Savouring the Angkor temples
Shafts of sunlight stream through dense emerald canopy. Behind a curtain of tangled jungle, a surreal vision presents itself: the gloriously dishevelled reminder of ancient shrines, galleries, libraries and pleasure pavilions, now bound by the knotted tentacles of centuries-old trees and a lush web of vines. Ascending fractured staircases that have been shaken and stirred by eight centuries of the earth’s agitations, we clamber over mounds of massive stone blocks, passing walls smothered by blankets of moss and lichens so spongy and incandescently green, they appear poised to walk off. A labyrinth of interlocking corridors and false doors — a form of celestial trickery designed to bamboozle dispensers of darkness — remain resolute in their capacity to confound. But for the birdsong spilling from overhanging branches, we are wrapped in the splendour of silence.
Such untrammelled wandering is the stuff of almost cinematic fantasy: of khaki–clad heroes, hidden treasures and dramatic climaxes. Happily, this is the reality of a visit to Beng Mealea, a temple almost the size of the mighty Angkor Wat, now practically swallowed whole by the jungle.
A more auspicious start to exploring one of the world’s most dazzling archeological marvels would be hard to imagine. It’s only when magic becomes manifestation — when you have gasped at the almost implausible vastness of these sacred structures, run your hands over the hoary, rutted rocks and drunk the dampness of the enveloping jungle — that you come to grips with the spirit of these most magnificent of monuments, conjured to entice divinity down to earth.
Hollywood may have catapulted Angkor’s allure into the popular consciousness; however, movies such as Lara Croft: Tomb Raider barely hint at the breadth of Khmer aspirations. At the whim of increasingly status–conscious kings between the ninth and 14th centuries, thousands of slaves and artisans fashioned almost 100 temples, scattered over hundreds of square kilometres. These grand temples formed the spiritual heart of what was regarded as one of the most artistically evolved, enigmatic and powerful of Asia’s kingdoms, an empire that stretched from present-day Malaysia, Vietnam and Yunnan province to the Bay of Bengal.
While the grandeur of the major temples is undeniable, the lesser-known sanctuaries offer a particularly poignant style of enchantment: the deliciously secretive pleasure of savouring these sacred structures cloaked within silence and solitude.
The genesis of this Khmer golden age lives on at the Roulos temples, situated a very scenic 13km west of Siem Reap and imbued with a strong sense that not much has changed since the 800s. Afternoons are especially evocative here, when the sentry of stone lions and elephants glow golden and the ancient clay bricks resonate with the chanting of monks from the abutting monasteries.
Perched upon the central pyramid of the most imperious of these temples, Bakong, we watched the sun kiss glistening rice paddies and relish the fact that the loudest sound was the bells of homecoming buffaloes ringing out across the plain. Descending, we joined a group of monks playing with puppies and, like them, sat smiling and silent. To speak would have seemed sacrilege.
More regal moments and soulful silence awaited us at Amansara, our temporary home. Secluded, super–quiet and über–cool, this gracious abode, formerly Prince Sihanouk’s guest house, provides an inimitable opportunity to absorb Cambodia’s modern history. Diving into our plunge pool, slipping into a bath sprinkled with frangipanis and losing myself in treasures from the library meant that exploring Siem Reap’s galleries and handicraft markets would have to wait one more day.
Come morning there were more temptations. So numerous are Angkor’s temples, and so special is each, it would be a folly to attempt to visit too many. A more meaningful approach is to linger at select temples, succumb to the seductions of cryptic passageways and inner sanctums you might otherwise miss and, most importantly, time visits thoughtfully. The trick to having Angkor’s most iconic temples to yourself is to get there before dawn and watch the sun slowly coax the cool stone to life. As befits the world’s largest religious monument, Angkor Wat is approached by way of wide avenues flanked by nagas — rearing serpents poised to spit venom. Slip past them and you enter an otherworldly realm where the unfolding visions have been preordained according to complex cosmological symbolism.
To contemplate the fact that the colonnaded corridors might actually reach out to infinity and climb steps sagging with the weight of century upon century of pilgrim and petitioner gives the word magnificent a whole new magnitude. It is awe-inspiring to gaze upon kilometres of outrageously intricate carvings of Hindu and historical epics set in stone and be uplifted by over 1700 Asparas (celestial dancers).
When the tropical sun started to impinge on the mystical morning mood our guide, Denay, would whisk us into the surrounding jungles for a series of delightful, silent and solitary surprises. So uncanny was his ability to stake out our own piece of private paradise, I had to wonder whether he had seen it all in previous lifetimes. One moment, we’d be bumping along a dirt road flanked by villages and the next, crossing a moat and entering ancient walls that were overlooked by gods and protective demons, then walking towards an empty, silent temple.
Things start to feel decidedly supernatural upon encountering the enigmatic stone smiles of The Bayon, a treat which, come dusk, serves up its most silent and suggestive evocations. A seemingly endless scroll of intricate carvings depicting battles with the Chams and agricultural scenes not unlike visions from our journeys to the outer temples captivate me at ground level. Clambering up stairs that leave me as breathless from excitement as from effort, I’m reminded that The Bayon is indeed a “mountain temple” where each step elevates me to a symbolically higher plane.
As the sky turns inky, a chorus of frogs — sounding uncannily like chanting monks — cheers me at the pinnacle. Moonlight dances upon one stone face, then another, and then I’m surrounded by beaming, watchful faces. The scrutiny is not surprising, for stepping into these upper sanctums was once a privilege reserved for kings and high priests.
Bangkok and Vietnam are the most convenient springboards for trips to Angkor. Packages start from $1520 pp. Contact: China Travel Service Ph: 1300 764 224 W: www.chinatravel.com.au
Room with a Mood
Aman Resorts provides an iconic “if these walls could talk” treat that combines heady luxuries with a fetching 60s feel. Guests are privy to a unique array of tours specifically designed to ensure that they revel in the magnificence of the Angkor monuments amid silence and solitude. W: www.amanresorts.com
Visas are issued at the border. Bangkok-to-Seim Reap flights are pricey, so a popular option is to fly to Cambodia’s capital Phnom Penh then travel by boat to Siem Reap. A more unusual but very atmospheric and scenic journey involves taking a taxi from Bangkok to the Cambodian border, then another taxi to Siem Reap. It’s a glaring transition as the modern sleekness of Thailand suddenly gives way to the rawness of a full–throttle frontier town and countryside of glaringly-green rice paddies dotted with sugar palms and huge hand- painted signs.
May to September when rain falls in short, sharp downpours is less crowded, with bonus moody skies and gloriously green moss.