Outer section of Pre Rup or East Mebon
The Past is Precious
Angkor. Angkor. Could I ever reasonably ask for more? For more of architectural wonder and the world. A shudder runs down my spine at the thought of so much that has been lost to war; politics; power and other collective expressions of insanity in this worlds short but troubled history. Angkor makes me almost want to cry with happiness over what has been preserved here for us of past magnificence. In a world where the worst excesses of politics and ideology often degrade artistic and architectural feats of ‘Man’ to the point of disregard and destruction we must be profoundly thankful that something like Angkor continues to exist amongst us.
It is a precious link to the majesty and grandeur of the past. Whilst I accept that of course, like so many great works its foundations are likely built on its fair share of blood and suffering.
Another shudder runs involuntarily down my spine at the thought of the precariousness of cultural heritage. Saloth Sar (aka Pol Pot), leader of the Khmer Rouge (the Communist guerrillas turned temporary rulers of Cambodia 1975 - ’79) was deeply inspired by his exposure to the early phase of Mao Zedong’s so called ‘Cultural Revolution’ in mid-1960s China. This policy actually entailed the widespread rejection and physical destruction of all things ‘cultural’ be they made of stone or of blood and of bone. Centuries, maybe Millennia of history manifest reduced to rubble.
Traditional doll. One of the many wares for sale from the Angkor Kidz :)
The Forbidden Kingdom itself only escaped annihilation by a whim of Mao’s I am told. Under the Khmer Rouge the template of the ‘Cultural Revolution’ was evident in many of its most inhumane excesses and atrocities committed against the human frame, body and soul, but Angkor’s stones (as far as I am aware) were largely left untouched. The latter fact can only be a small salve I suppose to the nation's soul. Other buildings and sites of religious provenance were not so lucky. Buddhist pagodas were routinely reduced to rubble, or turned into detention and torture chambers.
Our cultures; our identities are so fragile. Possibly now more than ever in the face of the internationally homogenising effect of omnipresent satellite TV, news media and mobile phone networks.
Angkor Stevie :)
The ever-presence of these things already leeching a lot of the colour - I gather from conversation - out of the 'Travel Experience'. Cambodia’s identity and national pride are rich and continue, I think, to heal around Khmer pride in the treasures of the unsurpassable Angkor Archaeological Park.
Practicalities for the Angkor temple complex. Tickets can be purchased for 1 day at $20, 3 days at $40 or 7 days at $60. ( I could be wrong on that last one?). Some people baulk at these costs but seriously, for what you’re about to experience?! Don’t. An interesting point to note that in this, one of the poorest of the Southeast Asian nation states would arguably be lost without Angkor being the Dollar magnet it is.
Stevie at Pre Rup; the crematorial temple
Entrance fee tariffs and secondary tourism-related income relating to Angkor account for a near majority proportion of the nation’s Gross Domestic Product. Or so I am told. Our history, it turns out, has value. Genuine value. Who would of thunk it.
The total spread of temples and ruins covers an impressively large area. I don’t have any figures to hand, but trust me IT’S BIG! Many hundreds of kilometres square. Walking this one, for the most part ain’t feasible (in the heat) if you wanna see a lot and you’re on the typical 1-3 day ticket. The boys and I have decided on a ‘crescendo’ strategy. We’re all certainly gonna be here for two days, if not more, so decide to start small ( “scoff”, nothing at Angkor is small! ) and see a lot of the lesser visited outlying temples on our first day.
Defaced by age : the Pre Rup lions
This will leave all the big guns for tomorrow. I gather, and it makes sense, that if you glut yourself on the wonders of Bayon, Angkor Wat and Ta Prohm on Day 1 you’ll likely have little appetite left for ‘lesser’ temples on the coming days.
As day one will largely comprise what is called the ‘Big Circuit’, 26kms plus around we go in for tuk-tuk hire. There’s no shortage of these all over Siem Reap and beyond. I’m honestly not sure what the going rate is. $12-15 for the day? Our initial fee agreed is $14 for the day per tuk-tuk. This is later elevated to $21 per tuk-tuk after we haggle and agree an additional price of $3.50 per head to get to the Banteay Srei temple, another 15km east and back off the beaten track.
"Hello, my name is Siraylia." : I bought a scarf and gave a generous earth-shattering $2! :D
You will undoubtedly be able to pat yourselves on the back for having negotiated far cheaper tuk-tuks than we, but just be careful what kind of experience you’re buying into if you’re always pushing for the bottom line. Mike and I’s lad Sokunthea is infinitely patient and courteous with us all day from 8.00am ‘til approaching 8.00pm. They insisted at set out that it is 3 people maximum to a tuk-tuk meaning we had to split two (doubling costs). Whilst I suspect this may be true there were certainly a good number of tuk-tuks laden with 4 people on the day so again, ask around.
In an anticlockwise direction we first visited at a sloooow, slow, ambling appreciative pace Pre Rup (the high peaked crematoria temple); East Mebon (the similarly conceived funerary preparation temple).
Portrait of Sokunthea, our Angkor tuk-tuk driver
It is after this we negotiated for the trip out to Banteay Srei. This in itself makes for a great tuk-tuk ride past Khmer villages and homesteads with the wind rushing through your hair. Banteay Srei. All the way out there, so what’s the fuss? Well it contains by far and away some of the finest and best preserved stone carving décor within the Angkor archaeological park. The beautiful examples of figurative and decorative stone carving and patterning here in statuary form or bordering the surrounds of temple pylons and doors is quite, quite incredible. Well worth the trip out.
Between Banteay Srei and the next temple, Ta Som, Mike and I’s tuk-tuk manages to lose the others and it won’t be until near sunset that we’re reunited.
The beautifully preserved intricate carvings at Banteay Srei
It is at Ta Som that we sight our first of the iconic Angkor ‘faces’. Shiva representations (I think?) carved above the temple doorways. Here abouts this temple (as with all of them so far) a motley crew of trinket selling kids assail you in their own harmless and humorous way. A boisterous little entrepreneur Khang challenges me to a game of Noughts & Crosses in the dust. If I lose I have to buy some of his postcards from him. If I win, I guess I don’t. Either way I have an impressive run of near 100% losses at Noughts & Crosses in life (my chess record is 100% failure) so I decline. We write each others names in the dust instead.
“One for one dollar”.
Oh yeah! Any of you that have been to Angkor will know exactly what I’m talkin’ about.
(Banteay Srei) Muju [www.mujuworld.co.uk]
“One for one dollar”. “One for one dollar Mister”. “One for one dollar so that I can go to school!”.
Bless ‘em, the Angkor Kidz populate certainly the outer periphery temples in great numbers. Clutching their brightly coloured wares be they packets of postcards ( “10 for one dollor Sir, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6...”
), Xerox copied books on the temples or Cambodian history past and present or T-shirts ( ‘Same same’, ‘Angkor Beer’ etc ), fans and folded paper flowers they buzz around you at ground level like so many determined, giggling flies. I have to say that I really enjoyed their presence on the day although I am sure I am mostly alone in this response. And I understand well why. But amidst all the imposing, largely unspeaking stone, I think their little voices and often amazingly quick wit helped to bring a little human element to the proceedings.
These kids are really amazing! Their command of the English language often is of an impressively high standard given their circumstances and age. And whilst I know rudimentary language skills are an inevitable tool in the seller’s armoury, many of these kids (the girls esp.) have genuine command of the language and understand your mild sarcasms, evasions and jibes, responding in kind with good humour and sharp wit. And it’s not just English too. I saw the youngest of little kids on the day switch with speed, ease and seeming fluency from English to Chinese to French and then German. Most of them can count from one to ten in about 10 different languages ( oh yeah, keep counting those postcards kids! ) and it really is a sight to behold.
An Apsara nymph
My favourite moment comes when a particularly feisty girl who’s failed to open my wallet after 10 minutes of linguistic ingenuity sighs out loud as a mini-bus arrives and disgorges a mass throng of potential customers on to the path : “Ooooooooh no! Not the Chineeeeese. They neeeever buy aaaanything!
” she says sorrowfully, shaking her bowed head. And true to her experience and expertise she don’t even bother a breath for them. These kids know which veins to tap or not! Also how to tug your heart strings; two of my favourite reposts from the kidz when told firmly "No", "Your mouth says no, but your eyes say YES!"
and to my frequent rebuffs of "sorry", "Ohh, 'sorry' is no good for I cannot eat 'sorry'."
They don’t give up of course. Later in the day I finally give in to the incessant pulling of my heart strings and buy a pretty scarf from little Siralyia mainly ‘cos all she’s done to promote her sale is say “Hello, my name is Siralyia”. Following my demonstration of a will to purchase a friend of hers pesters me “oneforonedollar, oneforonedollar, oneforonedollar, oneforonedollar…” like a little broken record for the next 20 minutes… I mean literally without pause for breath whilst Mike and I await the rather more photographically ponderous Mario and Gray.
The Termite Hill of Tourism
Mike and I move on around the remainder of the ‘Big Circuit’ with Sokunthea’s assistance taking in the large circular (presumably once water filled?) basin complex of Preah Neak Pean and then the absolutely sprawling, crumbled criss-cross corridor labyrinth of Preah Khan.
my first Angkor 'face' at Ta Som :D
Following our departure from this temple beast we luckily hook up with the lads again. Just in time for the en masse rush for the best spots in town for sunset over Angkor. There are two spots in this category but bein’ as one of them’s Angkor Wat itself and we’re saving that ‘til tomorrow we join the vast throngs walking up the hillside to Phnom Bakeng (or Bakeng Hill).
An American ‘Five Minute Friend’ I travelled with to Pokhara in Nepal described to me how he had had the good fortune to visit Angkor a good 15 or more years ago. He stirred my envy with his description as to having had almost the entire site practically to himself, it was so little visited at the time. He had returned not too long ago after this passage of time and been deeply depressed at the fungal explosion of the tourist presence at the site.
He said now the larger temples resembled “termite mounds” there were that many people clambering up and down the stone edifices. Up until now, here at sunset this has not thankfully been the case… another benefit maybe of our ‘smaller temple’ strategy but my word! The termites are a-swarming for sundown!
Hundreds upon hundreds of people of all generations shuffle, leap and stagger their way up to the stoney-step summit of the temple structure that sits atop Phnom Bakeng. The perfect viewing point over the expanse of the Angkor lands. It’s not an easy climb either with the high, shallow cut, age-worn steps not providing very much safe purchase for the traffic-jams of people wanting to pass up or down them. I’m amazed not to witness any mass domino collapses of flesh and frustration from the precarious steps.
Portrait of Mike at Preah Khan.
Many people have been here a while and have their private temple perch for the show, hundreds of others just stand and stare, arms around each others shoulders. Really quite a wonderful way to finish the day. A moment of totally positive collectivity. Another grand instant of sun worship on my travels. If I’ve learnt little else on my journey so far it’s that if you’re inclined to do so you can forget your multifarious religions, beliefs and orders and cults; the layers upon layers of culture and history that supposedly divide us when it comes to sunset. The only thing that I have seen with the power to draw all people, of all ages and standings in life together in perfect unity and happiness is this collective moment of observing the sun go down.
Sunset watchers take their positions at Phnom Bakeng