One of numerous stone faces of King Jayavarman VII that adorn the towers of Bayon Temple, which still stands at the centre of an ancient, ruined city near modern-day Siem Reap, Cambodia // BEN SALT

Memories of Angkor

This year, the Buddhist New Year festival Songkran and Easter Sunday almost coincided — something that very rarely happens.

As with Easter, Songkran — meaning “pass into” — has historical links to the beginning of springtime. A time when ancient peoples across South and Southeast Asia marked the sun’s transit into the constellation of Aries. The end of the dry season; passing into something new.

The celebrations traditionally involve pouring or splashing water to wash away all negativity from the past year and to wish for good rain and a plentiful harvest in the coming year. A chance to start the new year unburdened and with good fortune.

While both Easter and Songkran are rooted in religion and folklore — as symbolised by purifying water, new life or rebirth, the true spirit of each lies in hope, unity, and finding joy in small things.

Like the first daylight scattering through young green leaves, a playful water fight in the garden, or the wonder on children’s faces as they spot painted eggs.

It’s these small things that I set my thoughts to as I cycled along the quiet, dusty streets of Siem Reap in Cambodia a few years ago. Where the juxtaposition of poverty, excess, ancient and modern sit uncomfortably together among vivid reminders of war, genocide and widespread corruption. It can leave even the most resilient visitor feeling uneasy.

Passing road-side shacks, faded French colonial buildings and gleaming neo-traditional museums and hotels with their ever-pristine lawns, I made fast progress towards the distant moat that surrounds Angkor Wat. Still some time before dawn, I had the road ahead to myself and there was a slight chill as I moved quickly through the dusty air.

After a short while, I left the town behind; the long, straight road ahead marked only by a thicket of trees rising above the stretch of red earth on either side. The dawn sky now turning a hazy, pastel-blue colour as the sun neared the horizon, while occasional road-side hawkers diligently went about their morning routines.

Just being out early and experiencing the world without the noise and distractions of everyday life is enough to calm the soul.

The previous evening, I’d watched the orange and violet hues of sunset stretch across the sky above the ornate towers of Angkor Wat, the most majestic and famous of Khmer ruins. But it was teeming with other captivated viewers.

As twilight faded and the shimmering reflections disappeared into the moat water below, I departed among a manic swarm of scooters, tuk-tuks, cars and vans, each vying for road space. Helmetless and with handlebars and pedals offering little protection, I focused only on staying upright and safe. Thick muck smeared across my face, leaving pale rings around my eyes where my sunglasses had sat.

Now, it was a new day filled with opportunity.

Item one on the agenda: to visit the more popular sites of the expansive Angkor Thom complex, just beyond Angkor Wat, before the heat and throngs arrived. Eerily quiet or peaceful, a chance to pause and appreciate the emptiness and calm. To imagine how it all may once have been.

Angkor is a region of Cambodia that served as the seat of the Khmer Empire. The Khmer word Angkor translates to “city”. And Angkor Thom — meaning Great City, was King Jayavarman VII’s capital city.

King Jayavarman VII ruled from 1181–1218 and is widely regarded as the greatest of Khmer rulers. A forceful, yet benevolent man, he was admired far and wide.

Besides expanding the Khmer empire to its greatest extent, covering parts of present-day Laos, Thailand and Vietnam, Jayavarman was greatly involved in architecture and the arts. He presided over the constructions of many temples and a great network of roads and rest houses to allow for easier travel and trade.

Midway along the western perimeter of Angkor Wat, the grand South Gate through Ankor Thom’s quadrangular defensive wall and moat gradually came into view. The anticipation completely dissipated the fatigue from my legs.

There, a road bridge spans the moat, lined by opposing rows of stone sculptures; angry demons on one side, serene guardian gods on the other. Slowing to take in their dramatic, frozen expressions, I crossed over and passed under the gate’s high, narrow archway. Beyond the wall, an inviting forest-like road stretched and vanished into the evergreen tree canopy in the distance.

I eventually slowed to a stop in front of the remains of Bayon temple, which marks the centre of this vast complex. Built in the 12th century, it’s uniquely beautiful and mysterious among the temples in the area.

Since it wasn’t long before the morning sun started to burn, I stood my bike in the shade under a small tree. Dappled light already danced over the fallen, scattered masonry lying in the grass all around. A moment later, I’d climbed up onto the first level of the temple and was stepping through an ancient doorway.

The Bayon’s most distinctive feature is the multitude of huge, serene and smiling stone faces on the many towers that rise above the upper terrace and cluster around its central peak. Weathered and blackened by the passing of time, these faces clearly resemble known portrait statues of Jayavarman. Given he was a devout Buddhist, they’re thought to portray him in semi-divine form.

Jayavarman was greatly concerned with the wellbeing of his kingdom. He knew this centred on the health and wellbeing of all its people, no matter their social class. An ancient inscription even describes how, “he suffered the illnesses of his subjects more than his own; because it is the pain of the public that is the pain of the kings rather than their own pain”.

His concern led him to establish 102 new hospitals throughout the kingdom and to ensure they delivered effective services for all people of the empire without distinction.

Jayavarman not only provided personal resources to make this happen, but also called for donations from numerous patrons. He even ordered farmers to produce and supply the hospitals with medicinal substances for free three times a year.

From Bayon, the nearby temples and beyond, I cycled further and through the midday heat to explore the far reaches of the Angkor ruins. Those slowly being strangled by giant fig trees. Even those now almost reclaimed by nature — unmarked, overgrown and crumbling.

I stopped only for lunch in a small road-side shack run by a local family. Small children clambered over the shoulder of a curiously shaped tree with carefree abandon, while their mother quickly prepared my lunch. A chance for me to recharge and shelter from the energy-sapping sun.

But I’d be drawn back to Bayon temple before sunset. To find somewhere quiet below the many sculptures of Jayavarman and reflect on the day’s experiences.

My most enduring memories from exploring Angkor that day seem to closely entwine with the significance of Easter and Songkran during this pandemic. Where access to good health care should be universal, and less robust healthcare systems are more easily overwhelmed.

It’s about solidarity and opportunity. A chance to continue as we were, but with renewed vigour. Or perhaps a chance for each of us — and humanity — to learn from past mistakes and start afresh.

It’s impossible to judge past eras by today’s circumstances and standards, just as it is to judge the people. But as Jayavarman’s face looked out across the seat of his ancient kingdom, I followed that gaze and wondered how the leaders of today will be remembered.

Originally published by Ben Salt here on 23rd April, 2020.

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