Few monuments in the world leave you in the trance that Angkor Wat does because it seems like you have chanced upon an ongoing archaeological excavation of temples set in pristine jungle. Our guide, Ly Sarith, duly seemed much more a high priest than someone in the travel trade. When he told us of the sacking of Angkor by kings from Thailand in the fifteenth century in that setting, the story had the feeling of a religious revelation. This was partly because as he took us around the complex he was prone to moments of contemplation, with his palms pressed together, before he told us about each temple.
Later that evening, I listened to a talk by Roland Fletcher, a professor of history at the University of Sydney, who wasted no time debunking this version of events told by all the guides in Angkor.
The Thai king had not sacked Angkor and the proof was that he had placed his son on the throne there, said Fletcher. With his crisp delivery, the Britisher had something of the stage presence of a David Attenborough. The temples of Angkor Wat were dismissed as a ‘sideshow’. The real marvel was the feat of building a giant reservoir — eight kilometres long and two kilometres wide — that irrigated paddy fields in the area. The temples had been built on the tithes from farmers living amid the largest human settlement in pre-modern times — bigger even than Rome.
The contrast between the two men — Ly Sarith’s poetry and drama to Fletcher’s meticulous stacking up of empirical evidence — made for one of the most interesting journeys I have taken in years. When I arrived, I was worried that in our age of mass tourism, few destinations are more oversold and over-visited than Angkor. I was right, but I had not expected to be led around by a guide like Ly Sarith, so adept at avoiding the crowds. On that first afternoon, we approached the temples of Angkor Thom through a tiny path in the forest. It felt like being sent off into exile. When we arrived we were somehow the only people there.
The schedule put together by Amansara, where a friend and I were staying for a couple of nights, places a premium on these moments of discovery, away from the din of tour buses. We ran into a melee of buses as we departed Angkor Wat only on the second morning we were there, but we were leaving at 10am, having enjoyed the place in peace and quiet since 5.30am.
Sarith, who can be hired independently even if you are not staying at the Amansara, pulled this wizardry off time and again. That first afternoon offered clues to his magic. He favoured paths less trodden and stayed off the main roads where the giant tourist buses roamed. He and consequently we were either early birds or latecomers, both strategies deployed to good effect. We arrived at Bayon, the temple with its giant faces more enigmatic and hypnotic than the Mona Lisa, close to sunset. There seemed just half a dozen people around. I have the misfortune of being agnostic but in that peaceful setting, I fiercely wanted to believe in some sort of divine presence.
Fletcher, meanwhile, was like watching a political orator at work; he quickly had his audience in the library of the Amansara listening intently on our first evening there with his history of Angkor, which contrasted sharply with the version told by the guides at Angkor. He then unfurled a giant map taken from a US government satellite, which was, as he put it, an X-ray of the area. What it showed was that the reservoir and the canals had been affected from the fourteenth century onwards by colossal floods and droughts. The rulers of Angkor and the aristocracy had slowly moved away towards Phnom Penh. The story of the Thais attacking was “the way the Cambodians explained their loss of power,” he said. He spoke softly but his words sometimes had the power of a clap of thunder. “The Cambodians saw leaving Angkor as a disaster. The catastrophe would have been to stay there.”
Instead of a story of rival kingdoms plundering each other or the regicide of medieval European history, Angkor’s abandonment turned out to be one that seemed chillingly contemporary — that of a civilization unable to cope with changing weather patterns. As I listened, I could not help but think of similarly gloomy predictions for India in the twenty-first century and worried that we were even more unprepared in many ways.
Such thoughts were banished the following day visiting the West Baray with Fletcher because the reservoir was such an expanse of surprisingly clean water. But for the tropical foliage all around it, we could have been on the banks of Lake Garda in Italy. Fletcher had been journeying to this engineering wonder of the medieval world since 1998, ever since it was just about safe enough to travel to this part of the war-torn country.
This hadn’t dimmed Fletcher’s enthusiasm for the reservoir and he was soon piling on details about the twenty million cubic metres of dirt that keeps the walls of its banks strong — West Baray was the single largest engineering feat in the world at the time, he enthused. The Great Wall, he explained, is a series of construction feats, not a single site. “This was a risk management system to mitigate the monsoon. It wasn’t to raise yields,” he said. “If they wanted more rice, they just cut more forest.”
After the thirteenth century, there is evidence that the people of Angkor were not just moving water, but storing water: “The implication is that they were short of water,” he said.
It had been a long, dusty drive to get to the West Baray. Most of the other guests at Amansara inexplicably elected to lounge by the pool. Amansara’s general manager, Sally Baughen, who was very popular when she was at Amanbagh in Rajasthan before this assignment, elected to send car-loads of independent guides who regularly work with Amansara to benefit from Fletcher’s fascinating take on the kingdom. As the sun set on this beautiful mega-reservoir and the guides and the guests were treated to wine and canapés, the guides crowded around Fletcher and asked worriedly about Chinese plans to dam parts of the Mekong river, which is crucial to the fertility of Southeast Asia, including Cambodia. His assessment was not an optimistic one. It was clear from the responses of the guides that they were worried the government of Cambodia would not stand up to Beijing to stop the project.
If Fletcher’s narrative of a medieval kingdom’s efforts to stave off environmental disaster were part of our journey on both evenings there, Ly Sarith’s tales took us in altogether different directions early in the morning. On one of our long drives back to the hotel in a jeep, he told us of how as a child he had escaped the murderous class warfare of the Khmer Rouge by pretending to be illiterate. He was Eurasian and spoke fluent English. I looked at him in amazement, wondering how he had pulled off this deception, day after day, through those horrible years. My friend, a childhood friend from Kolkata whose grandparents migrated from southern China to escape the famines of the early twentieth century there, asked him what his life was like now. Sarith, who had eight children, looked nonplussed. “These are the best years of my life,” he replied.
On our last morning, Sarith took us to a temple called the citadel of the women (Banteay Srei). The dancers in the red pillars were so sublime, one imagined they would leap off and start to perform for early morning visitors any moment. For visitors from India, this was a temple we felt we had been to before. It was the best preserved by far of the temples in Angkor. Elsewhere, it was hard not to miss the teams of conservationists, led by people sent by governments all over the world. The Cambodian staff on those sites wore T-shirts with the country they had been funded by emblazoned on their backs. I felt a curious surge of pride when I saw the team cycling to work who were funded by the Government of India. This was quickly deflated when we visited the Ta Prohm temple. The Cambodian staff sat on their haunches, smoking cigarettes and chatting even though it was past 9.30am. Work — and indeed the Indian manager of the project — was conspicuous by its absence. Alongside the scaffolding, there was at least a familiar sign for those feeling homesick. ‘Asuvidha ke leeye khed he,’ it declared, happily in Cambodian and English as well.
But in a journey of many memorable moments, the most unexpected that came back to me time and again was Fletcher’s history of environmental degradation that led to the migration of an entire kingdom. As we returned to the Amansara after our visit to the West Baray reservoir on our second afternoon, Fletcher’s words rang in my ears as he described how tonnes of sand silted up the elaborate irrigation system. “They (the people of Angkor) were trapped by a massive infrastructure they couldn’t repair.”
The story of Angkor, it turned out, was more chilling than one of the sacking of cities by greedy neighbours. It was more worrying than the horrors of the Khmer Rouge because the medieval past echoed our twenty-first century present and future. I was uncomfortably reminded of water-harvesting systems in places like Rajasthan that have fallen into disrepair. Fletcher’s research, he said, made him realise that this was “a settlement that had stripped its landscape.”
The people of Angkor had tried to adapt to the ravages of climate change, but had failed. Other tourists might treasure their photos of Angkor at dawn. But, long after I returned, Fletcher’s eloquent stories of a Hindu kingdom of the past undone by the feast-or-famine of the South Asian monsoon that had such relevance for India’s future left me saddened. Perhaps we will get lucky and our government will rise to the challenge, but I doubt it.
Amansara, located on the outskirts of Siem Reap in Cambodia, offers 24 suites ($950, suite; $1,250, pool suite; +855-63-760333, amanresorts.com). Roland Fletcher gives house talks at Amansara. Ly Sarith is a reliable Angkor tour guide (12384221, email@example.com).
There are connections from India to Siem Reap, the bustling town on the outskirts of Angkor, via several Southeast Asian hubs. However, via Bangkok seems most convenient and affordable. For instance, Indigo flies Delhi-Bangkok for as low as Rs 16,000 return. From there, Bangkok Airways offers return fares to Siem Reap starting from THB 10,980 (Rs 20,660).
Cambodia offers visas on arrival to most nationalities, including Indians ($20). You can also get an e-visa before your departure at mfaic.gov.kh/evisa ($28).
The Cambodian currency is the riel, but dollars are freely accepted. $1=4,000 riel (approx.).
Where to stay
Siem Reap offers accommodation to suit every pocket. My suggestion would be to skip the luxury hotels and check into one of the charming little guesthouses that have mushroomed all over town. Service is more intimate, they offer great value (without being grungy) and they will also organize your temple visits for you. I can personally recommend The Villa Siem Reap (from $20, tour inclusive packages from $120/2nights per person; 153 Ta Phul Road, +855-0-63761036, thevillasiemreap.com). The tuk tuk drivers they use on a regular basis have been well trained and I really did not miss having a guide. If he’s still around, ask for Snar. He was pleasant-mannered and courteous young fellow who managed to avoid the crowds at the temples we visited and also pointed out the best angles and spots for taking photographs. Bang opposite The Villa, the Auberge Mont Royal D’Angkor (from $39, 15% discount if booked 45 days in advance; auberge-mont-royal.com) comes highly recommended by a veteran of these pages. If you absolutely must luxuriate, look no further than the Raffles Grand Hotel D’Angkor (from $285; raffles.com). The FCC Angkor is stylish too, but more affordable (from $105; fcccambodia.com).
What to see & do
The temples There’s, of course, Angkor Wat. Within the walled city of Angkor Thom are the royal temple Phimeanakas, the pyramidal Baphuon (which was closed for twenty-five years), the elaborately carved Terrace of the Leper King and the Elephant Terrace, and the famed Bayon — the temple with those intriguing faces. Other important temples include Ta Prohm, Ta Keo, Ta Som, Preah Khan and Banteay Kdei. Excursions can be made to Banteay Srei (32km) and the Roluos Group (13km). Head to the ‘temple mountain’ Phnom Bakheng for great views. You’ll need an Angkor pass to visit the temples: $20 for a day, $40 for three days, or $60 for a week.
Other diversionsIf this great open-air museum doesn’t sate you, in town, check out the Angkor National Museum. A highlight is the room displaying 1,000 Buddhas. Or take a boat ride on the dreamy Tonlé Sap lake.
With inputs from Amit Dixit