THE BATTLE BETWEEN GOOD AND EVIL IN INDOCHINA HAS LEFT BEHIND ASTONISHING ARCHITECTURE AND DARK MEMORIES. TO EXPERIENCE THE BEST OF THE REGION WHILE ACQUIRING SOME UNDERSTANDING OF ITS ELUSIVE CHARACTER, DANIEL JEFFREYS VISITED THE TRANQUIL RESORTS OF AMANSARA IN SIEM REAP AND AMANTAKA IN LUANG PRABANG, BOTH OF WHICH HAVE ROOTS IN THE TURBULENT PAST.
[dropcap size=small]O[/dropcap]n a searing hot morning in April I stood face to face withmy own mortality and fear. Above me was a line of steps at a 75-degree angle that rose from grass, rocks and red mud to a height of over one hundred feet. At the summit was an exquisite temple with a reclining Buddha inside, but between this serene space and me was a nerve-jangling climb uprazor thin steps that bear the scars of a thousand years in the midst of jungle and monsoon rains. And I am not fond of heights. But I like giving up even less.
As I wondered how many bones I could break if I tumbled from near the top flight like a character from the Tower card in the Tarot, an Australian passed by and began his ascent, remarking that the incline was steeper than Tikal, a Mayan temple famous for its impossible staircase. Despite this warning – or maybe because of it – I took a deep breath and started to climb, flattening my body against the brittle, pumice-like stone and trying to focus on my footholds and the texture of the thousand-year old bricks, rather than the widening gap between my fragile skull and the rocks below.
At a height of around eighty feet the baleful wings of vertigo began to flap around my head, threatening to propel me inside a tornado of dizziness that would drag me off the steps to my doom. And then my left hand found the landing platform in front of the temple and I felt sunlight break through the slate grey clouds. Standing up I shook hands with the Australian and looked in triumph back toward the ground.
The pyramidal temple I had scaled is known as Baksei Chamkrong, which sits just outside the complex of Angkor Thom, a few kilometres north ofSiem Reap. The temple was originally dedicated to the Hindu deity Lord Shiva and was completed by Rajendravarman II in the second half of the tenth century. Construction had initially commenced in the 910s under the instructions of King Harshavarman I, who placed a plaque inside declaring that the Angkor people were directly descended from the Gods, the first recorded instance of such a claim.
The pyramid’s name means “The bird who offers shelter” and comes from a legend that the king tried to flee Angkor during a siege and was protected by the wings of an eagle-like creature with a golden beak. Baksei Chamkrong is not on the itinerary of most visitors to the Angkor temples. The Angkor complex represents the height of Khmer culture, a peak from which the Khmers descended to a low point almost four decades ago when the Khmer Rouge chased the urban population of Cambodia into the countryside and massacred hundreds of thousands of them for the crime of beingwell educated or financially successful.
These days tour buses and flag-wielding guides may gather in hordes around Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom, but there are hundreds of smaller temples that escape the full flood of humanity and, like Baksei Chamkrong, they sit quietly among trees and birds, waiting to be reclaimed by the deities that once gave them meaning and power.
Standing at the summit of Rajendravarman’s great pyramid, the only Angkor temple with this shape, the jungle seemed to be closing in again as the tree roots and creepers reached out for the brickwork to rip it asunder, as they had done to so many ancient structures along theSiem Reap river valley before French archaeologists under the direction of the École Française d’Extrême-Orient began a long restoration and drainage project at the start of the twentieth century. As the air grew still the birds seemed to lose their voice, as if they were participating in a daily ritual of silence to honour all those who had died at this site, thrown from the temple mount in acts of sacrifice, ormachine gunned where they stood as the Khmer Rouge came rampaging through in search of treasure.
As I descended from the summit of Baksei Chamkrong I glimpsed a deep hole dug by the Khmer Rouge as they sought a golden Shiva and other treasures that had once been part of the pyramid’s stock of holy wealth. Although the golden Shiva has never been found, Rajendravarman’s temple survived the attempted desecration and that is a fate enjoyed by many of the beautiful buildings around Siem Reap, including the one that now houses Amansara, to which I returned shortly after my morning oftemple-eering. The Villa Princière, as theSiem Reap Aman was originally called, wasbuilt in 1962 by the French architect Laurent Mondet for Norodom Sihanouk, who ruled Cambodia from 1953 until 1970.
Sihanouk wanted a simple, modern state guesthouse that was supposed to hint at a new and more refined future for Cambodia. The architecture lasted longer than the politics. By 1975 the Khmer Rouge were in power, Sihanouk had been turned into a puppet king and the Villa had been ravished by troops. Sihanouk visited in 1978 and wrote that he found “The Villa Princière is full of decay and decrepitude.” Using a bitter tone he declared the Villa to be “beyond repair.”
Yet Cambodia has always been about mythical creatures rising anew from ashes, of mystical birds that shelter brave kings, and thus the Villa, after a 14-year incarnation as the Villa Aspara and a five year period of abandonment found its saviour in 2002, when the founder of Amanresorts, Adrian Zecha, decided it should become the next property in his portfolio.
Zecha had visited the Villa Princière as a journalist between 1959 and 1970. He understood the property’s historical significance, which might explain why, today, it now feels both modern and caught in vintage 1960s aspic, with a mid-twentieth century modernist elegance combined with 21st century luxury. Although for guests on short trips it’s unlikely they will savour much of either, as they embark on their whistle stop tour of Angkor’s epic past. I arrived in Amansara in the mid-afternoon. With only a few hours of daylight left this meant a rapid check-in provided by graceful and attentive staff to a suite that looked serene and elegant with a beautiful private garden and carp pond beyond a set of French doors.
I would have lingered to try on my complimentary krabi but a tuk-tuk and guide organised by the resort at my request were waiting to escort me to Angkor Thom, established in the late twelfth century by King Jayavarman VII and covering an area of nine square kilometres. My companions found it hard to get me beyond the bridge at Angkor Thom’s south gate, where a row of devas on the left and asuras on the right grip a naga, or snake in a tug-of-war that is part of the Hindu creation myth known as “the churning of the sea of milk.” These figures have such vibrancy that it’s almost impossible to resist photographing or sketching each one. Like much of Angkor the naga bridges would repay weeks of study, but few visit the region with such time on hand.
What is without doubt is thatBayon began life as a Buddhist temple and is a prime example of the Khmer baroque period, as opposed to the more classical forms ofAnkgor Wat. Bayon’s enigmatic faces along with its bas-relief depictions of everyday life that feature dozens of Chinese merchants, make the temple a masterpiece worthy of its inclusion in the Angkor Wat designation as a UNESCO world heritage site. Bayon, like most of the Angkor temples, has a strange hectic energy, and it seemed to exert an influence over my hosts atAmansara.
Over the course of the next forty-eight hourstheir bespoke itinerary included rising at 5.30am to see sunrise over Angkor Wat, heading for breakfast in Aman’s stilted village house on the north bank of West Baray lake, swimming in Amansara’s glorious green waterpool, a tour of smaller temples such as TaProhm, which has been left much as it was found a century ago with gigantic trees growing through walls that have been split open like a baked bean tin, rising again at 5.30 am the next day for a visit to the distant temple ofBanteaySrei, and then heading to the airport for Laos,Amantaka and awell earned rest.
Amantaka is located just south of MountPhousi in the centre ofLuangPrabang and close to the banks of the Mekong River. The resort is the perfect place to reflect on everything that one has just seen inSiem Reap and Angkor Wat. This Laotian city of 50,000 has 30 gold-tipped temples of its own but that is not the main draw. Luang Prabang’s great charm lies in its sleepy streets jammed full of bakeries,cafes and antique shops, which retain a French colonial atmosphere mixed with vibrant Laotian traditions, like the night market and open air restaurants serving delicious street delicacies. And then there isAmantaka itself. Unlike its sister inSiem Reap this is not a property of 5am starts and rows of temple-boundtuk-tuks lined up ready for another dawn assault on Angkor Wat.
Within the grounds of this former colonial hospital serenity reigns from sunrise to sunset, from the peaceful dining room that specialises in Laos-style recipes with a French twist, to the well-appointed library and its afternoon tea, to the performances of Laotian royal courtship dances that accompany the evening cocktail. Between all of these treats one can sandwich long stretches of time in a suite that in all probability will, like mine, have an expansive sitting room, bedroom, bathroom and – best of all – a private pool that is large enough to be used for laps and tranquil enough to be a lounging area complete with semi-submerged glasses of champagne.
In Amantaka, which derives its name from the word aman or ‘peace’ in Sanskrit, and tipitaka, meaning ‘the teaching of the Buddha’ time is like a soft breeze in a cornfield. Itundulates but only just, and as it passes it causes only the slightest sensation of movement, allowing hours to drift by unnoticed, like high clouds in a mid-summer sky. I took a book on Cambodia’s darkest days from theAmantaka library and occupied a private poolside lounger for most of the first day I was in residence.
The calm from the surface of the water and the turmoil in the pages in front of me created the perfect focus for reflecting upon what had happened in Indochina through the second half of the twentieth century. Like the Hindu sea of milk, water (and history) run deep and still, until warring forces collide within them to create new heavens or old hells. And each time I laid down the book to plunge into the pool I scattered battalions of water boatman insects far and wide, which seemed to me like a metaphor for how the brute actions of ideological forces can displace the lives of others to the point that their suffering and the hellish tortures carvedonto some of the walls of Angkor Wat become indistinguishable.
By night it was possible to become less philosophical, more focused on pecuniary matters. And there is no better place for that than Luang Prabang’s night market, a sea of scarves, t-shirts, carvings and jewellery that washes around the feet of Amantaka’s hillside every evening, come rain, shine or the absence of customers. I have rarely seen a place with so much optimism from stall keepers in the face of so few buyers. It’s almost as if the market is not for commerce at all, but rather some kind of elaborate installation by an artist and if it were such it would still be more than worth a visit, if only to munch on some of the local street desserts.
After two days at Amantaka the peaks and troughs of Khmer civilisation have begun to assume a less confusing shape. The best move then was to head back to Amansara for a two day encore, heading off by bicycle or tuk-tuk without a guide to revisit some of the most beguiling temples seen on the first leg. I arrived again in Amansara around mid-afternoon and this time my check-in was not so harried, without a formal programme booked. And imagine the joy and surprise of being checked into a larger suite than the first and discovering that it had a private pool to match the one at Amantaka.
It was after the first secluded dip at Amansara that I found myself on the steps of Baksei Chamkrong, fighting to find the courage to ascend the majestic Hindu pyramid and then laughing all the way down at the thought of how my descent must look to the monkeys in the nearby trees, my arms and legs splayed out like a spider gripping a slippery length of rain soaked leaf. If my tuk-tuk driver was amused he did not let on. Like all the Aman staff he was the spirit of discretion, handing out cold towels or chilled water whenever they were needed. Back at the resort, after another swim, I went for a blessing from a local Buddhist monk.
The staff at both Amansara and Amantaka will arrange all sorts of culture encounters like this for curious guests, including secret mountaintop ceremonies in Laos, like the Baci enjoyed by Jude Law and Sienna Millar when they stayed at the resort in 2010. As I walked back to the suite it struck me that the distinction between private and public spaces at Aman is almost non-existent. Every part of the resort feels like it belongs to you, as if it’s not really a hotel at all but the guest house of a rich and powerful owner who just wants his friends to feel at home.
In the myth of the churning milk, the mountain that is spun around by the pulling of the naga by the devas and asuras begins to sink. Shiva saves the day by turning into a vast sea turtle that supports the mountain on its back. One feels, after six nights of living with Aman, that they have the same philosophy toward their guests. Where they fall the Aman-ites will be there to pick them up, where they want to rise higher they will have a ladder and a route map that shows them the way.
- The spa at Amansara offers several specialities including cranio-sacral therapy that leaves one feeling cleansed in mind and body.
- Once a year world-renowned Angkor Wat expert Roland Fletcher attends the resort and leads a not-to-be-missed tour of the temples.
- Ask to be picked up from the airport in Amansara’s own time machine, a 1960s era black stretch Mercedes.
- Head out to one of the local restaurants, some of which are housed within traditional Laos stilt houses and serve excellent Laotian cuisine.
- Shop at Les Artisans d’Angkor, where there is a large and exquisite range of Khmer artefacts made by disabled craftsmen from the local community.
- Take a helicopter ride organised by Amansara to remote temples near the Thai border.
- Make a private dinner date at an Angkor temple and have a feast served by candlelight from the Amansara kitchens.
- Take a boat trip on the Khan River and visit Tad Sae to stroll past the local elephant herd and encounter a waterfall that flows out of the jungle.
- Visit Ock Pop Tok’s craft centre and be instructed in the silk-making process, the three types of Lao weaving, and how to dye a silk scarf with all natural ingredients.
- Head to the Amantaka spa for a Traditional Lao massage that combines gentle yoga stretches and pressure point massage to relieve tension and relax the muscles.
- Follow Buddhist novices and their ritual drums to the peak of Mount Phousi and Wat Chomsi, the 300+ steps up make a good workout and offer a glimpse of sunrise over Luang Pranbang’s golden rooftops.
- Rent a boat and glide down river to the Pak Ou caves that shelter hundreds of images of Buddha.
- Get a regal fix at the Royal Palace Museum, the Laotian royal family residence until 1975. The private rooms of the 1904 structure have Art Deco furniture, royal costumes and world class Buddha statues.
- Amanresorts was founded by Indonesian entrepreneur Adrian Zecha, a former journalist.
- Zecha, now 79, loves cigars, is known for his impeccable taste and once had a home in Hong Kong with a working fireplace.
- The first Aman opened by Zecha was Amanpuri opened in 1987 on the southern Thai island of Phuket.
- Zecha had a stint at Time magazine in the 1950s and later left to start his own weekly Asian affairs magazine.
- Aman does not advertise and Zecha says “I find it very difficult to explain, even for me, what an Aman is.”
- Zecha only approves a project after he has made sure its ambience won’t be damaged by nearby construction or visual pollution.
- Each property chosen by Zecha must reflect local culture and blend into the surroundings. The Amanwana in Indonesia, for example, is a seasonal tent camp surrounded by deer and wild boar.
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