Seeing is Believing – Touring Angkor – Days 2 & 3

After another fine lunch at a restaurant near Angkor Wat temple, we returned to Angkor Tom, to visit the last temple within that complex, the Bayon.  I had seen it from afar, a great temple mountain, but appearing even more complicated than other structures there.  I had no idea.20181226_142331

The Bayon is perhaps best described as temples within temples, with later renovations simply added on top of previous structures.  There are 37 remaining towers, with Buddha heads on most sides.  The effect, once you get inside, is dizzying and just stupendous.  20181226_143831

It’s also a wee bit claustrophobic.  But even when you looked down, there was beautiful craftsmanship on display.

20181226_145859

The Buddha heads at every turn can lead to having a little fun.20181226_145620

It’s not everyday one goes nose to nose with Buddha.20181226_144617

No, we were not the first tourists to do this, nor will we be the last.  I’m sure Buddha understands and is at peace with it.

The Bayon is, like many of the other temples in the Angkor Archaeological Park, still an active shrine, where visitors are welcome to pay their respects and meditate for a few moments.  I was instructed to remove both my hat and shoes prior to entering.  It was a quiet, peaceful space, scented with burning incense. CAM_0229

 

We made our way around and through this amazing structure, ending our tour at the lower level where our guide, Thearith Moeun (John), showed us the extraordinary bas-relief carvings on the lower enclosure.  Here, a woman is being assisted as she gives birth.20181226_152104

All of the professional Cambodian guides receive a university education, and are well-versed in the history of the temples.  However, John charmed us both, and we were a little sad to part company.20181226_151324

 

After a day of rest, and a brief introduction to Cambodian cuisine via a cooking class, we were ready to resume our wandering.  We were introduced to our new guide, Mr. Hem Sothea, a soft-spoken former monk, who would provide us with thorough and detailed explanations for all that we would see. CAM_0257

Our first stop was Preah Khan, a temple a short distance from Angkor Tom.  It was very similar to Ta Prohm in it’s disheveled loveliness.

And like at Ta Prohm, nature is taking back its’ own.20181228_111718

There were narrow interior and exterior passageways,

and intriguing sculptures.20181228_104046

There was also this graceful columned structure apart from the temple, a two-storied building with no trace of a stair inside.  Experts say it may have been a granary, but I wonder, just because I can’t imagine using such a treasure for such a mundane purpose.20181228_110241

We left Preah Khan’s disintegrating splendor, and settled in for a 45-minute ride through the countryside to the north of the main park.  There we would explore the delicate gem that is Banteay Srei temple.  This temple is a small treasure, ariot with detail, made of pink sandstone.  It must have been a brilliant sight when it was built. 20181228_141151

This is a closeup of one of the towers.  Intricate does not begin to describe it.20181228_142753

There was more elaborate carving at every turn.

And then there were these guys.  I love these guys, guarding Banteay Srei for all eternity.20181228_142459

There was also drama.  I am not sure quite what’s going on here, but it is fraught.20181228_142827

We took some time here after touring the temple to listen to a traditional Khmer band.  All of the members had been injured by landmines.  We saw a number of these musical groups outside various temples.  Unexploded landmines remain a plague upon the country.20181228_143413

 

Our final temple was Pre Rup, from the mid-10th century.  It’s an imposing group of towers, on the east side of the park, with beautiful views.20181228_153954

The sculptures here were faded by time, but still possessed a majesty and grace that cannot be erased. 20181228_153529

Awe. Admiration. Respect. Joy. Peace. Wonder. Serenity.  In the course of three days, walking around these ancient, glorious, fantastic structures, I felt all of those things, and more.  In immersing myself in this ancient past, I felt restored.  A world that holds these things in it is a world worth preserving and protecting.  It was a privilege I will not soon forget, to have seen the wonders of Angkor with my own eyes.

Seeing is Believing – Touring the Temples of Angkor – Angkor Wat

On our second day of touring the temples of Angkor Archaeological Park , we began our day at Angkor Wat.  First, one crosses the broad moat surrounding the former city.  The temple towers are in the distance.  The bridge here is a temporary, floating structure, while the nearby bridge is being repaired.    20181226_094833.jpg

Our guide, Thearith Moeun, aka ‘John’, escorted us across, and instead of entering the interior via the imposing main gate,20181226_095320

we entered through this lovely side gate.20181226_095543

We stopped inside the outer enclosure for what is an obligatory photo with the towers in the background.  I look at it now, and feel the sense of wonder return.

She & Rog CAM_0141

The wonder is somewhat tempered by the sad muck at the edge of the pond.  Before going further, I will note that despite the park management’s efforts at controlling litter, it is everywhere.  While it is certainly the responsibility of the park to provide places to put garbage, I also think it is the responsibility of visitors to pick up after themselves, particularly in a place which is still an active religious shrine.   It just struck me as sad and rude, that people would be so careless in this of all places.

We moved on, and the towers of the central level of the three-tiered pyramid that is Angkor Wat came into clearer focus.

20181226_100530

It is surrounded by a large courtyard, and an interior enclosure of four colonnades, containing bas-relief carvings of great Hindu tales.  The exterior walkway of the colonnade, all by itself, was just perfection, a symphony of balance and grace with its’ beautifully ornamented columns and lintels. 20181226_101658

There were 600 meters (over 656 yards) of bas-relief carvings, along the interior walls of the four sides of the enclosure, telling the ancient Hindu legends.  I will be content to simply show a couple of my favorite examples.

Here, we have a king and I’m guessing his general, on a great elephant, leading his armies, surrounded by trees and umbrellas.  This was a time before sunscreen.  I think the spiky adornments atop their respective helmets are amazing.  Those are serious hats.  I love the ornamentation everywhere – in their battle gear, the elephant’s saddle, necklace and headdress, even the delicately lovely, if seemingly silly, umbrellas.  All this beauty, in the service of depicting war.20181226_103018

Here, what I found most striking was the different faces.  The artist made sure that the soldiers he depicted were not just faceless minions, but individual people.  Even the ornaments atop the helmets are each slightly different.

20181226_102951

 

We gloried in the carvings through the south and east sides of the enclosure, and then John led us inside.  And there was a temple of Angkor Wat, rising above me towards a perfect blue sky.  I admired the steep stairs leading up to the grand, second level entrance.  I loved the layers of stone, striped by the weather through the ages.

20181226_120615.jpg

I paused for a few moments, in the stone-lined inner courtyard, just to take it all in.  I don’t know that I have words to describe how happy I am at this moment, just being awed by what I see.  I think the nice Roger captured that feeling perfectly.CAM_0185

You can’t rest long, though, because there is so much more to see.  There are devas.  Once again, please note the glory of their headpieces.  Not to mention the tininess of their waists.20181226_110705

There were intricately carved lintels.  This one appears to depict a human pyramid, surrounded by a snake with three heads at both ends.  Note the fierceness of the warriors’ expressions and the flexed arms of those on the lower levels.  20181226_110859

This is one of the stairs of Angkor Wat.  They’re very steep and the steps are tiny.   There are no handrails.  My thought was, you really have to want to go up, to use those stairs.

20181226_111821

While thankfully we did not have to negotiate these stairs, the ones we did climb, while modern, were still impressively steep.  The railings were handy if you needed to pull yourself up.

CAM_0159

Once on the second level, along with a limited number of our fellow tourists, we wandered through.  We found delicately beautiful carvings.

20181226_113239

The views from this vantage point were spectacular.

20181226_113447.jpg

There were monks, going about their business, once again providing evidence that Angkor Wat’s life as a temple is not past, it is ongoing.  I found it both moving and reassuring, that Angkor remains as vibrantly alive as the jungle surrounding it.

CAM_0194

I took a few moments myself, in one of the four cruciform areas, to once again, sit, and take in my surroundings.  And while the yoga assan may be just a pose for a photo, the desire to contemplate, to be in the moment as much as possible, was both strong and quite real.  I mean, look at that stunning structure, and envision, as I was, a king of old, coming out to sit and contemplate affairs of state, while sitting beside his private pool.  I felt glorious.

20181226_121934

As we left Angkor Wat, John directed us where to stand, so we could take the same photographs that countless tourists have taken before us, of Angkor Wat, reflected in the pool before it.   Its’ beauty cannot be overstated.   I’ve seen it with my own eyes.

20181226_124606

 

 

 

When Whimsy Meets Reality – Traveling to Cambodia

I like to travel to places I’ve seen in movies or on tv, or read of in books.  Something will spark a whim to see some places in person, with my own eyes. This has led to travel to Savannah, GA (Midnight in the Garden of Good & Evil), New Orleans (too many sources to count), London (reading English history, and ‘Dr Who’),  and Venice (again, so many sources), among others.  My husband, the nice Roger, likes action movies, so we watch a fair number of them.  In the early 2000’s, this included ‘Lara Croft-Tomb Raider’, starring Angelina Jolie.  I thought there was something truly magical about the scenes shot outside some beautifully deteriorating Asian temples.  Setting movie magic aside, further research – books and travel articles, National Geographic programs, and of course, the Google, only served to cause my whim to evolve into certain belief that the great temples at the Angkor Archaeological Park, in Siem Reap, Cambodia, were places I should see with my own eyes.

However, you don’t travel to Cambodia on a whim.  Our trip required 30 hours of actual transit through four airports via three planes.  Our home airport, Bradley Airport, is a small, well-run international airport.  Surprisingly, our next stop, Toronto’s Pearson Airport, was awful.  The building was under construction & the staff was under-informed. I expected better of the Canadians.  Then, fifteen hours in the air, via China Southern (the less said about China Southern’s in-flight ‘food’, the better) to Guangzhou Baiyun International Airport, arriving in the cold pre-dawn hours.  My first thought as we walked through the nearly empty terminal was to applaud the cleaning staff, because you could eat off the floors.  Other than the glistening floors, it looked like any other Western airport, with stern customs officials, long hallways, and mostly Western advertising.  That is, until I went into the ladies room, entered the first available stall, and found myself faced with my first pan-style toilet, having not noticed the sign on the stall door.  It’s a very new airport, so the white porcelain hole in the floor was shining and clean, but still, I was in unfamiliar territory.  I adapted to my circumstances.

Our connecting flight to Siem Reap was in several hours, so we had time to people-watch and breakfast. I surmise that hiring and grooming parameters for China Southern airlines’ female cabin staff must be very strict so far as height, weight, age, hair, and makeup are concerned.  I saw a crew of eight or ten attendants walk by, and I couldn’t have told the difference between them on a bet. They looked like clones.  Breakfast was interesting, though.  Once a restaurant opened, we had a Chinese-style breakfast, consisting of noodles in a clear broth with lettuce, topped with a fried egg, and side orders of shrimp dumplings (excellent), boiled peanuts (interesting), and a small dish of chicken feet (just…no).  I also found interesting the number of people working in this small airport kiosk. One person took our order, another person cooked it, yet another person brought the tray of food to the table, and at least two additional staffers were standing by, awaiting tasks.  All of this for a restaurant with less than ten seats.  It seemed odd.

Finally, after a relatively short flight, we arrived at Siem Reap International Airport.  The main terminal, to which we walked across the tarmac after deplaning, looks fairly new, a modern architectural riff on traditional Cambodian building styles.  The airport is staffed by largely unsmiling customs officials, although one petite officer’s stern mien was undercut slightly by her choice to accessorize her crisp, immaculate, uniform with sequin-trimmed, platform sandals and a bright pink bow in her hair.  There were ‘No Photos’ signs everywhere.  We obeyed.

Luggage retrieved, we stepped outside into humid tropical air, where we were greeted by a sign with my name on it, held up by the very cheerful Mr. How (“as in ‘How are you?’ “, he explained), a driver for our hotel.  As we drove down the wide, well-maintained road, I asked what the name of the road was.  I was told it was just the airport ring road, apparently built as a direct result of the filming, in 2001, of ‘Lara Croft-Tomb Raider’.  Mr. How spoke at length and with gratitude about the connection between that event and the current climate of bustling growth in both Siem Reap and Cambodia at large.  I also found it endearing how he (and others we spoke with during our stay) referred to Angelina Jolie with warm familiarity, using only her first name.  Cambodia appears to have made Ms. Jolie one of their own.  Additional reading indicates Ms. Jolie has returned to the country regularly on both humanitarian missions and, in 2017, to make a film.  It would appear the warm feelings are mutual.

As we drove to the outskirts of Siem Reap, bypassing the city proper, the poverty of the country became more evident.  I am guessing that zoning and building codes are minimally enforced.  Garbage pick-up appears to be, at best, erratic.  The most common forms of transport are small motorcycles, Vespas,  and tuk-tuks, most of which look quite old.

CAM_0035

Traffic laws appear to be viewed as more like suggestions. I was glad to have a driver.  Once we turned off the ring road, the road surface became hard-packed red dirt,with the dust kept down by the occasional sprinkle of water.CAM_0237

There were chickens running loose, CAM_0128

white cows in small fieldsCAM_0236

next to traditional stilt houses, CAM_0069

more elaborate buildings from the French era, CAM_0129

and small businesses set up in front everywhere. There were tiny laundries with two washers and two dryers;CAM_0238

specialty shops of all types – one sells fruit, one sells bike accessories, one sells women’s clothing, etc.

CAM_0235

A few more minutes, and we’re turning into the drive of our white-washed hotel, Sojourn Boutique Villas, which turned out to be an oasis of tranquility. 20181227_100417

I had read of this place in the New York Times in 2015. It is a well-reviewed small hotel, just outside of Siem Reap, with a restaurant and spa, run in an eco-conscious manner. Additionally, they provide job training and actual jobs to people from the community in hospitality and spa services.  The fact that they would arrange transportation and guides to the temples made it an even more attractive choice.

CAM_0030

We were checked in by So Kheum, a handsome, soft-spoken gentleman, who gave us a basic rundown of the hotel, and also shared with us a bit of his own story, working for the International Campaign to Ban Landmines after losing a close friend and part of his own right leg to a landmine, at the age of 14. His story is included in three books of photographs, taken by Gervasio Sanchez – ‘Vidas Minadas’, ‘Cinco Anos Despues’, and ‘Minadas Diez Anos’. These three books tell, in brief stories and wrenching, beautiful photographs, the tales of people injured by landmines throughout the world, at the time of their initial injury, five years later, and, finally, ten years later. It was a sobering introduction to a beautiful country, devastated by conflict, striving to move forward.

So Kheum showed us our villa, and left us to settle in, after giving us a final, slightly embarrassed, warning not to drink the water.  It was another reminder that we were a long way from home.

 

Seeing is Believing – Touring the Temples of Angkor – Day 1

I had done what I thought was a fair amount of research, prior to getting on a plane to Cambodia.  I knew the temples contained in the Angkor Archaeological Park were architectural wonders of the ancient world.  I knew I would see beautiful works of art in the carvings and sculptures still remaining.  What I was not prepared for was how I would feel, when faced with the reality of what was, to my eyes, a place of wonder and glory, concentrated in a few square miles carved out of the Cambodian jungle, centuries ago.  I was absolutely overwhelmed. I found myself regularly moved to tears. I stood gape-mouthed in front of beauty I had never imagined.  I was absolutely joyous at the marvels before me.  I experienced moments of profound peace.  In the course of three days of touring Angkor’s grandeur, I felt so many emotions, it is almost impossible to convey.  This is my best effort at doing so, with some of my favorite pictures of the temples we visited, taken by both myself and the nice Roger.

I am not accustomed to having staff, but we thought it a good idea for touring an area of Angkor’s size and had arranged for both guides and a driver through our hotel.  Our guide for the first two days was Thearith Moeun, a chatty and quite cheerful gentleman, who asked us to call him ‘John’ (left, with me at Ta Prohm), and regaled us with detailed historical background or told us the legends illustrated on many of the beautiful carvings. Our guide for the last day was a soft-spoken former monk named Hem Sothea (with me at Banteay Srei), who was also deeply knowledgeable.  Both guides were university-educated and government-certified.  Having Cambodian professionals take us through the park gave us an invaluable perspective, and they were appreciative of our obvious enthusiasm and eagerness to see as much as possible.

Our driver for all three days was a quietly competent gentleman named Polin Polin, who went by ‘Pin’.  The glimpse we had of Siem Reap’s roads and traffic upon arrival made me grateful that we had employed his services. Additionally, Pin’s apparently bottomless cooler in the trunk kept us supplied with both water and cool clothes to wipe our sweaty faces after each temple.  This small courtesy was incredibly appreciated.

Our first stop was Ta Prohm, of Hollywood movie fame.  We parked, then walked a short distance down a red dirt road to the temple.  It is beautiful, mysterious, an altogether glorious wreck.  It is also crowded. 20181225_102822

There were people everywhere, with everyone seeking to get the best shot of whatever they were told was in the movie, ‘Lara Croft – Tomb Raider’.  There was even a bridal party taking wedding pictures.  And that’s ok.  Everyone was pretty congenial, and the ruins of this late 12th century temple are beautiful.  But what I found most wonderful was seeing how nature takes back her own, with the trees enshrouding the temple over the course of the centuries.  Even Buddha seems bemused by his confinement.

Our next stop was far less crowded, as we drove over to Ta Keo, a gorgeous late 10th-century structure.   Roger captured my glee.She CAM_0073

This was our first encounter with the stairs of Angkor.20181225_134200

But the views were beautiful.  20181225_135745

And the nice Roger and I had fun photographing each other taking photographs.

 

There was much to admire here, but we moved on, to Chau Say Tevoda, where I was entranced by the ornamentation.20181225_124803

Across the road was Thommanon temple, from the early 12th century.  Most of the exterior wall has disappeared, so the interior temple and other buildings, while standing together, seem separate.  I was simply awed, gazing up at the temple mountains.20181225_130108

However, I had also realized by this point, as we went from one sublime temple to another, that sometimes, it’s good to just sit for a minute, and take it all in.CAM_0089

 

We had seen a great deal, and decided to break for lunch.  While it appeared to not be the usual practice, both John and Pin graciously accepted our invitation to lunch, at one of a number of restaurants along the roads leading to the main temples. The food was excellent, with a wide variety of choices and terrific service.  We ate very well at nearby restaurants all three days of temple-touring.

 

 

Our next stop was the south gate of Angkor Thom, once a great city, surrounded by a broad moat.  There are four gates to Angkor Thom, but the south gate has had the most restoration work.  The artistry of the elephant carvers is evident, and this was one aspect of touring these masterworks that fascinated me.  The temples and other structures are attributed to the great kings who built them, but they were, in fact, designed by ancient architects and built by both skilled artisans and artists, as well as laborers.  These glorious sculptures are their lasting legacy, even if their individual names are lost in time.  When I looked into these elephants’ eyes, I felt I was gazing into times long past.  20181225_131607

After the south gate, there was the Terrace of the Elephants.

Met one of the locals.  I was ignored. CAM_0107

We walked a short way, through a quiet area.  I was struck by how peaceful it was, and that this was once the middle of a bustling city, a millenia ago.  Then we were in sight of another glorious ruin, settling into the earth,  Phimeanakas.   And once again, I photographed the temple,20181225_133556

and Roger photographed me.CAM_0117

On our way from Phimeanakas to Baphuon, we stopped a moment to rest. 20181225_135043

The trees were just extraordinary.  Spung trees, strangler figs, banyans, in fantastical shapes and convoluted structures, embraced and enfolded everything they came into contact with.20181225_134808

I think it may be this aspect of Angkor as a whole that seemed the most marvelous to me. How, as many of these magnificent structures diminished and decayed, some magical alchemy occurred.  With nature playing a large role, they became something else, something more.  A union, perhaps, of structure and nature.

The last temple we visited the first day was Baphuon, also in Angkor Thom.  I was awestruck by the reclining Buddha which comprises the entire west side of the temple. 20181225_142740

It was late afternoon, and our first day was all I had hoped for, and more.  My eyes were full.  Rest was needed.  Reflection was also necessary.  As I scrolled through my photos on my phone, I had a sense of disbelief, as if I hadn’t actually seen what I had seen.  Even now, six weeks later, I am still experiencing a little bit of that, but what I’m mostly feeling now is wonder, that this place had come into being in the first place, and gratitude, that I was able to see it.  With my own eyes.