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Archived International Travel Highlights

Cambodia: Temples Galore

The day following the SSEASR (South and South-East Asian Association for the Study of Culture and Religion) conference in Bangkok, some of the participants depart on a post-conference trip to Cambodia.  After a pre-dawn departure, we boarded the flight to Cambodia. Within one hour we were landing in Phnom Penh, and all sixty academic tourists loaded into buses.  The wife of the foreign minister was there to facilitate our arrival.  We set out along a two-lane highway, driving for several hours past rice paddies, water buffalo, and houses on stilts.  Some observers on our bus wonder whether Cambodia would look more developed like Thailand if it had not had its dark period of military rule and repression--the Pol Pot regime of the late 1970s.  We finally arrive in Siem Reap in the midst of a heavy tropical downpour, the flooded roads making life difficult for the tuk-tuks or auto-rickshaws.  Siem Reap is the town which is the gateway to the great temple complex known as Angkor Wat which we have come to visit.  Fancy hotels and designer shopping malls are springing up everywhere to cater for the burgeoning international tourist market. 

We were housed in a beautiful hotel, with lots of Khmer architectural and cultural touches.  The hardwood was magnificent and the pool was like the interior of a Khmer temple.  The bowing and curtseying of the staff seem to be even more pronounced here, but then they must be happy to have such a crowd in the low season.  Breakfast is a feast of local fruits which look strange on the outside but are a treat on the inside, such as mangosteens and dragon fruit.  My favorites were the ones that look like designer potatoes but were succulent lychees inside.  I never discovered their name.   Cambodia is relatively inexpensive compared to many tourist destinations.  The local currency, the riel, is hardly used for visitors, in most places it is either the US dollar or the Thai baht

We rise early the next morning and head to see the sunrise at Angkor Wat.  We are lucky in that it rained heavily the day before as this enhances the color of the stonework and brick, contrasting with the lush green backdrop of the tropical forest.  As we enter the portal and penetrate the inner and upper sections of the principal temple (dedicated to the Hindu god, Vishnu), some of the magnificent bas-reliefs come into view.  Some members of our party decide to clamber up the very steep and dangerous steps to the highest part of the temple complex—whether for optimal photography or merit, or both.  It is easy to see why this archeological site ranks up there with the Pyramids and Machu Picchu.  It is, to begin with, the world's largest religious edifice, with a circumference of 65 kms.  There are in fact several temples scattered through the forest.  It would take many days to do the site justice.  All we can do is visit a choice few that illustrate different styles and periods. 

It was a privilege having experts from India and other parts of the world on Hinduism and Buddhism in our midst—revealing to see how they read the iconography and architecture differently.  Sometimes you could hear them arguing over this or that ambiguous image.  Angkor Wat lent itself to this, as it was initially Hindu then gradually became Buddhist under Jayavarman VII, the famous 12th century Khmer ruler (whose wife worshiped Shiva, Vishnu, and Buddha).  Dr. Gyatso, our colleague from Bhutan, pointed out to me in one temple where a number of Buddha images had been effaced during a later Hindu revival (although Cambodia eventually adopted Theravada Buddhism).

Even though he was not the founder, Jayavarman VII left his mark all over Angkor Wat with the many buildings, waterways, and images of himself that he had constructed. As a Mahayana Buddhist, his declared aim was to alleviate the suffering of his people. One inscription tells us, "He suffered from the illnesses of his subjects more than from his own; the pain that affected men's bodies was for him a spiritual pain, and thus more piercing." 

Our Hindu colleagues raved about one temple in particular (Banteay Srey), made of pink sandstone and constructed at the height of the Khmer empire by a Brahmin counselor.  It was dedicated to the Hindu god, Shiva. The carvings on the pediments were exquisite, to say the least. The favorite of many of the Westerners was the Ta Prohm temple built to honor Jayavarman VII's mother.  Why, because it had an Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom feel to the place, with tree roots and temple structures forever intertwined. This temple symbolized for many of us more generally the wonderful synergy between nature and this sacred place.  Yet we remind ourselves that many temples lay hidden by nature for many centuries, having only been reclaimed at the beginning of the 20th century.

It is a pity that we arrived at one of the most highly rated of the monuments, the Bayon temple, as the light was fading.  But it was still possible to discern the magnificence of this multi-towered, multi-layered, "temple-mountain" with its mix of Hindu and Buddhist imagery.  What was particularly memorable was the enigmatic smile of the many faces of Avalokiteśvara, the bodhisattva of compassion, looking down on us from several lotus-shaped towers (or is it a combined image of the bodhisattva and Jayavarman VII?), no-one knows for sure—adding to the mystery of the place). 

As the buses were unable to pass under the gateway towers, we are obliged to trudge down the road, taking in the sounds and smells of the tropical forest.   I fell into conversation with one of the brahmins in our party over the controversial issue of banning proselytizing by Christian and Muslim missionaries in some Indian states.  Then I enjoyed hearing from a woman archeologist from south India, who was so excited about visiting Angkor Wat for the first time (she called it the "dream of a lifetime"), particularly as the Government of India has helped fund the restoration of several of the temples.  There was a lot of interest in our party in the various visual renderings of the famous Hindu myth, "the churning of the ocean of milk." It tells the story of the gods and demons who fought in vain to extract the nectar of immortality from the ocean of milk.  Even though worn down by time and weather, some of the most powerful representations I found were just beyond one of the gates by the moat.

On our first night in Siem Reap we were taken to a type of dinner theatre for classical Khmer dance, known as "apsara."  "Apsarases" are Hindu/Buddhist celestial maidens (some of them mermaids—yes I did come back with a wooden carving of one!).  It was not as touristically tacky as we had feared.  The young dancers were very accomplished, and genuinely appeared to be enjoying themselves.  I also liked receiving a lotus flower as we arrived. Shortly before the evening began, I let slip that it was my birthday.  The inevitable refrain resulted, with accompaniment from the traditional xylophone and drums!  I was mildly ticked off later by one of our Hindu colleagues who informed me that in his part of the world, one distributes sweet things on one's birthday and that I could have done this for the bus (!).  This was but one of many other "intercultural moments" in the course of the conference and the trip! 

I would be remiss if I did not mention the serious massage industry in both Cambodia and Thailand.  At often only $10 per hour, several of us would slip off after dinner for a session of foot reflexology or full body massage.  They really knew what they were doing.  

Our final day in Cambodia was spent in Phnom Penh visiting the King's palace—painted yellow for Buddhism and white for Hinduism.  It was pretty impressive; the guide said that many of the precious Buddha images were hidden during the Pol Pot regime.   Every child that approached us seemed to be flogging a copy of the Lonely Planet Cambodia book—seemingly at a pirated price.  Move over Benetton, Lonely Planet and its "travel bibles" are now what unite the world—at least the world of international tourists.  We also did a quick tour of the National Museum which actually houses the majority of the sculptures from Angkor Wat and other temples.  So you have to try to put the figures and the site together in your mind's eye.  I could not stop contemplating the many head sculptures of Avalokiteśvara, the bodhisattva of compassion, with that unforgettable smile, so full of peace, and, well, compassion. 

Our last port of call was the genocide museum, Tuol Sleng, the former notorious Khmer Rouge S21 Prison (some of you may have seen the 2003 film, "S21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine"  Several people commented on the fact that this mini-hell, where about 17,000 people died and many more were tortured in the late 1970s, was located in the center of town, in a former high school.  The Cambodian genocide of 1975-1979, in which approximately 1.7 million people lost their lives (21% of the country's population), was one of the worst human tragedies of the last century.  There is certainly a different spirit about the country today, and it is a place I would recommend anyone to visit and to support.

We all flew back to Bangkok together and then parted ways.  I spent my last day and night alone in the city in a cool boutique hotel, very Thai and very stylish (nice low season prices).  Just enough time and energy to shop for final souvenirs, and to make a final pilgrimage to a massage center, before the grueling flight back home.  

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