Tem­ple trek bless­ings

JohnBurgess­reap­s­there­ward­sof­t­rav­el­ling­fur­ther­afieldin Cam­bo­di­atofind­soli­tude

Weekend Argus (Saturday Edition) - - TRAVEL2009 -

IT’S early on a Sun­day morn­ing in Cam­bo­dia and I’m stand­ing at a 12th cen­tury moat. Traces of mist hover above the lo­tus leaves that dap­ple the wa­ter. Across a cause­way, through a tum­bled­down gate, lies Ban­teay Chh­mar, one of the largest tem­ples ever built by the an­cient Kh­mer Em­pire. My friends and I are go­ing to have the place all to our­selves. We walk in. It turns out that we do end up shar­ing it – with a lo­cal man who brings his cows onto the grounds to graze. And with an af­fa­ble ma­son who leads us across acres of fallen stone to see a mes­sage from the past, an in­scrip­tion chis­elled into the door­jamb of a holy tower. This kind of com­pany we wel­come.

Cam­bo­dia’s great tem­ples of Angkor, 104km away, have long since been re­dis­cov­ered af­ter a quar­ter-cen­tury of clo­sure by war. They now draw more than a mil­lion for­eign vis­i­tors a year, not a few of whom re­gret that so many other peo­ple had the same idea. At peak hours, hu­man traf­fic jams can form at tem­ple steps once re­served for kings and priests.

But go be­yond Angkor and you can find places that serve up the old soli­tude and sense of dis­cov­ery. You can ex­plore at your own pace, to the sounds of birds and the breeze that stirs the leaves over­head. In post­cards and emails home, you will search for words wor­thy of your sen­ti­ments of won­der.

Ban­teay Chh­mar is among the most spec­tac­u­lar of th­ese places. Get­ting to it en­tails hours on very bumpy and dusty di r t r oads. Stay­ing t he ni ght me a n s ma k i n g d o w i t h p r i mi t i v e ac­com­mo­da­tion: can­dlelit rooms in lo­cal homes, bath wa­ter drawn from that same moat. I stayed the night and it made the visit worth­while.

The next morn­ing I rose early, as every­one here does, and took a walk in clean coun­try air. I passed mother hens for­ag­ing with their chicks, boys tend­ing to a mud oven in which char­coal was be­ing made. I was see­ing not only a tem­ple, but a way of life. To­day sev­eral thou­sand peo­ple – rice farm­ers, cat­tle herders, mar­ket ven­dors – make their homes on all four sides of the tem­ple. They grow veg­eta­bles on the banks of a se­ries of moats; they pile straw within the walls of lesser an­cient build­ings that dot their set­tle­ment. The an­cient and present day co­ex­ist.

Spending time here also means do­ing a good turn, spread­ing a bit of wealth in a part of a war-re­cov­er­ing coun­try that has largely missed out on the tourist dol­lars that Angkor is bringi ng i n. P e opl e do have c e l l phones (charged by gen­er­a­tor) and some have small trac­tors, but there are few other signs of af­flu­ence here.

Ban­teay Chh­mar was cre­ated in the Kh­mer Em­pire’s last great burst of construction, un­der the 12th-cen­tury Bud­dhist king Jayavar­man VII. His en­gi­neers were think­ing big even by Kh­mer stan­dards: to con­tain a great set­tle­ment, they built earth­works and moats that formed a square mea­sur­ing roughly 1.5km on each side. At its cen­tre, within an­other square moat sys­tem 800m on each side, they built the tem­ple.

More than a cen­tury ago, French ar­chae­ol­o­gist Eti­enne Ay­monier found the tem­ple to be in a state of “in­de­scrib­able ruin”. It still is, de­spite the ef­forts of that friendly ma­son, who was part of a small re­con­struc­tion team. But that’s part of what makes the site so en­tic­ing. Ex­plor­ing it means climb­ing over huge piles of large fallen stones, some­thing to be tack­led by only the sure-footed.

We passed ru­ined tow­ers, court­yards and cer­e­mo­nial walk­ways. Some­times the stones were so high that we were walk­ing at roof level. The tem­ple is no longer a for­mal re­li­gious site, but Cam­bo­di­ans be­lieve that it, like all those that their fore­bears left be­hind, re­mains a holy site. In one sur­viv­ing cham­ber we found a small con­tem­po­rary shrine, with a Bud­dha im­age wear­ing a cloth robe, where peo­ple made in­cense of­fer­ings. When rain is needed, lo­cal peo­ple are re­ported to walk in a pro­ces­sion around the tem­ple, im­plor­ing heaven to help.

One of the best parts of this tem­ple is the many hun­dreds of me­tres of bas­re­liefs on its outer walls. We had to scram­ble up more stones to get a good view. Be­fore us was a full sam­ple of life 900 years ago: pro­ces­sions of ele­phants, prom­i­nent ladies tended by maids, chil­dren play­ing around, vil­lagers in a sampan, ser­vants tend­ing a stove.

There were also many scenes of war with Champa, the long-van­ished ri­val state to the east: the tem­ple is in large part a memo­rial to four gen­er­als who lost their lives in that long con­flict. On l a n d , t h e me n o f a r ms g o a t o n e an­other fiercely with spears (you can iden­tify the Chams by the cu­ri­ous blos­som-shaped head­dress they wear). On wa­ter, rows of men pull at oars from gal­leys as oth­ers strike at the en­emy with spears.

There are also im­ages of the di­vine, notably the god Vishnu, with 32 arms ar­rayed like rays of light em­a­nat­ing from the sun. The carv­ing style is sim­i­lar to that of the Bayon tem­ple re­liefs in Angkor. The dif­fer­ence i s there’s no need to fight for a view. We did cross paths for a few min­utes our first day with a party of about 20 French-speak­ing tourists. We saw no other vis­i­tors that day or the next. Late in the af­ter­noon, we went for a look at what the an­cient Kh­mers could do with wa­ter.

Just east of the tem­ple, they cre­ated a reser­voir that mea­sures roughly 1.6km by 800m. Aca­demics dis­agree over whether this body, and oth­ers like it, did only sym­bolic duty as earthly stand-ins for the mythic Sea of Cre­ation, or were part of a vast ir­ri­ga­tion sys­tem, or both. What­ever the truth, I was awed by the scale.

The reser­voir was now largely dry, but be­cause its floor is low and col­lects wa­ter be­fore the sur­round­ing land does, it has been di­vided into rice pad­dies. We went for a stroll, walk­ing along paddy dikes to keep our feet dry. We said hello to mem­bers of a farm­ing fam­ily who were tin­ker­ing with a small trac­tor. A woman had caught a buck­et­ful of paddy crabs and in­sects, which she would sell as food. In the fi­nal day­light, we passed a group of young men bring­ing cat­tle home.

I passed the night at the house of a Cam­bo­dian fam­ily, friends of a friend. They couldn’t have been more gra­cious. They gave me a room of my own, bot­tled wa­ter, mos­quito coils and a big lux­ury: a flu­o­res­cent light hooked to a car bat­tery. I could have light all night if I wanted it. Other mem­bers of our party slept at a for­mal home­s­tay, the term given to guest houses as well as fam­ily homes that ac­cept pay­ing guests. It had two rooms with large beds cov­ered by mos­quito nets. Down­stairs there was a ba­sic bath­room with a squat toi­let and scoop bath.

Stay­ing the night brought an­other cul­tural ex­pe­ri­ence. A fes­ti­val was go­ing on nearby and its am­pli­fied mu­sic car­ried into my room as I sat read­ing. Then at about 10pm, si­lence. Pri­vate gen­er­a­tors don’t run all night, even for a cel­e­bra­tion.

I got up at dawn and scoop-bathed in slightly murky wa­ter and walked to the moat from which it had been drawn. I took in the early morn­ing sights: the mist, dogs prowl­ing around in first light. I played am­a­teur ar­chae­ol­o­gist for a bit, not­ing that an an­cient feeder or out­flow chan­nel, now dry, was con­nected to the moat at this cor­ner. Later we went ex­plor­ing on foot. Mixed in among wooden homes were the stone walls of lesser 12th-cen­tury relics that had been monas­ter­ies or small tem­ples.

The ru­ins of one tem­ple’s gate lay fo­liage-shrouded just a few steps from a house. Lit­tle boys ran about and a teenage girl ironed cloth­ing. We had break­fast at a stall in the town’s mar­ket; there are no proper restau­rants. It was noo­dle soup with chicken, and very good.

I first vis­ited Angkor in 1969. Back then, you could be alone in the big tem­ples. I once walked through the largest of them, Angkor Wat, en­coun­ter­ing hardly a soul. It’s good to know that such an ex­pe­ri­ence can still be had. You just have to work a bit harder now. – The Wash­ing­ton Post

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from South Africa

© PressReader. All rights reserved.