Cambodia: A Jolie time in the land of the Khmers

By Jim Eagles

Jim Eagles marvels at the temples of Cambodia - and the carved nymphs spookily reminiscent of a certain big-screen goddess.

The jungle temple of Ta Prohm in Cambodia. Photo / Jim Eagles
The jungle temple of Ta Prohm in Cambodia. Photo / Jim Eagles

The curvaceous ghost of Angelina Jolie's character in Lara Croft: Tomb Raider seemed to follow me round the lush jungles, mysterious ruins, teeming waterways, and magnificent temples of Cambodia.

When I had a quiet beer on the balcony of the marvellous River Bar in Battambang, overlooking the slow, brown Sangker River, the languid barmaid mentioned with studied nonchalance that Jolie had been there for her own cooling libation.

When I passed through the amazing villages that float on bamboo rafts in the middle of the nearby Tonle Sap Lake - with no sign of a cinema anywhere - the locals proudly proclaimed that they had featured in Tomb Raider.

And, of course, when I arrived in Siem Reap, to explore the extraordinary thousand-year-old stone cities and temples of the great Khmer Empire, Lara Croft had already climbed all over them.

"This tree," pointed our guide, Soung Vireak, bouncing with excitement as he indicated a vast trunk growing through the stone walls of the mysterious Ta Prohm temple, "is the tree she swung down from in the movie."

Later, "This gate," he said, enthusiastically indicating the eastern entrance to the magnificent walled city of Angkor Thom, "is where the bad guys broke through a polystyrene wall to reach the treasure."

And, "This pool," he said, indicating a pond fringed with water lilies reflecting the glorious towers of mighty Angkor Wat, "is where she swam from the floating village ... though of course it wasn't really like that."

In fact Jolie and Cambodia are so intertwined that she has adopted a Kampuchean child, given millions to landmine-clearing and environmental work, and bought a house there.

In a way that's not surprising because apsara - curvaceous heavenly nymphs with pouting lips - feature prominently in the decorations carved into the sandstone walls of the ancient ruins and are an important feature of Khmer legend.

Seeing voluptuous Lara Croft shapes on every building, Jolie might well have thought they were shrines to her character. And she might not be far wrong, because guide Vireak was definitely a worshipper and the Cambodian Government is so devoted it has passed a special law making her a citizen.

But the reality is that the buildings erected by the Khmer kings at the height of their power, when their empire covered much of Indo-China, don't need a tempestuous Oscar-winning actress to make them interesting. They are stunning on their own.

It is hard to think of anything to equal a dawn visit to watch the sun rise over Angkor Wat, said to be the largest religious structure in the world, and arguably the most magnificent of all the Khmer works.

Approaching the huge moat - it's nearly 200m wide and surrounds a rectangle 1.2km by 1.5km - and the forbidding outer wall with its lofty gate turrets is impressive enough.

But when you cross the sandstone causeway over the moat, go through the huge main gate, and see the magnificent main temple, with its distinctive beehive-shaped towers, silhouetted against the first fingers of light from the rising sun, it is truly awe-inspiring.

I've read plenty of words about the religious symbolism, the architectural symmetry, the organisational genius and the artistic brilliance that went into creating this amazing place of worship but none of them do it justice. You just have to experience it for yourself.

Even the travel-hardened authors of Lonely Planet's Cambodia guide book say breathlessly, "Angkor Wat is simply unique, a stunning blend of spirituality and symmetry, an enduring example of man's devotion to his gods. Relish the first approach, as that spine-tickling moment when you emerge on the inner causeway will rarely be felt again."

One of the things that makes this particular temple so extraordinary is that even when you've had that first spine-tickling view, the sun is up and the temperature and humidity are soaring, there are more of what our guide referred to as "Kodak moments" in every corner.

It isn't necessary to be religious to appreciate the awe the Khmers must have felt when they came here to worship their gods.

Incredibly, given the country's turbulent history, the right gate tower still houses the original eight-armed statue of the god Vishnu, to whom the temple was first dedicated, carved from a single block of sandstone.

Until recently Vishnu's head was in the National Museum in Phnom Penh but it has now been united with his body for the first time for many years.

At the base of the statue sits a Buddhist nun offering sticks of incense you can burn to this Hindu deity. As she hands you the three sticks she murmurs gently, "One, two, three ... good luck."

Her presence is a reminder that one of the reasons Angkor Wat is in so much better condition than most other Khmer buildings is that it was never abandoned.

There may be AK47 slugs in the right tower, many of the 3000 luscious apsara may have had their heads removed by real-life relic hunters and the southern cloister may have been partly demolished by a B52 bomber, but it is still used by locals as a place of worship and there is a Buddhist monastery in the grounds.

Indeed, on the day I paid my first visit the Kampucheans were celebrating the festival to end the monsoon, the day on which the gates of hell are briefly opened to allow the dead to revisit earth.

Hundreds of locals were at Angkor Wat while it was still dark to spread specially prepared food around the grass for the spirits of their families to eat.

Sadly, most of the statues that used to rest in the Gallery of a Thousand Buddhas in the main temple, were smashed, stolen or taken to museums for safekeeping during the civil war, but there are still sufficient remnants to show that it is Buddha rather than Vishnu who rules in Cambodia these days.

Like most Khmer temples, Angkor Wat rises in three layers, the holiest part being the third level, reached by incredibly steep stairs, designed to make it a challenge to reach the realm of the gods, and certainly scary enough to deter many tourists.

Here, in a sanctuary under the 55m-high main tower, once stood a golden statue of Vishnu riding a garuda, the half-man, half-bird lord of the skies, representing the Khmer king Suryavarman II, builder of the temple.

Needless to say the golden statue is long gone but the views across the temple and the surrounding jungle are probably even more impressive than it would have been.

If you want to get more of a feel for what that view might have been like 850 years ago when Angkor was in its prime, to get a taste of the glory of the Khmer empire, it is best found in the 800m-long bas reliefs around the temple's base, like ancient movies superbly carved in stone.

These show scenes from Hindu legends, including the famous tale of the churning of the sea of milk, which happens to be how the luscious apsara originated.

There is also a particularly gruesome depiction of heaven and hell which shows, among other things, demons punishing a shopkeeper guilty of giving his customers short measures by stringing him up by his hands, nailing his skin to a tree trunk and then putting heavy weights on his feet.

I'm sure any Khmer merchants who saw that would have mended their ways very quickly!

But for me the most interesting bas relief depicts the victories of Suryavarman II, giving a marvellous propaganda picture of the hugely efficient Khmer army and its sloppy-looking mercenary supporters.

There are incredibly detailed depictions of ordinary citizens cheering its successes, farmers providing food and even builders raising the great temple of Angkor Wat.

These are so fascinating that we found ourselves still wandering round looking at the pictures by torchlight after the official 6pm closing time - not that anyone seemed too bothered .

And that's the thing about the Khmer buildings, there are so many of them, they are so amazing and there is so much to see at each, that you can't do them justice in just a couple of days.

Just north of the temple of Angkor Wat, for instance, there is the city of Angkor Thom, which at its peak had a population of over a million, at a time when London was a rude settlement of maybe 50,000.

This magnificent royal city was protected by a vast wall 8m high and 12km long, encircled by a deep moat, with five bridges and gates, each decorated with wonderful statues and carvings, most of which remain today.

The city enclosed by the wall was mostly built of wood and so the houses, palaces and workshops it contained have been replaced by dense jungle.

But you can still visit the remains of its temples, sports stadium, royal reviewing stand, courts and crematorium.

Of those the most remarkable - and our guide's favourite Khmer building - is the extraordinary Bayon temple.

Dotted round its assorted terraces and layers are 54 gothic towers, each bearing four giant enigmatically smiling faces, supposedly representing the Buddhist bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara, but apparently modelled closely on the appearance of the mighty Jayavarman VII, probably the greatest of the Khmer kings.

No matter where you go in the temple you can't escape the all-seeing eye of the king - no doubt the impression he wished to create - and no matter how hard you look at his frozen image you can't work out what he was thinking. It's a spooky experience.

Equally spooky in its way is the temple of Ta Prohm, a couple of kilometres outside the walls of Angkor Thom, where the roots of giant fig trees continue to strangle the stone buildings like so many giant squid.

This is a reminder that for hundreds of years most of the Khmer ruins were covered in jungle - as our guide put it, "The only reason anyone came here was to hunt tigers" - until the advent of European archaeologists and tourists.

At most sites the trees have now been cleared, but at Ta Prohm they are so intertwined with the stone walls that it was thought that removing them would cause too much damage (though an Indian team is apparently looking again at how it might be done).

The result looks like the set from an Indiana Jones or Tomb Raider film, with giant trees and crumbling towers, tumbled blocks of stone and creeping vines, narrow passageways and a leafy canopy, combining to create an eerie mixture of ancient ruin and encroaching jungle where anything might be lurking in the shadows.

Of course the most likely thing to be lurking is the spirit of Angelina Jolie because, as our guide ecstatically explained, the tree beside which he was posing is the very one from which she jumped into a long lost underground temple.

And, as he pointed out, if you look carefully at the base of that tree you can see the face of an ancient carved apsara peering out through a gap in the roots.

"Look, that's my girlfriend," he said. "Angelina may have left me but this one remains forever."

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Singapore Airlines flies 19 times weekly out of New Zealand direct to Singapore. From Singapore, passengers can choose from 14 weekly flights to Phnom Penh or from daily flights to Siem Reap on SilkAir, the regional airline of Singapore Airlines.

Getting around: World Expeditions' regular 11-day Best of Laos and Cambodia trips, which start from Luang Prabang, cost $2320 (not including airfares to and from New Zealand, visas and some meals). As well as three days in Siem Reap to see Angkor Wat and the other temples of the Khmer empire, the itinerary includes the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh, three days in the ancient Lao capital of Luang Prabang, the modern Lao capital of Vientiane and the town of Vang Vieng on the Mekong River.

Jim Eagles travelled to Cambodia as a guest of World Expeditions and Singapore Airlines.

- NZ Herald

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