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Angkor Wat: A Magnificent Obsession


It took a long time to get there, but after I arrived time stood still. No, time fell backwards: through rippling paddy-fields of emerald tilled by plodding and placid water-buffalo, and Khmer women – heads sheltered in purple and red squares of hand-loomed cloth – the very young and very old, bent low under a vicious sun. Their hands working like pendulums sliced the tiny pearl-hued rice stocks or splashed their wooden pails of muddy water on iridescent life-giving fields.

Copyright Victoria Brooks.Once called Kampuchea, this Indo-Chinese country of seven million gentle and tolerant Buddhists has repeatedly been torn asunder. For a time (1863 to 1953) it was under French influence and still evokes the sophisticated aura the French imbued along with the gracious hostelries they left behind. The Grand Hotel d'Angkor and the Le Royal Hotel in Phnom Penh were favorite stops for Somerset Maugham and Jacqueline Kennedy, among others. This is where I lay my head when I am not wandering, and happily so. These lovely redone relics of French colonialism lend a sleepy elegance to this backwater whose countryside is pockmarked by war, strewn with human bones and booby-trapped by an estimated 2.6 million landmines.

Copyright Victoria Brooks. The Land Mine Museum is not government funded but is the work of a gentleman who lost his parents to the Khmer Rouge when he was five years old. The director, Aki Ra, was a conscript in the Vietnamese army and laid mines in Cambodia's fields. Later he cleared them. His sad archive is located in Siem Reap opposite Wat Tmei Pagoda.After a brief period of independence came 1975, and with it the demented killer Pol Pot who ravaged his country and his people and marched them directly to hell. Four years later the Vietnamese invaded, ousting the evil tyrant, but the war with the Khmer Rouge rebels continued to rage.

Copyright Victoria Brooks. I write from the perspective of a new century but Cambodia is still struggling to wake from the nightmares. Although Pol Pot is dead, Khmer Rouge guerillas, trademark red and white scarves noosed round their necks, still hide out in the deep green jungle.

To describe for you this country whose ancient Khmer civilization constructed one of the world's most magnificent wonders and then fell for a time straight into the depths of hell, I must begin and end at the beginning: the ruins of Angkor.

Used with permission. "Madame, Madame, only one dollar…" a ragtag of children: round eyes prematurely old and with a dogged persistence borne of need, surround me in a twister of dust, bare feet and scrawny legs. One pushes into my hand postcards of Angkor Wat and the dusty town of Siem Reap, just four miles from the ruins. Another waves Buddha amulets that sparkle in the sun. "Madame, Madame you help me," they cajole, their faces sad and beautiful. Jostling and shoving, the urchins are wild things with a desperate air. Their playground, their beat is the fabled ruins, the world's greatest archaeological achievement, the largest temple site in the world, and recently proclaimed by National Geographic Traveler as one of the "world's top 50 must-see places."

Used with permission.

Behind the tussle of dusty children, the beggars, the bicycles, the elephants and the stands selling drinks and hairy brown coconuts filled with their wet prize of clear milk, Angkor Wat rises. I walk through light and shadows thrown from the marvelous and monumental structures down a 12th-century road decorated with magnificent stone balustrades carved with the five-headed Naga, cosmic water serpents, heads raised to the heavens.

"Madame, Madame, Madame…" the children's voices continue to chastise me from a distance and echo across a 100-meter-wide moat that floats with refuse and water lilies. Used with permission. The children's voices, sweet and strident, pursue me on an invisible breeze scented with the fragrance of the pristine white blooms of a frangipani tree and the heavy smell of rotting fruit. Their voices grow silent when soldiers, dressed in green with rifles at their sides, come into view. The hard-faced young men try to bully me for a tip or a bribe. I pretend I don't understand their Pidgin English and continue down a mercifully shady and safer stone path that leads up steep stairs to an indoor and outdoor myriad of cavernous temples and five lotus-shaped towers. Every single inch of the structure is swathed in sandstone carvings. On the walls and galleries are 1,500 Apsaras, sensual bare-breasted celestial dancers so real they undulate and sway before my eyes. Each is in a different pose or costume. Like joyous and voluptuous angels they seem to fly at me across the frescoes.

Angkor Wat is fashioned from dreams: specifically the erotic dreams of King Suryavarman II to honor himself, the Hindu god Vishnu, and the bounty brought by the waters of nearby Lake Tonlé Sap. The mammoth wat (temple) of Angkor is the center jewel of scores of temples that rise and crumble across 76 square miles of jungle-choked northwestern Cambodia. I stand amid an artistic and religious allegory depicting the epic tales of Hindu myths. The intricately carved temples, towers, dancers and serpents are such a confusion of shapes and movement that my mind and senses are overwhelmed. I am simultaneously startled, mystified, frightened and thrilled.

In a dark corner, a barefoot monk draped in a saffron robe lights an incense stick with a broken wooden match, the thin spear of rising smoke as thin and elusive as he. It is his meager offerings to his lord Copyright Victoria Brooks.Buddha. The altars of this monumental site have changed from Hindu to Buddhist to animist over the six centuries that have passed in these hallowed halls lit by candles and touched by peeking sunlight. The monks are male and female. It is difficult to tell the sexes apart. They are emaciated skeletons with shaven heads. Like the children, they have drowning, saucer eyes that have seen too much, and bodies that are ravaged and prematurely old – courtesy of Cambodia's abusive history and terrible poverty. No one is unscathed.

Copyright Victoria Brooks.
The outer walls of Angkor Wat are two miles long. The central tower is as tall and more stunning than Notre Dame. The place is the size of Manhattan. Surrounded by jungle and landmines, it is a site worthy of Indiana Jones. It is as mysterious to me as the Tonlé Sap, the Great Lake of Cambodia and river of the same name that connects it to the great Mekong River. Copyright Victoria Brooks. When the Mekong floods, the Tonlé Sap River reverses its flow and the floodwaters fill the Great Lake. It doubles in size during the rainy season – drowning great forests, providing water for rice paddies, and the largest harvest of fresh water fish in the world. This natural phenomenon occurs between June and October each year. Historians say the glories of the great temples were built to honor the gods that fill the largest freshwater lake in Southeast Asia. Tonlé Sap's source is the spring melt waters of the distant snow-capped Himalayan Mountains.

Copyright Victoria Brooks. It is impossible to see Angkor Wat in a few days – impossible to see it all with the limits of human eyes. And there are more marvels: At the Bayon temple site, enigmatic near identical stone faces, eyes closed and with a slight smile, are aligned in the cardinal directions; at jungle-choked Ta Prom, tree roots like gigantic brown boa constrictors strangle, cling and climb the ornate walls. Everywhere faces and figures loom: mythical demons and angels, like the Kala, jawless monsters commanded by the gods to devour their own bodies; and Garuda, the mythical creatures that are half man, half bird.

Copyright Victoria Brooks. Everywhere unspeakable monsters and sensual naked sandstone figures watch the dusty children and saffron-robed monks with silent mouths.

It is a new era for the Kingdom of Cambodia. Yet the nightmare has not faded.

It began in April 1975, when the devil disguised as Pol Pot burst into Phnom Penh, Cambodia's capital. His black-clad troops overthrew Phnom Penh's U.S.-backed regime. Known to his comrades as Brother Number One, Pol Pot set about changing the face and fabric of Cambodia and ripping it asunder. His extreme communist regime drove millions of people out of the cities to start a new life visualized by a madman and mass murderer. That year, 1975, is referred to as Year Zero. Pol Pot’s Cambodia would be shorn of capitalist trappings and everything foreign. He would force a new agrarian society of pioneers. Private property, money, religions, traditional music, dance, art, and even traditional marriage were banned. International telephone links were cut and foreigners fled. Physicians, teachers, and any Cambodian who had worked in a foreigner's employ were tortured and killed. Dissidents were not tolerated.

Copyright Victoria Brooks. Even hospital patients, the elderly and children were forced on the death march to the countryside known as "the killing fields." Thousands died from starvation and disease. From 1975 through 1978 Pol Pot and his organization, the Maoist Khmer Rouge, obliterated two million of his own people, roughly a quarter of Cambodia's population. It ended with a Vietnamese invasion that stopped the demented killer and exiled him to the dark jungle.

Pol Pot, the soft spoken and smiling killer is dead but he has left reminders everywhere: In the temples piled high with the pale skulls and sharp bones of victims of all ages. In Phnom Penh's Tuol Sleng, the seemingly innocent schoolhouse that became a torture and interrogation center during Pol Pot's holocaust; and in the eyes of the Cambodian people.

I am home now. To have set my eyes on the fabled ruins and Cambodia's gentle people is to have heaven and hell etched in my mind’s eye forever, in a single panoramic vision. I remember the twister of tagalong children hawking their small wares. I can see the smile of an amputee beggar as wide, beautiful and miraculous as the life-giving Lake Tonlé Sap.

Copyright Victoria Brooks. The amputee has no legs and is a virile man who should have been in his prime. Unlike the cosseted ruins of Machu Pichu or the pyramids of Egypt, the ruins of Angkor are alive.

When I left our safe and ordered world and stopped for a time in Cambodia, I too became afraid of past terrors and the wrenching poverty I feared no human being could alleviate. Yet, when I returned home, I dreamed of mauve and while lotus blossoms floating and spinning down the smooth yellow Tonlé Sap River that runs behind the Khmer shanties set high and safe on wooden stilts.

Copyright Victoria Brooks. I remembered the smell of the incense lit by the saffron-clad monks in the dank temples. I wanted to press money into the hands of the children and hear their strident and sweet voices again. Most of all I want to bask in the light of the amputee's smile. This is the magnificent obsession and the affecting dream called Cambodia.

When you Go:

Accommodations while visiting Phnom Penh –

Hotel Le Royal, 92 Rukhak Vithei Daun Penh, Sangkat Wat Phnom, Phnom Penh, Kingdom of Cambodia. Tel: 855-23-981-888, Fax: 855-23-981-168, e-mail: raffles.hlr.ghda@bigpond.com.kh

Cultural Tip: The exquisite Le Royal Hotel is now owned by Raffles International. If you are staying at the Hotel Le Royal in Phnom Penh ask the concierge to arrange a visit to the School of Cambodian Arts.

Used with permission. Accommodations while visiting Siem Reap –

Grand Hotel d’Angkor, 1 Vithei Charles de Gaulle, Khum Svay Dang Kum, Siem Reap, Kingdom of Cambodia. Tel: 855-63-963-888, Fax: 855-63-963-168, e-mail: raffles.grand@bigpond.com.kh

Flights:

Bangkok Airtours provides daily service connecting Bangkok with Phnom Penh and direct flights from Bangkok to Siem Reap. To book with Bangkok Airways, contact your travel agent.

To contact Bangkok Airways in Bangkok, Thailand call (662) 255 8964, Fax: (662) 255 8969

For up to date information on Cambodia:

Contact Indochina Services, Tel: (415) 434-4015, Fax: (415) 434-4145, e-mail usa@indochina-services.com .

Recommended reading:

Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos Handbook by Michael Buckley. Published by Moon Publications.

To contact Victoria Brooks, please e-mail editor@greatestescapes.com .

Used with permission.

Behind the tussle of dusty children, the beggars, the bicycles, the elephants and the stands selling drinks and hairy brown coconuts filled with their wet prize of clear milk, Angkor Wat rises. I walk through light and shadows thrown from the marvelous and monumental structures down a 12th-century road decorated with magnificent stone balustrades carved with the five-headed Naga, cosmic water serpents, heads raised to the heavens.

"Madame, Madame, Madame…" the children's voices continue to chastise me from a distance and echo across a 100-meter-wide moat that floats with refuse and water lilies. Used with permission. The children's voices, sweet and strident, pursue me on an invisible breeze scented with the fragrance of the pristine white blooms of a frangipani tree and the heavy smell of rotting fruit. Their voices grow silent when soldiers, dressed in green with rifles at their sides, come into view. The hard-faced young men try to bully me for a tip or a bribe. I pretend I don't understand their Pidgin English and continue down a mercifully shady and safer stone path that leads up steep stairs to an indoor and outdoor myriad of cavernous temples and five lotus-shaped towers. Every single inch of the structure is swathed in sandstone carvings. On the walls and galleries are 1,500 Apsaras, sensual bare-breasted celestial dancers so real they undulate and sway before my eyes. Each is in a different pose or costume. Like joyous and voluptuous angels they seem to fly at me across the frescoes.

Angkor Wat is fashioned from dreams: specifically the erotic dreams of King Suryavarman II to honor himself, the Hindu god Vishnu, and the bounty brought by the waters of nearby Lake Tonlé Sap. The mammoth wat (temple) of Angkor is the center jewel of scores of temples that rise and crumble across 76 square miles of jungle-choked northwestern Cambodia. I stand amid an artistic and religious allegory depicting the epic tales of Hindu myths. The intricately carved temples, towers, dancers and serpents are such a confusion of shapes and movement that my mind and senses are overwhelmed. I am simultaneously startled, mystified, frightened and thrilled.

In a dark corner, a barefoot monk draped in a saffron robe lights an incense stick with a broken wooden match, the thin spear of rising smoke as thin and elusive as he. It is his meager offerings to his lord Copyright Victoria Brooks.Buddha. The altars of this monumental site have changed from Hindu to Buddhist to animist over the six centuries that have passed in these hallowed halls lit by candles and touched by peeking sunlight. The monks are male and female. It is difficult to tell the sexes apart. They are emaciated skeletons with shaven heads. Like the children, they have drowning, saucer eyes that have seen too much, and bodies that are ravaged and prematurely old – courtesy of Cambodia's abusive history and terrible poverty. No one is unscathed.

Copyright Victoria Brooks.
The outer walls of Angkor Wat are two miles long. The central tower is as tall and more stunning than Notre Dame. The place is the size of Manhattan. Surrounded by jungle and landmines, it is a site worthy of Indiana Jones. It is as mysterious to me as the Tonlé Sap, the Great Lake of Cambodia and river of the same name that connects it to the great Mekong River. Copyright Victoria Brooks. When the Mekong floods, the Tonlé Sap River reverses its flow and the floodwaters fill the Great Lake. It doubles in size during the rainy season – drowning great forests, providing water for rice paddies, and the largest harvest of fresh water fish in the world. This natural phenomenon occurs between June and October each year. Historians say the glories of the great temples were built to honor the gods that fill the largest freshwater lake in Southeast Asia. Tonlé Sap's source is the spring melt waters of the distant snow-capped Himalayan Mountains.

Copyright Victoria Brooks. It is impossible to see Angkor Wat in a few days – impossible to see it all with the limits of human eyes. And there are more marvels: At the Bayon temple site, enigmatic near identical stone faces, eyes closed and with a slight smile, are aligned in the cardinal directions; at jungle-choked Ta Prom, tree roots like gigantic brown boa constrictors strangle, cling and climb the ornate walls. Everywhere faces and figures loom: mythical demons and angels, like the Kala, jawless monsters commanded by the gods to devour their own bodies; and Garuda, the mythical creatures that are half man, half bird.

Copyright Victoria Brooks. Everywhere unspeakable monsters and sensual naked sandstone figures watch the dusty children and saffron-robed monks with silent mouths.

It is a new era for the Kingdom of Cambodia. Yet the nightmare has not faded.

It began in April 1975, when the devil disguised as Pol Pot burst into Phnom Penh, Cambodia's capital. His black-clad troops overthrew Phnom Penh's U.S.-backed regime. Known to his comrades as Brother Number One, Pol Pot set about changing the face and fabric of Cambodia and ripping it asunder. His extreme communist regime drove millions of people out of the cities to start a new life visualized by a madman and mass murderer. That year, 1975, is referred to as Year Zero. Pol Pot’s Cambodia would be shorn of capitalist trappings and everything foreign. He would force a new agrarian society of pioneers. Private property, money, religions, traditional music, dance, art, and even traditional marriage were banned. International telephone links were cut and foreigners fled. Physicians, teachers, and any Cambodian who had worked in a foreigner's employ were tortured and killed. Dissidents were not tolerated.

Copyright Victoria Brooks. Even hospital patients, the elderly and children were forced on the death march to the countryside known as "the killing fields." Thousands died from starvation and disease. From 1975 through 1978 Pol Pot and his organization, the Maoist Khmer Rouge, obliterated two million of his own people, roughly a quarter of Cambodia's population. It ended with a Vietnamese invasion that stopped the demented killer and exiled him to the dark jungle.

Pol Pot, the soft spoken and smiling killer is dead but he has left reminders everywhere: In the temples piled high with the pale skulls and sharp bones of victims of all ages. In Phnom Penh's Tuol Sleng, the seemingly innocent schoolhouse that became a torture and interrogation center during Pol Pot's holocaust; and in the eyes of the Cambodian people.

I am home now. To have set my eyes on the fabled ruins and Cambodia's gentle people is to have heaven and hell etched in my mind’s eye forever, in a single panoramic vision. I remember the twister of tagalong children hawking their small wares. I can see the smile of an amputee beggar as wide, beautiful and miraculous as the life-giving Lake Tonlé Sap.

Copyright Victoria Brooks. The amputee has no legs and is a virile man who should have been in his prime. Unlike the cosseted ruins of Machu Pichu or the pyramids of Egypt, the ruins of Angkor are alive.

When I left our safe and ordered world and stopped for a time in Cambodia, I too became afraid of past terrors and the wrenching poverty I feared no human being could alleviate. Yet, when I returned home, I dreamed of mauve and while lotus blossoms floating and spinning down the smooth yellow Tonlé Sap River that runs behind the Khmer shanties set high and safe on wooden stilts.

Copyright Victoria Brooks. I remembered the smell of the incense lit by the saffron-clad monks in the dank temples. I wanted to press money into the hands of the children and hear their strident and sweet voices again. Most of all I want to bask in the light of the amputee's smile. This is the magnificent obsession and the affecting dream called Cambodia.

When you Go:

Accommodations while visiting Phnom Penh –

Hotel Le Royal, 92 Rukhak Vithei Daun Penh, Sangkat Wat Phnom, Phnom Penh, Kingdom of Cambodia. Tel: 855-23-981-888, Fax: 855-23-981-168, e-mail: raffles.hlr.ghda@bigpond.com.kh

Cultural Tip: The exquisite Le Royal Hotel is now owned by Raffles International. If you are staying at the Hotel Le Royal in Phnom Penh ask the concierge to arrange a visit to the School of Cambodian Arts.

Used with permission. Accommodations while visiting Siem Reap –

Grand Hotel d’Angkor, 1 Vithei Charles de Gaulle, Khum Svay Dang Kum, Siem Reap, Kingdom of Cambodia. Tel: 855-63-963-888, Fax: 855-63-963-168, e-mail: raffles.grand@bigpond.com.kh

Flights:

Bangkok Airtours provides daily service connecting Bangkok with Phnom Penh and direct flights from Bangkok to Siem Reap. To book with Bangkok Airways, contact your travel agent.

To contact Bangkok Airways in Bangkok, Thailand call (662) 255 8964, Fax: (662) 255 8969

For up to date information on Cambodia:

Contact Indochina Services, Tel: (415) 434-4015, Fax: (415) 434-4145, e-mail usa@indochina-services.com .

Recommended reading:

Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos Handbook by Michael Buckley. Published by Moon Publications.

To contact Victoria Brooks, please e-mail editor@greatestescapes.com .