Wat an Experience: The Temples of Angkor – Siem Reap, Cambodia

Wat an Experience: The Temples of Angkor

Siem Reap, Cambodia

It’s my first day at Angkor Wat, and I’m being ridden around the outer loop of temples on the back of a motorbike with a young local who drops me off at the entrances to the main sites with a mininum of fuss and waits till I wander back. The manager of the guest house alledges this guy speaks English, but he doesn’t, so to the suprise of the stall keepers who approach close enough to hear us, we converse in Japanese, in which we’re both equally bad.

The first thing I notice as I near the crumbling 12th century ruins of Preah Khan, is the constant metallic siren-like sound coming from the forest, presumably from some kind of cricket or cicada. As I sit amongst the hefty worn grey blocks of stone, lying around in rambling piles where they’ve fallen from their former towers, this sound is all I can hear, apart from the hoots of a bird in the distance.

The heavy heat of the afternoon sun, the still air, the smell of incense, the insects high in the trees, the greenery between the rock pillars, and the huge roots engulfing the ruins, all made more beautiful by the chance to experience it alone. This solitude is unexpected, and certainly not to be guessed if the hoards of foreign tourists bussed in from their hotels are any indication.

Occasionally I have to make way for them as they rumble past en masse at some of the more popular sites, crowding around some segment of a wall, or shown the best place to take their photos. One thing they won’t be able to appreciate is this sense of isolation found around midday at the less-visited spots on the merry-go-round. While they’re taken back to their hotels about 7 km away for lunch, these places can become deserted, and this is the atmosphere that can really bring out the best in the remote, overgrown ruins nestled in the forest.

Around sunset I check out the northern edge of South East Asia’s largest freshwater lake, Tonle Sap. The way to the dock is via a long, narrow, and impossibly crowded lane a couple of metres above water level, and hemmed in at both sides by stilted wooden shacks which cling precariously to the road like spiders to a floating stick. From here, boats leave for floating villages and the capital, Phnom Penh.

Having said sayonara to my motorbike, I savour a cold beer in town opposite the old market, and head off to the enticingly named Happy Herbs Restaurant. However, despite having consumed an entire pizza of the “very happy” variety, I am feeling decidedly normal and disappointed. I meet an English guy and we head to the Laundry Bar, a very cool establishment with down tempo tunes and funky décor.

Later I make a deal on the back of another motorbike, the bag of stringy weed passed covertly to me as we ride around town.

A hangover and a late start aren’t a good beginning to the following day, but I head off on my hired bicycle, the less rickety of a motley bunch on offer from the guesthouse for the late birds. After the introduction and orientation yesterday, the independence of the the cycle is the go, and I don’t regret it. The road to the temples is straight, flat, and busy, and despite the shaky contraption I’m using, the trip is only about half an hour to the entrance. After that, it’s up to the rider, though there are basically two overlapping circuits one can take when visiting the temple complex near Siem Reap.

Taking the inner route, I visit a few of the main sites. Angkor Thom is the 10 square kilometres of walled city which includes the Baphuon and the familiar Bayon. Angkor Thom is entered through one of the five gates, each reached via a causeway stretching over the 100 metre wide moat. The causeways are lined with 108 stone statues taken from Hindu mythology, Gods on one side, demons on the other, and they lead to the towering, ornate gateways, high enough to allow the passage of elephants and their riders.

The Bayon is one of the sites that many people have seen on TV or in magazines at some time, it’s numerous towers feature four smiling faces looking benevolently or smugly (I can’t decide which) down on its visitors, as well as other carvings depicting gods and historical events. It’s well worth seeing the towers illuminated by different shades of light at different times of day, with the overhead sun tending to bleach out the subtleties of the carvings.

Through the cacophony of “You want cold drink sah?!” eminating from the young women whose cold boxes are lined up outside (the older, less attractive mothers sit discreetly behind) and into the serene, silent, natural majesty of Ta Prohm. Again, this is a site probably known to many through photos, or movies such as “Tomb Raider”, but these ruins are a completely different kettle of rocks. This is one of those places that seems like it has improved with age. Here the trees have overwhelmed the centuries-old walls like a huge creeping snake.

These “nature’s comeback” sites are my favourite. Here the tall, straight trunks thrust upwards, high about the forest and ruins below. Having established a claim to their piece of sun-drenched territory, and with the decision made to allow them to stay and not renovate the ruins, their future seems assured. It seems the only task remaining is to secure a water supply, so like giant bonsai, their roots crawl down the slopes of blocks and scree that used to be parts of the crumbling towers. A thousand years ago these would have been bustling spaces, cleared and hectic, but now they are tranquil exhibits of how nature has been able, up to now, to return to its former glory, and overpower the short-lived upstart civilisations that temporarily appear in its midst.

The serenity is shattered by a miked-up tour guide leading a hotel-horde. Peace over, it’s time to move.

As the sunset approaches I finally make my way to Angkor Wat. I’ve been delaying this experience, thinking it might be the highlight, after which all else might pale in comparison. Being so famous, the crowds here are obviously the largest, and the pedestrian causeway leading to the front entrance resembles a busy city street, where white-legged, camera-carrying visitors rub sweaty shoulders with domestic tourists, who often seem as interested at the sight of foreigners as they do with the famed buildings on display.

The world’s largest religious building is justifiably reknown, but its proportions are probably best appreciated from a distance. One of the most picturesque views of its 55 metre high towers rising above the surrounding walls is from beyond the two ponds in front of it, in which its majestic image, glowing in the late afternoon sun, is reflected splendidly.

A number of long lenses sit poised on tripods here, but the view is marred by the ripplings in the pools caused by a errant pig drinking from the bank. To the amusement and relief of the assembled photographers, an accompanying guide from one of the resort hotels comically chases the offending beast around the pond, despite its stubborn attempts to stay. This is the level of service you can expect of your hired hand if staying in up-market lodgings.

Angkor Wat’s grandeur and scale are impressive, that can’t be denied, but something about these huge cathedrals, mosques, pyramids and other monuments that make up most of what we perceive as the great man-made wonders of the world leaves me with the thought that the time and money could have been better spent. Surely if a current world leader proposed such an extravagant and self-indulgent folly as the Taj Mahal, Tikal, or the funary temple I’m looking at now, requiring such massive human and financial resources of the state, wouldn’t we feel justified thinking that the person in question was an out-of-control megalomaniac who should be overthrown? But then again, it’s probably not much different from the public money spent on weapons by today’s superpowers.

Suprisingly, it isn’t the scale of this monument that really stands out for me though, it’s the more subtle, but nevertheless spectacular series of bas reliefs carved into the 800 metre wall around the central temple complex. Depicting famous events from Hindu mythology, the scenes include elephants, gods, demons, warriors, chariots and dancers in a series of panels that form the longest continuous bas relief in the world. Those on the western walls are illuminated magnificently by the last rays of the setting sun.

The next day, on the way to the temple complex, I take a slight diversion and visit the Landmine Museum, run by a former mine remover. I’m shown around by a teenaged boy who lost his leg when he was 8 years old, in a country where millions of mines remain, and the warnings about not straying off the beaten path are very literal. The sheds that constitute the museum house a diverse collection of disarmed explosives. It’s surprising how small some of them are. Designed, not to kill, but to inflict disabilitating injuries, many are only the size of a small jar of jam. They lie in rusting piles, so cheap to manufacture and put in the ground, so devastating to the victim, and so dangerous and time-consuming to remove from the ground.

There is a story on the wall telling of a family being blown up in a cart by an anti-tank mine. The child they were nursing was thrown from the cart in the explosion and stayed alive for three days suckling on its dead mother. It took this long for an expert to be brought in, and the path to the baby to be de-mined.

After this brush with recent Cambodian history, I cycle off to re-examine the bas reliefs at Angkor Wat in the light of late morning. That done, I head over to the amazing gates of Angkor Thom, and the area inside the walls, which is large enough for hours of meandering and vague wanderings.

Today’s post-smoke chill out is Preah Palilay, a cluttered jumble of slabs, or at least that’s what it looks like after Angkor Wat’s precise elegance. But alone here, sitting on the ruins of what must have been an outer wall, its isolation and sense of past is amplified, a unique experience. There’s no one here. The only sounds are birds in the canopy, chirping and whistling kinds, rarely seen. This is a forest. Easy to forget in the open stone expanses of the big sites. Not long ago it was all forest, this temple in front of me maybe barely recongnisable even as you approached it. Some of the encroachment of nature into development has been left, and the ruins are imbued with a pleasing sense of antiquity as a result.

As at the Mayan ruins in Central America, there is some speculation as to why this huge city was left to become ruins, and what led to the demise of such an obviously wealthy and organised metropolis. Is the answer an historical one, relating to the wars with the Thai kingdoms to the west and the subsequent shift of the Khmer court to the south? Or is there an ecological explanation, and does it lie in the fact that the natural balance of the ecosystem here, as in all forests, is a precarious one, and the environment can’t support large thriving communities of humans. The fertile layer of soil in such forests is very thin, and once the trees have been cleared is cruelly exposed, quickly becoming depleted and then arid. Examples abound the world over, such as the barren, once forested expanses of western Ireland, and the dry dusty plains of Australia, poisoned by salinity. I sit mulling over the state of the planet.

… a hooting bird starts calling. The backdrop to these birds remains the constant ring of the crickets.

The crickets change pitch, like some minimalist trance soundtrack. I close my eyes and focus on the sound. It separates out and bleeds together again. On a different track is the falling of leaves. They come to rest on the dry carpet of leaves with a rustle, changing the environment in their own miniscule way.

The sound of human voices again break me from my day dreams. A Khmer man, some kind of guard, looks around the corner at me. Curious? Suspicious? Maybe he’s the one who saw me earlier when I was having smoke. I move on.

Shaven headed monks examine the ruins at another forested site, their dull orange robes contrasting with the grey of the stones. They are a common sight in today’s Cambodia, but under the Khmer Rouge most of the Theravada Buddhist monks were murdered. It’s so hard to imagine, as an outsider experiencing the easygoing peacefulness of such a scene, the horrors of the Pol Pot period. Now, less than 30 years after the days of the infamous “killing fields”, and less than 10 years after the political demise of the Khmer Rouge, a casual visitor will see little evidence of it apart from the sites and museums preserving this part of the country’s history.

The birds continue singing above the jungle ruins.

A yellow-capped stomach carrier raises his arms over his head from the top of the steps, standing in triumph after his 10 metre ascent, posing for his camera-toting wife below.

How will the ever-increasing number of visitors these sites attract affect the temples? Obviously it’s largely aided their preservation, the tourist-pulling power of this place applying a financial counterweight to the archaeological work. But what price will their popularity have?

Will it manifest itself in the form of more signs forbidding entry, warning not to touch, or even “this way please” signs and closed circuit television?

It’s almost 3 p.m. so I quickly head off to Phnom Bakheng, the popular late-afternoon spot on a hill from which Angkor Wat can be viewed in the fading light. I plan to get there before the arrival of the sunset brigade and get it just right. They are starting to puff their way up the stairs in various versions of European as I leave.

I only have a three day pass to the temples and plan to leave tomorrow, so I feel a slight sadness as I make my way to the final destination, one last photo opportunity at Angkor Wat from the pools near the causeway, and another quick tour of the bas reliefs accentuated in the direct rays of the setting sun where, suprisingly, there aren’t any great hordes of tourists.

And finally, the ride home along the highway in the dark, the roaming in the gloaming, time to test yourself physically and mentally, and cap off an excellent Angkor experience.

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