Icon of Khmer civilization, Angkor Wat in Cambodia endures as a revered religious shrine.
Icon of Khmer civilization, Angkor Wat in Cambodia endures as a revered religious shrine.

Divining Angkor

After rising to sublime heights, the sacred city may have engineered its own downfall

From the air, the centuries-old temple appears and vanishes like a hallucination. At first it is no more than an umber smudge in the forest canopy of northern Cambodia. Beneath us sprawls the lost city of Angkor, now in ruins and populated mostly by peasant rice farmers. Clusters of Khmer homes, perched on spindly stilts to cope with flooding during the summer monsoon, dot the landscape from the Tonle Sap, the "great lake" of Southeast Asia, some 20 miles to the south, to the Kulen Hills, a ridge jutting from the floodplain a roughly equal distance to the north. Then, as Donald Cooney guides the ultralight plane over the treetops, the magnificent temple comes into view.

Restored in the 1940s, the 12th-century Banteay Samre, devoted to the Hindu god Vishnu, recalls the medieval Khmer Empire at its height. The temple is cloistered inside two sets of concentric square walls. These may once have been surrounded by a moat symbolizing the oceans encircling Mount Meru, mythical home of Hindu gods. Banteay Samre is just one of more than a thousand shrines the Khmer erected in the city of Angkor during a building spree whose scale and ambition rivals the pyramids of Egypt. After we pass, I crane my neck for a last look. The temple has disappeared into the forest.

Angkor is the scene of one of the greatest vanishing acts of all time. The Khmer kingdom lasted from the ninth to the 15th centuries, and at its height dominated a wide swath of Southeast Asia, from Myanmar (Burma) in the west to Vietnam in the east. As many as 750,000 people lived in Angkor, its capital, which sprawled across an area the size of New York City's five boroughs, making it the most extensive urban complex of the preindustrial world. By the late 16th century, when Portuguese missionaries came upon the lotus-shaped towers of Angkor Wat—the most elaborate of the city's temples and the world's largest religious monument—the once resplendent capital of the empire was in its death throes.

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