Sunday, 16 March 2014

Cambodia: ancient temples of the Khmer Empire

An early morning view of Angkor Wat, seen just after sunrise
© Andy Brown/Cambodia/2012
Two years ago, my honeymoon blog stalled in Luang Prabang, Laos. I returned to a busy work schedule, but it’s been at the back of my mind ever since to finish the story.

After leaving Luang Prabang, Joyce and I continued our overground trip by bus instead of boat. Our next stop was Vang Vieng, a beautiful riverside town backed by craggy cliffs that was somewhat spoilt by hordes of teenage backpackers getting drunk or high and ‘tubing’ down the river in tractor tyres. There were bars selling ‘happy meals’ laced with cannabis, and ‘super happy meals’ laced with opium. All this would have been fine on a party island like Ibiza, but felt somewhat inappropriate in rural Laos.

Out of town, however, we had great opportunities for mountain biking, kayaking and even a spectacular hot air balloon ride up the valley at sunset. We flew high over the river, then low over fields and villages. Trees cast long shadows and children chased the balloon, waving and shouting ‘sabai dee’ (hello in Lao).

From Vang Vieng we continued south to Vientiane, where we rejoined the Mekong river. It was dry season and a huge sand bar had emerged in the middle of river, where couples strolled in the early evening, monks watched the sunset, and teenagers played football. We even saw a couple posing for a pre-wedding photo in an army jeep. From Vientiane, we caught a flight to our final destination – Siem Reap in Cambodia, home of the famous temples of Angkor.

Getting high, the aeronautical way, in Vang Vieng, Laos
© Joyce Lee/Laos/2012
Welcome to the jungle

Compared to Laos, the first thing that struck me about Cambodia was how flat it was. The land stretched into the distance with barely a wrinkle in its surface. We saw waterlogged green and yellow paddy fields, tall trees with round tops making straight lines perpendicular to the flat horizon, and fat buffalo wandering through the fields. Between the fields were villages of bamboo huts raised on stilts. At 33°C, it was also noticeably hotter than Laos, and the plain shimmered in the baking heat.

Of course, the main reason to visit Siem Reap is the nearby temples of Angkor, relics of the vast Khmer Empire that stretched across South East Asia from the 9th to 15th Century AD. It’s something of a modern myth that the temples were subsequently lost in the jungle, and the civilisation that built them forgotten, until they were rediscovered in the 19th Century by French colonial archaeologists.

In fact, although some of the temples had become overgrown and reclaimed by the jungle, they were well known to local people. The biggest temple, Angkor Wat, had a working monastery in the temple compound right through the colonial period to the present day.

We had read that it was possible to tour the ruins by bicycle, which at first seemed like a great idea. We hired a bicycle guide, Puthy, and set off in the relatively cool early morning. Angkor is some distance outside Siem Reap, and we cycled north up the river. We soon left the manicured tourist district, and entered a very different side of the town.

The road deteriorated to a packed earth track, and there was a fence in the river holding back a substantial body of rubbish. Beyond this was a slum. It was noticeably poorer than similar districts in Thailand. The huts were made from scrap wood and looked like they could fall into the river at any minute. It was also more dangerous. At one point, we had to stop because there was a violent brawl in the street ahead. People had adjusted to life in the slum, however, and we saw fairly sophisticated barber and tailor shops running out of wooden shacks.

“People move to Siem Reap for work, but they cannot afford to buy land, so they end up here by the river,” Puthy observed.

Approaching the gates of Angkor Thom, guarded by four stone faces
© Andy Brown/Cambodia/2013
East to West

After an hour or so, we arrived at the gates of Angkor Thom, the ancient walled city housing many of the temples. Above the archway were four giant stone faces, looking north, south, east and west. There is a similar gate in each of the four walls, so in total 16 faces keep watch on the roads in and out of the city. Each was carved slightly differently but they were recognisably the same face, all smiling enigmatically.

“In Cambodian tradition, the east represents birth and the west represents death,” Puthy said. “This is because the sun rises in the east and sets in the west. So we always enter Angkor Thom by the east gate and leave by the west. When we sleep, we face east for good luck, and when we die, we are buried facing west.”

We passed through the gate and cycled on to Bayon, the main temple at the centre of the city. Puthy showed us stone carvings around the outside walls, depicting a series of battles and victory parades. In places, you could still see hints of red dye on monk’s robes.

Puthy pointed out the Cambodian soldiers with long ears and distinctive hairstyles. With some relish, he contrasted these with a regiment of Thai recruits dressed in loincloths. “People think Cambodian culture comes from Thailand but actually it’s the other way round,” he said. “We tell visitors the true history. Thailand was a backwards province of Cambodia.”

There were also fascinating scenes of daily life around the battles scenes. Ancient Cambodian villagers hunted in the forest, where one was eaten by a tiger. A Chinese palm reader sat under an umbrella outside a temple. A monkey tried to steal fruit from an ox-drawn cart. Chinese and Cambodians villager competed in cock fighting. A rich family played chess while being entertained by dancers. A man fished in the river and women sold fish at the market, using weighing scales to calculate the prices. Villagers cooked barbeque pork and ate it with sticky rice.

“Many of these things are still the same,” Puthy said. “Local people still fish with these nets, and we still like eating pork and rice with our hands. It’s more delicious than using a spoon.”

Puthy points to a detail in the stone carvings at Bayon temple
Above are two of the 200 or so enigmatic smiling faces
© Andy Brown/Cambodia/2012
Killing fields

I also asked Puthy about more recent Cambodian history, in particular the notorious Khmer Rouge which terrorised the country for over a decade from 1968 to 1979, killing an estimated 2.2 million people in their attempt to create the perfect Maoist state.

“Everyone in Cambodia was affected by the Khmer Rouge,” he replied. “My grandfather came to Cambodia from China. He was killed by the Khmer Rouge. After that, my mother had to work hard to get enough food for us to eat. She had no time for education. Even today, she is illiterate.”

The temple really came to life when we went inside and climbed to the top level. Here, there were around 200 versions of the same enigmatic face we had seen over the gates. Most of them were looking out across the treetops where the ancient wooden city buildings would have once stood. It’s not completely clear who the face is supposed to be. The most likely candidates are LokeĊ›vara, the Buddha of compassion, or Jayavarman VII, the Khmer King who built Angkor Thom in the late 12th century. Possibly it’s a deliberate combination of the two.

After Bayon, we visited Ta Prohm, an atmospheric temple that has only been partially reclaimed from the jungle. Huge 300-year-old trees sat on top of the ruins. Their roots are now integral to the temple itself, and impossible to remove without destroying the ruins. We heard parrots squawking in the trees above, and Puthy pointed out their distant avian ancestors, held by people in the stone carvings.

Joyce and I demonstrate the scale of the trees and ruins at Ta Prohm
© Andy Brown/Cambodia/2013
Decline and fall

It was fascinating stuff, but by this point we were getting exhausted. Cycling was fun to start with but after a few hours the intense heat was getting to us. The temples looked close on the map but in fact, like the countries of Africa, the dimensions and distances were much larger than they seemed.

We had also accidentally visited at Chinese New Year and busloads of tourists crowded the temples, pushing and shoving their way to the front. We were feeling dehydrated, tired and jaded. The final straw came in the afternoon, when Puthy attempted to take us to a hilltop temple to watch sunset. At the foot of the hill, the guard told us there were already 4,000 people up there.

On the way I had seen groups of Cambodian families sat in the park opposite Angkor Wat, having picnics. I suggested to Joyce that we do the same. We sat on the stone steps leading down to the moat around the temple walls, and watched as the spires turned from beige to orange and gold.

While we were there, I noticed young boys selling turtles to local tourists. Like the birds in Luang Prabang, the idea was to gain good karma by releasing the turtle into the water. The concept didn’t stand up to much scrutiny – by buying the turtles, the people seeking good karma were in fact creating the demand that led to them being captured in the first place.

The boys were selling the turtles for $1 each. The man next to us attempted to get a bargain price for two. In the end he bought just one turtle and released it into the moat. As soon as he had gone, one of the boys waded into the water and recaptured it.

Puthy spoke to the boy in Khmer. “He will not say where he got the turtles,” he told me. “I said he should let them go, but he said ‘I cut my leg to get this one, why should I?’ Many children drop out of school to sell souvenirs to tourists and earn some money for their families.”

I was struck by the contrast between the ancient glories of the Cambodian Empire and the present day poverty of a nation still struggling to emerge from the genocide of the Khmer Rouge. As we sat there on the stone steps, the sun set behind us and the vast grandeur of Angkor Wat turned dark.

A young turtle seller opposite the ruins of Angkor Wat at sunset
© Andy Brown/Cambodia/2012
Have a tuk-tuk

The next day, we changed our strategy and hired a tuk-tuk driver, Somrach. Appropriately enough, he wore a t-shirt saying ‘Have a break, have a tuk-tuk,’ parodying the famous Kit-Kat slogan. Following Lonely Planet’s advice, we revisited the temples in the reverse order to the organised tours, with a break in the middle of the day. This enabled us to dodge the worst of the crowds.

Over the next two days, we visited places like Phnom Bakheng, the temple which had 4,000 visitors at sunset. At 8am, however, it had around a dozen, and there were moments when we had the entire hilltop to ourselves. We walked across the immense Terrace of Elephants at Angkor Thom, and drove out to Banteay Srei, a small temple with incredibly intricate and well-preserved carvings. We watched sunset from the top level of the pyramid temple of Pre Rup, on the outskirts of the ruins, while local women cut bamboo outside the temple walls.

On the longest stretch, to Banteay Srei, we drove through villages of stilt houses where people still cooked on traditional earth stoves. The earth was piled and packed into a hollow dome, a fire lit beneath, and wood pushed in the side. Women would then cook food in woks on top of the dome. Animals sheltered in the shade beneath the houses, and children ran around playing games. It was strikingly similar to the village scenes we had seen depicted on the temple walls at Bayon.

On the morning of our last day we got up early and went to Angkor Wat for sunrise. We arrived at 5:30. It was still dark and we walked out over the stone bridge in the pitch black. We found a spot next to a lake opposite the temple, where we could see the distinctive outline of the three towers against the starry sky. When dawn came, it was sudden, going from dark to early morning light in just fifteen minutes. The colour of the sky shifted rapidly through reds, oranges and yellows, as the details of the temple walls became visible, and birds started calling out from the surrounding trees.

Joyce having a break with tuk-tuk driver Somrach
© Andy Brown/Cambodia/2012
Our final destination was not a temple at all, but the market in the centre of Siem Reap. Around the outside were stalls selling Angkor-themed souvenirs to tourists, but inside it was still very much a local market. Women sat barefoot on a raised platform surrounded by trays of fresh fish, meat and vegetables. It was full of the smell of fish and din of shoppers haggling over prices. Meat juices flowed from the platform into a gunk-filled open drain beside the walkway.

In another section, hairdressers washed and cut hair and seamstresses worked at sewing machines, laughing and joking as they stitched. As we were leaving, we saw a coconut shop with a large metal press for making coconut milk and shredding flesh. It took Joyce back to her childhood in Hong Kong, when her grandfather ran a coconut shop. "My grandfather's shop in Kowloon used to have a machine exactly like that," she said. "I think my third uncle still has it."

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