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Such a religious shift would have eroded royal authority. The regal-ritual city operated on a moneyless economy, relying on tribute and taxation. The kingdom's de facto currency was rice, staple of the conscripted laborers who built the temples and the cast of thousands who ran them. An inscription at one complex, Ta Prohm, notes that 12,640 people serviced that temple alone. The inscription also records that more than 66,000 farmers produced nearly 3,000 tons of rice a year to feed this multitude of priests, dancers, and temple workers. Add just three large temples to the equation—Preah Khan and the larger complexes of Angkor Wat and the Bayon—and the calculated farm labor required swells to 300,000. That's nearly half of the estimated population of Greater Angkor. A new, egalitarian religion such as Theravada Buddhism might have led to rebellion.

Or maybe the royal court simply turned its back on Angkor. Successive rulers had a habit of erecting new temple complexes and letting older ones decay, and that penchant for starting anew might have doomed the city when sea trade began to flourish between Southeast Asia and China. Maybe it was simple economic opportunism that, by the 16th century, had caused the Khmer center of power to shift to a location closer to the Mekong River, near Cambodia's present-day capital, Phnom Penh, affording it easier access to the South China Sea.

Economic and religious turmoil may have hastened Angkor's downfall, but its rulers were blindsided by another foe. Angkor became a medieval powerhouse thanks to a sophisticated system of canals and reservoirs that enabled the city to hoard scarce water in dry months and disperse excess water during the rainy season. Forces beyond Angkor's control threw this exquisitely tuned machine into disarray.

One of Angkor's holiest sites is high in the Kulen Hills at the headwaters of two rivers, the Puok and the Siem Reap. Under the shade of gnarled strangler fig trees, submerged in the clear water of a lazy creek, are row after row of circular bumps, each about six inches wide, carved into the dark sandstone riverbed. These are worn lingams, cylindrical stone sculptures representing the essence of the Hindu god Shiva. The lingams lead like a road to another sculpture in the riverbed: a thick-walled square, a yard wide, with a narrow inlet. It's a yoni, a symbol of the Hindu source of life.

Angkor's high priests came here to thank the gods for providing the lifeblood of the kingdom. A short walk upstream is a natural bridge of sandstone that lends this holy site its name, Kbal Spean—Khmer for "bridgehead." Water rushes through a cleft, splashing an adjoining rock face where Vishnu, legs crossed, meditates atop an angry ocean; sprouting from his navel is a lotus-flower-bearing Brahma. Here in the Kulen Hills the ancient gods enjoy perpetual libations from flowing water.

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