Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Temple hunting

My pal Sokhom at the entrance to a ruined tower at Prasat Preah Neak Buos
Re-discovering Angkor temples lost in the mists of time is an exciting hobby. Back in January 2003 I went in search of the fabled Prasat Preah Neak Buos, a temple built in the eighth century but because of its remote location, inaccessibility and the ever-present danger posed by landmines, it was one of the last remaining ancient Khmer temple sites to escape close scrutiny by archaeologists and tourists alike. It lies at the foot of a promontory of the Dangrek Mountain range that forms a natural border between Thailand and northern Cambodia. 

Prasat Preah Neak Buos is an unusual monument. Its location demands that it faces south, and with various structures added during the reign of different Kings, it houses an eclectic cluster of temples rather than one large imposing structure. Early inscriptions call the location at the foot of the mountain, Canandagiri as well as Sivapadapurva. In later years during the 10th and 11th centuries, additional monuments were built at the same location, including brick temples with inscriptions facing east, whereas the original temple faced westwards. In the eleventh century, a new group of buildings were erected, with a large brick sanctuary holding centre stage and other smaller edifices and galleries amidst the rocky outcrops and boulders. 

Located just a few kilometres east of the small town of Choam Khsan in the far north of the country’s Preah Vihear Province, I enlisted the help of a couple of locals, who’d visited the temple before but who stressed that landmines, lain indiscriminately by both sides during hostilities just five years before, were everywhere so we had to be careful. To get the temple we took motos but with deep sand along the trail we spent most of our time walking the nine kilometers. We crisscrossed three deep and dry riverbeds, meandered along a cool and shady forest section and got stuck in ox-cart tracks before we arrived at a border police checkpoint, a kilometre from the foot of the mountain range. Surprised by our appearance, the police had not encountered any foreigners before and took some persuading to let us continue our journey. They confirmed that there were no landmines inside the temple but that we must stick to the main trail for our own safety and waved us on our way. We soon abandoned our motos to continue on foot and stumbled upon a large laterite wall, which my guide confirmed was the southern entrance to Neak Buos. We had arrived. Nearby, a broken statue of a lion and a finely carved colonette lying in the grass was early confirmation that this was indeed the prize I was seeking.

The southern entrance is a mishmash of building styles. On one side is a well-defined stepped laterite wall, whilst the opposite side is a natural ridge with sandstone boulders. The main entrance staircase is overgrown, whilst brick and laterite structures lie in ruin on top of the terrace behind. At one of the outer brick buildings, a damaged lintel at the base of a sandstone doorframe was ferociously guarded by red ants, a common enemy throughout my exploration. Walking through the undergrowth along a path of sorts, we encountered another large entry building, this time constructed of brick with a distinctive sandstone double doorframe, before a laterite gopura signalled the beginning of the inner enclosure, where the largest collection of buildings were to be found. Negotiating our way through the two-metre high vegetation, we stumbled across a sandstone lintel with well-known Hindu motifs carved in minute detail, poking out of the earth and likely to have come from one of the five brick towers to our left, in the southwest corner of the enclosure. Thorn bushes made up much of the foliage we encountered and I silently cursed myself for not insisting that we brought with us some machetes to cut our way through. In the excitement of the morning, I'd forgotten something so fundamental. As the sharp thorns penetrated my shirt and trousers, I vowed not to make the same mistake again.

We headed for the largest of the towers in the center of the inner enclosure. Like so many of the more dramatic of Cambodia's ancient temples, this was partly engulfed in the clutches of a strangler fig tree whose trunk sprouted skywards from the top of the tower. As we got closer we could hear the bats inside the tower signal our presence and the smell of their droppings was overpowering as I peered into the gloom of the sanctuary. The tower is of brick construction and has a stepped-pyramid or tapered appearance, opening out to the south. It was built later than most of the other structures and had survived in a much better condition. The main doorway, the three other doorways are false, boasted half a decorative lintel with an elephant and hermits in meditation, and a broken colonette. Lying closeby was the other half of the lintel where apsara dancers flying above elephants had their heads chipped away. No temple in Cambodia is safe from the temple thieves who seek to cash in on the trade in Angkorian material. I could find no other decoration on the tower as we inched our way through the brush to a large laterite gallery, with crude sandstone pillared windows, on the east side of the courtyard. Climbing to the top to gain a better view of our surroundings, we could just make out the pinnacle of at least eight towers but it emphasized exactly how wildly overgrown with vegetation the whole complex was. We rested for a while, listening to the quietness of the surrounding forest as our exertions had been tiring, with perspiration soaking my skin and clothes even though the overhead sun had not yet reached its’ hottest.

Our adventures continued on a more difficult route around the rear of the central brick tower, stepping gingerly through the thorn bushes and on top of discarded bricks and boulders. There was no path, we made it up as we went. A sandstone lotus flower, fallen from the summit of a tower and another half lintel protruding from the ground led us onto another two ruined brick towers. Both opened out to the east and both had inscriptions on their sandstone doorframes in Pali, an old Khmer script and in Sanskrit. Closeby was the original temple, known as Sivapadapurva, built in the eighth century and with its main doorway opening to the west. The base of the tower was laterite, whilst the top half was made of brick and housed another Sanskrit inscription, with some modern graffiti superimposed, as well as a perfectly rounded colonette and an intricate piece of carving. A few bats had also made their home in the upper reaches of its sealed tower. Another brick tower, opening out in a southern direction, stood a few metres away.

From atop the gallery we had spied another set of structures, lying in the southeast section of the enclosure and that's where we headed next. We were more than two hours into our exploration of the temple complex and whilst we hadn't uncovered anything as remarkable as the main temples of Angkor, the thrill of exploring a virgin site was no less palpable. Reaching the southeast corner, next to the surrounding laterite wall were two very ruined brick buildings. In front of the first was a large decorative lintel with gods, hermits and dancing figures carved in intricate detail. Scrambling around in the undergrowth nearby, we found more finely-carved stonework. At this point the vegetation was almost impenetrable and I just managed to reach two more small sandstone towers with carvings of demon faces, both in situ and lying in the undergrowth. Balancing precariously on fallen blocks of stone, I decided safety was the best option and that we’d seen as many of the structures as we could within the main enclosure. We now headed for the large brick gopura with the double sandstone doorframe we’d seen on our earlier arrival. A row of rectangular sandstone posts preceded the doorframe where I noticed a date carved on the stone, 8.2.1904, most likely from one of the French archaeologists that documented this and many of Cambodia's ancient temples in the early part of the twentieth century.

After a final inspection of the outer southern entrance, we ended our visit to Neak Buos. The thick undergrowth, the vicious ants and the incredibly hot and muggy conditions had made it a hard slog for more than three hours but the thrill of uncovering a major temple complex that few, if any, had visited for many decades, made it all worthwhile. We called in at the police station to rest, eat our lunch and to mend two punctures on one of the motos. If you are seeking to explore a temple that doesn't conform to the more sanitized versions you find at Angkor and you aren't afraid of a fair amount of discomfort then Prasat Preah Neak Buos may be just what you're looking for. If you do pay a visit, make sure you heed seriously the warnings about landmines and are accompanied by a knowledgeable local.

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