Rediscovering Ancient Angkor


ANGKOR, Cambodia -- Just before dawn, a high-pitched keening rises from the forests and temples of Angkor, like the sound of thousands of treble crickets. The song of these unseen insects fades and dies as the sky turns from black to pink to blue and the sun appears between the towers of ancient Angkor Wat.

The morning sun silhouettes the towers of Angkor Wat.

The song seems as timeless as the temples of this onetime capital of a once-mighty kingdom -- the Khmer empire, which at its height embraced the Mekong Delta of modern Vietnam, much of Thailand and parts of Laos, as well.

The massive stone towers of Angkor Wat, which rise to heights of as much as 200 feet, have awed Western visitors since 1861, when French explorer Henri Mouhot "discovered" the ruins, surrounded by dense jungle, in 1861.

This most famous of the Khmer temples -- erected between 1113 and 1150 at the direction of King Suryavarman II -- shows the Hindu influences that reached Cambodia from India long before Buddhism became the country's dominant religion. It is designed as a series of concentric rectangles, rising to a mountain in the center, representing the Hindu cosmos.

But a visitor needs no knowledge of Hindu cosmology to appreciate the craftsmanship and sheer hard labor represented by these monuments from an age centuries before the Incas built the temples at Machu Pichu or the Aztec empire flourished in Mexico.

Angkor Wat and the surrounding temples, scattered over nearly 60 square miles, have long been on the short list of wonders of the ancient world. In the 1920s, adventurous tourists reached the nearby town of Siem Reap by boat, navigating the Tonle Sap River from Phnom Penh and crossing most of the 50-mile-long Tonle Sap Lake, then motored from town to the temples along a network of roads built by the French colonialists.

Later, as Cambodia's transportation network improved, budget travelers made the trek from the capital by bus or highway taxi. Those on more expansive budgets arrived by air.

For most of the past 20 years, however, war and political upheaval have placed Angkor off limits for casual travel.

Now, gradually, the barriers are falling again -- though once again the trip is for those with a sense of adventure. Accommodations are spare. Plans must be made far in advance and may have to be changed or canceled at the last minute. But for several years, tour groups -- ranging from Japanese Buddhists making a religious pilgrimage to Canadians seeking bragging rights for most out-of-the-ordinary vacation -- have braved the difficulties and felt well rewarded by the chance to discover the wonders of Angkor for themselves.

A Cambodian soldier stands guard on the road between Angkor Wat and the Bayon.

Cambodia is plagued by a simmering civil war, and for security reasons, visits to Angkor are now limited to day trips. And for the same reason, only two temples -- Angkor Wat and the nearby Bayon -- are open to visitors.

But Cambodian tour officials are cautious -- and proud to say that no visitor to Angkor has become a casualty of the war. If they have any doubts about security, they are more likely to cancel or postpone a visit than risk spoiling their safety record. Nonetheless, they hope that overnight trips will be possible soon.

The typical day tour begins with an early morning flight to Siem Reap from Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam or from the Cambodian capital, Phnom Penh.

Farm girls mix horseplay with fishing in rice fields outside Siem Reap.

Emerald rice fields, irrigated from a reservoir built in the time of the Khmer empire, line the highway from the airport into town. Turning north, the tourist buses pass through a brief stretch of dense forest. As the forest thins, then falls behind, the five central towers of Angkor Wat come into view. Soon the road leads to a broad moat, full of water in the April to October rainy season but dry much of the rest of the year, which surrounds Angkor Wat, nearly a mile long on each side.

The morning is best spent not at Angkor Wat itself, however, but a mile farther north at the Bayon, the temple at the center of the walled compound, once a city with a population of hundreds of thousands, called Angkor Thom.

Stone figures guard the entrance to Angkor Thom.

Standing watch over the entrance to Angkor Thom are two rows of stone guardians -- gods on one side of the road, demons on the other each file of guardians holding the body of a seven-headed serpent known as a naga. The gateway through the old city wall is surmounted by four carved faces, one looking to each point of the compass, smiling serenely.

Faces on the towers of the Bayon gaze out to the four points of the compass.

The smiling faces appear again on each of the 49 towers of the Bayon. And the walls around this temple, built after Angkor Wat but before Siamese armies defeated and dismembered the Khmer empire, are a history in stone. The famous bas reliefs depict epic battles, with generals on elephants and foot soldiers armed with spears. They also show scenes of festivals and daily life. And pillars are decorated with Apsarases, the graceful divine dancers.

Scenes of ancient battles sweep across the walls of the Bayon.

Morning light is best for photographing the Bayon's sculpted walls. The best photographs of Angkor are taken in the afternoon and evening, as the sun plays across the west face of the colonnades and towers -- after a pause for lunch and a rest at the Grand Hotel Angkor back in Siem Reap.

The walls of Angkor, now being cleaned of centuries of accumulated fungus and dirt, also are intricately carved with scenes from the Ramayana and other Hindu epics and with smiling Apsarases.

Surprisingly, there has been little damage from the fighting that has ebbed and flowed across Cambodia in recent years, though a few of the Apsarases have been used for target practice, reportedly by Vietnamese soldiers. But the more evident damage is erosion from centuries of rains. And the millions of feet which have passed through the temple have worn paths in the walkways and made the steep flights of stairs seem more precarious because the treads are no longer horizontal. Metal handrails have been installed on some stairways for the safety of visitors.

Because the time in Siem Reap and Angkor is so limited, most tours include a day or two of sightseeing and shopping in Phnom Penh and several days in Vietnam.

Highlights of the stop in Phnom Penh include the royal palace, where one pavilion is paved with solid silver tiles, and for some groups, a chance to see classical dancers from the Fine Arts Institute. Other students at the institute make full-size and miniature papier-mache masks like those used by the dancers. These masks are excellent souvenirs, but must be packed carefully so they will not be crushed.

Cambodia is also famous for its silver jewelry and decorative silver bowls and boxes, which are on sale at several shops in the capital. The silver work is sold by weight, not according to the craftsmanship involved in making it, and private shopkeepers are happy to conduct transactions in U.S. dollars when no officials are around.

Cambodia's silks and hand-loomed cotton are also quite beautiful. Many of the silver shops and some hotels have sarong-length pieces of cloth for sale.

Destination: Angkor

TRAVEL ARRANGEMENTS: Individual travel to Angkor is not practical now. And because of U.S. government restrictions, it is not possible to make travel arrangements through a U.S. travel agent. Some firms based in Canada, Japan and Thailand do organize package tours, however, and you must deal directly with them for reservations for the Cambodia and Vietnam portions of the trip. One tour organizer is Diethelm Travel, Kian Gwan Building II, 140/1 Wireless Road, Bangkok 10500, Thailand.

Diethelm is planning once-a-month tours, the first of which will depart Bangkok Nov. 21. Prices from Bangkok for an eight-day tour of Vietnam and Cambodia are about $2,000. You will have to make your own arrangements to get to Thailand -- something any American travel agent can handle for you.

VISAS: American tourists can visit Thailand for two weeks without a visa. Tour organizers will make arrangements for Vietnamese and Cambodian visas, but it takes some time. They will need passport information from you about two months in advance.

WEATHER: Cambodia, Vietnam and Thailand are hot and humid year-round (average temperature is 80), so light-weight clothing is in order. (Comfortable walking shoes are also a must.) The dry months from November to March are best for a short visit.

HEALTH: No immunizations are required for travel to this area, though that can change. Check with the county health department for the latest information from the World Health Organization. Anti-malaria medication is likely to be recommended. You may also want to take an over the counter remedy for minor stomach problems, such as Pepto-Bismol.

Cooked foods and fruits that you peel yourself are safest. If you are cautious, you may prefer to stick with restaurants suggested by your tour leader. But if you are willing to explore, you can find much better food than that served in hotel dining rooms. Domestic and imported soft drinks and beer are available, as is imported bottled water. Hotels normally provide bottles of boiled local water, which also is safe to drink.

ELECTRICITY: Electric service can be erratic, and in Cambodia the service is 220 volts. If you can live without appliances or use battery-operated devices, do. Otherwise, carry a converter and ask your tour guide when you need to use it.

BACKGROUND READING: National Geographic Magazine has carried several articles on Angkor, and a visit to a library with a good collection of Geographics before you go will enrich your trip. Bangkok bookstores also offer English-language guide books for countries throughout Southeast Asia.

Text copyright © 1989 The News-Journal, Daytona Beach, Florida

Published Aug. 27, 1989

Photographs copyright © 1989 John Spragens, Jr.

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