Published: July 2009


Angkor Wat

Divining Angkor

After rising to sublime heights, the sacred city may have engineered its own downfall

By Richard Stone
Photograph by Robert Clark

From the air, the centuries-old temple appears and vanishes like a hallucination. At first it is no more than an umber smudge in the forest canopy of northern Cambodia. Beneath us sprawls the lost city of Angkor, now in ruins and populated mostly by peasant rice farmers. Clusters of Khmer homes, perched on spindly stilts to cope with flooding during the summer monsoon, dot the landscape from the Tonle Sap, the "great lake" of Southeast Asia, some 20 miles to the south, to the Kulen Hills, a ridge jutting from the floodplain a roughly equal distance to the north. Then, as Donald Cooney guides the ultralight plane over the treetops, the magnificent temple comes into view.

Restored in the 1940s, the 12th-century Banteay Samre, devoted to the Hindu god Vishnu, recalls the medieval Khmer Empire at its height. The temple is cloistered inside two sets of concentric square walls. These may once have been surrounded by a moat symbolizing the oceans encircling Mount Meru, mythical home of Hindu gods. Banteay Samre is just one of more than a thousand shrines the Khmer erected in the city of Angkor during a building spree whose scale and ambition rivals the pyramids of Egypt. After we pass, I crane my neck for a last look. The temple has disappeared into the forest.

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