Coming from Myanmar via Phuket and Bangkok. (The meal on Thai Airways is ice cream.) I've fixed up to meet Elaine in Siem Reap, for a last minute side trip to the amazing twelfth century Angkor Wat. Siem Reap is the second city in Cambodia, known mainly as the gateway to the temples at Angkor. Today, it's a tranquil place, but I can see that this situation will change very shortly. The whole tree lined approach from the airport, is a hotel construction site. It looks as if they are building hundreds of them. We're staying in delightful bungalows with flower filled gardens. I can't see any more of these being built.
Cambodia (known as Kampuchea in the east) has high poverty rates, but is one of the fastest-growing economies in Asia. The capital and largest city is Phnom Penh, the political, economic and cultural centre of Cambodia.
Buddhism is the state religion, practised by more than 97% of the population. Evidence from carbon dating suggests that Cambodia was inhabited as early as 4000 B.C. The region was ruled by the Khmer Empire from 802 AD, for over 600 years. In addition to Angkor Wat, airborne laser scanning technology suggests that, multiple huge cities between 900 and 1,400 years old lie beneath the tropical forest floor. The Khmer leaders first introduced Hinduism, before they swapped to Buddhism. Cambodia experienced a decline of power, as its neighbours Vietnam and Thailand grew in strength. In 1863, Cambodia became a protectorate of France, and was then subsumed into French Indochina.
After a period of Japanese occupation during the Second World War, Cambodia gained independence in 1953. Despite Cambodia's neutrality, the Vietnam War extended into the country in 1965 via the Ho Chi Minh and Sihanouk trails. A 1970 coup installed the US-aligned Khmer Republic, until being overthrown by the Khmer Rouge in 1975. The Khmer Rouge, led by Pol Pot, ruled the country and carried out the Cambodian genocide - The Killing Fields - from 1975 until 1979 (one and a half to three million people died), when they were ousted by a Vietnamese backed invasion.
The Vietnamese-occupied People's Republic of Kampuchea became the de facto government. Conflict was ongoing until a 1997 coup d'état consolidated power under Prime Minister Hun Sen and the Cambodian People's Party (CPP). He is, the longest serving non-royal leader in Southeast Asia, (since 1985.) It is a de facto one-party state. Millions of land mines were planted during the war years and Cambodia has the largest population of amputees in the world caused by landmines. Almost half of the landmines are yet to be removed.
Angkor was the seat of the Khmer kingdom from the ninth to the fifteenth centuries. It is colossal and incredibly fulfilling, one of the most rewarding archaeological sites that I have seen. It was discovered in the jungle and partially cleared. Garuda birds compete with elephants. The bas reliefs are fantastic. And there are pyramids reminiscent of the Mayan structures, though grander. There are steps galore.
Angkor’s vast complex of intricate stone buildings most notably includes preserved Angkor Wat (City of Temples). This is, incredibly, the largest religious monument in the world. It was built on the orders of Khmer King Suryavarman II during the early twelfth century, as a Hindu temple, dedicated to the god Vishnu. He intended it to also be his mausoleum. By the end of the century it had evolved into a Buddhist temple.
The main building, with its five towers, is intended to represent Mount Meru, home of the devas in Hindu mythology. It faces west. Scholars are still arguing over that one. but think it may be related to the funerary plan. And there are three raised galleries around it, contained within a three mile long moat, which is great for photographs of reflections
Intriguingly, the construction of Angkor Wat also suggests a celestial significance: lines of sight from terraces within the temple show specific towers to be at the precise location of the sunrise on a solstice. And there's also an appointed monument, to be clambered up, for stupendous sunset views across the jungle. The hawkers are relentless. 'Do I look as if I want a postcard, just as the sun's round disc slips below the horizon?'
We have a day in Angkor Wat to be proper tourists. The souvenir shops around the site all look very similar, mainly packed with wooden carvings and friezes depicting aspects of Angkor Wat. There is more variety in the old market with beautiful (but expensive) baskets and a good selection of silver. Elaine buys up the whole mall.
In the evening, a cultural show at the Angkor Village. Japanese tourists leap about in front of the stage with their cameras, obscuring every one else's view - and ruining opportunities for photographs
I'm surprised to learn that that there's another Khmer complex, two miles from Angkor Wat. Elaine has arranged a guide who brings a car with a cracked screen and suspect tyres. Angkor Thom (Great City) was the last and most enduring capital city of the Khmer Empire. It was established in the late twelfth century by King Jayavarman VII. around several monuments from earlier eras. At the centre of the city is the state temple, the Bayon, incorporating giant, mysterious faces, carved into its towers. This one is on the national flag (not Angkor Wat as I had assumed). Other major structures are clustered around the Victory Square immediately to the north. The Terrace of the Elephants was used by King Jayavarman VII as a platform to inspect his victorious army as it returned to the city.
And finally, I discover that there are many more temples. The area is riddled with them. Astonishing and wonderful. And exhausting. Thank God for tuk-tuks. Ta Prohm (Royal Monastery). one kilometre east of Angkor Thom was also founded by the Khmer King Jayavarman VII,as a Mahayana Buddhist monastery and university. Ta Prohm has not been subjected to digging and restoration. and so is in much the same condition in which it was found. Huge tree root tentacles grasping onto the ruins only add to the atmosphere. I expect Lara Croft to appear at any moment.
Close by is Banteay Kdei, (A Citadel of Chambers), more wonderful towers and tree roots too.
Then, Ta Keo. This one, dedicated to Shiva, is a little earlier, part of the new capital in the late tenth century. It never finished as another new king wanted to build his own new capital. I can see why they refer to this area as a complex. And there's still more. some part buried some just dotted around.
A boat ride is a good way to relax.. Tonle Sap is the largest salt water lake in Southeast Asia. It fluctuates in size over the year, expanding considerably during the monsoon. This area is hugely important for growing the staple food, rice. There’s a lot to see, the floating village, the dirt and squalor of the grinding poverty, the long boats as folk ply their wares, the fish farms with their tethered cormorants and pelicans, humming life on the lake shores and children waving from stilt jetties.
Now, to return to the Philippines and home.
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