Cambodia: Sleeping beauty of a sanctuary

By William Dalrymple

I know nowhere more secretive, more lost-in-the-forest or more mysteriously, darkly lovely than the Khmer temple complex of Ta Prohm, a few kilometres into the jungle from Angkor Wat.

Angkor is one of the great ruins of the world. Surrounded as it is by parkland and a lake, it feels magnificently grand - and by necessity, given its fame, it is attended by ticket offices and cabins selling postcards, guide books and fizzy drinks.

Ta Prohm, in contrast, is hidden deep in the jungle and is still wildly, magnificently, hopelessly overgrown - a Sleeping Beauty of a temple complex, tangled in a thick lattice of aerial roots and creepers.

I visited with my family and we stayed in the King of Cambodia's old guest house there, now the understatedly stylish Amansara Hotel.

So unusually gentle, peaceful and friendly were the Cambodians we met - the smiling schoolchildren and the beautiful village women going to market - that my children simply refused to believe the stories I tried to tell them of the old days of the Khmer Rouge and the killing fields.

Only when we visited the Siem Reap crocodile farm did they really begin to understand the horrors that this country so recently underwent.

The Khmer Rouge had used the farm as an execution ground, throwing their bound prisoners to the crocs, and the old ones still retain their taste for human flesh.

When my children crossed the bridge over the pens from which captives were once thrown, they were greeted by hopeful snapping jaws.

Ta Prohm was a world away from these dark associations. To get there we trekked through thick monsoon-green jungle for an hour and the children saw huge centipedes, squawking parrots, cicadas as loud as car alarms, hooting geckos and, best of all, a green poisonous snake hunting a lizard, one of the highlights of the trip for them.

It was late evening by the time we finally got there and the sun was setting. Suddenly, out of the trees, a mountain of masonry rose in successive ranges from the jungle - a great tumbling scree of plinths and capitals, octagonal pillars and lotus jambs.

Trees spiralled out of the barrel vaults of the shingled temple roofs like the flying buttresses of a Gothic cathedral; branches knotted over Sanskrit inscriptions, before curving around the bas relief of lions and elephants, gods sprites and tree spirits.

Cracked lintels covered in mosses and bright lichens were supported by the roots of 1000-year-old banyan trees, which wrapped their way over broken arcades, coiling in spirals like the tail of some slumbering guardian dragon.

Roots like fused spiders' webs gripped fallen finials and crumbling friezes of bare-breasted dancing girls in girdles and anklets, spear-holding warriors in war chariots and long-haired, cross-legged meditating sages.

As the shadows lengthened, we wandered through terraces and overgrown galleries, narrow corridors and dark staircases, courtyard after courtyard, the sculptures gradually losing their definition, crumbling into shadows of dusk.

Darkness fell and it was by the light of a torch that we saw the eeriest sight of all: the 12m-high face of the temple's 12th-century founder, Jayavarman VII, impressed into the ashlar of one of the temple spires.

His eyes were closed in meditation, expression passive but powerful, monk and ruler, enlightened incarnation and megalomaniac monarch.

The fireflies danced around us, the night birds screeched from the ruins and the frogs croaked. A long walk back lay ahead but we all knew we would never forget this place.

- OBSERVER

WHERE TO STAY
House of Travel is offering four-day/three-night Cambodia packages from $2439 per person twin-share, including three nights in Siem Reap at the Amansara Hotel with breakfast, transfers and sightseeing.

Touring includes visits to the Roluos group - Bakong, Preah Ko and Lolei Temples, Terrace of Elephant, Leper King, the former Royal Palace, Baphuon, Preah Pithu, Ta Prohm and North and South Khleang Temples. Valid for travel until September 30, 2008. Contact House of Travel on 0800 838 747 or visit www.houseoftravel.co.nz.

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