Friday, 3 July 2009

The Angkor Ramble!

Built between 800 AD and the mid 1400’s the splendour of the Angkor Kingdom was every bit as impressive as we had hoped. Constructed at a time when the Khmer Empire was one of the most powerful forces in South East Asia the temples grew over a 600 year period as each devaraja (word of the day - that means god-king!) tried to better his predecessors. Whilst the immediate association of Angkor (and probably, for many, Cambodia) is of Angkor Wat this was not our favourite of the ruins. True, Angkor Wat is undeniably majestic and is cited as the largest religious structure in the world. It is huge, the moat surrounding it alone is 190 metres wide. The walls are detailed with bas-reliefs and the sandstone blocks that the temple was made from were quarried about 50 kilometres away. In this day and age of sophisticated quarrying methods and heavy duty transporters that is no great achievement, but to put it in perspective the Lonely Planet points out that this was around about the time that London was a town that numbered 50 000 people. Nipun and I visited Angkor Wat twice. The first time was a sweltering afternoon and the place was besieged with people scurrying all around, mopping the sweat from their foreheads, lapping from water bottles and posing for photos in a variety of positions. The second time we went the sky was foreboding and grey, we nearly cancelled our trip out suspecting an antediluvian deluge. At the last moment though (neither of us wanting to back down and admit it would probably be more sensible staying in town) we decided to go out and were rewarded by having Angkor Wat more or less to ourselves, well comparatively speaking anyway. The upper level of Angkor Wat (which rises 55 metres above the ground) is currently closed to the public as a wider and safer staircase is made. Again on our second visit, a gaggle of sly security guards surreptitiously suggested that I might go up to the top and admire the view that is currently forbidden to the masses. No doubt a small fee would have been involved and I was sorely tempted, it was only the ominous sky (by now the colour of black granite) that put me off. In retrospect I should have gone, the rain when it came was nowhere as dramatic as the skies had promised. But for all it’s imposing splendour and elegant Asparas and Asuras (heavenly nymphs and devils respectively) it was not Angkor Wat that won us over. Rather it was the towers, corridors and 216 massive carved stone heads of Bayon, the root riddled ruins of Ta Prohm and myriad corridors of Preah Khan that were for us, the most enchanting of the ancient city. There is so much literature available on the ruins that it would be pointless to regurgitate it all and indulge in gratuitous plagiarism (“For there’s someone, somewhere / With a big nose, who knows / Who‘ll trip you up and laugh when you fall”). Rather I’ll slap in a few photographs that do these places little or no justice and enough text to cover what we liked about these places.

Bayon: Think Laura Croft in Tomb Raider and you are along the right lines. Constructed during the rule of Jayavaram VII and VIII respectively, Bayon was possibly our favourite place, but I stress the possibly! Entry can be from the North, South, East or West and from the perimeter a multitude (over fifty) of stone towers ascend in front of you on varying levels. Throughout the complex and on the top of each tower, facing each cardinal point, are four imposing, stoic stone faces. Each face is massive and at any given time, as you ascend the complex towards the centre, you can see several, watching you with a detached interest. Bayon, it has been established, is unique, even among the other ruins of Angkor. It is not just the inexorable sense of history that makes the place so compelling, it is also the other-worldly atmosphere as numerous carved eyes watch you from every direction. Occasionally you round a corner and one of the massive heads, level with your own, austerely confronts you. If the corridors and heads are not enough to captivate your imagination there is over 1.2 kilometres of bas relief carvings that depict aspects of daily Khmer life and of course, war. Annoyingly Nipun and I got up at 4.45 am to photograph Bayon as the sun came up and breathed it’s life into the stone faces. Sunrise that day was of the British winter variety and I ended up trying to use a tiny speed light, angled from the side with a warming gel, in an attempt to replicate the colour and soft light of dawn.

Ta Prohm: Of all the places in the Angkor Ruins Ta Prohm was (again for us) one of the most atmospheric places that we saw. The temple was dedicated to the King Jayavaram VII’s mother (it makes a Mothers Day card look a bit lame) and when it was discovered the decision was made (by Ecole Francais d’ Extreme Orient ) to leave the ruins in a “natural state.” In other words, whilst the jungle was trimmed back, prominent features like the massive tree roots and tree trunks that sprawl across the walls and corridors of the structure remained in place. In places the ruins had to be reinforced in order to make them safe, but it has been done so sympathetically that, to the untrained eye (i.e. mine), it is impossible to tell where these remedial works have been carried out. The effect is fantastic. It is like being Indiana Jones in a lost city as you clamber through the ruins and stumble upon silk cotton trees and strangler figs with roots and trunks like giant tentacles that form mazes across the ruins of Ta Prohm.

Preah Khan: We visited Preah Khan shortly after dawn on our second day at the Agkor complex. As is often the case we saw a spectacular dawn from the seat of our tuk tuk - we had emerged from our room twenty minutes to late to catch it at the temple. Whilst disappointing the tuk tuk ride in the balmy morning air and resplendent colours of the early morning was immensely enjoyable anyway. And two hours later at 7 am the temperature must have been close to 30 degrees Celsius! It was really worth waking up at five and getting a couple of hours in before it became prohibitively warm. Preah Khan (meaning Sacred Sword) is a sprawling ruin that is suspected to have been a large city and a Buddhist University. It is similar to Ta Prohm in that there are numerous places where the temple still looks like it has just recently been discovered, with trees resting atop walls and boulders strewn across impenetrable corridors. The similarities do not end there either; whilst Ta Prohm was dedicated to the King’s mother, Preah Khan was built some years later and dedicated to his Father. Like Ta Prohm many of the stone blocks are covered in green lichen and with the early morning light this was again an immensely atmospheric place that we could easily have revisited.

Whilst we could have fitted in far more during our time at the ruins, the three days was exhausting. As the end of our ticket’s validity approached I have to admit that I began to feel massively relieved. It is not that the temples became boring, rather it was that after three days with temperatures that must have been in the mid thirties we felt completely drained of all energy. We were constantly buying bottles of water and trying to negotiate our way through throngs of overly eager vendors, which was amusing initially but could become tiresome. It would have been fool hardy to do just the one day though. If I did it again I think I would take the extra twenty dollars on the chin pay for a weeks ticket, then do three or four days at a leisurely pace.

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