Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Siem Reap: The Great Post About The Great Temple

I'm not one to carry my own basket, so I need to clarify that the 'great' part about my post is that it contains a 'great' many pictures. But the temple really is great - in every sense of the word.

Angkor Wat means 'the temple city'. It was built in the mid-12th century during the reign of King Suryavarman as a symbol of his alliance with the Hindu god Vishnu and also to elevate himself to the status of 'God-king'.

Angkor Wat is the largest religious structure in the world, even larger in area than the Vatican. Everything about this place is huge, from the sandstone blocks to the five pinnacles in the central courtyard to the 45 steps that led to the lotus shaped shrines (Shirley counted).

The excellent artistry and craftsmanship of the Khmer civilisation is evident in the carvings, statues and bas reliefs that cover every last square inch of rock face of the entire temple complex.

Angkor Wat is built based upon the Hindu cult of anointing Kings as God-kings, thus deifying the ruler. Therefore their abode had to be symbolic of the actual Holy Mountain where the Gods reside. Hence the five pinnacles that symbolise the mountain peaks that geographically resemble the holy Mount Meru.

We entered Angkor Wat through the West gate (or the gopura) by crossing the stone causeway over the moat. As it was just after sunrise, it was quite deserted as most of the sunrise seekers had returned to their hotels for a much needed nap or breakfast.

As we walked along the outer grounds, we were greeted by two independent buildings that flanked the main pathway to the temple. Not much is known about the function of these two buildings although it is speculated that they were used as libraries to store manuscripts and holy books at some point in the past.

According to the guide (who I was eavesdropping on as I was too cheap to hire one for myself), these two buildings were also thought be preparatory shrines and worshippers were separated by gender, sort of like "his and hers" temples.

Looking back at the West entrance whence we came in, I noticed a horse roaming freely in the grassy plains that surrounded the temple complex. I later found out that it was there not by accident as the locals would charge a fee for tourists who wished to take pictures with it.

The temple was in a general state of disrepair, but it was evident that extensive restorative efforts are underway. Everywhere wooden planks were placed especially along stone corridors where the steps have crumbled.

Yes, another hallway perspective shot. Believe me, it took me fifteen minutes and lots of "excuse me", "pardon" and "s'il vouz plait" just to get this shot as people kept walking into my POV.

Some of the hallways reminded me of the Sistine chapel. Nature apparently had her own Michaelangelo to decorate the columns and ceiling in a way that no mere mortal could have created.

At the end of each hallway, corridor and dark alley, there were small shrines decorated with bamboo shoots, flower garlands, and orange-coloured drapes. Scores of people waited in line to kneel before a slightly larger than life statue of the Buddha to offer their prayers and burn incense.

There were of course no lights, not even candles; only sunlight that peered through large windows with vertical stone ballusters casting eerie shadows on the floor and walls.

We passed the outer hallway into the central courtyard where we found hundreds of apsara figurines carved into the walls. If my French served me correctly, one of the guides said that there are over 2,000 such figures all over Angkor Wat.

And if you looked closely at the apsaras, no two figures are exactly alike, suggesting that they were modelled after real life women, possibly royal dancers or concubines. Imagine being immortalised in stone in one of the greatest temples on the planet.

In a lot of them, their facial expression belie a tranquility that suggests that they were in a trance, half smiling while their eyes were closed. It has even been suggested that hallucinatory drugs were widely used by the commoners and royalty alike.

Angkor Wat is built like a pyramid with a sprawling stone base and a central courtyard that is perched atop a terrace which one has to climb a rather steep staircase to reach - all 45 steps of them.

I think the trick is not to look back down... at least not before you reach the top. Then turn around and you will see... this. Definitely not for the acrophobic, that's for sure.

However, if you had a deathwish, you could try some really ingenious acrobatic stunts, climbing the half crumbling stone ledges that look like they're going to give way anytime now...

And in the centre, are five pillars in the shape of closed lotus flowers that stand about 50m high. Kevin would have had a field day climbing this!

Here's another one of those close-up shots, this time of the ballustrade that line the windows along the corridor. They're carved to resemble traditional wooden pillars but are actually made of sandstone.

While I was taking a breather, who should I bump into but my best friend's sister, Ling, also a personal friend of mine. She was all by her lonely self taking pictures. Apparently her hubby was afraid of heights so he decided to just sit it out at the base. What a wimp!

I don't know how I managed to coax her to pose for this pic for me. Pretty photogenic, this girl, no?

Just as I was about to go back down the steps, I was distracted by the commotion caused by some of the temple workers playing with this monkey. It seemed quite agressive and even tried to attack Wymen. Or was it trying to be friendly? I couldn't tell amid all that yelling and shrieking.... by Wymen, hehehe.

By this time I had already gotten quite templed-out... so I decided to venture out further afield to take in some fresh air and see something not so grey for a while. Green is good....

It was quite a cloudy day, which was good as it was breezy and not too hot. Still, I was beginning to sweat as the humidity was starting to rise thanks to the rain earlier that day.

They say that all roads lead to Rome. Well, here's one of many that led directly to Angkor. My driver said that this road has been in existance since the heydey of Angkor Wat. What, so near to the city and no tarred pavement?

We had to wait a whole hour for the tubby one to get out of the temple. He got lost, it seemed. Yeah yeah, what..everrrrr......

Coming up: Kbal Spean. Trying pronouncing that!

Monday, August 20, 2007

Siem Reap: The Raided Tomb

Looks familiar? Well, this was the location of that famous scene where Angelina.... ahem... I mean Lara Croft battled the bad guys in the movie Tomb Raider.

So there I was, half expecting a buxomy yet athletic Mrs Pitt in a skin tight leather outfit to strut out of the shadowy courtyard armed with a machine gun..... My apologies. Daydreaming again.

Ahem..... Anyway, this is the ancient site of Ta Phrom, which was originally built as a monastery back in the late 12th century AD, in honour of King Jayavarman VII's mother.

This temple was chosen by the principal restoration authorities to be left in situ as an example of how the entire Angkor complex looked like when they were first discovered back in the 19th century.

Nature seemed to have taken over where man left off. It was an amazing sight to behold, the gigantic roots of trees that grow intertwined amongst the columns and ruins giving it a romantic quality that have inspired many an artist (or tomb raider).

According to the guidebooks, two species of trees are prominent here: the strangler fig (above and topmost pics)) with its great mass of thin, smooth grey roots and the larger silk cotton tree with its brown roots and knobbly texture (below and last pics).

Just to give you an idea of just how big those silk-cotton tree roots were....

The trees start by taking root in a crevice within the superstructure of the building and extends its roots into the masonry in its effort to reach downwards into the soil. In time, the roots grow thicker, gradually wedging open the stone blocks.

The trees then become somewhat of a support structure for the crumbling building, but when the trees themselves die or are felled during a storm, the loosened rocks collapse in their wake.

It started to drizzle a little halfway through our exploration of the site, hence the sombre quality of most of these pics. The flipside of it was we didn't sweat as much (read: stinky) and the leafy canopy over our heads helped shield us from the raindrops.

Although the crumbling state of the temple complex is actually left that way on purpose, there is evidence of reconstruction in various parts, perhaps just enough to make sure the blocks don't suddenly drop onto a tourist's head. :)

There are various entrances to the centre courtyard, and almost all of them are very elaborately decorated with bas reliefs of Hindu deities and of course those naughty little minxes, the Apsaras(es?).

I could go on and on about the library, the cross-shaped gallery, the side towers... but in the words of Shirley, they probably looked like more of the SOT (same-old-thing). Getting a bit temple-weary, eh Shirley?

Parting shot: Makes one feel somewhat small and insignificant doesn't it?

Friday, August 17, 2007

Siem Reap: Of Gods, Demons and Nymphs

Ok, it's going to get quite 'temple-y' for the next couple of posts. We started our exploration proper of the Angkor site with a trip to Angkor Thom, which translates as 'The Great City".

It was one of the largest of all Khmer cities and was the empire's capital until the 17th century. The square shaped city is walled up and we entered the site through its magnificent South gate with its four-faced towers facing each cardinal direction.

The city limits is surrounded by a moat about 3 km long on each side. Our driver, sensing a photo-op, stop the car just before the stone bridge, allowing us to have a field day taking our pics on the so-called 'Avenue of gods'.

The bridge was lined with statues of Hindu deities (devas) and demons (asuras, below). The statues at the South gate are the most well preserved and reconstructed, as a lot of the statues in the Angkor region were defaced or decapitated by thieves and revolutionaries.

The bridge was flanked by the devas on the left and the asuras on the right. The two rows of figures each carry the body of a seven headed 'naga'. And as you can see, the thieves obviously preferred the demons' heads to the deities'.

As we entered the S gate into Angkor Thom, I looked up and caught a final glimpse of the four faced pillar, and noticed other smaller stone statues assembled at the neckline of the four faces - a further testament to the artistry and genius of the Khmer civilisation.

All the roads from the four main entrances run perpendicular to each other and converge at the Bayon at the exact centre of the city. They were rather narrow and obviously not made for cars or vans to pass through more than one at a time. The elephants however, were quite happy to stroll along at their own pace.

Quite suddenly, we found ourselves facing the Bayon, the Temple of Face-towers. No one really knows exactly how many face towers there were supposed to be, but 'only' 37 are still standing today.

We were lucky to get to the temple before most of the mob, so had the place almost all to ourselves. This meant lots and lots of pics without pesky tourists (like ourselves) to spoil the shot. Not this one tho.

Wymen thought nothing of sitting or lying down just to get that perfect angle and shot. The dedication to his craft is amazing!

As for me, I was still trying to get the hang of the 400D and so, was busy tinkering with the ISO and white balance features. Thankfully, the various archways and corridors in this temple afforded me with lots of practice shots to perfect my photography skills.... not that I was all that perfect or skillful to start with. :)

Wymen also thought me to try to take naturally framed pictures, sort of like a frame within a frame..... You mean like this one ah, bro?

Bas reliefs of Apsaras, or celestial nymphs were everywhere, including on the stone archways, happily dancing to the beat of their own drum, oblivious to the ravages of time.

The temple is still under intense reconstruction and restoration, and we could see many stone carvings and numbered pillar blocks strewn everywhere on the temple grounds, covered in moss, and slightly defaced.

And it looks like someone got a little bit too carried away one amorous night with this sexy little nymph.....

By the time we were done with the Bayon, two hours had passed, the sun had gotten quite high in the sky and we were starting to get sweaty. Hmmm.... I wonder where Shirley and her hubby wandered off to......