Siem Reap and Angkor Wat

Yesterday and today we toured 1,000-year-old temples at Angkor — amazing stone carving and massive architecture. Our trip leader, Phalkun, pointed out that nowhere else in Southeast Asia can you find such monuments, such lasting evidence of an ancient civilization. The gigantic stones were carried by river raft from quarries 50 km away, and I imagine that hundreds of stone carvers were trained and supervised to produce such beautiful work 500 years before the Italian Renaissance.

The heat exhausted us. We drank endless liters of water, sought the shade whenever possible, wore white hats. Sweat soaked our clothes from top to bottom. By early afternoon, we were incapable of absorbing more information.

I was thinking about cities and civilization. The Malays had a complex social order that had been evolving long before they adopted Islam, but they built no cities of stone. Their beautiful wooden architecture could not survive for hundreds of years. In the jungles of northwest Cambodia, a Frenchman found the ruins of a long-abandoned city, the former capital of the Khmer people. In other parts of Southeast Asia, no ruins remain.

The Khmers developed a writing system of their own, something the Malays never did. Their script looks similar to the Thai script (and also the Tamil script one sees in Malaysia), but it’s not the same. Phalkun says some letters are the same between Thai and Khmer, but most are not.

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