Thursday, August 26, 2010

Cambodia - Siem Reap - Day #2 Temples, Temples, Temples ...

Khmer Flower Vendor At Banteay Kdei

Friday 10 August, the second day of our Cambodia visit, was a day dedicated to touring SOME of the many temple ruins around Siem Reap.  Our tour of the ruins commenced around 8:00 A.M.

Our first stop was at the ruins of Banteay Kdei which are located northeast of Angkor Wat and approximately due east of Angkor Thom.  The temple of Banteay Kdei was constructed in the period from the late 12th century to early 13th century.

We walked through the ruins some of which were in surprisingly good shape.  As at Angkor Wat we marveled at the magnitude, scale, and complexity of the structures.  Intricate carvings covered many of the temple surfaces.  Exposed stone surfaces bore heavy signs of 800 years of heavy rains, brilliant sun light and the combined ravages of man, plants as well as animals.  Many of the Angkor Wat environ temples have had damages caused by acidic water created by bat dung combining with the persistent rains.  Some of the temples today prominently demonstrate how the intrusion of plants, specifically trees can damage and ultimately destroy the works of man - a reminder of the temporal nature of man and his earthly works. The stone structures have been eroded to varying degrees.  Sadly some structures bear scars from battles ancient as well as recent.  Most tragic of all are the structures specifically sculptures and carvings that have been mutilated for the benefit of "collectors" and "souvenir hunters".  In addition most of the structures are stained by air pollution and moss growing in the abundant damp and dank cracks as well as crannies.

At Banteay Kdei, I came upon a young Khmer girl inside the ruins.  She had a large plastic bucket of lotus flowers that she was selling to passing tourists.  This is typical in many areas of southeast Asia.  Childhood is short and for many children there is no childhood.  At a very early age they are are expected and required to contributed to the family's welfare either by working in the fields or as vendors.  As the tourists passed this young girl by, I disappeared into the shadows to become inconspicuous.  I often find that what I consider to be the more interesting photos of people can be taken when they are unaware and just being themselves.  This style of shooting also best compliments my goal to show extraordinary people doing ordinary things.  I become inconspicuous and patiently observe the reality of life and culture around me.  I was once again rewarded at Banteay Kdei.

Lotus Flower and Khmer Child

The young girl was selling lotus flowers - a plant that has a great deal of symbolism and significance in the Hindu as well Buddhist religions.  After many years and several wars, the original Hindu temples were taken over by Buddhists and converted as places for their worship.  So there are many beliefs and symbols that are shared between the two faiths.  For Hindus, the Creator, Lord Brahma, is believed to have come from the lotus .  For Buddhists the lotus symbolizes purity of both the heart and mind.

For Buddhists the growth of the lotus signifies the progression of man's soul.  The lotus flower has its roots and starts it growth in the mud.  For Buddhist man's soul commences in the "mud" of materialism.  Just as the lotus grows up through the water and blossoms into a beautiful flower in the full sunlight of the day above the water's surface, Buddhists believe that man's soul will develop through the "waters" of experience and eventual rise to blossom in the brilliant light of enlightenment.  At night when there is no sunlight the lotus flower closes just as a man's soul needs enlightenment to blossom.

A Large Silk Cotton Tree Growing Through Ta Prohm Ruins

After our visit to Banteay Kdei, we walked over to and visited Ta Prohm.  Ta Prohm is about 100 years younger than Banteay Kdei - 700 years old rather than 800 years.  This is fascinating to me since back in New England the oldest structures are approximately 400 years old.  Here everywhere I looked were man made objects over 600 years old.

The big attraction for tourists at Ta Prohm is the opportunity to see the ravages and destruction of the structures by the intruding "jungle".  "Jungle" is a term from my youth.  I remember reading Tarzan novels as a young boy where he was "King of the Jungle".  I remember watching TV in the 1950s about white hunters in Africa and in the 1960s once again about Tarzan.  I now prefer to refer to these fascinating seas of plant life as "rain forests".  I have walked in the "rain forests" in Malaysia, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, and Brazil but have yet to have seen what I would consider to be a jungle.  I suspect that the jungle is only a far away place in the land and time of my youth.

For Duang and I, our expectations for Ta Prohm were exceeded.  The ruins were obviously the result of the natural progress of the rain forest reclaiming its territory from man's incursion.  Large trees grew directly out of the temple's stone structure.  Some time ago, a long time ago in the terms of one person's life, a seed was deposited in a crack between two blocks of massive stone.  Sheltered in the crack, nourished by the frequent rains, and fed by animal and insect wastes, the seed developed and thrived into a tree.  Today the tree is massive with a large root structure that is cleaving the stone structure apart.  Large blocks of stone surrender individually to gravity and tumble to the pile of rubble formed by their predecessors as the large roots continue to pry the upper structure apart as they grow year by year.

Ta Prohm Ruins
After Ta Prohm we visited Ta Keo, an unfinished temple built entirely of sandstone, approximately 1,000 years old.  Photographing the ruins in the Angkor Wat area is a challenge due to a combination of the brilliant sunlight and deep shadows.  The heat, humidity, and rain showers contribute to the challenge.  The physical efforts required to access the upper levels of the ruins is affirmation to the Khmer's desire to remind man that attaining heaven is difficult.  Digital photography is a great assistance in photographing the ruins in that adjustments in the white balance, and exposure can be quickly evaluated rather than waiting days if not weeks for film photography.  Digital photography is also a great deal cheaper than the old print and slide days of photography.  It is reassuring to leave a unique place like Angkor Wat knowing that you "have the shot" rather than believing or hoping that you "got the shot".

Gods Lining the Causeway to the South Gate of Angkor Thom
From Ta Keo we continued towards Angkor Thom.  Angkor Thom was a walled city built approximately 800 years ago. Within the walls of Angkor Thom are the temples and monuments of Bayon, Preah Palilay, Baphuon, Tep Pranam, Terrace of the Leper King, Terrace of Elephants, and Phimeankas, food stalls for today's visitors - each site a definite must visit location.  The gates of Angkor Thom are also a big attraction.  The South Gate is the most visited and straddles the main road from Siem Reap.  On the side of the causeways leading to the gates there are 54 gods on the left side and 54 demons on the right hand side.  The statues lining the causeway to the South Gate have been restored and some have been replaced.

Causeway to the South Gate of Angkor Thom
We spent some time at the South Gate observing the various vehicles transporting tourists from all over the world.  More interesting was watching the Cambodians crossing the causeway to resupply the stalls and vendor sites inside of Angkor Thom with fresh supplies of drinks, fruits, and foods.  Once again the entrepreneurship of Southeast Asians was very apparent.  People were busy supporting their families by selling drinks, foods, fruits, handicrafts, and souvenirs.  Some of the vendors can be annoying.  Some of the vendors, the little children, are irresistible - a fact that I believe is fully understood and appreciated by their parents.  Some tourists are put off and annoyed the efforts of the local people to make a living for their family.  When it starts to get to me, I remind myself that they are only trying to survive and to make use of the meager opportunities that are available to them.  Besides there are plenty of times during these travels that a cold soda, cold ice tea, ice cream, bag or pineapple, green coconut, or snack is more than welcome - they are essential to continue our explorations.  I usually end up joking with the vendors with them having no understanding of my sarcasm or sense of humor.  I typically extract some small revenge upon them by taking their picture. More the case, I end up talking to them or trying to communicate with them by some means and gain a better insight into their life.  If it were like back home, what would the point of traveling to visit these places?  I look upon the occasionally annoying vendors as part of the overall ambiance of these exotic locations.

A Khmer Fruit Vendor At Angkor Thom

Angkor Thom Food Stall Vendors Headed to Work

We visited and enjoyed the attractions inside of Angkor Thom for the remainder of the afternoon - a long and tiring afternoon.  Just before we left Bayon Temple, a rain shower struck.  We took refuge from the rain in one of the intact  rooms of the temple.  I took advantage of the changed lighting and atmospheric conditions to take one final photograph of the day.

Bayon Temple In the Rain

Being forced to pause in our frenetic touring by weather is always a good opportunity.  It is always an opportunity to relax and contemplate the sights and wonders before us.  It is an opportunity to imagine what these sites looked like and how the people lived 700 to 800 years ago.  These sites are physical links to a distant past - to a culture long gone, but upon which much of today's culture is based.  Most of all these enforced pauses are an opportunity to share each other's moments together, to appreciate being together, and to be thankful for the life we share.

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