There’s a special art to producing a guidebook and way too many publishers haven’t mastered it.
But this book could be the guidebook that all other guidebook publishers use as their guide.
The designer and writer of this book had the genius to approach their task from the standpoint of the user. It’s a simple enough concept, but it makes all the difference.
The basic shape is one that fits into a jacket pocket; the map in back folds out to become a bookmark; the various regions blocked out on the map are color-coded to the sections of text…it takes the concept of “user-friendly” to a whole new height.
But before the book got into the designer’s hands, it was created and shaped by Michael Freeman, who asked himself such simple questions as, “Is this place worth a special trip?” “Is there anything else to see in the area?” “What are the roads like?” “Is there anywhere to get lunch around here?” “Does the place look especially nice at a particular time of day?” and “Can I get here by bus?”
Freeman gives each site an adapted star rating, a temple icon. So, Ta Muen Toch, which stands right on the Thai side of the Cambodian border, is granted one icon, recommended for a 15-minute visit and sports a leaf symbol for being set in pretty countryside.
A historical summary notes that the temple served as a chapel for a hospital and was built in the time of Jayavarman VII in the Bayon style. He tells you how to approach the ruins, what to look for, the historical context. There is an entrance fee, but military permission is needed to approach, he notes. And then the text clues you into the proximity of Ta Muen Thom, a three-icon site, and Ta Muen. A cluster of temples well worth visiting.
By the time you have skimmed his description and related it to the preface sections on history and archaeology, you know all you need to decide whether you want to visit Ta Muen Toch. Detailed directions from Buriram and Surin are given, along with suggestions about where to ask for directions and ensure you are on the right road. A hand-drawn map is also furnished to get you through the last stretch.
Now, could you ask for anything more?
Well yes, you could ask that a guidebook be about something interesting. Can’t fault Freeman here, either. The Khmer empire certainly didn’t stop at what was to become the Cambodian border, and Golden Age temples still stand all across Thailand, from Bangkok east to the Laos border.
Although Freeman speaks from a Thai-centric viewpoint, he counsels his readers to consider the border clusters from a Cambodian stance, seeing the Dangrek Mountains as a wall bounding the fertile valley of the Tonle Sap Lake. “A large part of this book is, in fact, a guide to what used to be upland Cambodia,” Freeman admits in his introduction.
A few of the temples he includes are still within Cambodian borders. He directs Thai-based visitors to cross to Sisophon and head to Banteay Chhmar, an unexcavated temple that is worth three hours and a special visit, “the quintessence of the lost Khmer city.“
Closer to the border—indeed the national line is at the steps of the temple—Preah Vihear is a three-icon glory worth two or three hours of time, Freeman says. But he adds somewhat meanly that although the 1907 Franco-Siamese survey placed this temple in Cambodia, the decision was “anomalous.” The 1962 affirmation of this decision by the World Court was, he carps, unjust.
But even if it is possible to carp at attitudes like that, you can’t fault Freeman’s scholarship, readability and outstanding photography. All are flawless and all will guide a visitor through Golden Age relics of the Mun Valley, the Chao Praya River valley north of Bangkok and eastward across the Laos border for Wat Phu by the Mekong River.
And throughout it all, there is the delightful usefulness of the information. Is it worth the trip? What are the roads like? Anywhere nearby to get a beer?
This is a guidebook that truly guides.