Monday, November 14, 2016

Cambodia - Angkor Wat in the selfi(sh) era

Angkor Wat is generally the best known temple in the area of north Cambodia which is home to several complexes. Today it is the main tourism attraction for Cambodia, and rightfully so as not only is it of historic importance, it's also an impressive series of complexes to see. Of course the 'selfie generation' is there for two totally different reasons. They want a selfie at the Ta Prohm temple as it appears in the Tomb Raiders movie, and to digitise their current girlfriend in the 'oh what a feeling' poses. From an historical point of view, Angkor Wat is where it seemingly all started. The name Angkor Wat means Capital Temple and was built by the Khmer people in the 12th century, when Angkor Wat was indeed the capital of what is now known as Cambodia.

So what is Angkor Wat? Simply put it is a temple built by the Khmer King Suryavarman II. Originally it was a Hindu temple which has gradually been transformed into a Buddhist one. To picture it's significance on a world scale, let's look at some figures first. Being on a 162 hectare site it is the largest religious monument in the world. According to French explorer Henri Mouhot, who visited the temple in the mid 19th century, it is a rival to the palace of King Solomon and grander than anything left to us by Greece or Rome. The temple is the symbol of Cambodia and appears on the national flag. It's of such historical significance that it is on the Unesco World Heritage list.

Of the many temples and complexes which can be found in the area, Angkor Wat is the best preserved. Partly because it has never been abandoned and stayed in use as a Buddhist temple. It received considerable restoration in the 20th century and, as evident by scaffolding, this still continues today. The history of the area is a very complex one, partly because the history of the Khmer Empire is complicated. Around the 12th century, the time of Angkor Wat the empire was in big turmoil. The Khmer empire then stretched from the Chinese border to the Malaysian border, Laos and Thailand officially didn't exist although there is evidence of the Tai people being in the region as early as 800 AD. Laos officially became a protectorate in 1893 and independent in 1945 and again in 1953... Needles to say this all didn't happen without some serious battles. It's fascinating reading but well out of the scope of a travel blog...

There is an entry fee to be paid, which can be done for one, three or seven days. On advice of the guest-house owners we opted for the 3 day pass, which works out at $40,- per person. In theory you could visit all the temples on your own bike, but we opted for another form of transport altogether: a tuk tuk. We're glad we did as the guesthouse organised a very good one for us, who not only took us there but also shared a wealth of information. Of course he knows where to go, where to park and when would be the best time to visit each temple... and we didn't have to walk around with jackets and helmets! For 3 days he charged us just 19 dollars a head, a bargain.  

If you are a Chinese bus tourist or a funky backpacker, or have been to Angkor Wat and don't want to be reminded of them, then it's best to skip the next 3 paragraphs. Because looking at Angkor Wat today, the first thing that anyone will notice who visited it around the same time we did, is the selfie brigade and the rude Chinese bus tourists... To start with the last one, you've never seen rude, arrogant, ignorant and totally past caring about anyone attitude, until you've met Chinese bus tourists. They yell to each other from one temple to the next (and do so continuously), block everything, push you away just to make their photo, cut in right in front of your camera lens and when they've exhausted every avenue to get photos of mum in front of the monument, they decide to have a picnic right on the steps of it... ruining everyone else's photo possibility.

The selfie brigade has some similarities to the Chinese bus tourists. As the word selfie already suggest, they only care about themselves. For the uninitiated, it's the lot who puts every fart and hick-up on Facebook as the greatest thing they have achieved ever, complimented by messages like 'I'm at K-Mart now, feeling bored'... who cares? The selfishness starts when they select their clothes, which comes in the most hideous colours to ensure they ruin everyones photos. Instead of photos with archaeological ruins on them we get hazy types in floppy 'spiritual' clothes with a nuclear meltdown resembling print in eye shattering fluorescent pink, equally fluorescent yellow, fire engine red and of course chemical green... I came to see an archaeological site, if I wanted to see hideously coloured clothes then I would then I would have visited what's called a trendy store. Show some respect to others and dress somewhat appropriately...

On the subject of respect, why is it that everyone these days feels the need to pretend they are doing a photoshoot for a lifestyle magazine? What happened to photos being memories of where you have been, rather than just showing how 'amazing' I am...? All day long we were confronted with girls in the most ridiculous poses... which took forever... and there were thousands doing it. Everyone's free to take a photo as they wish of course but at the same time I'd like to be able to take a photo of the actual ruin I'm visiting and preferably before I retire. The most ridiculous one were two backpackers who were climbing onto the monument in rock climbing style, despite it being clearly roped-off and signs aplenty stating not to pass beyond this point, just to have that photo taken of them having 'conquered' the ancient Prasat Bayon. Of course when they have finally taken that 'amazing' photo, they then start discussing it in great detail, all the time blocking the view and passage of hundreds of others. Female selfies have adopted the loud chopped-off husky sandpaper style voices, as they are considered to be sexy... You may wonder why I wrote the previous paragraphs as on paper they have nothing to do with Angkor Wat. Yet this is what you will be confronted with when visiting Angkor Wat today as there are as many of them as there are stones in the monuments. 

Coming back to what there is to see and what we found there in terms of 'the sights', Angkor Wat is very much worth a visit. We had seen the incredible archaeological sites in Mexico, Guatemala and Honduras, Angkor Wat is still impressive to see. I'm not going to suggest one is better than the other as the building style between the Aztecs, Mayan and the Khmer is too different to be able to compare. The history is very different too and as such I can only say they are all worth a visit, even if you're not historically inclined. Just sitting back and looking at the richly decorated buildings is inspiring. There is a strange connection for the people living here too. Their ancestors all those thousands of years ago had a job for life building them, now they have a job for life restoring what they built. The progress is slow and its all hand work.

We visited over 3 days, as we might be here only once we might as well see it properly. The first day was a long one which took us out to the Preah Khan temple. As first impressions go it was a good start! I had deliberately avoided anything to do with landmines while in Laos and did the same in Cambodia. Make no mistake about it we both feel that what has happened here, and still continues today as there are millions and millions of these things still lying around everywhere, is terrible. At the same time we don't feel the need to go to a museum and marvel over the results and look at photos of maimed bodies. Yet when we were walking towards Preah Khan we were confronted with it nonetheless and possibly in the most beautiful way possible (if that's the right word to use here). There was a group of musicians, all victims of landmines, playing traditional Khmer music. It not only sounded beautiful and peaceful, but also made this very powerful connection between the beauty of music and ugliness of war. Despite the horrific results of the landmines, they adapted and still played their instruments... thereby symbolically stating they were not defeated. Of course we made a donation, a donation which will be used to help people affected by the landmines. Money well spend.

The temples in the Angkor Wat complex all have a different symbolic signifi-cance. Neak Pean is in essence a complex with 4 different ponds. They represent water, earth, fire and wind which are symbolically linked to statues of the elephant (water), bull (earth), lion (fire) and horse (wind). The pools are based on the Hindu belief of balance, remember it all started as Hindu temples, whereby the water from the ponds would balance the bather and thereby cure its disease. To us westerners this may seem strange, but don't forget we have some strange rituals too, like the healing waters in Lourdes, France for example.

Another lot doing a selfish photoshoot... having seen again and again it gets quite boring...
What was striking in all temples we visited, was the detail in the stone carvings. There was hardly a plain block used anywhere. Some are very elaborate and depict scenes from past eras. Deciphering the drawings and writing has revealed the rich history of the Khmer and its contact with other people. The day ended with a sunset experienced at the top of Pre Rup. The monument was jam packed with people. Cameras everywhere! Quite a few had setup cameras on tripods using an interval timer. Yet despite all the people there was still silence. Hardly anyone spoke, all were in awe of what we saw.

Siem Reap is, to us, just another tourist town. Walking there isn't easy because of the mess it is and we found ourselves continuously pestered by tuk tuk drivers. An all too familiar pattern arose where they all claimed to be my friend and had the best possible deal just for me... We walked the aptly named Pub Street, which is indeed where the pubs are. All of them belting out something which goes for music I guess, and at such a volume that the only thing achieved was me not going in. We did start the evening at one place which offered traditional dancing, which was nice to see, but left when the dancing and accompanying music was replaced by disco inferno at a strength that should have demolished the building. It was so loud that conversation became impossible, even the waitress could no longer hear us when we yelled in their ear! Mike tried to eat a snake, but didn't finish it... Away from all the noise and tourism scams we found a quite good little restaurant where you can get a good meal for just 3 dollars... (at the Ladybug guesthouse) As always, the thing to look for is away from the crowds, which suits us well :-)

The next morning we aimed for sunrise at Angkor Wat... as did thousands of others! Despite leaving at 4.30 am and arriving shortly after, we found the place packed with tuk tuks, buses and... tourists. Finding a spot along the lake, to take a photo of Angkor Wat during sunrise and its reflection in the lake, wasn't easy. Still, the sight of Angkor Wat with the sun behind it is pure magic! Angkor Wat itself was a selfie-fest, which is a shame as there is so much more to see than silly 'oh what a feeling' poses. It's a majestic building, as you can see in the photos. Unfortunately seeing the inside of the temple wasn't an option. The line of people waiting was longer than the complex and they only let a limited amount of people in at any one time. The amount of tourists was a sign of things to come...

No it isn't veggie oil... it's petrol! This is my kind of servo, small businesses selling petrol per litre in a bottle!
Angkor Thom, which is a much bigger complex than Angkor Wat, is just north from it. Both complexes have a moot around them and Angkor Thom's entrance is via a big bridge, flanked with what looks like warriors carved in stone on either side. According to the tuk tuk driver. the ones on the left are male and on the right female, as only the heads are visible it was hard to tell. The Bayan temple is believed to be the connection between heaven and earth. At each corner are huge towers decorated with 4 faces, each facing a compass point. Inside the complex are 51 more towers, each with 4 faces as well. The bass-relief scenes show important events and comprise over 11,000 carved figures over a wall of 1.2 km. It was even more packed with people as Angkor Wat, a large school group of teenagers which was very well behaved(!) and a Chinese group of retirees which wasn't... We roamed around, took our photos and went again. The Phimeanakas offered a long climb in very hot and humid conditions, which was perfect as the yelling Chinese found that too hard.. :-) Solitude at last and a great view over the surrounding area!

The Ta Prohm temple is the one used for the Tomb Raiders movie, whereby Hollywood conveniently added parts on Angkor Thom via CGI as it suited the script better... Seeing nature taking over the temple is impressive to see. It's almost like nature is telling us 'you can build whatever you like... but we will just grow over it'. Beautiful to see how these huge trees simply grow over these huge structures.

I feel I should say something about our tuk tuk as well. It is a motorcycle after all... Tuk tuks come in various shapes and sizes. In Cambodia they are basically 125cc motorbikes pulling a large trailer which can seat 4 people. As you can imagine they struggle a bit with the added weight, even a 'climb' to a small bridge will see the 'speed' drop alarmingly and the engine heat up the same way. To aid the cooling of the small air cooled engine, the Cambodians have fitted a 5 litre jerrycan of water which drips onto a rag placed on top of the cylinder block. Of course the trailer has no brakes and often comes without lights too. I wondered why they use 125cc, to which the answer is simple but somewhat alarming: up to 125cc can be ridden without a drivers license... carrying 4 passengers in a vehicle with mediocre brakes and a driver without a license or any form of driver education... They are big fun though!

The last day of our visit to the various Wats, we went to a Pyramid style temple which is older than any of the ones we previously visited. Plenty of restoration work was in progress, which only added to the experience. The monuments being saved is great and provides plenty of work too. The Bakong and Lolei temples are certainly worth visit. Behind the Lolei temple we found a small school run by buddhist monks. The kids are learning English, Maths and computer science when we were there. We were invited to see the work being done, which was great to experience! 

The day ended in an unexpected way. First I found out I had a flat tyre... the rear obviously, and with that fixed we found ourselves in a restaurant with Aspara Dancers, which was a great way to end a beautiful 3 days!