Sunrise at Angkor Wat

Tetsunori Koizumi, Director

It is early in the morning when people start to gather around a pond, which lies just outside of the complex of stone towers. The towers, which have been covered with the darkness of the night sky, gradually start to show their imposing figures against the morning sky as the sun starts its ascent in the east. As the sun comes up high enough to start illuminating the towers, casting their shadows on the pond, the people who have been eagerly waiting for this moment from early morning utter their words of amazement at the dual images of the towers—one sharp image against the bright morning sky and the other flickering image reflected on the pond.

The scene, watching the sunrise at the site of the stone temple-complex called Angkor Wat, has become one of the most popular tourist attractions in recent years in Cambodia, a country in Southeast Asia sandwiched between Thailand to the west and Vietnam to the east. The number of international visitors to Cambodia has steadily increased since 1993 when the first free and fair national election under UN supervision was held in a country known to the world for its bloody modern history since its independence in 1953. With the opening of the new terminal at the Siem Reap-Angkor International Airport in 2006, the number of visitors to Angkor Wat itself has dramatically increased, with the number of arriving passengers exceeding 2 million in 2012.

Cambodia derives its name from “Kambuja,” the name Jayavarman II gave to the area when he unified the warring princes in 802 and declared himself as chakravartin, or “the universal monarch,” marking the beginning of the Khmer Empire. The name “Angkor” on the other hand was derived from the Sanskrit word nagara, or the “city,” for it was the capital city of the Khmer Empire, also called Yasodharapura in honor of Yosovarman I who became the king in 890 and founded the capital here. As for Angkor Wat, the name given to the temple complex, it was Suryavarman II, whose name combines Surya, the Sun god, and varman, the protector, who is credited with its construction in the first half of the twelfth century. Dedicated to Vishnu, Angkor Wat portrays Hindu cosmology with central towers representing Mount Meru, home of the gods in Hindu mythology. There are elaborate bas-reliefs at Angkor Wat that depict events in Mahabharata and Ramayana, as well as the images that show the king and his subjects in their daily life. Angkor Wat also has hundreds of graceful statues of angelic dancers called apsaras.

Angkor Wat became a Buddhist temple during the reign of Jayavarman VII who ascended to the throne in 1181 and is known as the builder of Angkor Thom, which literally means “the large city.” Jayavarman VII made Buddhism the state religion and, as a Mahayana Buddhist, he is represented as Avalokiteshvara in the face towers of the Bayon, which he built in the center of Angkor Thom. After his death, the state religion changed back to Hinduism, resulting in massive destruction of Buddhist images. With the sacking of the Khmer Empire in the hands of Ayutthata invaders in 1451, Angkor was abandoned as the capital city, and Angkor Wat gradually disappeared as a visible symbol of Khmer civilization covered up by fast-growing trees of the Cambodian jungle.

It was towards the end of the nineteenth century that Angkor Wat was rediscovered by visiting Europeans and popularized as a tourist destination. For much of the twentieth century, the French under the direction of Ecole Francaise d’Extreme-Orient were mostly responsible for the restoration work at Angkor. The international effort for the restoration of Angkor began in earnest since 1992, when the UNESCO designated it as a World Heritage Site as “a major site exemplifying cultural, religious and symbolic values, as well as containing high architectural, archaeological and artistic significance.” Angkor has since made a remarkable transformation from the ruined city in the jungle into a busy tourist destination today. However, that remarkable transformation points up the pitfalls of a cultural heritage like Angkor Wat that requires constant care and maintenance not just against natural decay but also against human invasion in the form of insensitive tourists who tread on its sandstone monuments.

Indeed, all the efforts now being made to restore and preserve Angkor Wat must be said to be ironic, considering that it was initially dedicated to Vishnu, the Hindu god of preservation. Whether Hindu or Buddhist, no architecture is immune from natural decay and deterioration over time. And Buddhists in particular should ponder the sagacity of spending so much money and energy in the preservation of historic statues and temples in view of the Buddha’s teaching about impermanence that applies to everything in the world around us, natural as well as human. This is not to say that Cambodia should discourage the flood of foreign visitors who line up from as early as 4:30 in the morning to apply for tickets to visit the ruins of Angkor and watch the sunrise at Angkor Wat. Considering its bloody modern history that includes the death of millions of its citizens due to execution and starvation and the mass exodus to neighboring countries to avoid execution and starvation, Cambodia certainly deserves the influx of tourists coming from abroad to restore its reputation in the world as a safe place to visit and reestablish its status as a civilized country with rich cultural heritage. At the same time, the Cambodians and the international community must make sure that the flourishing tourism industry in Cambodia will not lead to the destruction and devastation of its fragile eco-system with canals, dykes and reservoirs on which Angkor was built to begin with.