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Behind Angkor Wat

A visit at this ancient site in Combodia and the adjoining Kulen range of tropical forested mountains

Behind Angkor Wat

Travelling eastwards from Pakistan it is monsoon but the weather is changing.  Everyone in Cambodia, where I am on a working trip, conveys the change in weather. It is 5 am and I’m walking to follow a queue of hundreds of visitors into the Angkor Wat temple in Siem Reap Province. We appear to be a long line of army ants in relation to the grandeur of the temple complex.

Angkor Wat is one of the world’s largest religious complexes and its stone edifice is oriented to the cardinal points with an entrance facing precisely west. The rising sun behind the temple has displayed five different shades of colour on most mornings of its 1,000 years of existence. Framed in glory every morning, Angkor is like a supernatural apparition with its five crenellated towers.

I see glimmering streaks of apricot against a pearly grey morning sky reflecting in Angkor’s expansive moat. The streaks show through the sky like peelings of silk floating on water.

The moat has fascinated me because of its size and majestic framing in perfect geometry to the temple complex. It is as if Angkor is floating in a river as an island temple.

Perhaps the water was meant to protect Angkor Wat from invaders like its contemporaries in medieval Europe. But we also know that more than anything, the moat is a symbol like the rest of this assemblage of rock-hewn buildings. Its water symbolises the cosmic ocean in which all of creation is floating according to Hindu cosmology.

The temple complex speaks to anyone who still remembers the language of symbols: Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim or animist. It says almost the same thing to anyone who walks into it. Enter into the cosmos as a sentient being and know that all in Nature is alive and that you are deeply part of it. Live your life in goodness and you will climb the mount of your highest possibilities and in this way transcend your lower nature.

A city thought to be inhabited by two million people in the tenth century, Angkor appears to be all rock, but it is a city of water. Four major reservoirs stored water for a system of canals, dykes and moats. One of these reservoirs, known as the Baray (or water reservoir in the Khmer language) of Lolei, is said to be 12.5 square kilometres and contained 7.5 million cubic metres of water at one point in time. Now it is all but dry.

Springwater channelled from the adjoining Kulen range of tropical forested mountains was collected here centuries ago. In fact, Kulen is still the name of Cambodia’s most popular bottled water and is still thought of as a sacred mountain of the country.

This morning I stroll into the magnificent temple complex as the dawn darkness turns to first light. A crowd has arranged itself around one of the two water pools outside the inner temple whose reflection creates a mirror image of the buildings.

The pool today is a large pond, with half a dozen clusters of water lilies that are opening magenta-pink flowers in the sunrise. Looking directly at the façade of Angkor, clusters of people from the world over sit hushed, with cameras poised, waiting for the sun’s rays. Out of the thin sheet of white clouds, light glows faintly, but today there are no dramatic colours to transform the scene. It is just one of those grey monsoon days, and the pond is luminous but not colourful.

This once watery landscape is now beginning to dry up. The monsoon does not oblige with regular rain. My field-work in Kulen mountain behind Angkor Wat took me deep into the tropical forest where local communities are being starved of water. It could be that climate change is at work here, but more ominously, the great tropical hardwood trees of Kulen mountain are mostly gone. For centuries wooden pillars, houses, Buddha statues have adorned this capital of the Khmer Kingdom. Imagine thousands and thousands of wooden structures and statues. And if that was not enough, rapacious governments in the past half-century have allowed phases of forest concessions that enable the logging of mature trees.

Today Kulen is a National Park and looks lush green and tropical. As an ecologist though, I know that this is a secondary forest that grows up as colonisers when the primary, undisturbed ancient forest is removed. With this removal, the last of the elephants and Asian tigers also left Kulen in the 1980s. It is as if the spirit of this forest has gone. Some shards here and there are all that remain.

It is disturbing to see a dusty tropical forest. A red dust cloud rises behind every vehicle that brings visitors because the soil is parched. At this rate, the forest dwellers will have to leave and become ecological migrants away from the heart of the once legendary Khmer kingdom of Angkor.

Mehjabeen Abidi-Habib

Mehjabeen is an ecologist and writer who lives in Lahore.She holds a PhD in Social Ecology.


  • What a dreamscape! Coloniser forests (like pine I think) sometimes allows for new species to grow too… in Ana Tsings book, it says that human intervention paradoxically allows for resurgence of mushrooms that do not otherwise grow…
    I want to learn more about the animist symbols of water and how water was sanctified!

  • Yes it is true that coloniser species do allow new species to grow in forests. But climate change is driving systems that humans have adapted to for over a thousand years into an uncertain future – and this against a background of diminishing species diversity! In other words, the rapacious human overuse of nature is making us all poorer, including all of nature itself.

  • Beautiful choice of words. Immediately one can imagine the view of the temple with its most and it’s surroundings. A deep sense of disappointment develops as to how the human race is slowly disturbing the ecological coexistence.
    Enjoyed the authors beautiful depictions

  • Thank you Adil. As you say, the beauty of what humans can create is enjoyable across long time periods, but the disappointment about the disturbance to ecological coexistence is very painful – and is now causing great harm to some of the most vulnerable people in the world.

  • I find Angkor Wat very interesting. The empire that thrived because of its ingenuity in harnessing its water resources. Moats and reservoirs were part of an extensive network that nurtured agriculture for vast populations that lived there. And although politics, religion and wars had much to do with its decline, climate change was part of the story. With its growing populations and dependence on reliable monsoons, Angkor Wat was increasingly vulnerable and when the region entered into an extended oeriod of droughts, the reservoirs dried up sending refugees across SE Asia. But the ingenious Khmer built those water pipelines from the mountains to ensure that even during drought years there was enough water, with an elaborate system of locks and gates to regulate flow. But years of no rain were years followed by deluges that would send water down into the city in torrents in those pipelines flooding everything, overwhelming the elaborate system. Then the dry spell would return, then the wet ones. Over decades this burdened public finances and each boom and bust year saw more people migrate until there were just not enough people for the water management. Eventually it was abandoned and the forests grew back and claimed it all.

    • Thank you Pratik. It is good to have a reader who understands the water history of Angkor so well, connecting the sophistication, engineering, and climate risks involved in sustaining the Khmer kingdom. Isn’t one of the laws of nature that all things are finite? No matter how grand the human aspirations, the sooner we accept this finitude, the sooner we become a little more humble about our own place – which is what you are highlighting here.

  • A very interesting piece! It is sad tha the ancient jungle was cut. the new forest has lost many of the animals and other communities. People, especially governments in every country should give protection to forests.

    • Thank you Ambrin. In this story, the government, in it’s quest to retain it’s single party rule, has ‘given away’ the protection of this forest – at least during 2013-2016. The government allowed forest cutting by private parties in defiance of its responsibility to protect the forest for the nation. And there was no one to challenge the government because of its oppressive methods of citizen control.

  • Thankyou Dr. Mehjabeen. Every article i read takes me into it. like i am really standing there and walking through it. Thankyou for this wonderful journey. It took me to Borbodur and Punthuk Setumbu, where we sat for sunrise, only difference is Angkor Wat had water giving a magical reflection.
    It is really sad to see we are losing so much at the hand of climate change. such beautiful heritage and ecological sites.

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