Monday, July 04, 2005


I've been racking my brains trying to find a clever pun for the title of my post (Angkor What? Wat The Hell! and those are the better ones) but everything I came up with was corny and so I've decided to go for simplicity rather than embarrassing myself.

No visit to Southeast Asia, let alone Cambodia, is complete without a visit to the temples of Angkor. Despite being the most famous, Angkor Wat is not the only building that remains from the glory days of the Khmer empire. In fact there are over 60 different temples spread out over about 250 square kilometres (the reason that the only remains are temples is because only houses for the gods were allowed to be made from stone, people had to make do with wood). Actually, the whole ensemble easily dwarfs all the other ruins I have ever seen, both in size and grandeur. At the height of its powers (around the 12th century AD) the Khmer empire covered, in addition to modern day Cambodia, most of Thailand, Laos and Vietnam and was the major cultural influence in the first two (Thai and Lao writing, dancing, clothing and kickboxing were originally Khmer).

Angkor Wat is purportedly the largest religious structure in the world (it probably depends on your definition of large, but either way it's not small) and was originally built as a Hindu temple (nowadays it is still used, but as a Buddhist temple). Everything about it is just monumental: it is surrounded by a moat that is as wide as the Thames at London; the central structure is (almost) a square 200m wide; and its central tower is 65m tall. And although it is about 900 years old it is still in pretty good nick, with many of the intricate bas-reliefs still perfectly visible and lots of gothic "sticky out bits" covering every available inch of space. What is particularly noteworthy is the fact that these huge buildings, with their tall ceilings, were built without arches. Apparently the Khmers hadn't "discovered" them and used progressively longer slabs piled on top of each other to produce tapered ceilings. Other notable temples include the Bayon and Baphuon, both of which would be worthy "ruin destinations" in their own right. But my favourite was a temple complex called Ta Prohm, where nature has been allowed to take its course and the temple buildings are alternately pulled apart or kept together by immense networks of tree roots that look like and invading army of octopuses.

I've also decided I much prefer Hinduism to Buddhism. It has nothing to do with their doctrines but much more to do with architecture. You see Buddhists have only got Buddha, and no matter how many poses he strikes, he still gets rather boring after a while. The Hindus, on the other hand, have tons of gods, and they're all far more colourful than old Bud. There's far more action and excitement in Hindu mythology (wars, murders, love stories, etc.) than in Buddhism where all Buddha seems to do is sit under a tree.

My time here ended on a bit of a downer though, when somebody nicked my hat after I left it lying around for just 5 minutes. God know why it was taken as it was rather battered and dirty and is worth very little, except for me as it now has sentimental value (I get very attached to my old tatty clothes and find it difficult to throw them away). Sniff.

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