For my 21st birthday, my mom took me to Las Vegas. It was March 2001, and the city was flush with cash and new buildings. The Paris and the Venetian and New York-New York, with its compressed skyline and roller coaster flying above the Statue of Liberty, were only a couple of years old, and the Bellagio was just opening—Brad Pitt and George Clooney were romping around the not-quite-finished lobby filming Ocean’s Eleven. Vegas’s mission is to recreate every great world city and historical landmark in a couple of square miles, right? The model for these hotels was the Luxor, which has that beam on top of the pyramid that you can supposedly see from outer space. Hey, if one building is visible from outer space, why shouldn’t they all be?
Of course none of us knew that it would soon be, as R.E.M. says, the end of the world as we knew it. We all felt fine. That summer I lived in New York, where I was an art museum intern and ran around with a pack of boys who were interning as investment bankers and girls who were interning at magazines and museums and other fashionable institutions. One girl was a model wrangler: that was her actual title. The biggest news that summer in New York was Lizzie Grubman backing her SUV into a pack of party-goers at a night club in the Hamptons. The only things injured were some egos and Lizzie Grubman’s fender.
Inside the lobby of one of these Vegas hotel-universes was an architect’s model of one of the next big properties in development for the strip. I loved looking at this tiny version of the building, with its dollhouse details, and peering over everything as if I was god or Steve Wynn himself.
According to my memory’s file cabinet, that building was a Vegas reproduction of Angkor Wat, the twelfth-century temple in Cambodia. It fits a Vegas theme: Angkor Wat is exotic, full of its own mythology, and had a tourist boom in the 1960s. The temples, mysterious and gorgeous, were built by ancient god-kings with lavish lives. Dealer and cocktail waitress costumes could be based on soldiers and traditional Apsara dancers. The bars would serve drinks with tiny plastic elephants perched on the rim, or fishbowls of martinis floating lotus flowers. Casino chips would picture King Suryavarman II’s face. A replica of King Jayavarman VII could welcome you, with its animatronic mouth, to the hotel.
That building never happened, and I’m sure after September 11 the plans became cage liner for some recently out-of-work birds. But after visiting Angkor Wat and the temples in Siem Reap, I can see why a casino developer thought it would be the next Vegas icon.
Angkor Wat gets all the talk, but it’s only one temple among many in Siem Reap. Angkor Wat is the best preserved because it has been in constant use from the time it was built. As the story goes, other temples were swallowed by the jungle, or abandoned when Cambodia’s capital moved to Phnom Penh in the 1400s, or taken over by Thailand when territory borders shifted. A French explorer is credited with discovering the Siem Reap temples in the 1800s, but Cambodians say, Nah, it was never forgotten or abandoned, we just kept a good secret.
At Angkor Wat, there’s a section on the back of the building called the Elephant Gate. It earned this title because the terrace is exactly the right height for the king to climb on and off his elephant. The Elephant Gate at Angkor Wat is inaccessible from the building (no steps for the people not on elephant, you see), but there’s also an Elephant Terrace at Angkor Thom, decorated with trunks just in case you forgot you were supposed to park your elephant there.
Angkor Thom, a walled city built by King Jayavarman VII in the late 1100s, has these gates on all four sides. Plus, there are monkeys.
The first site in Angkor Thom is the Bayon, which has 216 enormous carved stone faces. Some say they are the face of King Jayavarman VII, who wanted to keep an eye on his kingdom and found this to be the best way. Others say the faces are the bodhisattva of compassion. From a distance, the towers look like rubble, and then when you get up close you see that the rubble is ears, noses, and lips.
Also in Angkor Thom is Bauphon. Ancient Egyptians weren’t the only ones building pyramids.
Ta Prohm is competing with the jungle—the trees have moved in and started to reclaim the building. Trees like this, that look like wax dripping, are everywhere, but the Ta Prohm trees are the most striking. This temple is also featured in Tomb Raider. I’ve never had a thing for Angelina Jolie or movies based on video games, but now I’m interested. Anyone up for a Tomb Raider watching party back in the states in a few months?
You can climb, explore, stand on the precipice, and pretend you’re the ruler of your kingdom—or a peasant walking the causeway to worship. The only things closed off are areas that looked like they could dislodge and kill you.
There’s a lot of conservation and preservation work happening at many of the sites, but it doesn’t disrupt the experience. Nearly every building is supported by a different country; the whole world is pitching in to restore the temples, which are a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
What else can I say about the temples? They are glorious, gorgeous, a feat of humanity and ingenuity and technology and artistry, they make you think about your place in the world and history and everybody else’s too, but also—they’re really, really, really cool. If you’re in the neighborhood, go. And if you’re not in the neighborhood, this is the reason to get yourself here.
More temple photos are on my Flickr stream in Siem Reap