Angkor 1: Silent faces, gnarled limbs

Siem Reap in April is sweltering.  Despite already having over four months of travel behind us in increasingly hotter climates, nothing could quite prepare us for the midday furnace that ignites the Cambodian flats.  That said, we simply adapted our daily schedule around the inclement afternoons by avoiding them altogether.  Siem Reap is a small city near the Tonle Sap Lake.  Although it is rapidly growing as it accommodates a larger tourist infrastructure, it somehow manages to retain the tranquility of a provincial center – that impression, of course, could also have had something to do with the debilitating heat of the season.  Besides the manageable scale of the place, Cambodians returning from abroad and investing in the city have added an air of cosmopolitanism.  Sensitively designed cafes share the street with the expected variety of noodle stands.  Our attention, however, was turned slightly outside the city to the temple complexes of Angkor.  For four days we kept to a strict schedule based on the day’s temperatures.  Starting early at 5:30 in the morning, together with fellow temple scout Sue West, we would hop in a tuk tuk and go to the ancient Khemer city, having the buildings to ourselves in the freshness of the morning until the first buses arrived two hours later.  By noon we were covered in sweat, quickly losing focus and fluids.  After a long afternoon nap we would return to the temples until sundown.  It was an interaction with history and form based on the elements.  In fact, everything in Angkor felt elemental, not in its simplicity – for none of the structures or the epics carved in bass reliefs along the walls can be called simple – but rather because the work, so deftly authored by hand, is inescapably committed to the natural environment, sometimes quite violently.  The slow rage of the ficus trees in Ta Prohm reflects the impermanence of the built environment.  There is no intention of coexistence.  The roots, frozen by careful conservation, are ripping through the laid stone.  Their pace is imperceptibly slow, but brutal nonetheless.  That archaeologists have decided to freeze this instance, like a video still of a car crash, beautiful and terrifying, is a miracle, a rarity in a world where we more often than not prefer to render our monuments new, glossing over the marks that make them alive, in a sense, denying them their mortality.

Siem Reap: welcome to the city of light-starved geckos

improvised gas station for the tuk-tuks

entering through the South Gate

South Gate sentry

South Gate sentries

South Gate

admiring the bass reliefs at the Bayon complex

Bayon

epic wars in Bayon

where does one start…the bananas really complete the composition, don’t they?

Bayon’s frozen faces

admiring the Baphuon temple

Naga, the multi-headed snake

Ta Prohm

ficus roots take hold of the temples in Ta Prohm

Nature over man, Vivi over nature in Ta Prohm

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Vivi and Sue in Ta Prohm, waiting for the rain to cease

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“All progressions from a higher to a lower order are marked by ruins and mystery and a residue of nameless rage.  So.  Here are the dead fathers.  Their spirit is entombed in the stone.  It lies upon the land with the same weight and the same ubiquity.  For whoever makes a shelter of reeds and hides has joined his spirit to the common destiny of creatures and he will subside back the primal mud with scarcely a cry.  But who builds in stone seeks to alter the structure of the universe and so it was with these masons however primitive their works may seem to us” (Blood Meridian, Cormac McCarthy)

Let this be proof that even those lithic structures, obdurate as they may seem, will eventually subside.  It’s just a matter of time.

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