The majesty of the crumbling palaces

IN Cambodia, we met our son and his girlfriend, fresh from their two-day voyage on a slow boat down the Mekong from north Thailand into Laos, and cheerful despite their 20-hour bus journey to meet us at Siem Reap.

Angkor Wat, with its once-upon-a-time cloud-capped towers and gorgeous palaces, lies just outside the town.

Together with other palaces and temples, some cloaked in jungle — and Angkor Thom, a large, moated town — it draws two million visitors annually. It is a wonder of the world, the testament to a once-powerful medieval Khymer dynasty, its towers now tumbled, its walls crumbling, the serene expressions of the bare-breasted maidens depicted in the stone-carved friezes now, in many cases, defaced. These friezes tell stories of wars and conquest and of the daily life of farmers, fishermen and merchants, as in a picture book.

The Hindu gods of the earlier period were replaced by images of the Buddha, but all have been inundated with jungle, and where this has been cleared, roots of the majestic Spung trees weave through the ruins, in their grasp the monuments it must have taken a hundred men to put in place.

Botany has triumphed; the jungle has returned.

Nature and weather have obliterated man’s grand aspirations, reduced to crude rock the images of his gods. Were time to speak at Angkor Wat, it might recall Shelley’s words upon the ruins of Ozymandias: “Look on these works, ye mighty, and despair.”

After parting with our son, we headed into Thailand, and north via the night-sleeper train from Bangkok (14n hours, and a pleasant experience) to Chang Mai, there to meet an old friend.

He would take us to Pai, his adopted village, set in a mountain valley near the Burmese border. Legendary for its beauty, my son, who’d been there three weeks before, compared the forests and clear mountain air to that of La Gomera in the Canary Islands.

After the warm south and the languid but sticky heat of Cambodia, we looked forward to cooler weather and mild hiking in the rain forest, my binoculars at hand to spot birds, bugs or beasts, and my camera ready to snap them.

But Murphy ’s Law intervened. As we climbed into his car at Chang Mai, my pal told us that Pai was enveloped in smoke from field and forest burning; it was no place to visit.

We only had to look towards the mountains to see the haze, the grainy air.

The smoke was from rice straw open-field burning, he said — stubble-burning, we’d call it at home — combined with under-storey burning in the forests. All northern Thailand was hazed up, views reduced to a kilometre at most.

The forest floor is torched annually because if under-storey growth was allowed to continue longer the flames from its burning would be high enough to catch the trees.

When the forest floor is cleared, ‘soft’ grass follows, excellent for grazing and rich in wild food plants, especially mushrooms. These are harvested by impoverished country people who rely on them (and frogs) for sustenance and as marketable commodities. A friend of a friend, Dr Richard Lair, 30 years at the forefront of elephant conservation in Thailand, told us that in two years spent living with Thai mahouts, he never once saw them buy vegetables.

Wild produce supplemented every meal.

Over the couple of days we spent with Richard, at Lampang, on the line south of Chang Mai, he told us about the perilous state of wild and domestic elephants in Asia, a subject I hope to write about in the future — and, indeed, about the frog business too.

Second-class berths with fans, (air-conditioning gets too cold), on a night train, took us back to Bangkok.

A minibus with a driver hell-bent on breaking the world land-speed record took us to Trat, a ferry port six bumpy hours away on the Gulf of Thailand. Five of the ten seats were filled with cargo, including sacks of nitrate fertiliser. Fellow inmates, an American couple, upon seeing them, demanded to get out.

At Trat, a two-hour ferry ride, took us to a small island. Here, heat, but not smoke, hazes the distance.

The sea is clear and green over the sand, and blue over the rocks, where sea cucumbers as fat as Clonakilty black-puddings pursue their harmless lives browsing the depths.

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