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Pocket guide is boon for Angkor tours

Here at last is the first comprehensive guide to Angkor written in English.

The 233-page book, in paperback size, contains detailed maps, descriptions,

background, dates and illustrations to every temple in the Angkor

complex.

T

he author, Dawn Rooney, is an American art

historian, based in Bangkok. She first visited Angkor in 1969 and has been

enamored of it ever since. She became a specialist in southeast Asian art, and

did her PhD in 1983. Among her previous books she has written one on Khmer

ceramics.

The photographer, Michael Freeman, has already published two

outstanding books on the ancient site and another, Palaces of the Gods, on Khmer

sanctuaries in Thailand.

Rooney's guide also contains some of the old

19th-century photographs and engravings that made Angkor look even more

enigmatic and alluring, attracting a whole generation of travelers and

writers.

The book is designed to be in one's hand as one walks around the

temples. It starts with a well-researched introduction. Rooney's erudition and

scholarship illuminate every fact of the history, religion and geography of the

area.

She sets the record straight about the "rediscovery" of Angkor. A

lone Frenchmen stumbling across hidden ruins in the jungle is part of the

romantic mythology which has taken hold of the place with the same tenacity as

the giant fig trees. But Henri Mouhot, traveling under the auspices of the Royal

Geographical Society in England, was just the most publicity conscious of a long

line of visitors who saw Angkor during the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. "Their

reports seem to have gone unnoticed by the West," writes Rooney.

The

guide systematically tours Angkor Wat and all the other temples in alphabetical

order. Thus, each has its own section with information such as location, date,

and art style stated clearly at the top.

Not since Maurice Glaize's

excellent guidebook, Les Monuments du Groupe d'Angkor, published in 1963, has

anyone else included such detailed plans together with drawings of the

decorative motifs.

Rooney acknowledges her debt to Glaize, who worked

with the Ecole Francaise d'Extreme Orient on the restoration of the monuments

from 1933 onwards. Some of his drawings were more detailed, showing the

evolution of the lintel over the centuries and the structure of the linga and

types of sanctuaries. Both books are especially beneficial in appreciating

elaborately-carved buildings such as Banteay Srei.

Each chapter contains

a helpful 'Tip'. For example, at the beautiful temple of Banteay Samre, which

was not safe to visit until recently, she advises enthusiasts to look out for

the decoration on the highest part of the Central Sanctuary, by going to the end

of the sandstone walkway and looking back.

The book also contains

extracts from elegant writers such as Pierre Loti, in 1902, and H. Churchill

Candee in 1925, enhancing the visitor's experience when first contemplating the

awesome ruins. An English writer, Geoffrey Gorer, visiting in 1936, made some

eccentric observations, not noted in this book, including a bold declaration

that there were only two truly great pieces of architecture in the world, Angkor

Wat and Greenwich hospital in England.

Also impressive are the

itineraries at the back of the book, together with a comparative chronology of

Khmer and other civilizations, a chronology of the monuments and Cambodia's

kings, and the main divinities in Khmer art.

She elucidates the manifold

myths and tales depicted around the temple's murals which are so confusing to

the untutored visitor.

Her chapter on the Bayon and its numerous

galleries in which the visitor can get lost are particularly good.

"The

Bayon is my favourite temple," says Rooney.

A disappointment of the book

is that there are not more of Freeman's superb photographs, such as the

seductive apsaras featured in his book Angkor: The Hidden Glories.

It

contains some of the best photographs ever published of these

carvings.

This is a scholarly book, designed for those who are profoundly

interested in the subject and who will visit the site many times.

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