Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Around Angkor: Wat do we see?

Guest blogger here again. From Phnom Penh we took the bus eight hours north to Siem Reap. It was a long ride but I enjoyed sitting next to Ali, laughing, talking and looking out the window. Lots of dust and bright colors.

Each morning we wake up early to go see the temples while it’s cool out and the light slants in low through the trees. I’ve never been an early riser but even I can get up for this. Some of the temples are over 1,000 years old; I’ve taken so many pictures of their crumbling corridors, arches and columns that when I close my eyes that’s what I see imprinted on the backs of my eyelids.

The temple complex of Angkor Wat (the most famous temple at Anchor) was built for king Suryavarman II in the 12th century but many of the surrounding monuments were built for other kings. We found that our favorite temples — Preah Kahn with its mazelike passageways, Bayon with its impassive faces, Ta Phrom with its enormous trees pushing up through the ruins — were all built by the same king: Jayavarman VII. He’s our guy, we decided.

He’s not a modest guy, this Jayavarman VII. Practically every surface of Bayon is covered with giant stone carvings of his face. We wonder who built these temples…not Jayavarman VII. We wonder what their faces looked like.

All around the temples are dozens of tiny, skinny children running after tourists, trying to sell bracelets, coconuts, anything. Some of the children just beg. It’s hard to turn a cold eye but if these kids can make good money at the temples, their desparately poor parents have a strong incentive for keeping them home from school. (Better to give your money to a charity or some socially-forward program.) This is what we’re up against when we tell these children no:

Yesterday Ali, Jeremy and I spent the twilight hours at Bayon. It reminds me of Mount Rushmore with all its ridiculous giant faces. I think Lincoln left to his own devices would never have his face carved all over an enormous rock. Perhaps I give him too much credit. George Washington would be all about it.

In the states temples like these would be roped off. The intricate carvings would be behind glass. I love climbing around the temples as if I just stumbled upon them in the jungle but I know that I am part of their deterioration. In another ten or twenty years these temples will look very different than they do now.

The best thing to do at the temples, I think, is to find a shady courtyard and sit there. It’s great to step back from all the crazed gawking and just hang out in an ancient, quiet place. Of course it’s also around 100 degrees out, so sitting in the shade is as much a physical imperative as a spiritual preference.

At the end of a long, hot day, the romance of the temple wears off. In fact a cold papaya smoothie has much more appeal. I think that by sunset tomorrow, we’ll be just about ready to leave for Battambang.

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