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Archive for the ‘Cambodia’ Category

Snapshots of Angkor

I have put together what I think were the most memorable scenes and snapshots of my trip to Angkor for the BootsnAll Indie Travel Challenge. Some of these are iconic images, such as the heads of the Bayon temple; some depict intricately carved bas-reliefs, while some of these images capture life in Siem Reap.

The First View of Angkor Wat:

The first view of Angkor Wat is every bit as good as expected, as the iconic towers of the temple come into view.

 

The Many Faces of Bayon:

The Peeking Face of Ta Phrom:

Floating Village:

This is the floating village inhabited by Vietnamese people on Lake Tonle Sap.

 

The kids are rowing boats shaped like little baskets. I was a bit worried they might fall in, but the kids were having a very good time and seemed very much at home on the water.

 

 Alligator and snake exhibits in the floating souvenir shop.

 

 

Banteay Srey:

This is one of the smallest Angkor temples but is the prettiest. The temple is full of intricate carvings from Hindu epics.

 

 

 

These monkey guardians are a striking feature of Banteay Srey.

 

The lathe pillars in the background remind me of similar structures in the Hoysala temples of Southern India.

Apsaras:

No mention of Angkor is complete without the Apsaras, both in the sculpture and the dance.

The Leper King:

 

Garuda Procession in Siem Reap Village:

During our visit to Siem Reap, a giant float of Garuda, the eagle was taken around Siem Reap. This was I believe, an initiative of local kids and NGOs.

 

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The best aspects of the Angkor temples are the wall friezes; these are sculptures carved into the walls and typically depict a particular theme.

Ramayana: On one of the walls is a huge frieze depicting the battle of the Ramayana between Rama and the 10-headed, 20-armed Ravana.

The Churning of the Ocean:The churning of the ocean is a favorite theme not only in Angkor Wat but in the other Khmer temples as well.

Mahabharata War: This wall shows the great war of Kurukshetra between the Pandavas and their cousins the Kauravas. The battle scenes are gory, depicting in detail the horse charioteers, foot soldiers and elephants.

The Bharata War & Bhishma on the Bed of Arrows

Everyday Life: One of the most arresting bas reliefs is in Bayon and depicts everyday life – vendors selling goods in the marketplace and using weighing scales, women cooking, and folks chatting. It is interesting how this frieze about ordinary, everyday life manages to rival in magnificence the friezes depicting epic wars and battles involving the Gods in Angkor Wat.

 

The King’s Durbar:

The King's Durbar

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“You know, when these temples were built, Cambodia was not like this. The people were strong and very tall. Swords and knives could not pierce them”, said our guide S. I looked at him astonished, half expecting he was joking, but he was entirely serious.

Standing amongst the ruins of Angkor Wat, it is easy to believe that this magnificent temple was built by superhumans. Certainly there is nothing about the Angkor temples that suggests modern Cambodia with its political upheavals, underdevelopment or the large number of orphanages we saw in Siem Reap.

Cambodia has not been lucky lately and that’s putting it mildly. Following the bombing of the country by the United States in 1970, the country saw much devastation and loss of life culminating in genocide by the Khmer Rouge regime, which, in the glorious tradition of communist regimes worldwide, oppressed the population and murdered vast numbers, estimated at 1.5 million. The legacy of this turbulence is visible even today. As we drove through Siem Reap, we noticed a large number of orphanages run by the United Nations and other organizations.  While it is a good thing that these orphaned kids are being taken care of, the presence of such a large number of orphanages also points to the country’s recent tragedies.

Though not exactly wealthy, Siem Reap is very clean and the roads are well maintained. Korean influence is visible in many places. We see a large piece of land that has been purchased by a Korean corporation for development. Korea is investing a lot in Cambodia and Korean businessmen seem to be the object of much awe and some envy.

And suddenly, driving past the orphanages and schools, past children in their blue uniforms walking to school, we see the spectacular outline of Angkor Wat, just like in the Cambodian flag and in a hundred different tourist brochures. As we cross the moat to enter the temple, we see a wedding party, with the women dressed in traditional Cambodian costume, a sort of feminine version of the Indian dhoti. Affluent Cambodians, we’re told, visit the temple after weddings to seek blessings.

The marketing blurb for Angkor Wat says this is the largest religious structure in the world, and it certainly looks like it. In the central room is a giant statue originally of Vishnu and which has undergone a transformation into the Buddha. There is an old Cambodian woman offering prayers, oblivious of the tourists traipsing in and out of the room.

Angkor Wat is a tough act to follow, but theneighboring temples hold their own very well. Bayon has impressive towers shaped like human heads, said to represent the Bodhisattvas.  The deceptively diminutive Banteay Srei temple is famed for its exquisite carvings. The Ta Phrom temple is impressive even in its decay with trees growing through it whose giant roots hold the structure in their clutches. I might have actually been able to imagine that that I’d stumbled upon this temple after a multi day trek through the jungle, if only there weren’t dozens of tourists milling around with cameras. Aside from the fact that this temple is dedicated to Brahma the Creator, its claim to fame is that scenes from Angelina Jolie’s “Lara Croft: Tomb Raider” were shot here, though King Jayavarman VII who built this temple, might argue that this was not what he intended the temple to be known for.

The Angkor temples are undoubtedly a source of great pride to Cambodians, but they can sometimes be the cause of contention with the neighbors, especially Thailand. Historically, Cambodia (like many countries), has had uneven relationships with its neighbors, notably Thailand and Vietnam. While visiting the temples, we heard the legend of a bull in a bamboo forest that was the source of Cambodian prosperity. Unfortunately, the bull was kidnapped by the Thais, after which things started to go downhill, an allegory, perhaps, of the historical Thai conflict with Cambodia. More recently, there were riots when it was rumored that a Thai actress had made derogatory comments about Angkor Wat. There is also a dispute between Thailand and Cambodia involving Preah Vihear, a temple in northern Cambodia.

While it may seem strange that ancient temple ruins are the source of so much modern conflict, this is actually not so hard to understand. The Khmer temples represent a period when Cambodian civilization and culture were amongst the most sophisticated of their time. Angkor itself was one of the largest urban centers in the world. Cambodia was an influence on other countries, unlike today when the country depends on outsiders such as Korean businessmen or the United Nations to aid its development. It is thus not surprising that Cambodians revere the memory of this golden age. And this is why our guide felt that the people who built this temple must have been superhumans with abilities far exceeding those of ordinary mortals.

Update: I came across this statement in Akila & Patrick’s blog:

Siem Reap is not representative of Cambodia just as Las Vegas is not representative of the United States.”

http://theroadforks.com/offtheroad/lessons_learned_one_year_travel

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