Sunday, February 6, 2011

Ruining a good ruin

Sometimes you have to admire bureaucratic tenacity. Especially when it extends over nine centuries.

We're at Angor Wat, the World Heritage Site temple complex. Before us is the Baphuon. Like most of the buildings of the complex, it was constructed around 1,000 years ago, and built to resemble a mythical Hindu mountain. It was an impressive structure in its day, with a tower rising about 50 metres in the air. And it was built to celebrate the god Shiva and the lingam, or holy phallus.

Now, I know at least half my readers will agree when I say there's altogether not enough penis worship going on these days. Sure we have the CN Tower and pro sports, but we could learn a thing or two about how they did it back in the day. They built an artificial mountain to honour wangs.

The only problem was, they didn't build it particularly well.

Baphuon is basically a glorified sand castle. A tier of sand was piled up, and reinforced on the sides with sandstone or lava blocks (each side, btw, runs about the length of a football field). The next pile of sand was built on top of that, reinforced with blocks, and so on all the way up.

Our schlong-worshipping priest-architects, however, underestimated the load the walls had to bear. We've all built sandcastles, and you know what happens after a certain point in the vertical rise of the structure. The thing starts collapsing, the sides bursting like Charlie Sheen's hernia.

Not making things any better were the efforts of 17th century king, who decided to use some of the side wall blocks to construct a new Buddha on the side of the building. Physics ignored, cue more wall collapse.

Baphuon would probably look like a shapeless pile of rock and sand by now if it wasn't for the efforts of French archeologists, who started recovering Angkor from the jungle at the end of the 19th century.

They started by clearing off the overgrowth, the giant trees you see growing into and over the temples in Tomb Raider 2 (filmed at a nearby site, btw).

Someone must have been impressed by what the temple must have looked like, because work began to painstakingly restore the structure. Nature's inspectors had still had condemned the place, however, and never really stopped enforcing the building codes. The next ten decades are a back-and-forth of crews doing repair work, walls collapsing, and teams starting repairs over again. Physics, tropical downpours, and genocidal civil war on one side, UNESCO and stubborn French and Japanese archeologists on the other.

It's Unstoppable Force vs. Immovable Object, being played out in the Khmer jungle.

It would be nice to be able to tell who's winning. As it stands now, the visitor approaches a somewhat morose structure, not as impressive as some of the other temples nearby; a handful of workers chip away at rocks, a crane stands motionless above the scene. We are told $10 million is being spent, and more will be until the job is done. That, by the way, is somewhat optimistically scheduled to be in 2010, according to the signs. I think they flipped the middle two numbers on that projection.

But I for one also believe it worth it, if only to ensure penises are adequately recognized in our society.

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