Wednesday, 16 December 2015

Angkor (Wat? or Thom or Bayon or Ta Prohm?)

I wake up at 5:15 am and JUMP out of bed to make coffee.  Everyone else in the hotel still seems to be sleeping.  When I step in front of my door I am forcefully reminded of that Robin Williams line in Good Morning Vietnam: "It's HOT and WET. That's nice if you're with a lady but ain't no good if you're in the jungle."  

I'm not with a lady and I dread the thought of what this place will be like when the sun rises !!!!  Then it hits me. It is December the 16th and this must be one of the coldest days of the year.   This thought is so insane that I want to write a LOL behind the last sentence.

If I ever watch Apocalypse Now again, I will have a much better appreciation for the movie.

The reception staff is amazing. I try not to be too naive about the thing.  Now that I've seen Seam Reap, I can understand why 'Mr Power', the receptionist, wants to get out of it.  I can understand why anyone living here would want to get out.  This ain't no pleasant beach town in Vietnam.  A second receptionist tried her best to fulfill my every need (NO, not that, but I'm sure there is a lot of that going on here). While I slept, she will have attempted to organize an English speaking guide for me (US$35), a Tuk Tuk will  drive me to the various Angkor sites and wait while I walk and visit each one (US$15), she has never heard of the old Soviet speedboat to Phnom Phen but will do her best to get me a ticket for tomorrow's 6:30 am departure, and she advised me that visitors to Angkor Wat, the temple site, MUST NOT wear shorts in today's 32 degree weather.  

Now this last bit deserves a huge LOL of despair !

I head out to the river by  5:45.  No slow sunrise as on Da Nang Beach here.  One moment it's dark, and 15 minutes later it's day.

During a short walk along the river, I take some pictures and then see 5 figures in orange walk along the road. I feel shocked and maybe I should. This is the real deal not just some imitation. While the rest look straight ahead of them, one flashes me a brilliant smile.

My inquiry at reception yields a reassuring result.  The receptionist secured me both a driver and an English speaking guide for the day.

While women MUST wear long pants during a visit to Angkor Wat, the receptionist informs me that men are allowed  to wear shorts. When I tell him that I have long pants and will wear them, his reaction shows that while shorts in men are tolerated, long pants are the thing to wear to pay respect to their culture.  This seems to be a big deal here; there was even a HUGE display board at the airport about things not to do, which I of course paid no attention to.

I run back to reception to ask more questions.  Does the hotel pay the driver and guide and then charge me on my credit card?  Can the receptionist give change for a $20 bill?  Good thing I asked because the answers are NO and NO and I only have US$ 100 and not a single Real in the local currency on me.  So the first stop on the magnificent visit to Angkor will have to be a trip in the opposite direction to visit a bank machine ;-(
Breakfast starts at 7 am and  I'm the first one there.  The menu offers me the choice between Continental, American, Asian, and Khmer breakfast.  Oh WTH, I didn't come to Kampuchea to eat American food; I order Khmer; it has dried fish in it ;-)

When it arrives I must admit that it's odd.  There is a bowl of congee and on the side a piece of dried fish and some pickled vegetable, and half a boiled egg.  Am I supposed to throw these things into the congee?  There is  also a fruit salad, but except for water melon, the fruits are unknown eats. But I think that Dalmatian looking thing is Dragon Fruit.

Once I have figured it out or developed my own method (who knows?) I realize that this is a breakfast I could get used to ;-)  Although I doubt that it's this plentiful for the average Cambodian.

My guide and driver (HOW COLONIAL does that sound?) are already waiting at 8:45, so off we go

Still outside the moat 
I break the ice quickly by asking him how to eat the Khmer breakfast.  Does one throw the egg, fish, and veggies into the hot rice gruel, like the Vietnamese would do, or does one eat them separately.  At first he looks at me as if I just told him that the world is flat, then a grin appears on his face and he starts laughing.  He explains to me that one eats the side things separately (Toto, I have a feeling we're not in Vietnam anymore) and that it would have never occurred to him that someone would not know what to do with the dish.
every stone was shipped here by river

In the gate house my  guide points out that  this is the ONLY remaining free-standing original statue in all of Angkor Wat.  And even this one has two or three prosthetic  arms.  Too much was lost to religious fanatics and fervent collectors.

The gate house from the inside

lots of walking in baking heat

monkey warriors

I  notice that the above tower is somehow is missing a lot of detail in the carvinWhen I'm waiting in line, my guide tells me a most incredible but probably true story:

In 1992, India offered to help to restore Angkor Wat.  Poor Cambodia naturally accepted and let the Indian team go to work.  They pasted some solution onto the signature towers of Angkor, and a while later it was noticed that the solution contained way too much acid, after the solution ates away most of the tower’s most intricate carvings.  It’s visible with the naked eye from far away that something went terribly wrong with the towers.  Their shape was affected and the colour changed too.
Now here is the juicy bit: India wanted to build their own Angkor-look-alike site not long ago.  Cambodia called Unesco for help and the UN bigwigs said No No NO to India.

My guide is convinced that the semi-destruction committed by India was part of a scheme and was fully intentional.  Imagine that!
After standing in a line for 30 minutes, it is time to ascend to the 3rd and top level of the temple.  In the old days, this was reserved for the king and the head priest of the Khmer empire.  These days, 100 tourists are allowed there at once.

another bleached tower

My guide couldn't help but point out that the Khmer ruler spared no expense or effort to ensure eternal life for himself.  The guide grinned broadly when he adds that now the Khmer Emperor can't get used to all those tourists running through his house.
The very centre of the complex consists of 4 Buddha shrines, which can only be approached from the 4 cardinal directions.  The alcoves are very dimly lit, so that the photographs barely show some gold and some dark grey.

a Buddha sitting on the coiled-up body of a Naga, with its 7 heads reared up behind him

You can imagine what this place would be like if they admitted more than 100 people at a time

Then  it's to descend to more mortal levels again

We exit the complex and my guide proves that he  knows all the spots where the best pictures  of the temples can be made.

When composing the following shot, I notice for the first time that my guide seems to wander behind me when I'm composing photographs.  He is checking out my compositions. This one generates a Hmmm sound from him.

When we walk into a not  very dense forest to get to the next temple, I use the opportunity to change my clothes from long pants and long-sleeved shirt to shorts and T-shirt. It's too hot to walk around in long pants.  The guide watches as I pull stuff out of my very small backpack and change my clothes.  With a serious face, he tells me "You come prepared".  I then learn of some of his previous clients that collapsed or started to vomit along the tour and had to go  back to the hotel.  

The trees probably give it away that we have reached Ta Prohm, the only temple from which the French colonial power did not remove the trees (Yes, all the other temples were once as overgrown as this one ;-)

While Angkor Wat  was built by an emperor to ensure his own afterlife, Ta Prohm was built for  an Emperor's mother and my guide can't help pointing out that in comparison to Angkor Wat, Ta Prohm is built very poorly with  much cheaper materials and much less intricate carving.  800 years later, sons would try to convince their mothers to move into old-age-homes so that they could sell the house ;-)

Termites are a problem. The soil they use for their nest mounds, they remove from the area of the foundations

Our tuk-tuk driver picks us up and drives us to a restaurant.  Good; I'm hungry.  Again I run into this annoying thing with the money disparity.  Tourists eat in the tourist restaurants. They  are cheap by our standards (US$7 for a huge fabulous dish), but forbidding to locals. And maybe some tourist groups don't want to eat with their guides. And maybe some guides don't want to eat with their tourists. So again, I eat by myself while the driver and guide vanish to somewhere else.  
Peanuts. Like I've never tasted before

Fish Amok with rice

The roots of a falling tree ripped the brick wall apart

The above picture should give away that we have reached the terrace of the elephants

Imagine having to carve this

I forget his name, but the guy with the stick serves a similar function to Saint Peter:performing Heaven & Hell Triage.

a 5 headed Naga above a 7 headed one
Once I realize we are on the terrace of the elephants I also am able to make sense of this. I've seen this on postcards but assumed it was a representation of flowers ;-(

On this field took placed the Khmer equivalent of the Greek Olympic games

We walk by a band playing music along the forest row.  On first glance I only notice that they are selling a CD for $10 and that one of the band members has funny eyes.  Only  when my guide mentions that these are victims of land mines, do I realize the one man is blind and that most are missing feet or lower legs.   Of course I have heard about the Masters of War or  weapons manufacturers profiting from power-hungry dictators  buying and burying their  landmines but  actually to see people with missing feet gives the affair a whole different feel. Go to your record shelf or to YouTube and find Bob Dylan singing Masters of War and LISTEN to the lyrics.  These poor suckers deserve as much.

another clearing, another temple

Again, I want to smoke and check with my guide whether it's OK. Again, he says "It's just a sign!", something I will remember often when back in Vancouver.  After several inquiries I learn that the No Smoking signs are there not because of any religious site respect reason but so as not to offend Western Tourists. 

This mountain goat used to be an elephant before it lost its trunk (another guide comment)

This particular huge temple has been re-assembled, but after assembly some 300,000 stones remain un-used.  I can't resist stairs so I will climb all the way to the top, but my wise guide will remain on ground level.
Guide-less, I have no clue what this is for

But from higher up I have a good view of the surroundings 

The last bit.  I'm used to steep. But this is STEEP

No shit ;-)

The climb is worth it; I seem to have climbed to Mexico
I also  seem to have ascended to an advanced level of enlightenment because (without attempted self-flattery) the picture above and the picture below are just fabulous

My  guide has reached that enlightenment much earlier, as is evidenced by the fact that he lets the tourists do the climbing while he stays on level ground.  I can feel it everywhere that the last temple took something out of me.  But there is more ...

There is something strangely familiar about this silhouette even before one discerns the faces in the towers
An outside wall explains why this temple was built.  Lazy and full--of-themselves Khmer lost their empire to an outside force.  Someone bribed the gods with the promise of building a temple if they would be able to get the empire back.  Et Voila ;-_)

I hate to image the carnage

A Japanese project busy with restoration work
With the next picture you will realize that you have heard the name Bayon (the name of this temple) before.
The actual experience is much difference than these pictures.  Imagine hundreds of human tourists climbing over a rubble heap of stones and completely ignoring the other humans but pointing their cameras in various directions at stone faces
here are a few more faces ;-)

By now I am exhausted and don't want to see any more temples.  Again, my guide knows the exact spot from which to take the best picture. To get these shots I have to get down on my hunches and barely manage to get up again.

My guide has the driver stop on the bridge so I can take pictures of the gate to Ta Prohm (it has faces in it) but instead i walk around and include faces off the statues on the side of the bridge.  Again my guide mysteriously is always behind me checking my pictures and his loud laugh seems to indicate approval of the above composition.

It looks dirty but originally they were all sitting on a snake balustrade
I am exhausted and the guide, who has to guide as long as the tourists want to see things, also seems tired and relieved when I say "Back to the hotel, please!". 

On the way back I learn a bit more about him. He learned his excellent English in a private school and he sends his kids to public school in the morning AND to private school in the afternoon. His face gets very serious when he says:  "Very important to finish school, they can survive then".

I am finally finishing this post one month after the day. And I realize that while I was there I was being flooded with new experiences and impressions. In retrospect I realize how much I learned and much I grew as a human being. Every day should be like that. Now that would be a life fully lived ;-). Remember Steve Jobs' most memorable expression: "Don't settle".  All of us will be dead in the non-too-distant future.  Make something out of yourself and of the time you are granted. Because you never know.  There might be a test for everyone at the very end. And it might be "In an essay of 1000 words, show how you have made maximum use of and created maximum benefit out of  the time allotted to you".  Or as I say:  Karma is watching.
... but much later than you think ..

After a period of recovery (there might have been a nap, I can't remember), I am looking for a place to eat.  I'm not going back to the hotel restaurant, that is not cheap seafood but cheap on seafood.

For the first time ever, I consult TripAdvisor on where to eat.  I look at a map of Siem Reap and mouse over the places close to me to look at their ratings. Marum it is. 800 meters walk and the ratings promise decently priced wine (Glass of Sauvignon Blanc for US$ 3.50). I briefly looked at the roasted Red Tree Ants with beef, but chicken out and go for grilled river fish.
Marum; not my pic

For the AMAZING (I kid you NOT: best meal I have eaten since France in June; I keep saying that over here ;-) and 2 glasses of fabulous Chilean Sauv Blanc (There is NO Cambodian wine), I pay  US$ 9.75.  I doubt that I'll ever be back in Siem Reap, but this restaurant adds to the attraction of the place.  

I actually check out the bill latter and realize why I paid so little. Each of the two glasses of wine cost 3.50, so to add them up they divided by 2 to get $1.75 and added that to the food.  This is not the first time something like this happened; the level of basic math schooling in Cambodia and Vietnam is not quite the same.

It might be a strange closing line, but don't consider it me being full of myself, but more as a motivational speech:

What have YOU done for yourself AND the planet today?

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