CAMBODIA TALES 2000
Angkor at leisure
On arrival in Siem Reap, I was exhausted and took a moto to the Bakong guesthouse at the far end of town close to the old market (Psah Chas). I'd already booked a room via e-mail and a refreshingly warm shower was just what the doctor ordered after eight hours cooped up in an uncomfortable pick-up truck. After a quick nap, I walked around some of the market stalls selling cheap souvenirs, ate a hearty meal at the Continental Cafe and sent an e-mail to my wife from the Neak Krorhorm office before I retired to bed at 10pm. Early the following morning, I took a moto to the Golden Angkor hotel (also known as the Sovann Angkor) on Route 6, to meet up with a moto-driver, recommended by a close friend. At 8am, Kim Rieng appeared and agreed to act as my motodub for a few days if he was able to get time off from his job as a policeman. This was quickly resolved with a phone-call and half an hour later, we headed out along the road leading to the Angkor complex to get my temple pass. The road itself was choc-a-block with security personnel and roadblocks as the Prime Minister, Hun Sen, was being helicoptered into a Tourism Conference at the nearby luxury Sofitel hotel later that morning.
The newly-installed Sokimex-run ticket center is a slick operation, located midway between the town and the Angkor Park. The old style tickets, prone to forgery, have been replaced by laminated passes with a passport face photo to identify the owner for the three-day pass for which I paid $40. It took just two minutes to appear once I'd handed over my fee and photo. We carried onto the western entrance to Angkor Wat, where I left Rieng, to seek out some friends whose family run a souvenir and drinks stall on the northern approach to the main temple. I left a message with their mother that I'd return later in the day and headed back to join Rieng to continue our tour. Our first stop was at Ta Prohm Kel, a small sandstone sanctuary-cum-chapel in a quiet clearing, where a single lintel is still in situ before we moved onto the imposing South Gate of Angkor Thom, a popular stopping-off point for tour groups and today was no exception. Next on our whistle-stop tour was the enigmatic Bayon, where Rieng dropped me off at the southern entrance and met me at the northern exit thirty minutes later. I viewed the less convincing and unfinished bas-reliefs on the north and west walls and visited the giant faces on the upper levels before taking my leave of a temple I have visited on many occasions but always manage to see something new.
The city of Angkor Thom has five enormous ceremonial gates. Everyone passes under the South Gate but very few tourists ever bother to visit the West and East Gates, as both are off the normal circuit and are usually in shade throughout the day from the surrounding forest of trees. Not to be deterred, Rieng drove me along the grassy track towards the West Gate and on cue, the 23-metre tall gate was shrouded in darkness making clear photography a difficult proposition. A few hundred metres back down the track and off to the right is a small ruined sanctuary called Western Prasat Top (or Monument 486). The forest setting was humid and wet underfoot, the red ants protected the temple with vigour and the shade didn't help with my pictures either. We then headed for the identical East Gate, which was in much better light and the nearby Mangalartha (or Monument 487), which was covered in vegetation, before leaving the city via the Victory Gate, stopping at the stone bridge, Spean Thma on our way towards Ta Nei. The track to Ta Nei was sandy and made it difficult to stay on board Rieng's moto. The 12th century temple lies deep in the forest and is being used as a 'training temple' for government conservation officers and as such, is off limits for much of the time. Its overgrown setting and ruined state makes it an interesting temple to explore when you get the opportunity and it still has some outstanding pediments and lintels in place amongst its gopuras and sandstone sanctuary. We were lucky to find the temple open and had the place all to ourselves.
We stopped at the group of food stalls near the Bayon for a snack and an hour spent wandering on my own around the rarely-visited temples of Preah Pithu, Prasat Suor Prat and the Khleangs before moving on to spend the rest of the afternoon at Angkor Wat. An elephant was wallowing in one of the pools of water immediately in front of the five sanctuaries of the Preah Pithu group. They are located in a peaceful wooded setting, directly opposite the Terrace of the Leper King and see very few travellers, hence a good place for the elephants to rest before called into action to carry tourists up to the top of Phnom Bakheng in time for the sunset. Each temple has been reconstructed, decorative stone carvings also lie scattered on the ground nearby while two of them have lintels and pediments in situ and in fine condition, as explained by twelve year old Prourn, who accompanied me around each building, giving me a knowledgeable running commentary in passable English. He proudly announced that this was 'his temple' and he can be found there when he's not at school. Next door was the North Khleang, sat behind three of the dozen Suor Prat towers, which dominate the eastern side of the royal plaza. A few hundred metres away is the unfinished South Khleang. The Khleangs are imposing rectangular structures up close, while the towers are less remarkable, lack any decoration and are being patiently restored by the JSA team from Japan. It was at this point that a film stuck in my camera and after an initial attack of panic, I exposed the film and loaded another. The second film also failed to wind on properly. After a second bout of mild hysteria, my compact zoom righted itself and I breathed a deep sigh of relief, as I'd already lost the use of my favourite camera during my visit to Kratie.
Angkor Wat was our next destination. On the way, Rieng told me he had passed the tour guide exam but can earn more money from his two other jobs as a policeman and a moto-driver. He asked if he could use me as a guinea-pig to test his knowledge of the temple and I was happy to oblige. He parked his moto with a friend and we walked along the causeway with Rieng explaining in great detail about the outer enclosure with its apsara carvings and large Vishnu statue. Once inside the courtyard, we detoured over to the souvenir stalls to the left of the royal pool to meet up with some of my friends from previous visits. Noung, Sokchata and their family were all in attendance and the welcome I received was warm and genuine. I would see a lot more of my friends over the next few days. Rieng and I dashed across to the central structure of Angkor Wat as the first spots of rain fell. The downpour lasted half an hour, produced a glorious rainbow directly above the temple (unfortunately we didn't see it as we were inside!) and gave Rieng the opportunity to explain in great detail each of the bas-reliefs in an anti-clockwise circuit of the 800-metre long wall carvings. The rain had left the inside of the temple hot and humid and we climbed up the steep steps to the top level to view the sunset, which was a cloudy, washed-out affair but still very popular with the massed ranks of tourists. Returning to the Bakong guesthouse, I thanked Rieng for his expert guidance and agreed to see him again the following morning. Waiting for me to arrive, I met Phalla for the first time and we walked to the Continental Cafe for an early evening meal at 7pm. Phalla was a friend and colleague of Sok Thea and we talked about recent events which helped me fill in a few of the gaps and understand more of the sequence of events that had taken place leading up to the death of our mutual friend. It was upsetting but I was grateful to Phalla for having the courage to tell me even though the memories were still fresh and very raw.
During the course of the next few days, I visited the Angkor Conservation Depot, had an afternoon at the Western Baray and spent half a day on a moto visiting some of the remotest temples on top of Phnom Kulen. For my fifth day in town, I woke early and was soon gingerly making my way along the Angkor Wat causeway in the gloom to get my spot on the steps of the outer gopura to watch the sun rise behind the central towers. Lots of other tourists had the same idea and the place was alive by 6am with everyone vying for the best position. Unfortunately, the sunrise turned out to be a cloudy non-event and I was back at the Golden Angkor (I'd changed my hotel after a couple of days in town) and ready to meet Phalla and Lom, our moto-driver, at 8am. Within the hour, we'd chugged along a bumpy Route 6 and the fifteen kilometres to the Roluos Group of temples. Preah Ko was our first stopping-off point but the six towers and their exquisite series of carved lintels and guardian figures were roped off from close inspection by a conservation team from Germany who were working at the site. A couple of playful souvenir sellers dogged our tracks as we wandered around, reminding me that this was a common occurrence at the main Angkor temples in recent years before these children were now banned by the authorities. After a brief stop at the imposing Bakong, I suggested we seek out a few of the lesser-visited Roluos temples with Prasat Prei Monti our first target. Stopping to ask the locals, we took a tiny track behind some houses and located the temple in a clearing surrounded by trees with a pond closeby, arriving at 10am. The location of Prei Monti was perfectly peaceful, its a 9th century temple built by Jayarvarman III of three unfinished brick towers with one lintel showing Indra still in place and the whole site was covered in a bed of leaves and moss.
Asking for directions, we were looking for Prasat Trapeang Phong when three young boys took pity on us and offered to lead us to the temple. Little did we know it was a couple of kilometres from the road, as we were led past a handful of wooden stilt houses and across a series of flooded fields by our three guides, Choun (aged 14), Seng (13) and Caea (12). After a twenty minute walk under a blazing hot sun, I could see the top of a large tower through the trees but it was surrounded by a moat, so off came the shoes and socks and we paddled through the knee-high water to reach the site. In the middle of a circular field stood an impressive nine metre high brick tower that made the trek well worth the effort. It still retained some of its outer covering of stucco on its carved apsaras and had also kept three excellent lintels in situ above the doorways, while closeby were two smaller ruined outbuildings. Our playful guides led us back to the moto and were rewarded with a few hundred riel apiece, as we set off to find Prasat Totoeng O'Thngai. It was 11.30am when we reached a small village and were led to the site of the temple by a another group of young boys. Disappointingly, after such a fine example as Trapeang Phong, we found only a series of stone door frames, carved pilasters, colonettes and heavy-duty pedestals and a poorly carved lintel on the floor. After a game of football, we headed back towards Siem Reap on a well-made World Food Program road running parallel to Route 6 before rejoining the highway. Back in town, I had lunch at the Greenhouse Kitchen before a quick nap in my hotel room, next door.
Our afternoon adventure began at 2pm with Phalla and Lom reporting for duty on the dot. Our intention was to see more of the countryside surrounding Siem Reap, so we headed southwest with Wat Chedei as our destination. but taking the opportunity to see a part of Cambodia that most visitors to the Angkor temples never bother to see for themselves. The back streets of Siem Reap town soon gave way to open spaces, stilt houses, a mixture of green and brown fields with workers busy toiling away and the occasional child tending water buffalo. We passed through a few hamlets including one where all of the village's adults were sat in an open-sided meeting hall listening to speeches from the village hierarchy. As we drove slowly past, the speeches stopped, everyone turned around and waved - it was typical of the friendliness we experienced on our trip. At the end of a long track across the top of a dyke separating water-filled ricefields, we arrived at the entrance to Wat Chedei. The complex of buildings and living quarters surrounded two pagodas, an older one and a partially-completed newer wat, under construction by a group of orange-clad monks. Sat behind the older wat was a large cement stupa which housed a reclining Buddha and an ancient lintel and two carved colonettes, dating from Angkorean times, and now protected from possible theft by a metal grill.
On our return to town, we called in at Wat Athvea as Phalla had never visited the wat with the 12th century laterite temple next door and then watched a twenty-a-side game of football, played at a frenetic pace by schoolboys in the grounds of the wat. To round off the afternoon, we made a bee-line for the top level of Angkor Wat, where many tourists had positioned themselves in every available nook and cranny, on ledges and in doorways to catch the warm glow of the setting sun. Meeting up with my souvenir-selling friends (Noung, Sokchata and Heang) immediately after, we returned to their home village whilst they changed and rode back with Phalla and myself for a tasty meal at the Arun restaurant in town and a late-night walk along the riverbank. I was up early the next day to catch the sunrise over Srah Srang lake and an exhausting climb to the top of Phnom Bok. After finally tracking down my e-friend Pete Calanni in the middle of the day, I ate at the Greenhouse Kitchen and returned to the Angkor complex with Phalla and Lom for the rest of the afternoon. We initially stopped off in Angkor Thom for a quick look around the most obvious sites like the Terraces, Baphuon, Phimeanakas, Tep Pranam and Preah Palilay before passing under the North Gate and calling in at Krol Romeas ('rhino park'), a circle of laterite stones actually used as a training arena for the royal elephants. We moved onto the massive temple of Preah Khan and wandered through its numerous passages and galleries, admiring its intricate carvings, giant garudas (located along the outer wall, there are 72 in total), the mysterious two storey hall and the rebuilt 'dharmasala' before heading back to Angkor Wat for the sunset. Beside the right hand pool just in front of the central complex, I met up again with the photographer Jon Ortner, who I'd bumped into at the remote temple of Prasat O'Pong on top of Phnom Kulen two days before. Jon and his partner, Martha McGuire were busy snapping away as the light played on the walls of the temple and reflected in the still water. What was particularly noticeable was the loud croaking of hundreds of tiny frogs that were on the surface of the pool. A little later as I sat at the top of Angkor Wat watching the sun set and the sky turn red, yellow and orange, I could still hear the frog chorus loud and clear.
The map above is courtesy of Naoki Hatano and shows the location of many of Angkor's temples.
Click once on any photo to see a larger version.
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