“Be careful because Cambodia is the most dangerous country you will ever visit. You will fall in love with it and eventually it will break your heart.”
– Joseph Mussomeli, former US Ambassador to Cambodia.
I spent last December and January travelling through the countries formerly known as French Indochina – Cambodia, Laos and South Vietnam. And now as I write this and look at my photos, I get what the Ambassador meant. A fellow traveler I met on a dusty bus ride in the middle of the country told me that and encounters like this make me thankful to have experienced a lot of diverse places in this world. Cambodia, with all it’s mind-boggling contrasts from the warmth and beauty of the people and landscape to the ugliness of the recent past Khmer Rouge regime, inequality and struggles, stands out as one the more interesting and humane places I have travelled through.
Located in the northern province of Siem Reap and sprawling over some 400 square kilometres, the series of temples, canals and roadways referred to as simply Angkor – likely the largest religious monument ever conceived – was constructed between 1100 and 1200 AD. It exemplifies cultural, religious and symbolic values of the time. Most of the structures within Angkor are completely adorned with carved motifs of one form or another.
The name Angkor Wat, derived from the original Sanskrit “Nagara Vattaram” which translates into “Temple City”, was originally a Hindu city-shrine-temple dedicated to the god Vishnu. In and around the temples the population was estimated at 1 million which would have made Angkor the largest city in the world until the Industrial Revolution.
It is of major significance on an architectural, archaeological and artistic level. Over the next few centuries, the ethnic Cambodian Khmer slowly usurped the complex transforming it from a temple of Hindu worship to that of a Buddhist worship centre until the 1600’s when it was abandoned and left to the mercy of the encroaching jungle.
One day in the city of Siem Reap, I was in a workshop where a group of 12 people were hand carving limestone panels destined to be part of a mural project for the local airport. These local artisans form a group called Artisans Angkor and are a mix of apprentices and masters who work on minor restorations at the Angkor complex and other projects. The panel designs the carvers were working on were drawn to exact scale from some part of the Angkor structure. These panels, varying in complexity and details, form part of a narrative that allows these artisans to explore the past sculptural vastness of the Hindu and Khmer cultures.
The builders of Angkor Wat are long gone and never coming back – the Artisans Angkor are like ghosts of the past navigating the current times. The lesson for me in the stone workshop was that in the end, it’s the fact that little things in life matter. If you can’t do the little things right, you will never get the big things right. And Angkor was and still is a very, very big thing.