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Temples of Delight

By Stanley Johnson. Published in ES Magazine, Friday 14th March 2008

For centuries, Angkor Wat in Cambodia was seen as the centre of the Hindi universe. Stanley Johnson turns Indiana Jones to climb temples, fight snakes and eat local amphibians

Angkor WatIf any place on earth deserves the description 'the mother of all temples', it must be Angkor Wat, Cambodia. Built on a gigantic scale in the first half of the 12th century, in the reign of Suryavarman II, it is the grandest and most sublime of the great Khmer monuments. I first visited Angkor Wat ten years ago and I shall never forget the sheer excitement as, alone except for my guide, I climbed up the vast pyramidic structure from level to level until, reaching the central shrine high above the plain as the sun set over the surrounding forest, I found myself quite literally at the centre of the world.

I say 'quite literally' because when Angkor Wat was built, and for centuries thereafter, it was seen as the microcosm of the Hindu universe. The 570ft-wide moat that I had just crossed represented the mythical oceans surrounding the earth; the galleries I had climbed through represented the mountain ranges. The central shrine, glowing gold in the sunset, was a solid image-rich metaphor for Mount Meru, the house of gods.

Angkor WatTen years ago, Siem Reap, the nearby town that is the jumping-off place for a visit to the Angkor archealogical comples, was a low-key place with the whiff of a frontier town. Today, it has been totally transformed. The permanent population has risen to an astonishing 100,000 plus and there are some two million overseas visitors each year, benefiting from the new airport. Whereas on my last visit, backpackers were much in evidence, hanging out in some fairly downmarket hostelries, now four- and five-star hotels are springing up all over the place and new restaurants provide the best Khmer cuisine.

Does all this rapid development mean that somehow the magic of Angkor has been affected?

Angkor WatOn the whole, I would say 'no'. Admittedly, you can no longer climb up to the very top of Mount Meru. The steep steps to the summit are now barred, no doubt for 'health and safety' reasons, given the pressure of tourists at peak season. And I couldn't help feeling that some of the developments over the last ten years have been at the expense of surrounding jungle.

But there is still plenty of forest to be seen. Every visitor to Angkor has a favourite temple or temples. For some, it will be the majestic Angkor Wat itself, or the sublime and magical Bayon, built about a century later. My personal selection is still Ta Prohm, a 12th-century temple of flowers, narrow corridors and courtyards, where huge trees grow out from the very stones of the buildings and, at times, threaten to overwhelm them. On my previous visit, I wandered off into the forest near Ta Prohmand was taken by surprise, to say the least, when a large green snake fell from an overhead branch and slithtered down my neck and shoulders to the ground. Nowadays, the encrouching jungle seems to have been brought under control, but as a place of mystery and enchantment, Ta Prohm can hardly be beaten.

One of the loveliest temples in the Angkor area is Banteay Srei, about 15 miles northeast of Siem Reap. Ten years ago, my guide drove me there with some reluctance, pointing out the danger of unexploded mines and the fact that remnants of Khmer Rouge forces were still reported to be hiding out in the vicinity. Although, in the event, we encountered no hostile elements, the road was rough and the journey long.

Angkor WatToday, a good metalled surface brings you in 40 minutes to this perfect jewel in the crown of Khmer art. Banteay Srei is on a much smaller scale that most of the other temples. Almost every inch of the pink sandstone surfact is exquisitely carved. If you are into Hindu mythology and want to see the most intricate depiction of Shiva and his wife Uma riding the bull Nandi, look at the pediment at the southern end of the 'long gallery'.

Visiting Banteay Srei gives you a chance to observe not just the beauty of the land, but something of the life of the people, too. When you stop to take a photograph, you will be surrounded by children offering to sell you picture postcards. Why they aren't in school, you wonder? Well, the answer is that in Cambodia, one of the poorest countries in the world, there is still no compulsory state education. It makes you realise how far there is still to go before the new tourist-generated wealth reaches down to the people whose far-distant ancestors by a combination of sweat and genius created Angkor's miracles.


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