Saturday, 25 December 2010

Travels with Li Dongni – Angkor, Cambodia (April 2008)

Treading very Khmer-fully...

I was very fortunate, when my wife was working in Bangkok, to be able to fly over to join her and do some travelling in South East Asia.  I may write a post in this series about some of my Thai experiences, but the one I’d like to focus on here is the brief trip we took across the border to Cambodia to see the Angkor temples.

Although world famous and hugely iconic, I have to confess that Angkor was a place I always assumed I’d never see.  One of those ‘amazing, but too exotic to realistically expect to go to’ kind of places.  So it almost took me by surprise when my wife suggested that we go.

The flight to Siem Reap was easily the scariest plane journey of our lives - on a small propeller plane through a thunderstorm.  You know it’s bad when you see the stewardess’ deathly white hands gripping the seat while her face turns green…

Once we had arrived safely and recovered from the terror flight, we hired a tuktuk and driver in Siem Reap for a few days to travel around as many of the temples as we could in the time available to us.  Incidentally, according to our driver, a cavalcade we saw whilst driving around was carrying the king of Cambodia but I’ve no way of knowing if it was true.  To be honest, in my ignorance I didn’t even know Cambodia had a king!

The temples themselves are quite surreal, mainly due to their architecture and jungle settings.  They were built in the 12th Century, and as you can see from the map although Angkor Wat is the most famous temple, it is only one of a whole series of them in a relatively small area, and not even the largest.  We did manage to get to a good percentage of them in the time available to us though.  The architecture of the temples is uniform but distinctive, especially the conical towers (which represent Mount Meru from Hindu mythology), the large, serenely smiling faces and the carvings of the lithe ‘Apsara’ dancing girls.

As we approached Angkor Wat, it occurred to me that I didn’t know what I was expecting to find.  I knew broadly what it would look like, but it was the rest of the setting that intrigued me.  Would the temple be an isolated building or just one element of something much bigger?  Would it be remote and virtually lost to the jungle or almost ruined by commercial enterprises trying to make money off tourists? (actually, if we’d have encountered a 5* ‘Angkor Wat Ritz’ outside I think I may have turned around and gone home right away!)

As it was, the first element we encountered was the large moat surrounding the complex, which we drove around two sides of, catching occasional teasing glimpses of the iconic towers.  We knew we’d arrived at the front gate when the tuktuk stopped and we were instantly swarmed by the ubiquitous local children selling souvenirs.  After managing to escape the throng (with my wife slightly peeved at my substandard haggling skills) we started to explore the site.  My earlier questions about the size and nature of the site were soon answered, as the scale of the complex revealed itself.  The outer walls, corridors and libraries extend quite a distance, as you work your way towards the glorious main temple, which dominates your vision.

There are traces around Angkor Wat of more ominous events.  The signs warning you not to stray too far off the footpaths in case there are still landmines are a chilling reminder of the troubles Cambodia has experienced in the recent past, and these are echoed by the equally disturbing sight of bullet holes in the walls.

Also present are the signs of cultural vandalism – looting of statues (or bits of statues) to feed an international art market that all too often does not care where its bits of unprovenanced art come from, as long as they look good in a display cabinet.  It’s a big problem across South East Asia, especially in the poorer areas, where the temptation to get money from such vandalism outweighs the ethical considerations and greater needs of heritage conservation.

As with any heritage site, managing to visit at a time when it’s not swarming with tourists enhances the experience significantly.  Some of the temples are naturally more off the beaten track, and their tumbledown nature with the jungle all around and giant trees growing seemingly out of the ruins can really provide a sense of being the first person to discover them.  It’s a magical feeling that few other heritage sites I’ve been to in the world can match.

Two particular moments of the trip stand out for me.  The first was the decision we made to get up at 4 o’clock to go and watch the sun rise over Angkor Wat.  Although unfortunately it wasn’t the most dramatic sunrise I’ve ever seen, it was a relaxing experience, and the silhouette of the temple was dramatic against a deep blue sky.

The second memorable experience occurred quite by accident.  We were at Pre Rup temple when a tropical storm hit (well, it certainly rained a lot at least).  We were at pretty much the top of the temple, with the forest stretching out on all sides around us when it hit.  The scene was dramatic enough to be memorable as it was, but it was made especially so by the local children.  As I mentioned earlier, arrival at a temple means being surrounded by local kids trying to sell you things.  These tend to be more obstinate at the bigger sites, such as Angkor Wat, but more laid back at smaller sites such as Pre Rup.  As we were pretty much the only visitors there at the time, the kids has been in a good mood, trying to sell us stuff, but also asking where we were from, what London was like, and generally being bright and inquisitive kids.  When the rain came, they all put down their wares and started to play on the temple, splashing water at each other and running up and down the steps (those steps are steep too – health and safety over here would have had a fit!).  So there we were, sat at the top of an ancient Cambodian temple, surrounded by jungle, with the rain lashing down, with local kids playing on front us, grinning and waving (and occasionally threatening to splash us with water).  I genuinely couldn’t stop smiling at the thought of how different this was to my normal life at home.

Of course, some kids can always find time to relax...

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