The Daily Telegraph - Cambodia, Beyond Angkor
November 20, 2010
More than a million tourists visit Angkor Wat each year but further afield there are countless exquisite hidden monuments testifying to Cambodia's rich past. Michelle Jana Chan reports.
The older, wiser people of Cambodia say you must never plan to visit the prized temples of Angkor. Better to see them when you least expect it.
Heeding their call, I was consciously avoiding the country's top tourist billing. Fifteen-hundred feet up in a tiny red helicopter, I buzzed north towards the border of Thailand, scanning the flat green landscape. Field upon field of rice extended to the horizon, studded by slender sugar palms. At this time of year, at the end of the rainy season, the country looks its glorious best: rice is flourishing, lakes are full and chalk-white egrets rise in unison from waterlogged fields trawled by shiny buffalo.
Yet it was not the lush green that most astonished me but the number of medieval man-made structures cutting up the land: long straight roads made of cinnamon-red laterite; sturdy arched bridges spanning gushing rivers; a lattice of pearly canals and irrigation systems. Above all, majestic tiered temples flanked by reflecting pools and bound by moats; few were even marked on my map.
The structures – now mostly in ruin – speak of wealthier, more lavish times for this country, now one of the world's poorest. Overshadowed by the mighty regional powers of Thailand, Vietnam and China, Cambodia's economy now relies heavily on its Asian neighbours. But there was a time – between the 9th and 15th centuries – when Khmer kings, the leaders of Cambodia's major ethnic group, fended off foreign armies, mobilised their millions of subjects and invested in the construction of ostentatious Hindu and Buddhist temples. This was no flash-in-the-pan empire.
We circled above Banteay Chhmar, the temple I had come to see. Amid the swirling mist and forest, I caught sight of the fallen stonework reflecting glinting light in the soft rain. Crumbling towers – unmistakably in the shape of lotus flowers – rose up from the undergrowth. As we hovered towards the ground, children appeared to watch the spectacle of a landing helicopter.
Few tourists make the journey to Cambodia's northern reaches. The country has a poor road network and is not fully cleared of landmines (laid in their millions over three decades of war). Instead, most visitors base themselves in the lively town of Siem Reap, gateway to the 155 sq mile Angkor Archaeological Park and its hundreds of impressively restored temples.
Not surprisingly, Angkor Wat – one of the world's largest religious monuments – remains the country's biggest draw and first-time visitors will not want to miss the pinnacle of the Khmer empire. But there is much more to be seen beyond Angkor's boundaries.
In contrast to Angkor Wat, Banteay Chhmar lies mostly in ruin, scarred by the ravages of monsoonal rain, tropical vegetation, vandalism and looting. Statues that have not been stolen in the whole are missing heads. Thieves have even taken slabs of bas-relief – 30 sq yards in all – including joyous images of the Buddhist god Avalokiteshvara depicted with 32 arms. Visitors need imagination to envision this temple intact.
I stepped through a doorway. Before me was a jumble of gigantic sandstone blocks, ranging from the colour rose to carbon-grey and spattered in lichen. A few towers teetered upright, their four sides adorned with the signature Khmer face of meditative serenity. Covering the walls, tangled ivy and moss hid Sanskrit inscriptions. A broken statue rested on its side. Across its uneven surface charged a column of termites. I turned to study the delicate detailing of carved flower petals. A gecko caught my eye, before he slid away. Twisting silk-cotton trees had taken root in the rock, flaunting their skirt-like trunks, with coiling limbs resembling reptiles more than wood. In spite of the temple's state, the grandeur was still evident from the dimensions of the stonework, the height of the standing towers and fineness of the carvings. Historians believe Banteay Chhmar may have been at the heart of a key strategic city to rival Angkor.
During my two days here I met local families and workers conducting restoration work, but no other tourists. Last year, there were only 700 visitors. But a project by the non-profit Global Heritage Fund to safeguard the temple and implement small-scale tourism initiatives aims to attract more people to the site.
The Fund is managing the temple's conservation, training local guides and setting up community-run restaurants and basic homestays ($7 for a double room). In the future there may be plans for an eco-lodge but for now the most comfortable overnight option is a delightful mobile tented camp (operated by a Phnom Penh firm).
Staying on-site allowed me to remain within the temple's walls until long after sunset. Dusk swallowed up the shapes around me. Butterflies flashed mauve in the gloom. The cicadas had found their rhythm. Slowly I headed to my tent from where I watched the moon rise up between the temple's towers. Fireflies pinpricked the darkness.
Overnight thunder woke me. I opened the flaps of my tent to watch the lightning throw flashes upon the silhouette of the temple and tried to burn the image in my mind. I sensed camping within the sacred grounds of a 12th-century temple might not be allowed forever.
A newly upgraded road from Siem Reap due to be completed next year is set to cut transfer times from half a day to as little as two hours. If tourism growth is steady, the local community may gain a new sustainable economic stream. Across the country there are plans to improve the road and rail network, which will open up new areas. That development may also ease congestion at the tourist hubs.
Banteay Chhmar is not the only site recalling the Khmer heyday. Another is the 10th-century Koh Ker, where 100 temples are still standing. A dramatic 115ft step pyramid looms large but there are also more modest reminders of this period in the carvings etched upon the rocky banks of a sacred pond, where water laps against reliefs of a monitor lizard, turtle and dugongs.
Not all Koh Ker's temples are accessible – they are still clearing landmines – but I safely saw more than a dozen temples and road access has improved markedly. My local guide, Dana Polrith, used to take two days to come here from Siem Reap. A new toll road has cut that to less than three hours. "I do not know why more people do not come here," he said. "I bring tourists only a few times a year."
Less than an hour from here – via another upgraded road – is the exceptional Beng Mealea. Built on a similar plan and scale to Angkor Wat, its colossal size is disguised by its collapsed state and there is a bewitching interplay between the fallen masonry and tree roots.
Curiously, the quantity of temples in Cambodia is important. There are few places in the world with such a concentration of significant archaeological sites. The high status afforded religion has continued until today, as Dana explained. "If I try to raise money in my village for a school or hospital, no one will give me anything," he told me. "But if I ask for money to build a pagoda, no problem."
At the end of my trip, another guide, linguist Jean-Michel Filippi, invited me to see some temples in Cambodia's south, an area characterised by its karstic scenery. We scaled fingers of limestone rising sharply out of rice fields until we found the openings to caves and scrambled inside. Within one mountain called Phnom Khyang, our convoluted route blocked out any shaft of daylight. I smelt the pungent guano of bats; their wings beat against the air.
Filippi switched on his torch. Before me rose a square tiered edifice in perfect proportions. Dating back to the early 7th century, it was a magnificent example of a pre-Angkor temple.
"When I came across it, I informed the Ministry of Culture," Filippi said, "but there are so many other archaeological sites…".
I reached my hand out to touch the cool, damp clay bricks. This sacred space may yet attract greater numbers of tourists as the country unveils its less prominent heritage sites. Or it may remain hidden away like so many of Cambodia's treasures to be explored by the few who venture beyond the country's must-see monuments.