Cambodia 2: I have seen such things

February 25, 2010

John Wyver:

Tuesday 23 February: Siem Reap (with more photos to come)
We have, believe me, been intensely busy since before dawn on Tuesday. So apologies for not posting over the last two days, but I’ll try now to catch up. After all, I’ve got a 24-hour trip home today, with more than a six hour lay-over in Singapore. Soon after we touch down at Heathrow first thing Friday, I intend that you and I are entirely up to date with our Art of Faith filming adventure in Cambodia. Which began for real around 5am on Tuesday, when we clambered into our crew bus and set out for the temples of Angkor. It’s still dark but there’s a steady stream of tuk-tuks on the road and when we get near to the site the ticket booth is already open.

You have your photo taken for the ticket ($40 for two days) that’s valid for the many temple sites across this area. And you’re constantly asked for this, plus — if you have a chunky-looking camera like us — you have to show over and over again the impressive-looking (and hard-won) licence from the ministry which permits us to film. Over two days, this must have been checked some thirty or forty times.

Arriving to watch the dawn at Angkor Wat, you have to stumble across the temple’s causeway in the dark with only occasional torches to give you guidance. These pinpricks of light eventually show you to a sandy bank where you jostle for a spot to stand. Sweet coffee for a dollar also buys you the right to a plastic chair. Soon there are hundreds of tourists here, checking their digital cameras (more tiny spots of light), offering a hopeful photo flash to the dark and peering, straining towards the east.

Out of the dark, the towers of the temple of Angkor Wat gradually emerge — and it is an impressive site, especially as the sky shifts from black to blue to an orange and then to a light pink hue. The towers have a mystery that somehow resists the contemporary, and you sense how extraordinary must have been the site for the first travellers from the west who came to these structures, still hidden within the jungle, in the mid-nineteenth century.

We shoot our introductory piece-to-camera with our presenter John McCarthy, and then begin to film the temple buildings as the sun rises. We walk from the west side around to the east, where the light on the buildings is spectacular. And at this hour there’s almost no-one here. The site receives more than two million tourists each year, and certainly later in the day it’s busy but never intolerably so. We’ve filmed elsewhere with bigger crowds and more interruptions.

We return to our hotel for breakfast and just after 9am we’re back at the temple. One of the problemsof the day (in addition to the sweltering heat and intense humidity) is the distances from the car park to temple site, over which we have to lug camera, tripod and sundry other kit. But the buildings are so remarkable that these feel like minor inconveniences.

Angkor Wat was built in the 12th century as a Hindu temple. What you don’t realise, even if you’ve read the guidebooks, is quite how it’s surrounded by hundreds of other temples of all sizes. These were constructed between around 900 and 1450 CE when this area was the centre of the ancient Khmer empire. Angkor Wat itself is on an island in an artificial lake, and this is part of why it’s so remarkable. But as we’re to discover there are many other, equally extraordinary sites in the region (and some perhaps even more so).

Our guide is Professor Vudthy, who has acted as fixer for the trip and now shows John around. We film the astonishing bas-reliefs, with their scenes from the Ramayana, and then climb towards the summit of the temple. Here beneath the central tower would have been the statue of Vishnu to whom Angkor Wat was dedicated. But in later years Vishnu was supplanted under a new regime by the Buddha, and the Vishnu figure now has a subsidiary place in one of the lower galleries.

Like the Hindu temples that Ian and John filmed in India, Angkor Wat is a symbolic mountain and home to the Hindu gods. Access to the holy of holies was reserved for the king and high officials, and they had to climb vertiginously steep stairways to reach the top level. Even the modern wooden steps are a challenge, but before lunch we clamber up and film in the galleries and courtyards to which only the most privileged of the kingdom would once have had access.

After lunch (delicious Cambodian curry served in a green coconut) we film again in the complex, trying to achieve some sense of its complex layout. Around the central ‘mountain’ is a symmetrical layout of towers, courts, galleries and entrances, and then beyond these the pools and moat. each element has a place in a rigorous cosmology, but it’s a little hard even to orient oneself without shots from a chopper. (No, not on a Sky Arts budget.)

By around 5pm we’re drenched in perspiration and really pretty tired. A swift bottle or two of Angkor beckons back at the hotel, but we decide that what we really need at this point in the day is a rapid climb to the top of another nearby temple. For which, jump to the next entry…

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