In November 1859 French naturalist Henri Mouhot was on an expedition from Bankok exploring unmapped areas of Thailand, Laos and Cambodia. He heard stories of magnificent temples in the jungle from local people and braved encounters with tigers, elephants and rhinos to find them. His Cambodian guides took him to Angkor Wat and the ruined city of Angkor Thom. He crawled through fallen archways, scaled gigantic walls, and braved dark halls knee deep in bat dung. There were so many bats they were like ‘a second ceiling of black cloth’. The temple of Angkor Wat he described as 'a rival to that of Solomon, and erected by some ancient Michael Angelo'. Mouhot died in Laos a couple of years later, but his drawings and diaries were published by his wife, and they started a romantic craze for the lost civilisation of Angkor.
It’s the scale of it all that knocks you speechless. I’d always known that Angkor Wat was a big temple and was prepared for the vast layout of moats and walls and temple precincts, but I hadn’t realised that the whole area is one huge landscape of similar temple complexes - many of them bigger - stretching for twenty kilometres out of Siem Reap.
Angkor Thom (Thom means big in Khmer) was a city that had a million inhabitants in the 12th century. Today the ceremonial gateways and the moats still impress the visitor as much as their original builder intended. Inside the gigantic retaining wall are the remains of royal palaces, terraces, dozens of temples (the most famous is the Bayon). It’s so big you need a moto to get from one end to the other without dying of heat exhaustion.
But it’s still possible to find areas of the city that no-one explores. We found a complex of four ruined temples - utterly beautiful - with a terrace that ended in two elephants and some ruined steps that led through bushes. Creeping through, bent double, we found a lake with two cows grazing on lotus stems.
The beauty and symmetry of Angkor Wat - a kilometre or so outside the walls of Angkor Thom - was impossible to appreciate in 35 degrees of humid heat in the company of several million tourists. Half the world seemed to be there taking photographs and following guides all raising their voices and coloured flags to be heard and seen over all the others. The central sanctuary was closed for restoration, so I couldn’t see that, or the section of bas-reliefs I’d come to look at. Impossible to get any kind of spiritual experience from this visit.
There was a student demonstration for the 350 organisation while we were there. I talked to some of the enthusiastic young Cambodians and they told me that they were taking part in a planetary day of action at iconic locations around the world, to force politicians to take action on climate change, reducing pollution to 350 parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. We checked afterwards and sadly, although the day itself got wide coverage around the world, the Cambodian demonstration didn’t get a single news mention.
The next morning we got up to see the sunrise at the King’s bathing pool (large enough to float a couple of destroyers and an aircraft carrier - or their medieval equivalent), but the weather was cloudy, so we decided to use the early hour to look at one of the other temples. Ta Phrom is one of the most popular, because it has been ‘conserved’ and left very much as it was, embraced by the jungle, with kapok trees clawing their way through the temple ruins. The walls of some of these temple complexes are several kilometres long. Ta Phrom required about 79,000 people to keep it serviced and they all lived within the perimeter walls, though their wooden houses have long since disintegrated. It’s a long walk from the outer gate to the inner walls. Inside them, there is the most beautiful (adjectives fail you here) confusion of literally dozens of ruined temples covering acres of ground. Photographs show the tree roots dripping over roofs and walls, so I had imagined maybe one or two - but there are at least twenty, every one different.
We thought we would have the temples to ourselves, apart from the flocks of parakeets that gather in the morning and evening, but we were surprised to find ourselves sharing Ta Phrom with about thirty police and secret service personnel, complete with bullet proof jackets, at 6.30 in the morning. They told us that the Korean President was in Siem Reap on a state visit and was being brought to Angkor Wat and Ta Phrom by the King of Cambodia later in the day. So we had a police escort through the ruins, but it didn’t diminish the experience. Crawling through ruined corridors that would give european health and safety officers apoplexy, clambering over piles of fallen stones and watching the early sunlight begin to light up the tree trunks and the roofs of the temples, we could just begin to imagine what it might have been like for Henri Mouhot in 1859. There was even a bat!