A N G K O R, C A M B O D I A in 1959
After being the complete tourist in Bangkok, rushing from temple to temple and visiting all the places of interest which my guidebook described to me, I then decided to be a tourist in Cambodia and visit the ancient ruins of Angkor.
I flew down to Siem Reap in a Royal Cambodian Airlines DC3 aircraft. They used to operate a daily service departing Bangkok at 8am and returning to Siem Reap at 6pm. With my health documents and my Cambodia visa up-to-date, and the knowledge that the best place to secure Cambodian currency was at the hotel in Siem Reap, I set off. My flight down was uncomfortable; the aircraft was utilitarian inside, cold and draughty. The stewardess spent most of her time manicuring her nails but did find time to present us with an impressive amount of forms for completion prior to our arrival.
On arrival at Siem Reap, a tiny grass strip of a runway, what it lacked in size it certainly made up by its officialdom. Customs, Health and Immigration authorities in their impressive uniforms, covered in gold braid, were swarming everywhere and very busy with their rubber stamps.
A Volkswagen transported us from the airport to the Grand Hotel of Reap, a distance of about 10 miles.
The Grand Hotel is a barrack-like pile. The management were both friendly and helpful and having changed some money, I then arranged my tour for the day. As my time was limited, I decided to visit ANGKOR THOM in the morning and Angkor Wat in the afternoon.
From the hotel terrace, I could see, about five miles away, five lotus-shaped towers of ANGKOR WAT rising like great black rocks above a sea of forest and I experienced a preliminary thrill of expectation at the thought of what lay ahead for me.
When did this incredible civilisation all start? Well, it is a story that began during the first six centuries of the Christian era; when Indian merchants sailed across the sea to the shores of South-East Asia. These Indian adventurers of ancient times opened up a really glorious period in history and civilisations appeared in Ceylon, Java and the greatest of them all, ANGKOR in CAMBODIA.
The Khmer Kings chose this Provence of Siem Reap to build their capital as it was in this area that the land was fertile, criss-crossed with streams that never dried up, a lake close by abundant in fish, forests rich in precious species, sandstone quarries and iron mines - in fact all the elements favourable to human settlement.
For the next six centuries, as one kind followed another, the place was enriched with temple after temple and over a hundred sanctuaries and monuments were built.
The causeway we entered by was flanked on either side by a great stone of gods holding the 'naga' (snake) in their hands. The actual archway into the city was very narrow and our car only just made it. The archway was very high, the reason for this was because in the olden days elephants passed through and on their backs sat the princes, with slaves holding parasols over their heads.
The area within these walls was enormous and our guide told us it could have housed the whole of ancient Rome!
One of the most amazing edifices in stone I looked over was the BAYON. This temple looked rather like a pyramid and was built up in three stages with masses of closely clustered towers all carved out in stone and hardly an inch of any of the stones that didn't have some form of sculpture. These were the 'bas-reliefs’ depicting contemporary Khmer life. The whole of the Bayon is rather overpowering and more like a colossal exhibition of sculpture than a work of architecture.
It is said that King Jayavarman VII, who built Angkor Thom, had a tremendous megalomaniac streak and the Bayon and other temples he built inside Angkor Thom have many stone figures and faces which are images of him! The construction of the Bayon was fundamentally poor and a number of its towers have crumbled, and had the French not arrived when they did, we may not have the Bayon today.
It was while I was clambering around this edifice that a slight diversion occurred. An elderly American lady sight-seeing with me, fainted, brought on no doubt by the intense heat and humidity, made worse by the close proximity of the jungle. We got her into a car which soon revived her and decided to all return to the hotel in need of a cool drink and lunch!
AFTER LUNCH I HEADED FOR ANGKOR WAT
Angkor Wat is not only the finest, but also the best preserved of Khmer monuments. It was built in the first half of the 12th century and is said to be the largest religious building ever constructed by man. Angkor Wat has a suggestion of austerity about its simply massive design, unlike the Bayon at Angkor Thom with its over-done sculptures of human faces; there is little of this here.
A broad moat encloses Angkor Wat and a wide stone causeway crosses this to reach the main entrance.
One of the most fascinating things I saw at Angkor Wat was in one of its cloisters. A vast frieze of pictorial carvings covering a wall reaching about eight feet high and stretching for more than half a mile like an immense tapestry wrought in stone.
Today, close to Angkor Wat, there is a small, new building which houses some Buddhist monks and as I wandered round the cloisters, I could see them in prayer, dressed in their saffron robes with their heads shaven, just the same as those monks of seven centuries ago. But apart from those few monks, I was the only person there that afternoon, dripping in perspiration, an alien invader.
And so a day of fierce tropical heat drew to a close and not a little weary. After a quick shower at the hotel, I caught the plane for Bangkok.