That, at any rate, is how we felt one morning creeping along the corridors of Preah Khan, where long halls radiate from the central sanctuary of a religious teaching complex in a king of spooky enfilade. The architectural sorcery employed to build these chambers can induce a trippy feeling of being caught in a monastic fun house. Ceilings are lowered. Walls close in. Vision dims and you lose your companion...who suddenly appears out of nowhere, her figure framed in a doorway and outlined in an outrageously stagy halo of jungle light.
"I was wondering where you were," Belle said.
I was wondering who you were, I thought and decided not to remark.
RIDDLES ARE AT THE CORE OF ANGKOR WAT, vagrant narratives that engender contradictory meanings and then sputter out. That's probably the real beauty of the place. It is, to adopt an orientalist cliché, inscrutable. Its meanings are plural and nearly always subject to interpretation and it does not seem entirely accidental that this is also the case with Cambodia itself, where memory has often been sacrificed to survival and where even the most mundane personal biography can take on the blurred complexity of a palimpsest.
Angkor is not, of course, one ruin but the scattered remains of a complex of state and religious structures erected and toppled, carved and effaced, gods apotheosized, disfavored, carved over and restored. It is a city constructed over five centuries and abandoned for the ensuing seven. Everyone has seen the pictures of walls wreathed in the tentacular roots of strangler figs; of giant ficus trees hacked back to leave behind their own shadowy inscriptions; of tumbled lintels, rubbled stairs, stucco reliefs grown leprous during centuries of tropical rainfall. The place is as much the jungle's invention as man's.
The purest and earliest of the temples at Angkor are stylistically Hindu. The later ones are Buddhist and more generally opulent. A Bollywood cast of demons and demigods adorns the reliefs at the main temple, Angkor Wat, where certain of the more outrageous plot points of the Mahabaratta are carved. A novelistic frieze encircling the perimeter of the Bayon, a royal enclosure, depicts daily life in detail so fantastically specific that it incorporates the rats in the fan palms, howdah decoration, drunks laying bets on cock fights, and women giving birth. Each of the temple sites has its own beauties, its own specific immanence, its archaeo-historical story. Assembling them into a single continuous narrative is so perplexing I prefer to focus on one.
My favorite among the structures at Angkor is not Angkor Wat itself, and not the Terrace of the Leper King, nor the sublimely spooky monastic complex Preah Khan, the enormous temple mountain of the Bapuon, or the tree-strangled Ta Proh. It's a small group of buildings isolated in a broad dry plain.
Legend has it that Preah Rup was a crematorium and that its builder kings were accidentally slain by "the gardener of the sweet cucumber." As is so often the case—to quote Michael Freeman, whose architectural guidebook Ancient Angkor is a model of clairty and observation—"the temple's modern name is misleading and irrelevant."' Preah Rup, explains Freeman, means "turning the body," a reference, as every guide will tell you, to cremation rites. The presence of a stone cistern in the complex prompted the legend of a kingly burial, although no one can say with much historial certainty where the sweet cucumber gardener comes in.
The original name of the complex was Rajendrabhadresvara. It was a state temple situated in the middle of a baray or reservoir. Enclosed by a laterite wall and a series of stone platforms is a pyramidal 10th-century temple particularly lovely in its desuetude. Built of laterite, brick and sandstone, it is galleried and stands behind two brick libraries. Its weathered precincts are ornamented with blind doors, enormous sandstone elephants, ancient goddesses and temple dancers in stucco, their features but not their beauty abraded by a thousand years of wind and rain.
Sitting alone at the pinnacle of Preah Rup one cool spring morning, I took in the long view toward the spires of Angkor Wat across a long expanse of flat fields. Wind soughed through the high grass and flittered the gray leaves of the kapok trees. Indulging in a luxury unknown during the temple's busy heyday as the religious center of a major city, I had the place all to myself. This heady feeling lasted for nearly a half hour. Then a belching tour bus filled with Japanese tourists pulled up.