Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Discovering Cambodia: Days of Wonder

The Joys of Temple Chasing: Part one of three posts on my recent visit to Cambodia — discovering remote temples in the jungle, and personal encounters I will never forget. 

Come with me to explore the temples of Angkor Wat with new eyes—and to visit a remote temple few visitors ever encounter.

This is a long story, with some of the best images I have published on THE STYLE SALONISTE.

I suggest that you make a nice pot of tea, pour a lovely glass of Sauvignon Blanc, or brew some very good coffee—and read on—for an emotional encounter at a ruined temple—and a happy visit to a remote country school where twelve-year-olds were teaching themselves economics.

Take time now to brew your favorite drink…or open a bottle of Champagne.

You will find some brilliant images. (I should know. I took them.) 

First let’s pay homage to Angkor Wat.

It’s the reason I went to Cambodia recently, to visit temples and understand the civilizations that thrived there from the eighth century to the twelfth century. Then it disappeared.

This highly evolved kingdom and spiritual community, a realm of fine architects and sculptors and dancers and musicians—vanished and the temples fell into the tangles of the jungle until it was discovered by Henri Mouhot, an enraptured French naturalist, in 1860.

The great temples of Angkor Wat in a fifty-square mile jungle setting—compare to the greatest temples of the Egyptians, Greeks and Romans.

And when Mouhot asked who had built these noble temples, the locals would answer, “It is the work of the King of the Angels”, and “It is the work of giants”, and “It is the work of the Leper King” or even, “They built themselves.”

Come for a close-up visit with me, and decide for yourself. 

“To form any idea of Angkor, of the city of Angkor and its many temples, it is necessary to try and imagine all of the most beautiful creations of architecture—transported into the depths of these forests in one of the most remote countries of the world. Here among the Incomparable ruins, are the only remaining signs of a lost race, whose very name, like the name of the great men, artists and rulers who created them, seems destined to remain forever hidden among the dust.” — Henri Mouhot, quoted in ‘Escape with Me’ by Osbert Sitwell, first published in 1936, reissued by Oxford University Press

Osbert Sitwell’s book, which I discovered at John Sandoe Books in London, was my essential inspiration and guide and lodestone in Cambodia.

It was written in the thirties-and it was this timeless, classic Cambodia I went to find. This was an architecture voyage of discovery, not at all a political one. 

I arrived in Cambodia and headed north to Siem Reap.

As advised by experts, I set off very early in the morning with a guide to see the main temples of Angkor Wat.

I had asked my guide to go where there are no tourists. We entered through an entrance he described as ‘secret’ and for the first half hour, there were no others. But, the difficult reality is that many tourists were soon swarming around the temples—posing, climbing, standing on altars, and generally desecrating a holy place.

I found it disconcerting.

My guide insisted, ‘wait until 12 noon and they will all go for lunch’. They did.

For two hours I had the complex almost to myself. Monks wandered around and the magic was there. I discovered the sandstone bas reliefs—rare and mysterious carvings depicting great battles, ‘churning of the sea of milk’ and other poetic myths and legends. 

I made my own pilgrimage to Angkor. But I resolved to find temples the tourists were not visiting.

With the great assistance and insight of Karin van Zyl, at that time the general manager of my wonderful hotel, La Résidence d’Angkor in Siem Reap (more on this lovely discovery next week)—I went in search of remote temples and found the tranquility and calm and peace I was searching for in Cambodia.

The following day, I set out early for Preah Khan temple, a few miles beyond Angkor, and a long-term World Monuments Fund project. Preah Kahn is a prized a world heritage site, that is slowly being restored and repaired with great finesse, accuracy and delicacy. Best of all: my guide led me to another ‘secret entrance’ and I was able to wander around alone and take these images, with no-one in sight. 

I loved being able to wander around this semi-restored temple of Preah Khan, and to ponder, consider, gaze, walk through cloisters and libraries, and find my way through the maze of inner temples and ruined doorways.

The jumble and magnitude and soaring heights and crumbled depths reminded me of Piranesi’s fantasies…except that these were all real, depicting the passing of time and centuries and civilizations. Life is short, but a passing moment, these rocks seemed to say.

Trees wrestled with the temples, and somehow both of them survived.But not the civilization that created these temples with such artistry. 

“The numerous buildings and cloisters and flights of steps, huddled together, can seem like a haphazard collection. Tree roots of huge, exaggerated size, interpose themselves between the pillars of a cloister, cracking them as easily as a giant crushes a walnut with his hand.

“Stone roofs are torn and twisted. It is difficult to picture so wild and ramshackle a confusion of animate and inanimate, of rampant green life, and the jungle all around.

“The interiors have grown dark, stained and shrouded, and the richly decorated reliefs have become endowed with a new if fortuitous power, looming in sudden bright swirls of light. Once, this was a monastery, a temple, and an inscription, said to date from the 12th century, was found among these luxuriant coils and tumblings, held in place by moss and green arms and tentacles and dust and air probably.”  — Osbert Sitwell, ‘Escape with Me, An Oriental Sketchbook’ published in 1936, and later reissued by Oxford University Press.

Sir Osbert Sitwell (1892-1969) was one of my best sources for information on classic, timeless Cambodia. He was the eldest of the three Sitwells, of the twenties literary scene, and in 1933 he set out on his Grand Tour of the Orient.

In his travels and wanderings, he writes on art, architecture, culture and history—which were the focus of my research and visit to Cambodia.

When I traveled to Cambodia recently, eight decades later, my eyes were also in search of beauty, poetic creativity, escapism, and the glories of a long-ago civilization.

My other essential guide to Cambodia was the new Eyewitness Travel ‘Cambodia’ published by Dorling Kindersley, a London-based publisher whose books focus on architecture, art, culture, history, and the subjects I chase.

The DK guidebooks have outstanding drawings and maps and diagrams—that clearly depict and demonstrate highlights of Cambodian temples, sculpture, paintings, carvings, and details of significant buildings and locations. Highly recommended. 

I loved the temples with no tourists...and went at sunset to Banteay Sri, about twenty miles outside Siem Reap.

But I wanted an even more remote temple. 

Once again, Karin van Zyl came to the rescue, and suggested that I take a longer trip, 35 miles northeast of Siem Reap to Boeng Malea. 

There I had a memorable encounter. Come with me to see the best temple and one that very few people see. I’ll also also take you along to visit a school in the remote countryside of Cambodia. You’ll love it.

My driver navigated out through rice fields and forest, along a new road built by the World Bank (a sign announced that the World Bank had donated $650,000 to build this new road), to find the small village of Boeng Malea and its 'secret' twelfth-century temple.

Here, Cambodian farmers live in hardscrabble villages with no electricity, and make a living growing rice. It feels like 1910 in some ways, as if history has stopped.

But history has been here. Come with me.

I arrived at the thatched-hut village of Boeng Malea. There were no tour buses, only a couple of Japanese students taking photos.

I walked along a jungle path and found what I thought might be the entrance to the temple.

I stepped across a plank over a stream and could not see how to enter.

At that moment, a lovely local woman in an Apsara Foundation uniform (signifying that she was working for the authority that protects Cambodian temples) stepped forward and said quietly, “Can I help you.” It was clear I needed a guide, so I gratefully nodded.

She took my hand, and guided me along the steam, traversing a narrow path, and into a low collapsed doorway, and then into the drama and wonderment of this ruined temple.

Boeng Malea temple, built in the twelfth century, is completely unrestored. The interiors of the temples have collapsed—and it is chaotic. The sanctuary, where we entered, is piled with a jumble and staggeringly high large carved and sculpted sandstone blocks, the fallen roof, the tumbled walls all carved from blocks dragged here from nearby quarries.

Thrilling. So romantic. Dramatic. Mossy, Dark. Otherwordly. Quiet. Still. The weight of centuries is in the air.

This is what I had been looking for—to be completely alone, to see a temple I did not know existed, to stop, to gaze in wonder, to discover something for the first time. 

The early French scholars thought highly of this temple—and it is easy to see why. The carving on (fallen) lintels and pediments and walls is of a high standard. Even with the encroaching jungle, the tropical climate, eight or more centuries of tropical humidity and rain, and the silk-cotton trees and strangler figs, it is all there. 

With my uniformed guide, the quiet Madame Mai, I clambered and rock-climbed up and over the three concentric enclosures, beneath vaulted libraries, into dark mossy and damp enclosures, beneath strangling vines and leafy shrines, and along cruciform cloisters.

We would stop and gaze, breath in the mossy/stone fragrance, and then clamber and climb up over half vaults and buttressing.

Then we’d stop and look back, and look forward and upward into the branches high above.

We saw the carved devatas, the graceful dancers, their gaze serene and their sarongs flying. Lovely. 

For two hours, Madame Mai and I continued around raised columns and along balustrades. We saw the five-headed nagas, corner pavilions, and then we stopped at a raised causeway to gaze out over a central fallen axis and another small temple.

Madame Mai did not speak much English beyond, ‘Come here’, and ‘Let me help’ and ‘Look here’, but we developed a lovely fellowship, and a quiet communication and sense of adventure and truly a sense of being in a holy place.

Finally, we walked through another vestibule and out to see a stand-alone library and shrine, mostly collapsed.

We walked quietly and slowly out of the temple enclosure, and along a village pathway in the jungle.

I stopped to take some pictures, and stepped off the narrow pathway.

Suddenly, Madame Mai pulled me urgently back.

‘No, Miss Diane. Landmines,” she said firmly.

I was startled. It was the first time the subject of landmines had been raised on my Cambodian peregrinations.

I was shocked.

As we stood there, Madame Mai raised the cuff of her pants leg.

“Landmine,” she said. The lower part of her leg, below the knee, was a simple plastic prosthesis, with a very rudimentary flexible foot.

It had not been at all apparent that she had been guiding me through Boeng Malea temple, up through the steep and slippery piles of rocks and stones, with a prosthetic leg. She had never complained or halted.

I was so moved that I reached into my shoulderbag. I’d gone to the bank in Siem Reap the day before and withdrawn several hundred dollars (US dollars are the currency of Cambodia). I took them all out in a handful, held her hand, and placed them tightly into her palm. I closed her fingers around them. “Don’t tell anyone.” I said.

She smiled. “Thank you,” she said quietly, as we walked back.

She went back to work at the temple. Just then I came upon a large sign that had been erected by a German company.

965 antipersonnel landmines exploded since 1991 in this location. 679 unexploded bombs detonated here. The work of destroying and removing antipersonnel bombs in this region continues.

The evil.

Thousands of bombs…antipersonnel mines…had been laid in this calm and remote and poverty-stricken region twenty or thirty years ago. Who knows who, or why. Antipersonnel landmines. The concept is pure evil.

Madame Mai was one of the innocent victims.

The evil.

But come with me. There is much more to this story. 


When I am traveling in Asia, I always take along boxes of pencils and notebooks and other simple education supplied to give to children in local village schools. I have a private foundation, The Pencil Project, for this purpose. 

So after the visit to Boeng Malea, the driver and I headed back along the country roads to find some of the newest schools. Many of them, it is important to note, have been built by US AID, the US government fund that continues to build schools in Cambodia. 

I ventured into classrooms, and found a tousled group of youngsters in their first year, with a teacher helping them to learn to write.

In the second classroom, I encountered a remarkable group of about a dozen or so twelve-year olds. No teacher. She was evidently taking care of her own sick child—and the school could not afford a replacement.

This quiet and highly disciplined group were teaching themselves economics. 

I handed them all notepads and pencils—and stepped up to a colorful wall map hanging beside the chalk board.

“I was born here”, I said, pointing to London. “I went to school here,” I said, indicating New Zealand far down in the corner of the map. “I live here,” I said, indicating California. “Oh, California,” they said.

“And now I am here with you, in Cambodia,” I said…pointing to Cambodia, in the heart of Asia.

These children study English, so I stayed and asked them many questions.

Eventually, the driver and I headed back through the smoky darkening light to Siem Reap. 

A Meeting with Madame Mai

Madame Mai

When I returned to La Résidence d’Angkor in Siem Reap, I told the manager, Karin van Zyl, of my encounter with Madame Mai.

Karin said that on her next day off, she would go and find her and take a photo for me to publish on THE STYLE SALONISTE.

Here is Karin’s story:

“I drove out to Boeng Malea.

“Madame Mai was not home, but we met her daughter and grandsons who ran down the road to find Madame Mai where she was visiting a friend. She hastily made her way back home to meet this insistent foreigner who has been there twice, looking for her.

“She smiled a broad smile, her eyes closing as the smile lit up her face, she hugged me in her skinny arms and I could feel her ribs through her clothing. “ I tried to explain that I was sent by a very good friend, a journalist from America who met her on her visit to Boeng Melea and who would like to have her photograph.

“I am not sure how much she understood of all of this, but she looked so happy that I was there. I tried to explain that I would like to take some photos of her in her uniform at the temple. The harder I tried, the less she understood, so I gave up on the idea of getting her into uniform on her day off.

“Her grandsons wanted to be in the photographs and specially put pants on for the occasion (they were naked from the waist down when I arrived!)

“I made a bit of conversation, left her with some money for her and her family and made my way back to the temple on my bicycle, to the delight of the children around me. By the time I got back to the temple it was almost lunchtime and I had the temple almost all to myself. I could just hear the sound of laughter from the temple kids who were skipping rope in the shade of the large trees inside the temple. What a life.

“It was a special treat for me to meet Madame Mai. I wish I could get her into her Apsara Foundation work uniform for the pictures, but no such luck.” 

Madame Mai with her grandchildren.

Thank you so much, Karin. (A note, Karin is now the manager of Ubud Hanging Gardens in Bali. Be sure to visit her and say hello.) 

Karin van Zyl

Next week: I take you with me to visit and experience La Residence d’Angkor in Siem Reap, my wonderful retreat in Cambodia. Come along. 

All Cambodian temple photography by Diane Dorrans Saeks. No images may be used without written permission of the photographer.

Portrait of Madame Mai, my guide in Boeng Malea, and a member of the Apsara Foundation, was taken by Karin van Zyl, and used here with Karin’s kind permission. Thank you, Karin.