I wake with a start at 5 am realising we’re late. While Ben says, ‘I don’t think I can do this’, we manage to dress and make it out the door just as a call comes from our tour leader.
‘We’re on our way,’ is all I need say into the receiver.
I follow Ben down the dimly lit staircase with eyes half closed to the waiting bus where he stumbles aboard like a follower of Henri Mahout about to encounter Angkor Wat.
and all its ancient intricacies …
I read that it is Mahout’s Voyage à Siam et dans le Cambodge (1868) that first brings Angkor to the public eye. And though the explorer made no such claims, it was Mahout who was posthumously celebrated as the discoverer of the lost city of temples in Cambodia, the rest of the world having ignored the writings of Charles-Emile Bouillevaux ten years earlier; perhaps because – according to Nick Ray in the Lonely Planet- Cambodia – this work lacked ‘the rich descriptions and tantalising pen-and-ink colour sketches … that turned the ruins into an international obsession’ yet ‘the preserve of French archaeological teams’ before becoming catalogued in such works as Voyage d’exploration en Indo-Chine by Ernets Doudart de Lagrée or the architectural musings of Lucien Fournereau.
Yet while the École Français d’Extrême-Orient funded expeditions to the Bayon in 1901, and six years later Thailand returned control of Angkor to Cambodia, an unprecedented 200 tourists was permitted to visit the temples at this time over a three month period as the rescue of the man-made from the clutches of nature continued to become an ongoing project of reclamation and repair sponsored by a variety of nations including the USA, Italy, Germany, India, Japan and the Republic of China.
However, in some like Ta Prohm, it is obvious the root systems of the largest trees continue to swallow the crumbling towers, or to lock the blocks in a conquering embrace.
Back inside the bus , it’s some way along the route to the temples that I realise – with a sinking heart – I’ve left my money belt, and passport, in the room. Fortunately Ben has remembered to gather his, so he agrees to subsidise me the entry fee and the necessary $3US for breakfast (baguette & jam) though we share the $5US lunch of Fried rice & vegetables to stretch the funds.
Meanwhile the bus stops with hundreds of others—and a similar army of remorques— in the midst of darkness at the official ticket booth and entry checkpoint. Alongside a batallion of excited tourists we line up beneath fluorescent lights at one of many available queues and wait to stand before an official camera like corporals undergoing early morning inspection, in order to receive our official ‘Three-Day Pass US$40.00’ doled out by the Apsara Authority and Sokha Hotel Co. Ltd.
Scrutinising the issued ticket I read – in tiny print -that this company has the right to withdraw the ticket in case of fraudulent use, and then to punish the holder of the said ticket ‘in according to the laws in force.’
Hole-punched at ‘30’ my ticket remains strictly personal — as No. 0622345; Nationality: COV.D0512 — and must be kept and shown on demand. This I discover happens at far more checkpoints than on the previous visit when things seemed far more relaxed.
Still, like my previous early morning venture to Angkor Wat, in reality the sunrise proves to be somewhat disappointing though my camera records some brilliant visual effects as the skyline illuminates into shades of pink beyond the five spires. And as the light brightens I realise it’s the tarpaulins and scaffolding involved in the extensive restoration of the façade that create the blotch in the silhouette to the left of centre, and to the far right in the vicinity of the Elephant’s Gate.
Still to the eye that cannot compare the present with past experience, though the place may no longer boast its brilliantly coloured temples and gilded towers, it still mesmerises ‘with its maze of stairways and long, echoing galleries adorned with yard upon yard of royal processions, armies on the march, and sinuous dancing girls [etched into the stones with intricate perfection] promising the delights of paradise’ according to Brian M. Fagan in The Great Warming: climate change and the rise and fall of civilisations.
Then when you realise that the place is lifeless—abandoned by its builders as the rice paddies dried up and the people became hungry; as the environment proved itself to be unpredictable and the people somewhat adaptable and opportunistic—it leaves those witnessing the futility of all such past labour in the production of magnificence with a sense of despair for its loss.
Ben learns the temples were constructed between the ninth & thirteenth centuries from portable laterite (as the foundations stones or the core sections) and sandstone (as the veneer) blocks. Ranging from grey, yellowish-brown to red sandstone and greenish greywacke, the blocks ( I later learn) were quarried in the dry season from at least seven areas, including the south-east foot of Siem Reap.  They were then transported down-river and along the Tonle Sap on rafts drawn by elephants over different construction stages.
Nevertheless, Ben considers the temples are ‘more rubble’ than he expected;
and that because of the natural decay of materials over such a long time across an immense and complex archaeological landscape, the restoration and conservation processes seem to intrude, even detract somewhat, from the original classical authenticity.
In spite of this, throughout the day the temples share their history and their presence with those who are part of the accelerated rush of tourism—on which the Cambodian economy depends—while the Cambodian people otherwise become part of the complex problem of living with heritage because they have differing perceptions of landscape, as priorities vary across the full range of stakeholders based on identifiable economic, environmental and cultural values.
Yet we are told that local opinion, perception and attitude is beginning to matter. That similarly to our great Australian landscape, the local meanings for the natural and cultural features—epitomised here by ‘neak ta’ (‘terrestrial spirits’)—need be accorded ritual significance perhaps over and above any requisite management of World Heritage Sites; predominantly by explicit attention to issues of governance and legal framework as Roland Fletcher suggests in Living with Heritage: Site Monitoring and Heritage Values in Greater Angkor and the Angkor World Heritage Site, Cambodia.
Indeed, as we move within the temples it seems we are participating in the interplay between global and local values; that when we stand on designated diases for the million-dollar postcard shot it’s because site management requires some reconciliation between the often-conflicting objectives of maintenance that revolve around the outstanding universal values of a particular site and the land rights of the local people.
Indeed when one becomes part of the traffic jam at the South Gate of Angkor Thom such an experience diminishes one’s pleasure somewhat.
Still, we witness the trees that have sprung from seeds freely dropped by birds, now germinating in the crevices between the blocks such that their roots become particularly destructive over time.
We are told of the natural tendency of laterite to cement lightly—becoming harder on exposure — making it suitable for light traffic and easy riding; yet of its poor wearing qualities beneath intense traffic, and heavy loads, such that a laterite ‘macadam’ soon breaks into pieces under stress.
And as our bodies become weary with the passing of the hours — because legs climb steps almost vertically and cameras click incessantly at arms’ length — we wonder at the ability of such structures to still exist as exceptional monumental evidence of man’s devotion to his gods; even after the intrusion of voyageurs — and cultural voyeurs — upon their grace and space, over countless environmentally-destructive centuries.
Still there is so much that remains.
Replicating the spatial universe in miniature and surrounded by a wide moat representative of the oceans, being oriented to the west—symbolically the direction of death—our tour guide tells us Angkor Wat may have existed primarily as a tomb, or a funerary temple, though it is now commonly accepted it most likely existed as a temple and a mausoleum for Suryavarman II who ruled during the first half of the twelfth century.
Moving along an avenue lined with the remains of naga balustrades, we cross the causeway to the west portico, following in the footsteps of countless others — stepping across sandstone paving stones indented with holes that once held wooden pegs used to lift and position the stones — to view the large statue of Vishnu hewn from a single block of sandstone and adorned with flowers and offerings in the gopura of the outer entrance alongside our first glimpse of the delicately carved apsaras we will find scattered throughout the temple walls. Yet the stairs to the upper level are immensely steep. I guess because reaching the kingdom of the gods was never meant to be an easy task.
Instead we explore, in an anticlockwise direction, the galleries that stretch around the outside of the temple complex and find a series of intricately-carved bas-relief panels once sheltered by the cloister’s wooden roof yet now polished to resemble black marble by the millions of hands that have reached out to touch them.
Stretching the length of the walls for 800 metres they depict in graphic detail epic events such as the Battle of Kurukshetra with its mortally wounded officer falling from his carriage into the arms of his soldiers.
Or the triumphal march of the Army of Suryavarman II with the king sitting astride an elephant wearing the royal tiara, armed with a battle-ax, shaded by fifteen umbrellas and fanned by a legion of servants.
And scenes of the punishments and rewards of the 37 heavens and 32 hells where those condemned suffer terrible tortures:
or else the Churning of the Sea of Milk where, as our guide explains, there’s a tug-of-war going on over the immortality offered by the extraction of the holy water from the middle of the ocean. Advised by the monkey god, Hanuman, the gods hold on to the serpent’s tail while innumerable danava (demons) wrestle with its head as it coils its body around a mountain that rests and pivots on the shell of a great turtle – the incarnation of Vishnu – and while they wrestle they stir up the waters as a host of heavenly nymphs, apsaras, dance in encouragement for the success of the gods.
Yet on another section of the remaining galleries we find work that is notably inferior to the other bas-reliefs, depicting Vishnu riding on a garuda slaying all the danava he encounters though there’s other depictions of Vishnu confronting a burning walled city, the residence of the demon king, Bana, and scenes where such gods as Shiva ride a sacred goose while Vishnu spreads his four arms above his mount.
Inside the temple a sunken floor suggests ponds for swimming may have once existed here. Otherwise the inner enclosure rests on a two-tiered pyramid and rises extremely steeply to the upper terrace with its continuous gallery enclosing an inner cruciform of four rooms thought to contain a number of separate shrines.
We wander around, with others, noticing the five towers that jut from the upper tier in a quincunx, with the central tower stretching (we are told) sixty-five metres above ground level … and the hot-air balloon that hovers in the distance, dangling in the sky like a Christmas decoration.
And though fearful of heights,
I even climb, almost vertically, to take in the view from one of the towers, asking Ben to capture such a courageous endeavour, for posterity.
Then having taken in as much as we can in such a short time, we head off towards the walled city of Angkor Thom built for Jayavarman VII, the powerful ruler of the Kmer Empire during the late 13th century. When there Ben gathers a few bananas and feeds one of the elephants waiting to accept riders – for a hefty price – near the Bayon; yet being so close to an eye and a probing trunk proves a little too ‘spooky’. There is no thought given to taking a ride though we hear , come early evening, other beasts become stationed at the base of Phnom Bakheng ready to transport riders up the hill for sunset.
With an interesting mixture of both Hindu and Buddhist elements of style, the Bayon rises abruptly from the ground like an artificial mountain aiming to impress with its thirty-seven surviving towers and magnificent, gigantic face sculptures, 216 in total.
These are thought to represent the projection of benevolence outwards by Lokeshvara, a Buddhist deity from the Mahayana Buddhism, in all four geographical directions. However though considered by some as representing Avalokiteςvara, some believe each face is a stylised portrait of Jayavarman VII, the most prominent of all Khmer kings.
Appearing calm and noble, each face and has the same ironic expression of pity, the same serene smile. Nonetheless, as the last great temple built in Angkor, the Bayon remains one of the most enigmatic. Words become meaningless in trying to convey even a hint of the magnificence and grandeur of the experience as light and shadow create variations of colour on mottled-grey stone. Still our cameras work overtime in trying to grasp something of the splendour of our visit; even as we sit for a time watching a group of young sponsored Cambodian refugees given the opportunity to connect again with their roots through a Canadian organisation that supports visits with new family members as newly acquired accents bounce off the stone.
We end the day’s tour at Ta Prohm. Avoiding the scaffolding and plastic that shields the restoration of the façade, after taking a pleasant walk along a bushy track while cicadas create a racket in the trees overhead, we enter through the East gate and emerge at the moat to find other tourists busily snapping the requisite photographs of toppled stones and invasive roots.
Filling our cameras with sufficient imagery of crumbling towers caught in the throes of Nature’s ruinous embrace, we head back to the hotel and then hire a remorque to take our weary bodies to the Old Market area and Pub Street.
After having perused a variety of potential eating spots we settle for a Kmer restaurant in the recommended complex and splurge US$10.50 on Deep Fried Spring Rolls and Mixed Vegetables. We eat fried rice from a pineapple shell and I sip on a Lao beer.
However Ben appears somewhat edgy and stressed, so without finishing our meals, and remembering we had a particularly early start, we head back to the hotel.
 Apparently the sandstone blocks of Angkor Wat were almost all supplied from just one quarry according to Uchida, Cunin et al, ‘The construction process of the Angkor: elucidated by the magnetic susceptibility of sandstone’, Archaeometry 45, 2 (2003) at http://www.crai.archi.fr/media/pdf/ARCH4502.pdf