The reality of this place is so charged with magic that it beggars the imagination, while its grandeur is breath-taking. For centuries covered and protected in the warm bosom of the Cambodian jungle, the grandiose vestiges of this city of temples exude mystery. Everything is sacred and cyclopean, from the vegetation to the constructions. And the glorious silence hovering over the monuments is of an eloquence that defies description. An extraordinary world of stone is being attacked by the mastodontic roots of the kapok tree, while the ficus gibbosa trees are engaged in mortal combat with the walls, slipping into the cracks for a grain of earth.
Angkor, the ancient and fabulously rich Cambodian capital, the centre of the Khmer civilization which, from the ninth to the thirteenth centuries, became the hub of the greatest empire in southeast Asia, incorporates numerous royal cities with an infinity of magnificent monasteries, temples, bridges, embankments, ponds, military fortresses, and dizzily high mausoleum-shrines built at the top of spacious terraces. The monuments are scattered throughout the jungle north of lake Tonie Sap not far from Siem Reap, over an area as large as the island of Elba. But after the Siamese occupation in 1431 all this languished and finally declined.
In the first half of our century expert French restorers carried out a great many operations for the conservation of this heritage. Unfortunately, the tragic events that overtook Cambodia, the insurrection against the French colonial forces, the intervention of American troops seeking to ferret out the Vietcong troops that took refuge there, the civil war, Pol Pot’s ferocious Khmers Rouges, and the Vietnamese invasion, all constituted virtually insuperable obstacles, which made it impossible, except for a fortunate few, to visit these wonders.
Bureaucratic and political obstacles, however, have never managed to dampen my enthusiasm and happiness. I venture into the dense vegetation of this forest along unbeaten tracks in search of stones that offer something new for my camera. Although these surroundings are now quite familiar to me, I always feel the primordial weight of the immense green vault with its extraordinary variety of trees, plants, parasite creepers, and brambles, which unremittingly scratch the passer-by, who finds it not so easy to disentangle himself.
The stifling air is almost stupefying, saturated as it is with the smell of rotting vegetation, and rare stabs of light penetrate the intricate tangle of branches, breaking through the quiet gloom of the underbrush.
In this nature, so distant from the measure of man, monkeys call to one another, a snake creeps silently, gaily-coloured butterflies vie with one another for the flower-cups of the few flowers, birds practise their songs, and a winding and quivering column of millions of ants makes its way over a trunk lying across its path.
Though concealed by the extremely dense vegetation, what remains of the Buddhist temple Ta Som, which dates from the end of the twelfth century, emerges all the same. Unfortunately, the walls of the building are partly inclined, almost as if resigned to undergoing the inexorable assault of nature, owing to the weight of the superstructures and to the constant washing away of the soil by the torrential rains. Within the outer enclosure, however, there remains a “prasat”, tower which, still upright, defies the centuries; while clinging to its summit a ficus tree, now a few hundred years old, luxuriates triumphantly in its conquest.
The roots of this monstrous vegetal squid envelop, shatter, but perhaps even support the four silent and timeless faces of the Buddha Bodhisattva Lokesvara. The white tentacles hang, creep, penetrate every crevice, slip out again to wind about the stone head, or descend to close its lips. The imperturbable look and the divine smile, however, could be interpreted as the expression of someone determined not to collapse; so that titanic face-off of nature and stone still has no winner and no loser. I was unprepared for this incomparable vision, so that the combined effect was quite mind-boggling, and even hair-raising; indeed, it was an ideal subject for some work by the great surrealist painter Salvador Dali.
I am by nature an incurable romantic, and when I fall in love I end by slipping into a long-lasting sentimentality. The object of my attention always has the power to spark my imagination and until I ferret out its deepest secrets, I have no peace.
I have loved Angkor since 1972 when, provided with a special pass issued by Unesco, I ventured there at my own risk, only a few weeks before the Khmer Rouges took complete control of this territory. At the time, accompanied by a guide, I made a tour of the temples on an elephant’s back. I still remember the rather unpleasant feeling, in all that solitude, that I was somehow desecrating the place.
I am still convinced that the best system for approaching Angkor is not to read a detailed guide and to learn everything about the history of the Khmer rulers, because this would be too cold an approach; to really feel it one must capture its essence in the aura surrounding it. It is not only the jungle, the softness of the air, the rosy dawns or the glimpses of ashen light among the oppressive dark clouds that heighten the sense of its sacred detachment, its fragility, its virgin freshness, or its remoteness; there is also emotion, the near suffering that springs from the sight of a mutilated statue illuminated by flickering votive candlelight or from the disfigured face of a Buddha that continues to smile, or again, from the delicate and graceful sculptures of women lacerated by gunfire.