahistorical contemporary theme parks, which can only be read as a set of signs of postmodernism, at places like Angkor, you’re confronted with the half-solved historical puzzles of a vanished civilization. The story, albeit fragmentary, is put together by scholars like Higham, from the surviving stone or brick temples, archeological remains of the now dried-out great water reservoirs, and most important, scattered texts throughout the region. The "stone inscriptions set into these monuments," says Higham, "provide a vital social overlay to the skeletal archeological remains. These usually incorporate, in Sanskrit, the name or names of the founders, the presiding god and the date. Further information follows in Khmer. The names of the king or benefactor and the gods are repeated. Although Hindu gods are often named, with a preference for Shiva, local gods are also mentioned. We find reference to the god of the cloud, a tree, the old and the young god, and the god at the double pond…" The characteristic inscription lists the amount of land belonging to the temple, its boundaries, productive capacities, the names of people assigned to maintain the temple, and a royal warning against violating the rules of the establishment. The texts are absolutely specific. One, reports Higham, "records the assignment of 17 dancers or singers, 23 or 24 record keepers, 19 leaf sewers, 37 artisans including a potter, 11 weavers, 15 spinners and 59 rice field workers of whom 46 were female."

The textual records also attest to the power of the kingdom’s rulers. About Indravarman, a late 9th century king, the inscription says that "the right hand of this prince, long and powerful, was terrible in combat when his sword fell on his enemies, scattering them to all points of the compass. Invincible, he was appeased only by his enemies who turned their backs in surrender." This claim was engraved on the foundation stone of a temple in 879 A.D., followed by a pledge made on the king’s accession: "Five days hence, I will begin digging." Indravarman lived up to his promise, constructing a huge reservoir of unprecedented size, 3800 metres long and 800 wide, which is recorded in another inscription: "He made the [reservoir], mirror of his glory, like the ocean."

Angkor Wat was built some 300 years later, the enduring temple of Suryavarman II, and without question, agree the scholars, the outstanding achievement of the civilization of Angkor. The foundation stone, reported by later visitors, is missing. What we know is that the temple was dedicated to the Hindu god Vishnu and opens onto the west, the god’s quarter of the compass. For all its present splendour, Higham tells us, Angkor Wat today is but a grey reflection of its former state. Traces of gilded stucco remain on the central tower, and an early 17th century Japanese visitor reported gilding over the stone bas-relief panels. In the 12th century, it was literally a golden palace. The 4-metre-high statue of Vishnu remains, still venerated.

In the great illustrated galleries, I came upon the bas-relief panel of Suryavarman himself, sitting in state upon a wooden throne. He wears a pointed crown, heavy ear ornaments, a necklace, armlets, bracelets, straps crisscross his pectorals, and there are anklets above his feet, which are drawn up in a half-lotus posture. A forest of parasols, large fans, and fly whisks surround him as he receives his ministers, named in the inscriptions, offering scrolls and holding their hands over their hearts, signalling loyalty and deference.

Other sections of the gallery walls show scenes from the Hindu epics, massive battles with hand to hand combat; Yama, the god of death, sitting on a water buffalo, determining the fate of each person; a depiction of "the churning of the ocean of milk in search of the elixir of immortality."

But the specific purpose and symbolic meaning of Angkor remain elusive. A temple, sure, but also a mausoleum for Suryavarman? The central towers, the scholars think, represent the peaks of Mount Meru, home of the Hindu gods, while the moat possibly symbolizes the surrounding ocean, but even if Angkor and its counterparts are intended as earthly representations of Paradise—the temple as paradise theme park?—the explanations are thin and unsatisfactory. Did the outer wall enclose residential areas and the king’s palace? Where did the rice-growing peasants live? What about burial rites?

If much of the history is patchy, one macro-feature of the civilization is clearer. In addition to its reality, and what we can piece together of its history, the third thing about Angkor civilization is, in a Marxist sense, its mode of production. What Angkor is founded on is rice, water, and labour—surplus rice, control of water, and the ability to organize, protect and exploit labour power. The mode of rice cultivation in the region is what’s known as flood retreat agriculture. As the waters of the flood season subside, the rice grows in the half-submerged earth-banked fields. The point of the farming village fields I saw on the road to Siem Reap now becomes clear. The function of the giant reservoirs scattered throughout the region, however, remains something of a mystery, though one would immediately imagine some sort of irrigation system as the dry season sets in. Higham leads readers through an unresolved scholarly controversy about whether or not the reservoirs were for irrigation or other uses. But in the end, it is a surplus of rice, controlled by the warriors through force, that is the basis of dynastic power. Rice makes possible parasols, fans, fly whisks, kings on thrones, artists to make gilded stone bas-reliefs of the sinuous bejewelled body of Suryavarman.


Vonnie and I made our way back across the bridge over the moat, found our driver in the shaded parking lot, and I took both of them to lunch in one of the barn-like sheds that housed the restaurants. Then we got into the car again and drove along a winding, forested road, north to Angkor Thom, a city built by the regime succeeding the one that built Angkor Wat. At the entrance to the city is a stone gate about 25 metres high, a heap of columns forming a rough arch, topped by sculptures of giant, broad-faced, Buddha-like heads in elaborate headgear. In the centre of Angkor Thom is its main temple, with fifty or more of the same half-smiling, immense sandstone heads as the ones at the entrance gate. The heads are carved into the temple towers. I clambered over the stone slabs of the temple stairways, cracked and broken over time, crawling up onto a terrace a third of the way up the towers.

Angkor Thom is the creation of a king named Jayavarman VII, who was crowned in 1181, after a turbulent period of warfare, in which he repulsed a water-borne invasion—up the Mekong and Tonle Sap rivers and across the Great Lake—by a rival kingdom to the east. During Jayavarman’s reign, this great new city north of Angkor Wat was constructed, with the traditional moat, city walls about 3 kilometres long on all sides, pierced by the entrance gateways and their colossal heads, one of which we had passed through, and an array of temples and palaces. On the walls of the principal temple, as at Angkor Wat, there are bas-reliefs providing a glimpse of life during Jayavarman’s rule. In addition to the familiar battle scenes, the striking feature of the Angkor Thom bas-reliefs is scenes of domestic life that give us some visual sense of the everyday world of Angkor civilization.

In one panel, a woman in labour is being helped by midwives. In another scene, two men are hunched over a game of chess. Workers are shaping building stones with chisels in another sculpted picture, and lifting them by means of a lever. Fishermen are casting nets and hauling in their catch, women are selling the fish in a marketplace. Crowds of onlookers watch a cockfight. A man carries a rice basket, another drives an ox-cart. For scholars and visitors alike, the domestic bas-reliefs are like a newsreel documentary of everyday life. They flesh out the details of the inscriptions, which record that 2740 officials and 2202 assistants lived and worked in Jayavarman’s royal city. 12,640 people had residential rights within the walls. To feed and clothe this population, there are scrupulously listed quantities of rice, honey, molasses, oil, fruit, sesame, millet, beans, butter, milk, and all clothing materials; "even the number of mosquito nets is set down," as Higham notes. Assigned to supply the temple were 66,265 men and women, a figure rising to 79,365 if you include foreign Burmese and Cham workers.

A century later, there’s a final, unprecedented, remarkable text available for Angkor civilization. The king at the end of the 13th century is also named Jayavarman and the tangled politics of his regime are unclear, other than for the evidence that part of the ideological struggle involved religion. This Jayavarman, the eighth in the line of that name, was, as Higham reports, a worshipper of Shiva and an iconoclast who destroyed or modified every image of the Buddha that the two preceding regimes had created. If you really wanted to know anything about Angkor you’d have to sort out the ideas associated with Vishnu, Shiva, Buddha, and the rest. But the complex subject of the struggles between various belief systems promoting rival gods and philosophies can be left aside here. What’s of interest during Jayavarman’s regime is that there’s an eyewitness, one who eventually sat at the equivalent of a writing table. He’s the man with whom I identify.

He was Chinese and his name is Zhou Daguan. He arrived in August 1296 as a member of a diplomatic mission from the Chinese emperor to Cambodia, and he stayed as a guest in a house in Angkor Thom for eleven months, observing life at the court, in the capital, and in the countryside. After his return to China, Zhou wrote an account of his visit, which survived in the Chinese archives, and was first translated into French in the late-18th century. (See Zhou Daguan, The Customs of Cambodia, Siam Society, 1993.)

Zhou describes the city, with its moat and walls, the gold-covered stone heads at the gates, which were closed each night and opened again in the morning, with only "dogs and criminals who had had their toes cut off… barred entry." Angkor Thom’s golden temples are recorded, along with the royal palace, the tile-roofed houses of the nobility and the homes of the lower classes, roofed with thatch. In the middle-class home in which Zhou lived for almost a year, the floor is covered by matting, but there is no furniture. Rice is husked in a mortar and cooked in ceramic vessels on a clay stove. Family members and Zhou sit on mats and eat from ceramic or copper plates. A half-coconut shell serves as a ladle, small cups made of leaves contain sauces. They drink wine made from honey and rice. At night, everyone sleeps on mats laid out on the floor, but it is so hot that people often get up during the night to bathe. Two or three families arrange for a ditch to be dug for use as a latrine, which is covered with leaves.

Zhou also provides an account of the life of the city, punctuated with religious festivals, fireworks, parades, martial art displays on elephants, and the twice daily royal audiences given by the king. But it is in that house where Zhou lived for a year that the human figures begin to move for us in the present tense, where those countless lives now utterly lost to memory have a momentary vividness.

Just at the instant of exhaustion in the mid-afternoon sun, as the visual data blurred and I dreaded the prospect of a further excursion, Vonnie casually mentioned that we could drive back to Siem Reap for a mid-day break, and then return to Angkor Wat that evening to watch the sunset, apparently the custom of both tourists and local inhabitants. Back in the cool hotel room in Siem Reap, I showered, napped, sat at the writing table with my notebook, like Zhou Daguan.

In the early evening we drove back to the now recognizable great temple of Angkor Wat. The road was crowded with local people on bicycles and motorbikes who came out for picnic dinners along the grassy banks around the moat. I sat on the steps of one of the temple entrances, facing west, watching the sun slide below the tops of distant groves of trees.

Back in Siem Reap that night, I ate at one of the restaurants I’d noted on my morning walkabout, practiced my few phrases of Cambodian on the waiters, took an after dinner walk. On the edges of town were the shadowy hotel construction sites, not middle-class hotels, but luxury dwellings going up for a different class of tourist who would jet in from Phnom Pehn, Bangkok, Tokyo. On the way back from Angkor, I had glimpsed a half-dozen giant gift emporia, temples for consumers. There was a current of uncertain excitement among the people I met, a kind of boom-town atmosphere. Those like Vonnie were quickly learning English. We’d run into some Japanese tourists at the site that afternoon, and I noticed that he’d already picked up enough Japanese for rudimentary conversations. The strangers who came to town were an opportunity, and it was all recent enough that the local Cambodians were still a little unsure about what these wealthy foreigners wanted, tentative about what should be offered, how flirtatious to be.

The next morning we drove out to the site and Vonnie walked me through various temples at a greater distance from Angkor Wat. The most energetic trek was to a temple atop a hill that you reached by scrambling up a long slope of broken rock. Once you reached the summit upon which the temple was perched, you could climb up its vertiginous staircases for a panoramic view of the countryside. The hike up the slope, however, was enough for me. I could see the towers of Angkor poking up in the forested distance. Noticing that I wasn’t enthusiastic about the clamber down, Vonnie suggested that we could take the road at the back of the hill, a dirt path that wound gently downward. The main traffic consisted of elephants carrying tourists up and down, to and from the temple. When an elephant approached I pressed against the inner edge of the road to let the great swaying beast pass.

That was enough. I’d seen what it was possible for me to take in, unless I was planning to stay for a much longer time. We made a dutiful stop at one of the gift temples on the way back to Siem Reap, but I’d already bought an Angkor Wat T-shirt from one of the kids hawking them in the parking lot, and there wasn’t anything else I wanted. I’d seen it.


Angkor Wat was sacked in 1431 by the Thais, whose kingdom was based at Ayyuthaya, just north of Bangkok. It was then abandoned to the jungle. The subsequent history of Angkor is one of its “reception”—of how it was seen and understood—by explorers, colonial visitors, and now tourists like me.

In the late-16th century, some hundred and fifty years after it had been abandoned, Portuguese traders and missionaries became aware of a great city hidden deep in the wilds of Cambodia. The Portuguese had heard stories of a Cambodian king named Satha, who, while on an elephant hunt, with his retainers beating a path through the jungle undergrowth, was brought up short by stone giants and a massive wall. According to the account, Satha ordered a work-party of several thousand men to clear away the jungle, thus exposing the lost cities of Angkor civilization.

One of the first foreigners was a Capuchin friar, Antonio de Magdalena, who explored the ruined city in 1586. Three years later, shortly before the friar’s death in a shipwreck, he gave an account of his visit to Diogo do Couto, official historian of the Portuguese Indies. "This city is square, with four principal gates, and a fifth which serves the royal palace," wrote do Couto, setting down the friar’s recollections. "The city is surrounded by a moat, crossed by five bridges… The stone blocks of the bridges are of astonishing size. The stones of the wall are also of an extraordinary size and so joined together that they look as if they are made of just one stone… the source of which is, amazingly, over 20 leagues away…

"Half a league from this city is a temple called Angar. It is of such extraordinary construction that it is not possible to describe it with a pen, particularly since it is like no other building in the world. It has towers and decoration and all the refinements which the human genius can conceive of… The temple is surrounded by a moat, and access is by a single bridge, protected by two stone tigers so grand and fearsome as to strike terror into the visitor."

Two decades later, in 1609, Bartolome de Argensola wrote, "One finds in the interior within inaccessible forests, a city of 6,000 homes, called Angon. The monuments and roads are made of marble, and are intact. The sculptures are also intact, as if they were modern. There is a strong wall. The moat, stone-lined, can admit boats… There are epitaphs, inscriptions, which have not been deciphered. And in all this city—the natives discovered it—there were no people, no animals, nothing living. I confess I hesitate to write this, it appears as fantastic as the Atlantis of Plato." I too hesitate.

French missionaries entered the region in the 17th century; at the end of the next century Zhou Daguan’s memoir was published in Paris; and in the mid-19th century, with Cambodia now a French protectorate, a steady flow of mostly French explorer-naturalists, photographers, and archeological scholars began the study and restoration of the monuments. The obscure volumes of the memoirs of the often strange, wandering, fever-wracked men—I later read one by Henri Mouhot—can be found occasionally in a Bangkok bookstore.

The next morning, I sat on a bench in front of the Golden Angkor, along with some local drivers, anxiously wondering whether the bus bound for Bangkok would actually appear. The desk clerk had assured me more than once that he had been in contact with Ma, the woman who handled the travel arrangements. I saw it as a problem in logistics equivalent to the provisioning of Napoleon’s army in Russia, and likely to have the same doomed outcome. Well, that overstates it, but only by a little from the viewpoint of the reluctant traveller. The bus arrived, the backpackers were aboard, and we pulled out of Siem Reap, back onto the highway toward Popit, the border station, and then onto Bangkok. A young French couple was sitting alongside me. "How did you like Angkor?" I asked. The woman said, "Oh, the temples are alright, but we’re more interested in, you know, the people."

That night the bus pulled into the driveway of the Malaysia Hotel in Bangkok. There was an odd rush of feeling as I recognized and was greeted by the familiar faces of the desk clerks, the bellman by the elevator, the waitresses standing at the entrance to the hotel coffee shop. Did you have a good trip, they asked. "Yes," I said, "it was astonishing," then added, as do all returning travellers, "but it’s good to be home." In time-travel, what you learn is that home is in the middle of nowhere, as are we all.

Berlin, Oct. 16, 2004


  • Stan Persky

    Stan Persky taught philosophy at Capilano University in N. Vancouver, B.C. He received the 2010 B.C. Lieutenant-Governor's Award for Literary Excellence. His most recent books are Reading the 21st Century: Books of the Decade, 2000-2009 (McGill-Queen's, 2011), Post-Communist Stories: About Cities, Politics, Desires (Cormorant, 2014), and Letter from Berlin: Essays 2015-2016 (Dooney's, 2017).

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