Lessons from Angkor Wat

There are many reason people go on vacation. They want to experience a new culture and learn about a different part of the world. They want to try new foods from the places that invented them. They want to go on an adventure. They want to relax. Sometimes, they are trying to pack all of these things in together, and Siem Reap, Cambodia is the perfect place to do just that.

Cambodia has seen its fair share of problems over the last century. It has experienced war, dictators, genocide, and economic devastation. Through all of this, it has been able to keep itself together as it worked through all of these problems, and the people of this small country in Southeast Asia still have a sense of identity and where they come from. Most of this is due to the incredible temples that lie in its backyard, the biggest of them being Angkor Wat.

These temples are not small little structures either. They are the remnants of what used to be a thriving metropolis of over a million people. It can be found in a forested area outside of Siem Reap, covering over 1,000 square kilometers, and demonstrating the height of the Khmer empire. The most impressive of the temples is Angkor Wat itself which was built in the early 12th century by King Suryavaman II to demonstrate the world what he was capable of and show his appreciation of the Hindu god, Vishnu.  These massive marvels of architecture were built as the same time as some of the more impressive cathedrals in Europe, and those Catholic churches can not come close to the size and scope that these temples present.

It is not just the size of these great temples that draws millions of people to this corner of the world. It is also the intricate carvings and designs that can be found all over them. One of the more impressive temples, Bayon, has about 200 massive faces of Lokesvara looking down at the people wandering around the crumbling walls. Wherever you look, his smiling face smiles down upon you reminding you of the greatness of this once thriving society.

But the statues and carving don’t only come in sizes larger than man. They range from medium to even small. Whole walls have carvings of individual people depicting what life would have looked like during this age. It would have taken a group of workers a long time to create these images because no two of the people carved into the wall look alike, showing the productivity of this incredible society. You can’t help but be amazed as you walk around the grounds.

But there is another story one can’t help to wonder about while looking at the once majestic landscape. How did this place go from one of the greatest, and strongest societies in the world to this place trying to pull itself out of the abject poverty it is experiencing now? Where did it misstep? How can its story tell us about some of the other nations in the world? Should the United States take note on the fate of Angkor Wat?

There is one thing history tells us time and time again and that is its greatest societies eventually fall apart and crumble. And even though during the height of these empires they were able to create amazing things that the world would marvel at for centuries to come, it will only stand as  a tourist attraction and no longer the greatness that once was the civilization’s golden age. We are only left with the wonder of what life would have really been like to have lived in this period. The true greatness of the place eventually returns to the earth from which it originally came.

It makes you start to wonder what your place in history will be. Where will the great civilizations of today be when technology had improved so much to make what we have today obsolete? Does it lessen the pompous attitudes of so many of the world leaders who strut upon their stages thinking that they are mightier than time itself? Will their impact truly be lasting or will it be reserved for the curiosity of the historians in the future? What monuments will they leave behind and will we only marvel at them for the way they have been returned to the humility that they once belonged to and not the effort extended to make them what they were during the height of when they were built?

I look at Cambodia today and realize that they were once one of the major players in the world. They used to matter as a military, economic, and cultural powerhouse, but people today just regard the society as a place trying to crawl out of the poverty that now grips its citizens. The sad thing is they do not realize that this is the fate of all great cultures, and we should look upon its fate with humility because it is also our future. It might not happen in the recent future, but there will be a time when tourists will take trips out to the sites of the United States to marvel at what had once been and ponder why things could not have been different if the society had chosen to listen to the lessons of history instead of their pride.

But do not feel that there is no hope in Cambodia. Even though I thoroughly enjoyed the marvels of Angkor Wat, it was not the thing that most impressed me about the place. That would have to be the people. Here is a society that has seen pain, and destruction. Here is a group of people who sometimes wonder where their next meal is going to come from. Here is a land that suffered through years of drought only to be rewarded with flooding on an epic scale. Through all of this, the people still find a way to make the best of the situation. It is one of the world’s fastest growing economies, and the people of this country are not looking for a free handout or expecting to have jobs handed to them because they are Cambodian. They do it through programs that they know will help them grow as a country and a society mainly focusing on education. Granted, they still have a long way to go before they can grow back into the force they once were so many centuries ago, but looking at those towering monuments they left behind, it makes me realize that maybe some day they will once again be one of the more significant countries in the world. A lot of it has to do with their drive and the knowledge that they are doing it the right way by building up a lasting economy based on the strength and intelligence of its people. It shows me that the flux of power is a fickle thing, and those who have it should recognize that fact with humility instead of flaunting it.

This post is brought to you by Tag: A Cautionary Tale by John Collings, available at http://www.amazon.com/Tag-Cautionary-Tale-John-Collings/dp/1533623902

When Tommy knocks Franklin over and cries “You’s it!” he starts a game of Tag to end all games of Tag. Before long, boys gathering to play on Arabella Hill are consumed with the game, picking sides, forging allegiances and waging all-out war. In the process of the game, rules evolve, constitutions form, and lives are lost. From the mind of John Collings comes a satirical allegory about the clash of ideologies and what happens if this confrontation is never resolved. In the battle of the playground, there is only one question that matters–which team will emerge victorious?

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