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The Call of Angkor Wat

Rosslyn Beeby: Journalist & Reporter

It’s the world’s biggest religious monument – a majestically grand architectural masterpiece that’s the spiritual heart and soul of Cambodia. The first glimpse of Angkor Wat, with its ornately carved sandstone towers soaring above the rainforest and mirrored in the water of the vast surrounding moat, is overpowering.

No guide book or television documentary can adequately prepare a visitor for the mammoth scale and heart-pounding spectacular beauty of these impressive ruins of the ancient Angkor empire.

The vast galleries of elaborately carved bas-reliefs are mesmerising in their minute and often humorous attention to detail.

There are military parades with elaborately decorated elephants and horses, battles between warring Hindu gods with Hanuman’s mythic monkey army carvorting across metres of carved sandstone. Comic scenes show Khmer people cooking, shopping at the markets, dancing, drinking and gambling.

A 600m panel depicts, in gruesome detail, the 32 levels of hell with the various tortures inflicted on the wicked.  There’s even a jail break, with an elephant pulling apart rocks to free an imprisoned princess.

Described as “a vast tapestry in stone” and “one of the loveliest pieces of architecture in the world” by Henri Mouhot, a French botanist who stumbled across the Angkor ruins during a field expedition in 1859, the temple buildings and grounds cover a massive area of almost 200ha, defined by a precisely engineered 190m wide moat.

“It is grander than anything left to us by Greece or Rome,” wrote Mouhot, whose detailed sketches and evocative descriptions of Angkor Wat sparked a succession of archaeological expeditions.

Built by King Suryavarman II – whose 12th century Khmer empire extended across Laos, Vietnam and Thailand – as a temple and funerary monument dedicated to the god Vishnu, Angkor Wat was designed to mirror Hindu cosmology.

The moat was the outer ocean of the universe, the five towers were the peaks of the holy Mount Meru and the succession of walkways, terraces and steeply angled stairways with their statues of Hindu gods symbolised the effort needed to ascend to spiritual heights.

They were stairways to heaven, their steepness designed to slow progress to a stately ceremonial pace. It was never meant to be an easy scamper up to the symbolic abode of the gods. But now, thousands of tourists swarm up the stairs every day, some wearing T-shirts emblazoned with the slogan “I made it to the top at Angkor Wat,”

The ancient temple has become a must see and must climb- mass tourism destination. Cheap airfares and direct flights from Bangkok to Siem Reap have made it an easily accessible day trip.

Sunrise at Angkor Wat attracts over 1000 tourist every morning, jostling on the paved entrance causeway for the best angle to film the sunrise reflected in the moat.

Hollywood actress Angelina Jolie also played a significant role in putting Angkor Wat on the international tourism map. The luscious-lipped actress played action archaeologist Lara Croft in the film Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, which was filmed at Angkor Wat and nearby Angkor Thom.

Both temples are protected under international law as World Heritage sites, and the United Nations  voiced concerned that filming could cause “irreparable damage to the monuments”.

UNESCO’s deputy director for culture urged Cambodian government officials not to give Paramount Pictures permission to use the ruins as a film location. Arguing that the association of Angkor Wat with a film about archeological pillaging was inappropriate.

But Paramount got permission – on the condition that a fireworks scene was not shot on site – and paid $10,000 a day to film there.

“Tourism is going to go crazy,” the author of the Lonely Planet Cambodia guide, Nick Lord, told Asiaweek magazine.

“People who see the film are going to look at Cambodia and know it’s a real place and will want to come here. They’ll say: “If Hollywood can go, then I can go”.

Angkor Wat is one of more than 100 religious monuments scattered over a 300sqkm area in northern Cambodia.

Angkor Thom, with its beautifully carved Terrace of the Elephant (a 330m long platform with bas-relief carvings of elephants, lions and other animals), was built as the new capital by Angkor’s greatest king Jayavarman VII, who was a Buddhist. Its massive 20m high gates, and causeways flanked by giant statues of gods and demons, also draw crowds of tourists.

The Bayon temple, with its looming 216 smiling stone faces of the Buddha, has become a tourist postcard icon. Further down the road, queues form to view the pink sandstone ruins of Banteay Srei, with their delicate carving of Hindu deities.

Mass tourism has yet to discover the early Rolous temples, which are a bumpy 15km drive jfrom Siem Reap, at the top of a flight of steep stairs cut into the side of a hill. Not as easily accessible as the small group of temples on the signposted Angkor Tourism circuit, the Rolous ruins date from the 8th century are one of the earliest example s of Khmer architecture. Understandably, the World Heritage authorities and the Cambodian Government are more than a little uneasy at this steadily increasing stream of foreign tourists thronging to see the Angkor temples.

But the question of controlling and limiting tourism is a tricky one for Cambodia – one of the poorest nations in Asia, and still struggling to recover from a devastating civil war.

The “archaeological parks of Angkor, Rolous and Banteay Srei” were added to the World Heritage list in 1992. The United Nations noted that the monuments had suffered from “drastic vegetational invasion, and there was some damage from military operations, largely confined to bulled holes” a legacy from the Kampuchean civil war. But the UN warned that “one of the most serious potential threats” to the heritage values of the monuments world come from an anticipated tourism boom.

It recommended buffer zones to protect the monuments, improved security staffing of sites and constraints to prevent tourist hotels and restaurants from being built too close to the temples.

In 1998, an estimated 40,000 foreign tourists visited the Angkor temples. The following year the number doubled to 83,000 and by 2003 it had exceeded one million. It’s a lot of foot traffic.

A recent research paper by the University of Brussels suggests that walking and body heat contribute to premature weathering of historic monuments.

“An individual walking slowly [3.2km per hour] in an environment of 15C develops a heat power around 200watts, freeing 100g of water vapour and 100g of carbon dioxide,” it reported.

The World Monument Fund and Cambodian authorities are examining ways to address visitor impact, including restricting or banning climbing the stairs of Angkor Wat’s inner temple complex, and cordoning galleries to prevent tourists touching the carvings.  There’s a general agreement that there’s a need to encourage responsible and sustainable tourism that will still bring economic benefits.

Tourism has become one of the strongest sectors of Cambodia’s economy but there is also a strong desire to protect the country’s national heritage.

Cambodia’s department of culture wants to preserve Angkor as “a living site with its customs” – which means emphasising the spiritual heritage of the site to foreign visitors.

As a noisy group of tourists in bright pink T-shirts, jostling and leaning casually against statues as they pose for a team shot on Angkor Wat’s ceremonial stairway, a French visitor watching the scene from the terrace below made a pertinent comment.

“They wouldn’t allow that in the Vatican,” she said.

A Sacred place where you tread quietly, speak softly

 “When we visit Angkor Wat tomorrow for sunrise can I please ask you to do this one thing – can you please wear long,” says our Khmer guide Soung Vireak.

“Long sleeves, long trousers or long skirt. I would be very happy if you do this as it will show respect for our culture.”

It’s a perfectly reasonable and practical request. “Wearing long” is going to diminish our chances of getting sunburnt while exploring the temples in searing tropical heat. It also provides protection from mosquitoes breeding in the waters of the surrounding moat. The Angkor temples are holy places for the Khmer people, and shrines with offerings of flowers, religious icons and incense are dotted among the ruins. Tread quietly, speak softly, ask permission to take photographs and remove shoes and hats before stepping inside a shrine.

There are more than 100 temples, so give up any notion that the grandeur of Angkor can be “done” in a day. Sacriliege! The ancient temples will reward the patient, unhurried traveler who invests their time wisely (study up before your trip and pick the sites you want to see) and hires a local Khmer guide. Racing around the tourist circuit with a dog-eared guidebook is no substitute for the local knowledge a government trained cultural guide can impart.

The fee is modest (around $US20) and to be registered with the Apsara Authority (the government conservation authority that manages tourist access to the temples). The guides must pass a tough series of examinations on Khmer history. They know their stuff.

Vireak astutely advised us how to beat the tourist hordes (he could recite bus arrival and departures like tide times) and also pointed us toward some of the treasures that the guide books missed.

At Ta Prohm, picking our way cautiously over the massive stone blocks scattered around the ruins, he pointed to a stone arch decorated with carvings of exotic animals. Halfway up to arch was an animal that could only be a stegosaurus. Was it carved from memory? Copied from ancient drawings? Or did the odd stegosaurus persist for centuries in the wetlands around the Tonle Sap? He also recommended staying on at Angkor Wat in the late afternoon as most tourists headed back to their hotels for cocktails by the hotel pool or a foot massage.

His explanation of the various deities depicted in the massive carved gallery depicting the Hindu legend of the Churning of the Sea of Milk was a highpoint.

Take your time, support Khmer culture and local knowledge and the temples of Angkor will yield up some of their more cherished secrets. You’ll also be supporting sustainable tourism by supporting Cambodia’s conservation authorities and their “new generation” of Khmer specialists.

Rosslyn Beeby travelled to Angkor Wat as a guest of World Expeditions in November 2005.

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