I’m king of the world. This time I’m not drunk and I haven’t eaten a bad mushroom, I really am king of the world, the whole world. I stand with my bare feet connected to the smooth stone polished by a ages of footfalls as the morning light creeps ever slowly toward me through vaulted windows of heavy stone. Imperious air fills my world, the people of my world built their capital around me, around this centre of humanity that I occupy; alone. I am king Suryavarman II and it’s the middle of the 12th century. I hear tales from far flung places of great temples, great seats of power but I don’t need to see them to know that standing here in the centrepiece of my domain, of the world, that they are my subjects. I am: king of the world.Rantings of a madman, megalomaniac grandeur, malaria hallucinations? Probably not actually, king Suryavarman II had in his day more than a strong claim to being indeed just that, king of the world. From as early as the year 802 the Khmer empire began it’s reign with the king at the time, king Jayavarman II declaring himself to be Chakravartin which literally means, king of the world. Jayavarman maybe jumped the gun but a few centuries later when London had a population of 50,000, Suryavarman presided over a city of a million inhabitants. Satellite imaging has since shown that at its height, Angkor remains histories largest pre-industrial urban centre; Standing in the heart of the great temple Angkor Wat, I can only think that Suryavarman already knew that.
A moat surrounds this seat of power so far away from where I stand now, far enough to make me squint to see it. 3.6km of waterway over 100m across to encircle the staggering magnitude of this single construction, wider than much of the mighty Mekong that essentially cuts the continent of Asia in two. But Asia is just a continent, Angkor Wat was the most powerful seat in the world, oddly enough it seems appropriate for its features to outdo natures scale and scream far beyond a continent not big enough to contain its ambition. It’s in this magnitude that Angkor Wat is most staggering, the singularity of its purpose. Where other great civilisations often cluster temples, shrines, palaces and civic buildings together to form working networks of greatness, as broader Angkor also does, Angkor Wat alone stands in comparison to whole cities as a sole construction.Such concentration of power pulled to this central point is where imaginations simply cannot be contained; we’re not visiting a relic, a monument, we’re transported to another time. Far from crumbling into scattered whispers of a greatness now past, Angkor Wat calls so loudly we can nearly hear echoes of king Jayavarman crying to the heavens “I am king of the world”. Angkor Wat literally means temple city and it’s not hard to imagine it bursting with life, in fact it’s hard not to. The musky scent of incense cuts the steamy air filled with the shrill chanting of the pious, intermittently rising above the soft slippered feet of servants hushing the anthem of those masses, heard but not seen. Markets from the outer rings of the three encircling walls clatter the roaring din of the common folk so distant that their clamour makes no dent to the gentle whisking of those slippered feet on polished stone.
At this window I stand, my world framed in heavy stone, centuries of stories pitted into a dense tapestry which draws a rushing breeze over still treetops baking in the languid day. Long before much of the world constructed hulking monolithic buildings the Khmer empire walked elegant corridors, sat in breezy chambers and viewed the world from light filled halls of high vaulted ceilings. From this central palace we walk now, down the steps to lower levels farewelling the aristocracy and their servants, into the baking heat below the breezy heights of the crowning spires and outside the heart of the heart of power.Lower nobles and religious mid-weights shuffle around the short distance from the heights to the next wall that sits again on an immense raised platform like an overly elaborate wedding cake. Through the second wall and down again we descend this tapered mountain past the carved battle scene that wraps the domain of the privileged. Delicate forms dance in celebration to the hindu god Vishnu, to whom Angkor Wat is dedicated; not content to build a fortification, Angkor Wat is more acres of artwork built in the permanence of stone, fashioned into a temple to house power. Precise carved columns stutter to an infinity that nearly disappears out of sight on the slow descent away from Suryavarman’s exultations of un-megalomaniacal megalomania.
Through the main outer gates, kilometres of grand walls rise high above the moat which, once so far away, now spreads out like a lake, an ocean before us. The heavy fortifications of the western gate shroud our exit from the 12th century; with the blinding light on the other side comes a silence we now hear only for it’s absence. The market stalls, the pious, the meek, the bold, the ambitious and the unseen wage their eternal ghostly lives on the other side of the walls of Angkor Wat. In the blinding light on this side of the wall they are whisked away to childhood imaginings we nowadays need such inspiration to touch.Angkor Wat is a relic, a world heritage site, a wonder; but it can’t be just looked at, it’s a transportation that must be ridden if you can let it. Other relics and ruins we’ve seen inspire grandeur but none have stirred the imagination quite like Angkor Wat. The bridge across the moat leads out like the worlds most intimidating runway and into the silent world that so suddenly feels so silent. The sun beats down so fiercely out here where the common people live, we steal a glance back over the battlements and across the walls to the rising spires at the heart of the heart. It may be a ruffling breeze, or maybe we still hear the words now only just a whisper on a zephyr; ‘I’m the king of the world’.