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Detail from the bas-relief frieze that wraps the temple: A massive diorama of religion, war and hubris.

By BOB FOULKES

Cambodia is one of those countries known to the western world as an unfortunate circumstance, the Killing Fields of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge. Over a short time, one quarter of the country’s population was brutally murdered, mostly the urban, educated and the successful were butchered by a Chinese sponsored/funded/armed madman.

The country may never recover fully but one has to admire the fact that people even function, much less smile and carry on.  A testament to the human spirit.

Cambodia is filled with history, the iconic ancient ruins of several centuries of temples around Siem Reap are world heritage sites for a reason. They are amazing to behold and ripe for description in superlatives.

First, Siem Reap is a pretty little town, built to handle the massive migration of visitors that happens throughout the dry season. Five star hotels border small B&Bs, the night market jostles for attention with the older town market, other distractions present themselves. We are there for one reason – the pilgrimage to the ancient temples of Angkor, particularly Angkor Wat. Angkor is a must-see. Like the ruins of Greece, the Mayan Temples, the Incan sites of Macchu Pichu, the Pyramids.

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Young and old get together with a Buddhist wrist string, which confers a blessing and brings good luck.

Our Angkor visit lasted three days. Trying to grasp, absorb and understand religious temples built over about five centuries, dedicated to memorializing and celebrating several of the world’s more complicated religions was a near impossibility but we tried.

Hinduism, Buddhism and local Khmer animism have fought over centuries for recognition, commemoration and glory through these monuments. Kings, princes, dynastic emperors, and wannabe gods have constructed these monuments to their own vanity, narcissism and hubris proving that inflated egos have endured over the millennia.

Religions come and go, political dynasties ebb and flow, architecture evolves, construction techniques improve, decorative motifs go in and out of style.

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Trees overtake temples as time passes.

It’s all here — hundreds of buildings, in complexes large and small, spread over thousands of hectares, suffering less or more under the persistent encroachment of the jungle.

Angkor has been ravaged by weather, overpowered by trees with roots that insinuate themselves everywhere, looted and vandalized by thieves and desecrated by religious purists. Sandstone does not survive like granite — erosion has taken its toll.

It is a glorious mess.

And yet it enthralls. If one has an active imagination, it overwhelms our presumptions of ancient Asian civilization and the supposed supremacy, complexity and richness of western culture. Angkor rivals the best of our great monuments.

Angkor Wat, the jewel of the sites is enormous. Built in the 12th century, the temple complex alone covers nine hectares on grounds measuring 1.5 by 1.3 kilometres. Even the gateways through the surrounding wall are impressive.

On the second of three levels, there is a two-metre-high bas relief frieze that wraps around the building — 1.6 kilometers in all. Incredible does not begin to describe this endless visual story — a massive rolling diorama of religion, war, and dynastic hubris that must be seen. To truly understand the frieze and all the symbols and icons would require a graduate degree in ancient religious myths and stories. Given the Hindu penchant for multiple gods and complex mythology, there’s much to be learned. We pond-skim over it and are soon overwhelmed. The mind boggles at it all.

Words fail, even the requisite superlatives. Pictures help but fall short. The only way to comprehend the majesty of Angkor Wat is to find a way to see it.

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A rank of statues lines a path at Angkor Wat.