The wonders of Angkor

by Natalie Bennett

When French explorer Henri Mouhot, credited with the European discovery of the Cambodian temples of Angkor, reached the site, he had endured months of tough jungle travelling. But since January, reaching Angkor has required only a quick hop, a flight of less than one hour from Bangkok.

Bangkok Airways inaugurated the route on January 9, hopefully opening the way for many more visitors to a destination that truly deserves to be ranked as one of the wonders of the world, on a par with Pompei or Beijing’s Forbidden City. Astonishingly, in January visitor numbers were hovering around a scant 100 a day, which provided those lucky few with a truly magnificent experience of personal viewing, but was disastrous for the local economy, and for the many potential visitors who are missing out on the Angkor experience.

The great Cambodian kingdom of Angkor, which in the 600 years from 802 A.D. ruled vast areas of what are now Vietnam, Laos and Thailand, built scores of temples in the area of the modem town of Siem Riep, but there are three major sites which nobody should miss..

Angkor Wat itself, by which name the whole site is often known, represents the pinnacle of Angkorian art, something for the aesthete to view with total pleasure. Like most of the structures, it is in the form of a temple mountain, but its perfect proportions, beautiful vistas and stunning, sophisticated bas reliefs set it apart.

The most famous of its carvings is known as the “Churning of the Ocean of Milk.” Its one huge panel shows a scene from Hindu mythology with 88 devils and 92 gods engaged in a tug of war with a giant serpent, which is wrapped around a mountain. Both groups are trying to obtain the elixir of immortality, as evidenced by the grim set of their jaws and the determined straining of their muscles. The ocean beneath their feet is full of crocodiles, turtles and fish being tossed and twisted mercilessly in the pressure. It is, quite simply, a masterpiece..

Those of a more romantic bent, may however prefer another of the famous trio, the Temple of Ta Prohm. French colonial restorers decided to leave this massive structure, according to an inscription by the constructor Jayavarman VII once home to nearly 80,000 people, in virtually the state the European explorers found it. It is thus testament to the power of the jungle, its towering walls shaded by massive trees whose roots and trunks are locked in silent battle with the great stones, both holding them up and pulling them apart. A little imagination and you can feel that you are Mouhot, pushing aside a fringe of foliage to see wonders unrevealed for centuries..

The third major temple, the Bayon, suits those with a more political temperament. Also built by the prolific Jayavarman VII, who was struggling to revive the Khmer state after a destructive invasion by the Cham kingdom, it is topped by 54 elaborate towers faced on four sides with identical, slightly smiling but stern faces. They represent the Buddhist bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara, and may have been meant to be protective and paternal, but to modern eyes, combined with the dark twisting corridors and sudden openings of the Bayon, have a memorably sinister air.

There are many other temples and structures to view at Angkor, but how many the visitor can reach depends very much on their available time. Traditionally many tourists have visited Angkor on a day trip from Phnom Phen, but that hardly gives adequate time for anything more than a video fast-forward of the three main temples. Three days would be about perfect for most people, although history buffs could easily spend a week exploring the full range of sites..

Three days would also allow time to visit the exquisite Banteay Srei, a red-tinted smallish temple around 20 kilometres from the Bayon. Its collection of mini-shrines teems with carvings of gods, guardians and mythical beasts, preserved in such remarkable condition that they might have been carved yesterday. Also on the must-see list for longer visits is Preah Khan (Sacred Sword), which is not unlike Ta Prohm, except that the World Monuments Fund is slowly trying to wrest it back from the jungle. At a small exhibition at the entrance the visitor can see “before and after” photos charting progress thus far.The sign says it is a ten-year project due to finish in 2001, but it is obviously the work of generations.

In between the rather arduous work of temple visiting (the Angkorians certainly knew how to include lots of steps), in Siem Riep the visitor has a multitude of accommodation choices. Two stand out. For total luxury in the colonial style there is the Grand Hotel, recently re-opened after a total refurbishment. More modest, but beautifully done, is Angkor Villa. Designed and owned by a French architect, it consists of a series of raised wooden bungalows linked by walkways, around a central restaurant which offers excellent fixed menus of local food with French touches.

The town itself has little to offer in the way of sights except the over-all impression of old Asia. The centre is cut by the Siem Riep River, lined with great old trees that provide a welcome respite from the heat. Children bathe in its waters, as do cattle; fishermen toss hopeful nets and keen gardeners collect water the easy way; with two watering cans on a bamboo pole, they walk into the water, allow the cans to sink, then walk out.

The keen shopper and curio-seeker will also enjoy the central market beside the river in the old colonial centre of town. The usual T-shirts, temple rubbings, traditional Khmer scarfs and sarongs widely hawked around the temples are here, but there is also a wide variety of porcelain and silverware. The “antique” status might be a matter of debate, but many find them irresistible decorative items.

This article first appeared in a Thai travel magazine in 1998

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