I love architecture. More than anything else about a ruin, I love the opportunity to experience architecture from every angle. Those the builders intended for everyone, the lay public included, to see it from. Those that were only intended for a select few – looking at chambers in temples previously only open to priests, or levels in high rises that only executives could see, or tunnels beneath that only certain servants ever saw before. And when you really get climbing, you can see things from entirely new angles, that nobody’s looked at it from since the days when it was still under construction.
The ruins at Angkor pose a wonderful opportunity to do that. They were once in use as part of the largest city in the world – Angkor Thom was, at its height, home to over a million people, plus itinerant traders and merchants from the kingdom and surrounding civilizations, passing through. The temples in it were home to hundreds of monks, who had access to areas the masses of the public could never see, and now I get to explore those at my leisure!
The other key aspect of ruins that lets us see them from angles no one has seen the architecture from during any point in its use, is that they are ruins. They’re falling apart, revealing bits of themselves never seen before. In the case of the temples at Angkor, the most interesting thing to spy at that angle, in my opinion, is the extensive use of laterite as interior structural stones. These stones were never meant to be seen, and so were uncarved, unlike the black sandstone which is on the surface and so intricately carved. Laterite is an ore of iron and aluminum, orangeish red, a sort of clay, and when soft and wet inside the Earth it can be cut and used like bricks. As it dries it solidifies, and over time the metals inside combine with the hot, wet air and turn to metallic salts, which are dissolved and washed away. This produces a very distinctive swiss cheese/termite eaten look, which would be highly unappealing as your main building material (in addition to being too hard to be carved easily, and the holes destroying any carvings you did make). Therefore we only see it on the outside of buildings that were rushed and meant to be finished on a cheap budget, like Baksei Chamkrong. Big budget, meant to impress structures like the Bayon, Baphuon, Phnom Bakheng, or Angkor Wat used laterite solely for internal blocks. Elsewhere in the cities it was used for the massive, defensive outermost city walls, being heavy, strong, and cheap. Ironic, from a modern perspective, that iron ore would be cheaper than sandstone, but it was the case at the time. Plus it was mined locally, while the sandstone had to be carted in from 40km away, making the incredible demonstration of wealth that these temples are all the more impressive.
The massive human and natural resources dedicated to these structures cannot be overstated. Angkor Wat uses as much stone as the Great Pyramid at Khufu, carted from further away, covers a larger footprint, and was completed in 1/10th the time. A tenth! Angkor Wat was completed in 32 years, all within the lifetime of the man, Suryavarman II, who ordered it. Of course, it was sacked by the Chams shortly thereafter and had to be partially rebuilt, but still, that’s damned impressive.
Angkor Wat was both a city and a temple, housing 100,000 people. The population of Angkor soon exploded beyond that, and Jayavarman VII, the greatest king the Khmer ever had, built the much larger city of Angkor Thom to the north to hold the expanding population. At its height, Angkor Thom had a population of over a million people, making it the largest city in the world. Larger than Rome, Tikal, or Beijing.
And at its heart, the key to its power, surrounding and flowing through it and out to all living things, was the Force – sorry, no, was its water management system. The landscape and waterways of Cambodia have been permanently altered by what remains of what was, at its time, by far the largest water management system in the world. Lakes were drained and new artificial reservoir lakes were formed – the massive, perfectly rectangular barays. Old rivers dried up as new rivers were formed. At least one river reversed direction. And just as all roads lead to Rome, all canals lead to Angkor Wat, where the temple complex served a dual purpose as water distributor, ensuring the proper amount was delivered to the millions of acres of rice fields in the Khmer empire.
The symbolism throughout Angkor speaks to me very directly as well. The most common motif is that of the Asura and Devas holding either side of the great naga Vasuki, king of the serpents, who is wrapped around Mt Meru. They pull back and forth on the great snake’s body, twisting and turning the mountain, which churns the sea of milk, which produces the elixir of immortality. Mt Meru is the very same mountain presented in my magical tattoo, so the myth carries personal meaning for me. The most common temple structure in Angkor, the Temple Mountain, is a representation of Mt Meru (not to be confused with a mountain temple, which is a temple on a mountain). Huge, life size statues featuring hundreds of deva and asura holding the naga line the roads.