Monday, February 13, 2006

Ruminations about the Ruins...

More on our time in Siem Reap, this final installment covering the four plus days spent touring the various Angkor period ruins. Enjoy.

So I considered writing this from a perspective where we gave our impressions and some historical background of the various temples we visited. I then realized that in four days we've visited 13 temples. Yes, 13. In fact, here's the list (in the order of how we visited them) in it's entirety.

Preah Khan
Preah Ko
Banteay Srey
Prasat Kravan
Angkor Wat
Ta Prohm
Prasat Neak Pean
Ta Som
Eastern Mebon
Preah Palilay

Despite the hype around Angkor Wat (pictured, which was definitely very impressive), our favorite temple area was the Angkor Thom complex, and by far the place that struck us the most was Bayon. This is the temple with all the towers with 4 huge faces. We could have spent a lot more time there and just absolutely loved the atmosphere. (At this point we were going to link to a number of really cool photos that we took of the temple and the faces, but those were on the memory card when the camera got you'll just have to check here).

In an effort to not bore the living beejesus out of the reading populace (all five of you), I'm not going to talk about all the other temples and our experiences visiting them. If you're a history buff and would like to learn more about any of these sites, check out The Angkor Guide. The guide itself is a bit old but has plenty of useful information. In Part two of the guide there is specific info on the particular ruins.

Instead, I'm just going to add a couple of thoughts and/or interesting facts we learned while visiting Angkor...

- First and foremost, a healthy thank you to Andrew Dennis our great tour guide and the Reverend John Dennis for inviting us along to be a part of the tour. Andrew was a fountain of knowledge (thanks to his time working with the World Monument Fund) and gave us the information necessary to fish for ourselves in amongst the years of history. Now if only he'd quit using his fluent Khmer to tell the sellers "You see the guy in the red shirt? That's Brian. He's rich and he told me he wants to buy four silks/books/trinkets/whatever you're selling."

- Before the trip, I just assumed that being in a Buddhist country that all the ruins were Buddhist in nature. Instead only about half of them are and they were all built in a 40 year period. The rest of the time (about 400 years) and the other half of the temples were built for worship by the Hindu religion.

- Since the Buddhist period of ruins was sandwiched by the Hindu periods, an unthinkable amount of time was spent in the Buddhist temples both carving out Buddha images as well as doing some creative remodeling such as adding beards, crossed legs and some muscle definition to tens of thousands of Buddhas. On the flip side, there is an eight armed Buddha that was formerly a Ganesh.

- Brick v. Sandstone. The construction materials of the temples is an ongoing topic while visiting the ruins. The builders started with brick and over the years went to sandstone, the quality of which diminished over the years. The brick temples are 200 years older in most cases and in significantly better condition. As a result, Angkor Wat (built with lower grade sandstone) looks ancient compared to some of the earlier works. Maybe that's why people like it so much...

- Having the experience of being part of a family picture at Bayon. We'd walked up to start our tour and there was a family of about 25 who were up from Phnom Penh to visit. Next thing we knew Andrew had convinced their photographer to take pics of all of us. It was then that the eldest man referred to us not as balang (foreigner in Khmer) but as white Khmer. Very cool.

- The man v. nature battle that is Ta Prohm. This is the wildest of the sites because of the many trees that have intertwined themselves in amongst the ruins. So far nature is definitely winning. The conservations groups thought it was in the best interest to eliminate new trees growing in the area. Unfortunately in doing this they eliminated the most evident source of future support for the ruins. Eventually the current trees will shrivel up and die, leading to the collapse of Ta Prohm. Despite the ongoing efforts of the conversations groups, no real solution has been found.

- The giant jigsaw puzzle that is Baphuon. The French were in the process of rebuilding the temple piece by piece when the Khmer Rouge came to power in 1975 and destroyed all the plans. Now the French are back at it again. Of course they're doing so while trying to piece together the plans as well. Just a fascinating project. Like trying to do a jigsaw puzzle with the pieces but with no images on the pieces or box cover to tell you what it's supposed to look like.

- One great story related to the sellers in Angkor. When you step out of a vehicle, they are all over you, selling their very similar wares. Their pitch is usually some equivalent of "Two for one dollar" They're persistent but most of the time a simple no thank you will suffice. However, I had the following priceless exchange:

14 year old Girl: "You want book?"
Me: "Aht te aw kohn" (Khmer for no thank you)
Girl: "You want postcards, silk?"
Me: "Aht te aw kohn"
Girl: "What do you need?"
Me: (wearily) "I don't need anything. I have everything."
Girl: (two thumps on her sternum) "You don't have me!"

And with that she stormed off into the late afternoon sun. I had to admit I wasn't expecting THAT.

- The disturbing lack of an unified conservation strategy for the Angkor Wat ruins. The French, German, Belgian, Japanese, Chinese, Indians and the World Monument Fund (WMF) all have various projects they are working on but no one has taken the initiative to make sure it all is uniform. In fact in talking with Andrew I was amazed at the multitude of different restoration styles used. You'd hope that Aspara (the government based company related to Angkor) would take the initiative but my impression from the ground was they were too busy resupplying the vendors with silk and purses to sell the tourists. This is in contrast to the conservation effort at Preah Khan, where the WMF is in charge of all elements from forestry to architecture to construction and has had a clear vision over the last 10 years of work there. It will be interesting to see how this progesses with the number of visitors increasing exponentially year after year and with it the need for proper conservation.

- Finally, a bit of travel advice. DO NOT visit Siem Reap during Chinese New Year. Way too many people and more tour buses than you can shake a stick at. Andrew did a good job of moving us around to avoid the peak times at various temples but it still was very busy in places. We found one place on our fourth day devoid of tourists (and no, I'm not saying where) and it seemed like a slice of paradise.

We're off now to Phnom Penh in the hope that we don't get shot at or have acid thrown at us while we're visiting uplifting sites like the Killing Fields.*


* Note to the mothers: this only really happens later in the night according to the Phnom Penh Post Police Blotter. We'll do our best to stick around the drug pushers and touts near our guesthouse once it gets dark. So be rest assured we're a-OK :-)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

That's good to know! We'll sleep better tonight. :) You look good in your picture. Glad you got some R & R after the temple marathon!