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...two travellers in search of the world's wildlife

26 December 2010

Temples of Angkor

24th December 2010

Today we took ourselves around another set of temples on bicycle, self-guided. This is always going to be our absolute favourite way; self-guided, at our own pace, deciding for ourselves what is worth a look and what we’ll skip. Nine hours later and we’ve explored another four Angkorian temples pretty thoroughly. The delight is that each has a different character, and different again from the four we explored yesterday with Mr Sim.

Angkor Wat – according to the archaeologists this is the peak of Khmer architecture, and the biggest, hence the fame it enjoys today. To us it was very manicured, over-visited, and nothing in particular about it stood out to give it an identity. Unless it be bigness.

The Bayon – this temple is gloriously stacked up like a wedding cake, and was described as the “god mountain” in its heyday. Hundreds of beatific faces beam down placidly from the towers, bringing a smile to the lips and a little shiver of awe. It’s something to do with the way each face has been carved in situ across a number of massive stone blocks… but very hard to put a finger on exactly what.

Baphoun – another grand temple near the Bayon, but this one looked more like an Olympic building site, covered with cranes and scaffold. The French and the Japanese organisations given the task of conserving Angkor are essentially rebuilding it, putting temples back together like big jigsaw puzzles and re-creating blocks and statues where the originals are lost.

Ta Prohm – the archetype lost-temple-in-the-jungle and the set for Tomb Raider (as Mr Sim reminded us regularly). It is so evocative, so green and lucid, that it manages to swallow all the tourists and still leave a strong impression of ancient ruin. It has to be our favourite.

Preah Khan – this is a real explorer’s temple, with endless passages, walls and rubble-choked dead ends to clamber around. The jungle encroaches on all sides, the tourists are scarce enough they hardly encroach at all; it’s a magical place.

Neak Pean – a small temple in a pool, on an island in the middle of a giant artificial lake. Although it sounds very special and is indeed unique, there’s nothing very lovely to look at here and so we walked dutifully around it and then got back on our bikes.

Ta Som – a smaller temple, and ruined enough that none of the tour buses seemed interested in stopping here. Nevertheless, the most placid and enigmatic smiling Buddha face guarded the entrance and the most typical composition of tree roots, crumbling stone and smiling face that you could imagine are tucked away at the very back.

East Mebon – the towers of this temple are built of salmon pink brick, raised up on two levels of terrace above what was once an even more huge artificial lake but is now dry. The contrast of the delicate brickwork with the blocky sandstone of everything else Angkorian leads to the sense that the Mebon floats in the air, an etherial structure belonging to the gods and presented to us for our appreciation.

And so to our surprise we manage to fill two very full days with sightseeing around the temples of Angkor without losing interest or feeling that we were watching repeats. For that alone this place is exceptional and great. The guidebook reminds us that the Hagia Sofia in Istanbul had been up for 500 years before Angkor Wat was built, so it would be daft to hold these temples up as examples of splendid architecture ahead of their time. It’s the joyful accident of the jungle devouring the best endeavours of man that leaves Angkor heavy with atmosphere and wonder, unique in the world. Which leaves me a little cold to the Japanese “conservation teams” with their cranes and their wholesale rebuilding of these gloriously ruined edifices. Conserving an ancient monument and building a heritage park are quite different things. Stop it, please.

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