Saturday, February 28, 2004

Ancient treasure

Ancient treasure

At a time when London was a tiny, insignificant city, millions prospered in Cambodia. Now the country is using this legacy to attract tourists. Jeremy Atiyah visits the remains of a civilisation

Published: 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 Phnom Penh, 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.


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 Angkor, having been mysteriously abandoned in the 15th century, lay lost and forgotten to the world, somewhere in the jungles east of Siam.


When receiving foreign tourists today, this is not an easy story for Cambodians to tell. The ancient temples of Angkor, naturally, are their greatest asset, and some hope that the revival of Angkor may eventually lead to the revival of Cambodia itself. But there is a painful edge to such myth-making: by dwelling on past glories, they remind themselves of how far they have fallen.


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 Angkor is now booming. The closest town to the ancient city, Siem Reap, has countless new restaurants, hotels, guesthouses and cyber-caf├ęs, as well as an international airport. Streams of boats, planes and buses make the 200-mile journey from Phnom Penh daily. I take the fast boat: five hours up the Tonle Sap river, past thatched villages on stilts, crossing half of the country in the process.


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 Angkor any more. You tourists are fine." It's the locals who suffer, he wants to tell me. Angkor has been cleared, but mines still cause one death a day across Cambodia.


As we take the road north out of Siem Reap, Kim explains to me the basic facts of Angkor. It is not a ruined city such as Pompeii. Rather, it is the bare bones of an entire civilisation that flourished here between 1,200 and 600 years ago. When King Canute ruled England, this region was full of teeming towns and cities, in which millions of people lived and worked. Of the dwellings, warehouses and workshops of old Angkor, nothing is now visible. Right now, I am surrounded instead by what looks like dark, primeval forest. The only sign of life is the occasional motor-scooter. "Ordinary buildings?" echoes Kim, when I ask. "Oh, they've all disappeared. Only stone buildings remain."


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 Cambodia's ongoing political crisis. "The Khmer Rouge respected Angkor," says Kim, laughing. "They wanted it protected. They saw it as a living symbol of Khmer power and glory."


Even as he speaks, we are approaching the southern gate of the walled city known as Angkor Thom. This was Angkor's last capital, created at the end of the 12th century by its most obsessive builder, King Jayavarman VII. In and around its walls lived at least a million people, making it one of the most important cities in the world. Naturally, the city gates were grand. Each had its own tower and triumphal approach, flanked by figures of demons. But only this southern approach is in anything like its original state now. "The statues are being pillaged," explains Kim, gloomily. "The demon heads are being stolen. You can get thousands of dollars for them."


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 Angkor." What he means is that Cambodian monks managed to keep the memory of Angkor alive during the long centuries after its abandonment, right up to the time of its "discovery" by the French naturalist Henri Mouhot in 1860. Trees may have reclaimed the jungle, but the temples of Angkor never lost their power to inspire the Khmer monks. "You can try, but you'll never get rid of the monks!" he exclaims. "You can shoot them, they don't feel a thing. The French tried to stop them, the Khmer Rouge tried to exterminate them. But they are still here."


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 Angkor and its memories is a constant challenge. "When tourists stopped coming in the 1970s, they grew back again," says Kim, a familiar tension appearing around his eyes. "And while we were cutting them down again, we found lots of skulls."


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 Britain. Having been dismantled a thousand years later, in preparation for a major reconstruction, it suffered an unthinkable disaster: the pillaging of the plans. What remains is the world's biggest jigsaw puzzle.


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 Cambodia. With the benefit of hindsight, this attempt to bask in the glory of the past was a pitiful failure.


By now, the yellows of midday 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 Phnom Penh, at Pol Pot's Tuol Sleng centre (now the Museum of Genocidal Crimes), where 20,000 people were "processed" by the Khmer Rouge regime in the Seventies. It was indeed a place of bitterness. Sleng fruit contains strychnine. "I know a policeman who spends the night here on guard duty," adds Kim. "He eats the fruit. Now mosquitoes don't touch him."


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.


SURVIVAL TIPS


GETTING THERE
The easiest option is to fly to Bangkok or Singapore and take a connecting flight to either Siem Reap (for Angkor Wat), or the capital, Phnom Penh. Through discount agents, fares to Phnom Penh are available for around £680 return on Thai Airways from London Heathrow via Bangkok. To reach Siem Reap, you could combine a fare of around £500 between London and Bangkok with a flight to Siem Reap with Bangkok Air (01293 596 626, www.bangkokair.com), for about £160 return.


RED TAPE
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.


STAYING THERE
Siem Reap has many hotels and cheap guesthouses; see www.angkorhotels.org.


HEALTH
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).


SAFETY
The Foreign Office says the biggest risks are from "road traffic accidents; armed robbery after dark; landmines and unexploded ordnance in rural areas".

Saturday, February 7, 2004

The call of the wild


The call of the wild

A hundred years ago, the small Alaskan town of Nome was in the grip of prospecting fever. Jeremy Atiyah finds the biggest excitement in town these days is a dog-sled race

Published: 07 February 2004

Even by Alaskan standards, Nome is weird. It is on the American mainland (just), but you can't reach it by road. It has a mere 4,000 inhabitants. It is only a hundred miles from Siberia and unspeakably cold. Hardly anyone ever goes there. But once a year it fills up with television crews and the whole of the United States wants to see it.

Why? Because Nome is the terminus of the annual Iditarod: the 1,000-mile dog-sled race from Anchorage that grips the nation each March.

I'm more interested in the off-season. That's why I am boarding a flight to Nome in mid-winter - and I get the feeling that I am leaving the US and heading for a foreign country. Suddenly people with Asiatic features surround me. On one side, an exotic-looking woman removes a fur-trimmed coat to reveal a toddler strapped to her back with a shawl. She tells me she's a whaler. On the other side, a man tells me he has just been to a meeting in Anchorage to discuss tribal issues.

"Me," he adds, "I'm a caribou hunter. But we need to understand corporate USA or we'll be left behind."

When we land at Nome there's a gale blowing and it's minus 20C. I check in at a madhouse called the Polaris Hotel, which, like most cheap hotels in the US, doubles up as a hostel for bums. There is an empty whisky bottle blocking my toilet.

The next morning I take a stroll along the promenade in pitch darkness. It's 10am, and stars are shining from a black sky. Saloon bars line the main drag. Two gloomy natives approach me, asking if I can spare a dollar. "I'm from St Lawrence Island," says one, gloomily. "I'm from Diomede," says the other. Diomede? Ah yes, that tiny island in the middle of the Bering Strait - just three miles from Russia.
The proximity of Russia is something I am trying to get used to. Later, I'll walk to the airport to visit the office of Bering Air, the only airline currently offering local flights and sightseeing trips across the Bering Strait. I speak to a Russian woman working there, who turns out to have been born and bred in Chukotka, just across the strait.

But having made the big step to the US - I ask - wasn't she minded to travel a tiny bit further than Nome? Didn't any other place in the vastness of the North American continent take her fancy?
"Why?" she replies, puzzled. "Here I have the best of both worlds. I'm in the US, but I'm not far from home. It's perfect for me."

Come to think of it, she could even walk to Russia from Nome's beach. The Bering Sea is frozen solid at this time of year. From Nome itself the Russian coast is not visible, but from the 2,300-foot-high Cape Mountain, at Prince of Wales Cape (to the north of here), Siberia's hills loom bright and clear.
Which is not to say that walking the Bering Strait is a particularly good idea. In the middle of the strait the ice churns and buckles all winter long. Crossings between Alaska and Russia, on skis, sledges or amphibious vehicles, are perilous and rare.

And I find it hard to imagine things any other way. During the Cold War we got used to the idea of a world divided implacably down the middle by the Bering Strait. For decades barely a ship was seen here, let alone an aeroplane; and of course no umiaks or kayaks, the Innuits' own boats.

But strangely, it was not always so. Back in the late 18th century, when Captain Cook first charted these waters, the straits were busy. Indigenous peoples crossed between America and Asia as a matter of routine, using reindeer sledges in winter, boats in summer. The crossing time was not more than a single day.

After Captain Cook's voyage, it would not take long for the white man to sweep those old native trading networks away forever. Travel across the straits virtually ceased. By 1890 the Reverend Hudson Stuck could dismiss the whole Seward Peninsula as "a savage forbidding country... uninhabited and unfit for habitation; a country of naked rock and bare hillside and desolate barren valley, coursed with a perpetual icy blast."

And that might have been the end of all human interest in this part of the world, had not two Swedes and a Norwegian came prospecting for gold in 1898 and struck lucky.

Before long, it was discovered that Nome's beach contained pebbles of gold. By the time next summer had come round, thousands of amateur prospectors were stepping off steamers from Seattle carrying shovels. Tents lined the shore for upwards of 20 miles. In the wake of the prospectors, Innuits arrived selling knick-knacks and carved mammoth tusks. Within two years, Nome had become the largest town in Alaska, with shops, schools, restaurants, hotels, brothels and dentists.

The only losers in the story were the Russians, who, 30 years before, had sold Alaska to the US for a
pittance: if only they had known that gold lay in the sands right across the water from their own Siberian mainland! Meanwhile, in Nome, frontier necessities were soon making way for Victorian opulence. Those in search of a night out could find card parties, gambling halls and even music recitals. Characters as diverse as Jack London, Roald Amundsen and Wyatt Earp were seen in town.
None of this was to last. By 1920, the fun had died down, never to return. "Nome in 1920 was a fading gold camp," wrote one young adventurer; "it had shrunk to a few hundred die-hards. False-fronted saloons, once staffed with gamblers and painted ladies, calling newly-rich prospectors in off the street, now stood empty and forlorn."

In 2003, I confess that Nome seems as dead as a doornail. The treeless tundra, which begins a few minutes from the town centre, is colourless and frozen solid. At these latitudes - across Alaska, Canada and Siberia - the scenery is the same all the way round the globe. Only in the brief summer and even briefer autumn, will it blaze into colour. Then, for a month, blueberries, cranberries, salmonberries, blackberries and rosehips will suddenly be available by the bucket-load.

I take a breakfast of hot milk and waffles with a couple of hunters. "You're a tourist here?" one says, peering in suspicion. "In mid-winter?" He is wearing a red checked shirt that bulges tight. "For us Nome is a big city," he goes on. "We come here to stock up on food." They live out on the tundra somewhere and are in town for the weekend. They belong to that group of Americans for whom Alaska represents the final frontier - the place you flee to when the rest of the US seems too crowded. Outside, they show me the antlered caribou heads in the back of their pick-up. Later I go for a leisurely lunch at the Polar Club restaurant, where I get talking to some more beardy men in checked shirts, over a reindeer burger. One tells me that he came to Nome bringing a small dredger with him about five years ago. I say: "So people still come to Nome looking for gold?"

"They sure do. There's about 15 people who come here every summer to sieve on the beach. You can make a living like that. Not a good one, but it's enough to live on."

Moments later the miners are joined by a little old man with a tufty beard. He is a practising doctor. But he turns out to be a hunter and a miner too - as most people in Nome do. They all chat awhile, in a boyish kind of way, about dredgers and hydraulic nozzles and sluice boxes and picks and shovels and bigger stuff that I can't understand. When I ask the Swiss professor if he too came to Nome with his private dredger, he looks me up and down.

"Hell, no," he says. "I employ 400 men. You looking for work?"
I mutter something about not having the right experience. "You don't need it! You just need to be able to move heavy equipment! And it's hot down there. T-shirts off."

For a minute or two, sitting in bright sunshine by the window, beside the frozen sea, I am strangely attracted by the idea of a new life as a gold-miner in Alaska.

A woman comes in and sits down. "Sometimes I just can't stand it any more, that's when I have to start drinking," she says to the doctor. She goes on, in a pleading voice: "You don't ever get depressed, do you?"

With a wag of that tufty beard, there comes the answer that she dreads most of all. "Oh yes I do, sometimes. Oh yes. My years are running out and I got too much to worry about. I don't want any drama, but it follows me around."

"Oh, but I just need drama," gasps the woman.
I seriously doubt that she'll find it in Nome.


SURVIVAL KIT


GET THERE
The lowest airfares - around £800 return - are likely to be available on Northwest Airlines from Gatwick via Minneapolis/St Paul and Anchorage.


TOURS
Try North American Highways - The Alaska Experience (01902 851138, www.northamericanhighways.co.uk)


HOTELS
At the Polaris Hotel (001 907 443 2000, polarisent.inc@gci.net),reckon on $50 (£30) a night for a single room.


MORE INFO
Nome Convention and Visitors Bureau (001 907 443 6624, www.nomealaska.org/vc)