CAMBODIA TALES 1999
Angkor's other gems
My first full day in Siem Reap kicked off with a 5am wake-up call to watch the sun rising slowly over the famous towers of Angkor Wat. I also used the visit to meet up again with the bright and bubbly Noung, a souvenir-seller I'd met on my last trip to Angkor, her elder sister Sokchata, her brother Plon and her mother and father. They were busy setting up their stall just off the central causeway to Angkor Wat and a little later, another table laden with kramas, trinkets and drinks, a few yards beyond the impressive South Gate entrance to the ancient city of Angkor Thom. The recognition from Noung was instant and the smiles and giggles genuine as she offered to come along for the ride during my morning's temple circuit.
After my brief, but unsuccessful attempt to sell a few kramas to surprised tourists at the South Gate, we raced off towards the Bayon and arrived just in time to make my 9am appointment with Narita Tsuyoshi, the project director of the Japanese Government Team for Safeguarding Angkor (JSA), who spent the next hour explaining in detail the restoration process that JSA had undertaken on the northern library. The project had taken more than five years to complete, beginning with a structural survey, dismantling the roof, walls and pillars and restoration of the damaged stonework. New sandstone and laterite blocks were quarried, no small feat in itself, the foundations were reassembled, as were the walls and finally the doorways. The end-result was a credit to the Japanese team and their Cambodian staff and the knowledge gained from the process will be invaluable for future restoration at the site. A plan is being drawn up to preserve and restore the whole Bayon temple, while the JSA team are already repairing the towers of Prasat Suor Prat on the edge of the Royal Plaza and the northern library of Angkor Wat.
Thanking my host and his colleague Sugiyama Katsumi for taking time out to give me an insight into some of their conservation efforts underway at Angkor, I headed off for the temple of Ta Prohm, alongwith Noung and our motodub, Meanley. We stopped at a drinks-stand run by her friend Nu for a refreshing bottle of ice-cold water and met another group of her friends at the entrance to Ta Prohm. I'm tempted to believe that the hordes of souvenir-sellers that inhabit the temples of Angkor all belong to one large extended community. Noung then introduced me to Shanti, who asked if I knew a family from the USA with whom she'd spent some time a couple of months earlier and by coincidence, I'd been in regular contact with her new friends via e-mail, offering pre-trip advice and swapping post-trip stories. She was ecstatic although puzzled by the concept of e-mail and gave me a bundle of sarongs, t-shirts and kramas to pass onto my close friends. I didn't have the heart to deflate her joy by telling her that we lived on separate continents!
Security guards, a recent addition, were in evidence at the entrance to Ta Prohm, as they are at the beginning of the causeway to Angkor Wat, to deny entry to the gaggle of hawkers that now congegate around the refreshment stalls. Ta Prohm is always a great place to go, at any time of the day, to wander slowly and aimlessly amongst its ruins and to marvel at the carvings and the tangle of huge roots which grip parts of the temple in a vice. The friendly leaf-sweeper was there, as he always is, but the chatter and playful sounds of the temple kids scurrying around the fallen galleries was sadly missing and made me mourn for the old days. With midday approaching and my stomach crying out for sustenance, we rode back to town for lunch at the Greenhouse restaurant before Noung returned to her duties at Angkor Wat and I made a beeline for a nap at my hotel, the Freedom.
Refreshed and raring to go, Meanley collected me at 2pm and we returned to Angkor Thom, but didn't stay long, carrying on through the North Gate before stopping at the western entrance of Preah Khan. The approach to the massive gopura is lined by headless gods and demons (the result of years of unchecked theft) and just inside the gate is a reception centre for the World Monuments Fund, who have been restoring parts of the temple for the last few years. Larger and similar to Ta Prohm, Preah Khan deserves a higher profile than it has amongst visitors to Angkor. It has a number of unique features including a two-storied Greek-like structure, friezes of dancing apsaras, as many as 75 five-metre giant garudas and a 'dharmasala' (rest-house) beyond the eastern entrance. At the time of my visit, restoration work had ceased for the day and apart from a couple of young boys playing near the central sanctuary, I had the temple all to myself.
Meanley collected me at the northern gopura and we aimed for a trio of much smaller, rarely-visited temples, north of the main access road. Prasat Prei and its sister temple, Banteay Prei are both minor shrines built in the late 12th century by Jayavarman VII. The former is only a few metres from the main road and has little decoration on its fallen sandstone and laterite blocks, sitting on the crest of a tiny hillock. A few hundred metres north lies Banteay Prei. I hopped over the laterite enclosure wall and wandered around the unrestored sandstone shrine and gallery, surrounded by a moat. Back on the moto we headed for Neak Pean but took a left turn to stop at Krol Ko, another twelfth century temple. With trees providing some welcome shade, a couple of pediments on the ground and apsara carvings on the walls of the main sanctuary were of chief interest here. The unique island temple of Neak Pean, with water in the central pool, merited a brief stop before we headed off to catch the 5.30pm sunset from the top of Phnom Bakheng.
Noung has a pitch next to the main shrine at the summit of the hill. By the time I arrived, lots of tourists had already claimed their place to wait for the sun to set and the t-shirt and sarong business was brisk. There is little doubt that despite her tender years, Noung (right) is a consumate saleswoman who is equally comfortable using any one of four languages to close a sale. I was suitably impressed. The banter of the souvenir girls and the chatter of the numerous tourists made for a noisy sunset over the western baray, while the darkening gloom made the descent of the hill a dangerous proposition for one Korean tourist who tripped over and fell, badly cutting his forehead and damaging his camera.
The following day, after the obligatory Angkor Wat sunrise and a change of moto-driver, I set out on a whistle-stop tour of a dozen of the smaller temples in and around the Angkor complex, including a handful that I'd never set eyes on before. The best time to visit Prasat Kravan is in the early morning to catch the sunlight on the brick bas-reliefs inside the towers. Our next stop was at Bat Chum, a tenth century temple some way off the main road. Its in a peaceful location but doesn't attract any tourists to see its three brick towers, stone lions, lintels, carved colonettes and interesting inscriptions praising the temple's builder. Built a couple of hundred years later, the east entrance of Banteay Kdei is opposite the landing-platform of the royal lake of Srah Srang. Walk under the face-tower that marks the entrance and follow the 200 metre path to the main sanctuary with its naga terraces and dancing apsara carvings. Restoration work is underway at the temple courtesy of Japan's University of Sophia.
After a brisk walk through Ta Prohm, Saran my motodub, told me that the remote temple of Ta Nei was closed to tourists for renovation by a multi-national team under the guise of the APSARA Authority but he knew the way to the rear of the site. Always ready for a new challenge, I agreed to give it a go and fifteen minutes later we came to the end of a dusty track at a man-made dam across the Siem Reap river. Leaving the moto, we crossed the dam and walked along a barely-discernible path through the dense forest until a clearing revealed the 12th century temple of Ta Nei before us, overgrown and in ruins. The collapsed state of the main temple and the setting made the journey worthwhile as the shafts of light piercing the tree canopy and the sounds emanating from the forest added to the experience. There are some fine lintels and pediments dotted around the ruins and as we were leaving a team of labourers arrived to begin building a temporary lodge for the restoration team, who plan to use the temple to both teach and practice their conservation techniques.
Retracing our steps, I asked Saran to head for the sister temples of Thommanon and Chau Sey Tevoda, stopping briefly en-route to inspect the sandstone bridge, Spean Thma, where narrow corbelled arches used to allow the flow of water, although the river's course changed long ago. Both Thommanon and Chau Sey were built by Suryavarman II in the twelfth century. The former is a compact and well-preserved temple with fine relief carvings of devatas and pediments in the typical Angkor Wat style. Across the road and a little older, Chau Sey Tevoda in contrast, was undergoing major renovation by the Chinese and the whole floor area was covered in numbered blocks of sandstone and reconstructed lintels and frontons. I almost felt a trespasser as I walked around the site, stopping to view the work of the stonemason's as they chipped away at some replacement blocks and cleaned others.
Passing under the mighty North Gate, Saran took a left so I could view the small group of five temples known as Preah Pithu, set in a pleasant wooded location in a corner of the Royal Plaza or Square. Surrounded by small moats, the temples have some decoration but are largely ignored by most vistors to Angkor. This also applies to the row of twelve identical towers, known as Prasat Suor Prat, lining the east side of the Royal Plaza. These sit on either side of the road leading to the Victory Gate (opposite the Elephant Terrace) and are made of laterite and largely undecorated. The JSA team had cordoned off, erected scaffolding and were restoring two of them, although access was still permitted to the galleries and false windows of the North and South Khleangs that lay immediately behind them. By this time, I was visibly flagging with temple fatigue. Back in Siem Reap, I stopped at the Continental Cafe for lunch and returned to the Freedom for my customary rest for an hour or so.
The afternoon session began with my decision to try and locate a temple known as Banteay Thom, some kilometres northwest of Preah Khan and well off the route and itinerary of Angkor's many visitors. Once through the North Gate of Angkor Thom, we left the main road and quickly entered the domain of typical village life as we frequently stopped to ask directions of locals more than a little surprised to see a western tourist in their midst. Saran, although possessing no more than a smattering of English, suggested we pick up the village policeman, They, who grabbed his uniform and rifle and jumped aboard our moto as we ventured further away from the main complex. Despite getting lost twice, They finally directed us off the track and across a series of fields and dykes before stopping at a ramshackle house. We parked the moto and continued our journey on foot, through scrub and bushes, wading thigh-deep across a small river and through rice fields until, two kilometres later, I spied the top of a tower in a field, surrounded by a copse of trees.
As we approached the laterite outer wall, two armed men in Army uniforms stirred themselves out of their hammocks and guided us into tangled undergrowth, through a hole in the wall and past a couple of pools, full of water and weeds, to an entrance gopura. Immediately behind it was the main sanctuary, although all around us were fallen blocks of sandstone and the ruins were fighting with the undergrowth for supremacy. I told Saran that this was how temple exploration should be and he nodded, although not really understanding. Apsara carvings on the walls and broken lintels and pediments in situ and on the floor suggested to me a 13th century structure, alongwith two small libraries either side of the ruined central shrine. Jumping from block to block, trying to avoid the scurrying geckos but especially the savage red ants that were obviously enjoying the taste of my ankles, the vegetation made good, clear photography difficult as we made a full circuit of the temple. One of the Army guys confirmed that no tourists came this way although he did remember a German visitor some months earlier. Hot and bothered as the heat took its toll, we returned to the moto, thanked They with a couple of dollars and finished our adventure with an hour at Angkor Wat and another sunset visit to Phnom Bakheng. All in all, a memorable day.
I spent the next morning at Banteay Srei and Banteay Samre with a car-load of Khmer friends, including Noung who took a couple of hours off from her duties on the family stall. All four of my guests suffered bouts of car sickness, although I could understand why with a roller-coaster ride on an appalling road to and from Banteay Srei, some 25 kms north of the main Angkor complex. In the afternoon, I returned to Angkor Thom on my own and spent a few hours on foot, wandering leisurely around the monuments on the western side of the Royal Plaza. I started at the Elephant Terrace with its carved elephants, lion-headed figures and garudas, as well as its concealed seven-headed horse and three-headed elephant figures. Moving onto the reconstructed Leper King Terrace and its two sets of bas-reliefs showing seated male figures with drawn swords, attending devatas and many-headed nagas. Just north of the latter terrace lies Tep Pranam, in a quiet and secluded wooded area and has naga balustrades and stone lions leading onto two large re-built Buddhas, one seated and another standing. A pleasant 300-metre walk took me to the terrace and excellent nagas in front of Preah Palilay. Just beyond the entry gopura with its decorated pediments, is the chimney-like tower rising from the ruined sanctuary.
Crossing a lightly wooded area, I headed for the northern sandstone gopura of the Royal Palace and then onto the two royal pools nearby, full of water. In its heyday, most of the buildings in this area were of wooden construction and have since perished. One of the few remaining features, the largest pool has walls completely covered with bas-reliefs showing crocodiles, fish and other carved figures. Next door was the laterite pyramid of Phimeanakas, rising to a height of around 35 metres. There are steep stairs on all four sides and I chose those on the west side to climb to the sandstone gallery at the top. The view from the summit was pretty good and I looked south towards the Baphuon, closed to visitors due to renovation work being carried out by EFEO, who were also responsible for the restoration of the nearby Elephant and Leper King Terraces. To end the day, I walked to the Bayon, noticeably devoid of other tourists, and watched the sunlight slowly disappear from the massive faces that surrounded me on the third level.
To round off my tour of some of Angkor's less well-known temples, I visited Wat Athvea on my return from a morning spent touring the fishing villages on the Tonle Sap lake. Wat Athvea is in the grounds of an active wat and is in the main, a sandstone construction from the 12th century and the reign of King Suryavarman II. Inside the main sanctuary are three barely-visible carvings of apsaras and outside are four laterite structures, possibly libraries, within the outer laterite wall. All of the temple's lintels and pediments are long gone but its worth a quick detour on your way back to Siem Reap just to spend a quiet half-hour with the monks and locals. I ended the day sat quietly at the top of Angkor Wat's highest level watching the sun sink slowly in the west. A perfect end to four great days in and around the Angkor complex.
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