#23 From the sublime......

Sent: Saturday, February 09, 2002 8:53 AM

In the real world we are in Bali, but in this world we are on our way from Laos to Cambodia. If you haven't written recently it'd be great to hear what's going on at your end......... Us x

You're a braver man than I Gungadin! So spake the look in the eyes of a number of people when they heard that we were flying from Laos to Cambodia on Lao Aviation whose standing in the global league table of aviation safety is just below Trotter Airways (Peckham). Vientiane airport is a shiny new prelude to a real old Fokker of a plane. As we straggle into the air I expect the roar of the engines to subside but the racket continues at a pitch that requires loud shouting if you want to communicate.

The entertainment really starts on the descent when the air-con starts to pump out what looks like dry ice as the external temperature rises. For 20 minutes it is like we are in the middle of a cheesy rock video as wet mist drifts around above our heads before condensing into cold fat drops which drop onto us from the luggage racks. Petar and Nichola are sat a few rows behind us and Nichola, a chain smoking nervous flyer looks like a woman in double jeopardy. Despite the roaring engine noise I'm sure that I hear a collective sigh of relief as the wheels touch the tarmac in Siem Reap, Cambodia.

As we enter the terminal 6 olive green ovals wobble like Weebles behind a high veneer counter polished to a shine by constant use. Occasionally one of the olive ovals swivels upwards to reveal the round stern face of a Cambodian Immigration officer glowering beneath the polished badge on the front of his cap. These six guys appear to be intent on keeping the gold braid factory running at maximum capacity there is so much of the stuff on their shoulders that it seems certain that they will have trouble standing up. Stern Man No.1 relieves you of your passport and Visa application and dismisses you with a cursory wave of his hand. Your passport then passes along a production line of Stern Men No.s 2-6 who each perform a different function. From what I can gather Stern Man No.3 is in charge of perusing, a responsibility he seems to take very seriously. Eventually Stern Man No.6 holds up a Passport showing your embarrassing photo to the world and you step forward give him $20 and scurry off to find your luggage.

We share a cab into Siem Reap with Petar and Nchola. The 7km journey is completed at a maximum speed of 12mph. It is as though the idea of a slow moving production line has been applied universally to everything from Immigration to traffic movements.

Driving in Cambodia proves to be the slowest, most difficult and most dangerous road traffic experience of the entire trip thusfar. It is easy to see why speeds are so low, turn off any major road and you are immediately faced with a rutted dirt track, days later in Phnom Penh our 15km ride out to the Killing Fields is entirely on unpaved, deeply pock marked roads. The danger arises from the way in which the Cambodians have adapted to the very low average speed. There are no rules, none, no giving way, no discipline about which side of the road to drive on, the closest they get to a rule is a red traffic light which they seem to regard as a mild suggestion or a gentle request to maybe think about stopping.

Imagine a busy intersection of two roads. Cambodia drives on the right. Traffic on Road 1 wanting to turn left on to Road 2 may do 1 of two things: a driver may peel out of his carriageway some 30 metres before the junction and simply set off on a long diagonal toward the turn he wants to make. He will do this despite the heavy oncoming traffic into the midst of which he slowly, deliberately drives, head-on. Alternatively, if a gap in the traffic arrives he may swing over from the right hand side of the road into the left hand gutter and simply drive the wrong way up the street to reach the junction. Imagine these maneuvers repeated from every conceivable direction. No-one stops, ever, stopping is viewed as abject failure so everyone just pushes slowly forwards at all times. It is really scary and we are lucky to escape from our 3 days moped hire in Phnom Penh having fallen off only once going at 2kph and with only a couple of grazes to show for it.

The inflationary effect of appearing in a Lonely Planet guidebook is made very plain on our arrival in Siem Reap as we are offered a small room without bath at Smiley Guest House for $5 a night and go just round the corner and find a huge room with bath for $4 a night at the Best Friend Guest House.

The reputation of the temples of Angkor has been ringing in our ears for weeks now and we drift off to sleep in the hot and humid night wondering if the hype will prove accurate. The Temples of Angkor are an expensive place to visit. One day tickets cost $20, 2/3 days $40 and 7 days $60 on top of which you need transport around the site (minimum $5 per person per day) and if you want a guide then that will cost a further $20 to $30 per day. But the costs become immaterial within minutes of immersing ourselves in our first temple.

Between 800 and 1200AD the Khmer empire and civilization was at the height of its' reach, power, wealth and opulence. Successive rulers built ever more fantastical temples on the flat plains of Angkor. Following the empire's decline and fall the temples stood unheeded for many hundreds of years and the jungle progressively reclaimed them. Since their 'discovery' by Europeans in the late 19th century the temples have been reclaimed from the jungle and restored using a methodology invented in the late 1920's called anastylosis which aims to use the original materials and methods whenever possible.

Early on our second morning we climb aboard Mr Moul's Moto. Most people hire a motorbike per person and spend the day as pillion passengers but we have gone for a little 2 person carriage pulled behind a moped which means extra comfort, less speed and the appearance of a modern pony and trap pulled by the moped of knowledgeable and friendly Mr Moul.

We start at Angkor Thom and I vividly recall the ache in the pit of my stomach as I struggled to take in the stupefying scale of the 850 year old fortress town. The 8m high perimeter wall runs for 12km inside a 100 metre wide moat and there are four gates at the cardinal points. We approach the South Gate and come face to face with 2 stone cobras on either side of the bridge over the moat rearing up their massive hooded heads ready to strike. Each of the cobras is being pulled by 54 statues, gods on the left hand side of the bridge over the moat, demons on the right, a motif from the story of the Churning of the Ocean of Milk told in a lavish bas-relief at Angkor Wat.

Inside the wall we drive along a road, as straight as a die through a forest of tall slender trees. After nearly 2km we reach the Bayon which sits at the exact centre of Angkor Thom. All of the big temples follow the same principles, the most important of which is that of the Temple Mountain. At the centre of each temple there is a stone representation of the mythical Mount Meru, typically a highly adorned, steeply-sided step pyramid with a small sanctuary on top.

From a distance the Bayon looks like nothing more than an unkempt jumble of stones, all its' detail dissolved into piles of rubble. As we move closer form starts to appear out of the rubble but before entering the temple precincts we have our first look at some bas-relief carvings. Bas-relief is one of those words that I hardly know how to pronounce, I certainly didn't know before I got here what it meant. The entire periphery wall of the temple, a square with sides of 80 metres is covered in panel after panel of bas-relief carving, hugely detailed images carved directly into the hard sandstone leaving the images raised a centimetre or so above the background. Focussing on one small section might offer up a battlescene where cavalry on elephants confront hundreds of footsoldiers, all beuatifully carved with exquisite proportions and perspective. It is only possible to take in the carving at a distance of about 1 metre so great is the level of detail, but as I step back my senses reel as the carvings stretch away into the distance to the left and right.

Entering into the temple grounds through a large stone gateway the symmetry assaults the senses despite the huge piles of boulders that lay strewn randomly across the floor. Very steep steps lead upwards from level to level. A typical stair is only six inches wide and climbs a foot which makes for some fairly nervous clambering, especially when you reach heights of over 40 metres.

The floor plan is square with each level smaller than the last. Corners are marked by towers, 54 in all, with tops shaped like pineapples and wherever you stand several identical large stone faces stare at you. The face of Avalokiteshvara 2 metres high and a metre wide is repeated 200 times, each time with the same knowing half-smile playing across his features. Everywhere you look there is symmetry and symbolism, much of the symbolism still evading academic understanding.

Climbing to the third, final, circular level the towers and faces loom larger and closer and the central sanctuary sits heavily on the top of the pile, it's detailed carvings enclosing a dark, cave-like temple where incense burns at Buddah's feet. Slack-jawed at the scale of this first temple, struggling to comprehend what lies ahead we walk through some of the other buildings in Angkor Thom. Only the gods could live in buildings made of stone, mere mortals had to make do with wood. This is the biggest obstacle to imagining what would have surrounded us had we walked the same route in 1180AD. The stone buildings are all that remain giving a feeling of space that enhances their grandeur but belies the thousands of people who lived and worked in and around the temples.

We walk along the Terrace of Elephants a broad raised platform 350metres long from where the Royal household would inspect their armies before we jump back onto the moto to make our way at funereal pace to the next temple (one 100cc moped, a two seater carriage pulled behind and the combined weight of 3 adults, it's a surprise it moves at all!) > Our next stop is Ta Prohm a temple unique amongst those at Angkor because it has been left to the jungle. It is an amazing site/sight, no matter which way you spell it. Huge blocks of rubble lie strewn everywhere, frequently lying 2 or 3 blocks deep on the ground and therefore rising to heights of 3 metres. Much of the rubble consists of the collapsed remains of roofs and the tops of walls and the rubble lies amidst the remaining walls and statues which climb up to maximum heights of 5 metres. The jungle does not surround the ruins it possesses, dominates and controls them. 40 metre trees sit astride temple walls their huge roots reaching down into the ground while their trunks steeple upwards. The size of the trees amplifies the solidity of the walls on which they sit.

The temple is a dizzying maze of interconnected narrow corridors each giving out onto one or more rubble strewn courtyards. The width of the passageways and domes is restricted because the Khmer architects did not know how to construct a true arch so they were limited to the width they could achieve by stacking one stone on top of another so that two stone staircases met in the middle to form a narrow jagged arch.

The canopy dapples the sun's rays on rock which flashes from dull silver in broad sunlight, through pale and darkening greens where shadow allows the lichen to flourish. At every turn exquisite bas-relief carvings hove into view, some worn, some broken some shaded, some shining in strong sunlight. I am reminded of the buzz of excitement I used to feel as a kid when I found a fantastic new place to play, like the first time I found a way in to the quarry near our house and its' Doctor Who landscape. The rush this time isn't a return to childhood, but the excitement of finding somewhere so vast, so beautiful, so natural and so beyond my previous experiences.

Ta Prohm is unusual in bearing inscriptions that give an idea of the scale of the logistics that were required to maintain and operate it 900 years ago. We know that after completion the temple needed over 80,000 people just to keep it going, a figure which had me looking around and imagining people teeming everywhere.

On our way to Preah Khan we stop at Ta Keo which, were it anywhere else but here, would rate as a national treasure in its' own right being an imposing 900 year old temple in reasonable condition. But the laws of relativity and proximity reduce it to a minor sideshow worthy of a quick clamber up it's dauntingly steep steps and a brief circumambulation of the central sanctuary.

Preah Khan is one of the less visited major temples, or so our guidebook tells us, but its' reputed quietness seems to have drawn the crowds. A shoal of Japanese tourists straggle along the path showing no inclination to keep within hearing distance of their guide but then all turn as one, like deer at the sound of a branch cracking to look at some artifact or another. Closer study reveals that they are all wearing Secret Service style earpieces while their guide talks into a microphone. Coming soon to a major tourist attraction near you...

Each of the temples is distinctly different, at Preah Khan the central sanctuary sits in the middle of a rectangular perimeter 700m by 800m and is approached along one of four long, enclosed processional walkways which feel like long narrow cloisters as they propel you dimly towards the light and space of the central courtyards. Something that all the temples have in common is that despite their huge scale they are enclosed, inward looking spaces where innumerable similar courtyards are linked by identical narrow passageways.

The temperature drops as the late afternoon sun starts to lose it's power and we set off to Angkor Wat, the the jewel in the crown of the Temples of Angkor. It is the youngest, biggest, best preserved, best restored of all the temples.

Try and imagine the scale of what's involved from some of the measurements: The temple sits in a compound 1.5km by 1.2km surrounded by a high perimeter wall and a moat that is 190m wide. Crossing the moat on a broad sandstone bridge the temple compound is entered via a huge ceremonial gate. The temple, sitting centrally within the compound, is reached along a 475m raised stone walkway.

Even at 500m distant the temple fills my field of vision and the eye is drawn inwards and upwards as the the pineapple shaped towers of succesive stories sit symetrically below the central tower. What made the Taj Mahal so amazing was the way in which the sublime grace of the building at a distance was only marginally eroded as you drew closer. At Angkor Wat something altogether more striking occurs for the beautiful cohesion which strikes me 500m away is enhanced by layer after layer of detail which becomes apparent as I draw closer.

Around the outer wall of the temple are seemingly unending panels of vividly detailed bas-relief. Just in case 'seemingly unending' sounds like hyperbole, the carvings, each hugely detailed metre of which offers another chapter in one of many stories or legends, stretch around a rectangle which is 800m x 1025m. We manage to look at only the tiniest portion before entering the temple itself.

Every aspect of the design of Angkor Wat is thought to be symbolic: The dimensions of the temple have the same proportional relationship as the four ages of Yuga in ancient Hindu philosophy and the central sanctuary is another symbolic representation of Mount Meru surrounded by smaller peaks.

The second and third tiers of the temple are very similar in layout. Climbing to the top of a very steep staircase four square pools surround the central tower. The pools (which look like deep, empty, square stone swimming pools) are surrounded and separated by stone cloisters. After the steep climb it is amazing to find so much space and detail at the second storey, a feeling amplified when the layout is repeated on a slightly smaller scale on the third storey.

From the third level the central tower clibs a further 31m, standing a total of 55m above the ground. Looking back from the highest point my eye is drawn back along the raised stone walkway to the gate through which we entered where the people look like inconsequential ants and from where the temple, in contrast, looks huge.

As the sun starts to sink toward the horizon we sit on the grass halfway between the temple and the entrance gate and watch the sun's rays paint the grey temple stones with a progressively reddening wash which leaves the stones glowing like hot ingots pulled out of the fire. Not a lot is said as we ride in the moto back from the temples to Siem Reap mainly because of the inadequacy of words in describing what we have seen and felt.

After a long talk we decide not to go back to the temples for a second day, to do so will cost us a total of $50 and we just can't justify that much out of our budget, and anyway having waited over 900 years for our first visit the Temple's seem likely to hang around a few more for us to return for a second look.

When we were in Thailand I read a newspaper article about the 500% increase in visitor numbers that is predicted for Siem Reap over the next five years and it's true that the whole of the town is one big building site. But while the road in from the airport is smooth enough (especially at 12mph) the road out to the boat pier is as rutted and dusty a cart track as we've found anywhere and we foolishly think as we climb aboard the boat to Phnom Penh that the journey can only get better.

Lots of Love
The Travelling Sausages