This article first appeared in the Singapore Straits Times in 2001.
One of the world’s greatest architectural achievements is fewer than two hours by air from Singapore.
The Angkor temple ruins, near Siem Reap in Cambodia, are again casting their spell upon the world, after some 30 years of neglect and isolation.
There is a common misconception that these ruins cover just one temple complex, Angkor Wat. Indeed it is the best preserved of them all.
But in reality, Angkor encompasses hundreds of temple sites, spread over 300 sq km. Unfortunately, only fewer than 50 are easy for travellers to get to from Siem Reap, the springboard to the area.
These stone monuments were built mainly between the 9th and 13th centuries by Khmer kings, who made Angkor their capital.
Kymer was the ancient name for Cambodia. At its zenith in the 12th century, the empire extended as far as parts of Indochina, Thailand and even the Peninsular Malaysia.
Their architectural styles of the temples are largely Hindu and Buddhist inspired, with an unmistakable Kymer stamp on them.
Their exquisite statues, carvings and bas-reliefs often depict motifs from epic Hindu legends like Ramayana, the life and teachings of Buddha or the memorable battle scenes celebrating Khmer victories over others.
Nobody knows who constructed these ingenious and magnificent edifices because the architects and artisans did not carve their names on the stones.
With the waning of the Khmer Empire in the 15th century, Angkor was abandoned, left to the ravages of nature and encroaching jungles and finally forgotten.
The only existing ancient written record about Angkor was left by a Chinese diplomat who lived there in the year 1296 and wrote a book.
It was not until the 19th century that a French priest, Father C M Bouillevaux, visited the temples and wrote a book on them.
Inspired by this book, naturalist H Mouhout visited there too. He aroused European curiosity and excitement through his writings and photographs. Mouhout was so stunned by Angkor’s grandeur and artistic excellence that he proclaimed that not even ancient Greece or Rome had any monument which equalled the best there.
Although most of the sites are within 10 km of the centrally located Angkor hotel in Siem Reap, a coach trip took up to an hour to get to them because of the appalling state of the roads.
A knowledgeable guide suggested viewing the choicest temples according to their dates of founding to better appreciate their differing architectural features. Although we spent only 4 days there, we managed to explore 12 monuments at our own pace and gained a good insight into their quintessential characteristics.
Four of these will always remain imprinted in my memory: Angkor wat, Bayon, Banteay Srei and Ta Prohm. The first glimpse of Angkor Wat took my breath away. It is gargantuan and complex, and exudes an air of majesty, mystery and spirituality. No other edifices could surpass its perfect proportions, harmony, fine statues and bas-reliefs. Its 5 towers – the central one measuring 213 m – can be scaled by narrow and uneven steps. At the top, one’s efforts are rewarded by a spectacular vista of the verdant padi fields and lush jungles, with the other scattered ruins right beneath one’s feet. Seeing Angkor Wat at sunset, after a light shower, accentuated its serenity and allure. It was a calming experience and made me feel completely at peace with myself.
Bayon provides a striking contrast to Angkor Wat. It has fantastically shaped towers, which appear flamboyantly vibrant and sumptuous and awe-inspiring.
The compact but sublimely beautiful Banteay Srei is like a boutique hotel, compared with the much larger and more glamorous luxury hotels which would represent the public image of the other more richly endowed Angkor temples. Situated about 25 km from Angkor Wat, it was infested with Khmer Rouge guerrillas as recently as 1996.
Meanwhile, Ta Prohm is surrounded by dense jungles, and most of its structures had either fallen or have been wrapped around by fig and Banyan trees. The spectacle was awesome.
But a depressing note was struck upon seeing more than 100 headless statues and mutilated wall carvings at all the sites. The Khmer relics are much sought after and very high prices are paid for these stolen pieces.
Is it safe for Singaporeans to visit Angkor? The answer is yes, provided they stick strictly to the well-trodden paths at the ruins that have been cleared of the land mines, which are a grim reminder of the bloody civil war which ended only a few years ago.
When facing the eerie and surrealistic scenes of the death throes of walls and stones in the choking embrace of gigantic roots, one is reminded sadly of the transient nature of the great civilisations of the world.
- There are regular scheduled flights from Singapore to Siem Reap.
- The cooler months between December and February are the ideal time to go, though there will be many tourists.
- The Cambodians are truly friendly, warm and helpful to visitors.
Lam Pin Foo