PART 1 Lunar New Year 1200
We sang as we paddled our wooden boats along the waterways from our village near the Western Baray, competing with the excited shrieks and laughter of our children. It felt good to be doing something pleasurable with the women but it was a pity that our husbands were not there to enjoy the outing. They were all away working by royal command. Naga, my husband, was building hospitals in various parts of the kingdom and we hadn’t seen him for months. Although there were mutterings of discontent as to the extent of the Deva Raja’s building programme, most of us understood the need for a strong Khmer empire in order to keep out the foreign invaders.
As we approached the mighty temple of the late King Suryavarman II, we all fell silent. The golden conical shaped towers of Angkor Wat shimmering in the late afternoon sun dazzled us. We jostled for position to enter the South gate along with hundreds of other Kmers from far and near who were also going to the New Year celebrations. Soldiers in their long boats were checking everyone which made things worse. One even joked that he would throw the children to the crocodiles if we didn’t stop their moaning.
At last, we entered the city of Angkor Thom. What a sight to behold. Decorated wooden buildings stretched as far as the eye could see and above them rose the golden spires of the temples and palace. Crowds of people were making their way on foot or by water to the terraced area outside the palace. I bought some sweet sticky rice for the children from one of the myriad of food stalls along the way and threw some coins to a group of musicians. At last I got my first glimpse of Bayon, the king’s new state temple. It was so different from Angkor Wat but equally awe inspiring. Golden faces smiled down upon us from several stone towers, their red lips and precious gems sparkling in the dying rays of the sun.
“They look just like the Deva Raja himself” shouted my neighbour.
” If this new Buddhist religion inspires such kind faces, I’m all for it,” I replied.
I moored the boat once we got to the Terrace of the Elephants and walked with the children along the canals until we had a better view point. The huge platform on the backs of carved lotus eating elephants was decorated with lanterns and flowers. Beautiful young dancers in fine silk sampots and glittering jewels entertained the crowds. I used to practice the Apsara hand gestures when I was young and had a secret wish to become a dancer. “Dream on,” my mother used to say.
Once darkness had fallen an air of expectancy gripped the crowd. Drums, gongs and cymbals announced the king’s arrival and the sight of him on his war elephant was spectacular. He wore a red sarong with a wicker breastplate and Garuda headdress. Sitting high in his golden howdah on silk cushions, I noticed that he had one leg tucked under him. Perhaps the rumours were true about his leprosy but he is an old man now and has fought in many battles. This New Year celebration could be his last. Loud cheers rose from the crowd as he moved slowly centre stage. The royal family,dignitaries and foreign emissaries all offered him a sompiah as he passed. About the length of four long boats away from him was a scaffold in the shape of a stupa. It was covered in rockets and fireworks from China. I had never seen them before and had no idea what to expect. The king held up his hand and slaves lit the fuses with flaming torches. There was a pause and then the explosions began. They shook the ground so fiercely I thought I might lose my balance. My two children buried their heads in my sarong blocking their ears and crying. I remember looking up to see the reflection of the fire rockets in the golden towers of the Phimeanakas temple. It seemed as if the city was under attack and ablaze.
PART 2 January 1860
I was lucky enough this time to get the backing of an English organisation, the Royal Geographic Society, for my explorations in Indochina. The French government I am afraid to say showed no interest in my work. This second expedition is proving to be more about buildings than botany however so I hope they won’t object.
I have been following up various reports and documents about the ruins of an ancient civilization in Cambodia. Horse back seems to be the best way of getting around such a vast area and I have already recorded and sketched some of the incredible ruined temples and cities I have come across. Today I am riding out into the jungle again with a few natives who speak of a huge temple inhabited by Buddhist monks. It is January and the weather is scorching. I only hope we don’t have to hack our own paths.
As we emerged from the jungle on a small dusty path, there before me lay a sight of awe inspiring beauty.
“At the sight of this temple one feels one’s spirit crushed, one’s imagination surpassed. You look, admire and respect. One is silent. For where are the words to praise a work of art that has no equal anywhere in the world?”
Full of excitement and wonder I began to explore and make some sketches. I can’t believe the perfect balance and proportions of this vast temple. The architect was a genius. I suppose that it was built about the same time as the Roman empire and it certainly rivals anything built by them or the Greeks . What has become of the race who built it? Where are these civilized and enlightened people now? Surely these simple monks are not their descendants. The present nation is barbaric and unenlightened and certainly knows nothing of the gods who built this temple.
Sketches of Angkor Wat by Henri Mouhot
Part3 December 2012
I sat at the top of one of the 12th century temples of the Preah Pithu group about a kilometre from the busy tourist magnet of the Bayon. I was completely alone. Cicadas had set up a monotonous high-pitched chorus and palm leaves rustled in the breeze. The jungle pressed in close eager to devour the temples. Pieces of carved stone lay everywhere, neglected and broken – silent witnesses to nine hundred years of Khmer history. Anywhere else these temples alone would be worthy of conservation and heritage status but here in Angkor Thom they are not even on the tourist route.
With over three million tourists a year passing through Angkor Wat, the pressure on the monuments is huge. Most are processed sausage-like through the temples – Angkor Wat, the Bayon and Ta Prohm by lunchtime. I was lucky enough to have the time to do it slowly and over several days. There were times when the temples were crowded out but I just found a quiet place to sit and waited for them to move on. Tourist watching also made for good entertainment if one was in a forgiving mood. Risking broad generalisations, I found the Chinese as loud as ever (remember I had been living there for a year) totally destroying the atmosphere of mystery and wonder at Ta Prohm. They never tired of finding a new pose for every piece of stone or carving. Huge groups of Japanese in identical hats stopped for no one as they followed their tour guides like automatons. The Indians had expensive pieces of equipment and walked through the temples with the video lens glued to their face.
Many of the larger temples are not so much in a state of ruin as a state of repair. Since the end of the Khmer Rouge, the race is on to try to preserve them.