Cambodia Part 13: Bayon Information Center, Angkor Thom and Ta Prohm

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Thursday, August 6, 2015

Borin told us our day could start “late” at 8:00 AM. First we had a delightful breakfast at Shinta Mani Resort, our hotel. Bowden and the driver met us promptly and we hit the road.

Our first stop was the Bayon Information Center, which is an interpretive center that houses information and artifacts from the Khmer Empire. Our tour operator felt that it was important that we understand some history before launching into a tour of the various temple ruins. We watched a 10 minute film on the architecture and history of the area. After the film, we met a young woman who has studied archeology. She explained the historical periods, roughly divided as pre-Angkor, Angkor and post-Angkor. The inhabitants of Cambodia were among the first peoples of southeast Asia, but they left little in terms of written history so their origins are still the subject of much debate. What they did leave behind are some fabulous temple ruins. The pre-Angkor people were animist in their beliefs: the rocks, trees, wind–all might be the gods. They had a great deal of trade interaction with Indian people, and the Hindu gods were introduced. Buddhism also flourished. It seems that the pre-Angkor people were willing to incorporate all of these gods into their belief system and architecture, and this is why we can find the Buddha, Vishnu, and all the gang carved together on the walls and inside the temples.

The young archaeologist kept discussing the importance of a Hindu architectural feature she called the Shiva linga. It can be found inside many of the temples. She kept referring to it, and I guess she could see the blank look on our faces. “Do you know Shiva linga?” she asked. We admitted that we did not know what she was talking about. She said, “I can tell you, but it’s a little bit rude.” (She didn’t know us very well.) We said, “Please do.” She leaned in close and whispered conspiratorially, “It look like the dick.” Oh! Okay, I understand!

The Angkor civilization began in 802, when King Jayavarman II was declared (by himself) the universal ruler of a large territory previously ruled by multiple warlords. His successors gradually annexed more territories and the wealth of the kingdom accumulated. The temples became more and more magnificent. The Angkor era peaked in the late 1100’s. Think about that: before the Magna Carta was drafted, these people were building this empire! The Khmer empire ended with a Thai invasion and the sacking of Angkor in 1431, before Columbus sailed the ocean blue.

The temples range from simple to grand. Some have pyramid type structures, while others are pavilions and galleries. Most use laterite stone for their foundation. Laterite is a reddish brown mudstone. It’s soft and easily cut from the ground but hardens through oxidation. Pre-Angkor structures use brick on the top, while Angkor structures use sandstones, onto which are carved the most fabulous bas-relief.

The temples fell into ruin after the collapse of the Angkor civilization, and many of them toppled or were overtaken by the jungle. The French colonized Cambodia, and in the late 1800s and early 1900’s, they began to try to document, clear and restore the temple ruins. The Cambodians harbor ill feelings about the French occupation, but they grudgingly admit that the French intervened to save many of these structures that had been neglected for centuries. There are over 300 temples in the Siem Reap area alone, and the Cambodian countryside has over 1,000.

Our first stop after the information center was the old capital city of Angkor Thom, which flourished from the late 12th to early 13th century. The walled city was the largest preindustrial settlement in the world. The city was planned under King Jayavarman VII to wow the other kingdoms of southeast Asia. A gigantic moat was hand-dug around the city, and the dirt from the moat was used to raise the elevation of the city so that it appeared to be a dwelling of a “mountain king.” The temples in this area were built from the 9th to the 12th century by the Khmer empire, which controlled not only Cambodia, but also large parts of what are now Laos, Thailand and Vietnam.

Our next stop was the temple complex itself, where we met an architect in charge of the temple restoration. This work is fascinating, and our guide was passionate. Over the centuries, many of the stones have fallen from the structures and been repurposed into road bases and other structures. The architects are trying to reconstruct portions of the original temples. It is an impossible three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle. Many of my engineer friends would enjoy this work, I think.

All of these stones were once in temples, and the architects are trying to figure out how to put them back. Humpty-Dumpty!

The architect had page after page of plans like this. Can you see that each stone is catalogued and marked?
You can see the marking the French carved into this one.
The foundations were prepared by compacting the soil by hand. If a temple is being restored today, mechanized equipment is not typically used. Cambodian people still do this work the old fashioned way. Many Cambodians consider it something of a religious or cultural obligation to spend some time doing temple restoration work.
Genene tried her hand at foundation compaction, as Borin looked on.
You can try carving bas-relief into the sandstone. Genene was able to chip a little stone away, but it was slow going.
This contraption is used to lift and place the heavy stones.
I wasn’t sticking my finger into this photo for scale, but the big guy was at least five inches long.
We got our first look at Bayon, the temple at the heart of the city of Angkor Thom. At one time, over 200 of smiling stone faces were carved into 49 towers. 37 towers remain, and the temple is beautiful and awe inspiring.
The sky was a stunning shade of blue today.

The architect took us right into the hardhat area to give us a behind-the-scenes tour of the restoration.

He told us that the French had used concrete in their restoration efforts, but that is no longer favored. Architects nowadays try to use the original materials in the restoration, though sometimes a metal I-clamp is used to stablilize a structure. Many countries cooperate in funding temple restoration projects: Japan, India and Germany seemed to be frequent good citizens. The United States has sponsored some projects, but I was disappointed that we were not doing more to preserve these priceless artifacts. Perhaps it is a matter of lack of public awareness.

I was intrigued by the architect. He had a light in his eyes that is only seen in those wonderful, crazy people who have found their true calling. This restoration will be his life’s work, and he is making a difference for centuries to come.

We completed our hardhat tour, and the architect and archeologist took their leave of us. Borin escorted us into Bayon and began to show us the stunning bas-relief. The galleries told story upon story upon story about the Angkor kingdom and its people. There were depictions of great battles, migrations, and daily life.

Marching into battle:

Naval warfare:
A tiger attack:
Hunting with Dad:
More fighting:
We stood with Borin while he described the details of many of these bas-relief depictions in great detail. In the absence of much written history, these carvings tell the stories of the people who once ruled this land. These pictures do not do justice to the magnitude of the carvings. They went on and on and on. It is difficult to conceive of the work that went into making them. We listened attentively, though the sun was hot. Borin praised Genene for her attention to the stories and the history. He said that most kids are ready to go to the pool within the first hour. Genene said, “Well, I know that Mom and Dad wouldn’t let me go to the pool anyway so I may as well listen.” Borin knows that the way to our heart is by saying a kind word to Genene or about Genene. I was proud of her too. It was hot out there!
Don’t their smiles remind you of Mona Lisa? It’s a smile, but it’s an enigmatic one.
The good thing about the temples it that there are still lots of interior spaces where one can take a little break from the bright sun. We popped into one of them, sat down and took a rest. Borin told us a little about himself. He’s in his early 30’s and has been a guide for 10 years. He has several siblings, and there wasn’t much money when he was growing up. He did well for himself, and he is ambitious. After he was a guide for some time, he saved up his money and studied law at university. He did well, but he told us that the field of law is filled with corruption and nepotism. After finishing law school, he did not have the money to pay the necessary bribes (about $20,000!) to pass the examinations. He had exhausted his savings on the education. He said very matter-of-factly, “My dream of being a lawyer is not possible. So I continue as a guide.” We told him how sorry we were, and he said simply, “I get to see many interesting people. My life is not bad.”
One last look at Bayon:
There are many temples in the Angkor Thom complex and not enough time to see them. We drove past the Terrace of the Leper King, the Terrace of the Elephants, Baphuon, and so forth. A person could spend weeks visiting the temples.
We stopped at one of the Angkor Thom city gates. There were five of them: four at the cardinal points on the compass (I am always intrigued by how early people knew how to align with the stars, planets, sun and moon; nowadays we are too busy aligning with our televisions and iPads.). The fifth gate was called a Victory Gate and was marched through after…you guessed it…victories.
The gate would have impressed any traveler to the city, and the surrounding wall provided protection from invaders.


Our next stop was Ta Prohm, a late 12th century temple sometimes called the jungle temple. When the French rediscovered the temples in the 19th century, this is what they would have seen, a temple reclaimed by nature. While the French acted to restore the great temples of Angkor, they elected to maintain Ta Prohm in its natural state as a “concession to the general taste for the picturesque.” (Don’t you just love the way the French say things?) You may recognize the temple from the movie “Lara Croft Tomb Raider.” Borin spoke respectfully about Angelina Jolie. I never thought too much about her before, though I know she has been involved in a lot of humanitarian efforts across the world. When she crossed my radar, it was only as the wild companion of Brad Pitt. Ms. Jolie is someone different to the Cambodians. She is well known to them. They all know that she has an adopted Cambodian son, whom they call by name as if he were their dear friend. As far as Borin is concerned, she has helped to put Cambodia on the world map and is worthy of respect.

First look:

The trees are intertwined and inseparable from the temple. In some cases, the roots are quite literally holding the stones together. In other cases, the opposite is happening: the trees are tearing the temple apart. The threat from falling trees has forced human intervention in some cases. Trees have been felled to protect the structure.
King Jayavarman VII constructed Ta Prohm to honor his mother. He must have loved her very much because it is beautiful. I found this temple to be especially evocative. You can imagine the excitement of the French upon rediscovering it. You can feel some sense of the adventure–and probably a healthy dose of fear–that they must have felt as they wandered around in the jungle and in these ruined structures.
In this picture, the keystone has separated so you can actually see how the stones are put together.
The tree roots grew naturally around this carving, creating the appearance of a peekaboo face, smiling its mysterious smile.
Last year, we went to Machu Picchu and marveled at how the Inca people put together stones without mortar so that not even a credit card can be wedged between them. The Angkor people were two centuries ahead of them.
Doesn’t this guy look like a stegosaurus? Most scholars think it is a creature from Hindu mythology called a makara.
Can you see Angelina Jolie peeking out?
Greg, Genene and–almost but not quite–Anjelina Jolie.
Last look at Ta Prohm:
As we walked back to our van, we happened upon a musical band. They were all victims of Cambodian landmines and are missing limbs. Their music was beautiful, and I tossed some money into the bucket. The landmines are the sad legacy of Cambodia’s civil war and were placed by various factions in the 1970s. There may have been as many as 4 to 6 million mines placed in the country. After placement, even the soldiers couldn’t remember exactly where they all were. Also, the land floods frequently, moving the mines. It takes a lot of time, effort and money to remove them. Princess Diana brought attention to the matter some years ago, and removal efforts are still underway. There are some 40,000 amputees in the country. People are still wounded and killed by the mines, but as removal continues, the numbers are thankfully getting smaller. In 2013, there were 22 deaths and 89 injuries. We were told never to wander off established and cleared paths.
On the way back to the city, Borin asked us if we had ever tried durian, “the king of fruits.” We had heard of them before, and they are even available in some of the Asian markets in west Houston. I have always been afraid to try them because they have a strong odor. Asian people swear by them and say, “Once you get past the smell, you will love it.” I think I have already mentioned that they are prohibited in most apartment complexes and hotels because of their obnoxious smell, which has been described as rotten onions or sewer. I have a pretty acute sense of smell and wondered whether I could get past it. Borin gave us some encouragement, and so we said we would give it a try.
The lady at the fruit stall used a large knife to cut past the spiky, hard exterior, revealing the yellow fruit inside.
Greg, Genene and I all tried it and found it to be surprisingly good. It has almost a buttery, nutty flavor and is very fillling.
We wanted to buy some souvenirs, and Borin knew just the place. He told us that this silver shop was owned by Cambodians, employed Cambodians and made their wares on site. We watched a lady carving a bowl out front.
We went inside and the friendly but full court press started. The proprietor lady put a snake bangle onto my arm, and I think she cast a spell on me. I don’t even like jewelry but found myself staring and smiling at it. She went and found the matching necklace, a huge, chunky thing that made me look like Wonder Woman. The lady kept intoning, “Madam, show your husband. Show your husband. Let him see.” Even though I usually buy what I want when I want, I think I was under her voodoo. I went to show Greg, and he laughed out loud and said, “Yeah, it’s pretty but what are you showing me for? If you want it, get it.” I wore it for a few minutes but then decided that the necklace was a bit much. As soon as I mentioned to the lady that I thought the necklace was too heavy for me, she nodded immediately as if it were ridiculous that we ever considered it. She said, “Too heavy! Too heavy! Let’s get it off.” I bought the bangle, Genene got some cute earrings, and we got a small bowl. We went through a couple of rounds of negotiations before settling on “best price for you, friend.”
By the time we escaped from the silver shop lady’s spell, it was late afternoon. We went back to Shinta Mani, where we were welcomed “home” with the cool, fragrant face towels.

We rested for a while, cleaned up and walked to nearby Chanrey Tree, where we had an excellent dinner. We were lazy and caught a $2 tuk-tuk ride home. It’s a fun way to see the city.

The ladies at Shinta Mani shape these floating flowers. They make a fragrant, beautiful display in the courtyard and pool areas.

Our day will start early tomorrow. Borin is meeting us at 5:20 AM to take us to the monastery, where we will listen to the monks chant, and afterwards continue touring. Our vacation is not very relaxing, but it is a lot of fun!

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