BTRIPP (btripp) wrote,

I'd love to go there ...

This is another book that I picked up at the sale they were having at my new favorite almost-in-my-neighborhood used book store Open Books (which is part of their fundraising efforts for a wide array of very worthy literacy programs) a few weeks ago. Back when I had money (in my P.R. Executive days) I used to do a lot of “archaeological travel”, and this book jumped off the shelf at me for being about one of the top-of-my-list locations that I've not been fortunate enough to visit (sadly, the “want to visit” list is much deeper than my “been there” list).

Unfortunately, I found Angkor: Temples of Cambodia's Kings somewhat lacking on what I was looking for in a book on the fabled Cambodian site. There are a few odd things about this volume, for one, the author's name, Dawn F. Rooney, does not appear on the cover, and there is a photographer credited (Michael Freeman) in a book that is largely missing current photography (not that there isn't a good deal of photos in here, just that most of them are from early expeditions in the 1800's).

Now, I'll grant that what I was hoping this book to be, and what this book actually was, were diverging due to no particular fault of its own. I was anticipating that this would be one of those “visit the site from your armchair” sorts of books that walks you through with descriptions and images in close collaboration. Instead, this ends up being very much more oriented to folks on-site, telling the reader what to find where at which of the ruins, with very little “showing” involved.

If you're not familiar with the Angkor area (more generally referred to as just one of the ruins, Angkor Wat), it is an amazing and sprawling site in the south-east Asian jungle. The main site is about 15 by 5 miles in size, with two massive artificial lakes framing it, each being approximately five miles long by about 2 miles wide, and austerely rectangular. A while back I was messing around with Google Maps to take a look at various ruin sites around the planet, when I found Angkor Wat, I was shocked by those features, as I had always thought of this as the one ruin area (itself a respectable square mile or more), and was unaware of it being part of a much larger complex of ruins. The French were instrumental in most of the research and rebuilding of these sites, from the mid-1800's up until the chaos of the Pol Pot regime, which threw out all foreigners in 1972. It was only in relatively recent years that Angkor was again accessible to Western visitors.

The book is structured in three parts, “Background”, covering geography, history, religion, architecture and art, “The Monuments” which describes in various detail several dozen sites (in alphabetical order), and a section of appendices and other reference materials. I would certainly recommend the first part of the book to anyone with interest in the Khmer culture, as it is a very well developed combination of materials which provide in 60 or so pages a quite satisfactory over-view of the subject. The site arose in a fairly compact slice of time, from the mid-800's for the earliest monuments through the mid-1200's, but there was quite a lot of change within in that, with various influences (Indian, Chinese, and local) coming to bear, which is reflected in the evolving styles (Hindu, Buddhist, etc.) in the different sites.

The “meat” of the book, however, is in the site-by-site discussion. Again, this is where I was disappointed, as the author writes about all sorts of fascinating things that the visitor should look at, but there are almost no pictures associated with these descriptions to bring it to life. Each has a detailed “site plan” showing the lay-out, and in some cases suggested routes to take when one's there, but for those of us on this side of the planet, that doesn't help much! This is, of course, my wanting the book to be something that it's not … the material here is certainly informative; there is an introduction for each site, giving Location in relation to the over-all region, Access in terms of how best to approach the site, Tips if these are needed for which side might have easier climbs, etc., Date of the monument, Kings who were in power when it was built, Religion that is expressed in the design, and Art Style as these developed. The text then goes into a background on each, and then discusses the layout, sometimes in very fine detail. I only wish that there were several photos of each of these to go with the text … what modern photos there are tend to be divorced from the context of the copy.

It does appear that Angkor is out of print. The copy I have is the 1994 edition, which seems to have been updated and expanded in a 2001 edition, both of which are only available via the used channels. However, there are copies of the later version going for as little as $0.14 (plus shipping, of course), so if this sounds like something you'd enjoy (and, really, it is quite a decent resource, just not the “vacation in a book” that I was hoping for), it's out there.

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Tags: book review
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