29 Nov 2009 CAMBODIA
Cambodia 22 – 29 November Of late I have visited Europe every other year with the intention of seeing another part of the world in the intervening year. Because of the global financial crisis I had no intention of going anywhere in 2009 until the lure of cheap airfares prompted me to book a week's stay in Cambodia (entry 7 April this year) to at last realise a long-cherished desire of mine to see Angkor Wat. By the time I had made all the necessary arrangements, my week overseas turned out to be just about the most expensive of any I have experienced during a lifetime of travel. But what a week it was . . .
I did not expect to see a set of traffic lights in Siem Reap (a two-hour flight north of Singapore), identical to many I had encountered in China, with an illuminated display for the road traffic, showing the number of seconds to go before the lights changed. I came to Cambodia with mixed feelings about the country (misgivings about its politics, coupled with admiration of its ancient culture), but I liked what I saw on the short drive from the airport to my hotel, in no small measure due to having been met by my affable guide Chaya and equally affable driver Venn (pronounced to rhyme with ‘one’).
On my first evening I wanted to check out the craft shops in the hope of being able to do my Christmas shopping in Cambodia. I was quoted $4 – ironically the US$ is the currency of tourism – for a return journey by tuk-tuk (motor-cycle rickshaw), which included allowing me to browse in several shops. We headed into town along a road with plenty of craft emporia for me to sample. A number of shops sold items made by victims of land mines, the proceeds helping to provide for them. The tuk-tuk driver was as good as his word and waited patiently while I took my time visiting each shop, not quite finding the attractive, authentic and unusual yet easy to pack gifts I had in mind. But the main purpose of my trip was to see temples (Cambodia apparently has 2,000 of them), starting with Angkor Wat, not doing my Christmas shopping.
Chaya had arranged to collect me from the hotel at 8.30 the next morning. Our first port of call was the place where passes are issued for the temples of the Angkor region. A three-day pass had already been bought for me, but it needed to be validated by including my photo. The booking office, with its many ticket windows, faced a large car park full of tour buses and was extremely busy. People waited in several long queues in the open air, but I was ushered to the head of one of the queues and asked to stand still in front of a small camera, which was manipulated by an operator from behind the ticket window. It was the work of an instant to print my photo on the pass and we were off to Angkor Wat.
A short drive took us to the moat which surrounds the temple. It is 200 metres across and the outer banks form a 1.5 x 1.3km rectangle. Like the Taj Mahal, which I visited 30 years ago, Angkor, which predates the 17th century Taj by 500 years, lived up to my expectations of it, even though restoration work prevented us ascending to its second and third levels. The Khmer temples, whether originally dedicated to Hinduism or Buddhism, are characterised by long, narrow galleries and chambers, with openings of post and lintel construction, culminating in a central tower or a group of towers, often atop a stepped platform. There are no domes or wide spans. The layout can be extremely intricate. Apart from its gigantic scale and excellent state of preservation, the great glory of Angkor Wat is its five towers and the wonderfully carved bas-reliefs which are hundreds of metres long. The reliefs are like unbelievably detailed three-dimensional drawing, shallow and very subtly formed. The stones on which they are incised are so accurately dressed that it is difficult to see the joins. The galleries portray Hindu myths and Khmer history, both peopled by armies either marching or fighting. The other side of this bloodthirsty coin is the eroticism of the Asparas, naked young dancing women, who are part of Hindu iconography. Occasionally the militarism yields to the blissful depiction of a charming forest scene with birds and animals.
Chaya was an excellent and intelligible guide who indulged me in my penchant for at times wandering off the beaten track. Altogether I spent nearly three hours at Angkor Wat, which struck me as just about the right amount of time. I found that there was a limit to the portrayal of bloodletting I was willing to see, no matter how skilfully the carver had depicted the floral pattern on a warrior’s shirt.
Our next destination was Ta Prohm, its claim to fame being its ‘controlled’ jungle setting with the immense roots of huge rainforest trees breaching its walls, providing unforgettable images and a sense of what confronted Henri Mouhot when he first saw Angkor Wat in the mid 19th century. Not surprisingly, Ta Prohm is in a more ruined state than Angkor Wat. It is also much smaller, and given the number of people there, conditions were rather cramped. We could hear, but not see, parrots in the trees. Chaya and Venn dropped me back at my hotel for lunch and arranged to pick me up for my 2.30pm helicopter trip.
Chaya joined me for the flight, although I don’t know if he really enjoyed it. We were the only passengers. The helicopter was piloted by a young man from Melbourne. We were supposed to fly at 1000 feet, but the pilot told me we were flying at 700 feet. The atmosphere was slightly hazy which narrowed the distant horizon. The flight lasted about 16 minutes, in which time we flew over Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom. We saw a couple of hilltop temples. We also flew over Ta Prohm, but one wouldn’t have known because it was hidden by jungle, the true extent of which is hard to judge from the air given the amount of agricultural land and open country one can see. I was particularly interested in the West Baray which I had glimpsed prior to landing at Siem Reap airport. It was constructed in the 11th century. It is a vast tank 8km long, 2.2km wide and an average 7 metres deep, which is still filled with water, unlike the slightly smaller and earlier East Baray over which we also flew; its outline clearly marked by trees. We had a superb view of the West Baray from the helicopter. It was my birthday and the helicopter flight was an extra birthday celebration.
Whether it was on our morning drive to Angkor or the afternoon drive to the airport, I was overcome by an intense sadness – brought on by the thought of the unspeakable and unimaginable trauma of the Pol Pot years – as I took in the passing scene with Cambodians peacefully going about their lives. It seems that Cambodia cannot transcend its ancient culture. The military are much in evidence by their barracks, bases and outposts and when I travelled further afield, soldiers could occasionally be seen on guard duty by the side of the road.
Following our helicopter flight we drove to nearby Angkor Thom, a 12th century walled city some 3km square, entering by the South Gate which is reached by a causeway over the moat. The causeway has balustrades made up on one side of 54 gods tugging on a giant naga (serpent) and 54 demons on the other side pulling on its twin. I found their combined and lively presence riotously unexpected and utterly delightful, quite the opposite of the rather pedestrian (no pun intended) sculptures on Prague’s famed Charles Bridge. The gate, with its towers adorned by four serene faces, presages one of Cambodia’s most famous temples, the inscrutable Bayon, the city temple of Angkor Thom, located at its centre. The road leading to it is straight, with broad verges which give way to jungle. About half way along, monkeys gather, attracting visitors to feed and photograph them. They seem to know their place and don’t appear to stray into other sections of the road.
The Bayon has been appropriately described as one of the most enigmatic religious buildings in the world. It appears to be in a jungle clearing, though a large area of open ground lies close by to the west. There are 37 towers still standing, out of an original 49, each carved with four Bhodisattva-like faces. As we approached the temple, the cicadas struck up a sound which was more like an electronic alarm than the pulsating rattle sound of the cicadas on Tamborine Mountain. Given that it was winter, I shudder to think how much noise the cicadas would have made in summer. In the subtropics the cicadas shut up shop for winter. The Bayon’s exquisite bas-reliefs are deeper than Angkor Wat’s and cast shadows, which those at Angkor Wat don’t. Chaya managed to track down a cicada in the temple, which was no mean feat since it was small and grey and clamped to the grey stone wall of an inner chamber. I had noticed that wherever we ended a temple tour, which was never where we had started, we didn’t have far to go to find the car and be greeted by a smiling Venn.
After exploring the Bayon we walked to the next temple, which was a ruinous mound approached by a long, raised stone path. I gazed at it longingly and turned away – to be met by Venn. We drove slowly past the Elephant Terrace, a 300 metre long ceremonial platform, behind which was the Royal Palace. The platform overlooks a large, level area ending with a line of crumbling stone towers and the rainforest. Chaya wanted to show me the carvings on the terrace of the Leper King, which adjoins the Elephant Terrace, and thereafter I asked to visit the grounds of the Royal Palace. There was little to see, other than two large pools.
Next day we set out at 8.30 on the two-hour drive to Beng Melea. One of the great pleasures of travelling as I did was that we could stop by the side of the road to look at waterlilies in a pond, because they were unlike the ones I had filmed on the Mountain. As a bonus, we also saw lotus plants and a lotus flower. I was intrigued by this plentiful plant, which I had also seen in China, but did not know it was the legendary lotus until Chaya told me. After about 40 minutes on the road to Phnom Penh, we pulled up in a bustling village so that he could show me the market.
It was criss-crossed by narrow, dirty passages crowded with Cambodians and lined with stalls selling all manner of produce and food, clothes and basic household goods. Some of the smells were aromatic, some pungent and others, such as the fish paste, downright putrid. Live fish, hauled out of Tonle Sap Lake, languished in a dish with insufficient water to cover them. One had managed to jump out of the dish onto the path where it lay forlornly. Neither the stall-holder or anyone else could be bothered to retrieve it. Here we turned onto the road to Beng Melea. Chaya explained that the houses we were passing, just beyond the village centre, were not connected to the electricity supply, although many were substantial and well built. After nearly an hour we came to a checkpoint where Chaya purchased my ticket for Beng Melea. Past the checkpoint the road became a graded track and a little while later we arrived at our destination.
A dusty path led to the most distant temple we visited, dating from the mid 12th century and built during the reign of the builder of Angkor Wat. Beng Melea is Ta Prohm remote, truly set in the jungle and on a far larger scale. The temple was in ruins. Vast heaps of stones toppled by time and the encroaching trees remained where they had fallen. Bits of galleries appeared intact, but were in danger of collapsing. A mighty rainforest tree grew where the central tower had once stood. Birdsong was everywhere. A lizard tried to sun itself, but crawled under a stone as we passed and then retraced our steps. I saw small, very yellow butterflies, larger black ones with a touch of blue, the ubiquitous Wanderer or its local relative and some, like Caper Whites. The amazing fact about the heaps of stones is that the only Cambodian buildings made of stone were temples, so later generations had no use for them, which explains why they are still where they fell centuries ago. Had this been England after Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries, or Oliver Cromwell’s slighting of royalist castles, the stones would have been used for other buildings. Beng Melea has a magical atmosphere. The only other visitors were some agile, elderly Cambodians and a family group which included two western women.
Banteay Srey is another key temple, about half way to Siem Reap from Beng Melea. We drove along graded dirt roads, initially in sight of a range of densely wooded flat-topped hills, about the same height as Tamborine Mountain, but longer. We began at Banteay Srey’s visitor centre, which has an interesting display of its history and preservation. The temple is small and was built in the 10th century. Its carving, which profusely covers lintels, pediments and towers and adorns sanctuaries, shrines and galleries, is regarded as the finest in Khmer art. For the first time I saw traces of the brickwork which was the preferred material for the earliest temples. I had an excellent lunch of beautiful steamed vegetables, boiled fish served in a hollowed-out coconut shell and plain rice, in a restaurant situated close to the temple precinct. Suitably refreshed and re-energised we proceeded to Banteay Samre, a much restored temple, a bit off the main visitor route, with an impressive outer wall. Some of the roofs feature ridge decoration. That was it for the day. Except that the road back to Siem Reap went past the immensely imposing Pre Rup. I just had to stop and explore it.
The temple dates from the late 10th century, is largely built of brick and is remarkably well-preserved. Like Angkor Wat, it is a temple mount which culminates in a group of five towers on a platform 12 metres above ground level. Inside the eastern length of the outer wall are five of an original six large brick towers, some in a more ruined state than others. After we made a circuit of the outer and inner enclosures, Chaya waited for me while I climbed to the platform. The steps were at a 70-degree angle. I have a strong self-preservation instinct, so, throwing dignity aside, I opted to clamber on hands and knees. I descended on foot, with care. A good hour after we entered Pre Rup, we resumed our journey back to my hotel. I had started the day’s touring with the bonus of a roadside stop, what an even better bonus on which to end it.
Before setting off the following day, I had a look at the flying foxes which occupied three or four tall trees in the municipal park across the road from my hotel. We drove first to Siem Reap’s market area to collect my picnic lunch from one of the cafes and then, for an hour or so, to catch the boat for our trip to a fishing village. We boarded a traditional looking wooden craft, with room for about a dozen passengers. It was powered by a rickety motor. We sat in comfortable cane chairs, shaded from the sun, Chaya and I the only passengers once again. Both sides of the channel leading into Tonle Sap lake were lined with houses. As we neared open water, floating dwellings replaced houses on stilts. After the rainy season the area of the lake increases several fold. The open water at the mouth of the channel was not part of the lake proper. We tied up to a tree, watching kingfishers on a neighbouring clump of trees and seagulls flying to and fro, enjoying the tranquillity of being on the water. It was all very novel and picturesque, but I have no desire to live in a stilt house, let alone a floating one.
The boat trip was combined with a visit to the outlying Roulos group of three temples, the first of which, Lolei, hardly seemed worth seeing except it was where we were to have lunch. The temple consists of the remains of three 9th century brick towers with door jambs and lintels of stone. It is within the grounds of a modern monastery. We ate lunch, sitting at a cafe table under a shady tree. My picnic was very tasty. Chaya and Venn bought their lunch at the cafe but tried some of my food. The second temple, Preah Ko, was more complete, also dating from the late 9th century. It consists of six brick towers in good condition and little else. The towers have patches of superb lime mortar sculpture, notably on lintels. The sculpture, moulding and decoration of the Khmer brick towers are far beyond the accomplishments of the builders in brick in early mediaeval Europe, which they predate by over 300 years. Door jambs at the entrance to the sanctuaries are covered by inscriptions in the elegant, ancient Khmer script, the lines perfectly straight and perfectly spaced. Such was the case here.
Chaya deftly left Bakong, the best of the group, to last. In its way it is as imposing as Pre Rup and Beng Melea. The revised 2003 edition of the guidebook I bought in the hotel shop, states that the broad moat around the inner enclosure is dry. At the time of my visit it was filled with water. This temple also is of the late 9th century and is the earliest Khmer large temple-mountain, setting the pattern for the next 400 years. Unlike other temples of this period, Bakong is built of stone although within the enclosing wall there are four pairs of brick towers (in varying states of preservation) on either side of the four gates which align with the steps leading up to the central tower. There are other brick buildings and stone long halls in the enclosure. The richly decorated tower is 15 metres high and rests on a platform of five tiers, the highest of which is 14 metres above ground level. Chaya and I took our time to look at the various halls and towers surrounding the temple pyramid. He then said he would wait for me while I climbed to the central tower. I again crawled up the vertiginous steps on my hands and knees, examining the statues of elephants on the three lowest tiers. It was hot work. By late afternoon I was glad to be back in my hotel.
I did not rest for long. I had some shopping to do in the Old Market. I decided to walk and arrived at the market feeling hot and bothered. The place was packed with shops, stalls and people. I tried a number of craft/souvenir shops and was on the point of giving up when I happened upon a silversmith’s shop. The shopkeeper was a young woman. I explained what I was after and she started to produce some very attractive pieces of silverware. At last I had found what I wanted, so I asked her for pen and paper and quickly made a Christmas present list. We haggled a little and agreed on a price. The young woman carefully wrapped my purchases. I told her that I would be back on the morrow if I had left anyone off the list and, much relieved, walked back to the hotel.
The final tour was to Phnom Kulen, the mountain plateau we had seen on the journey to and from Beng Melea. The mountain, which is covered in tropical rainforest, provided the stone for the Angkor temples. The last third of the journey was on unmade roads. Venn was a most skilled, careful and considerate driver, never more so than when we ascended the mountain. The track was too narrow in places to allow vehicles to pass one another, which meant that one had to ascend before noon. Thereafter only descending traffic was allowed on the track. Venn’s driving overcame the worst of the undulations and potholes. The tropical rainforest was dense, but I saw no birds or animals. We came to a clearing with a sizeable market in full swing. There had been no prior sign of human activity. Nearby was our first objective, a reclining Buddha carved out of the top of a large rock. A long flight of steps led to the sculpture. We had to remove our shoes in order to see it. Chaya had the most delicately small feet of any man I have met, which one would never have guessed from the shoes he wore. The Buddha was not worth the journey. Next we went to a stream with ancient sculptures of lingas in its bed. They weren’t worth the journey either. The stream formed a spectacular waterfall with a 50-metre drop.
I now looked forward to lunch, which was at the restaurant at Banteay Srey. On the way Chaya explained the intricacies of recent Khmer politics, in response to my questioning. I did not get a clear impression of how he survived the Pol Pot years. He would have been quite young and I certainly did not press him on the subject. I wanted to know how Cambodia got rid of the Khmer Rouge and what had happened since. I was surprised to be told that former King Sihanouk was still alive at 86, since he first came to power in the mid 1950s following the withdrawal of the French.
Lunch was as good as on the previous occasion. I ordered chicken soup plus the fish. I was unable to finish the soup, which was a meal in itself. That was all that was planned for the day. On reflection, although I love rainforest, this tour was not a good choice. I very much wanted to see Preah Khan, which, though a little out of the way, is close to Angkor Thom and highly rated in my guidebook.
Chaya very kindly agreed to my request. Venn had to phone his boss, who thankfully gave his permission. We needed to get a one-day temple pass, which meant retracing our first day’s journey past Angkor Thom’s terraces, the Bayon, the South Gate with its causeway, Angkor Wat’s moat and then returning by the same route to reach Preah Khan. It is located in jungle, covers almost as large an area as Angkor Wat, was built a few decades later and is in a more ruined state. Chaya took me on a rainforest path close to the perimeter wall of the inner enclosure. Only half the circuit is in rainforest. The cicada alarm system was in full working order. I saw large numbers of black bugs crawling on the sandy ground and a tiny frog on an earth bank. We could hear parrots and other forest birds. Within the wall there was one enormous strangler fig and I struggled to find a vantage point to fully see it, but there was always something in the way. We entered the temple on a paved platform with balustrades like those of Angkor Thom’s South Gate, but with fewer sculptures and those in poor condition. The carving in the temple reflected Hindu and Buddhist influences, such as a stupa in the central sanctuary and a reclining Vishnu in one of the chambers. Close to the perimeter wall was a two storey building, unusual because buildings are otherwise single storey and because it has round supporting columns. There were some tree roots every bit as spectacular as Ta Prohm’s.
Preah Khan saved the day. At the hotel I took my leave of Chaya, having written a glowing report about him for his boss. Chaya gives English lessons to augment his income from tour guiding and his wife owns a shop. They live in a commune. He rode to work on a motorbike, which he parked in the hotel employees’ car park. I also took leave of Venn, not knowing whether he was scheduled to drive me to the airport next afternoon. His English was minimal. He communicated by smiling, being attentive and by his gentle nature. I showed my appreciation of Chaya and Venn in a very practical way.
I had left two couples off my Christmas present list. I walked to the market. It was rather hot. I wasn’t sure if I could find the silversmith’s shop again. Happily the shopkeeper and I both saw each other at the same moment. I took a tuk-tuk back to the hotel, the breeze cooling me down. Much to my delight, Venn drove me to the airport.
22-29 November 2009