Flying high to Cambodia’s remotest temples before soaring south to pick out idyllic island gems
By Daniel Otis Photography by Sam Jam
From above, Siem Reap province is a splash of vibrant greens sparkling in the dew-heavy dawn. Farms, plantations and patches of forest stretch in every direction, with the massive stone temples of Angkor towering above the region’s verdant plains.
As we fly northward, the true scale of Angkor is revealed: a myriad of temples aligned on roads that are still being traversed more than 1,000 years after their construction. These roads, which run in perfect lines into the surrounding countryside, are the remnants of a medieval highway network that connected Angkor, the capital, with an empire that at one time encompassed most of peninsular Southeast Asia – an area more than ten times the size of modern Cambodia.
“Down there is my favourite picnic spot,” our Australian pilot, Phil Butterworth, says through the headset as he swoops in low over the towers of the 10th Century Pre Rup temple. “There’s no better place in Angkor to watch the sunset.”
Dipping in and out of clouds, we pass hamlets and farms before reaching our first landing zone. A waiting truck takes us over a newly paved road, past military encampments and up a steep hill to the majestic mountaintop temple of Prasat Preah Vihear. We only left Siem Reap about an hour ago – the journey would have taken three times as long overland.
“Preah Vihear symbolised Mount Meru, the home of the Hindu gods,” says our guide, Khan Bunthan. “It was built by seven kings over a period of 300 years. When it was completed in the 12th Century, it was dedicated to Shiva – the Hindu god of destruction.”
The 800-metre-long temple is shrouded in mist. Sandbags dot the site, the remnants of a border dispute between Thailand and Cambodia. While sporadic fighting began in the middle of 2008, no shots have been fired here since May 2011, and an International Court of Justice ruling is expected within the lifetime of this guide. In the meantime, armed Cambodian soldiers have made themselves at home, with their families tending to vegetable plots placed amidst bunkers in the shadows of this magnificent temple.
We tour the iconic site, taking in its splendidly carved lintels and the sweeping views of northern Cambodia afforded by the 550-metre-tall cliffs the temple is perched upon.
On our way back to the helicopter, Bunthan points out a square pond at the temple’s eastern edge. “For centuries, water from this sacred pool has been used to anoint kings – including the current king of Thailand.”
The seven-tiered Prasat Thom pyramid rises above the forests and overgrown temples of Koh Ker – an ephemeral city that served as the seat of a usurper king in the 10th Century. The city, which was hastily constructed around 928 CE, was largely abandoned to the jungle less than 20 years later.
Bunthan points to the pyramid. “The Khmer people believe that it is filled with Nagas,” he says, referring to Hinduism’s mythological serpents.
We land inside the ancient city.
A group of children quickly surrounds us, shouting “hello” and “kontomruy” – the Khmer word for helicopters and dragonflies.
A waiting van conveys us around the expansive site. We see temples flanked by stone elephants, giant lingas (phallic representations of Shiva), and buildings of brick, laterite and sandstone. With few visitors, the entire place has an aura of neglect and abandonment, the only sounds being birdsongs and the hum of insects.
The most sublime of Koh Ker’s many temples is Prasat Bram, so named for its five towers that are being strangled, torn apart and held together by the thick roots of strangler fig trees.
From Koh Ker, we fly southwest to Phnom Kulen: a sprawling forested plateau that hid the 9th Century city of Mahendraparvata until laser imaging revealed its existence this past year.
Our pilot flew the helicopter that carried the state-of-the-art laser equipment that helped uncover the abandoned capital.
Phil points out the few visible remnants of the ancient capital: several ruined towers peeking through the forest and the summit of Prasat Rong Chen, a pyramidal temple that is thought to be the site where King Jayavarman II birthed the Khmer empire in 802 CE. The features uncovered by lasers – such as roads and square housing plots – remain shrouded by forest.
The chopper lands in a rocky clearing next to a stone riverbed where more than 1,000 lingas have been carved. We follow the river and hike down a short path to the base of an impressive 20-metre waterfall crowded by ferns and a tangle of dripping vegetation.
We return to Siem Reap with slanting light reflecting off the flooded Western Baray – the largest reservoir ever built by the Khmers. From above, we can see archaeologists busily working at the West Mebon, a small Hindu temple situated on an artificial island in the reservoir’s centre.
Orange light begins to paint Angkor Wat as we make our final descent. The only temple in the area that faces west, it has watched Cambodia rise and fall and rise again in a period spanning more than 300,000 sunsets.
Helistar Cambodia offers scenic flights and custom helicopter charters to all corners of the country from its bases in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap. To book a flight, visit helistarcambodia.com