Our life is an apprenticeship to the truth, that around every circle another can be drawn; that there is no end in nature, but every end is a beginning.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Cambodia- Angkor Wat Photos

It has been over two weeks since I visited, but I will take this chance to catch up with the photos of my visit to Angkor Wat in Cambodia. I traveled down from my home city of Nakhon Phanom, first by bus to the Thai city of Surin and then by mini bus to the border. I went without much prior information, which cost me.. The main attraction of this border crossing is two large, swanky resort hotels where gambling is legal and cheap Cambodian  goods can be purchased by the Thais. For Westerners, the few that come here, it serves as a means of "leaving" Thailand every 90 days for a renewal of their tourist visa. With the recent troubles not far off between the two countries, I was unsure if this crossing would even be open. Fortunately it was, and after paying the customary fees (about 30 dollars) I was dropped on the dusty banks of another country where there appeared to be no services whatsoever, just a dusty unfinished dirt highway rising into the distance. My destination, the town of Siem Reap, was over three hours away by taxi, and if no other passengers could be got I was either to spend the night on the side of the road or pay the taxi 2500 bht. The guide who had descended on me to usher me through the border crossing (100 bht) helped me negotiate a fee of 1800 bht (50$) as long as the driver could pick up any passengers en route. It took me some time, but I finally ascertained that the method for this was honking at every likely looking pedestrian in every borough we traversed. This revelation was a relief as I had until then assumed my driver was both insanely fearful of his surroundings and overly fond of his horn. It hurt to spend so much, though in US terms a three hour ride in a taxi would probably cost upwards of $300. He did deposit me at a fantastic guesthouse on the outskirts of town, though somewhat late since we took a detour to let off a young woman we picked up along the way. For Angkor Wat I thought I was going to share a tuk tuk driver with a young British couple I met, and I arose at 5:45 to make the 6:30 sunrise suggested by many websites and Lonely Planet. When they didn't appear, and I had not gotten their room number, I had to decide to take it on my own or wait another day. Another $40 decision and though Simbo the driver spoke a few words of English, I thought he was a bonifide tour guide. Nope- another $40 for that service. Trying to hold onto my Buddhist practice of letting go, we headed off.

Though I should have guessed it would be, the early morning rendezvous was of course the most crowded part of my visit, since all of us had read the same information about avoiding the crowds... Still, nothing could take away from the spectacular sight of the Wat rising out of the trees. The sheer size and scope of the buildings, surrounded by long, wide moats, casts a hush over visitors. The only experience I could call to mind was my visit to Chichen Itza, which predates Angkor by some 500 years, with my son Angus.

This photo is taken from inside the main gate looking back. Although the visual impact of such tall stone structures was similar to Chichen Itza (How did they DO this using only hand tools and human and animal labor? -runs like a skipping record through the brain at every turn), the overall sensibility at Angkor Wat is far different. Besides being spread out over a much wider terrain (there are 1, 2, and 3 day suggested tours to see it all- I only took the 1 day tour of the immediate center ruins), Angkor Wat is much finer and more lyrical in its stonework and carving, expressive of its original Hindu and later Buddhist guiding forces.
The outer layer of the ruins are sandstone, which certainly is less formidable than granite or marble for carving. I am not sure why the elements have not taken more of a toll on such filigreed work.

From the polish, it appears stone breasts are equally subject to groping as their flesh counterparts...

Along the walls of these lengthy, exposed corridors were elaborate carvings depicting stories of battles and travails of gods.
Often the fragments spoke the most eloquently, like stone poems.
Throughout the day there were merchants hustling goods, from food to books to keychains to clothing. Most of it was identical, supplied clearly from a similar source. The sellers were much more persistent than those in Thailand and they had a well rehearsed routine. They would first present their goods and offer a price. If you balked at this, they would offer a "special price for you". if you still hesistated, they would ask where you were from in English. After I answered the U.S. they would intone, "U.S.A. 50 states. Capital: Washington DC." I heard them saying similar bits in Korean ( by far the most numerous tourists), Chinese, German, and French as well. I had memorized how to say No thank you in Cambodian, but often this wasn't enough. Some people I met were very proficient in English and we ended up having interesting, fairly cogent conversations, after which I really couldn't help myself from buying something from them. This young woman stood and talked with me throughout my breakfast. She did not own her store, but told me she got the same commission whether I bought from her or went in and bought from the owner as long as it was clear she had brought me in. Her husband was a farmer and she had two children. Her dream was to at some point own a store of her own, but she was very doubtful of her ability to save and accomplish this. Her wildest dream was to own a moped, which she discussed with wide-eyed eagerness. At $1200 I wonder if she will ever realize it.
Children seeking handouts were a near constant and thoroughly dispiriting sight in Cambodia. Parents were seldom nearby, though I assume they belonged to the various workers. Watching them from afar I often saw them playing gaily, but when I asked to take their photos, they often seemed forlorn and then asked for money.

I left the most famous wat and the temples and structures went on an on, magnificent entryways and long walkways and friezes.

Besides the man made structures, the trees provided a reminder of how brief our time is walking the earth, putting into a different perspective my hopes and anxieties.

The Cambodians, from my brief stay in Siem Reap, were noticeably different than the Thai people I have encountered. Better English speakers, which makes sense since I was at a famous tourist destination, and swimmers, which makes sense since the largest lake in SE Asia is nearby. There was a notable step down in the standard of living everywhere, in spite of the fabulously luxurious hotels along a certain strip nearby the ruins. 
This was one of the crew cutting the grass on the temple grounds. How he could stand bending over all day swinging his hand scythe I can't imagine.
The other groundskeepers were these women with small, handmade brooms. Like the Thais, they were covered up to stay out of the sun's darkening effects.
They all traveled by one speed bikes to work. You can see the rudimentary nature of the tools.
 This was my driver, his name something like Simbo. We spent 8 hours together in fairly close quarters, communicating only through hand gestures and smiles. We lost each other once or twice, once when he took off his blue shirt and once when I came out far down the road from where he left me. He was shy and honest and sweet.
By far the most interesting conversation I had was with Sarien, a young bookseller who approached me at my next to final ruin. Sarien is an 11th grader working selling during the school holidays. Her English was nearly fluent and we discussed education, politics, and books. She readily confessed that all the books she was selling were fakes, from the Lonely Planet Cambodia to the Angkor Wat photo book to the memoir First They Killed My Father, detailing the killing fields, which I bought from her for 4$.  She was bright and funny, and when I asked her if she was interested in trying to travel or attend university someday, she just laughed that she was a lazy student. It is only anecdotal, but I would say that the Cambodians I met were more introspective and philosophical than the Thais I know, as well as being more typically shy and humble. Of course, this is probably a result of their relative poverty and circumstances, since after all until not so long ago they were all one country. Which makes it all the more ludicrous that not so far away the Thai and Cambodian armies were firing artillery and machine guns at each other, with many casualties, threatening an all out war. The Thais of all things, shelling a wat!!!!

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