Visiting Angkor Wat during the Vietnam War was a problem. Centuries of enmity between Thailand and Cambodia caused the two countries to suspend diplomatic ties in 1959. Thailand accused Cambodia of being a Chinese satellite. Cambodia accused Thailand of being an imperialistic American state. Landmines had just killed 18 Thais on the border.
I took a train from Bangkok in May 1966 to the same border and watched my step. Once in Cambodia, I caught buses to Siem Reap on a cloudy, wet day, bouncing along once-dusty roads that were now muddy. Our bus splashed through puddles of rainwater that pocked the road, making it difficult for the driver to get out of second gear. The bus was an overflowing sardine can of a motor vehicle, so I chose to ride on the rear bumper, which I shared with two other men. Even with the rain, it was preferable to riding squeezed inside.
We arrived at an unfinished bridge, and our driver followed ruts showing a path around it. He was able to ford the stream but got stuck climbing out. I learned how to swear in Cambodian, hearing the same oaths repeated over and over as everyone got out to help push us out of the mud and others threw bushes, branches, and refuse underneath the tires to add purchase. After half an hour, my language lesson was over, and we washed the splattered mud off ourselves in the stream and climbed back in and on the bus.
I was wet, my arms spongy from holding on tight as we jounced from hole to hole, when the bus slowed. We were stopping in the middle of nowhere. I peered around the corner of the bus and quickly pulled back. A small contingent of heavily armed guerilla soldiers was flagging us down. When our bus stopped, I tried not to make any eye contact with them, but one of the soldiers asked me in French where I was from.
“Corsica,” I replied.
They would know from their colonial schooling of Corsica because of Napoleon, and the Corsicans weren’t currently fighting in Southeast Asia. The soldier nodded and dismissed me. My one-word answer might have saved my life.
While several soldiers jammed their way inside, two joined us on the back bumper. As we splashed and jolted through potholes, I watched their homemade hand grenades hooked to their vests bounce and shake around. I avoided any eye contact. I couldn’t risk them asking me another question. In those moments when I didn’t know if I was going to live or die, with every detail perhaps my last, the world appeared so vivid — how dirty my fingernails were as I gripped tightly on to the bus, how glowingly verdant the fields were, how dark the rainclouds, how teeth-rattlingly deep each pothole, how we sprayed mud and water as we splashed through puddles while slipping and sliding on the sludgy road. Not more than 20 minutes later, an eternity when holding your breath, one of the guerillas banged on the roof, signaling the driver to stop. They hopped off to head single file into the bush.
The hotel in Siem Reap had once been grand. I slept in a high-ceilinged room with a circular fan spinning above the mosquito netting hanging over my queen-sized bed. The floors were polished dark tropical hardwood. Fifteen-watt bulbs barely lit the wide corridors, so dim objects struggled to even cast a shadow. I watched a large lizard get even fatter as it caught insects flying, crawling, rustling, and whirling around on a wet evening.
The restaurant served delicious food combining French, Cambodian, and Chinese culinary traditions. It wouldn’t have been enough to satisfy the appetite of an A. J. Liebling, but tasty enough to intrigue him. This was decades before fusion became popular and people traveled for cuisine outside of the known epicurean capitols and gastronomic palaces. I missed not having a dinner companion to share my meal with. I kept looking up expecting a Graham Greene character to appear in the dining room, but I was the only guest that evening, the war affecting business. My dinner cost 30 cents as I’d changed my money on the black market and received more than three times the official rate.
In the morning, I pedaled out to Angkor on a bike rented from the hotel. Ominous black rain clouds covered the sky, the storm sucking the color from the surrounding jungle, as if I’d entered a black-and-white photograph. A soft-falling rain pattered on leaves and ground, a wet, muffled sound in an otherwise silent world. I parked my bike and walked on a stone causeway across a wide moat, the opaque water reflecting the sky darkly. I entered the outer enclosure, a gopura, the entrance pavilion, included the remains of three towers. Passing through the portal, I got my first view of Angkor Wat, the largest religious structure in the world. It is the earthly representation of Mt. Meru, the center of all physical, metaphysical, and spiritual universes. Almost every temple surface was exquisitely carved, with designs, patterns, and epic stories in bas-relief on stone panels along galleries, depictions from the Hindu Puranas, as well as historical dramatizations. It was a stone temple composed of a pyramid with concentric galleries, crowned with a quincunx of stone towers.
Khmer builders used five to 10 million blocks of sandstone weighing up to 3,300 pounds to create it, employing three types of sandstones for their buildings: gray to yellowish brown, red, and green. The gray to yellowish brown sandstone showed the most marked deterioration, from exposure but also efflorescence related to bat guano. Four years later, bullet holes added to the weathering when North Vietnamese and Khmer Rouge fighters captured the site in 1970. Two years later, Cambodian troops tried unsuccessfully to retake the religious center. Fighting continued until 1975. Angkor remarkably suffered little major damage, unlike the ancient city of Hue in Vietnam.
I moved slowly, trying to take in everything. I had Angkor to myself. Prominent among the stone wall carvings were languid apsaras, seductive celestial nymphs, looking ready to dance with but a nod from a god, wearing little else but their jewelry. Galleries of dancers, their breasts shiny and polished where pilgrims had rubbed them as if talismans for centuries. Breasts might be the source of lifegiving milk, but they were also inspiration to artists. In Ceylon, India, Nepal and now here in Cambodia, Asian sculptors, and painters, like their European counterparts, depicted them as round and perfect.
I first read about a civilization of the monsoons as a boy at our public library. I learned it was the capital of the Khmer civilization that once ruled half of Southeast Asia, from present-day Burma to Vietnam, from China to the Malay peninsula. Between the 8th and 13th centuries, Hindu and Buddhist kings built so many temples and towns the vast conurbation covered a thousand square kilometers — Angkor Wat the most famous of its temples — with nearly a million inhabitants. When Khmer royalty moved to Phnom Penh in the 15th century, it began a gradual decline of the city. The remaining residents didn’t maintain all the monuments and temples, but it remained a popular pilgrimage site.
The first European visitor, a Portuguese monk named António da Magdalena, was overwhelmed by its sheer romantic beauty. “It is of such extraordinary construction that it is not possible to describe it with a pen,” he wrote in 1586, “particularly since it is like no other building in the world.”
French naturalist Henri Mouhot wrote as if he’d found a lost city deep in the jungle. “One of these temples — a rival to that of Solomon and erected by some ancient Michelangelo might take an honourable place beside our most beautiful buildings,” he explained in 1860. “It is grander than anything left to us by Greece or Rome, and presents a sad contrast to the state of barbarism in which the nation is now plunged.”
Mouhot was only 35 when he died in Laos the following year from malaria. His book Voyage dans les royaumes de Siam, de Cambodge, de Laos, published posthumously, excited the imagination of westerners and fueled France’s colonial ambitions. Mouhot may have popularized Angkor as never before, but the truth was the city was never lost.
I’m fascinated with the marks humans leave on the landscape, how we claim and distinguish a territory. The built landscape is how we relate to history — we visit archaeological sites, monuments, churches, monasteries, nunneries, temples, mosques, museums, forts, castles, and buildings of state. I’ve also grown to love urban landscapes where layers of past civilizations pile upon each other, such as in Rome or Mexico City.
We speak of the pleasure and splendor of ruins, but how often does an architect contemplate what their creation will look like when it falls into decay? Will it still have a tangible presence? It is time going backward, returning to the beginning, and exposing the bones of the structure. Archaeological sites have a form and presence never anticipated by the builders, and their altered state embrace us in a backward gazing dream, drawn to its mystery and beauty.
For many sites, the façade is everything. Builders would be aware of light and shadows and how the interplay of the two would change throughout the day. The setting, how they positioned the stage, was just as important and seductive. This would be important regardless of whether the building was religious, monumental, utilitarian, or residential. Architecture is often used to make religious and cultural statements. For example, Bayon, here at Angkor, is a state temple, a complex monument using face-towers to create stone mountains of ascending peaks, and below two delicately carved bas-relief galleries depicting historical, religious, and mythological subjects sweep across the walls. Dancing apsaras are incised on pillars.
In Europe, the façades of cathedrals have saints, clerics, and angels floating above our heads, and the interior is a man-made space meant to encompass the heavens and earth, with soaring ceilings, and rich imagery and decoration. They invited the congregation to worship and pray. Everyone had access to God. The altarpiece is an artistic testament to God’s power and glory and the focus of the richest display of wealth: paintings, gold leaf, carvings, and elaborate niches. Windows let in light, sometimes through stained glass, which adds a kaleidoscope of variegated colors dancing on the floor and walls as the sun moves across the sky. It is light, mysterious, and holy.
In the Americas, the Maya wrote their history on the outside of their buildings. Like any culture that believes the earth is alive, they used objects as symbols for the natural world. Their pyramids were mountains, and the doorways of their temples were mouths of the mountains — cave entrances. Their Classic Period was noted for elite architecture, propagandistic monuments, and flamboyant theater-state rituals where epicenters of Maya sites were constructed as stage settings for religious spectacles, demonstrating the political and spiritual power of the rulers.
Some of human’s early impact on the landscape is found in the megalithic sites of Europe. Standing stones, stone circles, and cairns date to the Neolithic period and the Bronze Age. People have probably been anthropomorphizing the stones soon after they were erected — brooding, pensive figures — maybe even witches or faeries in the woods or open moor. The builders of the Neolithic burial chamber at Pentre Ifan in Wales would never have been intended it to be viewed as it is today — a large and elegant capstone balanced delicately on the tips of upright stones. They covered it with a mound of earth 130 feet (40 meters) long, traces of which still remain, but thousands of years of wind and rain have exposed the very essence of its design revealing a monument of lyrical grace, equal to modern contemporary sculpture.
An archeological zone is often referred to as a “dig” because we literally have to shovel through centuries and millennia of detritus to uncover the buildings to discover the site. There might only be the most teasing of hints, with often nothing left on the surface to tell us what will lie beneath. In the tropics we have archeology under the canopy, mature hardwood forests crowning what once were palaces and pyramids, their roots, over time, inexorably crumbling masonry walls and breaking lintels into two.
We can see fragments of this happening today even where we live. The weeds springing from the smallest of crevices, a sidewalk broken by a tree root, its outline traced by the bulges and cracks of the concrete, a vacant yard turned feral by neglect or foreclosure. Leaves and weeds accumulate, break down, and the mulch becomes soil. More weeds, bushes, and trees take root in the collecting soil — on a rooftop, inside a vacant building, along an abandoned track. An animal builds its nest, a bird drops a seed, and each and every thing adds their parts — a reminder, even in a city, we live in nature, even if that nature is a product of human influence. People and their towns and cities might hold nature, by differing degrees, in abeyance, but it is always a part of our world, and once a city goes into decline or abandoned, the natural world soon takes over.
Ruins provide us an enigma to study and decipher, the vestige of a past culture. As we walk around trying to see the overall picture but looking for the details that inform our thoughts, we are free to come up with our own hypothesis. Many archeological sites are in park-like environments. They can be pleasant to visit. People will bring picnics and play games and turn it into a family outing, cheerfully oblivious, or merely enjoying once there was intrigue and pageantry at this spot. They might nibble on their appetizers where soldiers might have massed, kings might have spoken to their subjects, merchants might have contemplated perilous and long journeys, or where captives might have been sacrificed.
While ruins remind us how much we have forgotten, they also give us license to dream. We can try to imagine what buildings once looked like, what a square might have sounded like full of people, what the market might have smelled like packed with vendors with all the wealth of their wares. We are allowed flights of fancy as we try to picture what we have with only an outline in front of us. Ruins expose us to cultures we might not know existed, to history we can look forward to learning, to discovering more about the people who once lived and died here, and who probably never entertained the thought one day we would be standing here, wondering who they were.
We think of ruins as being isolated cultural sites as humans have left traces everywhere. Just as Shelley wrote about impermanence in his sonnet “Ozymandias,” and later Robison Jeffers in his poem “Hands,” we should realize one day someone too will be standing where we now live and wonder who we were.