When the Chinese diplomat, Zhou Daguan, visited the great city of Angkor towards the end of the thirteenth century, he was very taken with their royalty. In his dispatches home, he wrote extensively about the soaring temples and the colossal gateways, about the rich palaces and the sentinel Buddha heads encased in gold. But what really interested Zhou was the King’s sex life.
Much of royal coupling took place atop Phimeanakas, the celestial palace. In the midday heat I climbed the old terraces, past guardian lions and over huge blocks of masonry that rocked beneath my feet. This was the way the King came every night on his way to a carefully arranged assignation. The steepness of these long stairways would have exhausted most mortals, but, for the King, they were merely the prelude to a busy night.
At the top I arrived at a high pavilion, where tall windows were open to the four winds. According to Zhou, a young woman was delivered here every night. She was said to be the incarnation of the Serpent Spirit with whom the King was obliged to copulate for the good of the country before returning to the pleasures of his harem. It was the kind of wheeze that modern politicians can only dream about: sexual license cunningly passed off as the defence of the realm.
Angkor is the original lost civilisation: as mysterious as Atlantis, as evocative as Machu Picchu. It broods in the jungles of northern Cambodia, a vast temple city in the grip of strangler figs and creeping liana. The capital of the sprawling Khmer empire, Angkor dominated Southeast Asia between the tenth and the thirteenth centuries. For generations its rulers competed to outdo their predecessors in the grandeur of their temple building. When Thai invasion swept the empire away in the fifteenth century, the great city fell into ruin, the jungle closed in, and Angkor dropped off the maps – a vanished world to be stumbled upon, centuries later, by confused Europeans.
The first Europeans wrote of the stone faces of giants peering through the undergrowth, of temple stupas enmeshed in the forest canopy, of bare-breasted sirens in the frenzied embrace of vines. In 1860 Henri Mouhot staggered out of the jungle, claiming that Angkor was “grander than anything of Greece or Rome”, that it was a masterpiece created by “an Eastern Michelangelo”. In the 1920s American geographer Helen Churchill Candee was overwhelmed. “Angkor is unmatched in Asia”, she declared. “One can never look upon [the temples] without a feeling of being caught up into the heavens.”
Tourism has caught up with Angkor. When I first came here almost 20 years ago, memories of Cambodia’s troubled past were still fresh and visitor numbers still low. These days, everyone from South Koreans to South Dakotans recognise Angkor as one of the world’s great cultural treasures. The bad news is that the tour groups can easily rob a visit of any atmosphere. The good news is it that it doesn’t have to be like that.
Tourism everywhere sticks to narrow established channels. But Angkor is vast site with scores of evocative ruins, and most see only a trickle of visitors. You can rent a bicycle and set off by yourself down the long straight avenues, once the Royal Highways, confident you will soon escape the crowds. Or you could use a tour company like ABOUTAsia Travel, who create private itineraries to ensure that their clients are never besieged by hordes of Japanese visitors following a raised umbrella and a loudhailer. With a rickshaw, a picnic and an English-speaking guide, you soon find yourself alone with the ancient world.
Which was where I was. It was midday in Angkor, and the old temples felt becalmed, as if time itself had slowed to a standstill. Temple guardians snored gently in hammocks strung between the kapok trees. A coconut seller, an old man in a loin cloth, had settled down in an empty window frame, his head slumped forward on his knees. Cicadas droned. Somewhere a woodpecker knocked. Dragon flies hung motionless around the reliefs of elegant aspara dancers, the angelic figures that adorn so many surfaces here. From the top of Ta Keo, I watched a man riding a bicycle carrying panniers stuffed with newly cut hay along a dust lane, heading towards the great impassive Buddha heads flanking a gateway in the distance.
When I turned and stepped inside the central chamber of this high terrace, I found a woman seated on a low ledge. She was peeling an orange. She smiled and offered me a segment.
Three ancient Buddhas – barely more than worn stumps of stone – stood at the centre of the chamber, each draped in a dusty ribbon ofgold cloth. There was a mat on which to kneel, and a collection of offerings – incense sticks, vases of faded flowers, a dish of coins, and some rather ancient fruit. For local villagers, faith still clung to these crumbling temples. Proun was the self-appointed attendant to these withered Buddhas, the barefoot heir to the grand priesthood who had created this extravagant place a millennium ago.
She was a woman in her late forties, with a long, bony face. Her eyes were strangely set, almost unfocused. They gave the impression of a gaze directed elsewhere. But it was her hands that I noticed first – the long, graceful fingers seemed to move in slow motion as she divided the orange and offered me pieces.
With the help of my guide, I asked her how she had come to this place, what had prompted her to tend to these Buddhas.
She explained that she came to Ta Keo everyday, and hoped to continue to come until she was too old to climb the steps. “When I come here”, she said, “it is an escape. This is an ancient place, and it allows us to step out of our lives.” The ruins had become her refuge, the distant past a bulwark against more recent memories.
Cambodia has enjoyed several decades of peace, but lurking in the past is a more troubled landscape – one that is remote, tangled and invariably painful. One learns to tread warily around questions of personal history. But Proun wanted to share her story.
“My parents were both killed by the Khmer Rouge, in Phonm Penh”, she said without preamble. “I came here to live with an aunt. I was seven.” She spoke calmly of this loss, as if it was the story of someone else.
I asked if she had married, if she had a family of her own.
“I have two sons”, she said. ‘They are grown now. One works as a guardian here at Angkor. The other is a maker of musical instruments like his father.’
“They have no memories of their father”, she went on. “My husband died fighting the Khmer Rouge. It was 30 years ago. I was 19.” Proun spoke without a trace of self-pity or sentimentality.
“He was a good man”, she said. “And we were happy together.”
I wondered how she had ever heard of his death, how the news was brought – and in the chaos of those times, whether there had been years when she had heard nothing.
“A friend brought the news a few months after he was killed”, she said slowly. My questions had taken her too far, and her long face had begun to wrestle with the wave of emotions now rising to the surface. “They had been fighting together. He was cremated in the mountains where he died. His friend… ” She hesitated now, no longer able to keep the past at bay. “His friend brought his bones to me.”
My enquiries suddenly seemed intrusive, unhelpful. I was sorry to have unwrapped this grief. Proun’s long hands twisted together, the fingers locking. Her eyes were welling with tears.
“I never saw his face again”, she said, her voice breaking. “I did not have the chance to see his face”, she repeated, as if this might have made a difference. I took her hands between mine, and we sat together, two strangers on the high terrace of Ta Keo, beside the withered Buddhas, with the peel of our shared orange scattered about our feet.
Later, when I climbed again to the bottom of the temple, I looked up and saw that Proun had lit a candle in the doorway of her chamber. The ruins of a vanished civilisation like Angkor, the memories of so many centuries, can make an individual life seem insignificant. Proun’s lone candle, flickering in the dark hulk of the temple, reminded me it was not so. Destinations may draw us halfway around the world, but it’s individuals we encounter who allow us to connect, to understand.
Stanley Stewart is the author of three highly acclaimed travel books and several-hundred articles based on journeys across five continents, for which he has won numerous journalism awards. He is a contributing editor of Condé Nast Traveller and his work appears regularly in the Sunday Times. He has also contributed to the Daily Telegraph, the Guardian, the Independent and the Times. He writes for the National Geographic Traveler in the US, the Sunday Times in South Africa and the Australian.