image: The towers of Angkor Wat  rise against a purple sky.
The towers of Angkor Wat rise against a purple sky.

Photograph © Kevin R. Morris/CORBIS

Angkor Wat
By Richard Saul Wurman

In the fall of 1954, at the age of 18, I discovered the other half of the world. I began that journey through the eyes of an encyclopedic professor who guided me to China and the neighboring Altay Mountains, to Japan and their elaborate methods of making swords. Then India, Tibet and the Potala Palace, Burma and the Burma Road, and, of course, the Khmer Empire and Cambodia. These places had all been hidden from my view by my Philadelphia suburban education.

I began making copious lists at this moment in my life. Lists of what I was going to accomplish. One of these many lists focused upon travel, exotic travel. My destinations were in two categories, man-made places and the natural world. The Galápagos isles and Angkor held the top two spots.

Eight years later, I published my first book, whose underlying theme is that you only understand something relative to something you understand. I recognized that relative size is a fundamentally important handshake and a necessary greeting into the world of understanding. The book consisted simply of the plans of 50 cities in the world, mostly modern and some ancient, all displayed to the same scale. The big surprise was Angkor. Vast Angkor—the size of Rome. Geometrically intriguing, its moats, reservoirs, walls, and gates seduced me, and I knew I must visit someday soon. Ambition, money, fear, work, and family all militated against the accomplishment of my goal.

Then last January, 45 years after I made my first list, I went to Angkor. By this time the romantic photos of boa-like jungle trees both supporting crumbling architecture as well as being held up by the same stones had become familiar. The mysteries of its seeming abandonment, the fear of the Khmer Rouge and malaria all added to the push/pull of the visit.

As renowned architect Louis Kahn once said, nobody requested or needed Beethoven's Fifth Symphony before he wrote it. However, after he wrote his masterpiece, people could not imagine a world without it. So with Angkor. After it seared my visual memory banks, I cannot imagine a world without it. Angkor is one of the great man-made places on the Earth. The site still contains a life of shaven-headed monks, saffron-robed, staring at strangers with sheepish sideways glances and posing for the camera. Angkor is a city with an architecture of water, walls, stairs, and temples of a scale and quality unique in the world.

The information in this story was accurate at the time it was published, but we suggest you confirm all details before making travel plans.



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