IN SEARCH OF THE KHMER KINGDOMS
Mail on Sunday, 2003
The boy had gentle brown eyes, and looked about thirteen. He told me his name was Pir. In truth, I really didn't want somebody taking me around the great temple of Angkor Wat, but how could I refuse such a guide? As he pointed out this carving and that, in surprisingly good English, he mentioned sadly that his parents had been murdered by Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge. Now, it didn't take a mathematician to work out that this was hardly possible. The Khmer Rouge ruled between 1975 and 1979, killing at least one million people and systematically obliterating all intellectual, professional classes as well as obliterating pre-revolutionary culture. The dates didn't fit.
Yet I couldn't blame Pir for attempting to gain my sympathy. Perhaps he meant his grandparents....and in any case, the legacy of Pol Pot continued its destruction long after the regime was overthrown, because once you have smashed a civilisation to a heap of broken fragments, it takes a very long time for it to rebuild. Pir is just one of many who can now make an innocent coin or two from the burgeoning of Cambodia's tourist trade, and I was glad to make him smile with a couple of dollars.
It's ironic that we tend to associate the word' Khmer' with horror, instead of with a great civilisation. I wanted to banish the image of 'the killing fields' from my mind by finding out more about the other Khmers. From the 9th to the 14th centuries the mighty Khmer empire ruled much of what is now Vietnam, Laos and Thailand. They were warriors, but great builders too, and some of their creations - like the fabled temple of Angkor Wat where I met Pir - rank amongst humanity's most sublime achievements. I felt I might obliterate the 20th century image of heaps of skulls by seeing for myself the secret smile on the famous Buddha towers of Angkor Thom.
With no time to visit Laos I actually began my trail in Northern Thailand, because I was in Bangkok for other journalistic work and it was very easy to fly up to the province of Buriram - the base for visiting the Khmer temple of Prasat Phnom Rung - one of the finest in Thailand. Buriram is an attractive little rural town, right off the tourist trail. There's a lively evening market, plenty of bars and small cheap hotels and it's easy to hire a taxi to take you the forty minute drive to the temple complex. You travel through a flat, rural landscape, passing rice fields, and men fishing from trees or washing their cattle in lakes. It isn't spectacularly beautiful, just very unspoilt and peaceful.
The Khmer word 'phnom' simply means hill, and it doesn't take much imagination to understand why they built their temples on hills approached by complicated causeways, steps, and platforms. It is as if the building itself becomes a stone mountain. Khmer architects responded deeply to the symbolism of mountains: the higher you get the closer you are to heaven, or Mount Meru - the scared abode of the gods. Certainly, wandering across the bridges edged with towering many headed serpents ('nagas'), towards the red sandstone terraces I felt I was indeed crossing from earth to another place. The sandstone temple glows in the heat, unfolding in building after building, all linked by open doorways with fantastically carved lintels and posts, telling stories from Hindu mythology.
One of the lintels here has become the most famous in all Thailand, and raises an uncomfortable issue of how the Western art market has plundered Asian temple sites for treasure. When restoration of the temple began in the early sixties this particular stone, showing the god Vishnu reclining on the back of a dragon, was resting on the ground. One day it was found to be missing, and nobody knew what had happened, until it turned up on show in the Art Institute of Chicago.
It had been 'acquired' by an American art foundation - which means it had been stolen locally, and bought by a dealer not too worried about where it came from. As the rebuilding of the temple neared completion in the 80s Thailand demanded the return of the lintel. After complicated negotiations it was returned in 1988, to great public rejoicing - but such thefts are commonplace today all over in Thailand and Cambodia. When I see antique Buddhas and other sacred figures on sale in smart galleries in England, I always wonder where they have come from, and if they should be here.
There are other Khmer temples in northern Thailand, and it's certainly a good idea to gain a sense of the architectural style before travelling on to Cambodia itself - where the best examples are. I thought Prasat Phnom Rung was unbeatable - before seeing Angkor, the magnificent Khmer temple complex which is counted as one of the wonders of the world. I travelled there via Bangkok once more, flying to the small airport Siem Reap, although it would have been a far shorter journey to have gone by road across the Thai border.
Most of us have a wish-list of places we long to visit. Angkor was at the top of mine - and not even the pain (and potential embarrassment) of a nasty tummy bug was going to stop me from seeing all I could in just three days. My taxi driver from the airport was keen to be hired as a driver, and at $20 a day that seemed like a good idea. One of the many motorcycle 'taxi' would have been less than half that cost, but Veasnu's car had air conditioning, and in my state of health it was a blessing. It was very, very hot, and the Angkor temples are spread over a wide area - to which you gain access by paying a flat fee of $10 a day, or $40 for three days.
The dollar is the currency here, for in the last few years tourism has increased dramatically - bringing employment to local people, a desperately-needed boost to the Cambodian economy, and a threat to the fragile, priceless ruins. In 2001 around 130,000 people visited the sites, but by 2010 this figure is expected to rise to over 850,000. I witnessed people climbing all over the stones despite warning notices, and touching the ancient carvings. No wonder UNESCO has already judged it to be one of the most threatened World Heritage Sites on the planet.
Most people think of one name, Angkor Wat, but in fact there are ten 'groups' of temples, adding up to over thirty five sites to visit. I let the driver decide the 'must-sees' and to begin he picked the last capital of the Khmers, Angkor Thom. This mini- city was the religious and administrative centre of the Empire, and within the city walls that still stand lived King Jayavarman ( 1181-1220) and all his court, as well as religious leaders. The rest of the people lived outside the compound in long-gone wooden homes. Now, walking across the causeways flanked by huge stone gods and demons, exploring the Terrace of the Elephants, and looking up at the astonishing towers it is easy to imagine why Angkor Thom was referred to by all its visitors in the ancient world as 'an opulent city'.
At the heart of the city was the wonder I had so wanted to see: the twin temples known as The Bayon. On fifty four crumbling towers are carved vast faces of Buddha - or are they portraits of the great Khmer king himself? A visitor in the 1920s wrote, 'The faces with slightly curving lips, eyes placed in shadow by the lower lids utter not a word yet force you to guess much.' These represent the famous 'smile of Angkor': a philosophical acceptance - perhaps- that whatever we do in life, the end is inevitable, and we must accept fate without struggle.
Visiting Angkor is so overwhelming you run out of adjectives as well as time. What is it about ruins that so fascinates us? When I saw the little Temple of Ta Prohm, all but strangled by nature, I wanted to cry out with the delight of it all. Thick foliage snakes around carvings, vast trunks split the masonry, and strange birds squawk out their mocking, haunting message that humankind shouldn't be so arrogant, because Mother Nature will always assert her power. I lay on a warm slab of stone and watched chattering tourists reduced to awe by the spectacle - as well as noticing the numbers of beautiful Cambodian children who haunt all the temple sites, selling bracelets, postcards and trinkets, or simply loitering hopefully by the indifferent carvings in case a kindly foreigner might slip them the odd coin.
That brings me back to Pir, and Angkor Wat itself. I could write reams here about the exquisite Hindu carvings at Banteay Srei, the sense of doorways leading to infinity at Preah Kahn and climbing to watch the sunset at Phnom Bakheng, but always my mind returns to the vast replica of the universe in stone which is Angkor Wat. Its size defies description, raising as it does in layer after layer, like an elaborate, enormous cake. Studies have shown that when the Khmers laid the temple out, the distances between certain architectural elements reflected numbers related to Hindu mythology and cosmology. It's easy to believe, because the whole thing is so rich and complex. The only way to reach the upper layers is by climbing up impossibly steep flights of stone steps, and since I have no head for heights I found this terrifying, especially coming down. Yet from the top the layout reveals itself at last - a breath-taking spectacle of harmonious proportions.
Young Pir took my hand when we crossed near one of the dizzy edges, and I enjoyed his company. What will become of him, and the hordes of sweet children who crowded around me selling bracelets, when finally I had tired of examining the world famous wall carvings all around the Wat, which tell the story of Khmer battles and mythical events? I imagine they will find work in the many hotels that have sprung up in the once-sleepy little town of Siem Reap, to serve the international tourist trade. After a day in the temples you can eat well, watch vividly-costumed Cambodian dancers, and hang out in civilised piano bars at hotels like the Sofitel, or visit the innumerable downtown backpackers' cafes. All this bring employment. The bell hop at the Sofitel told me he earns $80 a month, and loves his smart uniform. Thus are lives transformed by tourism, even if monuments are threatened.
Also in Siem Reap you can visit Les Chantiers Ecoles, a school founded in 1993 to teach the old Cambodian skills of carving stone and wood which created all those temples, but had all but died out after the Khmer Rouge massacres. In a sense, this is my happiest memory. There were busy young Cambodians getting the training they need to support their families, and rebuild the country - by making truly beautiful objects to sell to tourists. I tottered home with bracelets, wrap-skirts, postcards and bags I didn't really want, bought from the children at the temples; as well as a stone head of Buddha, a painted wooden standing Buddha, and a silk cushion and dress - all bought from the Chantiers Ecoles shop. Why not? There is more to travel than ruins. Helping (in a small way) with the rebuilding of a once-great Empire matters too.