Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Cambodia Journal V: Encore What?

Photograph by Hallie Cohen
Angkor Wat is the biggest religious site in the world, larger even than the Vatican, though it doesn’t command as much tourist traffic. It’s hard to imagine that such an imposing structure, which took between 300,000 to 400,000 laborers and artisans to build, could ever have disappeared from history—though it did. In E.M. Forster’s A Passage to India, there’s an episode which takes place in the Marabar caves. The ancient caves themselves catalyze a dramatic turn of events where the separations between East and West and in fact all men are epitomized in whirlwind of confusion and misunderstanding that leads to an accusation of rape. Angkor Wat is a Marabar Caves that is waiting to happen. Thousands of American, British, Japanese and English tourists flock to the site and considering the history of French colonial occupation which took place from 1863-1953, the embattled Khmer kingdom’s role as a pawn in the struggles between Moscow and Peking and the US bombings of Cambodia in the last years of the Vietnam War, it’s amazing that it’s a Unesco world heritage site rather than another embattled holy territory like say Jerusalem. It’s also spawned a virtually industry of guides which is a welcome addition to an impoverished country’s GNP. There are still bullet holes on some of the pillars as a memento of war. But in another sense, what’s the big deal all about? Angkor Wat, encore of what you might ask? It’s too big too fail; it was one of the few images of the past that Pol Pot not only didn’t set out to destroy, but which he exploited for his new Cambodia. One of the seven wonders of the world, it sucks up the cries of its varying constituencies. Perhaps like a guerilla fighter it will camouflage itself and vanish back into the jungle in which it was once buried, at the threat of the next Armageddon.


  1. I love this contemplation, especially the play on words 'Angkor' and 'encore'. I wonder if the thing that really sets humans apart from other animals is our sense of symbolism. We treasure our monuments even when their history is bloody. Remember the fuss when the statues of the Buddhas were destroyed a few years back? I wanted to laugh thinking what the Buddha himself would say, maybe "What's the fuss? They're only statues. Check out your problem with attachments to the past." It is the symbolism that we need, though I don't understand why.

  2. Thanks Jylle, yeah in a way the very statue of a Buddha seems to run contrary to what the statue stands for, no?


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.