Touring the Temples of Angkor - Closing the Loop on a 15 Year Quest

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December 29th 2012
Published: January 26th 2013EDIT THIS ENTRY

Mr. Khy - My driver and GuideMr. Khy - My driver and GuideMr. Khy - My driver and Guide

A prior blog entry included his contact details. Should you need a driver I can recommend Mr Khy.
29 Dec: Touring Angkor, Day One (note: There are a number of photos (111) associated with this entry. Believe me when I say this is just a fraction of the photos taken that day – e.g. you’re getting off easy, and getting only the highlights. Most have commentary immediately below the image, which will give a bit of an explanation of what you are looking at). I'll make a seperate post with a few videos next.

Flashback to winter of 1996 (Vancouver WA); I was nearing the halfway point for my senior year of high school and the second year of my college coursework. A misty drizzle hung in the chilly air as I dashed from Clark College’s carpark to the Fine Art’s building and the art history lecture hall. I didn’t yet know that the day’s lecture would be one of those life changing moments that sets you off on a course that you don’t yet know what the final destination will be. I settled into an empty seat near the middle of the darkened room; we could hear Jeff P4r!5, our art history professor in the projection room fumbling with his trays of slides and the
Traffic Jam Entering the Angkor ParkTraffic Jam Entering the Angkor ParkTraffic Jam Entering the Angkor Park

As it was a Saturday and New Years weekend there were more tourists than usual according to my driver. Busses, bikes, cars, tuk tuks, carts drawn by cows all added to the congestion of the entry to the Angkor Precinct. this photo was taken near the ticketing office.

Do you remember when slides where they only way to present an art or architecture history class? I do, and I’m glad I got to experience this presentation format prior to it dying out in favour of digital (I actually contributed to its death at Washington State University, where I assisted in the digital scanning/conversion of thousands of architecture slides to a digital format). I found the mystical quality of the projected images and the dancing coloured light that caught specs of dust drifting in the air was like being whisked away on a journey to that particular art piece or building – today’s digital presentations just do hold that same magic experience for me …. Oh god, I must sound like an old griping codger complaining about “kids these days”.

Anyway, back to Jeff and the lecture hall. My recollection of Jeff is that he could have passed as Doc from Back to the Future, but rather than math and science driving him mad it was a mixture of a lot of creativity, art and perhaps a wide assortment of mind altering substances – there was always a bit of a shadow
Lines and lines of people waiting for ticketsLines and lines of people waiting for ticketsLines and lines of people waiting for tickets

I purchesed the 3 day pass - it took about 10 minutes to collect my ticket.
about him as if he preferred a darkened studio to a ventilated and naturally light one. I remember he drove a large cargo van (almost camouflaged with various paint patches of different colours) and to see him arrive you’d think that he’d been working in the back of the van in some kind of mobile studio… smoke and fresh paint always seemed to be close by on his somewhat dishevelled but comfortable studio work clothes.

With the slides in place, and the projectors humming warmly away, Jeff made his way to the lectern. To this day, I still remember him starting off that morning in his scratchy and smoke filled voice that if we as art students only understood and appreciated early Western art and architecture we were cheating ourselves of a full and rich picture of the development of Eastern creative arts during the same time period. With that he hit the projector clicker and the first two slides came up – one was an image of what I came to learn was the Angkor Wat temple complex and to the right a stone carving of a very voluptuous and smiling partially nude goddess staring eternally
Pre Rup East ApproachPre Rup East ApproachPre Rup East Approach

This was our first temple of the day
at the viewer with her delicately carved stone eyes.

Jeff turned away from us and looking at the goddess paused for one of his very long familiar pauses when the occasional nude would pop up in our slide shows. It was at times like this he appeared as if he was completely taken by the image and lost in thought… Still to this day I’m uncertain if he paused at images like this because he was admiring the beauty of the piece or if he was comparing it to his most recent conquest… the world may never know.

After what seemed like an eternity, but was probably less than five seconds he kicked off into what was to be a memorable fortnight of lectures on Hinduism, Buddhism and early Eastern art and architecture. It was fascinating learning the new myths and stories behind very symbolic art and architecture of these cultures. I was particularly taken by the idea of a city and temple complexes for a population of more than a million people virtually disappearing into the jungle only to be recently rediscovered by the West in the 19th century. Angkor joined my pantheon of must visit destinations to satisfy my creative curiosity. I’ve got to give it to Jeff; he knew his stuff and knew how to present his material… my appreciation of the world after his yearlong series of courses was dramatically altered for the better.

Fast forward to 2012, while I’d been able to see many of the Western destinations in my arts/architecture pantheon bucket list (ancient Roman architecture, Norman and gothic cathedrals, the humanising Renaissance, Mannerism, Surrealism, Cubism, Le Corb, etc etc etc…) , Angkor continued to simmer in my subconscious where it was planted that winter morning all those years ago. Events and circumstances roused this memory of the jungle ruins (no it wasn’t Tomb Raider) and in July of 2012 I commenced with closing the loop on this internal conversation started by Jeff and fostered by later professors.

On the 29th of December 2012 at 8:30am, after just dodging the end of the world Incan bullet, I set off with my driver to come face to face with those first two slide images that Jeff had selected to start out his class.

After researching this leg of the trip
Pre Rup: A procession of doorsPre Rup: A procession of doorsPre Rup: A procession of doors

You quickly find that these temple complexes are configured such that you experience a progression of change, passing layer by layer as you journey to the ultimate focus of the complex - the central towers "mountains".
extensively I had decided that I would purchase a three day pass and that I would wait to see Angkor Wat until the second day. I was perturbed when my drive said that the accepted standard was to do the tour in the reverse order that I’d suggested. We debated this while driving towards the temple precinct ticket office. I finally won the debate when we hit gridlock traffic prior to even reaching the ticket booth. Mr Khy (my driver, who I gave contact details for in an earlier blog) commented that the traffic jam was the result of a number of Thai and Chinese tourists coming into town for the long weekend, he agreed with me that it would be better to go to the more remote ruins on the first day to avoid tourist. Once we purchased my ticket we were on our way to the first site. Below I’ll briefly summarise each temple we stopped at, however I’ll limit the amount of writing here, if you’re really interested I suggest you read my more detailed explanations tagged to my photos or drop me a line and I can elaborate.

Pre Rup:

1. Despite
Pre Rup: Within the outer wallPre Rup: Within the outer wallPre Rup: Within the outer wall

The journey continues to the central tower. Note the people on the stairs to get a sense of scale.
it being just after 9:00am in the morning the sun was already high in the sky and the air was quickly growing hot around the ruins. The lack of trees on the ruin meant that the stones were already radiating heat which had been building up over the last few days/weeks.

2. This was my first encounter of poor villagers, children beggars and desperate vendors all vying for your attention and money. “You buy book or postcard”… “help me mister”….”you buy this, very lucky”…. “buy water from me, you need water?”…. They pounced on me before I was even out of the car door and then follow me right up to the ruin, sometimes continuing the hard sell into the temple complex. This was a scene repeated at each of the destinations I stopped at. At first I felt bad for them, but then I just got frustrated as despite I had a book and water and I clearly said ‘NO’ they kept coming and I couldn’t enjoy the ruins in peace.

3. One of the interesting bits of advice that you find online is that you can purchase a well-respected scholarly book on “Ancient Angkor” from the street vendors at a significantly reduced price as the books they are selling are high quality copies. It was at this first site that I bought the book from the vendor at a price of about US$3 (had I purchased it in the States it would have been US$30 or so) – you’d be hard pressed to know that it was a copy, but for the slightly grainy colour photos and on one page I found a photocopied fingerprint smudge from the original book! A very neat little discovery).

4. This temple complex was compact compared to some of the other complexes that could stretch out half a mile or more in each direction. The symbolism of the sacred geometries and alignments along with the quality of carvings was just as Jeff had described it, but living the spiritual journey through architecture was far more fulfilling being here in person (not that it was a spiritual journey for me), you couldn’t help but imagine the feeling of the original inhabitants as they ceremonially transitioned from the earth of ‘men’ up to the mountain of the gods.

Next up was a long drive to Banteay Srei also
Pre Rup: Steep Stairs to the topPre Rup: Steep Stairs to the topPre Rup: Steep Stairs to the top

Most temple complexes included steeply inclined steps. I found the steps large, so I can't imagine what the experience would have been like for the original inhabitants that would have been of a lesser stature. I guess it would have further added to the experience of climbing the sacred mountain.
known as the Lady Temple to the north. It was during this drive that the driver and I built a rapport and over the next two days he shared more about his and his family’s experiences during the Vietnam War and later the reign of terror by Pol Pot. We can complain that our lives are difficult - be it paying for a car, a house, the next vacation, choosing the right school or university to send the kids to, how we’ll get through the next day of work etc….; but this is nothing to living through the hell of war in SE Asia.

This isn’t a blog about the politics of the wars that occurred in the region, merely a description of what Mr Khy said he experienced – and while it could have been made up I have all confidence that he did not exaggerate (as at least one time I could detect a sad cracking in his voice on more than one occasion as he recalled sad times) – in fact I suspect he only allowed me to scratch the surface of what he experienced.

Mr. Khy came from what sounded
Pre Rup: Lintel CarvingPre Rup: Lintel CarvingPre Rup: Lintel Carving

I think it was the temple carvings that often times most impressed me about the ruins. The skill demonstrated by the stone carvers would have been equal to and perhaps greater in some instances to those of masons in Europe at this time.
like a fairly well off farming family from the north. From memory he originally had seven or eight siblings. He lost one or two siblings to Vietnam war bombings. After the rest of the family survived this war along came Pol Pot, as Mr Khy’s family was better educated and well off they were persecuted and rounded up by the regime. Mr Khy though still only a teenage was recruited into the opposition army, along with the rest of his brothers. He laid landmines, fought and lived rough in the jungles. In the end only he and an older brother and sister survived to see more peaceful times return to Cambodia. His family lost most of their wealth, though they were able to return to their farm back.

I think the room must be getting a bit dusty as I recall our conversations. Anyway, his regrets now are that he never got a full education as he was fighting or avoiding bombs during his formative years. So instead of having the security of a professional job he is limited to lest stimulating jobs like driving cab, which is a hit and miss job given that there are
Pre Rup: DevataPre Rup: DevataPre Rup: Devata

It was most fascinating to see the change in dress and style of the Devatas at the various temples that spanned a number of centuries. Keep a lookout in my photos and you'll see what I'm talking about.
more cab drivers than tourists that come to Siem Reap, he can pass a few days without any assured income. In the hope of getting a better paying hospitality position he’s been studying English for the last few years – I caught him on a few occasions reading the kid’s book The Box Car Children (a book I remember reading in third grade) while lounging in his mobile hammock while he waited for me to return from my tours. His brother and sister have stayed in the country to manage the family farm and look after his elderly mother, while he and his family have tried to make ends meet living in the city. Looking around at the local people, despite the smiles, you can’t help but feel sad as you know virtually all of them would have similarly sad stories of struggle.

Banteay Srei:

1. This small temple had perhaps the most detailed and beautiful stone carvings for any of the temples I visited.

2. The pink sandstone used for the temple and the low height of the structures (allowing you to examine the carvings closely) added to the enjoyment of the space.
Pre Rup: Tower ShrinePre Rup: Tower ShrinePre Rup: Tower Shrine

Shrine inside one of the towers. The sweet scent of incense filled the space and was a fresh reprieve from the intense heat outside.

3. This is a temple not to be missed despite it taking nearly two hours round trip to reach.

Back on the road towards Angkor we stopped at the Landmine Museum:

1. The museum is a non-profit established by a local very passionate about making Cambodia free of landmines left over from the recent wars.

2. It’s thought that there remain 5million mines left in Cambodia, in his ten years of dismantling mines this organisation has only put a dent in the total number – removing 50 thousand.

After the museum we set our sites on the Angkor precinct and East Mebon:

1. This temple ruin was very similar to Pre Rup in all respects, just not as tall.

A short two minute drive then brought us to Ta Som:

1. This ruin among other things is famous for the silk-cotton tree growing out of the eastern gate face tower.

It’s only around 2pm at this time but the sun is high and hot, I’m sweating profusely in the humidity and I’m looking forward to a lunch at our next site, Neak
Pre Rup: Central Tower Looking UpPre Rup: Central Tower Looking UpPre Rup: Central Tower Looking Up

You can see as the tower walls are corbeled so that they eventually form a small opening at the top allowing a shaft of light to penetrate the space.

1. Unfortunately most of the complex was closed, but it was different from other complexes as at its centre is a series of “healing” ponds that were meant to replicate some famous Himalayan mountain range lakes.

After lunch we make the short drive to our next stop, Preah Khan:

1. This complex is so large that Mr Khy dropped me off at the eastern gate and met me at the western gate – nearly a 1km walk. It took me nearly and 1.5 hours to get through the complex (You could spend a whole day here and not see it all).

2. This was the largest complex visited on the first day and had so much going on. The symbolism and sacred architectural layering and carvings was rich and this late it the day was almost to over welling to take all in.

I stumbled through the throng of vendors to the car and begged Mr Khy to take me directly home as I didn’t think I could handle any more mental processing for the day. My mind and camera memory card were brimming full. Fortunately, as it was 4:30pm he agreed that he’d met his time obligations for the day – I think had it been any earlier he would have taken me to another ruin just to fill the day.

Back at the accommodation I threw myself under the cold shower, as it felt like I had a mild case of heat stroke – this despite having AC in the car and having drunk more than 5 litres of water during the day. Once I was feeling better I made my way back to the comfortingly modern conveniences of Pub Street where I had dinner and drinks with an equally trail worn group of tourists just back from their first day of ruin exploration.

On recollection, I close with a remembrance of Jeff mentioning in class that he had visited the ruins of Angkor and that a lot of the slides we looked at were his. Perhaps his pondering of that voluptuous goddess wasn’t so much the gaze of a romantic, but rather a happy memory flashback from his time in Angkor – much as I was enjoying that moment over an ice cold Angkor Premium Beer?

Additional photos below
Photos: 111, Displayed: 32


On the road to Banteay SreiOn the road to Banteay Srei
On the road to Banteay Srei

After Pre Rup we headed north about 30km to Banteay Srei, known now as "Lady Chapel".
Live pigs being transported to marketLive pigs being transported to market
Live pigs being transported to market

Yes, these are alive - wide load?
Fuel Stop on the RoadFuel Stop on the Road
Fuel Stop on the Road

Sorry for poor quality. All along the road you see clear plastic soda bottles filled with a yellow fluid. What ever you do don't drink these as they are the local gas stations. My driver confirmed that from time to time these small stands go up in flames.

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