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.

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