Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Ta Prohm gets the vote

Some of the greatest travel experts in Britain are spilling the beans on their best kept travel secrets in The Observer online here. William Dalrymple chose Ta Prohm as his best kept secret - though its hardly a secret is it! Meanwhile, the Telegraph newspaper in the UK carried a story from broadcaster Mariella Frostrup who gives her tuppenceworth on Angkor Wat.

Ta Prohm
Hidden deep in a jungle overrun by parrots, cicadas and banyan trees is a magical 12th-century temple. Writer William Dalrymple journeys into the heart of medieval Cambodia.

I know nowhere more secretive, more lost-in-the-forest, or more mysteriously, darkly lovely than the Khmer temple complex of Ta Prohm, a few miles' hike into the jungle from Angkor Wat. Angkor itself is one of the great ruins of the world; but surrounded as it is now by grass and parkland and a moated lake, it feels magnificently grand, like a Cambodian Blenheim or a Khmer Castle Howard; and by necessity, given its fame, it is attended by ticket offices and little cabins selling postcards and guidebooks and fizzy drinks. Ta Prohm, by contrast, is hidden deep in the jungle, and is still wildly, magnificently, hopelessly overgrown - a Sleeping Beauty of a temple complex, tangled in a thick lattice of aerial roots and creepers.

I visited with my family last autumn during the kids' half-term, and we stayed in the King of Cambodia's old guest house there, now the understatedly stylish Amansara Hotel. Things got off to a good start when we were met at Siem Reap airfield by King Sihanouk's old pre-war Mercedes limousine which Amansara had sent to meet us. So unusually gentle, peaceful and friendly were the Cambodians we met - the smiling schoolchildren and the beautiful village women on their way to market - that my children simply refused to believe the stories I tried to tell them of the old days of the Khmer Rouge and the Killing Fields. Only when we visited the Siem Reap crocodile farm did they really begin to understand the horrors that this country so recently underwent. The Khmer Rouge had used the farm as an execution ground, throwing their bound prisoners to the crocs, and the old ones - evil looking things - still retain their taste for human flesh. When my small children crossed the bridge over the pens from which captives were once thrown, they were greeted by a ricochet of hopefully snapping jaws. Ta Prohm was a world away from these dark associations. To get there we trekked through thick monsoon-green jungle for an hour, as the children saw huge centipedes, squawking parrots, cicadas as loud as car alarms, hooting geckos and, best of all, a green poisonous snake hunting a lizard, one of the highlights of the trip for them. But it was the temple which made the biggest impact on me.

It was late evening by the time we finally got there, and the sun was setting. Suddenly, out of the trees, a mountain of masonry rose in successive ranges from the jungle - a great tumbling scree of plinths and capitals, octagonal pillars and lotus jambs. Trees spiralled out of the barrel vaults of the shingled temple roofs like the flying buttresses of a Gothic cathedral; branches knotted over Sanskrit inscriptions, before curving around the bas reliefs of lions and elephants, gods and goldlings, sprites and tree spirits. Snake-like tendrils of pepper vines fingered their way through window frames and up door jambs. Cracked lintels covered in mosses and bright lichens were supported by the roots of 1,000-year-old banyan trees, which wrapped their way over broken arcades, coiling in spirals like the tail of some slumbering guardian dragon. Roots like fused spiders' webs gripped fallen finials and crumbling friezes of bare-breasted dancing girls in girdles and anklets, spear-holding warriors in war chariots, and long-haired, cross-legged meditating sages. As the shadows lengthened, we wandered through terraces and overgrown galleries, narrow corridors and dark staircases, courtyard after courtyard, the sculptures gradually losing their definition, crumbling into shadows of dusk.

Darkness fell, and it was by the light of a torch that we saw the eeriest sight of all: the 40ft-high face of the temple's 12th-century founder, Jayavarman VII, impressed into the monsoon-stained ashlar of one of the temple spires. He looked out into the night, with his full lips and firm chin, broad nose and prominent forehead, his eyes closed in meditation, expression impassive but powerful, pensive and philosophical, both monk and ruler, enlightened incarnation and megalomaniac monarch. The fireflies danced around us, the nightbirds screeched from the ruins, and the frogs croaked. A long walk back lay ahead; but we all knew we would never, ever forget this place.
Note: William Dalrymple's most recent book, The Last Mughal: the Fall of a Dynasty, Delhi, 1857, recently won the Duff Cooper Prize. The World Monuments Fund (wmf.org.uk) has played a vital role in the restoration of Angkor for almost 20 years and is currently developing an interpretation centre at the temple of Preah Khan.

* * * * *
Mariella Frostrup's heaven on earth
The broadcaster doesn't normally advocate spending hours walking around old buildings - but makes an exception for the temples of Angkor in Cambodia.

The most extraordinary place I've visited is the 12th-century temple complex at Angkor Wat, completely inaccessible during Cambodia's troubled past but very easy to get to now - it's just an hour's flight from Bangkok. The temples of Angkor are quite simply remarkable. I'm no great advocate of wandering around old buildings - I'm fine for about an hour but then I get a bit bored - but for Angkor Wat I make an exception. The main temple is like a mini-Versailles and there's another one you have to visit very early in the morning because the sun lights up the many Buddhas' faces at dawn - it's one of the most spectacular things you'll ever see. Then there's a temple where the trees seem to have grown out of the walls, one of many beautifully strange sights here. If you go, be sure to make an early start - it's worth it, just to see the complex in all its glory. It's just the most remarkable place.
Photo: copyright of Tim Brouwer

No comments: