The architectural wonders of… Laos and Cambodia
Denise Heywood – author, lecturer, photographer and journalist – has worked in Cambodia for three years. She has lectured widely on Asian art and culture, and joins the Royal Academy art tour to Laos and Cambodia to provide insight into the art, culture and architecture of two destinations.
How and why did you become interested in Laos and Cambodia?
I went to Cambodia for a week and stayed for three years. It was 1993, a turbulent time, but the majestic temples of Angkor, shrouded in jungle, mesmerised me from the moment I saw them. I have been studying them ever since, returning constantly, always learning something new about this mystical site and its brilliant architect-astronomers who constructed sacred monuments aligned with the sun and moon, covering them with the most exquisite carvings.
While living in Cambodia, I first visited tranquil Luang Prabang and was immediately captivated by this remote and unspoilt place, bathed in peace, with its magnificent setting on the Mekong river.
What do you enjoy most about leading a specialist tour such as this?
Sharing my enthusiasm and knowledge with like-minded travellers who join the Royal Academy tours for Cox & Kings. Through my lectures I strive to unravel the artistic meaning of these ancient civilisations and to reveal the details and hidden aspects so often missed by tourists.
What do you most enjoy about visiting Laos and Cambodia?
Angkor breathes history and mystery, and, even though there are more visitors now, it still exudes a haunting atmosphere. There is still so much to learn about the ancient Khmers, their Hindu kingdoms and gods, and what we know is revealed through these awe-inspiring monuments. Luang Prabang, being on such a smaller scale, has a sense of intimacy, with its shrines and temples revealing the Buddhist way of life practised there for centuries. The legacy of French colonialism, in secular architecture, adds another dimension to the artistic experience of both places – and is fascinating. The story of the discovery of Angkor by French scholars in the 19th century is as exciting as its original construction 10 centuries before.
Which visit on the tour are you most looking forward to and why?
I am looking forward to all of them as each one is so special. But our dawn visit to Banteay Srei temple, in the forest, is utterly magical as the rising sun illuminates the red sandstone of this jewel-like fairy tale structure. Its intricate carvings, on such a small scale, are gradually revealed in all their splendour by the rays of the sun.
If you could only recommend one book to read before departure, what would it be?
It could only be my own: Ancient Luang Prabang & Laos, now in its third edition which came out last month. And Cambodian Dance: Celebration of the Gods, my book dedicated to the dancers who survived the Pol Pot regime, tells the whole story of Cambodia – the history of Cambodian dance is the history of Cambodia.
Are there any other highlights of the tour?
The wonderful people of Laos and Cambodia, with their radiant smiles, even though they have endured such a troubled history. The delicious local cuisine and succulent tropical fruits and the delights of the colourful markets all enrich our journey. To buy shimmering silk straight from the weaver or watch silversmiths at work gives us a sense of a new generation of artists.
Denise Heywood is the expert lecturer on Cox & Kings’ Royal Academy Laos & Cambodia: Temples & Treasures tour.
For more information on Denise Heywood, please visit her website here >