Walking barefoot (no shoes allowed) up the long stairway to the temple, we were treated to a beautiful, active scene. Dominating the large facilities was a massive golden bell-shaped pagoda. According to the back of our foreigners entrance ticket, the structure is 326 feet in height - a far difference from the original one of 66 feet, built around 2,500 years ago to house hairs given to two Burmese brothers by the Buddha himself, later to also include relics of other Buddhas. The pride of the Yangon people, the Shwedagon Pagoda was lavishly decorated with 3,154 gold bells in the “Hti" (umbrella) on the top, along with 79,569 diamonds and other precious stones at the very top. I guess devotees would just have to appreciate such precious adoration from a distance, never personally laying eyes on them.
Wednesday, February 29, 2012
Tuesday, February 28, 2012
While in the village, we also visited a Buddhist temple. I was rather surprised to see the floor covered in a film of dust. Although rather large in size, it lacked the opulence that some of the Buddhist temples I had seen elsewhere. Off to one side was a crematorium and next to the temple was a plot to honor the dead, with the stupa-like “gravestones” each seeming to compete through scale and decoration.
Monday, February 27, 2012
Our destination was a local primary school. Children sat on wooden benches, ready to take notes from the teacher’s lecture on the chalkboard. Typical of kids anywhere, our presence caused distraction for some. The teacher of one class called an early recess, with his young pupils quickly darting out of the doorless entryway before any minds were changed. We had seen this teacher earlier today, as he was one of the bullock cart drivers. Even here, the teachers need to supplement their salary! It was fascinating watching the kids play at recess. Some boys were engaged in a marble game, crouching down to the dusty ground in order to get the competitive edge. Most of the other children were engaged in a “try to make it to the other side while avoiding being hit” type of game, but using what looked like a large, weighted badminton birdie. The girls playing were equally as aggressive, throwing the birdie just as hard as the boys and not complaining when they got hit in the head - even though it clearly hurt. Although I am sure that the manufacturers of the birdie device did not intend for their toy to be used in that fashion, these kids sure made it an engaging recess activity.
Sunday, February 26, 2012
We then walked towards the village. Our guide pointed out various homes, stating that the agency through which we paid for the volunteer activity had funded the roof, another cement walls (vs. thatched), still another a toilet. We saw several wells with the names of donation families. What a difference that well will have in the lives of those villagers...
Saturday, February 25, 2012
Done with our light fieldwork, we walked across ploughed fields and in between rows of short corn to reach a house for our next task. Sitting on a plastic tarp in a shaded area, we watched our guide demonstrate how to weave and sew palm fronds which would be used to construct the sides of a house. A young boy wheeled a large wheelbarrow to the driveway of the house - the same boy we had seen earlier running towards us in the field, firmly clutching a kitten. Although we didn’t see the kitten now, we hoped it was ok. With no more palm fronds to weave, we watched the cooking taking place on the floor of the stilt house. The mother was pounding fish paste with garlic and chilies, while our guide was working on the dish’s main ingredient - fire ants. He explained that the although the delicacy dish was often eaten raw after the ants were pulverized and mixed with the fish paste, he actually preferred roasting it in banana leaves first. Although grateful that the stinging ants were no longer alive, I can’t say that I really appreciated the slightly crunchy dish. Like the other volunteers, I was happy to eat the white bread sandwiches prepared for us.
Friday, February 24, 2012
Climbing aboard carts drawn by water buffalo and a bullock, my two traveling companions and the other volunteers enjoyed a dusty ride out into the field. Our presence attracted the children of the village, with uniformed children at the school playground waving and smiling. One young boy ran to our car and followed us to the field, holding on to the back as if he was undertaking a very important job. He only stopped momentarily when he ran to pick up a yellow object he had spotted in a field - a spool of thread. We were taken to our first task - planting watermelon seeds for an illiterate farmer and his wife. They had already mounded the sandy soil, all we had to do was scoop a shallow hole and place five seeds inside, then covering it up. The wife then used her sprinkling can to water the freshly planted seeds, drawing water from the adjacent rice paddy. Village women were working in the rice paddy, planting rice. Despite being dressed in comfy looking pajamas (we found that walking around in pajamas was fairly common in Cambodia), their work looked far casual.
Thursday, February 23, 2012
On our free day in Siem Reap, we decided to give back to the community, volunteering in the village of Kampev. Our young guide (who raised himself and brother after his father was killed by the Khmer Rouge and mother died shortly thereafter) explained that the village was comprised of approximately 150 families. As is tradition in villages, we first met the village chief. With his closely shaved white hair, the elder quickly shared his age of 63 - something of which he was proud, as the average life expectancy here was around 50. He gratefully accepted the bags of school supplies and hygiene products we had bought in Siem Reap and at a village market.
Seeing the quantity of large bags filled with plastic bottles, we inquired about what looked like a collective effort. Smiling with his remaining teeth, the chief explained that the plastic bottles were being collected and filled with rubbish were actually being used for construction. When these bottles were stacked in between wire mesh and then covered with concrete, the walls were actually stronger than simple brick walls. What an ingenious way of solving the litter problem and building walls for schools or homes!
Tuesday, February 21, 2012
As part of our tour, we visited the village of Kampong Phluck. Located in Ton Le Sap lake, a motorized boat took us to this floating village. Homes here were built on tall stilts or floating foundation. Getting into a boat and going from place to place looked as natural as getting into a bus. Children dressed in uniforms hurried down the steps of the school to reach the waiting boats at the pier below. Our boat buzzed past stilted homes made out of palm frond thatch, monks getting their head shaved by the river edge, and women rowing boats heavy laden with vegetables just purchased from the small market.
Chickens clucked about and pigs lazed around in floating cages. Underneath some homes were large collections of rather small fishing traps. Not surprisingly, most of the 3,500 villagers are fishermen. The collection of stilt buildings soon gave way to scattered ones, after which the mangrove trees became more common - but no where as dense as those in the Sunderbans. After a bit, we were in the main Ton Le Sap lake - the largest freshwater lake in South Asia. Of interesting trivia is that that the Ton Le Sap River flows north for about half the year and south the rest of the year, as dictated by the floods of the monsoon rains.
Monday, February 20, 2012
While in Siem Reap, we also attended an Apsara dance performance. Much like the apsara (celestial nymph) dancers we saw depicted on the walls and columns of Angkor structures, these danced with grace and fluidity. Movements, particularly the placement of the hands and pose of the fingers was beautiful, but prescriptive. While the announcer was very difficult to understand (other than the word dance), we did enjoy the performance.
Sunday, February 19, 2012
Our last Angkor site was also my favorite - Banteay Srei. Although just a fraction of the size of the Angkor Wat temple, this miniature-sized Hindu temple more than makes up for things with its exquisite carvings. The red sandstone from which most of the structures here are carved was perfect material to achieve and preserve some of the most elaborate, intricate carvings I have ever seen. Consecrated in 967 AD by a counsellor to the king, Banteay Srei was dedicated to the god Shiva. Meaning “Citadel of the Women” or “Citadel of Beauty,” some say such intricate work could only done by the hands of women. Its lintels and pediments were particularly beautiful, but nearly every square inch was covered by carvings or sculptures. A feast for the photographer’s eye! Many of the sculptures found on the site are reproductions, with the originals stored in the National Museum. Additional pieces are housed at the museum in Siem Reap and were easily distinguished from “inferior” carvings from other Khmer sites. Such measures have ensured that at some of this “jewel of Khmer art” will be preserved and safe from the hands of unscrupulous looters. Visit http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Banteay_Srei for more detailed explanations and images.
View many more photos of mine on Banteay Srei and the other sites within the Angkor area on my Flickr set .
Friday, February 17, 2012
Still rather early in the morning, we began our trek through the forest to reach our destination of Kbal Spean - known more popularly as “River of a Thousand Lingas.” The shade of the tall trees shielded us from the bright sun. Roots wiggled across the path like snakes, making it imperative to watch one’s step. Rocks and boulders and provided an extra challenge, but some areas had stairs to make it easier to climb upward. About half an hour later, we arrived at the 9th-12th century Hindu carvings. Clear water glided and over river boulders, some of which contained carved Yoni symbols (womb or sacred temple). Shallow Lingas (representing the male fertility organ) were carved in neat grid rows in the sandstone river bed, reminding me of giant bubblewrap. It was believed that the water was purified as it flowed over the religious sculptures, thus cleansing the king’s sins. On the river bank boulder, a relief carving contained a reclining Vishnu, serpent god Anenta, goddess Lakshmi, and Brahma sitting on a lotus petal. I also spotted a rock containing relief carvings of small figures (depicting Shiva and Uma) riding a bull and other larger figures looking up to them. Additional carvings were found near a waterfall.
Thursday, February 16, 2012
Even wedding couples felt the need to visit Angkor Wat and pose for photos there. I wonder how many bobby pins and hairspray was used for her hairdo...
Wednesday, February 15, 2012
Along the outside of the central temple complex is an 800 m long series of beautiful bas-reliefs. One portion depicts a battle scene from the Hindu Mahabarata epic. Another is of a triumphal battle march of Suryavarman II’s army. Our guide pointed out the mercenary Thai army (who wore headdresses, skirts, and carried tridents), the Khmer troops (with breastplates and spears), and the king riding an elephant, shaded by 15 umbrellas and fanned by scores of servants. Part of the south gallery depicts the punishments of hell and rewards of heaven. Another section shows the famous churning of the Ocean of Milk. Some of the relief figures were quite black and shiny, polished by the many hands rubbing their surface. From the top of the temple, we had a panoramic view of the forested area, the libraries with rather intact roofs, gates, and the many tourists walking up the causeway. Despite its popularity, Angkor Wat definitely was not my favorite.
Monday, February 13, 2012
Finally we reached Angkor Wat. Arguably the most famous of structures in Cambodia, it is the pinnacle for many tourists. The largest within Angkor, it may even be the largest religious structure in the world. Never completely abandoned, Angkor Wat is the best preserved temple in Angkor. Built by King Suryavarman II from around 1113-1150, Angkor Wat was actually dedicated to the Hindu god Vishnu. In the 16th century, it was converted into a Buddhist Monastery and temple, which still functions to this day.
Symbolism abounds at Angkor Wat. The moat (still containing water) symbolizes the seven oceans. The bridge represented a link from the kings to the gods. Its inner wall and towers represent the seven mountains which were home to the gods. The three towers of the Wat represent the three Hindu gods - Shiva, Vishnu, and Brahma. The central tower is meant to be like the mythical Mount Meru, surrounded by smaller peaks and the continents (courtyards).
Angkor Wat was built on this location due to its proximity to a sandstone quarry, large lake, and fertile land. Over 500,000 volunteers built the structures, believing that their service would provide them a better life. Around 200,000 elephants transported rocks to the site using rattan rope. Sadly, only around 300 wild elephants remain in Cambodia.
Next door was the Terrace of the Leper King. According to our guide, the name is actually inaccurate. Rather than being a king with leprosy (toes and fingers are missing), the statue, for which the place was named, is likely Yama, the god of death. This 12th century terrace had five tiers of beautifully carved figures. Female figures dance gaily about, while male figures look rather stern, whose swords are firmly grasped. Some of my favorite carvings were found on an inner terrace. Although unfinished and containing topographical carving marks, these pieces had a beauty unique from all the others.
Friday, February 10, 2012
The Terrace of the Elephants was used as a stadium for public ceremonies, tightrope acts, and acrobatic stunts. Foreign delegations would come here after meetings, enjoying performances. Decorating its wall were garudas, lions, and a parade of elephants, whose trunks resembled columns.
Next to a walled area once housing the royal palace was Phimeanakas. It was a 10th century Shiva temple, built entirely of laterite. Meaning “Palace of the Air,” it is theorized that perhaps the structure was once topped with a golden spire. Although the pyramidal structure is in not the best condition, I did enjoy the elephant statues found on the corners and lions by the stairway.
Thursday, February 09, 2012
The pyramidal Baphuon was next on the agenda, just a short distance from The Bayon. Symbolizing the mythical Mount Meru, the 11th century Buddhist structure was constructed of sandstone and volcanic stone, transported from the quarries through the assistance of elephants, bamboo, and ferries. Compared to The Bayon, it appeared to be quite plain and non-decorative. The French have just completed restoration work on Baphuon, to the tune of around 4.5 million euros.
Tuesday, February 07, 2012
Once through the south gate of Angkor Thom, our first destination was The Bayon located in the exact center of the city- one of Angkor’s most popular sites and the favorite of our guide. Here, one can find around 50 towers decorated with 216 massive faces. It is thought that those faces signified keeping watch over the greater kingdom. In addition to the omnipresent faces, a highlight of The Bayon had to be its impressive bas-reliefs. Comprising a surface of over 1.2 km are over 11,000 figures depicting everyday life from the time period. Examples included cock &boar fighting, playing chess, a woman crying over her husband, fishing nets, picking out lice, fighting the Chams (Vietnamese), barbecuing fish, and victory meals.
Monday, February 06, 2012
Leaving Siem Reap early in the morning, we were ready for another day of temple visiting. Our first destination was the fortified city of Angkor Thom, meaning “Great City.” Spread over a 10 sq km area, it was built by the great Jayavarman VII. Around 200,000 people once lived within the city and around 1 million in the surrounding area during its height. We entered through the South Gate- one of five monumental gates into the city. Surrounded by an 8 m high wall and a moat, 54 gods greeted us one one side of the causeway and an equal number of demons on the other side, portraying the mythical story of the Churning of the Sea of Milk. Many sported lighter-colored heads, indicating that they were not the originals. Some tourists chose to ride through the 20 m high gate on the back of an elephant - quite likely the mode of transport used by the elite back around 1200 AD. A series of carved stone elephant trunks below huge heads could be seen on the gate.
Under the glow of the late afternoon light, we visited the twin temples of Chau Say Tevoda and Thommanon. Dedicated to Shiva but with many statues of Vishnu, only the central part remained of the 12th century Chau Say Tevoda site. Just north of its twin was Thommanon. Built around 1113-1150, this structure is similar in look but has more buildings. Once again, Vishnu and Shiva are featured in the sculptures and reliefs.
Saturday, February 04, 2012
After mingling about the vibrant Ta Phrom, the 50 m very plain Ta Keo was a bit of a let-down. Built of sandstone, this undecorated step pyramidal temple dedicated to Shiva was surrounded by four towers. Although reasons for the sudden construction abandonment are not certain, our guide said it was because workers were killed by lightning; other sources speculate that it was due to the death of king Jayavarman V (reigned 968-1001 AD).
Built in 1186, the temple of Ta Phrom has been left much as it had when European explorers first laid site on the ruins. The giant spung trees had massive roots which appear to swallow the rock structures, paying little heed to the beauty of the bas-reliefs they have enveloped, breaking apart the temple rock by rock. In some areas, the thick roots reminded me of a huge boa constrictor, squeezing out the life of its man-made victim. What the trees haven't claimed, the lichen has covered. The deafening constant noise of the cicadas and the call of the green parrots overhead were additional reminders that the jungle around us was still very much alive.
Wednesday, February 01, 2012
On the walk from the parking lot to the atmospheric ruin of Ta Phrom, we passed by a band -one of several we'd see in the next few days that were comprised of victims of land mines. Some were missing one or several limbs, while others were blinded by explosions. Like much of what we saw in Cambodia, these band members are a testament to the resiliency that has led to the rapid turnaround in the country.
Estimates are that there still are around 9 million land mines remaining from the civil war, with about 400 injured last year (down from 700 in 2000). How many more will be maimed or killed due to these cowardly devices?