Monday, March 21, 2011

End of last week, end of Cambodian tour

Another day, a new guide. I haven't memorized her name, yet, sorry. It's very hot, about 35°C.
We started the day with getting our badges for the Angkor site. You get a personal badge with your photo on it. Today's visit was Angkor Thom, built under Jayavarman VII in the late 12th century. The main attractions are the Bayon, the Baphuon, which has just opened up for visits, and the Elephant terrace. I can't go into details here; there are guidebooks and wikipedia for that. What I can say is that it is overwhelming. There's a bridge to the entrance of the Bayon: deities on the left, demons on the rights, all holding the protector, a snake. Each tower has a face on each side of it. There's an outer ring and you go deeper into the complex and it's the same, so, for me, at least, it's very confusing. Every which way you turn, it's the same. But it's never the same, because each sculpture is different. The basic structure of these sites is what we learned over the past week, so it's slightly less overwhelming than if we had started out here, but just slightly less. 
One problem is the temptation to take pictures of everything. Sorry about that. I'm putting far to many up in the album and that's just a selection of all that we've taken and I'm lax in getting around to tagging them or putting captions on. I'll cut back when I have time to really look at them. For now, if you are looking at the album, you will be as submerged as I am.
The Baphuon is a restoration project under French supervision. They are trying to put the temple together as it was, filling in with new stone, when they can't find the pieces. They've been working on this since before the war, and during the Pol Pot regime the charts and diagrams that described which stone went where were destroyed, so they had to start putting this 3-dimensional puzzle together again. They're doing a good job.
The Elephant Terrace is not, as it name seems to indicate, a promenade for elephants. It's the observation terrace for the festivities held in front of it for the king and visiting dignitaries, like the Chinese emperor. The base is decorated with sculpted elephants.
We made a short stop at the Ta Keo, a mountain (3-tiered) temple. 
Just when you're about to think your are completely saturated, that you just can't visit another temple today, it turns out to bet yet another one you definitely didn't want to miss. Each temple is structurally built on the same schema, like Catholic churches are. But a Khmer temple is not just one building; it's a group of buildings: the main sanctuary in the center; what they call “libraries” but which were not for books; towers; buildings for people to rest in; entrances at each cardinal point to each square with massive walkways linking them. There are inner squares in a flat temple and different levels for mountain temples. There is two walls around the whole complex, the second one is a square and the outer one is a rectangle. All of this, whether in brick or stone, was decorated. The brick structures were originally covered with stucco and decorated. The brick was also roughly sculpted before the stucco was applied to shape it. The detail in the sculpting is fascinating. It's always the same, yet when you look closely, not really. The older temples, 9th and 10th centuries have much more elaborate sculptures than the later ones, 11th and 12th centuries. This is especially visible in the columns in the “windows”. 
On the 15th, we visited one temple, in particular, set in the middle of an artificial lake. The central sanctuary is still surrounded by water. Another site was entirely invaded by trees that had grown on and around the stones. The Indians are restoring that site without disturbing the trees.
There was water around all the Angkor sites because they were royal cities that the king built as his capital and which served as the representation of the irrigation system at the time. Water was the major resource the country had.
We ended with Angkor Wat (Angkor = city, Wat = monastery) on the afternoon of the 16th. Enormous, beautiful with bas-relief sculptures that tell the stories of the Hindu gods and of  Khmer history.
One last temple on the 17th, in situ, no restoration yet. There are trees and vines pushing out the stones; the buildings have collapsed and the stones are in piles.
We stopped at a village where we could see how they make sugar from the sugar palm. They climb up the palm trees and squeeze the male flowers, kind of like milking them and the liquid drips during the day into a bamboo container during the day. They collect the containers and boil the liquid into a syrup, almost caramel. As it cools, they spoon the caramel into round molds about a centimeter high made from palm fronds, or maybe from bamboo strips (I didn't get a close enough look). That cools into solid, coin-like disks and is then stocked in woven palm frond containers, about 10 to a container. This is what they use to make sweets like the banana in rice wrapped in a banana leaf and steamed (yummy) and to make sweet and sour pork, for example.
A visit to the Angkor school of traditional skills (stone-carving, wood-carving, painting on silk, lacquer, silk weaving that is not done at the school we saw, and some more). A French-speaking guide, a kid, took us through at lightning speed; he was in such a hurry to get back to his friends. It was interesting. The idea is that these kids from rural areas will return to the farm after their training and will have sufficient skills to make a living beyond agriculture.
Friday, the last full day, we had the morning free, but didn't do much of anything because Siem Reap, especially where we were, is not really interesting. In the afternoon we went to the Angkor museum, which was interesting as museums go, but nothing to write about. As you can see, it's been a dense two weeks. We had changed our ticket to Hanoi for an earlier flight and left on Saturday morning, by tuk-tuk, to the airport. 

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