Tahir Shah explores the ever-popular ruins of the ancient Khmer empire and finds that a peaceful visit to this spectacular site is still within reach.
Rediscover tranquility amid Cambodia's busy temples
Even before the first blush of sunlight has touched the jungle, I catch sight of the faces through the darkness. Crafted from great blocks of stone, mottled with lichen, weatherworn by centuries of tropical rain, they leer out towards the last strains of night. With each minute that passes more are revealed, as if their numbers are swelling, from a handful until there is a vast stone army of heads.
The jungle is stirring around me, the vines and dense undergrowth alive with all manner of life - macaques leap from one branch to the next, dragonflies pause on dew-covered leaves, and multi-coloured birds dart and swoop through the canopy. As the darkness melts away into light I make out the twisted roots of silkwood trees, curving through the ruins, a realm right out of Indiana Jones.
In a world abundant with possibility for the intrepid traveller, no destination is quite as bewitching as Angkor, the ruined capital of ancient Cambodia. The first time I visited, 15 years ago, the area was still heavily mined, a legacy of the devastating reign of terror at the hands of the Khmer Rouge. Back then I had to examine the temples, monasteries, and fortified bastions from a distance. Venturing beyond the scarlet skull and cross bones signs - which peppered the undergrowth - would have put me at risk of losing my feet.
But time is healing Cambodia and, at last, Angkor - a Unesco World Heritage Site - is safe once more. Yet, despite its extraordinary size and significance, the ancient capital of the Khmer empire tends to be overlooked by visitors from outside the region.
A vast series of temples, statues, and religious buildings, spread over an area the size of Manhattan, Angkor was the most populated ancient centre of the pre-industrial age. Thought to have had a million inhabitants at its height 1,000 years ago (compared with London's 30,000 at the time), it was laid out on a jaw-dropping scale.
At the centre of it all, encircled by a moat as wide as two football fields, is Angkor Wat, its name meaning "Temple of the Capital". Regarded as the largest religious structure ever completed, it stands as tall as Notre Dame Cathedral, which was completed at about the same time. The cornerstone of a mighty civilization that rose, and eventually waned, it was subsumed into the surrounding jungle. And there it lay for generations, until rediscovered by the West a century and a half ago.
The French philologist Henri Mouhot was one of the first Europeans to set eyes on the ruins, back in 1860. But he didn't actually discover Angkor, because the ancient Khmer capital was never really "lost". The local tribesmen knew very well that the jungle was packed with ruins. Abandoning it all, they preferred to live on the margins of the nearby Tonlé Sap Lake rather than in the interior.
And it was the lake that, curiously, gave rise to the entire Khmer culture in the first place. But the story of how Angkor came to be begins far away - in Tibet, where the melted snows of the Himalayas flow down the great snaking length of the Mekong. Eventually reaching the shallow delta, the waters feed into the South China Sea. But at the height of the seasonal floods, the current stops and the waters back up, essentially reversing the Mekong's flow. In one of nature's most peculiar phenomena, the river flows in the opposite direction for four months each year, with the overflow pooling into the Tonlé Sap Lake.
With the waters surging through the surrounding forests, the lake quadruples in size, becoming an inland sea - 160 kilometres long and half as wide. Teaming with fish, more than in any other body of fresh water on earth, Tonlé Sap becomes an angler's dream. And then, as the flood waters recede, the mud plains provide the perfect conditions for cultivating rice. The abundance of fish and rice were, for the ancient Khmer, the foundation stones of an empire. As the Nile gave birth to ancient Egypt, so the reversing Mekong spawned the culture that had at the centre of its capital the magnificent Angkor Wat.
Constructed during the reign of King Suryavarman II, during the first half of the 12th century, the central temple was arranged with five towers, each one symbolic of a closed lotus bud. A curious feature of the temples at Angkor is that they are devoted to the Hindu pantheon, with the five towers representing Mount Meru, home of the Hindu deities. Brought on the monsoon winds by Indian traders from the subcontinent, 3,000 km away, Hinduism seems rather out of place in a land so firmly linked with the Buddhist faith.
Having defeated their ancient adversaries, the Vietnamese, at battle on the Tonlé Sap Lake, King Suryavarman's successor, Jayavarman VIII, set about fortifying the capital with massive walls.
He constructed a moat as well, filling it with crocodiles into which his enemies and detractors were flung. The carvings and exquisite reliefs that adorn Angkor's temples recount the trials and tribulations of Khmer rule and the myths. Among them is the "Churning of the Sea of Milk", a process believed to create the elixir of life. Just as interesting are the depictions of ordinary life - women beautifying themselves, labourers toiling away, children scampering through the forest, and soldiers marching off to war.
From the hundreds of Sanskrit inscriptions, archaeologists have decoded a full chronology of the Khmer dynasties, despite the fact there are no known records on paper. The palm leaf prayer books and other documents known to the Khmer - the kind still used locally by Buddhist monks today - don't hold up well in the intense tropical climate.
The one snapshot we have into life at Angkor, made at its height, was documented in the diary of a Zhou Daguan, Chinese diplomat in 1296. He wrote that guards were stationed at the gates to the city. They inspected the feet of arriving visitors because criminals tended to have their toes hacked off. No toes, no entry.
Zhou Daguan recounted that the inner palace was off limits to all but the royal family, the king's 2,000 female servants, and his many concubines. Each night, he said, the monarch would sleep in a golden tower, protected by a seven-headed serpent.
He and his concubines may be long gone, but one unlikely link to the glory days of his court still remains. Scan the stone friezes which adorn the palace walls, and you find yourself gazing on the lovely images of apsaras, dancing girls.
Shortly after Zhou Daguan left, the great Khmer capital was attacked by the Thai onslaught. After enduring for five centuries, the mighty civilisation of Angkor collapsed after a siege of just seven months.
Carried away by the invading Thai army, the original apsara dancers lived on, their performances still charming audiences across Thailand and Cambodia today.
Having been plundered, Angkor was left abandoned, allowing the jungle to reclaim it for itself.
Visiting Angkor today is an emotional experience. The magic of the place is interwoven along with the twisting, meandering roots of sprawling silkwood trees, the towering trunks of which intersperse a great many of the ruins. There's a sense that you are treading in the footsteps of the first foreigners who arrived, to find a city reclaimed by the natural world.
Flying to the international airport at Siem Reap, a town reliant on the ruins of Angkor for its survival, I find myself in a quirky hippyesque town. Like Kathmandu in the 1970s, it's populated by foreigners who just can't bear to leave. There are markets selling the usual assortment of Cambodian knickknacks and pirated DVDs, bars and yet more bars, each one with Wi-Fi and cut-price drinks. And, on every street corner, there are tuk-tuk drivers waiting to schlep you down the road to the ruins.
Most visitors stay three days, that is unless they never manage to break free. When you buy the $40 (Dh147) three-day pass at the main gate (single day passes cost $20), it allows you to enter the evening before the pass kicks in, a good way of getting an initial sneak peek.
When I arrive, I find it all quite baffling. All I know is that I want to steer clear of the Chinese package tourists who are marching about in tight-knit formation, taking pictures of each other rather than the monuments. On the first day I pay the requisite $25 (Dh92) for an official guide. He doesn't speak much English, but it doesn't stop him spewing a constant stream of historical trivia I can't understand.
Fortunately, I meet a tuk-tuk driver called Mutt. He doesn't speak much English either, but he understands I want to explore the ruins when no one else was about. Appearing as if by magic whenever I need him, he lets me into a little secret, related through mime: how to beat the crowds.
It's simple. Most of the visitors who tour Angkor do it in a certain order, starting with the great temple itself, and followed by the smaller outposts. The secret is to start well away from Angkor Wat itself, and to hit the jungle paths before dawn. As Mutt explains in sign language, most Chinese package tourists stay in bed until late, and then make the most of their hotel's buffet breakfast. His top tip is to shun the buffet, start early, and to go around in reverse order.
That is how I end up just north of Angkor Wat, at the Ta Prohm ruins, long before even the faintest glimmer of sunlight. It is still pitch black when Mutt swerves his tuk-tuk to a halt and points to the seething nocturnal undergrowth. I must seem anxious because he smiles, then gives me a thumbs up.
Carefully threading my way between the trees, the sound of cicadas deafening, I can feel the cool stone buildings all around me even before I see them. Like a set from a Hollywood epic, it all seems so perfect, a fragment from a child's fantasy. Vines and roots snaking between the stone blocks, many are carved with exquisite scenes of deities and court life. Lichen-encrusted, mossy and damp with dew, the stones had lain forgotten for centuries. But reminders of our modern age are present, too: graffiti carved into the silkwood roots and, worse still, empty niches where priceless statues have been hacked away and sold.
With the first strains of light breaking through the forest, I cross over a slender canal and find myself at Bayon, with its haunting towers - 37 of them - each one adorned with four faces. As I discover later, the ruins of Angkor Wat, the main temple, are awe-inspiring in an almost primal way. But the smaller clusters of ruins nearby, at Ta Prohm, Bayon, Roluous and Angkor Thom, are all the more impressive for the wannabe Indiana Jones.
Exploring the ruins, you can't help but be touched by a sense of tranquility as well as wonder. It's as if the destruction of the Khmer empire by the invading Thais and, more recently, the Khmer Rouge reign of terror, makes the peace all the more profound. During its four-year rule, Pol Pot's regime executed all but two of the thousand Cambodian archaeologists working at Angkor. Destroying all their plans and scholastic documents, then mining the area, they turned the clock back to Year Zero, just as they did in the rest of the country.
Thankfully, Angkor is thriving once again. Last year more than 2,000,000 tourists visited the ruins, more than twice the number living there at the height of the Khmer empire. Most of these sightseers hail from the Far East and the swelling tourist numbers pose a new threat. Traipsing up and down over the steps, and along the shaded corridors, the soft sandstone is being eroded like never before.
But, having fallen in love with Angkor, I find myself to be as guilty as all the rest. Climbing into the tuk-tuk, thrilled at beating the crowds, the driver, Mutt, gives me another thumbs up gesture. Miming a plane flying off, then coming back, he points at me and shrugs.
Will I come back?
"How could I not?" I say with a smile.
Tahir Shah is an author based in Casablanca.