Monday, December 30, 2013

Cambodia: More from Angkor

On day two, we continued our tour of the sites around Angkor, which included taking a tuk-tuk ride approximately 25km further out to a couple of the more remote places.  This blog will hit the highlights, including the temples of Pre Rup, Banteay Srei, and Preah Khan, as well as the river carvings at Kbaul Spean.

Pre Rup

Pre Rup, built sometime in the later half of the 900s, was another one of the massive pyramid-shaped/temple mountains with several levels and topped by lotus towers.  Since Pre Rup means "turning of the body" and refers to a traditional method of cremation, Lonely Planet thinks this suggest the complex may have been a royal crematorium.  Regardless of what it was, we found the place beautiful and worth exploring.  We were on our way to Banteay Srei that morning and did not originally plan to stop, but upon driving by in our tuk-tuk quickly decided to have the driver stop and let us wander the grounds for a bit.

Steep and high steps to the top.
The top.

Early sewer system.
Banteay Srei

One word to describe this place:  "Wow."  If I had two words, they would be "absolutely beautiful."  Known as the art gallery of Angkor, it is the jewel of the craftsmanship of the Angkor kingdom.  Built in the late 900s, it is a Hindu temple dedicated to Shiva and cut from a stone of pinkish hue.  It is very small, but my goodness, the carvings are stunningly detailed and amazingly well-preserved, particularly considering Cambodia's recent destructive history.  Photographers outnumber those of us who were just plain old tourists.  Hopefully, our photos will do it a bit of justice.

A sampling of the carvings above each of the doorways.

The small statues that stand guard over the parts of the temple are not originals.  Quite a few of the original statues all over Angkor, or at least those of  a size where a man or a few men could pick it up, have been stolen.  The originals at Banteay Srei are kept in the national museum.
The inside walls of each of these buildings are adored with carvings, but we were not allowed inside.

Yes, that's it.  Not very big, but quite beautiful.

Kbal Spean

A little further up the road from Banteay Srei (18km or 30 mins via tuk-tuk), is Kbal Spean, more commonly referred to as the "River of a Thousand Lingas."  Another impressive--and appropriately named place.  It can be reached with a short 1.5 mile hike along a jungle trail with conspicuous signs telling hikers not to venture off the trail because there are still live mines from the civil  war scattered about.  Indeed, the area was only opened to visitors in 1998.  It was a sweltering hot and muggy walk through the jungle, but well worth the buckets of sweat and my drenched clothes.  At the end of a hike was a series of intricate carvings of lingas, Vishnu, Shiva, and one of his consorts, Uma, along the banks and bed of a small river. Said to have been carved in the 11th century, this little known site remains almost as it was found and as such is fascinating and compelling, sitting in the middle of the jungle with only the noise of rushing water to keep you company.

I don't think there was a bit of air stirring along the trail, but the sweat was worth the walk.

Amazing to think that this image was carved into the stone in the 11th century and the detail still remains today.
These are lingas, the primary symbol of the Hindu god Shiva.  Look it up if you need to know what a linga is.  There were hundreds of them carved into the stone along the riverbed. 

The natural scenery was not too bad either. Our guide informed us that the water from this cascade was holy because it had passed over the 1000 lingas. We were encouraged to bath in it to purify ourselves, but we settled for washing our faces.

Linga and a yoni (the female fertility symbol), demonstrating the inseparability of the male and female and fertility.
Carvings were scattered across the site. If you didn't know where to look, and for what, you could easily miss many of them.

Preah Khan

One of the largest complexes at Angkor, Preah Khan ("Sacred Sword") was probably one of our favorites.  It is a maze of vaulted corridors and rooms, nice carvings, tree-covered walls, and includes a Grecian-style building that seemed a bit out of place.  Built in the 1100s as a temple and place of learning, it may have been the residence of one of the kings while Angkor Thom was under construction.  It is a fusion temple dedicated to both Buddhism and Hinduism.

Bridge leading to the entrance.

The massive trees growing out of the walls such as this one added something almost surreal to the place.  They certainly showed that the force of nature is not to be denied.

No one knows the purpose of this oddly-placed Grecian-style building.
The complex consisted of this main corridor and dozens of smaller corridors branching off to the sides.  Many of the side corridors had collapsed.

The place was so large that it was difficult to get a shot of the entire complex.  This shot of one of the entrances was the best we could do.
Close-up of the entrance.

Part three of our Cambodia trip will feature random shots taken across the country, including those of our side trip to the old colonial town of Battambang.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Cambodia: Temples and Palaces of Angkor

As a Christmas gift to ourselves and a nod to T's recent birthday, we decided to take about a week off and head down to Cambodia.  Seoul offers direct flights to both Siem Reap and Phnom Penh (about 5 hrs each way), so we flew into the former and back to Seoul out of the latter with a quite a bit of time riding along the country's rather poor roads in between.  While H had visited the country about a decade ago, it was my first time.  Boy, what a place.  It is a fascinating melting pot of extreme poverty, pockets of wealth and 21st century technology, rickety infrastructure, picturesque rice fields and rainforests, amazing historical sites, a brutal recent history, French and Khmer culture, volatile and corrupt politics, and a lively and friendly population.  The poverty at times reminded me of the worst I've seen in Africa.  At the same time, foreign money, much of which seemed to be of Chinese and Korean origin, is flowing into the country like a river, and the country appears to have a great deal of economic potential.  Tourists were everywhere, particularly Chinese and Koreans, but also a considerable number of Europeans (mostly French and British Commonwealth) and a smattering of Americans.

We spent the first couple days in Siem Reap, although our time in the city itself was rather limited as the real draw are the amazing temples of Angkor just outside the city limits.  The temples and the ancient cities that surround them are some of the wonders of the world, and it is easy to see why.  They are easily comparable to the structures at such places as Rome, Petra (Jordan), Chichen Itza (Mexico), Athens, Istanbul, or the Great Wall of China for their grandeur, size, and significance.  Home to the largest religious structure on earth, Angkor Wat, these ancient capital cities and their magnificent temples (and it is mostly temples that are left) are tributes to the Cambodian "god-kings" of the Angkorian period, which lasted about 600 years beginning around 800 AD.  The Lonely Planet guide calls them "heaven on earth" and notes that they are a source of inspiration and national pride to the Cambodian people (90% of which are Khmers) and nearly all Cambodians will visit them.  From our experience, it seemed that a considerable number of Chinese and Koreans want to make the same pilgrimage.

Since we took nearly 1,000 photographs, we will devote several blogs to the trip using a small sampling of our photos.  We are certainly not professional photographers, but I think our photos will give you a good sense for what is to be seen in Cambodia.  The first couple blog entries will give you a tour of the major sites around Angkor.  Subsequent entries will focus on other parts of the trip, including the provincial city of Battambang, the capital Phnom Penh, and sites related to the horrifying rule of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge.

Our hotel in Siem Reap.
Angkor Thom

The first place we visited was Angkor Thom, the last great capital of the Khmer empire.  It was constructed under the rule of Jayavarman VII (1181-1219) after the original city of Angkor was sacked by the rival Cham empire in 1177.  Encompassing around 10 square kilometers, surrounded by a massive wall and moat, and centered on the great temple of Bayon, it may have supported as many as one million people at its height.  There were lots of things to take pictures of, but we've included below just what we thought were some of the highlights of the complex.

South Gate to Angkor Thom.  Note the faces on the towers.

On the bridge approach to the South Gate.

Bayon Temple.  Lonely Planet describes it as "mesmerizing" and "mind-bending."  Agree with the former, not so much with the latter, unless perhaps you've been taking some mind-altering substances.  The massive temple is very unique and awe-inspiring with its 54 Gothic-style towers and 216 enormous smiling faces of Avalokiteshvara, the benevolent bodhisattva who postpones his state of enlightenment to remain on earth and assist mankind  (and coincidentally also resemble the king who built it), which look down upon visitors or stare out in the jungle.  The intricate carvings that adorn the walls are also quite detailed and rival those of the more famous Angkor Wat.  Our photo sampling is rather small, but the reliefs contain more than 11,000 figures and cover several battles, including the sacking of the original city of Angko in 1177, a civil war, and a naval battle, as well as a victory parade, a circus, and linga worship.

iPhones now offer a "pan" capability that we tried on a few occasions.  We thought this particular one of Bayon and its ancient moat turned out quite well.

Baphuon.  In its heyday, this vast pyramidal representation of a mythical mountain would have been one of the most spectacular of Angkor's temples.  It has been restored piece by piece.

Terrace of the Leper King.  It is not clear if the Terrace of the Leper King was built for a couple of kings who may have had leprosy or it housed the royal crematorium.  We were mostly interested in the detailed and fascinating reliefs on the interior corridors.


Ta Prohm

Also known as the Tomb Raider temple because it was the backdrop for one of the scenes in the movie, this fascinating and picturesque temple is famous because it is being swallowed by the jungle and appears much as it did back in the 1860s when a Frenchmen "discovered" the Angkor site.  The jungle has been largely beaten back over the years and only a few of the humongous trees and their tentacle-like roots remain, but the ruins still provide for some great photos and an appropriate place for Indiana Jones.


Angkor Wat

The largest and most famous of the temples around Angkor and an important symbol to the country and people of Cambodia.  It is even represented on their national flag.  A beautiful and awe-inspiring mix of symmetry and religious spirituality, it is the Khmer's representation of Mt. Meru, the Hindu version of Mt Olympus.  The complex is huge and has been used almost continuously since its construction in the 1100s by Suryavarman II.  Photos will never do it justice.

Outer wall, gate, and complex.
The temple.

We were very taken with the 800 meter-long bas-reliefs stretching along the outside walls of the central temple.  Incredible detail of armies, columns of soldiers, horses, chariots, close combat, and gods.

 All this in one day.  Stay tuned for another day exploring the ancient Angkor kingdom.