At a time when
was a tiny,
insignificant city, millions prospered in London .
Now the country is using this legacy to attract tourists. Jeremy Atiyah visits
the remains of a civilisation Cambodia
28 February 2004
Did Cambodians once build the world's greatest city, and live in the most prosperous country on earth? So I've been told, but right now I'm finding this hard to believe. I stroll through
, and see
pigs rooting through puddles and rubbish. The people are charming, but their
streets are dilapidated. On every corner, sundry ragamuffins await my
generosity. Phnom Penh
But perhaps the past really is another country: I've been reading about the Khmer kingdom of a thousand years ago, when Cambodia's irrigated paddy fields and fish-rich lakes supported a population of some 10 million, most of whom lived in the vicinity of Angkor (at a time when the population of London was 30,000).
What has happened in the interim? The Cambodians and the Khmers are one and the same people, but by the time the French arrived in the 19th century, they had sunk almost into oblivion. Their population had fallen by nine-tenths, and the remains of
When receiving foreign tourists today, this is not an easy story for Cambodians to tell. The ancient temples of
For the time being, at least, Cambodians seem willing to risk the humiliation. After a 20-year hiatus - between 1970 and 1990 - international tourism at
On arrival I hire a guide, a serious man with a bitter laugh called Kim, who wears the pain of being Cambodian on his sleeve. He starts talking about the suffering caused by landmines from the instant we meet. Then he glances at me: "But you don't hear mines exploding round
As we take the road north out of Siem Reap, Kim explains to me the basic facts of
He refers to a few structures of religious significance that were constructed at prodigious expense, in many cases using lava blocks imported from quarries tens of miles away. Today, scattered over some 200 square kilometres of jungle, these surviving temples rise up in odd isolation, like lilies in a drained pond, denuded of the towns and cities that previously surrounded them. It would take weeks to visit them all. Kim is going to show me a few of the highlights.
The first of these is Angkor Wat itself, the most magnificent and the holiest of all the temples, built by the great Khmer king, Suryavarman II, in the early 12th century. Approaching this vast structure on foot, I feel a kind of despair in the face of its incomprehensible dimensions. Its lotus-bud towers loom even in the remote distance, rising from within a walled enclosure nearly one-mile square. Before even reaching this enclosure, I have to cross a causeway over a colossal man-made moat, which once teemed with hungry crocodiles.
And no sooner have I swallowed these enormities than I am being dazzled by the minuscule detail of the scenes in bas-relief that decorate the temple's inner walls. Kim hurries me through the lengthy Hindu narratives on display. Only at the so-called "scenes from hell", reminiscent of Dante's Inferno, do we linger: here I see bodies sawn in half, bones broken, stomachs filled with red-hot irons. I find the pictures amusingly quaint; Kim, however, is looking hot and bothered. He is thinking of his very own hell. "I was once forced to cross a minefield on foot," he explains. "Men were exploding in front of me. I felt their corpses splashing over me." He seems angry that the hell contrived by the stonemasons of King Suryavarman II should be inadequate to describe his own experiences.
When we leave Angkor Wat, heading north, the first place Kim wants to show me is a 40ft-high stepped pyramid called Baksei Chamkrong. It is a low-key site, free of tourists. Its lotus-bud pinnacle has eroded into a blob, and leaves rustle under our feet. But Kim has a reason for bringing me here. "Vietnamese soldiers' tombs," he whispers, pointing, as we step over a series of grassy hillocks. The conversation again shifts from the Buddhist god-kings of the past, to Pol Pot and King Sihanouk, and
Even as he speaks, we are approaching the southern gate of the walled city known as Angkor Thom. This was
Following a trickle of rice trucks and bicycles, we drive up to the gate. I half-imagine that a bustling city still lurks within: I picture King Jayavarman's family and officials, his military officers and priests, all enjoying the fruits of power. But once inside, what I see is the silent road, and the same forest as before. It is a gate into four square miles of nothingness. We pass troops of monkeys, sleeping dogs, and the occasional monk under a saffron umbrella. "Funny how this place was abandoned," I say. "It wasn't abandoned," replies Kim, defensively.
"We Khmers never forgot about
The monks seem to be the one thing that Kim believes in. I am still feeling obscurely pleased about this when the road through Ankhor Thom reaches a clearing. And in front of us, suddenly, rise the multiple stone towers of Bayon. Even today, there is mystery in the way Bayon's stones emerge from the jungle. Columns resemble tree trunks, pink and mottled. The towers seem organic. Were they placed here by human beings, or by some other agency? The first Frenchmen who camped among these strange stones could scarcely tell. At night, rhino and leopard prowled nearby. The din of cicadas was enough to drive a man mad. And then, in the half-light, through tangled branches, one came to sense that giant faces were staring down from above - faces carrying the features not only of Buddha, but also of King Jayavarman VII himself.
Over the years, for the benefit of tourists, the trees over Bayon have been cut away. But merely to prevent the roots from engulfing
I feel as though I am engaged in a losing battle to blot out the recent past. I study the decorations on Bayon's outer walls, where all the civilised arts of 12th-century war and peace are depicted: cockfighting and sumo wrestling; a lady being fanned by servants; a boar in a pot and satay sticks being served for dinner; acrobats, chess players, masseurs, smokers, fat men, thin men, rich men, poor men...
Later, we walk through Bayon's tangled corridors, stained by moss, lichen and soot. In one of the towers, a snake is doing battle with a pullulating mass of bats, its white tail flashing in and out of view. Kim's laugh echoes strangely in the darkness. But our time is short. We have just an afternoon to pant our way round the remaining temples of Angkor Thom, and the shadows are lengthening. We march past Baphuon, which was completed in the year William the Conqueror came to
Next, we pass the so-called Elephant Terrace, where, in 1960, a parade of 1,000 elephants was led by King Sihanouk to celebrate the independence of
By now, the yellows of have turned to russets and browns; the cicadas are like jangling bells. We walk round the corner, to Preah Paliley, whose crooked tower rises at a precarious angle, with giant trees growing horizontally from its stones. Kim's mood is sinking with the sun. "All the money from tourism goes out of the country," he gabbles, as we walk. "Tourists drive up prices and we locals can't afford anything any more."
Pieces of an orange fruit lie about in the long grass. "From the sleng tree," remarks Kim, kicking. "Sleng means bitter, or poisonous." Strangely enough, Sleng is one of the few Khmer words I know. I came across it in
I laugh, half-heartedly. For some reason, in this forest, I'm now thinking of Hindu myths, in which the primeval catastrophe involves not flood, but fire. I look out over red walls and green ponds, half-reclaimed by grass and weed. Tendrils dangle from the growing darkness above, and the sounds of the jungle - whoopings and cacklings and shriekings - grow louder by the minute.
The easiest option is to fly to
If you fly in, you can get a visa on arrival for $30 (£17); take two passport photographs. Arriving overland, you will need to acquire a visa in advance.
Siem Reap has many hotels and cheap guesthouses; see www.angkorhotels.org.
Protection against typhoid, hepatitis A and B, yellow fever, diphtheria, tuberculosis, Japanese B encephalitis and rabies may be necessary; take advice from a travel health specialist like MASTA (09068 224 100, www.masta.org).
The Foreign Office says the biggest risks are from "road traffic accidents; armed robbery after dark; landmines and unexploded ordnance in rural areas".