Raiders of the Soon-to-be-Lost Angkor

Cue up the “Indiana Jones” theme music for this tour of the top three ruins of Angkor.

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By David G. Allan

Editor’s note: This story was originally published in February 2002 on the website David’s column, The Wisdom Project, can be subscribed to here:

SIEM REAP, Cambodia — As I write this from the comfort of our Bangkok apartment I’m coughing up a tsunami with what I hope isn’t malaria. I’m taking my doxycycline (Cambodia has a unique strain of malaria against which Lariam is powerless) but the constellation of mosquito bite scabs around my ankles spells danger.

Ta Prohm

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Angkor Wat may be the most famous of all the ruins in this ancient capital, but Ta Prohm is by far the most fun. Unlike most of the sites, this one hasn’t been cleared of its trees and rubble. Moss grows on the gray stones and huge, twisted banyan trees have grown up through the temples, displacing roofs and dripping their roots down ancient walls like hardened candle wax streams.

Throughout the temple complex are signs warning you not to go into this section or that because of the precariousness of some roofs and walls. Slipping between a narrow passage I actually found myself behind a warning sign and then, taking a wrong turn back, ended up at a dead end. Therein lies the fun.

Because Ta Prohm was largely left in situ it gives you the clearest example of what it may have been like when French naturalist Henri Mouhot “discovered” the Angkor ruins in 1860. I stopped to sketch one amazing building cradled by the limbs of a banyan tree, ran my fingers

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over the Hindu iconography carvings in the stone, and snapped pictures in the hopes of capturing the unique tree-temple symbiosis. The beautiful coexistence of nature and man-made structure speaks to the human soul in a way cookie-cutter suburbs don’t.

Adding to the romantic ruins of Ta Prohm were the sounds of an exotic bird’s “Ca-ca-ca-ca-ca-ca-ca-caaa-caaaaw” (if you’ve seen the opening shot of Raiders of the Lost Ark, you’ve heard that bird) and off in the woods another rich sound — monks chanting in harmony. I left the ruins and walked over a huge fallen banyan tree bridging the now-dry moat to find a trail leading off in the direction of the harmonious monks. About twenty feet into the woods I remembered the ubiquitous warning not to stray from the main visitor areas because of landmines still leftover from the bloody rein of the Khmer Rouge. I stopped, thought about it for a long minute, and went back to the temple.


This was Kate’s favorite temple — a three-level labyrinthine fortress capped with 200 large smiling faces on 54 towers looking in all directions, believed to be the countenance of a bodhisattva. This “face of Angkor” would watch over us at other temples and from the major gates of the ancient city, even from the undervalued currency, the Cambodian riel (1 U.S. dollar = 3,638 Cambodian riel; there are no coins of riel). Although Bayon is located in the geographic center of Angkor its function is not known and archeologists have dated it as having been built 100 years after Angkor Wat making it a Buddhist, not Hindu temple.

Compact but multi-chambered, it was fun and easy to explore. We followed the route recommended in our guide book to prevent getting lost, but once we had made our way to the inner chamber, where our friend Kami was shat upon by large bats perched up in the dark towers, we decided exploring was more fun and made our own way out of the place through dark passages and incense-filled sanctuaries. This was the first temple we saw and one of the most memorable.

Angkor Wat

This particular temple is so famous that the dozens of other ruins in the Angkor area are often collectively referred to as Angkor Wat. And the landmark can be seen on the Cambodian flag, which would be like putting the Washington Monument on the American flag, the Great Wall on China’s, or the pyramids on the Egyptian flag.

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I like the symbolism of Angkor Wat (which means “temple as a city”) more than the actual site. It functions as a scale model for the known world. The temple is enclosed by a wide moat representing the oceans surrounding the earth. The outer wall, reached by the long causeway over the moat, represents the mountains at the edge of the world, and the inner towers represent the peaks of Meru, the mountain home of the gods.

Around the inner wall of Angkor Wat are fine and detailed bas-reliefs depicting the tortures of hell, various incarnations of Vishnu, and scenes from the epic Ramayana — a popular tale of good versus evil involving a fascinating cast of characters including monkey soldiers and multi-colored demons. Although built when the area was under Hindu influence, Angkor Wat and most of the region’s temples were later converted into Buddhist temples. Today, Buddha statues and multi-limbed Vishnu statues co-exist, many sashed with orange and gold-colored robes with incense burning at their feet.

It took all afternoon to cover the immense temple and it was my turn to be honored with bat guano on my shirt. We even managed to locate the rare bas-relief of an apsara (celestial dancer) with a full set of carved teeth. We returned the next morning before dawn to watch the sun come up over the temple towers with a couple hundred of our friends.

Who is Gay?

After sunrise at Angkor Wat we went to a nearby café to refuel before more sites that day. As always, kids came up to as we ate asking if we wanted to buy bracelets, postcards or guidebooks. And, in good English, they have answers to any version of refusal.

Me: “I already have postcards.”

Child: “You don’t have these postcards. These are better postcards.”

Me: “Actually, I do have those same postcards.”

Child: “You need more postcards.”

Me: “I really don’t”

Child: “Then you need a guidebook.”

Me: “I have a guidebook.”

Child: “Then buy some bracelets for your girlfriend.”

Me: “No thank you.”

Child: “OK, you buy from me after you eat breakfast. I’ll wait for you.”

Later I discovered that if I responded in Spanish, that deflated them, took away the power of their well-learned pitch. For one tenacious postcard hawker I opened my bag and took out Kate’s pack of postcards and asked him if wanted to buy any postcards. “Two dollars. Good deal!” I insisted. He laughed.

But at breakfast after the Angkor Wat sunrise, we rehearsed the above script with three young girls, around age 9 (one said she was 25) who, after it was clear we weren’t going to buy their wares, decided just to hang out and talk, practice their English. They told us facts about America, like the capital and the population; they knew the name of our first president (astonishingly, the day before, an even younger boy told Kami that her governor was Gray Davis when she told him she lived in San Francisco), and one girl said she didn’t like George Bush because of his use of guns after what happened in New York and Washington DC. So, they were quickly winning us over.

Then, one girl says to me, of all choke-on-your-eggs non sequiturs: “You look like gay.”

Confused, and thinking perhaps Gay was a Cambodian name and a person they knew, I asked, “Who is Gay?”

“You are!” the girl declared, pointing at me so there’d be no confusion.

We had a good laugh and then another girl said “He isn’t gay. He’s neuter gender.” The first girl maintained I was gay.

More laughter, but more confusion. “What makes you think I’m gay or neuter gender?” I asked. The reason was simple, they explained, when your lips are as red as mine, it means you’re gay, er, neuter gender. This was news to Kate.

The Fishing Village

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On our last day we took a long rural road out to a huge lake where many Vietnamese refugees live in houseboats and make their living from the production of fish paste. We paid $5 a person (at most places you can pay in local Cambodian riel, Thai baht, American dollars and Japanese yen, but its the greenbacks that are the most coveted and always accepted) to take a boat out to the lake for a 90-minute trip.

When we reached the end of the river and entered the lake our young boatman shut off the motor. We began to drift. “You want to take a swim?” the boatman’s even younger assistant asked. We didn’t want to swim, or drift, but for no reason we could figure out (or ask because of the language barrier) we did nothing for 20 minutes before slowly heading back.

The poverty was third world along the dusty road (covered with water during the rainy season) to the boat launch. We saw a long line of one-room straw huts on bamboo stilts, many without electricity, along a river of undrinkable water. The afternoon heat was only conducive to sleeping. As we made our way back to our air-conditioned car to take us back to our nice clean guesthouse I said to Kami, “This is the social awareness part of your vacation.”

And truly, the poverty is much worse than in Thailand, which had no major civil war, no massive killings, nor is it peppered with landmines like Cambodia. The Siem Reap and Angkor we saw will be gone in the coming years. The town is full of hotels under construction, the single convenience store will give way to 7–11s and KFCs and the tour busses will be parked outside every temple — a commercialization welcomed by the locals and prayed for by recent immigrants to the area. And here we all stand at this fading juncture between an ancient past and a globalized future.

CNN’s Editorial Director of Features (Travel, Style, Wellness, Science), plus The Wisdom Project column. This account represents my personal views, not CNN’s.

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