Saturday, 22 February 2014

Escape from Angkor

It was quarter to ten and I was hating it. Pushed around by Russians taking selfies. Trodden on by someone trying to scramble up a stairway barred with wooden hurdles and no entry signs. Damp and sweaty in the muggy morning heat.

I'm supposed to be enjoying this. Welcome to Angkor Wat.

Angkor is a supreme monument. I can imagine, if you managed to visit it on the right day, at the right time, it might be as mysterious as, say, the Meenakshi temple at Madurai (to which no one ever compares it; all they ever talk about is Notre Dame, the inevitable, inexorable reference). Courts within courts, dim corridors, stairs leading steeply up to darkened shrines where fragmentary Buddhas lurk.

But mystery soon disappears when hundreds of shouting, selfie-ing tourists descend. And then there are the hustlers. The 'buddhist' who shoves incense sticks in tourist's hands and then demands to be paid (this is not religion; this is extortion). The women running out from their food stalls to grab you before the next woman can. The kids whose determination to sell postcards exceeds their mathematical ability.

"You buy my postcard."


"Very cheap."


"Five one dollar."


"Very cheap, for you special price, ten three dollars."

A very special price indeed.

I had to get out. The problem; everywhere is like this. The Bayon, check. Angkor Wat, check. Ta Prohm, check. This was hurting. It was a full-on assault. I researched the internet, read the guidebooks, drew maps in my journal, strategised and planned.

Escape Route 1: ignore the guidebooks. ignore the tourist sights.

I gave up on Angkor. I wandered out to a modern temple instead. Brightly coloured animal figures in the front; a horse and its rider gleamed wetly with acrylic paint, plaster peacocks froze in mid-strut. A solemn father propelled his chubby toddler gently towards the open door. Day-glo murals showed a smiling princely Buddha flying through rainbow skies, while neon clad monks traipsed a Rousseau-esque forest below.

But inside the prayer hall, the rolodex of time shuffled its cards five centuries back; a reclining Buddha smiled, complacent and lipsticky, gold leaf dulled with depth and age, and around it the pavement was warped and sunken with the passage of the years and the slow oozing of subterranean waters.

A longer walk took me to Wat Bo, where dogs snarled and middle aged Khmers played keepy-uppy to keep fit, and among the gold and white painted memorial stupas I disturbed a woman squatting to take a leak. It was as if I'd stepped straight out of twenty-first century Siem Reap, where ATMs compete for business and you can get Erdinger Weissbier or Président camembert in the supermarkets, and into a rural village where nothing had changed much for centuries, and nothing ever would.

I'd really come to see the murals painted in the monastery's main temple. In the near dark of the interior I could make out a few isolated details; what looked like Western gentlemen with striped trousers and pith helmets; an opium smoker; elephants with parasoled howdahs, two soldiers with tricorn hats. A nun came into the temple and lit three incense sticks before the Buddha. My eyes were beginning to adjust to the dark; the details broadened out, till I could see the whole wall, a patchwork quilt of scenes in different colours - a bright yellow background to one, another royal blue, another in a rich, deep oxblood.

The nun had knelt before the Buddha. The monk who'd been showing a pair of German tourists around came and chatted to me for a while, opening some of the windows for me to photograph the murals. The light was beginning to fade outside, afternoon shading into evening. The nun started chanting; a slow, simple tune, almost like a Lutheran chorale. When the monk's back was turned I slipped a few notes into the donation box, and sat at the back of the temple, not a worshipper exactly but feeling somehow refreshed, made new. The monk was starting to close the windows again. In the fresh dark, the great golden Buddha seemed to glow more intensely.

I looked at my watch. Quarter to six; quarter to sunset. Time to go.

As I left, the monk smiled, a simple and slight smile, and said: "Thank you for the donation."

Escape Route 2: the temples no one visits

I nearly didn't get to Banteay Prei. Everybody kept telling me it was twenty kilometres away. Except that was Banteay Srei. Or there was Banteay Kdei, people visited that.

But no, I knew what I wanted. Banteay Prei and Prasat Prei, little marks on my map that weren't in any of the guidebooks. I shot past the turnoff first time, got to Neak Pean, had to come back; there was a dirt road heading north, almost unsignposted - I saw the road before I found the sign.

Three Cambodian women were sweeping the grounds in front of the temple. A man passed on his bike and shouted out to them. Two children ran along, racing him for a few yards before peeling off into the jungle. But once I stooped to enter the central enclosure through its strangely low gateway, I was alone. Tumbled rock, short grass, a few sticky burrs. Only a delicate apsara regarded me, her eyebrows raised; she'd been looking for centuries, and would carry on looking once I'd gone. I scrambled into dim corridors, the windows low and small; all the doors were tiny, as if this was a monastery built for children. A lintel with curling foliage and praying Buddhas lay slantwise on the ground.

As I came out, a young man with a goatee entered. The first tourist I'd seen since I'd arrived.

I met him several times later that day. I saw almost no one else, except on the roads, where groups in tuktuks puttered from one monument to the next, and the occasional huge coach swooshed by.

On to Ta Nei. The tour buses don't come here; they can't. A tuk-tuk can just get down the sandy, bicycle-rutted track. Or you can bike it, though I ended up pushing my bike rather than riding through the worst of the sand, shaded from the heat by tall jungle trees. Ta Nei is a tiny temple, half overgrown, tree roots working their way between the stones, lichen greening or making grey the orangey sandstone. A bird sang tink, tink, tink, another tonk, tonk like a xylophone; leaves twisted down slowly from the trees, crisped brown by the dry season.

From Ta Nei I tried to get back towards Ta Prohm, but I hadn't reckoned on the rushing rapids that lay in the way. A dam spans the river, but there are steps both sides, narrow and steep, and I had the bike to manage. Thudding music and the chink of beer bottles betrayed a party going on on the other side; within a minute I had two not quite sober local helpers to haul the bike down and up again, and left them with their tuktuks and their girlfriends and an incongruous looking guy in a suit to enjoy the afternoon. I never did find out what the party was about.

At nearly the end of the day I reached the Bayon, ramshackle like a tumbled limestone mountain. Should I go straight back to Siem Reap? More by luck than judgment, and swayed by the grammatical error as well as the foreboding macabre of the title "Deads Gate", I decided to add one more sight to the list, and set off down the dirt track to the east gate of Angkor Thom.

There was a small group of American women there, climbing down from the top of the wall. We chatted for a minute, and then I was alone, alone with the great face of Jayavarman VII looking down at me. The track behind was a tunnel, a canyon carved in the forest; the gate vertiginously high, claustrophobically narrow. Up to the right a narrow path led upwards.

I spent the last quarter of an hour of daylight riding a narrow track on top of a millennium old wall; forty feet below, the waters of the moat, a hundred yards wide, and beyond, the jungle. At times my front tyre was no more than six inches from the edge; overhanging branches whipped at my face; grass encroached on the track. Startled birds crashed up through the trees as I approached; below, I caught a glimpse of an egret flapping lazily across the water, but only a glimpse. I was balanced riskily, on the edge, the sunset dazzling and dancing in my eyes, gloriously alone.

Escape Route 3: get out on the road

This took a leap of faith. I had about 90 percent of the information I wanted. But there were missing links. I didn't have a great map. No one will give you information on buses in Siem Reap, because they all want you to hire a car for the day, at a cost of $100 up. And that's a horrid way to go, because you end up spending six hours travelling for just a couple of hours at the temple, in the middle of the day, when it's too hot, and the light is terrible for photography, and you're already tired from the journey.

First: Banteay Chhmar. Reaching it is a little bit of an adventure (but only a little). You take the Poipet bus and get off on the road past Sisophon. You get a moto to the market. You get a shared taxi to Banteay Chhmar. Cost: $7 for the bus, a buck for the moto, $5-7 for the taxi. If you're lucky, and I was, the moto driver will help find you a taxi. And then a long, bumping, dusty dirt road, swerving past tractors and piles of soil in the middle of the road, the driver jamming the brakes on to avoid the oncoming triple-overtakers or a pothole, squashed up with seven or eight other people, till you get to Banteay Chhmar, long after you've lost all feeling in your legs, and nearly fall over getting out of the taxi.

It's supposed to work like that. But of course, although when I pointed out I was getting out at Sisopon there was a huge commotion - wow, that's not supposed to happen, no one ever does that, why aren't you going to Thailand, what is there in Sisophon? - the driver, and his three mates, actually forgot I was getting off there, so it was only when I realised we were nearly at Poipet and asked one of the three mates that he realised what was up - and yelled aloud, and stepped on the brakes, and pulled my bag out of the luggage and made off across the main road with it, dodging trucks and speeding cars to flag down a bus going in the opposite direction, which did, eventually, get me to Sisopon (and didn't, thank God, forget, and end me up back in Siem Reap two hours later).

Banteay Chhmar is wonderful. You get an inkling when, from the taxi, you see the bridge that spans the moat, its time-worn devas and demons pulling at their tug-of-war stone rope. And immediately, the village feels quite different; no one rushes to sell you anything or point you towards a guest house. You can wander the market undisturbed, grab a couple of beers at one of the shops, stop in at the village tourism office (website) to borrow a map or arrange a moto or just have a chat.

The temple is ruined - and still being ruined. (I was quite shocked to hear archaeologist Olivier Cunin, in a fascinating presentation on reconstructing the temple, show a photograph of quite recent work there - and another showing how a couple of years later, an entire tower had been demolished by the fall of a great tree.) On one side, workers are gradually piecing together the fallen reliefs of the outside gallery; elsewhere, you have to hop the tumbled blocks to find, in one place, a nose, or a single thick curling lip, or an elegant almond shaped eye. In one place I nearly trod on a small Buddha, staring up at me from a fallen lintel. From some of the towers, the serious face of Jayavarman regards you; in one, scattered incense sticks and a packet of matches bore witness that this is still a living temple, though its heartbeat has slowed so far it's hardly audible.

My next plan was to visit Sambor Prei Kuk, Preah Khan Kompong Svay, and Prasat Preah Vihear - bagging three temples in a three-day visit. First, bus to Kompong Thom; that was easy, it's on the route to Phnom Penh. I knew I could hire a moto from Kompong Thom to Preah Khan; but getting to Preah Vihear was the missing link.

Fortunately, as soon as I arrived in Kompong Thom I was met by a friendly English-speaking moto driver, and we worked out a plan; he could get me to the main road past Preah Khan, and flag down a bus or a share taxi going north.

Sambor Prei Kuk has a very different feeling from Angkorian ruins; it feels more Indian, somehow, more intimate, more spontaneous - small brick spires rising in clearings in the forest. Warm brick colours; orange and red. Carvings of temples hanging in the air, of gods too eroded to be identifiable. Sandy tracks through the trees. You can see what Angkor grew out of - the square compounds with their long, low walls, the shape of the spires, the staircase-guarding lions - and yet this is different; lower key, happier.

In the golden light of afternoon, we motored along the Sen river, passing fishermen standing to haul their nets through the water, past sandbanks and low ochre cliffs, to a raft which ferried three motorbikes and four people over the river to a temple built like a boat where fat golden Buddhas crewed the poop deck, and smaller boat-shrines clustered round like a Buddhist armada. Then at last through flat fields to Phnom Santuk on its hill - not high, but visible from everywhere in this flat land of rice paddy and river marsh, where I climbed the eight hundred steps to the top, and a boy monk, a dead bird dangling from one hand, showed me reclining Buddhas under the cliffs' overhang, and chased away the monkeys with gleeful, raucous yells. From a bald dome of rock I looked out to the dusty plain and the slow meanders of the river, misty silver in the near sunset.

You start early in Cambodia if you want to get anywhere; six the next morning saw me already on the pillion, rucksack stowed in the front well of the moped, three shirts one under the other keeping the worst of the morning chill off. Then it was hours of red dirt road, and dust everywhere; my clothes orange with it, my hands sweating orange, my eyelashes crusted with orange sand. Long, straight, level roads, interminable, where as soon as you got up speed, there would be a bridge, with a sudden ramp , two or three inches above the road, that you hit with a bang; or there would be a truck going the other way, raising a cloud  of dust in which the road suddenly disappeared. Or there would be a corner that you hadn't expected, or a herd of cows being taken to graze, and one would suddenly take it into its head to trot in front of us.

Preah Khan is a strange experience.The great bridge is half fallen in, though beaky Garudas still line its sides; the central tower has collapsed, the side towers are partly fallen, the trailing, rambling weeds seem to be taking back the temple. Yet the entrance gopura stands proud, despite the tree that forms one side of the central gate; and apsaras smile knowingly from dark recesses. I was alone with this jigsaw puzzle of randomly scattered stones, and the ghosts of a temple city whose shadow I could dimly see in what was left.

There are smaller temples here, too; one of Jayavarman VII, with his face on one of the towers; I scrambled up on the roof of a half-fallen gallery till I could reach up and nearly touch it, and then lost my nerve, too far from the ground; and a strange small pyramid, guarded by elephants at the corners and graceful apsaras at the gates, where men were sitting playing cards on the terrace at the top, and the waters of the great Baray - three kilometres from end to end - shimmer in the heat.

But there was one temple missing; the Mebon, the temple in the middle of the baray. We set out to find it; down a steep slope, on tiny dirt paths through the woods and through dug fields, turning and twisting on muddy ground that once lay under the waters of the great lake. When the ground started to rise again, I realised we had come to the island; and there, half hidden by immense trees, was a wall, and beyond the wall, the spire of a temple. Huge garuda birds stretched their wings across the side walls; carved elephants sprayed floral waterfalls; moss-covered buddhas or deva figures sat in the shadowed corners. All abandoned, all overgrown, and yet the carving was pristine; a perfect, amazing discovery.

The rest of the day was spent heading north; my driver dropped me off on the main road north, from which it was a $5 taxi ride into Preah Vihear town, where I'd planned to stay, but I was lucky enough to get a further shared taxi to Sra Em, less a town than a sprawl of market stalls and single level houses; and lucky enough to organise a moto for 6 the next morning to get me to the mountain. (Cost of hotel: $5. Cost of meal: $5. Cost of moto: $15 there and back. Cost of a separate moto to get up the mountain: $5. Cost of bribe to get in before official opening time: $5. Cambodia is not all that cheap.)

The Dongrek mountains close off the landscape, a long dark ridge above the plain. The road up is steep, so steep I nearly slide off the back of the motorbike, so steep the engine can hardly cope, even in first gear. The bike rocks and slides as the road gives out, and we cross a slope of bare rock, pitted and cracked. And there's the first of the gopuras, half collapsed, and the great paved way upwards, towards the next gateway, and then the next, and the expanse of dark grey sky on this stormy morning.

Preah Vihear rises from the steep staircase at its foot, all the way up the mountain, the gradient decreasing as it rises; stairs give way to a long, wide paved avenue, and then there are more steps, up through three gates in a low wall that bars the way, dissipating the upwards, longitudinal thrust of the temple plan for a moment, as you go through into a courtyard, with small temple or library wings on each side. Then the path starts again; and on to the third of the gopuras - and then the fourth - and finally, steps rise up to the small courtyard at the top, with low, narrow cloisters around it, and a half-collapsed spired temple rising in the middle. It must be half a kilometre from the bottom to the top - just glance at the plan and you see how strung out Preah Vihear is, that it's the huge staircase and esplanade that give the monument its entire character - yet every time you approach one of the gopuras, that impulse is lost in the horizontality, the expansion of those walls to either side, the courtyards and tiny rooms and corridors that run counter to your movement. It's so different from the neat and tidy mandalas of the Angkor temples, concentric squares within squares; it's long and strung out, and wild, too, with a cold wind blowing.

And then, behind the topmost courtyard, there's a space of bare rock, and a cliff that drops suddenly away, all the way down to the plain, glittering in the early sunlight, hazy in the muggy noon. Turn around, and you can see back to the plains of Thailand, separated by only a few hundred yards from the start of the temple stairs. There's nothing higher than I am, on this prow of stone; the trees below are stunted.

It's an uneasy place, this temple that clings to the mountain slope; along the old pilgrim stairs to the east, there are sandbagged bunkers, and bullet holes pock the walls of the lower gopuras, and signs warn of landmines if you stray from the path. Did pilgrims here always feel so endangered, I wonder, on the exposed, steep  stairway that led up from the jungle, where now, new wooden steps take seven or eight twists of serpentine complexity to go as far as a single straight flight of steep steps did so many centuries ago?

It warms up later. A group of Cambodian tourists arrive, little girls playing grandmother's footsteps on the massive slabs of the path, men in straw hats, a little boy who throws his toy truck at the ground again and again. I can't work out whether he's laughing or screaming. A soldier starts singing, his round face happy. War's not breaking out today, that's for sure.

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