Angkor

Cambodia

William Mackesy’s account of this walk

At the heart of the Khmer empire, at its apogee in the 12th Century, was the glorious city of Angkor, larger than any city in Europe at that time.

By the century’s end, the megalomaniacal building programme of King Jayavarman VII had concluded four centuries of extraordinary growth and creativity. Angkor Wat, south-east Asia’s outstanding religious building, a temple of such magnificence of scale and imagination that it sits comfortably with the world’s great buildings, had been completed around 1150. From the late 1180s, Jayavarman started building the monuments that gave Angkor its final form, including numerous major Buddhist temples to reflect the recent supplanting of Hinduism as the state religion.

Jayavarman VII’s successors did not build extensively. Angkor became the capital of a declining state, increasingly under threat from growing Thai power, until the centre of power drifted east following a seven-month siege in 1431.

Founded in 802AD, the Khmer civilisation seemed to appear very rapidly, apparently from almost nowhere. Indian influence had followed the trade routes along the South East Asian coast, shaping the art and culture of that region as well as Indonesia, although Khmer art and architecture evolved their own, highly individual styles. It oscillated frequently between Hindu and Buddhist royal allegiance, a prime source of its architectural richness.

Visitors to Angkor seldom walk between sites; the heat, distances, tight timetables and short attention spans result in a scurry round the sites in cars and buses, on mopeds and bicycles.

Our walk followed the ancient route from Angkor Wat through the ceremonial heart of Angkor Thom, the imperial capital, passing many of Angkor’s greatest monuments on the way.

1991: A broken French-built road swings along this old route. Scooters purr along it, some fantastically laden with produce, many with families perched precariously on them - five on one scooter was our highest sighting. Peasants loll on sacks on the back of trucks, women pedal ancient cycles, children play in the shade on the edges of hamlets. The reassuringly pungent diesel stink of a rare ancient lorry confirms that we are in Real Asia. 2001: The number of cars carrying tourists is, sadly, growing quickly, making the road noisier, and less romantic, with every passing year.  After sunset, there is now an almost constant stream of headlights returning to Siem Reap.

Cambodia is hot all year, but we were there in February, the cooler dry season, and started early in the morning.  Most of central Angkor is lies under fine tropical trees, so our way was shady for much of the time.

We started where the road from Siem Reap, the nearby dusty little town, meets the mighty 5km moat of Angkor Wat, walking clockwise round to the main entrance in the still, humid calm of early morning.

Although we started at 7:45 a.m., early for us, the sun had been up for over 2 hours, and patches of heat were emerging in the cool morning air.

Across the southern side of the square moat, something like 1.5 km long and 200m wide, the wall of the temple could be seen between pine trees on the recently cleared bank, lush forest behind them, the whole reflected in the quiet waters of the moat between huge patches of lotus, which were just beginning to come into flower.

We picked our way along the massive sandstone blocks of the moat lining, winding across the wide grass verge where the wall had collapsed or been thrown into wild heaps by tree roots and the years.

At the centre of the west side of the moat is the grand entrance to Angkor Wat.  From a magnificent terrace, a finely constructed causeway leads to the entrance gate, three towers in the middle of a superbly balanced portico some 200m long.  The five great central towers of the temple soar behind it, their harmony and balance disguising their 200ft. height and the distance from the entrance, occupied by ponds and freestanding libraries, and crossed by another causeway, even finer than the first and balustraded by huge snakes, a trademark of Khmer art.

We sat under a tree, dangling our legs over the moat edge and absorbed the view.  The water shimmered in the now hazy light, hundreds of migrating birds wheeled around in groups.  Above it all, the great towers presided, serene, in the cloudless sky.

An alternative, and better, route which we walked the next day, is to begin by walking anticlockwise around the moat, entering the temple grounds by the rear entrance. This is a longer walk, but much quieter, and the early air is pregnant with ghosts and echoes. We crossed a plain, wooded causeway, and climbed through a lovely dilapidated gatehouse which slumbered peacefully in the woods. It has beautifully preserved devotees, female celestial beings carved onto its corners.

Behind, a straight drive leads half a kilometre or more to the back of the great temple, which looms at the far end between the trees like an archetypal grand British country house – a domed Asian Brideshead.

A group of children lay on the track. Why? The grass verge was soft and inviting.

We sat on a finely carved sandstone block below the grand terrace. We were completely alone.  A group of grey monkeys cavorted in the tree above us, eating seed pods and showering us with their castoffs.

Next was the temple’s famous gallery of bas-reliefs, past the churning of the Ocean of Milk (“one of the greatest scenes ever sculpted in stone”, gushed our guidebook), and out through the grand main gates.  To the right, a small hamlet, like pygmies camping in ruined giants’ hallways, or 18th Century prints of the Roman forum.

Out across the moat, we were on the great avenue, which runs for more than a kilometre through the forest, through the magnificent south gate of Angkor Thom to the Bayon, the great Buddhist temple at the heart of the city.  A huge amount of clearing and tidying had happened since we had last visited, in 1992, and we now walked along a wide, grassy verge among fine, straight-limbed tropical trees.

On our left loomed the hill of Phnom Bakheng, a dusty path clambering straight up its steep side. At the top, invisible from the road, was the eponymous five-tiered Shiva temple mountain dating from the 9th/10th Century cusp.  It commands a superb view of Angkor Wat across the treetops, best seen glowing in the late afternoon sun.

In 1992, we had had this view to ourselves - and a rifle-toting boy soldier;  Angkor was still not particularly safe then, even though the Khmer Rouge had been driven from power some years before.  This time around, we shared the sanctuary platform with a crowd of tourists and their attendant hawkers.  Increasing tourism has inevitably reduced Angkor’s mystery and otherworldliness; it has not yet ruined it, although Bakheng is not far off.

A hundred metres further, among the trees to the left, is the immaculate little Shiva temple of Baksei Chambron, a thousand-year-old tower of mellow brick on a four-tier platform of warm brown laterite.  Its green sandstone doorways and lintels are astonishingly fresh, and include a delightful Ganesh, the elephant-headed god, riding a mount formed from his own trunk.

We had now reached Angkor Thom, Angkor The Great, the last capital of the Angkor era and more magnificent than any contemporary city in Europe, with a population which was perhaps pushing a million behind its 9km (nearly six mile) long moat and wall.  Ahead of us, a causeway lined with extraordinary stone statues led across the 100m. moat to the great South Gate.

On each side, 54 oversized figures - gods to the left, demons to the right - support the bodies of huge nine-headed nagas, protective snakes, which rear their heads at the outside end of the causeway.  Like a tragically large amount of sculpture from Angkor, many of the figures’ heads have been stolen, although some have been replaced with good copies.

The gateway is very fine, a high, thin entrance topped with towers containing huge, ethereally smiling faces (another Angkor trademark), gazing eternally toward the four cardinal directions. The whole effect is, as it was meant to be, magnificent.

We were now inside the city, a bit over a kilometre from the Bayon.  We could have picked up an elephant outside the gate to take us to the Bayon, but we have a mission.

This stretch of the forest is particularly delightful, with wide cleared strips on each side of the road, cool under the majestic trees. Plus trees, a type of gum, red barked and ramrod straight, burned black niches in their lower trunks where the locals had extracted resin, soared above us. Another had a pale trunk, which fluted out into columns like a gothic pillar.  In the thick, noisy jungle beside us, a strangler fig could be seen at work on its century-long garrotting.  Underneath it all slumbered the as yet untouched remains of the city’s southern quarters.

As we emerged from the trees, we came face to face with 8 or 10 huge, serenely smiling faces. We had reached the Bayon, Angkor’s strangest temple, with Khmer architecture’s most unique feature.

The Bayon is at the exact heart of Angkor Thom, and thus of the Khmer empire, a fitting creation of its first, devout, Buddhist King.  It is in the form of a series of square platforms rising to a central sanctuary, although lower than the temple mountains of previous generations. Its 54 towers carry over 200 huge, mysterious faces; scholars debate the meaning of the faces, which are claimed to be a Buddhist Bodhisattva or, alternatively, King Jayavarman VII, the temple’s grandiose builder.

When viewed from a distance, the Bayon can seem a rather amorphous mass of grey, broken stone, and walking quickly round helps to bring out its three dimensions. Its galleries carry superb relief sculptures of armies, kings, elephants and everyday life in the 12th Century.

Onward to the north, we entered a great square, flanked to the left by over 330 metres (1,000 feet) of imposing terraces, their faces finely carved with elephants, garudas and giants, and to the right by 12 pretty brick towers.

The terraces fronted the royal palace and the temple of Baphuon, a great 11th Century temple mountain approached over a causeway between the snake-inhabited long grass of now-dry pools.  The court must have watched the great parades and ceremonies of the empire from this terrace.  The square seemed, as it slumbered in the mid-day heat, to pulsate with suppressed noise and activity.

Further on, the romantic cracked tower of Preah Palilay points to the sky between great trees which are deeply embedded in it, their roots probing between its joints, its destroyer and now the armature of its carcase.

To the right, the beautiful ruins of the Buddhist Preah Pithu complex doze in the hot dappled light of the forest edge.

We re-entered the forest, now on the avenue out toward the North Gate, of similar design to the South Gate, but a quieter, more reflective spot. We leaned on the remains of the dilapidated Naga balustrade and considered the spinx-like hinted smile of the Gate’s inscrutable face.

This walk takes around 1½ hours, with time to enjoy the atmosphere but no significant breaks or diversions. The alternative start adds another hour or so, and breaks to explore and contemplate thoroughly can add many hours, although exploring Angkor slowly, at the pace of the people who built it, helps one fully to appreciate the extraordinary ambition and atmosphere of the place.

This walk is also lovely in the late afternoon, although it is hotter.  It is better done in reverse at this time of day; the slanting light through the forest is particularly beautiful, and to gaze at Angkor Wat, from Phnom Bakheng or the moatside, or perched on a ledge inside the great porch in the golden evening light, is unforgettable.

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