18.01.2013 - 26.01.2013
The temples of Angkor were apparently rescued from a thousand years of obscurity by Angelina Jolie and her pneumatic derring-do in Tomb Raider, the previous millennium having passed largely without incident. Hooray for Hollywood!
Siem Reap, the nearest town, is almost entirely devoted to servicing the million or so people that now visit Angkor every year. It's much more pleasant than that makes it sound, with an old market area something like the Lanes in Brighton, or any other narrow-streeted historical city centre you can think where chichi boutiques and bijou eateries have replaced turnips and dysentery. Sitting in any of the town's restaurants or bars meant being regularly approached by kids and landmine victims with missing limbs with stuff to sell to tourists. Begging is not a common sight in this part of the world, and only for the truly destitute: most make a living from buying and selling here and people will always try to sell rather than beg - in Vietnam and Laos it was lottery tickets, and in Cambodia it's books. Children from tinies up to older teenage ply the streets with trays of English language paperbacks on Cambodian history and harrowing autobiographies of Pol Pot survivors. None of these titles are available in Khmer, only English - as one astute young bookseller remarked, people should be able to read the history of their own country in their own language. We had to agree with her.
This is characteristically perverse Cambodian logic: street vendors selling books about their own immediate history that they are unable to read themselves, specifically an era in which books and all reading matter were in fact illegal - libraries torched, newspapers and printing presses destroyed and forced illiteracy imposed. The kids we spoke to said they were selling books to help with their school fees (school is compulsory but not cheap). Again, the twisted logic of schoolchildren selling books about a regime that formally abolished education and closed all schools - to pay for their education. (It was chilling to reflect that in the year I started junior school, Pol Pot decreed the immediate abolition of education in Cambodia, closing all schools and universities overnight, and sending teachers, academics, anyone with a degree, anyone that could speak a foreign language and even anyone that happened just to wear glasses to slave labour camps as enemies of the revolution. A revolution led by Paris-educated intellectuals, of course.
Back to Siem Reap anyway. In a town awash with overpriced mediocre guesthouses, we bagged a nice spacious self-contained cabin, in a nice quiet spot, with free access to a nice pool. Quiet, that is, until the arrival of a raucous party of ageing Swedish hippies at the guesthouse next door, and self-contained apart from forming a night-time highway for swarms - literally SWARMS - of rats, running over the roof and under the floor. At least they helped drown out the nightly singalong next door - a ghastly medley of the Age of Aquarius, repeatedly, and all The Beatles' most irritating songs until the early hours every night for a week.
Angkor, the reason we are here, has three types of temples. There are the huge ones, like Angkor Wat itself, built in self-commemoration by various god-kings to complete their journey to nirvana. The size and sophistication are highly impressive, but didn't engage us much otherwise.
Then there are the wonderful tree-root temples, centuries-old buildings with the gigantic roots of centuries-old trees growing through, over and around them, merging into a surreal symbiosis of wood and stone as the the roots embrace and preserve the very structures they have destroyed. (Oh this land of paradoxes).
Best of all were the obscure silent ruins in the forests that the crowds ignored, where you could hear and feel the history.
But in a league of its own was the temple of Bayon, the most cosmic place I have ever experienced. It's this one, with the faces.
It's not really a building, or even a temple, it's a disorientating multi-levelled labyrinth. It's a riddle. It's a portal. It doesn't have an inside or an outside or a centre, just passages, stairs, pillars, platforms and the huge inescapable stone faces - in whose image no-one knows - eyes all closed (for now), gazing inward, smiling, waiting. It feels like being in a hall of mirrors with no mirrors. It feels like being inside a gigantic brain, pulsating and alive. (My personal theory is that it is a hymn to the pineal gland). It feels like being in an episode of Doctor Who. It feels like anything could happen.
We made three trips to Angkor. On the first day we saw a scorpion. On the second a snake. On the third a huge black and green spider. A powerful, primal place indeed.