Friday, January 23, 2015

Some Things Are Not What They First Appear

Carved Wood - Ban Na Kha, Thailand

In this blog I have often stated that "There is the way that things are supposed to be and then there is the way that things are." Although my focus in life as well as photography in the past nine years have been in Asia, specifically Southeast Asia, that saying, perhaps bordering on a cliché, often describes conditions throughout the world and although there is no known evidence to support it, I suspect it also applies to the inhabitants of the International Space Station.

The human condition thirsts and lusts for order, stability. and fears change.  In an effort to quench our thirst, create order and "ensure" stability in our lives, we have created laws, codes, and a sense of the ways that things are supposed to be.  Even today this quest evolves into concepts of social justice, economic equity, rights, and "fairness".  These codes, laws, senses of the way that things should be as well as altruistic memes are quite often created by those who believe that they know more, know better, and even know best for everyone else.  Unfortunately or perhaps fortunately, that is not the way that things are.  This world is a cornucopia of diversity, contradictions, incongruities, inconsistencies and for most people, frustrations and disappointments.  Reality often does not conform with expectations or "the way things are supposed to be" no matter the amount or quality of the knowledge that you may possess or have convinced yourself that you have.

"Things are often not what they first appear to be" is another cliché that is often all too true.  Each of us interprets our environment based upon our individual perspectives, life experiences, cultural biases, instilled values and training.  Our "reality" is a mélange of the sensory inputs to our brain and our interpretation and evaluation of those inputs based upon our individuality.

The photograph at the beginning of this blog is most likely an example of the adage "Some Things Are Not What They First Appear."  The "Carved Wood - Ban Na Kha, Thailand" photograph is of a portion of a wood carved door.  A carved door?  Carved door to what ... Hugh Hefner's bedroom? Entry to a "gentlemen's club"?  Door to one of those notorious (naughtious?) Thai Go-Gos?  No - actually far from all of that. The section in the photograph is actually part of a door to a Viharn (Sermon Hall) at Wat Nakha Twewi (Thewee and a couple other spelling variants)

Entrance Door At Wat Nakha Thewi

The door into the Viharn is heavy and richly carved.  So what does a bare chested young woman dancing have to do with Buddha or Buddhism?  Is this a story that can be shared in mixed company or even shared with children?  The answer is "Yes".

The female figure is a representation of an extremely important deity and she is not dancing.  She is Phra Mae Thorani.  Carvings, paintings, and sculptures of Phra Mae Thorani are common at Buddhist temples in Thailand, Cambodia, Myanmar and Lao (Lao People's Democratic Republic).

Phra Mae Thorani is often depicted beneath Buddha just as she is in the above door panel - don't worry. it is not what you think or what it may appear to some people.

Buddha Calling the Earth

Notice the carved Buddha in the section of the door above Phra Mae Thorani - he is sitting cross legged on a lotus flower with his left hand resting in his lap with the open palm facing up while the palm of his right hand rests on his right knee with the fingers pointing straight down.  This posture of Buddha is called "Buddha Calling the Earth"

Buddha Calling the Earth - Sop Ruak (The Golden Triangle) Thailand

I have not performed any research or statistical analysis of the depictions that I have seen of Buddha, but it seems to me that "Buddha Calling the Earth" is very popular if not the most popular posture - and for a very good reason; there is a great story behind it.

Buddha Calling the Earth - Ayuthaya, Thailand
Buddha did not become enlightened over night.  He had many life cycles, some not even human (123 as an animal), before attaining enlightenment or liberation. In one of the stories, some people say myths but for me the term has too much of a negative connotation), Buddha was a Bodhisattva (a being whose goal is to attain enlightenment, a previous life of Buddha) who was meditating under a Bodhi tree (ficus religiosa). He vowed to remain meditating under the tree until he became enlightened.  After seven years, his body was ravaged.

Mara, The Evil One (the Buddhist Devil) apparently out of jealousy wanted to prevent Buddha from attaining liberation.  Mara represents temptation, sin and death.   He is the King of the Heaven of sensual delight - the quenching of the thirst for pleasure, power, and existence.  Mara first tried to convince and reason with the Buddha to stop and give up his seat under the tree thus giving up on his quest for enlightenment.  When that did not work, Mara showed up with his army, his daughters, and wild animals to drive away the Bodhisattva from his throne - one way or another.  The gods that were watching over Buddha tried to stop Mara's army but when they could not, they fled leaving Buddha alone to resist Mara, alone and physically weakened after seven years of meditation.

Mara called upon his army to witness his power and what he planned to do next.  Buddha had no one to witness for his good deeds.  He stretched out his right hand and touched the Earth to call forth the earth deity.

Phra Mae Thorani - Huay Xai, Lao

From underneath Buddha's throne, Phra Mae Thorani, the Earth Goddess, in the form of a beautiful young woman rose to bear witness of the Bodhisattva's good deeds. Phra Mae Thorani affirmed Buddha's right to remain on his throne under the tree.  As she twisted her long hair, torrents of water which had been accumulated over the ages from Buddha's libations (pouring of water in rituals to the gods) caused a great flood which washed away Mara and his army.  Buddha was thus freed to continue his path to enlightenment.

The Earth deity - Phra Mae Thorani, Vat Jom Khao Manilet, Lao
The carved door section at Wat Nakha Tewi turned out to be a significant religious representation associated with the victory over the temptations of sensual delights - existence, power, and pleasure. It was not an invitation for or representation of the vanquished temptations as it may have first appeared without knowing the story.

One of the fascinating benefits of living in this region is all the opportunities to experience and learn just how different your new reality can become as you develop greater perspectives and interpretation for everything beyond your first perception.  Your reality from your old world is reborn as you learn that some things are not what they first appear and that it is acceptable for things to not be the way they are supposed to be especially if that way that you thought was the only way they should be.

For me, this is a great story as well as an inspiring story.  I plan on taking a series of photographs based upon the symbolism and imagery of Phra Mae Thorani.  As it turns out, for me, classical sculpture and posing is not limited to Greek or Roman culture.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

The Bayon


The Bayon
Our full day of touring the ruins of Siem Reap included an afternoon visit to The Bayon.

Bayon is a ruined Buddhist temple.  Most of the ruins in the Siem Reap area started as Hindu temples however Bayon, Ta Prohm, and Preah Khan were constructed under auspices of the Mahayana Buddhist King, Jayavarman  VII.  Jayavarman VII was only the second Buddhist Khmer King up to the late 12th century, Jayavarman VII.

King Jayavarman VII was a Mahayana Buddhist.  The Mahayana Buddhist tradition involves the concept of Bodhisavatta - a person who has enlightenment as their goal.  Avalokitesvara is a highly revered Bodhisavatta in Mahayana Buddhism and is embodiment of the compassion of all Buddhas.  Avalokitsvara (Lokesvara) had the goal of becoming enlightened (liberated) BUT had vowed to help all others to attain their enlightenment before achieving his enlightenment. Yesterday's blog, "Stone Face", gave some information regarding the linkage of King Jayavarman VII and Lokesvara.

There are six qualities attributable to Avalokitsvara (Lokesvara) are:

Great compassion
Great loving-kindness
Lion courage
Universal light
Leader of devas and people
The great omnipresent Brahman

Historical accounts, records and monuments demonstrate that King Jayavarman VII was very compassionate and went to great lengths, 107 hospital built, along with many public works projects to care for his people.

Jayavarman VII also lead the Khmer army to rid their lands of Cham occupiers as well as to extend the Khmer empire. Without a doubt this serves as manifestation of lion courage - after all, who forcibly removes invaders and conquers enemy territory by being branded a coward?

He was also perceived as a great king.  Today is considered the greatest of the Khmer kings.  No doubt he was aware of his greatness during his lifetime.

But to get back to Bayon ... Bayon was constructed during the reign of Jayavarman VII and his son, Indravarman II, also a devout Buddhist as the state temple.  Besides being the only Angkor state shrine built from the start to be a Mahayana Buddhist shrine dedicated to Buddha, Bayon was the last state temple built in Angkor.

Bayon Temple
The most imposing features of Bayon are the temple towers with great stone faces on their sides.  There are 216 stone faces at Bayon. Some people theorize that the faces are of  Avalokitsvara (Lokesvara) and others believe that the faces of Jayavarman VII. I believe the theory that both are correct.  Being a devout Mahayana Buddhist, what better way for King Jayavarman VII and his son, who continued construction of the temple, to honor the Bodhisvatta Lokesvara and the king himself  than to use the king's visage for the Bodhisvatta on the towers?  In Thailand there is a common saying of "Good for me, good for you"  Using the king's face honors the king, memorializes his greatness and links him to religious "immortality".

Face Tower of Bayon
The temple of Bayon has gone through several modification over the past 900 years.  Jayavarman VII's successor, his son, continued the construction of the Buddhist temple.  However the next king, Jayavaram VIII, was a Hindu and he had many of the Buddhist symbols removed or defaced.  Jayavaram VIII was succeeded by his son-in-law - a Buddhist.  Over time, modifications, and additions were made by various kings in accordance with their religious beliefs and architecture norms of their times.  With the end of the Khmer empire the temple was abandoned and left to the forces of time and Nature.

Multiple Face Towers of Bayon
In the early 1900's, the French start conserving and reconstruction of the ruins utilizing the anastylosis process.  Anastylosis is a process of reconstruction where the original elements of the structure are used to the maximum extent possible. Pieces of the building are put into their original location.  Where pieces are missing new pieces are created out of plaster, cement and resins can be used.  In the case of structures that are in danger of collapse, components of the structure are numbered, and the structure is dismantled.  After modifying and strengthening the foundation to provide stability, the structure is reassembled in a stable configuration.

Bayon in the 1930's was the first ruin to be reconstructed at the Angkor complex using the anastylosis process.

It sounds great.  What could go wrong?  Well a great deal can and does go wrong.  Reconstruction involves a great deal of interpretation in assembling or envisioning a final structure from a pile of rubble.  Reconstruction and restoration involves handling original components that are subjected to damage. There is no guaranty that all the architectural elements used are from the original structure.  Over the hundreds of years that the structures were abandoned, pieces were inevitably  moved from one site to another for all kinds of reasons.

In addition, prior to an accord in 1964, reconstructors did not have protocols for the utilization of new materials particularly ensuring that the new materials are readily recognizable.  There are also criteria now that substantial components can only be added to ensure the stability of the structure.

Much of the reconstruction work on Angkor Wat that we saw in August 2007 was to repair damage caused and eliminate the defects created by the use of modern materials and techniques in the gallery roofs during previous reconstruction efforts.  Modern construction unlike the original configuration of the roof allowed water to enter the galleries and flow over the murals.  In addition, the infiltrating water leached salts and chemicals of the modern bonding materials which also attacked the murals.  Once again - "no good deed goes unpunished"  Perhaps reconstructors should have an oath similar to doctors - "First, do no harm ..."

The result of all the good intentions and best interpretations of outsiders, the restored ruins of the Khmer temples have a great deal of confusion as well as discontinuity in them today.  Close scrutiny of the ruins or photographs of the ruins reveals many details that do not fit in with their surroundings - in some places the result is confusion and chaos.  Although not consistent and most likely not historically authentic, the ruins are still spectacular.  There are the ways that things are supposed to be and then there is the way that they are.  A visit to Angkor Wat affirms that often the ways that things are more than adequate to appreciate and enjoy their grandeur.

We spent a very quick one hour fifteen minute visit at Bayon, exploring the ground level structures.  We did not have the opportunity to explore the upper terraces or even the ground level galleries.  It was by our own choice not our guides.  Long days and many sites toured lead to exhaustion - physical as well as mental. However I view this as yet another reason to return soon.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Stone Face

Stone Face Tower of Ta Nei

Tuesday, 4 November, our first full day touring the ruins of Siem Reap started  early and was a very busy day for us.

Our first stop was to witness sunrise at Angkor Wat.  We witnessed sunrise with many other tourists - including the dreaded bus tours from China, Russia, and South Korea.  I had read a great deal about the crowds at the ruins for sunrise.  I did not necessarily have a desire to photograph the sunrise and more importantly for me, deal with hordes of people all jostling to photograph the same pictures.  Our guide recommended that we go.

We arrived 5:30 A.M. at the reflecting pool to the left of the ruins as you face the ruins - the prime location for sunrise and sunsets.  Despite the time, there were a couple of hundred photographers already there.  All the spots at the edge of pond were already occupied. The vast majority of the people were either using cell phones or tablets to capture the event.  Fortunately there is a slight upwards slope from the pond.  I had brought my tripod so taking advantage of the tripod and moving away from the pond's edge I was able to shoot over the heads of the other people.  All in all the experience was not nearly as stressful or unpleasant as I had anticipated.  I would not discourage anyone from trying to shoot an Angkor Wat sunrise based upon our experience.  My advise would be to arrive there early with lowered expectations, with no desire to be at the water's edge.  I also recommend that you arrive with a couple friends to block off the areas around - especially directly in front of your camera setup.

After the sunrise, while the bus loads of people, returned to their hotels or went to restaurants for breakfast, we drove over to a very popular temple ruin, Ta Prohm, the "Tree Temple" of the film "Laura Croft, Tomb Raider" fame.  Arriving at the vacant temple at 6:40 A.M., we spent one hour touring the ruins at our leisure, one hour enjoying the only sounds of birds, monkeys, and insects waking up along with the click of our cameras as the early morning sunlight filtered down through the forest canopy chasing away the shadows.

After completing our tour of Ta Prohm, we experienced a very special treat.  Lead by our guide, we walked roughly 15 minutes through the "jungle" to another temple - "Ta Nei".  Many resources refer to the terrain between the ruins as the jungle.  In all my travels I have yet to find the jungle, or at least my vision of the jungle from all those Tarzan movies of my boyhood.  I have been in many rain forests since my days as a youth.  I would categorize the terrain more as a forest - dense new growth perhaps 25 to 30 years old with very well defined sandy trails.

The first major artifact that we encountered at Ta Nei was a face tower - stone block tower with caeved blocks forming large faces at each of the cardinal compass points.  Face towers are a common sight in the Siem Reap area.

Who is the stone face?  A mythological animal?  Some long ago King? Perhaps some Animist deity?  Hindu deity?  A Buddhist deity?  One thing for certain the face is neither Christian or European.

Another obvious truth about the stone face is that it is of some one or something that is very revered attributable to the size and numbers of the faces.  Another indication to the extent of the face's importance and perhaps its power is its orientation at N, S, E, and W points of the compass.

Many sources state that the face is of the king.  Other sources state that the face is a representation of Lokesvara, the Bodhisatava of infinite compassion.  Some sources state that the faces are guardians of the Khmer Empires cardinal compass points.

Representation of Lokesvara the Bodhisatava of infinite compassion?  What is that and what is that all about?  First of all, a Bodhisatava is anyone who is motivated by compassion to attain liberation (enlightenment) for benefit of all others.  Buddha prior to becoming enlightened is referred to as a Bodhisatava in his previous lives.  Bodhisatavas are on the path to liberation and considered further along the path to enlightenment than others in that their goal is to become fully enlightened.

In Buddhism doctrine, Lokesvara (Avalokitsvara) was a Bodhisatava that made a vow to help people during times of difficulty (Aren't all times, times of difficulty?) as well as to delay his achieving of enlightenment until after assisting every person to attain their enlightenment. He is the representation of the compassion of all the Buddhas.

As for the King ... Ta Nei was constructed as a Buddhist temple in the late 12th century by King Jayavarman VII who reigned from around 1181 to 1218. Jayavarman VII was a great king in all senses of the term.  He lead an army that ousted Cham invaders that had killed the previous Khmer King, pillaged the capital, and perhaps worst of all made off with the Apsara dancers. Besides ridding the kingdom of the Cham invaders, he extended Khmer control up the Mekong River Valley up to current day Vientiane, Lao People's Democratic Republic.

During his thirty year reign, King Jayavarman VII was responsible for a monumental construction program.  Projects for the public good included hospitals (102 of them!), reservoirs, and rest homes along the highways for travelers.  He also had Buddhist temples such as Ta Prohm, and Preah Khan built.  He commenced construction of the magnificent state temple, The Bayon.

King Jayavarman VII was also responsible developing the city of Angkor Thom - a metropolis of perhaps over 100,000 people in the late 12th and early 13th century.

It is inscribed on a monument that "He suffered from the illnesses of his subjects more than from his own ..." His stated goal was to alleviate the suffering of his people. He lived to be 85 to 90 years old - astounding for someone in the 13th century.

There are some statues existing today that are supposed to be of King Jayavarman VII and ... his face closely resembles the stone faces of structures built during his reign.

Who is the face?  I believe that if it looks like a duck, walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, it is a duck. For me the stone face is that of King Jayavarman VII as the representation and embodiment of Lokesvara, the Bodhisatva of infinite compassion.  The orientation of his face on each tower(s) signifies the extent of his power and glory across his land.

Ta Nei is a small temple ruin but a special ruin.  There is no vehicle access to the site.  The lack of a road prevents tour buses with their hordes of tourists from accessing the ruins and drastically limits the number of visitors to the temple site. This provides a tranquil place to explore, experience, and appreciate the ruins in a relaxed atmosphere at your own individual pace. We ended up spending a thoroughly enjoyable 45 minutes at Ta Nei.

As I wandered about exploring and photographing the ruins with our guide, Duang took advantage of the Buddhist temple to do some praying.  Often during our tour of the ruins, she would pray and worship - connecting with places where people were worshipping one thousand years ago.

Stone Carving Over Doorway
Our guide once again had taken us to special place without hordes of visitors destroying the atmosphere of a special place linking today to a long ago time.  Our visit to Ta Nei was a special memory that we cherish.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Khao Poon, Khao Pun - Where Does It Come From?

Worker Gathers Fresh Khao Poon to Place In A Tray for Market

Visitors to wet  markets in Southeast Asia can be assured of finding rice noodles artistically placed like skeins of yarn atop a layer of banana leaves in a woven bamboo tray.  My wife, an ethnic Lao from Thailand, calls the rice noodles "Khao Poon" ("Khao Pun"?).

Khao Poon resembles cooked pure white vermicelli much like No. 7 Spaghetti except for color.  The pure white of Khao Poon is due to it having rice rather than wheat and no eggs as ingredients.  Khao Poon is used in various soups and salads in Asian cuisine.

I have seen tons of Khao Poon for sale over six years in Thailand, Lao, Vietnam, Malaysia, and Cambodia.  I had never thought of where all those trays of soft wet noodles came from.  I guess that I had assumed that they came from the Khao Poon factory - some large industrial building where raw ingredients arrived at one end of the building by rail car, 18 wheel tractor trailer rig, or lorry.  Finished product would exit at the other end of the building by large trucks to distribution outlets and eventual to the local outlets. Undoubtedly my assumptions were based upon my experience and perspective as a long time resident of the United States.

When I was a young boy in the United States, I enjoyed a television program entitled "Industry On Parade".  The fifteen minute program ran from 1950 to 1960.  In addition to being on television, films of the programs were distributed to schools. Episodes showed how various products such as hot dogs, cars, steel, light bulbs were produced in America.  I honestly do not remember if there was an episode regarding rice noodles let alone Khao Poon.

I have maintained an interest in how things are made and done over the years - just ask the dentist doing my current root canal.

For our recent trip to Cambodia, one of my objectives was to take photographs of people; more specifically documenting the daily life of the people.  I had conveyed that objective and sent samples of the type of people photographs that I prefer to take to the tour company that I had selected for us.

On the third day of our stay in Siem Reap, we got up early to catch the sunrise at Pre Rup.  From Pre Rup we drove and toured Banteay Srei before heading to Banteay Samre.  We travelled along a country road bounded by rice fields, grazing lands, and small villages.  The rural scenery was dotted with many houses elevated on stilts with children as well as domesticated animals wandering about - great photo opportunities.  I mentioned to our guide that I would like to stop up somewhere up ahead to photograph some typical Cambodian homesteads.  He acknowledged my request and we continued on our way passing many locations.  We passed so many locations that I was considering reminding the guide of my wishes.  I held off, trusting not only that he was not only a man of his word but also was much more knowledgeable than me. After a while, the car slowed down and pulled off to the side of the road and stopped.

A Homestead Along the Road to Banteay Samre
We had stopped at one the typical homes along that country road. The home was a small structure raised above the ground with a corrugated metal roof.  The exterior walls were rough cut lumber and woven bamboo panels.  There was quite a bit of activity around the home - in the open air space next to the structure and underneath a roofed area in front of the home.

Disembarking from our vehicle, I immediately realized that my trust and patience with our guide had been vindicated.  The people were all busy making something.  This was  just what I was hoping for in my goal.  Duang realized immediately what was going on - the people were making Khao Poon, rice noodles.  We ending up spending one hour at the location.

Neighborhood Children Checking Things Out
With our arrival, more people, local children, arrived to investigate what was going on.  My wife and I do not object and are not embarrassed to be objects of curiosity by the local people of areas that we visit.  We consider it to be great opportunities to share, share bilaterally, with the people we encounter.  As much as there is to learn about others and their life, there is a great deal of ourselves and our life that we can share with them.

At this stop we were learn where Khao Poon comes from and how it is made. Here in Cambodia the rice noodles were not produced in some large industrial complex with heavy machinery.  The product was manufactured or rather crafted as part of a cottage industry.  The rice noodles were crafted by family members at their home.

Grinding Rice to Create A Slurry - the First Step
The first step in making Khao Poon is to produce a rice slurry.  The production of the rice slurry took place off to the side of the house.  No electricity was required in the production of the slurry required for this cottage industry in Cambodia. Rice kernels were fed by large spoon into a small grinder that was powered by hand utilizing a trapeze mechanism.

While seated on top of a low rustic platform, one woman fed rice into the mill along with the necessary amount of water, as another woman pushed a horizontal wood beam forward and backward.  The beam was suspended by two cords from a wood overhead frame.  At one end of the horizontal beam additional pieces of wood with a swivel joint at the end connected swing device to the mill.  The horizontal rocking motion of the second woman was mechanically translated into rotational movement of the top milestone of the rice grinder.  After 44 years, I was looking at the practical and ancient application of those mechanisms that we studied back in Machine Design class in college.  It was fascinating to see the mechanisms in action and appreciating them for what they could do rather than looking at colored diagrams on a sheet of paper.

A milky mixture of rice flour and water flowed by gravity from the rice mill into a recycled plastic bucket placed on the ground next to the low platform.  A piece of fine mesh plastic net, the type used to cover the ground when threshing rice, covered the top of the bucket to strain the slurry draining from the rice mill.

Buckets of the milky mixture are covered and set aside for one week to work.

The second step of the process that we witnessed involved "kneading" the thick and heavy balls of dough created from the one week of the milky mixture working.  Once again heavy electrical equipment was not utilized or necessary to further process the dough.  Heavy equipment, albeit basic mechanical mechanisms were necessary and utilized.

Kneading the Dough
At the edge of the property closest to the road, the dough was kneaded using a lever mechanism.  The dough was placed into a heavy stone mortar located on the ground underneath a heavy pestle created from a heavy log.  A woman in coordinated conjunction with the up and down motion of the log pestle kneaded and worked the dough.  To get the mixture to the required consistency, she would add water.  The up and down motion of the pestle was created by children and for a very short time a foreign tourist stepping down and off on the end of a heavy lever that the pestle was attached too.

Driving Mechanism for Kneading the Dough
After the dough was properly kneaded and at the required consistency, the large balls were relocated to a bench next to the covered work station.

Loading Up the Noodle Die
At the work table, the die for a primitive but very effective extrusion machine is loaded with dough.  The rice noodles are formed by an extrusion process - the same as spaghetti produced in large industrialized factories. However at this cottage industry, no electricity or hydraulic power was required to make the product.  In Cambodia, the power and wonder of the lever was once again employed.

The extrusion machine, a simple mechanical press, in Cambodia was basically like a huge wood nut cracker.  At the small end of the nut cracker there was a metal cylinder that was filled with the dough.  One end of the cylinder had a die - a metal disk with holes in it.  Dough forced through the cylinder and across the disk came out in long individual strings.  The dough was forced through the cylinder, and extruded from the die by a ram, solid tube only slightly smaller in diameter than the dough container.  The ram was forced (pressed) through the open end of the cylinder holding the dough by forcing down the long lever at the large end of the nut cracker. The combination of the cylinder and ram acted as the fulcrum for the lever.

People Operating the Primitive Press to Extrude Rice Noodles

All that was required to operate the press (extrusion machine) were people to sit on the end of the lever.  The weight of the people applied at the end of the long lever created sufficient force to drive the dough through the die and into the vat of boiling water beneath the press.

Rice Noodles Extruded Into Vat of Boiling Water
After cooking in boiling water over a wood fire, the rice noodles were removed and placed into a tub of water to stop the cooking process as well as to cool off for handling.

Finished Khao Poon Being Packaged
The tub of cooled noodles were then carried back to another low raised platform to be packaged.  Packaging consisted of removing the noodles from the tub, twisting them into skeins and placing them on top of banana leaves in a woven bamboo tray.

The people did not even need electricity for water.  In the front yard, there was a small diameter PVC pipe that came out of the ground. That pipe entered into more pipes that were at an angle to the ground.  A long sliding piece of PVC pipe was located inside of sloped pipe.  One of the men stroked the sliding pipe back and forth to pump underground water to the surface - water without electricity

We had spent an hour at the home and we wanted to show some appreciation to the people for allowing us to experience some of their life and for being so kind as well as patient with us.  Duang and I decided to buy some rice noodles that we would give to our guide and driver to take back to their homes.  We spoke with our guide to make it happen.  He determined that we could not buy any noodles.  It turned out that the family had contracts to middle men who sell to the vendors at the wet markets for a certain amount of noodles each day.  They did not have extra product to sell.  I ended up paying the woman a little bit of money for the children and to demonstrate our appreciation.

As we were leaving, one of the men ran up to our vehicle.  He had two cold coconuts from an ice chest next to the house.  He thanked us and apologized for only having two coconuts for us to drink.  We headed down the road for the next location of our itinerary - Duang and I enjoying one coconut, our driver and guide enjoying the other.

Our stop at this location had been extremely entertaining, instructive, and memorable.

We had learned something of rural life in Cambodia. I had a better understanding and appreciation for the mechanical principles, that have existed for thousands of years - principles that I was taught back in college. The same principles exist today and allow people to live off of the grid. I also once again was impressed at man's ability to survive and often thrive with few of the amenities of the world that I am so comfortable with.

The ability of the rural peoples of Southeast Asia to adapt and survive with so much less than I am accustomed to gives me comfort and inspires me.  They are proof that I can do with less.  They demonstrate how life can go on and go on happily in the world and not just in "Allen's World".

Our guide once again had done a great job - something that he did for entire trip.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Going Back In Time

Ta Phrohm - August 10, 2007

Ta Prohm - November 4, 2014

The decisively characteristic thing about this world is its transience. In this sense, centuries have no advantage over the present moment. Thus the continuity of transience cannot give any consolation; the fact that life blossoms among ruins proves not so much the tenacity of life as that of death.
— Franz Kafka

Ta Prohm - November 4, 2014

My wife and I recently returned to Siem Reap, Cambodia to once again tour the Khmer ruins and experience Tonle Sap once again.

We had  visited the area in August 2007, spending four exciting days at the ruins of Angkor Wat, other temple complexes and a short tour of Southeast Asia's largest fresh water lake, Tonle Sap.

Shortly after that trip, I watched a television documentary regarding the fishing culture on Tonle Sap and how it is reliant upon the annual flow of water into the lake from the Mekong River as well as the reverse flow of water from the lake into the Mekong each year at the end of the year.  I was very impressed with the documentary and realized that at some point I would like to return to document the fishing activities of the local people.

Over the ensuing years, I was able to watch and enjoy the video on the Internet.  However, I am no longer able to find the documentary on the Internet.  They say that once something is posted on the Internet, it is there forever.  If that is indeed true, I would have to add that although it is still there it may be extremely difficult to retrieve.  I am certain that part of the problem is due to my acquiring and retiring several computers over the approximate seven years, the impermanence of various websites, and a much more sensitivity to posting of copyrighted videos on the Internet.

Despite the inability to view the video over the entire past seven years, I maintained my interest and desire to return to Siem Reap, and more specifically Tonle Sap Lake.

During the past seven years I have acquired a new camera and developed better photographic skills.

I sincerely believe that many special places in this world require more than a single visit to better comprehend, better appreciate, and more fully experience them. I have practiced what I preach many times ... return trip(s) to Grand Canyon, Le Louvre, Paris, London, Foz do Iguacu, Machu Picchu. Yellowstone, Olympic National Park, Amsterdam, Grand Palace in Bangkok to name a few of my favorites.

When I was once asked why I was at Machu Picchu for a second time, I replied "I have a new camera and there are some specific photos that I missed the first time."

There is always a reason to be found to return to some places.

Our visit to Siem Reap was also an opportunity to witness and experience the area with a more educated and experienced perspective.  Having been there seven years earlier, we had a relatively recent baseline to evaluate the changes to the ruins.

The ruins are roughly one thousand years old - one thousand years of rains, winds, the constant force of gravity, the relentless drive of vegetation to establish itself over the land and perhaps most pernicious of all - one thousand years of human interaction.

Buddhism now once again reigns over the structures that originally were constructed to commemorate Hindu beliefs.  A majority of the temples were Hindu and modified to be Buddhist to then become Hindu and once again to be Buddhist.  Many of the ruins today reflect the awkward transitions between the religions.

The ruins also bear the scars of several wars - invasions as well as civil wars. The ruins were also neglected and "forgotten" or "lost" for many years.  During those years the ravages on the temples were from nature and gravity.  Today the ravages include a much greater participation by man.

The ruins are being loved to death.

Ta Prohm - August 2007

Ta Prohm - November 2014
Tourism to the Angkor Wat region has dramatically increased from 2006 when approximately 900,000 tourists visited. In 2013 the number of tourists was 2,063,000.  Tourism to the region increases approximately 18% each year and naturally they all typically end up touring the ruins.

The ruins are mainly constructed from sandstone.  Millions of footsteps each year on and across the sandstone blocks cause both erosion and stress on the blocks. The material eventually breaks down sooner than if just to natural forces. Just as wind and water can wear down rock, so can pedestrian traffic.

Millions of footsteps on the ground surrounding the ruins damages the roots of the trees.  Damaged roots lead to diseased trees which collapse and damage structures.  Compacted soil around the ruins affects the drainage of the area which affects the stability of the ground beneath the structures.

The international community for various reasons and motivations has sponsored and supervised the restoration of many of the temples.

Buddhism teaches that all things that are dependent upon something else or affected by something else is in flux, changing and not permanent but is impermanent.  The temples of Siem Reap are roughly a thousand years old - a very long time in human terms and perspective but they are far from permanent.

Many of the temples have strangler fig trees, sprung trees, and silk-cotton trees growing in them.  The roots of the trees grow over the tops of the structures, first starting in small crevices between the building blocks and as the roots increase in size - growing deeper and larger separating the building blocks and eventually contributing to the collapse of the structure - a process that ran pretty much from the fall of the Khmer Empire in the 15th century to the 20th century intervention by the Europeans.

The 21st century has ushered in accelerated efforts by nations such as The People's Republic of China, Republic of Korea, and India to "restore" and "save" the wonders of the region.

India sponsored and supervised the "restoration" of the famous "tree" temple, Ta Prohm.  Ta Prohm besides being known a s the Khmer temple ruin with the trees growing on top of it and was also the location for several scenes of the Angeline Jolie film "Laura Croft, Tomb Raider".

The recently completed restoration project lasted from 2003 to 2014.  The restoration and conservation effort involved installation of boardwalks an railing system to control access by visitors as well as to minimize the impact of visitors on the site.  Conservation efforts also included efforts to repair and protect the trees from the stresses induced by visitors, fungal attacks, instability due to pour drainage at the site.  It was determined necessary to ensure the health of the existing trees in and on the structures to safeguard the structures.  For many of the structures the flora and the ruins had become inextricably one - literally and figuratively.  The tree root systems in many area support the structure and what would Ta Prohm, "The Tree Temple", be without the trees?

"A man sees what he wants to see, and disregards the rest"  paraphrasing Paul Simon.

So it is with the ruins of Siem Reap area and I am fairly confident of any other 1,000 year old ornate structure built by man.

At first glance and typically during the first visit, the majesty and complexity of the structures are over whelming.  The grandeur of man's works is astonishing.  However a more relaxing pace or second visit reveals that all is not what it originally appears to be.  There is often a hodgepodge of discontinuous carvings, shapes, ill matched textures, ill fitting block work, filled in window openings as well as filled in doorways. This reality was missed by our mind's desire to fill in the blanks when first viewing the massive ruins.  We want the ruins to be what we want them to be and our minds suppress processing the realities that do not fit into our desired interpretation of what we see.

Upon seeing these discontinuities, you are able to be aware that the ruins for a large part have been reconstructed by man.  The ravages and onslaught of time and nature have been mitigated by men far removed from the original builders.  Newer blocks and bricks along with recreations of portions of carved murals have been included into the modern ruins.

Part of the Indian restoration of Ta Prohm involved reconstructing a gallery that had collapsed.  For other structures, the reconstruction involved dismantling the structure and reassembling it in a more stable configuration.  Structures that were heavily braced by large timbers in 2007 are now free standing in 2014.

One of my favorite photos of this visit is of a gallery at Ta Prohm that I did not remember from our earlier visit in 2007 ... a collapsed gallery in 2007 that is now rebuilt as part of the 21st century restoration.

The ruins of Cambodia are changing, constantly changing from the forces of nature, time, gravity and man - well intentioned or not.  The ruins of Cambodia are impermanent just as all other things that are affected or  dependent upon something are impermanent.

Our trip back to Siem Reap was not going back in time because changes have made that impossible.  The ruins are no where near what they were 1,000 years ago.  The ruins are not what they were just seven years ago.  They are not what they were nor are they what they will be.

However, my wife and I were able to experience and to enjoy the ruins with a different perspective.  We were able to embrace and accept the ruins as they were ... November 2014.

Our experiences of this trip has left me wondering though.  I wonder about the futility and cost of restoration programs.  The intervention of man against nature and time will not stop changes.  At best the intervention will delay the manifestation of major change but never prevent it.  At worst, man's intervention to stop change will create unnatural change or worst of all obliterate the spirit of the original object.  At what point is the original object destroyed leaving only the restorer's vision or interpretation to remain?

We were able to thoroughly enjoy our trip because we were able to appreciate and experience the changes ... to experience the ruins as they are.

Thomas Wolfe wrote "You Can't Go Home, Again"

Quoting from the novel ""You can't go back home to your family, back home to your childhood ... back home to a young man's dreams of glory and of fame ... back home to places in the country, back home to the old forms and systems of things which once seemed everlasting but which are changing all the time – back home to the escapes of Time and Memory"

We were not able to go back in time but it was a pleasant as well as rewarding journey to Siem Reap.

We will most likely return next year to experience some ruins and portions of ruins that we did not on our previous trips.  I am already making mental notes for the goals of our next trip ... more emphasis on gallery carvings, soybean or rice harvesting, palm sugar production, more fishing on Tonle Sap, and to be available for what ever awaits us.

Monday, January 5, 2015

Additional Photos Added to "Runny Noses and Dirty Faces - Children" Gallery

Samanen, Novice Monk, of Tahsang Village
Now that the holiday season has passed, I have some time to update my photo website with some additional photos to existing galleries as well as some new galleries.

Going over the photos of last year, brought  back many pleasant memories, memories of people, places, and things that we experienced over the past year.

Today, I added 38 new photographs (pages 17 and 18) to, by far and away, my most popular gallery, "Runny Noses and Dirty Faces - Children" - a collection and a tribute to the children of today as well as a reminder to the children of the past.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Tonle Sap Lake Gallery Available

Finally after almost two months, I have completed editing and post processing all the photographs from our early November trip to Cambodia.

The first of the photography galleries related to the trip is now available for viewing:

The gallery contains 28 selected photos of many more available documenting life on Southeast Asia's largest freshwater lake, Tonle Sap.

At this time of year the water flow reverses and the lake feeds the mighty Mekong River.  Along with water entering into the Mekong, Tonle Sap also releases the bounty of fish that it had nourished and supported during the rainy season.  At this time, many of the homes in villages such as Kampong Khleang are surrounded by the waters that have increased the average depth of the lake from 6 feet to 30 feet deep.

Life in the villages is based upon the annual rise and fall of the lake levels.


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