This is a sort of travelogue, experiences and observations combined with random contemplations,
of a trip through Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam in Jan-March 2011. This blog is now closed.

Sunday, 27 February 2011

Angkor Wat

(No we haven't had an accident, we were just too busy traveling....)

(And I got complaints about letter-size; if this post looks longer, it isn't, just bigger letters!)

If people say they have been to Angkor Wat, they have usually been to much more than that. Angkor Wat itself is just the largest, and most elaborate temple in a truly overwhelming complex which contains many, many more buildings, from the well restored exquisitely carved temples and towers to crumbling ruins overgrown by jungle. Wandering around this complex is a fabulous experience.
The complex was built around the 11th-12th Century, at the height of the Khmer Empire, which stretched well beyond current Cambodian borders. Hindu initially being the state religion, there are many similarities with Indian culture, and many of the bas-reliefs derive from the Ramayana, the Hindu legends – as well as depicting the many heroic deeds of the ruling kings, of course. However, at around this time the Khmer kings were also experimenting with Buddhism, which soon dominated. As all great civilizations – and quite a few lesser ones – the Khmer empire eventually declined, although there is much debate why. The Siamese – the Thai – became stronger, and ransacked the place in the 15th Century. As was common throughout SE Asia, which used to be thinly populated, the victor’s prize was not only raping the women, but also carting of much of the population as slaves, which will have diminished the numbers in Angkor. At the same time sea trade was on the increase, especially with China, whose seafaring fleets started to reach the Mekong around this time, prompting the Khmers to move to a more strategic and opportunistic location, like Phnom Penh – conveniently also further away from those nasty Thais. Whatever the reason, or reasons, Angkor was left to the monks, and to the jungle, only for Henri Mouhot to bring the complex under the attention of the West some 400 years later. And the rest is history.
Of course, these days one doesn’t wander alone, anymore, one needs to share the experience with thousands and thousands of other tourists, but by careful planning we still managed to avoid many of the largest crowds. Being used to early rising (...) we started the first day at Angkor Wat itself, at 7 am, and managed to have parts of the place entirely for ourselves, for a little while; other areas we shared with only some of the cleaning staff. Magical, until you want to take that picture of a beautifully carved window high up one of the buildings, and just when you press the shutter a bright blue T-shirt and white sun hat pokes out. Henri Mouhot had it a lot easier, I bet. By visiting temples around lunch time we also avoided most of the tour groups, it being pretty hot – which is why most sensible people had left, no doubt –, but this way you did occasionally have a little of that Indiana Jones-feeling.
Anyhow, suffice to say that we have thoroughly enjoyed this incredible mass of grey stones, some stacked, others carved in endless bas-reliefs, yet others carved into figures, mostly bare-breasted and well-endowed women or nimble dancing girls, but also the occasional sword-wielding guard at a door, or a priest, a mythical snake or a lion, and whole series of elephants. And not to forget – but how could you? – the face of Jayavarman VII, the egocentric king who constructed most of the buildings and had his face carved on each of the four sides of each of the 54 towers of another temple building, the Bayon, and for good measure also on a couple of entrance gates. Present-day rulers - well, as far as they survive in the current climate -, could learn a thing or two from Jaya. Much, much more to see, but not for me to describe. Let me just post a few photos, to give you an idea.
(1 to 12) Pretty boring, I know, but I cannot NOT show Angkor Wat and surroundings in a blog about traveling in Indochina, no? So there we go.
(1)    The Angkor Wat temple – cannot do without this one, of course.

(2)    and (3) Bare-breasted women and nimble dancing girls – the apsaras.
(4) Jayavarman VII himself, in one of the 216 tower faces.

(5, 6) Some of the reliefs, a clearly recognizable horse, and hell (really, sinners being carried away to hell – now you know what it looks like!)

(7, 8) And there are many of those, attractive see-through gates, occasionally with a surprise at the end (in this case a statue, more often it is a colourful tourist).
(9) Apart from the animals in relief-form, there are also some real animals, taking a rest, and bringing some natural colour to the whole thing.

(10) And then finally, that Indiana Jones-feeling, which (11) we could have enhanced by taking the elephant-express up the hill (at least some more colour in between all the stones).
(12) And spotted in the same place, some further colour.
 Of course, such fabulous place comes at a cost, the cost of tourist development and its associated annoyances. I am not sure what was worse, the tuk-tuk drivers relentlessly pressing their trade onto every foreigner in town, or the sales women in the complex who start calling out to you from at least 200 meters distance, invariably with high pitch squeaky voices. Everywhere else in Cambodia, and also in Laos, people would take no for an answer, but here they don’t, they just keep pestering you as long as they can. What is sad, is the large number of children selling stuff, books, souvenirs, worthless trinkets, or other unnecessary items. They should be in school, really, and although they claim they go, I somehow doubt that. A law banning children – working children - from the complex should be easily enforceable. But of course, as one of the boys told us, in order to sell, he needs to pay off the police, as no doubt everybody else was doing, too. Indeed, I had been wondering what all those uniformed people in hammocks were doing there the whole day.

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