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Monks at Angkor Wat
Fantastic bas-reliefs
Demons guarding the city
At the end of a long day

Beuk met us at our hotel for yet another early start. Today he is in his new guide’s uniform, blue trousers and an uncomfortable hot shirt made from thick material. A patch on the side shows him to be an official guide. Some of the other guides are also in their new togs but not all. It seems to be a new rule that is coming in but I don’t think it’s been well received by the guides themselves. The shirts are expensive to buy and being hot I doubt they will take off.

Our first stop was at a travel agent in town to sort out our flights to Malaysia. We had considered going overland through the north of Cambodia and into Thailand. That would be a long day or two of minibuses, tuk tuks, taxi’s and then either the bus or the train down to Kuala Lumpur. It’s certainly do-able but not the nicest sounding of trips so we have opted to fly instead, assuming that we could get sensibly priced flights, which we did.

In terms of temple sites our plan for today was to visit Angkor Wat, the biggest and most famous of all of the temples in the area. We had driven past it yesterday and it is a huge and impressive site. The Wat is surrounded by a water filled moat which is more than 30m across. The reflection of the temple plays on the water’s surface creating an even more magical and mystical feeling than you get from simply looking at the temple itself. The site is simply awe inspiring. To think that this was all created hundreds of years ago and without the benefit of modern lifting equipment is staggering. They must have had thousands of people working on the site at any one time, hauling huge blocks of stone and then carving and decorating them with intricate patterns.

Around the outside of the Wat is a covered cloister. The ceiling tiles are still intact and below these on the inside would have been ornately decorated wooden panels. Beuk showed us where either time or money ran out on the temple and where craftsmen had not made it round to carve and decorate some of the walls. Shrines were frequent and with the upcoming religious feast day the statues have all been dressed in bright colours and fresh offerings are on display.

At one stage we came across an old sage who tells your fortune … for a donation! Beuk went first and then I followed. The fortune teller has a small book made of thick sheets of paper that are stitched together with thick string. You put the book on your head and then put a small stick in between the pages wherever you want to. The sage then reads the text on that page and that is your fortune. It seems that everyone has three goes per donation so if you don’t like the first story you can get an alternative. Beuk’s fortune wasn’t great and I think he used all three lives and still didn’t get a great ending. My luck was better and I struck gold on my first turn. My tale was that when I was born my parents gave me up for adoption. I was adopted by a very wealthy family and have had untold riches and will lead a very happy life. Good for me!

The whole of the Angkor site and the surrounding area was a key battlefield during the time of the Khmer Rouge, Pol Pot and the subsequent occupation by Vietnam. No respect was shown because these were religious buildings, they simply made a good base to hide in and to attack the enemy. Beuk showed us many places during the days we spent with him where the resulting bullet holes can be seen, many still with bullets wedged into the stonework. He also shared with us some of his personal experiences of growing up during these war years.

There was no education and people simply had to work all day every day no matter how young, old, healthy or frail they were. The concept of being an individual human being with your own identity was wiped out. Everything was focussed on communal living, cooking, eating. Marriages were dictated by the party and everyone lived in fear - fear of being informed upon, fear of being caught eating food you had smuggled and cooked for yourself, fear of doing anything a party official may take a dislike to. The picture he painted was very bleak and also very humbling. It was another case of us both realising how lucky we have been to have grown up in Western Europe at the time we did. You could sense how ingrained the fear had been and how it must have shaped his character to an extent because even now he was looking around him and watching other people as he spoke.

The film, The Killing Fields, is pretty harrowing but I don’t think it really captures the essence of how much normal day to day family life was destroyed. Family ties and loyalties were eradicated and an individual’s life really did cease to exist. They were reduced down to living in primitive conditions with survival being a daily challenge. Fortunately for Beuk and his family they were country people and were not considered to be so intellectual that they would be a danger. Many people who lived in towns and cities became victims simply by virtue of that fact. The cities were emptied and the people were sent to live and work in the fields. The peasants, the noble hard workers, became the dominant force in people’s lives.

Beuk’s entire family survived this period of Cambodia’s history and he is now working hard to ensure that his children (a boy and a girl) have a better life. With no formal education to speak of he has taught himself English, which he speaks very well, and has learnt the history of the Angkor sites to become a qualified guide. It also sounds like he’s dabbled at a few different jobs before settling on his current life having worked as a tuk tuk driver and also running his own restaurant for a while. You could sit and listen to his stories for hours but we didn’t have time on our side and needed to get going around Angkor Wat.

From the outer cloister you cross an open inner courtyard and then come to a further inner cloister. Here the walls are highly decorated with carvings of scenes from the Hindu epics of the Ramayana and Mahabarata. One of the characteristics of the temples around Angkor is that Hindu, Buddhist and other religious iconography is all mixed in together. The carvings were extensive revealing many tales if you had someone with you who could point them out to you and translate them.

Angkor Wat is a really complex site with many different interconnecting passages and rooms. I’m sure that if you get an aerial view the site is square and has been subdivided into equal but interconnecting quarters. In turn each of these has also been subdivided so that you get a complex network of quadrangles and courtyards that have symmetry but all overlap and interconnect leading up to the main central square which is a huge building representing Mount Mehru, the centre of the Hindu universe.

Beuk cleverly left us to scale “Mount Mehru” on our own. It was a very steep building, the sides of which were at a 70 degree angle. Only the stairs on one side had a hand rail to steady yourself as you go and it was a bit of a hairy climb, worth it though for the views from the top. From here you can see out over the jungle landscape below seeing Angkor Wat and other temple sites stretching out beneath you. The worst part was coming back down. The slope is that steep that you can only really see the steps when you are right on top of them. It was a definite case of easing down backwards and not looking down to the bottom until you got there.

At Angkor Wat, as elsewhere there were orange robed monks wandering around on their own or in small groups and we would often come across some just sitting around inside. They created the sense with us that we were just interlopers while they really belonged here. As ever they made some good pictures but as with many in Asia they too now ask for payment. Lunch at one of the nearby tourist restaurants gave us chance to cool down and rest and enabled Beuk to catch up with his colleagues.

The first venue for our afternoon was Preah Khan. Whereas Angkor Wat was grand and still largely intact Preah Khan has only comparatively recently been wrestled back from the jungle. You can see and walk through the complex now with no trouble but in many places trees have grown up and around the walls of the buildings and they are now intrinsic to the stability of the ruins. It makes for a darker and more mysterious temple experience but was also a sad sight to see. As Beuk guided us around the site we came across people making more preparations for the imminent feast day. Preah Khan has special importance and the Cambodian King will be here to say prayers and make offerings to the gods. Preparations were ongoing with lights being strung up among the ruins and a steady supply of plates of different offerings being brought into the temple.

By this stage we had all reached saturation point for the day and Beuk looked relieved when we said that we didn’t want to see another 4 temples. As we made our way back into town we drove along the massive eastern baray, a huge former reservoir. It has now been turned back to agriculture and open land and trees and termite mounds dotted the landscape. Beuk pointed more temples out to us as we drove and we stopped briefly at Preah Rup, a small temple again designed to resemble Mount Mehru. Many people come here to watch the sun set but the prospect of waiting an hour or more didn’t appeal much to us so we enjoyed the view for a while before Beuk dropped us back at our hotel where we had a quiet night enjoying the cool of the air con.