Monday, December 29, 2008

Cambodian Adventure Day Two - a crash course in Khmer culture

First, a confession; before coming to Thailand I wouldn't have been able to find Cambodia on a map... well, I'm sure I could eventually.... but not quickly. I had some vague negative associations with it, and knew only that the Khmer Rouge - whatever it was - was bad. I had seen pictures of Angkor Wat but had no idea where it was. So you could say that my knowledge of Cambodia was lacking.

Thanks to my friends Google & Wikipedia, I was slightly more informed by the time I got here. For one thing, Angkor Wat is just the biggest and most famous of the temples in the area. The Angkor Temples were constructed between the 8th and 13the centuries - the glory days of the Angkor kingdom. The initial temple was built to honor the Hindu god Vishnu, but also as a show of the King's might. Subsequent kings built bigger and more elaborate temples.

We hired a tuk-tuk driver to take us on the big tour the first day. We saw at least half a dozen temples. Unfortunately, there wasn't much in the way of plaques or pamphlets to guide us, and we were too cheap to hire a tour guide. We had a guide book... but it didn't have pictures, so if we accidentally skipped a page we'd end up reading something about an entirely different temple. So much for the educational experience. From a purely aesthetic perspective though, the temples were absolutely gorgeous, the amount of detailed carving was impressive. And I did start to learn a bit about the Hindu characters.

Pre Rup

This is one of the older temples, and the first one we visited. It had a lot of stairs... lots and lots and lots of stairs.

The Bridge of Victory

Here we have a bridge depicting "Churning the Sea of Milk" a Hindu story. The guys on the left are the angels (Devas) and the guys on the right are the demons (Asuras). They're each holding onto the Naga... a multi headed serpent.

the Naga

a Deva

the Asuras

They each hold onto the Naga and pull it back and forth through the ocean over a thousand years. They churn the ocean and produce the elixir of immortality. (I'm sure you Freudians out there can have a field day with this one!) This story is depicted again and again in the temples, in bas reliefs and, as here, on bridges. So it was nice to have a general idea of what was going on.

After the decline of the Angkor empire, the jungle overtook the temples and they lay undisturbed until the 1800s. Some of the trees had so incorporated themselves into the structure of the temples that removing them would cause even more damage to the ruins... so they just let them grow.

All of the temples were really different. I just loved this one... there were four outer pools (a couple were nearly dried up - it's the beginning of the dry season here), but the central pool was full enough to keep us away from the central structure here.

Preah Neak Pean

One of the things I found most amazing was that we could just wander everywhere. Nothing was roped off, there were no signs saying 'don't touch'. The tourist in me was delighted, we climbed all over everything and got to look in every nook and cranny... but the watcher of PBS specials in me knew that my very presence there was contributing to the further decay of the ruins. A conundrum indeed. I do hope that in the future they take some steps to protect against further damage.

an Apsara

The earlier temples have your basic statues and decorative flourishes, but the later ones have much more detailed carvings. One of the more common carvings is the Apsara, or heavenly female dancer. They were everywhere, on several different temples and in many different poses. I really liked them.

These are... Hindu acetics maybe? At some point one of the kings was Buddhist, and so introduced the religion to the kingdom... in his temple he added a lot of images of the meditating Buddha. But subsequent kings reverted to Hinduism, and the Buddha statues were altered or defiled.

Ancient Khmer culture is such an interesting blend of Hindu and Buddhist images. Later sculptures show Buddha meditating under the hood of the Naga. And many of the Deva statues have the calm, compassionate expression of the Buddha. As someone raised in the Judeo-Christian tradition, it was all a little confusing, so many stories I'd never read, so many gods & demons, so many other characters. By the end I could identify the Garuda (bird like defenders) Krishna (the god with many arms) and Hanuman (the monkey god)... but somehow neglected to get pictures of them! I feel like I took a ton of pictures, but there was just so much to see, there was no way to capture it all.

I did capture this little guy though, actually probably a female. Another group of tourists was feeding it bananas. Officially, I'm opposed to this. But again, the tourist in me just thought it was cute.

I don't get to see a lot of monkeys in my day to day existence!
After all the sight seeing we went to downtown Siem Reap - to the designated tourist zone I guess. There were all these 5 star looking foreign restaurants. We chose an Indian restaurant and had a vegetarian feast. It was cheap by American standards, $3.50 for an entree. But we're not making dollars... we're making Baht, so it was quite a splurge.
In fact, everything in Cambodia was more expensive than in Thailand. Mostly this was because we only went to touristy places... but honestly there weren't that many other places to go. There was street food obviously, and dingy hole in the wall noodle shops. But there were no like middle class Khmer family restaurants. Everywhere we went in Cambodia there was a distinct sense of 'tourists' vs 'Cambodians'. Foreign tourists visit Angkor Wat, Cambodians work there. At the 4 star restaurants, the customers are foreign, the waiters are Cambodian. To some degree, I guess that's what you get when you go on vacation in a foreign country... but it's so different from what I'm experiencing in Thailand.
In Thailand there seems to be a wider range of wealth. Yes, there are poor and even homeless people in Rayong, but most people are middle or working class. People have factory jobs, or own a restaurant (or both), people shop in the street markets, but also the supermarket and the mall. And there are some really big fancy houses on my street, with substantial yards... in the US these places would cost easily $500,000+ . Whatever style of restaurant I go to, be it a street stall, or a mid range Thai place, a Western chain like KFC, or even the high end resort type places like Pattaya Tower... there are always Thai people there in addition to farangs. When we go to Ko Samet, there are often more Thai tourists (mostly from Bangkok) than there are farang.
One of the major differences is that Thailand has always been an independent country, and with the exception of occasional invasions by Myanmar and Cambodia, has never been conquered or colonized. Meanwhile, Cambodia has been in a tug of war between Thailand and Vietnam throughout most of it's history. It's been under the control of the French and the Japanese, and was bombed to pieces by the US during the Vietnam War. Add to this the Khmer Rouge revolution & civil war, and it's just a sad sad history. You just can't escape the colonial feeling, French architecture, French on signs, baguettes & cigarettes on street carts, the fact that nearly everyone I encountered spoke better English than my students. There seems to be nothing left of the Angkorian glory days.
The Cambodia I was inhabiting felt like it was designed for me the foreigner and not for the people who actually live there. On the one hand, it was nice because we were vacationing and didn't have much time to really explore the culture... but on the other hand I felt kind of sad and uncomfortable about it. But then, back to the nice guest house with hot showers, clean toilet and soft beds... it was hard to feel bad about anything.
CAG - Code Sweet Chili Sauce


Bezzie said...

Nice!!! It's like a history/geography lesson w/out having to leave my own home! ;-)

Rebel said...

I watched a lot of travel shows before I came here... but it's just not the same, it's just not the same.