Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Cambodia - Day 3 & 4 Temples, Police and George

The morning of the 3rd day of our trip begins at 4:30am. Here in Cambodia, the sun rises a little earlier than Malaysia, the local time here being an hour behind the time in Malaysia. We finally have our guide, Uk Akara (H/P: (855)012 299458), to take us to Angkor Wat. One wonders if by some twist of fate that he had been available yesterday, we all probably won't be limping out of the hotel to the waiting van with various levels of injury and George wouldn't still be spending his holiday in the hospital. But that is fate I guess. Skipping our breakfast, we went straight to Angkor Wat to watch the rising sun bathe the ancient ruins with its different reddish hues of morning brightness. Except that in this dark and cloudy morning, there wasn't a rising sun to see. And so we waited in vain, along with scores of Mat Sallehs, still taking pictures of Angkor Wat by the side of a deliberately filled up lake, its mirrored surface reflecting the dull greyish shades of the temple. As the sun rose higher and it became clearer that we would have no chance to watch the much anticipated light show, we decided to head into Angkor Wat proper to marvel at its interiors instead. Visiting the ruins of Angkor isn't cheap. It costs USD40 to obtain a three day ticket and USD20 to obtain a one day pass. In a country where the average wage earner could barely eke out USD50 a month, that’s really a lot of money we are talking about here! I had always mused throughout the trip that the Cambodians should really be thankful to their ancestors for building them a 'Disneyland' more than a thousand years ago. One could only venture how much would it cost for them to build the Angkor complex today. Certainly the Angkor complex is probably the ONLY reason why anybody would want to come and visit Cambodia in the first place! So being a BIG income earner for the government, there is definitely no shortage of people stopping you to check your pass each time you drop by at a temple complex. A picture of you, zapped onto the pass by the same digital camera technology used by the immigration departments of various more advanced countries guarantees that the pass is completely non transferable. So better not lose the pass folks otherwise you will have to either cut your tour drastically short or fork out another pile of greenbacks to get a new one.

Angkor Wat itself is huge. Surrounded by a moat and accessed by a single stone causeway, it is spread out rather symmetrically from East to West, North to South. At its center are four stone towers forming the four points of a rectangle with one dominant tower right at its center. This arrangement harkens back to Hindu mythology whereby Mount Meru, the home of the Gods is supposedly surrounded by four large mountains.

Within this central tower, it was said that a statue of Vishnu was placed before it was later replaced by a representation of the Lord Buddha when Buddhism took hold of ancient Angkor society in the 10th-11th century. There was also a myth that spoke of a serpent living in the central tower, with the King, the only living mortal that can ascend this tower doing so every night. There, he will have to copulate with the serpent with disaster striking the kingdom should he fail in his efforts. Unfortunately, we couldn’t visit the central towers. They are under renovation and would not open until April, 2010.

A lot of effort has been made to decorate the stonework that makes up Angkor Wat. Carvings are everywhere with images of ‘Apsara’s, heavenly maidens created by the Gods and spirits during the churning of the sea at the dawn of creation dominating by far. The guide told us that there were 2000 carvings of Apsaras scattered throughout the Angkor Wat complex and no one single representation is the same. All of them are scantily dressed with nothing to cover their breasts. Not surprisingly, on a lot of carvings there are signs that those parts of their bodies have been ‘touched’ more frequently than others. The guide himself encouraged us to do so, claiming that it would ‘attract’ more members of the female gender to you. :) Well, what’s the harm eh? ;)

The slow, exotic traditional dance of the Cambodian people also originates from the Apsara myth. If you haven’t noticed, a lot of South East Asian traditional dances, whether Thai, Malay or Indonesian looked similar in style. This is because they came from one single source, Cambodia. It is well documented that when the Thais invaded the Khmer empire in the late 13th century, they assimilated a lot of their culture, their dance being one of them which they later spread throughout the region.

Large, long murals showing battle scenes and day to day life of the Khmer people can be found along the outer walls of the complex. Here, there are certain portions of the carvings that appear to be touched more often than others, all in the belief that it would bring good luck. For example, I was told that to touch the leg of the commander riding the elephant to war would bestow upon me ‘great leadership’. Hmmm….

The Bayon complex was next on our itinerary for the day. Located close to the center of Angkor Thom, it is made out of 37 soaring towers, each having 4 faces looking out in the cardinal directions. Built by the famous King Jeyavarman VII, Bayon’s 37 towers representing the 37 provinces that comprised the Khmer empire during his reign, the faces on the towers, their governors or so our guide says.

Here there is this spot where you could do a little trick with your camera. Located on the left side of the complex when entering from the main entrance, there is this stone structure with a partially collapsed roof and window ledge whereby you could sit. Looking up at the third brick from the bottom of the ledge and facing one of those giant faces, you could generate this splendid camera trick of you kissing the face if taken from the proper angle! Of course my description sounds vague, just go there and home on in the spot with the most people sitting on a stone window ledge having their photos taken. Chances are, that’s the place. :p

Angkor Thom itself is this huge ancient city complete with an encircling wall that is punctured by 5 stone gates, each with a face of the king mounted over the lentil. 4 of the gates are located in a North, South, East, West axis of the city while the 5th gate, known as the victory gate, is located slightly to the north of the East gate.
According to our guide, the ‘Victory’ gate was used by the Khmer army to march out from the city and if they were successful, march back in. If they were not victorious however, then the army would limp through the more mundane sounding ‘East’ gate instead.

History tells us though that the Khmer people fought many wars against the kingdoms of Cham and Mon during their early years of empire. These kingdoms were located in the north and south of present day Vietnam which probably explains why the ‘Victory’ gate faces that direction.

Other than Angkor Wat and Bayon, we visited the following temples.
Pre Rup (2nd day, shortly before the accident)
Resembling a stone mountain, beautifully carved false doors appear on the towers of the upper level. Traditionally believed to be a funerary temple, it is in fact the state temple for Rajendravarman II. An all too friendly tourist police explained to me and Er about the history of the temple, saying that the outer towers was where the ashes of the ancient Khmer Kings were interred. The upper towers were used to burn their bodies. He demanded that we pay him a USD3 ‘tip’ for his explanations.
Ta Prohm (3rd day)
A monastery, it is made famous for being featured in Angelina Jolie’s Tomb Raider movie. Towering trees grow out of the stone blocks, dislocating massive stone blocks, slowly destroying the temple in the process. An ongoing restoration project, a joint venture between the Cambodian and Indian government is hoping to help save the temple by restoring it. That however means that some of the trees will have to be chopped down. One interesting sight within this temple is an image of an Apsara’s face, completely surrounded by a growing root of a giant tree.
Preah Khan (4th day)
A huge highly explorable temple complex which for a period, serves as the residence of King Jeyavarman VII during the reconstruction of his permanent home in Angkor Thom. Literally translated as ‘Sacred Sword’ it is actually a monastery that once served over 1000 monks. A unique stone columned building is located within its confines, something that is not seen in Khmer structures of that period. It is speculated that it might have been a later addition to the building complex.
I also took the opportunity to put in a few joss sticks for the Buddha image at the center of the complex, an old lady providing me with some water from her bronze kettle to help wash away the impurities on my head.
Neak Pean (4th day)
Neak Pean is loosely translated as ‘Coiled Serpents’ in reference to the coiled nagas that encircle the temple itself. A giant statue of the horse, Balaha, saving drowning sailors, faces the front of the small temple that is located right at the center of what look like a pit. Four more massive dried up pits are located north, south, east and west of the central pit. According to the guide book, these pits will be filled with water during the rainy season rendering this small temple most photogenic.
Ta Som (4th day)
Similar in architectural style to Ta Prohm, it is a tad smaller in scale. What makes it unique though is this huge tree that grows at the top of the eastern gopura. It appears to be destroying the gate but it is a photo classic.
The tally of our temples visits are admittedly a lot less than what a full tour would provide. That is because aside from visiting the temples, we had to take the time to drop by at the police station and the hospital as well.
The visit to the police station on the 3rd day was more to get a proper police report so that we may proceed to make claims via our respective insurance companies. But getting a report was not easy. We were told rather plainly that the task of preparing a report for us is extremely tedious, the officer in charge having to record down statements from all parties as well making 5 hand written copies after that. The police officer that dealt with us also muttered to us that he had to work during lunch hour and had skipped morning breakfast on that day. In Malaysia, when you hear this sort of whining, you sort of know what you have to do. I suspected it’s even more apparent in Cambodia.
Seeing that our Mr. Maxx who sort of elected himself to speak for our behalf with the officer and not getting anywhere with him to the dangerous point of actually irritating the man, I wedged myself in. Saying “Let us help you to help us” changed the officer’s mood slightly and with a cheeky smile, he told us that the previously time consuming process to prepare the report can be shortened to have it ready by Friday morning, the day we were supposed to leave for Phnom Penh. He also offered to send an officer over to see George at the hospital to take down his statement. Now that’s what I call ‘service’!
We visited George later in the evening. He told us that indeed a police officer came over to record his statement. Unlike us who were told to condense our reports to one page, George wrote a 1119 essay! :) Prior to this, we were informed by George that the doctors have advised him to stay on another night in the hospital. (Do I hear ‘ka-ching’? $$$)
Later, we returned to the hotel, the group deciding to reverse the earlier decision of hiring the guide for another round the next day. Actually it was my and Er’s idea, we both thought that since no one else was REALLY listening to the guide’s explanations besides myself, maybe it is better for us to continue the next day ‘free and easy’, without spending another USD20! As a consolidation, we gave Mr. Akara a generous tip of USD12.
We then had our dinner in the hotel before returning down to Pub Street for a round of beer. In Siem Reap, a mug of beer can cost as low as USD0.50 but we ended up on the second terrace of this restaurant at the corner of Pub Street where Wei Han ordered a USD5.50 jug instead. Well, I guess you have to PAY for the view.
After that it was lights off for me as I headed back to join Er, who elected to stay at the hotel because of the swelling in his legs. Wei Han continued to explore Siem Reap by visiting another massage parlour.
The next day, we continued with our tour of the temples after electing to start our morning slowly. Leaving the hotel at 8:00am, we went over to the three temples listed above for the 4th day before heading to the hospital to bring George out from potential destitution. ;)
After paying an extremely hefty fee and taking a few photos to commemorate the event, we returned Bayon and then Angkor Wat, George effectively starting his tour of the temples on this 4th day of our trip. We had wanted to repeat the morning temple tours but the driver told us that due to the distance, he cannot do so otherwise his boss will ‘scold him’. :p
And so, we returned to the places we went yesterday, yours truly acting as the ‘guide’ (since I was listening to almost all of Akara’s descriptions while the others were keeping their distance from him :p) for George. We also took the *ahem* customary photos.
At last, we managed to capture the sunset scene at Angkor Wat. With the return of George, the skies seem to clear itself of those marauding clouds that ruined our morning brief at the same place, the sun finally bathing the ancient monument with its dying reddish rays. All around, people were snapping shots while in a distance, a hot air balloon floated in the air. :)
But as the intensity of the reddish glow increased over the temple, we were suddenly told to leave! It was only about 6:00pm but the park ushers have started to herd people out. This is because to stay on in Angkor Wat until the sun truly sets and watch the daily installed spotlights bathe its contours with warm glows of orange, you’ll have to fork out ANOTHER USD15! (Ka-ching!)
We filed out, along with scores of tourists who had decided not to feed the money hungry machine that runs the place and made our way to Siem Reap to spend our last night.
First though, we had some unfinished business to settle. Dropping by at the police station, we went over to seek our police reports. Not surprisingly the police officer we dealt yesterday was waiting for us but out of his uniform. Before handing over the reports he politely reminded us of our 'offer' to help him so that he can 'expedite' his work faster. To this we granted him USD10 in 'aid', the officer taking it and counting it beneath his desk. The big frown on his face indicated that our 'tip' wasn't really enough to 'help' him though. As we walked out of the station, Maxx voluntarily topped it up with another USD5, proudly proclaiming in the van (and far away from the station) later that he would readily shoulder the extra 'tip' should the rest of us felt the initial 'assistance' we offered was enough. We chose to let him have the limelight. The USD5 is on him. Thanks Maxx for helping save our collective 'faces'. :) Dinner this time was at this posh bungalow buffet place in the middle of town just beyond the single shopping center by the riverfront. At USD10/person you also get to see a full troupe of dancers perform the traditional Apsara court dance. Various folk dances were also performed for the mostly Mat Salleh looking audience.
And thus ends our final night in Siem Reap. Having traversed over broken stone pavements, dark corridors and broken ruins for the whole day, we were all mostly tired. The rest of the night we spent packing our bags, checking our mail and for me, updating my facebook profiles… ;) Tommorow, it’s the journey to Phnom Penh.

1 comment:

  1. Interesting temple... May I share a blog about Todaiji Temple in