Angkor, located near Siem Reap in central Cambodia, has on of the world's greatest concentrations of supreme art, comparable in its abundance of quality only to Florence in Italy. The area has been barred to visitors since the late 1960s when the turmoil of the Vietnam war destabilized it. When I visited Angkor last November and then again in February, the door had just begun to creak open again. U.N. troops, stationed there as a peacekeeping force since 1991, had made the area relatively safe for motivated handfuls of tourists willing to pay a high price and to travel in groups.
Now Angkor may snap shut again. In the days before Cambodia's national elections Sunday Khmer Rouge guerrillas attacked Siem Reap, pushing civilians ahead of them as human shields. The U.N. forces seem able to control only the turf on which they actually stand. Even then, bullets sometimes whiz around jeeps on patrol.
During the dark years of the 1970s and 1980s when no unenslaved human saw Angkor, rumor had it that the great temples had been used as target practice and had been at least half destroyed. Fortunately this was not so. They might have been off limits to the world, and indeed they were neglected, but even the Khmer Rouge and the Vietnamese (who next took control) respected them despite a steady theft of free-standing statuary. The glories of Angkor remain. And crowds of Cambodians including orange-robed Buddhist monks have come to caress the 800-year old carved figures that have faces like their own.
At Angkor and its environs along the huge inland lake called Tonle Sap flourished the kingdom of the Khmers between
roughly 800 and 1250 A.D. The Khmers were engineers enough to harness monsoon water for irrigation throughout the year. It gave them three annual rice crops. This stability translated into wealth, and consequent power over neighboring kingdoms in the territories now called Vietnam, Laos, Thailand and Myanmar.
The Khmers maintained a fierce army, and expressed their civilization by building temples and covering them with sculptures. The level of inspiration was phenomenal. What remains in the ravaging jungle are structures of heart-stopping imagination and grandeur. Their masterpiece was the sprawling but unified temple complex of Angkor Wat, built between about 1130 and 1160. Dozens of other magnificent temples rose during the two centuries previous to Angkor Wat and the century after.
The Khmers' aesthetic influence came from Hindu India, but nothing in India depicts and represents the Hindu gods with such extravagance. The five cone-shaped towers of Angkor Wat rise from the jungle like little volcanoes erupting from the flat earth. Encroached by vines and foliage in steamy climate, other of the great structures like the Angkor Thom gates, Ta Prohm, Bayon, Banteay Srei and Preah Kahn have a haunted beauty that adds to their original rhythmic grace. The vigorous and poetic carvings that cover them race gloriously across walls and lintels.
A controversy rages within the international art world over the restoration of Angkor Wat by archaeologists from India. In 1986 the Vietnam-dominated government allowed the Indian team to begin again the endless job of keeping the jungle at bay that the French had pursued for a century. The choice had logic. India recognized the existing government; France and the U.S. did not. India, the historical source of the Angkor inspiration, had practiced responsible restoration on its own monuments. The Indians, whose project ends this summer, have diligently worked away while sporadic gunfire popped nearby, often with inadequate funding and supplies.
The Indian restoration work includes scrubbing the stones with a strong ammonia compound and shoring up gaps with concrete. Destructive, say both French and Japanese archaeologists (who would love to be doing the work themselves). Local women perform most of the job with hand brushes on large surfaces and with toothbrushes on the crevices and details. There is virtually no contact between them and the Indian team since they do not not speak each other's languages.
Dr. R.P. Singh, a short, intense man with pointed moustaches and a blue turban, is the chief scientist for the project. The criticism that the scrubbing injures the ancient stones upsets him. "We are trying our level best to preserve the monument," he told me between shouts at several women on the scaffold to get back to work rather than watch us. "We do not restore or reconstruct, only conserve. Whatever has survived before we came, will remain."
He explained in detail how, after the ammonia scrubbing, the chemicals are all washed away and the stone finally coated with a preservative. Indeed, the carved walls that have been cleaned glow in the late sun with a brightness not matched by the black, lichen-covered stone still awaiting the brush.
Siem Reap itself is a pleasant rural town with nothing more motorized than scooters crowding its wide streets, except for vehicles of the United Nations. In the morning people pedal to work over bridges with loose planking, children in a schoolyard on the grounds of an old temple line up for calesthenics, and women laborers at a small construction site start carrying baskets of sand on their heads under the gaze of a male supervisor.
This is an area that can feed itself nicely when competing factions leave it alone. In the market, women squat behind little stalls on the ground as they measure out fresh fish, string beans, fish paste, cut meat, peppers and a variety of other foodstuffs on hand-held scales. Other stalls sell coconuts, pineapples, papayas. Men carrying shoulder-pole loads of live chickens tied by the legs in bunches stop to bargain with housewives. A few miles from town, fishermen living in houseboats on the great seafood-rich Tonle Sap stand in old wooden craft to throw out their hand-drawn nets, while on the houseboats children wave gaily.
The road to the ruins leads past a square of half-tended formal gardens around the peeling Grand Hotel, out of town past a former mansion where quartered British U.N. soldiers lounged in glassy-eyed boredom, into a countryside of large trees where vines congest into jungle.
The vista opened. There it was, the five fir-cone towers of Angkor Wat. The first look did not match the soaring towers of my imagination. The great temple looked small at first because a wall conceals the lower half, while the causeway that reaches it ++ begins more than a quarter mile from the main structure. Moreover, for Westerners reared to regard soaring cathedrals as the ultimate religious structures, the mass of Angkor Wat rises more like a mound rooted in the earth than like the Matterhorn.
I passed through the gate of the outer wall. Suddenly the causeway spread like the yellow Brick Road. Two city blocks away -- 1,050 feet by official measurement -- rose the familiar towers buttressed by platforms, stairs and pavilions. A roofed ambulatory with open columns stretched out on either side. The mass filled the landscape so gloriously that the natural world of jungle, palm trees, marsh and clouds merely framed it. I felt my throat tighten. The architect of Angkor Wat had staged his production much as a playwright delays the heroine's entrance.
The ambulatory is 650 feet long on each side. Friezes cover the inner walls, two long segments each to a side for eight altogether. Nothing else like them exists in the world for concentrated, extended, sustained artistic energy. They include flaunting royal processions and scenes of both serenity and furor from the Hindu mythology. Thousands of figures crowd this half-mile of tapestry in low relief. With so many images they might have become doodles executed by carvers handy with a stencil. The figures, however, have life and substance. They are all in motion, from airborne heavenly dancers called apsaras, to demons and gods pulling opposite ends of a thick serpent with backs bent and legs braced, to warriors leaping in spread-legged stances still seen in Cambodian classical dance. Even the horses of processions and battles seethe with inner vitality.
By the columns of one hallway an entrepreneurial holy man sat cross-legged surrounded by rugs and talismans. He dispensed horoscopes, blessings and advice to anyone who knelt and VTC offered him money. His wiry voice blended with a small bell he rang occasionally. Angkor Wat, built to house Hindu gods, is indeed now a Buddhist temple in a Buddhist land. The monks in orange robes, and the other Cambodians flapping their sandals along the causeway and through the terraces, had not all come to enjoy a museum.
One morning I rose at four a.m. to sit on chilly stone steps inside the first gate of Angkor Wat and watch the sky lighten into purple streaks behind the towers. Frogs made their final croaks of the night as birds started to chirp and caw. A holy man chanted from somewhere in the distant foliage. The silhouetted structure of Angkor Wat, too sharply edged to be a casual work of nature despite its affinity to the embracing jungle, seemed yet to be a wonder raised from the earth by gods rather than men.
William McCloskey is a Baltimore writer.