Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Last look

These dancing figures could be termed apsaras, though the one in the middle has a face that resembles someone chewing a wasp
Wrapping up my recent visit to the Terrace of the Leper King, which some believe was used for funeral functions when it was first sculpted in the 13th century, a few more pictures from inside the secret passageway - obviously no longer a secret after the EFEO renovators opened it to the public - and a section of the outer wall that's in good condition, at the northern end of the terrace. There's a replica statue sitting on top of the platform - the original sits in the courtyard of the national museum - and is either one the Khmer kings who suffered from leprosy and gave the terrace its name or, more likely, Yama, the god of death, and overseeing the cremations that took place there. You choose. Here's a tip, it's Yama.
Another royal figure surrounded by courtiers, and no, they are not paddling a canoe
A look at a section of the inner secret passageway. Note the massive naga at the base.
This part of the northern outer terrace is in good condition. Note the multi-coloured sections of the wall.
A King with identifying short sword, in regal pose
Attendants at the royal court in various poses
Don't try this at home. A sword swallower tries to impress the King whilst spearing the head of his little friend

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Saturday, March 27, 2010

Secret friezes

A King sits in the royal court, identified by his short broadsword, fanned by attentive concubines
Most of you who've been to the Angkor temples near Siem Reap, will have visited the massive city of Angkor Thom and within its central area, the Terrace of the Leper King. Not as immediately obvious as its nextdoor neighbour, the Elephant Terrace, the outside wall of the Leper King version hasn't fared too well over the years and many of the sections of carvings are badly weathered and simply not photogenic. But step inside the 'secret' passageway just a couple of metres behind the outside wall, and you enter a zig-zag world of kings and concubines, heavenly dancers and giant naga snakes, where many of the sculptures are in pristine condition, having been hidden from view for hundreds of years. The height of the terrace wall is about seven metres which allows multi-tiered friezes, full of finely-etched figures, that were meticulously restored by the EFEO team under Christophe Pottier between 1993 and 1996. Previous attempts to renovate the terrace had been made before, the last was in 1972 but the civil war put an end to that and it was up to Pottier and his team to complete the work. And what a great job they've done too. The terrace was originally constructed in the 13th century under the watchful eye of the great Khmer king, Jayavarman 7th. The reference to the Leper King, well that's another story entirely.
These three registers of friezes at the Leper King Terrace show the royal court with the King surrounded by adoring female company
The secret passageway of the Leper King Terrace was hidden from view for centuries
The King and his attendants sit above a massive naga snake
A royal figure and short sword, with parasols in the background
The attendants or concubines have also been called devata or apsaras - take your pick
The King in all his regal glory is surrounded by well-dressed devata with elaborate headdresses

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Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Secrets uncovered

Female devata on the inside passageway of the Terrace of the Leper King
Now has lived in Angkor all her life. Our visit to the Terrace of the Leper King last week was her first time ever to see the fascinating carvings up close and to walk through the inner passageway. And she's not alone. I'll bring you a few pictures of the carvings later but it still surprises me that my Cambodia friends are always so busy just making ends meet that they don't have the time, or perhaps the inclination, to discover the world around them, or even their own wonderful heritage literally just around the corner.
Now in jovial mood after her visit to Angkor Thom

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Saturday, February 6, 2010

Angkor interlude

A demon and his giant hands hang onto the naga at the south gate of Angkor Thom
Many of the heads at the south gate of Angkor Thom are copies, as you can see from this fresh sandstone demon head above
Cock-fighting and betting in action on the walls of the Bayon
One of the faces of the Bayon

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Saturday, July 4, 2009

Land of charm and cruelty

Another article amongst the file of papers I found in one of my unopened packing boxes in my spare room contained a story I wrote for my company's in-house staff magazine called Over The Threshold in their Spring 1995 edition. I was working for the Cheltenham & Gloucester Building Society at the time and I had just made my first-ever visit to Cambodia the previous November. Here's the article, for posterity sake and before I lose it.
Cambodia - a land of charm and cruelty : by Andy Brouwer (Deeds)
The name of Cambodia is synonymous with the cries of the tortured and starving, and more recently the murder of western tourists by the genocidal Khmer Rouge, responsible for the deaths of over one million of their fellow countrymen in the late 1970s. That country was, however, my choice of destination for a week's break from the rigours of C&G life at Chief Office in late October [1994].
Cambodia, racked by civil war for the last 25 years, is one of the world's poorest countries with a population of nine million, the majority of whom live in abject poverty by western standards. Conversely, it is also a beautiful country with a fascinating culture and people, and a history brought vivdly to life by one of the world's greatest architectural achievements - the temple ruins of Angkor.
Undoubtedly, the highlight of my trip was the three days I spent exploring the dramatic ruined cities of Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom. Flying in from Phnom Penh, the capital, to the northern provincial centre of Siem Reap, I was unprepared for the awesome array of massive stone temples, wide majestic causeways, imposing towers and gates and beautifully intricate stone carvings which I encountered.
The monuments were originally constructed by a dozen Khmer god-kings between the 9th and 13th centuries, but had lain hidden by dense jungle for nearly 500 years until their rediscovery by the French in the latter part of the last century. Along with my guide, Soy Bun, and driver, Somath, I wandered leisurely for hours among the near deserted ruins before completing a whistle-stop tour of the lesser visited outer-lying temples.
For sheer size, the vast spectacle of Angkor Wat, the largest religious edifice in the world, is simply stunning. Its central tower, surrounded by four smaller towers, a myriad of galleries and covered passageways and an 800-metre-long series of richly carved bas-reliefs will linger long in the memory, particularly a dawn visit to watch the sun rise, bathing the temple complex in swathes of red and organge light. Perhaps more startling than Angkor Wat, although smaller and less restored, is the Bayon, at the centre of Angkor Thom. Its most intriguing feature - although its bas-reliefs are extraordinarily detailed - are the giant faces of the Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara, with its enigmatic half-smile peering down from all four sides of the 54 towers.
Among the other temples to make a lasting impression were the well-preserved Preah Khan - a labyrinth of fascinating pavilions, halls and galleries - and the temple of Ta Prohm. The latter has been left much as it was when it was rediscovered - a mass of silk-cotton and fig trees, tangled roots and vines, and fallen masonry framing an eerie and haunting scene.
Phnom Penh on the other hand was an altogether different proposition. It is a city in transformation. The once elegant French-colonial capital became a ghost town when the Khmer Rouge forcibly emptied it of all its inhabitants in 1975. Today, many parts of Phnom Penh are undergoing frenzied reconstruction, although life remains unchanged in the city's back alleys, where the majority of the one million populace live in hovels without any basic amenities.
Negotiating the traffic - a multitude of mopeds, cyclos and bicycles jockeying with private cars and trucks - was a nerve-racking experience. The loss of my suitcase at the ramshackle airport for three days was a nightmare. But nothing could prepare me for my sobering visit to the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum which houses graphic reminders of the cruelty inflicted by the Pol Pot-inspired Khmer Rouge regime. Ten kilometres outside the city are the 'killing fields' of Choeung Ek, where at least 17,000 people were taken from Tuol Sleng, brutally murdered and buried in mass graves. A memorial glass tower at the site is filled with the cracked skulls of some 8,000 of those victims, and is definitely not for the squeamish.
I left Cambodia with many lasting memories, enriched by my experiences and eager to return to this fascinating country in the not too distant future.

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Friday, June 12, 2009

Welcome back

Photographers get a glimpse of three of the returning sandstone heads. Pic: Reuters/Chor Sokunthea
The Thai prime minister was in town today and he came loaded with goodies. Ancient Khmer goodies, in the form of six large sandstone heads which were stolen from temples in Cambodia and have at last been returned to their rightful home. The heads were handed over at the Foreign Ministry today, a seventh was returned during a recent Asean meeting. The Thais have 43 items in total which have been identified as being of Khmer origin but Cambodia has to prove it before they get them back - which isn't as easy as it sounds. Thailand will keep them until they are convinced, in triplicate, probably in blood too, that Cambodia can provide indisputable provenance for the mainly stone pieces. The treasures were seized by the Thai authorities in 1999 and are from the 12th century. Examples of these demon and god heads can be found at the South Gate to Angkor Thom where most of the heads in residence today are copies.


Saturday, April 11, 2009

Returning home

LtoR: Hun Sen, demon head, Abhisit Vejjajiva (Thai PM): Pic Reuters.
The return of a Khmer treasure from Thailand - a mere drop in the ocean of Khmer artifacts held over the border either by the authorities or in antique shops - took place between the two leaders of Cambodia and Thailand yesterday, before the start of an Asean summit in Pattaya. It's the head of a demon from one of Angkor Thom's monumental gates most likely and is one of seven similar pieces that will be handed back to Cambodia next week, when the Thai PM visits Phnom Penh. The Thais have stacks more but they expect Cambodia to jump through hoops and provide irrefutable evidence that the items were stolen from Cambodia. I get very annoyed when I hear about Khmer artifacts held overseas, in foreign museums and elsewhere. They should be residing in museums in this country. Full stop. The only reason Khmer artifacts should be overseas is in the form of travelling exhibitions. One such exhibition, Bronzes from the National Museum, will take place in Washington DC from May next year, when 38 bronze sculptures - out of 6,800 held at the National Museum - will go on display as part of efforts to promote Asian art. Let's hope they all make it back home afterwards.

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Friday, February 27, 2009

Closing chapter

Wooden signs point the way, coming from the South Gate direction
The southwest Prasat Chrung and the nearby irrigation channel formed by Run Tadev and Beng Thom were the final pieces of the Angkor Thom jigsaw on my epic cycle ride a few weeks ago. If you have time, it's definitely worth doing all or some of the embankment pathway on top of the mighty city walls, either on foot or by bicycle, just to experience a different perspective on the city and to enjoy the solitude, peacefulness and the surrounding scenery. I saw a variety of birds on my travels though the biggest, a crane, was sat on a solitary tree-stump in the middle of the moat near the last of the corner temples. Here's some final photos to close the chapter on my cycling adventure.
The southwest corner of the laterite wall and moat
The devata at this shrine have not escaped the attention of the temple robbers
The false window with blinds and two devata standing alongside
Two decorated posts with praying figures on the left side and vegetal scrolls on the right
A view out over the moat and the Angkor balloon in the distance
The last section of path before you reach Prasat Chrung coming from the South Gate
Run Tadev was either a very long laterite bridge or was used as an irrigation channel or sluice gate to allow water to run into the moat at the far end
The laterite structure of Run Tadev is covered by earth and vegetation and the other end of this long tunnel opens out at the foot of the moat
The marshy Beng Thom was used as part of the ancient city's irrigation system

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The final Chrung...and relax

The southwest Prasat Chrung, the final one of the four corner shrines on my cycle ride; this is the west false entrance.
My recent bicycle ride along the embankment walls of the ancient city of Angkor Thom seems to have been taking place for weeks, whilst in actual fact it took a little less than four hours and that included stopping to visit and photograph five monumental gates into the city, four corner shrines that few ever get to visit and negotiating a few breaks in the wall as well as meeting up with a group of five twenty-something Khmers, who were out for a picnic, on their bikes, as they reminded me that the day of my trip was a Buddhist holiday. They shared their water, as mine had run out and they offered to share their food as we chatted about life in general and about work - they worked for ANZ Bank - and so my 30+ years in British banking aroused their interest. Nice folks and it was good to chat having spent the previous three and half hours on my solitary ride. We met at the southwest corner Prasat Chrung, which translates as 'temple of the angle,' after my five minute cycle from the West Gate, parallel with the water-filled moat. This shrine is the most visited of the four corner temples as the access from the popular South Gate is straightforward. The prasat itself is similar to the others though its west door is false and it only opens to the east. The devata are here in numbers though they are small in size, the windows have half-blinds as in the other shrines but the only pediment carving I could find was on the ground and the Buddha image had been remodelled into a linga, a popular pasttime in the 13th century. I thought the temple might be a pleasant place to visit to experence a quiet sunset across the moat sometime in the future. After our chat, they cycled off to enjoy their picnic near the West Gate, while I stopped at a cutting in the forest which took me to an ancient laterite bridge and a nearby large pond. The bridge is Run Tadev and the pond Beng Thom and both acted as a way of letting out water from the city and into the moat. Then it was back to the South Gate, descending from the wall for the last time and cycling back to my hotel for some food and a well-earned shower. My cycle ride of around 13 kilometres was definitely an enjoyable way to see parts of Angkor Thom I'd never seen before, to get a different persepctive of the walled city and a way to enjoy a part of Angkor without the crowds. For the last four hours Angkor Thom had been mine, and mine alone and that gave me a great deal of satisfaction. I hope you've enjoyed the journey too. Try it sometime.
The pleasant cycle path from the West Gate heading to the southwest corner
The best devata on show at the southwest Prasat Chrung
This is Prasat Chrung from the south side, with its false door
The all next to this devata looks decidely unsteady
This pediment has a defaced Buddha, converted into a linga and lies on the ground, protected by red ants
A devata on the north face of the corner shrine
This devata is playing hide and seek with a tree growing next to the temple
The east entrance to Prasat Chrung is now supported by wooden beams. The stones in the foreground were part of a small shrine or gate to the east.

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Forgotten vibe no more

It looks a little like a mask, but its the north face of the West Gate, approached from the northwest corner shrineWooden struts support the sides of the eastern entrance of the West Gate of Angkor Thom
The embankment pathway from the northwest Prasat Chrung to the West Gate was the best section so far and completed in less than five minutes. I was now well over halfway in my bicycle ride around the top of the walls of the ancient city of Angkor Thom. The last time I'd been at the West Gate was quite a few years before when it was rarely used and quite atmospheric with a forgotten feel to it, nowadays that vibe has disappeared and it's been made safe with lots of wooden structural supports and a wooden driveway that takes you through the gate door and out the other side. This entrance to the city is now much more popular that ever before when only locals rode their bicycles through it, to and from their nearby villages. A popular route along one section of the wall, for walkers and cyclists, ends at the West Gate, having begun at the South Gate. If anyone does venture onto the city walls it is that section they normally choose. However, I hope I've given you a flavour of what the other sections of the wall can offer as well. I hadn't yet finished my cycle ride so after a good sniff around both sides of the gate, I took my mountain bike back onto the wall to complete my journey via the southwest corner temple. Stay tuned for more.
The face of the king looks down on the entrance into the city at the West Gate
This provides a good view of the wooden driveway installed at the West Gate, and the absence of 'atmosphere' there nowadaysLooking at the west face of the West Gate from outside the walled city
The west face has parts of the royal visage missing
Two faces of the West Gate, the south face on the right and the east face
A final profile look at the east face of the West Gate
A broken Lokeshvara pediment at the top of the wall, in front of the south face. You can just make out the torso at the left of center.