Tucked away in the dense forest just north of Siem Reap, the ruins of the city of Angkor are quietly succumbing to the nature that has engulfed them. This is not one of the cities that the Khmer Rouge evacuated in 1975 – in fact, it featured prominently on the Khmer Rouge’s own flag. This city was abandoned nearly six hundred years earlier. For the Khmer Rouge and for the Cambodians of today, Angkor was and remains a reminder of their glorious past, when their empire stretched from sea to sea and encompassed nearly the entire Southeast Asian peninsula.
As I cycled down the bike path between towering ancient trees, I tried to imagine what this city would have been like at its height. Here, there was once a sprawling city of wooden houses on stilts surrounding clusters of rice paddies. Each little neighborhood was linked to the next via an intricate network of roads and canals radiating out from two vast rectangular reservoirs that symbolized the cosmic oceans in the realm of the gods. Never before and never since has any civilization dug such large reservoirs directly into the ground – this was an advanced society that knew how to thrive during the long tropical dry season and whose primary export was the rice that it grew in abundance.
Between the two sacred reservoirs, the raised houses would have become more and more densely spaced until you crossed the moat into the royal city. Here, on this one-kilometer-square island, you would have encountered the houses of royal servants and staff, the workshops of royal artisans and craftsmen, and the offices of bureaucrats. Amid these structures, you would enjoy the sight of gardens and small forests – even at its very center, Angkor was fundamentally a low-density settlement. Moving into the depths of the walled temple city, you would walk along a road defined by the long tails of a pair of naga serpents carved of stone. This avenue would likely have been bustling with the preparation of offerings to bring before the high priests and the gods. You would pass monuments, libraries, small shrines, and the king’s palace as you approached the kingdom’s most important site.
Finally, you would pass through the gateway of a behemoth temple dedicated to Vishnu, the god considered to be the sustainer of the world. After passing through two concentric vaulted galleries representing the celestial mountain ranges, you would stand at the base of the main sanctuary towering two hundred feet above you – the worldly representation of Mount Meru, the home of the gods. Never before and never since has any civilization built such a large monument for religious worship. Indeed, the temple of Angkor Wat is a fitting centerpiece for what was once the largest city in the world, a sprawling ancient metropolis of a million people covering an area the size of Los Angeles. The adjacent modern-day city of Siem Reap is dwarfed in comparison.
The Khmer Empire, with its capital at Angkor, rose to prominence in the ninth century, a time when Hinduism had spread from the Indian Subcontinent and was the religion of choice in Southeast Asia. The Angkorian kings were devout worshippers of the Hindu trinity – Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva – and ordered the construction of temples dedicated to these deities throughout their realm. As the king himself was considered to be a god, some even constructed temples dedicated to themselves and to their family members. Eventually, another religion from the Subcontinent – Buddhism – made its way into the region. The Angkorian kings, in an act of religious assimilation typical in Southeast Asia, replaced their Shiva lingas with Buddha images, incorporating Buddhist worship into the Hindu universe. The empire oscillated between the two religions for a while before Hinduism finally retreated, leaving Buddhism permanently entrenched in Southeast Asia.
As history tends to go, great empires eventually fall. A combination of floods, environmental changes, and the rise of a new empire called Ayutthaya to the west led to the gradual decline of the Khmer Empire in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. The wooden houses and palaces of Angkor have long since disappeared, leaving behind only the city’s religious and irrigational skeleton to weather the encroachment of the forest. Archaeologists and explorers have pondered the ruins for centuries, but it is only recently, with recognition by UNESCO and the help of NASA laser imaging technology that the full extent of the ancient city is beginning to be fully understood. So, peddling from one crumbling temple to the next through acres of vibrant green forest, it took a lot of imagination to conjure up an image of this peaceful place as the epitome of twelfth-century urban life. Nonetheless, it is incredible.