How many places on your travel wish list are there due to the power of movies? Cinema has the power to transport us briefly to other places, but its effect can also endure, instilling in us a desire to visit locations previously undreamt of. One place I dream of visiting because of the power of film, is Angkor Wat.
Just 5.5km from the modern town of Siem Reap, Angkor Wat is a well-known Hindu-Buddhist temple complex in Cambodia and the largest religious monument by land area in the world. One of the first European visitors was a Portuguese friar, Antonio da Madalena, in 1586, who said it was ‘like no other building in the world.’ Combining two Khmer styles: the ‘temple mountain’ and ‘galleried temple’, its pyramidal form and moat represent Mount Meru and the ocean, while concentric walls represent a mountain chain.
The original city was built in the early 12th century, using between five and 10 million sandstone blocks of up to 1.5 tons (more than all the Egyptian pyramids combined), quarried 40km away. Nearly all the temple’s surfaces, columns, lintels and even roofs are carved with kilometres of bas-reliefs showing scenes including unicorns, griffins, winged dragons, warriors and heavenly dancers.
Restoration began under French colonialists and the early 20th century saw the monument reclaimed from the jungle. In 1931 a life-size replica of Angkor Wat appeared at the Paris Colonial Exhibition, capturing the world’s imagination. With the growth of mass tourism, visitor numbers have swelled, from just 7650 in 1993, to an astonishing 2.5 million in 2018.
Damage from plant overgrowth, fungi, unstable ground, war and theft have taken their toll. During the Cambodian Civil War, Khmer forces took wood to make fires. Art thieves robbed the site of nearly every statue’s head as late as the 1980s and 90s. While nobody wishes to see monuments pillaged or destroyed, there is a certain romantic appeal in site’s battle with age, nature and human forces – and there’s something of this romance in the film that put Angkor Wat on my list: Wan Kar-Wai’s cult hit ‘In the Mood for Love’.
Without giving away the plot, I can reveal that one of the film’s main characters, a journalist called Chow Mo-wan, played by Tony Leung, tells us:
In the old days, if someone had a secret they didn’t want to share… you know what they did? They went up a mountain, found a tree, carved a hole in it, and whispered the secret into the hole. Then they covered it with mud. And leave the secret there forever.
Chow Mo-wan is later shown, watched by a monk, whispering the film’s secret into a hole in a temple wall – a temple that is, unmistakably, Angkor Wat. It’s an achingly beautiful moment, as we imagine his secret left behind in the temple never to be acted on. We wonder if his words will somehow seed in the sandstone and grow creeping vines. As a viewer, I almost felt the secret had been whispered into a cavity in my heart – and I became one of the thousands on Earth who want to see Angkor Wat before they die. I know I’m not alone. This blog even details how to find the precise wall and hole used for the filming.
Yet, seeking out a film location whose raison d’etre is privacy and secrecy is as ironic and problematic as the visitor numbers that threaten to overwhelm Angkor Wat. Perhaps the rethinking required to manage distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic will help to preserve this and other sacred cultural sites. And in the meantime, we can always satisfy our wanderlust with the silver screen.