Travellers' Impressions
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Before Angko
By Antonio Graceffo

Along the dusty road, you pass ancient two-wheeled carts, pulled by large cows. Half wild herds of buffalo make their lazy way through lush dense jungle, driven by barefoot boys wearing krama. Rice farmers squat in their flooded fields, their heads protected from the intense Cambodian sun by pointed wide-brimmed straw hats.

Children play, casing pigs and chickens under the houses on stilts, whose thatched walls are made of woven palm leaves or shredded bamboo. Many of the front doors are adorned with a plastic bag of red liquid to ward off the vampires believed to drink the blood of young girls. Women, wearing traditional dress, their heads wrapped in krama, walk or ride bicycles along the side of the road. Merchants on bicycles, over-loaded with colourful plastic kitchenware, ride from house to house, selling their goods, the original pedlars.Picture 1

The place is called Koh Ker, and it is located approximately eighty kilometres from Siem Reap. Until the year 946, this place of breath-taking natural beauty was the capital of Cambodia, until King Jayavarman IV moved the capital to Siem Reap. If not for the plastic and the occasional motorcycle, the scene could just as easily have been a photo of Cambodia one hundred years ago, or five hundred, or nearly a millennium ago, when the king still held court at this location. An early history of Cambodia, written in 1296, by Chau Da Guan, a visiting Chinese diplomat, from the court of Emperor Kublai Kahn, tells us that the basic house design hasn’t changed.

In the ancient times of the Jen La period (6th to 9th Century) and the Angkor period (9th to 12th Century), stone was considered sacred, reserved only for the construction of religious buildings. Even the king lived in a wooden structure, demonstrating his subservience to the Hindu gods, in the days before Buddhism swept through Indochina. Chau Da Guan confirms that while the people lived in homes made of thatch, the king and other royals lived in grand homes made of precious teak wood. Almost as proof of the enduring power of the deity, the jungle consumed the dwellings of the kings and common folk, erasing their existence, with only the ancient Chinese text left to remind us that they once lived. But the stone temples, places of worship, still stand, in an eternal battle of the elements, as the sheer faith of stone grapples with the never-ending advance of the primordial jungle.

The well mapped, historic tourist sites of other countries have been institutionalised and commercialised, until the dignity of the ancients has been reduced to a sterile Disney World exhibition complete with a T-shirt an mouse ears. But, in Cambodia history, like the landscape, is still wild. The past is still being written, as archaeologists fight to reclaim countless temples from hundreds of years of jungle growth.

Cambodia is an exciting country, full of change and movement. Even the ancient temples, many nearly one thousand years old, are in constant metamorphosis, as they are rediscovered and preserved. This is not Europe, where history is a stagnant fact, belonging to the past. Cambodia is a country of vibrant active culture. People don’t come to Cambodia looking for a boring story of extinct civilizations. They come to Cambodia looking for adventure. And, they find it!picture 2

Watching from the window of an air-conditioned minibus, the Cambodian countryside is just more TV. But, on a motorcycle you experience everything about the world around you. You notice the changes in temperature as you pass by a flooded rice field or lake. You smell the dusty earth, the green fields, and the herds of animals, which you have to dodge on the road. You hear the song of the farmers as they toil, and of the women as they walk. You taste the sweet waters of the afternoon rain. You feel like a time traveller, as eighty kilometres of traditional Khmer village life flies by you. The constant hum and vibration of your motorcycle engine lull you into a strange hypnosis, where nothing is real.

By the time you reach the Koh Ker temple complex, with its more than one hundred stone structures, you are ready for anything. Stepping off your bike and into the jungle, you feel like Laura Kroft or Indian Jones. No tour guides here, no guardrails, and no Yellow brick Road to follow, nothing separates you from the ancient monoliths except the limits of your own imagination.

You pick a direction and just go. The park is yours. Eventually, jungle overgrowth gives way to a path strewn with massive stones, like the toys of some giant child at play. The smell of wood fires drifts across the open field adding another dimension to your experience.

Monoliths begin to appear, tremendous stone sculptures bearing the tool marks of artisans from centuries gone. Stony constructs poke their way through the dense jungle, which has been trying to claim them. Defiantly, these stone-works, crafted by the ancient Khmer ancestors to honour the Hindu gods in a time before Buddhism spread through Indochina, push their way through the viny nets, towering over the earth.

The temples, built between 920 and 940 AD, are architechtural wonders, featuring peaked entranceways, supported by square columns. The perfectly square windows are ornately decorated with balustrades, demonstrating both the craftsmanship and the undying faith of the ancients. Over centuries, the 114 temples have fallen into various stages of disrepair, leaving a priceless litter of collapsed stone and statuary covering nearly every inch of the complex grounds. If you stoop, and push away the vines, you will see among the broken statues, massive lions, which once supported the rooves of the covered passage ways. You will also see fallen Hindu gods, Vishnu, Shiva, and Brahma, almost like a metaphor for the ascension of Buddhism, in place of Hinduism.picture 3

Many of the temples feature linga, the Hindu statue of the falic symbol. The linga are often displayed attached to yoni, the symbol of female fertility. In ancient Hindu ceremonies, the monks would wash the linga with milk and water. Drains at the bottom of the yoni would direct the holy runoff to a spout, on the side of the temple, where the believers would come, and wash away their sadness. Although the annual Hindu ceremony is no longer practiced in Cambodia, locals still engage monks to ritualisticly wash them with the runoff, when they are sad. Once again demonstrating that these ancient temples are not just tourist attractions, but a living part of modern Khmer culture.

You are free explore the park uncovering temples for yourself. Some are completely overgrown, and require a keen I to be “discovered.” You could spend weeks in Koh Ker and still have weeks of new adventures ahead of you. Presat Tom was one of the most exciting adventures. This was a tall, castle like temple rising way up above the tree tops. Originally, there was a stone staircase leading all of the way to the top, but the lower third of the stairs were removed by French treasure hunters. Today, there is a wooden ladder, which leads to a nearly vertical climb up the stone steps. The view from the top is breath taking, particularly if you are able to summon up your time travel abilities and see the complex below, as it must have stood, a thousand years before.

In a number of locations, one could see where the statues of the Hindu gods were actually removed, after the coming of Buddhism. Several of the temples were scared by a huge hole in the floor, where robbers, following up oral legends, dug up the earth, looking for buried treasure. Sadly, all of the small details and sculptures have been carried off and sold. Many of the remaining sculptures bear the scars of thieves, thwarted in their attempts to steel the national antiquities.

My guide, Mr. Samban from Phnom Penh Tours, was explaining the ancient inscriptions found on the temple walls. “The writing system is called ancient Khmer.” I could see that it bore some similarity to modern Khmer. In trying to read one section, I was certain that it said “no smoking.”picture 4

Samban laughed. “That might be what it said if it were modern Khmer.” But, Samban went on to explain that the two languages used in ancient Hindu were Sanskrit and Pali. Both language remain a part of modern Khmer Buddhism, almost as Latin remains a part of Catholicism. “But the problem in doing translation.” Began Samban, “is that the writing system is ancient khmer, but the words are ancient Sanskrit or Pali, which almost none of us can speak today.” He went on to say that the ancient languages were taught at the Buddhist University in Phnom Penh, but that a shortage of translators has left many ancient texts untranslated.

As a trained linguist, I wanted to help out my Khmer hosts any way I could. So, drawing on all of my years of education and experience, I pieced together one of the inscriptions. “This text seems to be written in a primitive dialect of English.” I said. “It predicts the arrival of Amy and Thomas from Sydney in 2002.”

Samban shook his head. “That’s not an inscription. That’s graffiti. Amy and Thomas probably visited here in 2002.”

“So, the prediction did come true!” I marvelled.

The beauty of the park is that you are free to roam and experience, rather than merely look at history. One of the most amazing feelings is to not only touch the ancient stone structures, but to press your cheek up against the massive stone monoliths and feel the coldness and the centuries old power that lay inside. But, be respectful! The temples are still a holy site and must be preserved. Do not deface the temples, and do not steel anything. The bad karma you would get for robbing a temple could never be washed away.


Copyright © Antonio Graceffo 2005