October 25, 2004 (STAR) LIFE & STYLE By Millet M. Mananquil - A trip to Cambodia is a step back in time that evokes mixed feelings.

There is that feeling of revulsion and pity as you recall how ruthless Pol Pot left two million people dead in Cambodia in the 1970s in what can only be described as one of the world’s worst genocides. You look at its "Killing Fields" and you recall this Khmer Rouge dictatorship, described as the product of the combined influences of Stalinism and American imperialism.

At the same time, there is that feeling of awe and romanticism at sunset as you look at the Angkor Wat, one of Cambodia’s 100 temples, and visualize what Somerset Maugham wrote in 1930: "It needs the glow of sunset or the white brilliance of the moon to give it a loveliness that touches the heart."

Yes, Cambodia is a place that touches the heart.

You are inspired by the grandeur of these temples constructed as early as 800 AD, described as "grander than anything in Greece or Rome."

Such magnificent temples built by the Khmer Empire remained unknown to the outside world until 1861 when French botanist Henri Mahout discovered the Angkor Wat in the jungle and sighed: "At the sight of this temple, one feels annihilated beyond imagination. One looks, admires and struck with awe, remains silent."

As you go around such ruins of a rich civilization in Siem Reap, Cambodia you are touched at seeing how a people, so strife-torn and so war-weary, can rise above the ashes and proudly rebuild their nation and their soul. You feel it as they press their hands together and bow slightly to greet each other.

The highlight of a trip to Cambodia should be its temples which prove that the Cambodians or the Khmers, were among the world’s great architects. They also had absolute mastery over water and irrigation. Their system of highly advanced reservoirs – so long buried beneath the ground – was discovered through the radar images from the space shuttle, Endeavor.

The grandest and most famous of these temples is the Angkor Wat, which along with the Pyramids of Egypt and the Taj Mahal of India, is one of the ancient wonders of the world.

Built at the start of the 12th century by King Suryavarman II, Angkor Wat took almost 40 years and some 50,000 workers to be completed.

Occupying a rectangular area measuring 1,500 meters by 1,300 meters, Angkor Wat is surrounded by a moat some 200 meters wide. Its central tower with four smaller towers were dedicated to the Hindu god Vishnu. Most of the statues, carvings and bas reliefs here depict scenes from Hindu mythology.

Why Hindu mythology?

In the early days, Cambodia was along the trade route between India and China. Without abandoning their own culture, the Khmer Rouge ruling class adopted some Indian religious and literary culture – mainly Hinduism, along with the use of Sanskrit as a writing system.

Sanskrit, in fact, was considered the language of the elite then – "the gods’ own language" – unknown to the common people.

The temples were built not as places of public worship, but as personal monuments that kings built to gain "merits" which would be transmitted to him and his relatives. According to Vittorio Roveda (Khmer Mythology: Secrets of Angkor), temples were built as some form of ancestor worship. "if a dignitary obtained a favor from the king, he would build a temple to a divinity of his liking, possibly one related to his ancestors. "Such pious act would earn him points, giving good karma.

"The temples were conceived according to the Indian tradition of a temple-mountain, recreating on earth the mountain abode of the gods, Mount Meru, located north of the Himalayas, and traditionally surrounded by water, symbolically represented by moats dug around the temples and the barays (canals).

The scenes inscribed on the walls are mostly from events in Ramayana (the epic composed between 200 BC and 200 AD), done in poetic form, mostly on the adventure of Vishnu’s incarnation on earth as Prince Rama. Scenes from the Mahabharata are rare. The carvings and inscriptions likewise depict battles between the devas (gods) and asuras (devilish monsters) aiming to destroy the city of the gods.

There are two views regarding the reason behind such carvings and inscriptions. The old view is that these were purely decorative, merely done to enhance the aesthetic value of the architecture.

The modern opinion is that these encoded texts contained religious, mythological, historical and moral concepts in Angkor, which was the spiritual center of the Khmers until they abandoned it when it was sacked by the Thais in 1431.

Truly how war-weary Cambodia is. After the Thais took over it in the 15th and 16th century, the Spanish came in 1576 to 1599, the French in 1863 to 1954, the Japanese in 1940, the Khmer Rouge in 1975 to 1979, and the Vietnamese in 1979.

After decades of war and strife, Angkor’s temples are once more open to tourists. For so long, the temples were the target of plunderers as well as cultured thieves. You see headless statues, and lots of details missing in doorways and windows.

It is said though, that much of the ruins were due to the fact that a great deal of Khmer architecture used inferior materials (such as wood or soft sandstone) so only the stone and brick structures remain preserved.

The French established the Ecole Francaise d’ Extreme Orient (EFEO) in 1898 to study the history, art and archeology of Far East countries and an Angkorean Conservancy in Siem Reap. But the role of EFEO ended when the Khmer Rouge gained power in Cambodia.

The UNESCO, which has been active in Cambodia since 1989, has established the Angkor area as a World Heritage Site. It also coordinates international aid – mostly from the Japanese – to help preserve Khmer culture.

If you could visit only two other temples aside from Angkor Wat, these should be the Bayon at the center of Angkor Thom (meaning "Great City"). Surrounded by a moat, it has huge stone gates and pathways flanked by statues of gods and giants. The Bayon forms a three-tiered pyramid with 54 towers, each dominated by over 200 huge mysterious faces. "Each mystically serene face with closed eyelids represents a Bodhisattaya (fully enlightened being) who delays entry into Nirvana to aid the spiritual development of others."

The other temple should be the Ta Prohm, the Jungle Temple, which today’s young generation will easily recognize as the setting of Angelina Jolie’s adventures in Lara Croft, Tomb Raider. Both dramatic and eerie, Ta Prohm’s ancient structure seems to be gripped by the tentacle-like strangling roots of giant fig and banyan trees.

As you go through Ta Prohm’s courtyards and rooms, you hear the assorted sounds of birds, monkeys and insects breaking the almost surreal silence. Then the rains suddenly pour, creating a cinematic scene awash in tears as though falling from heaven.

Your step back in time is over. Fast forward now.

Those raindrops do not evoke tears of sadness. They give you a feeling that Cambodia is cleansing itself of all hurts and pains. You know how a country, once colonized and oppressed like yours, struggles to rise bravely and heroically. It has captured a place in your heart. 

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

All rights reserved