Cambodia 5: face to face

February 26, 2010

John Wyver:

Wednesday 24 February: Angkor Thom (with photos still to come)
After filming at Ta Prohm on Wednesday morning, our next location is the south gate of the nearby city of Angkor Thom. I know this reflects little more than my ignorance, but I really had little sense of the scale of this late twelfth and early thirteenth century metropolis. With the other Khmer capitals built on or near the same site, this was an urban sprawl comparable to Los Angeles today. An infrastructure of roads and canals supported more than one million people, making it the largest preindustrial city in the world. Given how impressive many of its buildings remain, we keep reflecting on what an overwhelming impact Angkor Thom must have made on medieval visitors. Here be wonders indeed — and we have all of four hours to film them.

We start on the causeway that runs across a wide moat to the south gate. The figures of fifty-four guardian gods on one side pull the head of the snake Shesha while on the other side the same number of demons pull its tail. This is the Hindu creation myth known as the story of the Churning of the Ocean, in which the snake is wrapped around the home of the Gods, Mount Meru, which here is perhaps the temple of the Bayon at the centre of the city. The towering gate itself is topped by enigmatic faces. This amazing ensemble has probably witnessed more prestigious approaches than the short sequence we film of our presenter John McCarthy turning up in a Tuk Tuk.

Onwards to lunch, and then to the Bayon, the temple at the precise centre of Angkor Thom, which itself was at centre of the Khmer empire. The Bayon was built within the Buddhist faith by King Jayavarman VII, and on its many towers there are extraordinary enigmatic faces that are both the Bodhisattva Lokeshvara and in some sense also the king himself. These faces offer yet another wondrous visual experience, as you can both view them from far off, when they all but pull back into the stones, and climb right up to many of them, where they can be seen to revel in their subtle differences.

We film and film, guided by Professor Vudthy, with whom John talks both as they walk around the upper terraces of the temple and in a set-up in which they are seated at its base. The professor shows us another amazing sequence of bas-reliefs, and unlike those at Angkor Wat which depict tales from the Ramayana, these show historical battles in which the Khmer fought against the Cham alongside their Chinese allies.

Being the middle of the day, the sun is hot, hot, hot, but this has the advantage of keeping most of the other tourists at bay in the nearby cafés. We’re able to corral most of the others to stay out of the shots we want to achieve, and almost all seem oddly amenable to being pushed around, albeit politely, by a British documentary crew.

Just near to the Bayon is the terrace outside what was the city’s royal palace, and we have time to film some general shots, over which we can later lay voice-over, of John walking around. Here too there are amazing things: a sculptural wall of relief elephants and the odd “rope towers” seen across the royal square. Most of the city’s buildings, of course, were constructed of wood, and so have long rotted away — what we’re left with by and large are the religious structures intended to last for eternity.

As the afternoon winds down, we jump into the crew bus for the short ride to the big balloon. This is a well-organised tourist attraction that for the standard fee of $15 each is happy for us to take John McCarthy and camera up to see what we can see of Angkor Wat. Our presenter, however, is less happy once we’ve left the ground, as after a brave first piece-to-camera, he finds that vertigo forces him to take firmly to the balloon basket’s floor. Cue guilt from this producer, who hasn’t thought for a moment about the comfort of the talent. Cue even more guilt when the shot itself turns out to be wobbly and not that remarkable. A presenter’s acute discomfort is perhaps permissable for achieving great images, but probably not otherwise.

Once more, around 5pm we’re beginning to lose the light as the sun starts towards the horizon. But we have a wrap-up piece to camera to shoot for the Hinduism film in which Angkor Wat will appear; the Bayon and Ta Prohm will take their places in Buddhism. This we record with a background across the main moat of Angkor Wat which now is bathed in the light of a Cambodian ‘golden hour’.

All too soon, that’s a wrap, and we’re pitched into goodbyes, the paying of bills, a last meal, departure from Siep Ream (with a further eye-wateringly high excess baggage charge from Singapore Airlines’ subsidiary Silk Air), a brief stop in Phnom Penh airport, a longer one in Singapore, and then a thirteen-hour smooth but packed flight to Heathrow, with great service and only a so-so selection of movies (although the original of The Hustler, 1961, with Paul Newman, is a welcome re-discovery). We’re back in London with the whole trip having lasted less than five full days. It’s perhaps not the ideal way to travel but none of us would have missed it for the world.

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