The late afternoon sunshine bathes the fifty-four gothic towers of the Bayon temple in a gentle warm light. The sun’s slow progressive setting casts deep shadows on the two hundred and sixteen large faces of Avalokitesharva, ” the Lord who looks down”, carved on each of the four facets of every tower.
Each face serene, peaceful and representing enlightenment is a replica of the other and is said to bear a resemblance to King Jayavarman VII who commissioned and built this, his official state temple, sometime in the late twelfth or early thirteenth century.
Set in the heart of Angkor Thom, the last great capital of the Khymer empire, the Bayon is decorated with bas relief, incorporating over eleven thousand figures depicting daily life in twelfth and thirteenth century Cambodia. The Bayon is also the last temple I visit in a three-day orgy of temple-trotting and tourist-dodging. It is also my favourite of the temples I manage to visit and a worthy culmination of a daily sunrise-to-sunset exploration of Angkor’s temples.
Tuk-tuk’s, taxis, mini-vans, bicycles and tourist busses move continuously like blood in the arteries between Siem Reap and the Angkor Temples. In a constant ebb and flow of coming and going, the Khmer empire that once ruled greater Cambodia lives on in millions of digital photographs, scribbled journals and ticked-off bucket lists.
The Angkor temples are the skeletal remains, bones cleared of the surrounding jungle, of the Khmer empire that waged war with, variously, China, Siam, Mongolia and Vietnam, an empire that came into being with a declaration of independence from Javanese rule in 802 and faded away in 1432.
Nothing of the city of over a million inhabitants, at a time when London could boast fifty thousand, remains. For it was only the temples that were built from stone; the rest mere wooden structures as only the Gods had the right to dwell in structures of brick or stone.
Born of an adoption of Indian culture and religion introduced by Indian traders who plied their trade from across the bay of Bengal, Angkor stands testimony to a blend of Hindu, Buddhist and Animist cultures.
The centre of the great Khmer empire, Angkor is a reminder of the wars that waged, the God-Kings that ruled and the never-ending story and cycle of conflict and culture-change in Indo-China, the Indo-China that was, then, at the confluence of the great Indian and Chinese civilizations.
Earlier on that third day, in the pre-dawn half light I huddled with hundreds of tourists before the lotus-filled pond in front of the inner entrance to Angkor Wat, awaiting the sunrise and the classic commercial image of Angkor Wat. As if prearranged, hundreds of shutters clicked as the sun rose shyly like some child in a school play in front of its parents. Clickety-click, clickety-click, another thousand images captured, another dawn done and the tourists moved on; most back to their busses, the remainder to the temple.
I sat by the now-abandoned pond a while, emotionless and feeling a little empty, and considered deleting the photos I took feeling my images mere “snapshots as souvenirs” (Susan Sontag – On Photography).
The architectural, historical, religious and cultural significance of the Angkor temples is overwhelming and deeply impressive but, for me, the delightful take-away from my visit is of the vibrant, entrepreneurial and amazing Cambodians that earn their living from the thousands of temple-trekking tourists.
Perhaps because of the more recent past, Cambodians seem industrious and of a sunny disposition. They laugh and smile easily and float on an air of humorous irony.
At the many restaurants that line the temple entrances and exits, owners compete light-heartedly with each other for tourist business . Young children and teenagers sell souvenirs in their sing-song accented English: “only one dollar” or “hello sir, two for one dollar”. It’s a pleasure being harassed to buy. For every smart answer I muster they have twenty or more ripostes. They laugh heartily as I stumble in search of something, anything, to better their sales pitch so I give up and laugh too. And I watch in amazement as the young children switch from English to Italian or French and even Japanese and Korean; testimony to the speed at which they learn and the mix of tourists that visit.
Mr Bun Thoeun, or “Bean” as he prefers to be called, is our tuk-tuk driver, unofficial guide and general fixer. Bean knows the temples intimately, their layout and history. With dates, names, kings and history at his fingertips he epitomizes the new-age entrepreneur that Cambodia is creating. Monitoring two mobile phones, dealing, while he drives us around “Bean” is a non-stop bundle of talkative energy. Slight of build, wearing a Michael Jackson hat and well-dressed in a modern tailored shirt paired with stove-pipe jeans “Bean” displays all the characteristics of a child born in the year of the monkey. He is mischievous, humourous and great fun. Yet he is fiercely independent, loves his tuk-tuk and is proud of his life and the country he lives in.
Originally from Battembang, “Bean” moved to Siem Reap at the request of the owners of the Royal Hotel there, in order to service their clients who move on to Siem Reap. At first he rented a tuk-tuk, funded by the hotel owners, until he could afford to buy his own second-hand one. These days, he’s “freelance” but still first choice for Royal Hotel guests.
Three days pass rapidly in a blitzkrieg of temple visits – climbing stairs, peering at carvings, marveling at the jungle’s slow-creep swallowing of Ta Prohm temple, seeing the restorations, resisting the child vendors, eating local dishes, chatting non-stop with “Bean” and avoiding the camera-toting tourists that pose and click and move on from temple to temple to temple …
Tourists, tourism … it is Siem Reap’s nutrition, the local entrepreneurs’ lifeblood and hard currency for Cambodia’s coffers whether the government or the vendors. I’m happy to have visited, happier to have paid for local (unreported and untaxed) goods and services and delighted (for now) that the world has discovered Cambodia’s temples