Wandering into the heart of Khmer cosmos and kingdom

TO some, it's heaven; to others, it's hell. In Cambodia, Angkor is the heart and soul. It's anything and everything: on the flag, the national beer, hotels and guest houses, cigarettes. It's a symbol of nationhood and pride.

But Cambodians, whose ancestors established the magnificent Angkor empire, experience mixed feelings.

"It's sweet, but it's bitter too," says my driver/guide Rady. "We have the world's eighth wonder, but we've also experienced the cruelest part of human history and still suffer from poverty and political instability."

Yes. The good, the bad and the ugly is the way to sum up this small Southeast Asian country. Look at Siem Reap, a tourist city 15 minutes' ride to the grand Angkor kingdom where travelers recharge and replenish. Life is full of contradictions: light and dark, rich and poor, love and hate.

"You know, there's a famous saying here, 'No money, no honey'," Rady jokes, bitterly.

"On the surface, we play, we laugh and we enjoy what we have; but behind all these things we work harder while living poorer," he says. "We rely almost totally on tourism, without which we would have nothing."

To all Khmers now struggling to rebuild their lives after the days of the Khmer Rouge killing fields (1975-79), the temples of Angkor are a source of inspiration, a point of pilgrimage and more important, a way for living.

It's a mind-blowing experience with which few sights compare. You would never know the greatness of human wisdom and would never feel the pulse and pain of the country and its people until you arrive here, right in the center of this ancient civilization.

See the mother of all temples, Angkor Wat, a spectacular fusion of symbolism, symmetry and spirituality; Bayon, weirdness in stone; and Ta Prohm, where nature triumphs over stone - before venturing further afield to the feminine Banteay Srei and the jungle-clad Beng Mealea.

Mother of temples

Angkor Wat, the largest and undoubtedly the most breathtaking of the monuments at Angkor, is widely believed to be the largest religious structure in the world. It is a perfect and enduring example of man's devotion to his gods.

Many scholars believe it was built as a funerary temple for Suryavarman II to honor Vishnu, the Hindu deity with whom the king identified, because the temple is oriented toward the west, symbolically the direction of death.

I was totally overwhelmed the moment I passed the entrance, struck by its imposing grandeur and, at close quarters, its beguiling apsaras (heavenly nymphs), its fascinating decorations and extensive bas-reliefs. Before then I didn't grasp how tiny and insignificant we humans are in the sweep of history and civilization.

Pious men at the time of Angkor must have been ecstatic in these multiple layers of meaning in stone, in much the same way a scholar might be enraptured in James Joyce's "Ulysses."

Like the other temple-mountains of Angkor, Angkor Wat also replicates the spatial universe. The central tower is Mt Meru, with its surrounding smaller peaks, bounded in turn by continents (the lower courtyards) and the oceans (the moat). The seven-headed naga (serpent deity) becomes a symbolic rainbow bridge for man to reach the abode of the gods.

Mysterious faces

Unlike Angkor Wat, which looks impressive from all angles, Bayon looks rather like a pile of rubble from the distance. It's only when you enter the temple and make your way up to the third level that its magic becomes apparent.

Shrouded in dense jungle and standing in the exact center of the Angkor Thom, Bayon is a place of narrow corridors, steep stairs and, best of all, a collection of 54 gothic-like towers decorated with 216 enormous smiling faces of Avalokiteshvara that resemble the great king Jayavarman VII himself.

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