I recently took a trip to Angkor Wat, which I’ve wanted to do since I was a child. It just so happens that my great-grandfather, FPM, shared my passion for ruined temples too, and I still have his holiday snaps from his visit in 1931.
After showing these photos to our guide, he immediately turned into some kind of temple Sherlock, finding the exact position FPM must have stood in to capture the shots. I then recreated them, whilst standing awed at the insanity of the situation. Falling leaves, etc.
I managed to match a surprising number of them, so to prevent epic page load times I’ll be splitting up the shots into two posts. If you want to see bigger versions, just click on the photo in question. The next instalment will be with you next Tuesday so if historical photos are your thing, please check back next week as well. If they aren’t then sorry, it’ll be a dry couple of weeks for you.
So here for your viewing pleasure (although mostly mine, let’s be honest) are FPM’s shots, and mine. The captions are his, the commentaries are mine. Let’s not discuss who the better photographer is…
|[View of Angkor Wat from present Buddhist monastery]|
I love how this view has hardly changed at all. Save for a tiny bit of scaffolding. I suppose it’s one of the most iconic views, and where droves of people will watch the sunrise daily over the pool of reflection, so it’s bound to be well preserved.
|[Angkor Wat, third stage]|
Note the installation of preventative barriers so people don’t just go wandering through the place, and the subtle shoring up of a wall or two. It actually surprised me just how open the site was; you could generally clamber about wherever you wanted, especially in some of the smaller temples that are no longer active.
|[View from top of Angkor Wat looking westward]|
Oh hi, Extremely Brightly Dressed Tourists. No, don’t mind me. I did wait for ages for them to move, but they really loved that small patch of shade. On a more serious note, this is just an example of the increase in tourism to the site since 1931. It’s got far wider implications for the use and preservation of the site than just messing up my photos.
|[Corner of Angkor Wat from south aspect]|
A restored lion has appeared here, as well as some scaffolding over one of the galleries. Constant repair work goes on around the site, funded by various countries of the world. We spotted work by France, Germany, China, and the US. But absolutely nothing by the UK. Apparently we’re donating ‘soft skills’. Cue epic eyeroll.
|[Statue of the Leper King, Royal Palace]|
There’s quite an interesting story behind this statue here. This is actually a statue of the God of Death, known in Cambodia as Dharmaraja. However, when the statue was rediscovered by locals after being lost in the forest following the dissolution of the Khmer empire, they couldn’t read the inscription at the base which named the statue. So they invented their own name, calling him The Leper King due to the lichen that grew on the statue, giving it the appearance of having leprosy.
Also, the photo that FPM took is of the original statue, now housed in a museum. The statue we saw is a replica, and the two smaller statues that were at his sides are now spaced out around the terrace.
|[Terrace of giants or demons, Royal Palace, Angkor]|
I think these are actually Garudas – a sacred bird with a human body which appears frequently in statues and motifs around the site. It’s an important figure in both Buddhism and Hinduism, so suits the dual nature of many of the sites. This terrace is where the King would receive important visitors, and originally would have had wooden galleries built on top.
|[Causeway to temple of Bayon. Guardian lions and garanda. Angkor Thom]|
Slight mis-spelling of Garuda in the caption, and sadly one of the upright Garudas behind the sacred lion has disappeared or, as our guide eloquently put it, has been lost to time. He also points out that these lions aren’t really lions, they’re mythical creatures called Kuchasey (according to our guide). These mythical creatures symbolise the kind of other-worldly animals you might find in heaven, because the temples themselves are supposed to be models of heaven. Everything you see there (the statues, carvings and layout of the temple itself) is highly symbolic and is designed to evoke the heavenly realms.
|[Sacred banyan growing out of and destroying shrine. Bathing tank of Neak Pean, Angkor]|
|[Sacred Horse, Neak Pean]|
This slightly melancholy specimen is the horse representing Balaha, also at the bathing sanctuary at Neak Pean. It was thought this sanctuary was built so that people could come and bathe here for healing. The main central pool, where the horse lives, was surrounded by four smaller pools at the cardinal directions. In a little covered porch at the side of each pool was a representation of a human head, a horse, an elephant, and a lion representing earth, wind, fire and water. You could pour water over a statue, which would then emerge from the mouth of the statue as holy water, and be used for healing.
|[The Hindu temple – Angkor perched on an eminence]|
And we finish on an enigma. On our final day, our guide wasn’t able to join us but gave us detailed instructions as to how to find this last site. He assured us it was to be found at Preah Ko, the back tower nearest the road. This is said temple, and I have to say, I’m not convinced of the match. It looks pretty close, but some things don’t add up – the pillars on the front don’t match, for example, and there doesn’t appear to be another tower to the left of it as there is in my photo. I don’t know, the restoration work has been pretty extreme in some places, so maybe that’s why it’s so different. Our guide was infallible when spotting other sites, so there’s no reason to think he wasn’t right on this one, too. What do you think?
I mostly just like the picture because it shows restoration work in action in the 1930s. I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t be very keen on climbing that ladder….!
Well that was a bit epic. I hope you’ve enjoyed your trip back in time with extra bonus free Khmer history lessons – which was your favourite before and after? Were you expecting things to be more different, or less?
Edit: You can now read part ii here.