Sunday, June 13, 2010

Ankor What? - Koh Ker, Cambodia

I decided to stray away from the usual temple trail and head a little farther out to Koh Ker and Beng Mealea. The only problem with that is that the temples are 130 and 100kms away respectively. Thankfully the road is paved, well, mostly paved. By motorbike it took me three hours to get to Koh Ker. By the time I arrived, my ass was very sore and much flatter, if that's possible. I was, however, rewarded for my long journey by being the only tourist there.

The Khmer capital was briefly moved to Koh Ker during the 10th century. Prasat Thom, the main temple, rises 30m from the jungle and is constructed in the Mayan pyramid fashion (unusual for this area). The wall of the temple is covered with hundreds of lingas (Hindu phallic symbols) and many smaller temples housing giant lingas inside surround the main temple. I think someone was compensating. I'm looking at you Jayavarman IV. Very little has been done in respect to restoring the temple. With many of the towers collapsed you can see the kind of havoc time and the jungle can do. Riding around this immense site with no one else was was great. I didn't have to wait for people to get the hell out of my way to take pictures but when I arrived at Prasat Thom all the touts and stall owners came to me in a big swarm to try and sell me everything and anything. A little overwhelming. It's a good thing that Cambodians have little legs and I easily out ran them.

Because it took so long to get out to Koh Ker I was "only" able to visit 10 of the 44 monuments but I think I got a good feel for it.

Back on the bike and an hour later I was in Beng Mealea ("lotus pond"), one of Cambodia's larger temples. Again, I was the only one there. Unlike Ta (Tomb Raider Temple), this temple has had no restoration done and all the vegetation is still there twisting its way through stone and rock. The temple has become part of the jungle as it slowly swallows it whole. I felt a little like Indiana Jones discovering a new temple. As you walk over collapsed walls and giant tree roots you stumble across collapsed lintels and columns with exquisite carvings of Shiva, Apsaras, Buddhas and monkeys. After exploring the site for about an hour, clouds began to cover the sky, thunder began to crack and lightning struck just outside the temple (scared the shit out of me). I thought now would be a good time to leave. Just as I turned a corner to exit the temple, Belloq was there to steal the idol I had just.... Wait, no, that was Raiders of The Lost Ark. Either way the atmosphere was very convincing and it made me feel that I was the first one there in centuries to lay eyes on Beng Mealea. Very memorable. Angkor Wat was great but it was nice to lose the crowds for a day, even if it meant riding for six hours to get to the temples and back.

Later that night I went to Tee's house for dinner. Tee was my tuk-tuk drive while I toured Angkor. Once there, he introduced me to his lovely family and then we ate dinner on the floor of his very small bachelor apartment (one bed for four people). While we dined on Lok Lak (barbecue meat with delicious seasoning), rice, prawns and vegetables on ice, Tee became increasingly drunk. I ended the evening sooner that I wanted fearing that he would become far too drunk to drive me back. Nothing like a little road swerving to end the night.

Temple, Temple, Temple... Goose - Siem Reap, Cambodia

Cambodia reminds me a little of Saskatchewan. No really! They are both extremely flat. Except, instead of brown soil Cambodia has red, instead of wheat there is rice and instead of grain elevators there are huge magnificent temples. Ya know... same same but different.

Having traveled many months, seen many temples and taken many, many, many pictures, I thought I might be a little temple tired and photoed out. Thankfully, Angkor Wat and the sprawling area gave me new life and excitement. It's absolutely incredible how many temples there are here. I think I've achieved enlightenment just from the number of temples I went to.

Angkor is the best restored and most visited temple in the region and for good reason. It is the largest religious site in the world and absolutely marvelous. Angkor Wat was originally a Hindu temple dedicated to the god Vishnu, then later changed to a Buddhist temple. Like many temples of this time it represents the 5 peaks of Mt. Meru, the home of Hindu gods.

As you walk through the outer gate you are taken over by the intricate and beautiful bas reliefs that surround the temple walls as they tell the story of ancient Hindu lore. The bas reliefs are very well preserved and cover all four outer temple walls, all the way around, top to bottom. Very impressive. Once instide you are treated to Buddha statues, hundreds of Apsara's (female spirits of the clouds) and the five towers of Mount Meru. This is one site I went to twice to make sure I absorbed as much as I could.

Ankor Thom (Great City) was the last capital city of the mighty Khmer. Covering nine square kilometers it is a vast collection of monuments. By far my favorite was Bayon and its 216 enigmatic faces smiling at you ever so gently. Built primarily as a Buddhist temple, it was dedicated to the Boddhisattva of compassion called Avalokitesvara. It's faces however bare a remarkable resemblance to the builder, King Jayavarman VII. It was common for the King to think of himself as a god. No matter where you are in the temple you have at least half a dozen faces looking over you.

My favorite temple at Angkor Park was Banteay Srei (Citadel of Women). This site has some of the most interesting and intricate carvings in the area. Stunning red rock, multitude of gorgeous carvings and its many small temples can keep you transfixed for hours. Even though it is much smaller than most temples in the area, I spent an equal amount of time here. It is said that only a woman could have made something so radiant and meticulous as this monument.

Ta Prohm is a temple that they have left almost the way they found it. All of the small vegetation is cleared away but the big trees are left as is and give the temple a very atmospheric and picturesque feel. As you walk through you see how the trees have wormed there way through stones and walls taking over the temple. You would feel like you just discovered it... if it wasn't for the 100 other people beside you. If you're a fan of the Tomb Raider movie (although I can't imagine who would be) then you will recognize it.

There were at least a dozen more temples I went to but these are the ones that stood out for me. The others are beautiful as well but would take to much time and space to mention them all.

The Angkor Park is a never ending site of monuments that can keep you busy for a solid week. I did three days and needed to catch my breath. One day off then it is off to Koh Ker and Beng Mealea.

Unfortunately I shot all my pictures in the RAW format and I need a special program to edit them. So, no pics of Angkor Wat just yet but soon.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Too Many Cities In too Short A Time - Cambodia

Arriving in Cambodia from Laos I decided to head east to Ban Lung. I thought this small town with a plethora of waterfalls and a crater lake would be a good place to start. Felling energetic I decided to walk the 5km to the perfectly round crater lake. Clear waters, friendly locals, and my new Basque friend Aitor made for a great first day. The next day we rented bicycles and rode 35kms to visit three waterfalls in the area. Two of the falls were no more than a trickle. It was as if someone was emptying a water bottle over the rocks but the last was brilliant. We spent an hour swimming with children, taking pictures and enjoying the scenery.

Next stop was Kratie and the endangered Irrawaddy fresh water dolphins of the Mekong River (I feel like I've been following this river forever). An hour and a half is spent on a long boat following the dolphins as they gently breach the water for breath and disappear as quickly as they appeared. At first I tried to get a decent pic of the dolphins but I spent more time looking at blurred photos that resembled the Loch Ness Monster. "I think it's a dolphin!?! Isn't it?"
After only a day in Kratie I was off to Phenom Phen. Surprisingly, Phenom Phen is a very modern, new and clean city, at least where the tourists go. First day there I met a local named Bonnar (*sigh*) who took us to a bar on the beautiful riverside for drinks then to a local Khmer restaurant for cheap tasty barbecue. After dinner we decided to go dancing to a club called the Heart of Darkness. Before you enter the club there is a sign stating there are no knives, guns or grenades permitted. Grenades? Really? Do people bring those to clubs? Next you are searched, for weapons I presume. At this point I wasn't sure what to expect but once inside it looks just like any other modern club. The first thing you see is the abundance of old white dudes with young Cambodian girls (*cough*, prostitutes, *cough*) and men with young boys. As you venture further into this small club you realize that everyone is here. Foreigners, locals, expats, prostitutes, gangsters (no, really) and clubbers alike dance all night together to the beat of bad trance and cheap beer. I danced till 3am, something I never did even when I drank.

No visit to Phenom Phen is complete without a visit to S-21 or The Killing Fields. These were the places that the Khmer Rouge doled out torture and then death to thousands of Cambodians. In the mid seventies Cambodia was ravaged by the Khmer Rouge, a totalitarian communist group that abolished money, eradicated religion, forced every Cambodian to the rice fields, and killed the educated. Ultimately their horrific reign cost the lives of two million people. A reminder of what one man with a perverse agenda can do. One of the Khmer Rouge motto's was "To keep you is no benefit, to lose you is no loss."

Feeling that I was running out of time I accelerated my travels through Cambodian. Just outside of Kompong Chhnang I visited the small village of Ondong Rossey that makes a large percentage of the pottery sold in Cambodia. I sat with three women, a mother and her two daughters, as they gently tapped the soft clay into shape with their wooden mallets. It was entrancing and musical listening to them at work. Each handmade pot is perfectly symmetrical and identical to the previous pot. The village economy is built around pottery with every second house being dedicated to the craft. Entire families will make the pots while the father will load an ox cart far beyond capacity and travel far and wide selling his wares. I wish I wish could have spent a couple days instead of a couple hours in this quiet little village.

In Battambang I rode the bamboo train. The train is a spartan piece of transport consisting of no more than a bamboo slat base on two sets of wheels with a small belt driven motor. I thought it barely big enough for four people only to discover that up to 30 locals will pile onto this bantam carrier.

The train clicks, clacks, bounces and jerks you from side to side as it rolls over the neglected crooked track with disconcerting gaps. If you happen to come across another bamboo train (which is a given) then the train with the fewest people, cargo or motos is to disassemble their train to allow the other to pass. Twenty minutes later you arrive in a small town for a brief rest. After a short exploration of the town, I was invited to play volleyball with some locals. Some young, some older but all unexpectedly good. I was thought quite the player as well only for the fact that I was the only one that could reach over the net. Since my "rest"was twenty minutes longer than it should have been I headed back to the train sweaty and smiling.

Now it's off to Siem Reap to do some major temple trolling!