The scale of achievement at Angkor Wat is certainly something – for a few centuries it was the centre of an impressive empire, and a population of over a million lived there at a time when London had a twentieth the number; close-up however, the quality is not so great. The architecture is impressive more by design than execution, and the quality of the sculptures wouldn?t have worried Michelangelo.
Tour groups never cease to amaze me. Angkor Wat is the country’s only tourist hub, and it’s during the holiday season. The coach parks are packed, yet metres off the beaten-track with its hordes of Koreans and their tour-guides, you’re completely alone. At first I put it down to timing – all the books tell you to go around early in the morning and in the evening – that way you get the dawn and dusk photo shots – along with a million other people, and to avoid mid-day because it’s too damned hot. I deliberately set out to explore from 10 – 3 because all the tour groups would be back in the city, and with the low temperatures it meant that mid-day was absolutely perfect. But even after 3 when they all returned, their predictability was staggering. At certain hotspots thousands of people crowd together, all taking the exact same pictures; walk off ten metres and there?s no one apart from the occasional westerner. It’s like there ten kilometres of perfect beach and everyone’s squashed in a 100 metre stretch.
The first day I thought that maybe the hordes were simply swallowed up by the vastness of the main temple, Angkor Wat itself, but on the second day I hit the second most popular place which is the small temple archaeologists decided to leave pretty much as they found it, with gigantic fig trees growing right through the walls and over the roofs. One tree is in all the guidebooks and a wooden boardwalk circuits the temple. Just get off the treadmill and suddenly you’re snaking your way through ruined but darkened tunnels like a creepy Scottish castle. I leant forward in the dark to ask a forlorn apsara who she?s dancing for now and felt jungle creepers stroking my back. Outside there are many equally impressive trees growing through the ruins which few tourists see. Alone, you can get the ultimate Ozymandian experience (or Lara Croft for the philistines – I’m gonna have to get that movie now, especially after visiting the Temple of the Sacred Sword).
I was reflecting on Shelley’s ode quite a bit actually (and re-read it; it’s in my laptop!)
I met a traveller from an antique land,
Who said, ”Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert” Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal, these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings,
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
Percy Bysshe Shelley, Ozymandias (1818)
Angkor Wat is in the jungle rather than the desert (don’t think elephants and tigers- think mosquitoes and ants), but there are any amount of trunk less legs and shattered visages around; at the feet of some are shrines with candles, incense and flowers attended to by lovely old ladies; apsaras are defaced and semi-buried in rubble. Whilst nobody (sensible) worships pharaohs or Egyptian gods anymore and they are now archaeological and historical curios, here people still worship Buddha and revere their great kings and heavenly nymphs. The stones aren’t the thing see; it’s the heart, innit? Thus concludes my GCSE essay on bashing the Bysshe. I thank you.