The Hidden Temples of Angkor

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An old lady stopped me as I left the market. Between visiting wats my guide had made a detour to his home village. In the middle of the local market, I met his aunt, sister-in-law and baby nephew. Amidst the heat an army of flies filled the air. Everything, it seemed, was for sale, from fruit and vegetables of vibrant colour, freshly slaughtered meat, bowls of blood tofu (large slabs of quivering freshly congealed blood), clothes, cooking pans, washing detergent — anything and everything was on display.

The elderly lady was tiny, bent and wrinkled. All she had seen in her seventy years was written on her face. War, hunger, bombings, the terror of the Khmer Rouge; she had survived them all, still worked her stall in the markets, and could boast a gaggle of great-grandchildren. She was fascinated by my daughter, fifteen years old and easily twice her height.

As we climbed back into our van, a local farmer went by in his bullock-pulled cart. Like the occasional elephant we passed, bullocks have right of way.

The increasingly bumpy road wound deeper into the jungle, through small villages surrounded by rice paddies, the vibrant green dotted with water buffalo basking in the sunshine, and farmers busily at work.

Founded at the beginning of the 9th century AD by the god-king Jayavarman II, Angkor rapidly became the political and religious centre of the Khmer Empire. Jayavarman’s successors built temples and palaces of increasing grandeur and sophistication, but with the demise of the kingdom in 1432, the area was largely abandoned and the temples consumed by the jungle. Over seventy remain. Some — like Angkor Wat — have been restored, others left largely untouched, with trees growing from their roofs, a river of roots interlocking amongst the massive stones.

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It’s impossible to show the scale of the jungle

Rediscovered by the French archaeologist Henri Mouhot in the early 1850s, Ta Prohm is perhaps the most haunting of all the temple complexes in Angkor. Strangler figs and banyan trees sprout amongst the ruins, their roots hugging the enormous stones before gently cascading over the walls. Once home to nearly 3,000 monks, now the temple complex lay eerily silent.

The stone corridors offered a cool retreat from the tropical sun. The stones feel as old as the jungle itself, as if they belong here, and the old gods felt close by. With the jungle encroaching on all sides, it is difficult to appreciate the once grand layout of the temple, with its outer walls, inner courtyards and galleries and pools. These are linked by stone passageways, many of which are now impassable. As I clambered over tree roots and crumbling walls, I wondered how many other wats still lie buried in the jungle, waiting to be discovered.

After another jungle drive we eventually reached Banteay Srei — the Citadel of Beauty. Constructed between 967 and 1000 AD, it was the only complex in Angkor built from pink sandstone, allowing the exquisite detail of its carvings to survive. Covering nearly every stone surface — the sheer number of them is quite overwhelming — these carvings are considered the finest in Cambodia.

At one pillar a woman stood making an etching, as if she had stood there since the complex was first discovered. By her feet lay a pile of note books, filled with etchings from the various temples of Angkor, her translations in French beside them.

Many of the scenes come from the Hindu epic Ramayana, with highly detailed — and quite sensuous — representations of the gods and goddesses, their court, warriors, dancers; indeed, the whole world of the Ramayana. A group of young monks, barely teenagers, wandered through the complex, their orange robes vibrant against the dark stone. I wondered what they made of the carvings, with their intricate detail of voluptuous woman welcoming warriors returning from battle.

The heavens opened, as only the heavens of a tropical sky can open. Laughing, the young monks scurried for cover. Fat raindrops danced across the waters of the moat, and the reflections of the temple shimmered amongst the water lilies.

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Young monks about to become very wet

Exactly when, or why, Beng Mealea was built remains unknown. More than two hours from Siam Reap, it remains quite isolated in the jungle; as late as the 1940s, guide books warned of the tigers, panthers, elephants, and wild buffalo which roamed nearby. One even suggested combining a visit to the temple with a hunting expedition.

Despite the tumbling stones and trees sprouting amongst the ruins ­– a great pile of stones dominates the central courtyard ­– in places the temple remains remarkably intact. Unlike the more crowded Angkor Wat, the ruins of Beng Mealea beg to be clambered over and explored, while other spots entice you to sit, and perhaps try a sketch, or maybe the mysteries of life, while the tourists around you search for the ultimate photo.

A small group of musicians sat playing outside. They used traditional Cambodian instruments, and their haunting melodies filled the air. More haunting still, each musician had been maimed by those bombs which still litter the land, perilous remainders from both the Vietnam War and the Khmer Rouge.

Although the regime was deposed in 1979, the Khmer Rouge controlled Beng Mealea and the surrounding area until the 1990s, and the temple has only recently been de-mined. (Signs warn visitors against wandering beyond the marked areas.)

The next day I flew to Laos. The in-flight meal was reminiscent of aeroplane food of the 1970’s: served in a box, and bordering on inedible. With the plane full of volunteer students from Australia, it wasn’t hard to find a hungry lad happy to have my meal.

I couldn’t help but think of the old lady I’d met the day before in the market, of all she had lived through, and as I floated in the sky in a metal tube I thought of how our two worlds remained so vastly removed from each other, and hoped it might change for my daughter.

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Musicians outside Beng Mealea

Originally published on my blog,

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At 10 I discovered travel, books and philosophy. Now I pass my days with a camera in one hand, a notebook in the other, looking for the perfect coffee.

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