31 Jan 2016

Knights Templar

I am not a religious person. I do not care for the ethereal. I refuse to pay the admission so many churches in Europe dare to charge visitors. And yet I have flown half-way around the globe and purchased a three day visitor pass to explore a cluster of temples. What just happened?

For one thing, the buildings in question were not associated with the global organization headquartered in Rome. Also, they are located in a far-away land that I had long been meaning to visit. They are significant and beautiful enough to be featured on the UNESCO world heritage list.  And instead of haggard bodies hanging from crosses, they are populated with smiling gods and topless celestial dancers. Clearly, a pilgrimage was overdue.

Upon arrival in Cambodia, it quickly became clear that others had heeded the call, too. For better or worse, the town of Siem Reap is on track to host over 5 million tourists this year, with large Chinese and Korean tour groups surpassing western shoe-string backpackers and French colonial nostalgists.

This mass influx inevitably brings with it a degree of tackiness, as evidenced by a few sleazy pubs and massage parlors in downtown Siem Reap, and a clutch of hawkers outside the main attractions. But it remains less pushy and garish an environment than the nether parts of Thailand, not to mention the gift shops in the cathedrals of Europe. We were offered neither a splinter of a dead saint's bones nor a live teen girl.

Nudity remained strictly confined to the apsaras, the bare-breasted nymphs carved into the sandstone walls of Angkor's temples. Despite having had to withstand the tropical elements for a thousand years, many of the intricate details and spectacular architectural features remain visible. Bas-reliefs tell the stories of victorious battles and everyday life of the ancient Khmer, while the grandeur of the structures speaks to the power and progressiveness of their builders. Over the centuries, some temples even switched back and forth between Hinduism and Buddhism, or served both concurrently. That, too, seems enlightened.

The 20th century saw ample archaeological and restoration work, notwithstanding the very troubling track record of the most recent, Pot-headed Khmer Empire. Its demise ushered in the time of mass tourism. But there remain chances to get away from it all: Seeking solitude, we coaxed our guide and tuk-tuk driver into taking us to a more remote, unspoilt and half overgrown temple, which we had all to ourselves. It was there, scrambling over fallen stone slabs, peering into ancient relief galleries and admiring massive banyan trees growing through crumbling temple walls, that the explorer's epiphany set in.

This was a truly magical place - in an Indiana Jones kind of way. Or, rather more appropriate given the busty apsaras, in Tomb Raider fashion. Watch, don't touch the signs in churches used to say. Even I can believe in that: I'm getting the DVD now.

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