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Andy’s Travel Diary

Tuesday, 30 Jan 2007

Location: Siam Reap, Cambodia


Please note: There will be no Angkor What jokes in this post.

Sad i know, but i really do have a '100 things to do before i die' list (remember Tara and Amelia?) This year has seen me tick off a fair few. One of the entries was to visit Angkor Wat in Cambodia. Ever since i saw their majestic splendour in photographs (which fail to them justice) i knew i had to visit them. So now i was back in Siam Reap. It was a pleasant five hour journey from Phnom Penh, but only because i refused to have no leg room and laid down the aisle much to the bemusement of the Cambodians on the coach who proceeded to stare at me laying on the floor for the next half hour.

After a day when the other five (Ruth, Susan, Louis, Tony and Raymondo) visited the Landmine Museum, which i had already seen on my previous trip, we hired two rickshaws for three days, a bargain at 15 dollars each.

Angkor is the heart and soul of Cambodia, a source of immense national pride. The largest temple is featured on the flag, and the name appears on businesses, hotels, guesthouses, restaurants and even the national beer (which is one hell of a tasty sud). They are world-class monuments on par with the pyramids of Giza and other wonders of the world that have survived into the modern era.

The temples of Angkor were the ancient capital of the Khmer empire and were constructed over a period of five hundred years, from the 9th to 13th centuries. They represent the pinnacle of Khmer art, architecture and civilization. Although the maverick psuedo-archeologist Graham Hancock argues the main temple was built by a progenitor civilization predating the age and empires of antiquity, it is unquestioned that the temples were the sacred political, religious and social heart of the Khmer empire whose economy, culture and military dominated the region until the 1200's. Ironically these fusions of creative vision and spitirual devotion weakened the empire; the effort, materials and sheer cost of such epic endeavours undermined and bankrupted the imperial crown.

Secular buildings, including houses, palaces and public buildings have long since decayed as the right to dwell in stone was a privilege reserved solely for the gods. As such it was hard to appreciate the epic scale of this city which, at its peak boasted a population of one million people. In comparison 'mighty' London numbered around 50,000.

The temple ruins number in the hundreds. The Cambodian god kings (devaraja) strove to better their ancestors in size, scale and wonder culminating in the world's largest religious building, Angkor Wat. It was here we would begin our journey.

Few who have seen Angkor Wat in the flesh would argue that i am being hyperbolic when i call the temple one of the most spectacular monuments ever conceived and built. It is artistically and aesthetically breathtaking, evoking power, harmony and balance through its sublime arrangement and proportions.

The vast complex is surrounded by a wide moat spanning 190m and we crossed to the main gate over a stone bridge led on both sides by seven-headed naga (mythical serpent-beings) balustrades. Walking through the compounds outer wall we emerged into the grounds of the complex, an open space of just over 200 acres. In the distance, sitting on the viewable horizon hung the main structure, like a picture. At first, due to its size and position the building appears two-dimensional but as we traversed the raised platform towards the structure it slowly gained depth and complexity. This was no ordinary walk however. We were undertaking a symbolic journey back to the creation of the universe.

The main building is an imposing three-tiered stone structure, each level of which encloses a square surrounded by intricate galleries. The building is crowned by five beehive like towers. Some scholars have noted the clear similarities between the temple structure and the spatial universe as conceptualised by Hindu mythology - Mount Meru, the abode of the gods and centre of the universe is represented by the massive central tower and smaller peaks, the continents, depicted in the lower courtyard and finally the oceans which are signified by the moat.

Why the Hindu mythology in a Buddhist country? As i've outlined before architecture, like fossils in eroded cliffs, can provide a cross-section of history and the forces shaping various times, spaces and peoples. Originally the temple was dedicated to the hindu god Vishnu (the four-armed, blue-skinned chap) giving an indication of the influences on this region when the temple was originally constructed. Later it was re-consecrated as a Buddhist sacred site. Every temple therefore is imbued with literal expressions of Hindu and Buddhist mythology such as the exquisite murals and intricate bas reliefs detailing stories of demons (asuras) and gods (devas). Less literal manifestations can be found in building layout, shape and structure.

Inside the main complex the walls were decorated with the finest images and geometric designs carved onto every surface. To reach the innermost sanctums requires a steep climb up thin steps, all the while trying not to look down. The stunning views over the surrounding countryside and temple compound were well worth the ascent. The climb down was less graceful and considerably longer.

On day two (of three) we awoke early, a mind-numbing five o'clock and rode through the dark to reach Angkor Wat before sunrise. In front of the main structure is a small lotus blossomed lake. We sat, albeit amongst a host of tourists, watching the sky change colour, from a rich teal to deep pinks and pastel oranges while the temple's form and nearby palms silhouetted in front; both were reflected in the lake. We walked back to the tuk tuk with the grass shrouded in mist and the temple hazy in the distance. It was easy to appreciate the religious and spiritual essence of these buildings.

Unfortunately the beauty and tranquility of the temples is starkly counterposed by the flocks of loud and vulturous kids circling around each entrance selling postcards and bracelets. Those outside Angkor Wat were undoubtedly the most vile. I appreciate their parents force this job on them and likely reprimand them if they do not sell enough, but hurling abuse and insults if i buy one set of postcards and no more is not going to tempt me to buy more than i need or want.

Bayon is located in the fortified ancient city of Angkor Thom which is surrounded by a 6 metre high, 8 metre wide, 12km long wall. We crossed a bridge spanning a bright pink moat which was flanked on either side by rows of warriors recently beheaded by the authories to prevent their theft by looters. Strange logic!Four monumental gates guard the entrance to the city, each is topped by four huge stone faces keeping watch over proceedings.

Bayon is nestled amongst tall trees and proved distinct from Angkor and most of the other temples. From a distance its features are indistinct, the temple resembling a pile of rubble. Closer up however, 216 vast faces take shape. Walking around the steeply tiered complex their eyes would eerily peer down at us from every direction. Four faces stare from each wall of 37 standing towers while 120 metres of detailed bas reliefs featuring 11,000 figures decorated the walls. Dancing, bare-breated women (oo-er), mythical bird creatures, gods, demons, kings and their military campaigns. Everywhere a different story was told, some sacred and epic, others mundane yet equally intriguing.

Bayon, like most of the temples we visited, was cleared of vegetation after a huge undertaking starting in 1908, interrupted by war in the 70's, and then resumed in the 1990's. One was left largely as found - Tah Prohm. My favourite; a charming, sprawling monastery complex; a maze of narrow and dark corridors, sunny, open plazas, crumbling walls and pillars (the chances of collapse are serious) and dangerously leaning beehive prangs and doorways. Most distinctively, massive fig and silk cotton trees have sprouted from the tops of walls or within hallways and rooms, their roots snaking down doorways or through windows and strangling pillars and lone-standing buildings. What man had created, nature was now digesting producing images both mysterious and beautiful.

If anyone has seen the movies Tomb Raider or Two Brothers recently you may recognise the pictures i will post.

Unlike Tah Prohm but distinct from all the others was Baphuon - the so-called 'biggest jigsaw puzzle in the world'. Archeologists painstakingly took it apart, keeping meticulous records. Conforming to Sod's Law these were subsequently destroyed during the chaos of the Khmer Rouge. Research and rebuilding is under way but is slow work as one can appreciate. It is still largely incomplete, including the 70 metre long reclining Buddha i hoped to see. As such it was not impressive, however some of the small gates around the wall, half collapsed and moss covered were enchanting.

For sunset one day we climbed a large hill to Phnom Bakheng, past elephants carrying passengers too lazy or with too much money to the top, and then past a group of men who were affected by the war and were trying to rebuild their lives through catchy music on asian instruments. Crowning the top of the hill, the temple lacks any architectural or visual importance but climbing the last few steps revealed the worth of the 15 minute walk - a panoramic view of fields, rice paddies and forests, hazy from dusk and the smoke stacks rising from local villages. In the far distance lay Tonle Sap lake and in the opposite direction, peeking through some nearby trees nestled the peaks of Angkor Wat. We all sat and watched as the sun, a bright red disc sunk into the horizon. Even the crowds could not ruin the atmosphere and in fact contributed to it. Everyone was present for the same reason, appreciating how lucky we were to be in Cambodia, enjoying a wonder of the world. Little could spoil that feeling.

The temples were truly wondorous. Some were built with pink sandstone, stunnning in the afternoon sun, others were built in grey but coloured turquoise by lichen or burnt orange and dusty red through chemical reactions. Colours, hues and character changed depending on the time of day and position of light. Inside dark, dank chambers of stone with buddhas nestled snuggly within. Narrow, columned corridors led to grand open plazas or further labyrinthine walkways and steps. Stone doorways led off to smaller ones a few feet later, then another, and another, as if standing in the middle of two face-to-face mirrors. Grand gates, towering prangs and ornate doorframes stood lonely amongst collapsed rubble after roofs and hallways had given in to time and weather and piles of stone were strewn liberally throughout many of the temples, green from moss. Despite the clearing of jungle and forest over the past century creppers climbed all over sections of some of the temples and ferns had taken the opportunity to sprout out of damp nooks and crannies.

I occassionally felt like Indiana Jones but the other tourists were getting tired of my leather whip cracking on their legs and it got confiscated. Then i lost my cowboy hat when a heavy stone doorway descended from the ceiling and my hand wasn't quick enough. Don't even get me started on the large boulder which chased me down a narrow passageway and threatened to flatten me. (Please note: These events cannot be confirmed).

Tucked away in various dark corners of the temples were buddha statue's draped in saffron dyed cloth and worshippers crowded around bowing and praying. Shafts of light pierced the darkness from small holes in the roofs, and the squeeking of bats and flutter of their wings could be heard high up. Joss sticks filled the air with smoke and aroma, and candles lit the darkest corners where people prayed. In Bayo, an old nun dressed in white sat smiling with her head poking out of a small window up a flight of stairs. She beckond me up to the dark cubby hole she sat in and motioned for me to sit, then forced some joss sticks into my hand which i placed in the sand filled bowl. She taught me to bow and repeat the words "sop sabai". I have no idea what that means, for all i know it was Khmer for "I don't need deodarant, I only need Buddha" judging from the smell. She kept smiling and thanked me as i parted.

There were so many more sights. The terrace of the elephants and leper king were 300 metre long viewing stands which would have been used for public ceremonies and parades. Originally topped by wooden pavilions and gold framed windows, all that remained were stairways boasting three headed elephants, impeccably preserved bas reliefs and statues of winged beings seemingly supporting the stands. Preah Neak Pean also stood out - a central tower set a amongst a square pool which in turn was surrounded by four smaller pools laid out in a symmetrical design.

To finish off the trip we paid ten dollars each to see Angkor Wat frm the air in a big yellow balloon and large circular metal cage attached to the bottom. with a large jolt and an audibly squeel from my mouth we slowly ascended to height of nerly 200 metres. the views were stunning. We watched as the patchwork of rice paddies , rows of palms and bamboo hat wearing workers began to shrink while my fear grew. I hate heights. Looking up at the balloon was not a good idea. I have a vivid imagiantion when it comes to disasters and kept visualising the balloon bursting while the metal cage hung in the air for the briefest of seconds before realising the natural order of things. So I had to sit on the floor for five minutes refusing to look over the edge. One i calmed down i got my courage back (though not my dignity) and peered out to see Angkor Wat, the largest religious building in the world far below. Stunning - it is the only word i can use to describe it.

Three days and innumerable temples later we tuk-tuked back to the guesthouse immensely satisfied. In the evenings we all partied down the main street of bars and clubs, but that does not need any more explaining.

We were ready to move on after a few days. It had been a heavy week and a half; the Killing Fields, S-21, the Bon Om Tuk festival, and finally the delights of Cambodia's ancient history. Some beach time seemed was highly deserved.


Next stop: Sihanoukville.

Saying of the week: "No money, no honey". This was the wisdowm imparted to us by a 'tour guide' who tagged onto our group for fiteen minutes and did nothing but talk about his lack of girlfriends and then cheekily asked for money afterwards.