Reporting from: Angkor Wat – Siem Reap, Cambodia
I love to walk, but I have to admit yesterday’s journey through the temples of Siem Reap – including Angkor Wat – has left my legs a bit sore. Not to mention all of the mosquito and ant bites. So, as I write this, I’m enjoying a quick fifteen-minute foot massage along one of the town’s tourist streets.
Normally I avoid the rowdy pubs and touts of touristy areas like the plague. But I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to get a halfway decent foot massage for all of $1.
The temples of Angkor Park are remarkable – true wonders of the world. While Angkor Wat is world famous, there are several even more impressive temples just down the road.
It’s fascinating to see the amazing scope of building done during the Khmer Empire. Many of these splendorous temples were built with some of the finest sandstone in the world, and with remarkable craftsmanship. That’s what you do when you control half of Southeast Asia.
Nearly one thousand years ago when Angkor Wat was taking to the skies, the Khmer Empire was the largest in Southeast Asia. Grand processions unlike any other in the region preceded the Khmer king wherever he went.
And King Jayavarman VII ruled the empire at the height of its power. Jayavarman was a classy guy; when his wife died, he married her sister.
Monuments like Preah Khan – one of the many temples in Siem Reap – were built in his honor. Like many kings – and many government leaders today – Jayavarman built costly public memorials to his and the empire’s greatness.
At one point, the Khmer Empire was building two large temples to honor their king every year. How much adoration does one government leader need?
Perhaps most interesting on my visit to Angkor, however, was a small, slightly secluded temple that my driver almost passed right by. I told him to slam on the brakes so I could go back and check it out.
On the inside of this temple are ancient inscriptions about the progression of Khmer royalty. The rules of how to determine the next king and other functions of the royal court were laid out on these very walls for all to see, even eight hundred years later.
The king’s laborers who chiseled away chapter and verse in Sanskrit had no idea that by the 15th century, it would all come to a screeching halt. They had no idea that the party would long have been over by the time tourists gazed upon their work hundreds of years later.
Or that the Khmer Empire would be reduced to a shell of its former glory, ceding lands to Siam and modern-day Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, and Malaysia.
That’s how governments function. Everything is based on exerting their will over society today and maintaining that power tomorrow. It’s betting on the come.
For me, studying the rise and fall of societies is very telling.
Throughout history, there are countless examples of leaders who created works that were considered magnificent in their day. Some of those works are still widely known today, like the Magna Carta or the United States Constitution.
Yet while millions of people have trod the muddy fields around the temples of Angkor, few have learned the lessons that the downfall of this once mighty society gave us. In the glory days, the empire on display here was among the richest in the world. Now, the average Cambodian makes $3 a day. Just a generation ago, a huge part of the population was bludgeoned to death with hammers in rice paddies.
Is it so inconceivable that the aforementioned US Constitution could be just another relic created by government leaders who didn’t realize the music would eventually stop playing?
The fact that the founding fathers scribbled some basic rights on a scroll and used it as the foundation for a new nation is admirable. But it means nothing when history left those words in an ash heap, the same way no one is following the rules of royal progression from the Khmer Empire any more.
Societies change, governments change, and times change.
Those who rely on a vestige from a bygone era are doomed to suffer the same fate as millions of others throughout history who learned just how much things do change.
The US Constitution and Bill of Rights may say you have this freedom or that freedom, but with the current incarnation of the US government hellbent on subverting you to their will, what does it really mean?
To harken back to the days when the Constitution actually meant something to the sociopaths in power is not “American”; it’s folly. You can’t even call it “Cambodian”, since no one here is decoding Sanskrit from temple walls as a guide to good government.
Want freedom? Find where it exists. Don’t pretend that some historical document will protect you when the current thugs have clearly expressed their willingness to trample on it. For an extreme example, just look at what happened to Cambodians who figured the Khmer Rouge would “play by the rules”.
The good news is that, unlike those who lived in far-reaching empires hundreds of years ago, you have the freedom to pack up and leave. At least for now.
Just like each empire had “good” kings and “bad” kings, things change in modern day governments as well. It may not as easy to discern just how bad things have gotten where you live, because you don’t have hundreds of years of history for the dust to have settled.