The crumbling ruins of Angkor in Cambodia provide an amazing backdrop for picnic sorties.
We're lumbering along a narrow forest trail, serenaded by piercing birdcalls. The destination is a sandstone portal called the Gate of the Dead, at the heart of Angkor Thom. The gate has long been abandoned to the jungle—it's hidden in a dense tangle of vines and overgrown roots. That's why we have it in our sights: the portal is perfect for photography.
Truth be told, if you want to get spectacular pictures, sometimes you just have to stage them. You hire two behemoths from a local outfitter, you talk some friends into modelling, you work with the best dawn or dusk lighting, you scout the ruins to find corners that enable photography without hordes of tourists. So the models are swaying around in the carriage on the front elephant, and I'm on the elephant behind, snapping away. The light filters through the trees, striking the giant sandstone faces adorning the tower above the gate. Forming the sides of the portal are large–as–life elephant heads, with stone trunks reaching down to pluck lotuses.
Archeologists have no idea why this abandoned gate at Angkor Wat has been christened "the Gate of the Dead". Possibly something to do with funeral rites. We do not have the keys to the elaborate puzzle that the ruins pose. But we do know that the five entry gates to Angkor Thom have each been designed to allow passage of a fully caparisoned royal elephant. Some 900 years back, elephants were the main method of transport for royalty. Bas–reliefs at the Bayon, the temple at the center of Angkor Thom, show elephants used like tanks in battle.
But in times of peace, picnics. The bas–reliefs show elephants parading on long tours, meaning food had to be packed along. Some Bayon frescoes depict skewers of fish and fowl being cooked on braziers—an ancient form of barbecue.
Today, a small number of elephants have been put to work at selected locations at Angkor, mainly transporting lazy tourists up the steep slopes of Phnom Bakheng—a prime sunset viewpoint. Our elephants are off–duty. They rarely visit this part of Angkor, which has lush vegetation, and they seem to be enjoying themselves immensely. These are sneaky elephants: without breaking pace, they strip whatever tasty morsels falls within reach of their trunks, at times causing branches to ricochet into our carriage. It's like a roving elephant picnic.
Which reminds me—we have forgotten to bring along lunch for this sortie. "Ah, no problem," says the mahout. "I'll phone for lunch." I do a double take as he fishes a cellphone out of his jacket, and chatters away in Khmer. Less than an hour later, a motorcycle rider shows up with two long silver canisters mounted at the back like panniers. The neatly stacked vessels each contain a different Khmer dish, mostly still piping hot. We lay the gourmet treats out on a handy sandstone shelf, along with fresh fruit and drinks. Looking on are crumbling sandstone heads of mythical deities.
I am thinking that this has to be the finest picnic I've ever experienced: the extraordinary setting, the eerie deities staring down, the gourmet Khmer food, the bizarre bird calls, the elephants roving around.
It doesn't take much to interest the elephants in the idea of a picnic. Any new foliage will do. Plus a coconut or two. A cheeky elephant is looking straight at me, eyeballing a young green coconut that I have just drunk the milk from. I glance over to the mahout, who gives his blessings. I offer the coconut on the palm of my hand. A trunk slides over—the elephant picks up the coconut and crushes it between her massive molars like an apple, content to sample the pulpy white flesh deep within.
Prime Cambodian Picnic Spots
Over the course of my extensive visit to Angkor, I discover that Cambodians are champion picnickers. On weekends, they package up rice and fish dishes in banana leaves, and head for their favorite spots to indulge. These are more nature spots than ruins, but at Angkor, you are never far away from ruins.
The colossal temples and monuments of Angkor were built to impress—and built to last. Builders went to extremes working with sandstone and sculptors followed, going to even greater extremes. They even went underwater. About 45 kilometres north of Angkor is a place called Kbal Spean, or River of a Thousand Lingas. This sacred river is named after a series of lingas (stylised phalluses) carved into riverbed rock, lying about 15 centimeters below crystal–clear water. These stylized phalluses were possibly part of fertility rites: carved to sanctify the waters irrigating the Angkor plain. At one point on the river, the rock rises above the water to form a natural bridge, which is covered in sculpted figures: bulls, frogs, the serpent Ananta.
Kbal Spean is reached from the road by a sweaty 45–minute hike. On weekends, the area is thronged with Cambodians who splash in the shallow waters, and lounge around in hammocks strung from low–lying trees, partaking in picnics on a grand scale.
Another prime Cambodian picnic spot features similar underwater riverbed sculpting efforts. This is Phnom Kulen, situated 40 kilometres northeast of Angkor. The main temple here boasts a 900–year–old reclining Buddha statue, which, incredibly, has been carved right out of the top of a massive boulder. It is the largest statue of its kind in Cambodia. Pilgrims and picnickers gather at a cascading set of waterfalls at Phnom Kulen: the lower falls plummet some 15 metres into a large circular pool with a beautiful jungle setting. Cambodians frolic in the paradisal pool to cool off, then gather in groups to picnic. And they conscript strangers like myself to sample the fare—force–feeding their unexpected guests with gusto.
Monk at ruins of Neak Pean, a structure based on a mythical sacred lake
If You Go
From the "base camp" town of Siem Reap, it can be a long dusty day out at the ruins of Angkor. Foodstalls around the ruins sell snacks and drinks, but you might want to pack your own picnic. Hotels and restaurants in Siem Reap will readily provide a picnic hamper, either Western–style or Cambodian—or both. You can stack the hamper at the back of a remork–moto, which is a motorcycle–pulled open chariot that will tour the ruins in breezy style. Even the Amansara, the most exclusive hotel in town, keeps its own fleet of black remorks for guiding guests around the ruins, picnic hampers and all.
Michael Buckley is the author of Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, a comprehensive guidebook to Indochina. Apart from Indochina, his main focus is on Tibet and the Himalayan region. His most recent book is Eccentric Explorers. For more details, view his author website at www.himmies.com. Buckley has another website dedicated to a short film about mega–dams and water–stress issues in Tibet, at www.MeltdowninTibet.com/.
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