Visions of Angkor

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 29 July, 2001, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 29 July, 2001, 12:00am
 

IT WAS A WARM, clear evening, and American art historian Dawn Rooney was waiting for the sun to set over the ancient buildings of Angkor Wat.


She was alone, sitting on the highest pinnacle of the highest temple, where 1,000 years before only kings and high priests would have been allowed and she found herself 'wondering what Euro-peans would have thought about this 100 years ago. Would they have heard the cicadas like this; would they have seen the bats flying around the temple?'


At that point she decided to find out, and the result, three decades later, is Angkor Observed (White Orchid Press, $195), a wonderful atmospheric book of travellers' tales that will be published next month.


Rooney's first stop was the library at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. To her amazement she found archives full of unpublished diaries written by foreigners who had visited Angkor and Southeast Asia over the past century and a half. There were English, Dutch and American travellers, and of course most of all there were French, men mostly who had seen this extraordinary place, and had written vividly about their adventures in the city that had been the capital of the Khmer empire from the late ninth century to the middle of the 15th.


If she could have travelled with one of them, which one would she have chosen? Henri Mouhot she says, without hesitation. 'He was the first one to make his way there overland - except for the Jesuit priests. And their diaries were so exclusive to the Church that the public didn't hear about them.' Mouhot did not 'discover' Angkor, she emphasises - it has been a controversial point in Angkor's recent history - but his diaries and drawings, published after his death, did a great deal to help 19th-century Europeans and Ameri-cans discover it in their imaginations.


Mouhot must have presented a rather unusual vision to any Cambodian who caught sight of him in the winter of 1859 tromping through the jungle with his butterfly nets, binoculars and bearers carrying his extensive trunks of books and clothes, watercolours and scientific instruments.


He was only in his early 30s, but already, Rooney says, his hair was receding and to compensate, perhaps, he had a long and apparently bright red beard. Being a 19th-century European scientist, he did not compromise his wardrobe to the tropics and was always to be seen in a wool suit, white shirt and tie.


Mouhot was a French naturalist (at a time when, after Charles Darwin published his The Origin Of Species in 1858, naturalism was a passionately debated subject). At 30, in 1856, he married a niece of the Scottish explorer Mungo Park, and moved to Jersey. His dream was to reach the jungles of Southeast Asia: he could raise sponsorship money from neither France nor England, but when the Royal Geographical Society (RGS) agreed to give him 'moral' support, he invested the family fortune and set sail.


All he really wanted was to find insects and plants - and document rhino hunts and the crocodiles in the rivers they crossed. But he was following the route of the missionaries and inevitably he found himself at this extraordinary complex of temples and palaces, at the heart of which was the now-famous Angkor Wat, built in the 12th century by Suryavarman II.


He never claimed to know about architecture or archaeology but in his spare time, once he had finished with nature, he would skilfully sketch scenes of 'lost' temples behind tall palm trees.


Mouhot died in Laos, probably of malaria, in 1861, so he didn't know whether his drawings in Angkor ever made it to the West. But they created a huge stir and were published, with letters, in serial form in both England and France.


He was buried on the banks of a tributary of the Mekong, outside Lawang Prabang. 'Nobody knew quite where his grave was: the villagers said there was nothing,' Rooney says. Then the Bangkok branch of the Hash House Harriers - who had a few journalists in their ranks - decided to do a run to try to find it. 'And there, in the middle of the jungle with the river running past, was a huge, showy Victorian marble tomb.'


As part of her research, Rooney visited the archives of the RGS - and was thrilled to read the letters Mouhot sent - in his immaculate copperplate handwriting. 'You have to wear white gloves to touch them,' she says.


Angkor Observed is her second book about the ancient capital and her sixth about Southeast Asia. The writing started almost by accident, she says. After two years in Hong Kong in the late 1960s, her husband was posted with Citibank to Bangkok, where they still live. Those were the pre-Lonely Planet days, and when she arrived in 1971 she was disappointed to find just one guidebook to Thailand with no photographs in it.


To remedy that, she, her husband and their friends would choose a different place to explore each weekend, one of them being a lime-kiln area in northern central Thailand where they were thrilled to find some celadon-glazed shards of pottery from the 15th century. But the only book she could find in English said little about its origins, and those bits were mostly wrong.


So Rooney decided to investigate. Most of the celadon (pale-green glazed pottery) in the 14th-century Khmer areas - of which northern central Thailand was then a part - was made as grave goods, she explains. 'It had to be very special quality to go into a grave.' Then, 400 years later, many of the graves were looted and the antique celadon-ware became precious heirlooms. Some of the pieces were said to have had magical qualities, Rooney says - some of them were even believed to speak.


There was a story of how, in the 1930s, the gardener employed by the curator of the museum in Jakarta left some ceramics on the porch of his employer's bungalow. But when he looked for them, they had disappeared. 'He asked the gardener where he had found them, and was taken to the ancient grave, and there they were,' Rooney says.


After publishing articles on the subject - the history, not the myths - she came to the attention of an editor at Oxford University Press, who asked her to expand them into a book about Khmer ceramics in Thailand, which was published in 1984. Later she became interested in betel-chewing traditions and folk pottery, both of which became books. But Rooney's big break with Angkor Wat came in 1990, soon after the peace agreement was settled between the warring factions in Cambodia.


When a group of American art experts received permission from the government to visit the site - which at the time was extraordinary - a guide was needed. 'My name came up and I was desperate to get back there,' Rooney says. She had visited Angkor only once, in February 1970, just months before it closed to tourists, 'although French archaeologists continued [to visit] for two more years'. She found no guides, and no guidebooks: as soon as she returned she wrote a proposal for one but it was rejected by every publisher. 'Nobody wanted to put any money into it. It was a lost cause,' Rooney says.


But Magnus Bartlett from Odyssey Books in Hong Kong was interested: he flew to Bangkok and signed a contract. The first half was to cover geography, art, architecture, and the historical and recent background to why the ruins were there, and why they had been abandoned. The second half was to be a monument-by-monument guide. That first edition of Angkor: An Introduction To The Temples in 1994 covered 39 sites; the fourth, in 2001, covers 60.


It has been something of a best-seller, although Rooney doesn't see much of the profits. There is no copyright law in Cambodia, she explains, and children sell pirated copies - glossy and beautifully printed at the temples - for one-fifth of the cover price. 'It's a disaster in terms of the money. I was in tears at first but then my husband said 'be honoured' that they chose my guidebook to reproduce and sell,' she says.


Rooney is quite well-known now among the guides of Angkor. 'Sometimes children run up and say, 'You want to buy a book?' and one of the guides will explain to them that I wrote it. They don't understand - I don't think they realise that a book is actually something that someone has written,' she says.


On that first trip, many of the buildings, including the famous Preah Khan temple, was overgrown. 'There was so much jungle you couldn't go inside,' Rooney adds, explaining how she and her companions stayed at the Grand Hotel, which has now been renovated to its art-deco glory, but only a decade ago was so dilapidated the general manager today cannot believe her stories. 'The bathrooms had not been renovated since the hotel opened its grand doors in 1928 - the huge tubs were corroded with rust.'


When they checked in they got a bucket and instructions. 'They told us that when we left to see the temples in the morning we should turn the tap on; we found that by the time we got back at lunch time we could almost guarantee there would be enough water to flush the toilet once,' Rooney says, adding the upper floor was as derelict as the lower where they stayed.


Since she would be guiding people more accustomed to New York museum environments than the Cambodian tropics, Rooney had sent requests (and hard currency) in advance to ensure the air-conditioning ran all night. But at 2am it stopped. 'I'm sorry,' the smiling night manage told the group. 'No electricity.'


There are several problems facing Angkor today: one of the big ones is theft, another is corruption. Much of the theft took place in the early 1990s when it was almost impossible to find and train guards to look after such a huge area - although even now heads are being lopped off priceless Buddhist sculptures and being shipped to unscrupulous collectors and dealers.


'There was no health system, no educational system, no judicial system: how could people be that interested in ruins?' Rooney asks. But now the first class of university students has graduated in Cam-bodia, and its people are increasingly looking at Angkor to solve the country's problems. The future of Cambodia is tourism, and the draw for tourism is Angkor, she says.


The turning point came in November 1992 when Angkor became a World Heritage site. Suddenly there were international teams working there: before 1970 almost all the archaeologists had been French. One of the things they did was to educate the local people about the treasures they had. 'In 1992, the Cambodian people had much more to think about than ancient sites. Today we go there and we see weddings being held, and families with their children, all dressed up in their best clothes, taffetas and satin dresses, as if they are visiting the best thing in the world. It's wonderful,' Rooney says.


Angkor Observed will not be the last book Rooney pens about the temples that she has now visited 64 times. 'One day,'' she says, 'I would like to write a novel on what life would have been like at Angkor in the 12th century.'


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