Angkor 2

Perhaps the two most valuable and altruistic works the French have done in the Far East have been the creation in 1930 of the Institut Bouddhique at Phnom Penh (after Catholic missionaries had succeeded in several years in making only one convert), and the establishment in the same city of the Ecole des Arts Cambodgiens. The latter institution has made a desperate and successful attempt to save the situation, by encour¬aging the production of goods of high artistic value that can be sold in the ordinary way of commerce. The utmost difficulty was experienced in reassembling the artists with whom the old traditions would have died. They had returned to their villages and taken up the cultivation of rice, or fishing. When they were tracked down, it was found that some of them, who were already ageing, had not touched a tool for a quarter of a century. Flowever, the happy fact is that the effort was made just in time, and that the Khmer arts which were on the point of vanishing for ever were given a vigorous artificial respiration and are now in fairly good shape. Naturally enough, they are now directed to commercial ends, and are largely applied to the rather banal objects demanded by the tourist and export trades. It is a stimulating reflection that the imaginative verve and faultless technique of modern Cambodian art at its best is considered by experts to rival that employed in the ornamentation of Angkor, and that this creative ability is now placed within the reach of a wide public in the form of such articles as cigarette cases and powder boxes. According to M. Marchal the present danger lies in the fact that the Cambodian is determined at all costs to be absolutely up to date, and is therefore inclined to turn his back on his own impressive artistic heritage, and allow himself to be too deeply influenced by movements in Europe, purely because they are fashionable and would-be audacious.
As there was nowhere to stay in Siem-Reap, I had to go to the Grand Hotel outside the town, which draws its sporadic nourishment from visitors to Angkor. I returned to the town – a blistering, shadeless walk of a mile – for occasional meals. In the whole of Cambodia there is not a single Cambodian restaurant. True Cambodian dishes, just as Aztec dainties in Mexico and Moorish delicacies in Spain, are only to be eaten in the market booths and wayside stalls of remote towns, which are the last refuges of vanishing, culinary cultures. While from fear of infection, one dared not at Siem-Reap risk those brilliant rissoles, those strange membraneous sacks containing who knows what empirically discovered titbit, there was always a restaurant serving what came vaguely under the heading of Chinese food. This is, at least, light, adapted to the climate, and consequently less burdensome than the surfeit of stewed meats inevitably provided by the Grand Babylon hotels of the Far East.
The Grand Hotel des Ruines had had several lean years. It was said that one or two of the guests had been kidnapped. The necessity, until a few months before, of an armed escort, must have provided an element of drama not altogether unsuitable in a visit to Angkor. Now the visitors were beginning to come again, arriving in chartered planes from Siam, signing their names in the register which was coated as soon as opened with a layer of small, exhausted flies falling continually from the ceiling. Perking up, the management arranged conducted tours to the ruins. In the morning the hotel car went to Angkor Thom, in the afternoon it covered what was called the Little Circuit. The next morning it would be Angkor Thom again and in the afternoon Angkor Vat. You had to stay three days to be taken finally on a tour of the Grand Circuit. Naturally in the circumstances the hotel wanted to keep its guests as long as possible. And even Baedeker would not have found three days unreasonable for the visit to Angkor.
There were many remoter temples, such as the exquisite Banteay Srei, thirty kilometres away, which the bus did not reach, as it was doubtful whether the writ of Dap Chhuon ran in these distant parts. The forces of the tutelary bandit seemed to be concentrated in the immediate vicinity. There was a sports field under my window and every morning, soon after dawn, a party of Dap Chhuon’s men used to arrive for an hour’s PT. Against a background of goal posts, they failed to terrify. They were thin from the years spent under the greenwood tree and as they ‘knees-bent’ and ‘stretched’, each piratical rib could be counted. Beyond the playing- field and the gymnasts, was the forest, tawny and autumnal, from which in the far distance emerged the helmeted shapes of the three central towers of Angkor Vat. The existence of Angkor was reported by sixteenth-century missionaries, although the ruins were not fully described until Mouhot’s visit in 1859. They are probably the most spectacular man-made remains in the world, and as no European could ever be expected to rest content with the comfortable attitude taken by the Cambodians who assured Mouhot that ‘they made themselves’, the details of their origins have provoked endless speculation and many learned volumes.
At its maximum extension at the end of the twelfth century, the Khmer Empire included, in addition to the present kingdom of Cambo¬dia, parts of the Malay Peninsula, Burma, Siam and Cochin China, but for practical and metaphysical reasons the capital has always been in the vicinity of Angkor. There are important Khmer ruins scattered through the forests over a hundred miles radius. The principal monuments are the colossal mausoleum of Angkor Vat, the shell of the city of Angkor Thom, with its fantastic centre piece, the Bayon, and a few scattered temples and foundations; some pyramidical, but all built on a strictly rectangular plan and carefully oriented with doors facing the cardinal points. Between these are clear open spaces, since permanence was only desired for religious edifices and only those could be built of brick and stone. All these buildings were erected between the ninth and twelfth centuries.

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