STAND­ING ON THE SHOUL­DERS OF GIANTS

GET­TING A NEW PER­SPEC­TIVE ON CAM­BO­DIA’S FAMED TEM­PLES

Discover Cambodia - - CONTENTS - Words by El­lie Dyer Pho­tog­ra­phy by Sam Jam

Ex­plor­ing the Angkor tem­ples with a twist

Sun­rise at Angkor Wat: a burn­ing orb slowly rises from be­hind the great tem­ple’s tiered tow­ers, light­ing up the early morn­ing sky with flashes of rich blues, pale pinks and honey-hued yel­lows as it as­cends into the heav­ens.

Bathed in light, the build­ing trans­forms; the de­tail of its mot­tled stones and sump­tu­ous carv­ings grad­u­ally re­vealed and then per­fectly re­flected in the shim­mer­ing pools that front the 12th-cen­tury com­plex.

Ma­jes­tic and mes­meris­ing, the sight is an ethe­real vi­sion of both beauty and power, and one that of­fers many mod­ern­day trav­ellers their first glimpse into the an­cient world of the Kh­mer Em­pire – a pow­er­ful civil­i­sa­tion that once dom­i­nated large swathes of South­east Asia.

While there may be no per­fect way to tour the 400-square-kilo­me­tre Angkor Ar­chae­o­log­i­cal Park – ev­ery guide has their own favourite tem­ple or hid­den spot – there will al­ways be some­thing mag­i­cal about be­ing on your own amongst great stone edifices that have borne wit­ness to the twists and turns of his­tory.

For those aim­ing to es­cape the melee of um­brella-car­ry­ing tour guides and the ac­com­pa­ny­ing ca­coph­ony of cam­era clicks, the first step is to pur­chase your ticket after 5pm, which gives you ac­cess to the park for both sun­set of that day and the sub­se­quent du­ra­tion of your one-, three- or seven-day pass.

As the sun sinks and the songs of ci­cadas echo across the tree­tops, many vis­i­tors climb the steep track to the hill­top tem­ple of Ph­nom Bakheng, which of­fers sweep­ing views of the coun­try­side be­low. But, for a more se­cluded ex­pe­ri­ence, take this op­por­tu­nity to visit Bayon, a spec­tac­u­lar 12th- to 13th-cen­tury tem­ple where 216 colos­sal faces, each hewn in stone and said to re­sem­ble King Jayavar­man VII who built the tem­ple, stare enig­mat­i­cally into the dis­tance with lips gen­tly curled.

At dusk, the com­plex is of­ten de­serted, al­low­ing vis­i­tors the chance to stroll alone amongst hun­dreds of serene vis­ages bask­ing in the warm evening light. When ex­plor­ing the multi-level site, keep an eye out for one of Bayon’s most fas­ci­nat­ing fea­tures: carv­ings of day-to-day life in the 12th cen­tury, show­ing Angko­rian cit­i­zens boil­ing plump pigs, light­ing fires and play­ing in­stru­ments.

It’s a so­ci­ety that has been brought to life in fas­ci­nat­ing de­tail by Zhou Daguan, a Chi­nese en­voy who spent nearly a year at Angkor from 1296-1297 and later penned a trav­el­ogue of his ex­pe­ri­ences.

Slaves, of­fi­cials, monks, con­cu­bines and mar­ket traders are all de­scribed by

THERE WILL AL­WAYS BE SOME­THING MAG­I­CAL ABOUT BE­ING ON YOUR OWN AMONGST GREAT STONE EDIFICES THAT HAVE BORNE WIT­NESS TO THE TWISTS AND TURNS OF HIS­TORY

Daguan, who, along­side ob­ser­va­tions of or­di­nary life – from child­birth prac­tices to ‘las­civ­i­ous’ women, fire­work dis­plays and the daily wash­ing habits of lo­cals – por­trays the op­u­lence of his sur­rounds in mag­nif­i­cent de­tail.

Bayon it­self is said to have fea­tured a “gold tower” and a golden bridge flanked by golden lions, while the nearby tem­ple of Ba­phuon – re­cently re­con­structed by mod­ern ex­perts – was an “ex­quis­ite” tower of bronze. King In­dravar­man III, mean­while, is de­scribed as wear­ing a four-pound pearl around his neck, with gold bracelets and rings in­laid with cat’s eye gem­stones on his wrists, an­kles, fingers and toes, and bear­ing a “gold sword in his hand”.

Al­though the ac­counts of this tem­po­rary vis­i­tor should be taken with a grain of salt, the vivid log of­fers im­por­tant in­sights into life in this com­plex so­ci­ety.

And it’s a sub­ject be­ing ex­plored fur­ther by the many ar­chae­ol­o­gists work­ing in Cam­bo­dia, who have hit global head­lines in re­cent years thanks to new in­sights gained from the use of LiDAR, a tech­nol­ogy that utilises lasers to sur­vey to­pog­ra­phy.

Dr Ali­son Kyra Carter, a vis­it­ing as­sis­tant professor at the Univer­sity of Illi­nois Ur­bana-Cham­paign who has been in­ves­ti­gat­ing Angko­rian res­i­den­tial spa­ces as part of the Greater Angkor Project (Gap), ex­plains that ex­perts had long known that the land­scape sur­round­ing the tem­ples was in­hab­ited by thou­sands of peo­ple. Dense for­est cover, how­ever, “made it dif­fi­cult to see th­ese pat­terns clearly”.

“What LiDAR has done has made th­ese pat­terns vis­i­ble and clear,” the ar­chae­ol­o­gist says, ex­plain­ing that it has helped the Gap to pin­point and fo­cus ex­ca­va­tions. “Now we can see the planned and or­gan­ised land­scape that the Angko­ri­ans con­structed, which in­cluded house mounds, neigh­bour­hoods, streets and maybe even large pub­lic gar­den spa­ces.”

A pic­ture of this work­ing city – de­scribed as a “low-den­sity ur­ban cen­tre” – is es­sen­tial to bear in mind when

ex­plor­ing to­day’s park, which is still dot­ted with func­tion­ing tem­ples and com­mu­ni­ties, all con­nected by a net­work of roads that can be eas­ily nav­i­gated by tuk tuk.

The early morn­ings are per­haps best spent at Angkor Wat, where it is worth brav­ing the throngs to wit­ness a fiery sun­rise and ex­plore the great mon­u­ment ded­i­cated to the Hindu god Vishnu. Try en­ter­ing the main build­ing through the back or side en­trances to buck the crowds and in­spect the long gal­leries of bas-re­liefs, show­ing scenes such as the Bat­tle of Ku­ruk­shetra from the In­dian epic of the Ma­hab­harata, in rel­a­tive peace.

Walk through to the cen­tral court­yard, past the many ce­les­tial ap­sara dancers carved in stone, and as­cend the steep steps to the prin­ci­pal sanc­tu­ary of the Bakan. Vis­i­tor num­bers are re­stricted at this most sa­cred space, but those brav­ing the ver­tig­i­nous stairs are greeted by a sense of grav­i­tas, seren­ity and won­der­ful views of the grandiose com­plex stretch­ing out be­low.

And while Angkor Wat ap­pears in breath­tak­ing con­di­tion to­day, other tem­ples have been taken over by the en­vi­ron­ment in a spec­tac­u­lar con­nec­tion be­tween the worlds of man and na­ture.

At the at­mo­spheric ‘Tomb Raider’ tem­ple of Ta Prohm, roots spear through an­cient stones to cre­ate an Ozy­man­di­aslike ef­fect. Sur­rounded by lush for­est and dap­pled light, it is an en­dur­ingly pop­u­lar spot, and per­haps best vis­ited in the early morn­ings be­fore the larger tour groups ar­rive. While wind­ing your way through the site, seek out one of the tem­ple’s odd­i­ties – a carv­ing that ap­pears to show a Stegosaurus. The ‘di­nosaur’ has, over the years, sparked a hub­bub of cre­ation­ist fer­vour, but many be­lieve it’s less Juras­sic Park and more likely a chameleon or a rhino be­decked in leaves.

A less-fre­quented al­ter­na­tive comes in the form of Preah Khan – the tem­ple of the sa­cred sword, con­structed in the time of the de­vout Bud­dhist ‘builder king’ Jayavar­man VII. Guarded by 72 mighty stone garu­das – each half-bird, half-man –

vis­i­tors must walk over a naga cause­way, mark­ing the bridge be­tween heaven and earth, to reach a cen­tral tem­ple alive with sym­bol­ism. Long, cov­ered stone cor­ri­dors lead vis­i­tors through the site, where a corps of 1,000 dancers was once thought to have per­formed.

In­deed, Carter de­scribes a more dense, spe­cialised pop­u­la­tion – per­haps “rit­ual spe­cial­ists, re­li­gious schol­ars, tem­ple dancers… and crafts­men” – be­ing cen­tred in­side Angkor Thom and tem­ples such as Angkor Wat and Ta Prohm, and sup­ported by rice farm­ers work­ing in the wider land­scape.

Cen­turies on, the grain is a still a sta­ple of Cam­bo­dia and, for those with more time to ex­plore, a half-day is well spent vis­it­ing Ban­teay Srei – a small but per­fectly formed tem­ple known as the citadel of women that dates back to the late 10th cen­tury.

The tuk tuk ride to the site gives vis­i­tors an in­sight into mod­ern ru­ral life, with the road snaking past glis­ten­ing pad­dies, com­mu­ni­ties of weavers and plump buf­faloes laz­ing in wa­ter­holes. To ex­tend the trip, in­cor­po­rate a visit to Kbal Spean, where a short trek leads ex­plor­ers to a jun­gle riverbed carved with hun­dreds of lin­gas, or phal­lic rep­re­sen­ta­tions of Shiva.

Ban­teay Srei it­self, de­scribed as “one of the jewels of Kh­mer art”, is an an­cient pil­grim­age site built from beau­ti­ful pink sand­stone that fea­tures star­tlingly clear carv­ings. To see it best, as­cend the view­ing plat­form that lies just out­side the main ex­te­rior wall and take in a sweep­ing panorama of the com­pact tem­ple in all its rose-tinted glory.

Wan­der­ing past the emer­ald rice fields and tow­er­ing trees sur­round­ing Ban­teay Srei, it can be tempt­ing to draw com­par­isons be­tween Cam­bo­dia then and Cam­bo­dia now.

“Maybe one thing ev­ery­one could agree on is what a sig­nif­i­cant ac­com­plish­ment Angkor Wat is, and how awe-in­spir­ing it is,” Carter says. “We can imag­ine that an­cient Angko­ri­ans felt proud of this tem­ple, and cer­tainly peo­ple never stopped vis­it­ing this place, even after the cap­i­tal moved out of Angkor.”

A HALF-DAY IS WELL SPENT VIS­IT­ING BAN­TEAY SREI – A SMALL BUT PER­FECTLY FORMED TEM­PLE KNOWN AS THE CITADEL OF WOMEN THAT DATES BACK TO THE 10TH CEN­TURY

On the road: tourists en­ter the ma­jes­tic Ba­phuon tem­ple (left page); a tuk tuk emerges from the south gate of the walled city of Angkor Thom

The lit­tle things: one of the most en­joy­able el­e­ments of any visit to Angkor is the chance to spot daily life go­ing ahead in the midst of such majesty (left); a man rides his bi­cy­cle through the south gate at Angkor Thom (be­low left); a tourist snaps pho­tos at the fa­mous Ta Prohm tem­ple (be­low right)

Set in stone: carv­ings and bas-re­liefs at a num­ber of tem­ples can de­pict scenes from Angko­rian times ap­prox­i­mately 1,000 years ago (be­low left); two of the hun­dreds of faces at Bayon tem­ple

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