Saturday, May 26, 2012

Angor Thom and Other Treasures

We entered another part of the complex through this massive carved gate.  As you can see, it was designed to accommodate elephants, not motor vehicles.  Buses can't pass through, and this van will have a tight squeeze of it.  John is proceeding on foot, keeping a sharp lookout for traffic.

And speaking of elephants, we saw several while we were in Angkor Thom.  Like their ancient relatives pictured in many of the exquisite carvings throughout the complex, they make their living carrying human cargo.  In this instance, however, it's tourists who are aboard, not warriors or Khmer royalty.  We were tempted to take a ride, but were packing all our photo equipment and decided to wait for another time. 

Built mostly during the reign of Jayavarman VII from 1181-1201, Angkor Thom was a fortified city that covered over 4 square miles and housed a million people or more.  Now designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site, restoration of the temples by the French began in the early 20th century.  It continues today under the auspices of the United Nations.  Not only did we see massive structures in all stages of excavation and renovation, we also saw some of the processes by which they were first created.  This is a demonstration of the process by which stones were lifted into place and aligned to form a structurally-sound unit.  This was necessary because the temples are not held together by mortar....just massive stones carefully placed to create buildings which would stand for centuries. 

Since many of the carvings that adorned the temples have been damaged or destroyed, workers are creating new ones.  This man was duplicating existing carvings using tools similar to the ones which sculpted the originals.  

We moved on to tour The Bayon, a temple built during the 12th century, which is located in the center of the Angkor Thom complex. The Bayon is mammoth, featuring 200 faces of Avalokitesvara carved on its 54 towers. The following images are from that temple.

The Bayon offers a number of popular photo-op spots where one can appear to be touching noses with one of the carved faces, as Jimmy Joe does here.

Perhaps my favorite temple was Ta Prohm. Erected late in the 12th century and early 13th century by Jayavarman VII, it was a Mahayana Buddhist temple built to honor his family. Originally called Rajavihara or "royal temple," The temple's main image, representing the personification of wisdom, is modeled after his mother. 

After the Khmer empire fell in the 15th century, this site was abandoned and neglected for hundreds of years. Rediscovered in the 19th century it had been to a large extent reclaimed by Cambodia's rainforest.   If some of these images look familiar, you may have seen them in the movies. We were told that scenes from the movie Tomb Raider were shot at Ta Prohm.

As with all the sites we viewed, we shared the experience with many other visitors.  Here Nine and our guide take a break while waiting to enter one of the buildings.

Much of Ta Prohm is still in ruins today. When it was discovered, the decision was made to leave it largely as it was found. However, many of the structures have been partially restored, to permit access and stabilize the ruins. 

Fortunately, some have been left at least partly in the grasp of the magnificent trees that grew up through and around them.  These trees are of several types, but the largest are said to be silk-cotton trees and the smaller ones are strangler figs.  (A most appropriate name in my opinion!)

The one below looks like a woman standing on her head with her long hair cascading over the wall.

Jimmy and I shot most of our images using our "Stedi-Stock" camera support systems. Mounted on a rifle-like stock, our cameras were much more stable than if we had simply hand-held them. This was a great advantage where it was difficult to use a tripod to get sharp photos.

At the end of the day, we were four tired puppies! Here John and Nine wait while patiently Jimmy and I take "just one more shot."

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Angkor Wat

While in Siem Reap, we stayed at the lovely New Angkorland Hotel

Our visit didn't start well. When we arrived, the desk clerk informed us that they were overbooked and that they had arranged for us to stay in another hotel. John and Jimmy took a quick look at the proposed accom-modations and promptly vetoed that plan.

In the meantime, Nine called her relative who had recommended the New Angkorland and who knew the owner. In about half an hour, we had rooms as originally promised. The next day, John and I (who were staying in what must have been the hotel's overflow room) were moved to a nicer room. We had a lovely stay there and enjoyed a trip to their spa for a massage as well.

Cambodia is roughly the size of Missouri, and has a colorful and chaotic history. Its population is said to be one of Southeast Asia's most homogeneous, with over 90% of the people being Khmers (ethnic Cambodians). Our guide book tells us that from the first to the sixth centuries, much of what is now Cambodia was part of the Funan Kingdom. In the early days, Funan accepted the Hindu religion. In spite of the fact that most of the people now follow Theravada Buddhism, there are many evidences of Hindu influence, especially in the area around Angkor where the first Cambodian empire was based.

During the 11th and 12th centuries, the Khmer empire conquered Burma, Vietnam, Laos, and Malaysia. It was a powerful nation and was recognized for its achievements in art and architecture (such as the temples at Angkor Wat), as well as an innovative irrigation system which allowed a large number of people to occupy a relatively small area.

We had come to Siem Reap so that we could visit Angkor Wat and the adjacent temples that were built during this time. Angkor Wat, the "city temple," was built in the late 12th century as a funerary temple and to honor the Hindu god Vishnu. It is the largest of the temples at Angkor.

Jimmy and I rose early in order to be at the temple complex to photograph the towers at sunrise. Accompanied by a guide, after a short tuk-tuk ride we entered the temple complex in full darkness and navigated the grounds by flashlight. However, as early as we were, we were not the first to arrive. The primo spot for photography is directly in front of the temple complex, looking across a reflecting pool toward the rising sun. I don't know how many others were there for the daily ritual, but by sunrise there was quite a crowd, as you can see. 

Fortunately or unfortunately, the grounds open every day before sunrise, so there is no real opportunity to get a private tour or special entry. Even staking out a great spot is no guarantee someone with a cell phone or point-and-shoot camera won't step out in front of you and spoil the shot.

We did get some lovely images, however. The sun rose in a clear sky, with just enough clouds to make it interesting. It was a great start to our day.

Jimmy and I saw plenty to marvel at, and to photograph.  Here he is, resting in the shade of a temple doorway.

John and Nine joined us a little later in the morning for a tour of the main Angkor complex.  They are in the background, with our guide, near the gate leading to another part of the complex.

The temple complex is vast, with a number of buildings. Below is a shot of the main gate seen from inside the complex.

This building stands apart, and we are told was a library.

All the structures are intricately carved. Battle scenes such as these cover many of the walls.

A number of the buildings feature carvings of female dancing girls known as Apsaras. These are figures from Hindu mythology, and there are said to be some 1,800 of them in the Angkor Wat temple. These are within reach of visitors, and their breasts have been rubbed to a sheen by many hands.

We prowled among the ruins, up and down the corridors,

and through the rooms and courtyards.

The monks were holding an audience in one of the alcoves.

Our day was far from done, however, and after lunch we moved on to see more.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Siem Reap

Back at "home" at Jimmy and Nine's in Phnom Penh (their balcony is the second one above the entrance), we relaxed for a day and shared stories of our Thailand trip.

After a little shopping, we stopped at Mike's Burger House for a "fix."   Mike, originally from Cambodia, spent a number of years in California. Upon returning to Phnom Penh, he wanted to make sure the city offered a good hamburger. It was up to Stateside standards, as you can see in these photos.

The next day, January 25, we embarked on yet another adventure. Early Wednesday morning, the four of us traveled by tuk-tuk through Phnom Penh traffic to board a sixteen-passenger van for a trip to Siem Reap (pronounced Sim Rip) to visit the the fabled Angkor Wat temple complex. 

Believe me, there wasn't a square inch of space in the van that wasn't filled with someone or his/her stuff. We were shoulder-to-shoulder and almost cheek-to-jowl; Siem Reap a very popular destination.  We traveled for several hours past rice fields, houses and small villages

The roads were narrow, with very little shoulder, and were crowded with everything from overloaded trucks to "iron cows" to motos to school children on bicycles. Our speed was close to 70 mph, and Jimmy Joe said our driver "had a demon" because he drove with a vengeance, sometimes passing what seemed like only inches from our fellow travelers. 

I was glad to be seated in the center of the van, so I couldn't see what was ahead. I did have a window seat, though, and took what photos I could out the side window and sometimes through the windshield between the heads of the driver and my fellow passengers. Some of those shots, and those from the return trip (which was just as nerve-shattering!) follow.