As readers know. I have an affinity with the Far East and have travelled extensively, both on and off the tourist trail. Among the countries I’ve visited, Cambodia holds a special place. Some years ago my wife and I went to northern Cambodia, more especially in the Angkor area.
It has become a favourite area for both of us. Indeed, together with some of my pupils, for a few years, I used to support a hotel school in Siem Reap called Sala Bai. It is part of a larger NGO project in Cambodia.
Apart from France, where the NGO was created, this particular school also receives support in Australia and Singapore. Unfortunately, as I’m getting older and closer to retirement (June 2021), I haven’t found yet any other teacher in the school to take over the project and the fund-raising activities.
I really enjoyed working on the project because the pupils became heavily involved and discovered a country they could hardly place on a map. They had no idea about the history of the country. They were also surprised to learn about the living standards down there. In any case, if you plan a trip to Cambodia, a stay at the school’s hotel or have lunch at the school’s restaurant is a must.
As a young boy I was always fascinated when I read books like Heinrich Harrer’s Seven Years in Tibet, Pierre Loti’s A Pilgrimage to Angkor or Alexandra David-Neel’s My journey to Lhasa and other adventure books by Robert Louis Stevenson and Mark Twain to name just a few. So going to some of those places mentioned in various books was a sort of dream come true, a kind of fulfilment of my vicarious adventures as a boy. Coming of age, I became interested not only in monuments but also in the people who live there.
Of course, the Ricoh GR was my trusted camera that accompanied me on the trip. Although I know some of you may wonder why I did not use colour imaging for the article, there’s a more je ne sais quoi in the black and white images. The portraits were turned into in monochrome, with a little post-processing to enhance contrast.
The temple images were shot directly in black and white high contrast. If the Ricoh is not as good as the Leica in terms of colour, crispness and contrast, the output in black and white is to my eyes excellent. In terms of analogue photography, it’s very close to what you could do with an Ilford paper grade 4 (which was the paper I used many years ago) and the high contrast can be at times more contrasty than a Kodak Tri-X.
The Angkor temples
The Khmer civilisation flourished from the 9th to the 14th centuries CE. During the reigns of the Khmer kings, their empire spread as far as Laos and parts of Thailand. The temples were initially dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva and became Buddhist temples only later. Angkor in the 10th century spread over 360 square miles with an elaborate water network and supported a population of 750 000, which made it the biggest city of those ancient times.
The temples spread over this territory and you can start wherever you want. To visit the site all you need do is to buy a pass which gives you unlimited access to the different temples. You are regularly checked by the apsaras (some more on that later) which is the name given to the site attendants.
The temples are more or less all built according to the same pattern. The square temples are surrounded by a moat that you can cross thanks to bridges and then a surrounding wall. These bridges or walls are protected by nâgas (serpent heads), lions or garudas (half man, half eagle). The representation of garudas in Tibetan Buddhism is quite different from the original
The first building leads to another one built on the same pattern until you reach the heart of the temple. The temples were rediscovered by the French explorer and naturalist Henri Mouhot in the middle of the 19th century. He was responsible for the popularisation of the temples in western Europe. He died of malarial fever near Luang Prabang in Laos in 1861 and is buried there.
This is probably the most famous temple. It appears on the Cambodian flag and on your visa. It was built in the first half of the 12th century by King Suryavarnam II and was originally dedicated to Vishnu. Once you reach the top at the centre of the site, you discover the jungle surrounding it. The temple also hosts smaller temples within its walls.
The temple was built by the Khmer king Jayavarnam V in the second half of the 10th century and was dedicated to Shiva. It is now restored but has suffered from looting over the years. The most famous robber (who stole devatas — carved statues — from the temple in the early 20th century) is our former French Minister of Culture and writer André Malraux. He was imprisoned and then released on bail.
The temple is built according to the traditional Khmer pattern and contains in its heart magnificent carvings which are often regarded as some of the finest examples of Khmer art.
This is probably one of the best-known temples because some scenes in the movie Tomb Raider were shot there. The place is overcrowded during daytime and a visit just before closing time is highly recommended.
That’s what we did and avoided the crowd. The place was almost empty. It’s a magical place and wandering among the ruins where stones intermingle with the huge roots of banyan trees is a romantic experience. Apparently some of the buildings still stand thanks to these huge roots.
This was our favourite temple with its head-shape towers. It was built between the late 12th and early 13th centuries. It was constructed as a royal city by King Jayavarnam VII. The carvings on the surrounding walls are sheer beauty and, while exploring every nook and cranny of the temple, you may just feel like Indiana Jones on the verge of discovering some unknown ancient civilisation.
All the temples house wonderful sculptures that either depicts scenes of battles or of daily life. The temples also house the sculpture of apsaras. In mythology, they are water nymphs renowned for their beauty. They are also known for being excellent dancers. According to legend, they emerge from the water to seduce men. Men unwilling to be seduced go mad while men who accept them as a mistress or marry them are granted immortality.
However, Angkor is not only a stone temple but a city teeming with life. Apart from locals riding their motorbikes and monks on a visit to the famous sites, the surroundings of the monuments are home to small Buddhist temples.
You may also encounter the modern version of apsaras, the site attendants with their children who play around the temples not far their mothers’ watch. It’s a really nice feeling to hear the laughter and cries of children among these ancient stones.
Visiting a country without a spell in the local markets and villages would be a mistake. There’s a nice atmosphere to these villages, usually crossed by an earthen road. The Cambodian people are really friendly.
Of course, sometimes you will probably be stopped by begging victims of Khmer landmines or children trying to sell you magnets, postcards or bamboo origami. “Hello, one dollar”, they will say with a broad smile on their faces. In those cases, you comply because you are so hypnotised by their smiles.
The Tonle Sap is a fresh-water lake that trebles its size with the monsoon. During the rainy season the water from the Mekong, instead of going downstream, reverses the flow of the Tonle River, flooding a large part of the lowlands south of the Angkor region.
We went there during the dry season and the sight of the houses built on stilts gives you an idea of how high the water level can be at the height of the monsoon season. Another reason was to bring copybooks and pens and pencils that we usually carry in our luggage to give to a local school that borders the lake.
Taking these small presents has long been a habit when we are travelling to developing countries but it was particularly appropriate on this occasion as I was quite deeply involved helping the NGO. Some children who live in the villages that border the lakes are often selected to study at the Sala Bai school.
The only people that seem to earn a decent living are the ones who breed crocodiles for the Chinese crocodile leather industry. Despite poverty, child labour and what we westerners regard as squalid living conditions, the people in the villages we visited really welcoming and we had a great time sharing moments with them even though our time was limited.