The magnificent temples of the Angkor Empire, built between the 9th and 15th centuries, draw around two million visitors a year. The day my boyfriend and I visited Angkor Thom, the last capital city, all two million seemed to be in the same place: with us, in a crowd, trying to exit the main temple building.
December is the peak season for tourism in Angkor, and the old temples can seem more like theme parks than ancient ruins. People swarm everywhere- tour groups marching in matching visors, couples taking pictures on selfie sticks, and flag-bearing guides attempting to herd their charges. Tuktuks and giant tour buses line the roads, making it difficult and dusty to navigate with my rental bicycle. Looking for lunch, we have dozens of options, from restaurants, to plastic chairs and tables stand on the side of the road, to fresh coconuts and steamed rice packets sold out of a bicycle basket.
And yet, with all of the hustling and busyness, this scene is probably the most authentic tribute to the ancient city in recent history. Archaeologists estimate that at one point, this city housed a million people, making the Angkor civilization the largest pre-industrial city in the world.
The temples of Angkor are immense and well-constructed. Though the impressive architecture and stone carvings can easily convince visitors of the power of this ancient kingdom, an even more impressive technology lies below the surface.
The Angkor empire was built on successful water management. What is left standing, a series of moats, canals, and barays (large reservoirs), indicates a massive agricultural industry. Supporting a million people in a dense city state, a thousand years ago, required unprecedented technological advancements in water management. And ultimately, many scholars argue, it was when the population outgrew the water systems that the empire started to decline. Success in agriculture determines the rise and fall of empires.
Visitng Banteay Srei, a 10th century temple dedicated to Shiva,we are able to catch out breath from the crowds. The small, shaded temple is a quiet place to contemplate, so we unload our backpacks and set out our picnic- simple fruits, bread, and nuts. It is possible to find these quiet rests, even in the busiest of places.
Refreshed, my belly full, who cares about the crowds? Good food powers civilizations; good food powers me. I’m ready for more exploration of these magnificent monuments of one of the world’s greatest civilizations- the Angkor!