My obsession with Cambodia began in the early ’90s in a stack of books at the Birmingham Post-Herald. I was ferreting through the review copies looking for something to read when I spotted To Destroy You Is No Loss, which details Teeda Butt Mam’s struggle to survive Pol Pot’s rein of terror in Cambodia. I’d been vaguely aware of the Khmer Rouge’s Holocaust, but this made it so human, so flesh and blood.
I think I came across the late, great Spalding Gray’s Swimming to Cambodia around the same time.
My Cambodia obsession snowballed from there as I devoured survivor accounts, histories (including Elizabeth Becker’s When the War Was Over) and a biography of Pol Pot. I also grew fascinated with ancient Khmer history and the incredible architecture of Angkor Wat.
That’s what landed me in a subterranean lecture hall at the Smithsonian in D.C. earlier this week listening to historian Robert DeCaroli’s Urban Architecture in Ancient Angkor: Old Temples and New Findings. While D.C. was shivering in a Polar Vortex up at street level, I was reviving my dream of going to tropical Cambodia to explore these ruins. It’s been on my list for a long time. Perhaps 2014 is the time …
Several interesting tidbits I picked up …
- Ancient Angkor was the Dallas/Fort Worth of its day, boasting urban sprawl and low density development around a series of urban centers. DeCaroli said a professor of his once compared the development pattern to pot of boiling oatmeal where bubbles (urban centers) rise and fall.
- The audience (me included) gasped when DeCaroli projected the image of a footless Hindu warrior and then the image below, showing the feet of pilfered statues that still remain at the original site. The looted, footless statue was put up for sale at Sotheby’s until international outrage prompted them to pull it and return it to Cambodia.
- Drought is believed to have been a key cause of the decline of Khmer society, reminding me of a similar fate the Anasazi met in the American Southwest. It also explains the obsession with water — retention, management, irrigation, transportation — in Angkor.
- Varman (armor or protector) is a suffix on the rulers’ names. For some reason, knowing that is making it easier for me to get my head around the individual rulers who built the temples.
- Buddhism really didn’t enter Khmer architecture in a major way until Jayavarman VII built the Bayon temple, mashing up HIndu and Buddhist themes. But this was toward the end of the Khmer empire.