Friday, March 19, 2010

More from the Bakan

3 of the Angkor Wat devata minus their feet
I haven't quite finished posting pictures from my return visit to the Bakan, at the very top level of Angkor Wat. It reopened for business in January after more than two years with the doors firmly closed. I went up with Now, who proudly informed me that her father was responsible for creating the new wooden steps, the wooden walkway and the wooden window frames. He's worked for the Apsara authorities for many years but she really wants him to retire from his job as supervisor, as he's now getting on in years. I don't think there's such a thing as a national retirement age here in Cambodia. People just seem to go on until they can't go on any longer. It's a case of needs must I suppose. Now told me today that the eviction of the shop and restaurant owners just in front of the Bayon went ahead without any problems. There's a possibility that they might be allowed back after a couple of months.
A standing and a reclining Buddha inside the central tower of Angkor Wat
A rather strong, dominant looking devata, often referred to as an Apsara
A beautiful devata holding some flowers in her hand
Zooming in on the outer courtyard of Angkor Wat and the pool and northern library
The central tower of Angkor Wat, undergoing some minor repair work
Now admiring her father's handiwork at one of the windows
The only route open to the Bakan, on the southeast corner of Angkor Wat
One of the other steep stairways, no longer in operation

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Thursday, March 18, 2010

From the top

A look down the 50 steep steps leading to the Bakan at Angkor Wat
The top level of Angkor Wat, the Bakan, reopened in the middle of January. Last week was my first opportunity to go to the top since it closed back in October 2007. Regulations have been introduced to restrict numbers of tourists, as well as time limits and rules on dress, etc, so a visit is not like it was 'back in the day'. Nevertheless, it was pleasing to be able to look out once again across the treeline that surrounds the temple and then into the heat-haze on the western side, as you look back towards the entrance and the moat. The guards can be annoying, asking you to move along if you stand still for more than a couple of minutes, but with just 100 visitors allowed at the top at any one time, they are keen to whizz you through to get the next 100 up and out. Some of the devatas on the walls are in wonderful condition and it would be nice to think that any renovation that did take place during the years of closure included some delicate touches to these beautiful celestial beings rather than just the construction of a wooden walkway, stairs and window barriers. The fifty steps, on the southeast corner, that take you to the top, and back down again, are fairly steep and you need to keep your wits about you when walking along the wooden walkway, as there's a bit of drop either side. In addition, the top level is closed to tourists on Buddhist holy days, which are tied into the religious calendar but which change every week, all very confusing. The current reopening of the top level is a trial, so it's not a given that it will remain open indefinitely. Tip - if you visit the Bakan in the afternoon, and have to wait in the queue, those in the front of the queue will be in shade.
One of the beautiful devata on the walls of the Bakan. There are 1,780 of these celestial goddesses on the walls of Angkor Wat.
A look at the queue stretching around the northeast corner of Angkor Wat
Just beyond the northern section of the central sanctuary of Angkor Wat lies the treeline
The majestic central tower, topped by a lotus bud, rises 55 metres from ground level
A look into the heat-haze of the western entrance to Angkor Wat
A Buddha meditating under the protection of a naga in the Bakan
Renovation work is ongoing at Angkor Wat, next to one of the inner libraries
A look at the crowd of tourists taking a breather in the shade having just completed their visit to the Bakan
This is the only access point to the Bakan, on the southeast corner of the 2nd storey of Angkor Wat. 100 people are allowed up as 100 come down.

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I'm back

Back in the Bakan after a few years break
I paid my first visit for a few years to the Bakan, or the top level of Angkor Wat to you and me, when I was in Siem Reap last week. I'll post some pictures from my visit later but in the meantime, here I am modeling the pass each person is given on their entry to the Bakan, as well as the conditions on the back of the pass. You are limited to a 30-minute wander around the top level, though the Apsara guards will move you along if you stay too long in one place. 100 people are allowed on the top level at any one time and they strictly monitor this. In addition, anyone wearing shorts above the knee will not be allowed to climb the steep steps to the top, and they don't open the top level on Buddha Days, which occur haphazardly on various days each month. There is no additional entry cost. Depending on the time of day, you could find yourself waiting in the queue, under the blazing hot sun, or as I did, arrive just at the right time, wait for five minutes in the shade before gaining entry. It's pot luck. If they've done any renovation, I couldn't see it except providing a wooden walkway which takes you around the upper level, and the wooden steps up and down, which my friend Now proudly announced was the handiwork of her father. More later.
The Bakan regulations, on the rear of the pass. Of course I had pass No. 001.


Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Angkor Wat re-opens

Access to the top level of Angkor Wat will re-open soon after 2 years of closure
You heard it here first okay. Visitor access to the top level of Angkor Wat will begin again on 15 January. That's straight from the Apsara Authority (AA) spokesman. However, that access will be strictly limited to 100 people at any one time and they will be closely monitored by AA staff with visits lasting only 20 or 30 minutes max. There are other restrictions like no under-12s, you must dress properly, only English-speaking guides will be allowed and so on. This access will be for 1 month to assess how the management control of visitors is proceeding. Access to the top level of Angkor Wat, the area is known as Bakan, has been out of bounds for visitors since October 2007 and during that time restoration efforts by Khmer, German and Italian teams have been on-going. Their work will soon be seen again by the lucky ones who are prepared to queue for access to the top.
The top level of Angkor Wat, known as Bakan, has been off-limits since Oct 2007. It will re-open on 15 Jan.


Friday, September 18, 2009

Churning behind closed doors

Angkor Wat from the eastern entrance with the Churning bas-reliefs on the left side
The only view of the Churning bas-relief story currently available
Visitors to Angkor Wat at the moment are unable to see one of its crown jewels. The best of the bas-reliefs that cover the 800 metres of the outer wall of the central complex - The Churning of the Sea of Milk - is currently behind scaffolding and tarpaulins and you have to be content with large-scale photos of the relief and a description. The gallery ceiling and roof is leaking so its being replaced and the work, being undertaken by the World Monuments Fund, will be completed sometime in 2010. Previous restoration attempts haven't solved the problem so this new venture, alongwith the Apsara Authority and the German Apsara Conservation Unit, is doing the job properly and which will include inserting a thin lead membrane into the ceiling to keep out further moisture from affecting the reliefs. In the 1950s the EFEO team at Angkor Wat worked on the reliefs, disassembling the whole structure, installing a drainage system and reinforcing the walls. When civil war broke out in the 1970s the roof had not been put back so the bas-reliefs were exposed to the elements. In 1988, an Indian archaeology team resumed restoration work including reassembling the gallery roof. The Churning story, as you must know unless you've lived under a rock all your life, involves gods and demons pulling on a serpent which in turn produces amritar, the elixir of immortality from the Sea of Milk. But you knew that already.
A noticeboard about the work of the WMF
A large-scale photo of the Churning bas-relief
The southern section of the eat gallery which is out-of-bounds until next year. You can see where the water seepage effects the lighter stonework.

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Wednesday, September 16, 2009

A morning at Angkor Wat

The final morning of my guests' visit took in a sunrise (though the clouds hid the sun) over Angkor Wat, a temple-tour, a cooked breakfast alongside the moat surrounding the temple and then a blessing from the head monk at a pagoda nestled alongside The Bayon. They are packing ready for their flight as I type. There were quite a few people at Angkor Wat this morning, though not nearly as many as in the high season. After looking at where the sunrise would've been, from the two royal pools, we went inside the temple to get the low-down from Omnoth our guide as he walked us through the most important areas of Angkor Wat. The top level is still closed to tourists but the word is that it may re-open again at the end of this year, though numbers will be limited. Listening to Omnoth, on my first guided tour of Angkor Wat for over a decade, reminded me how important a knowledgeable guide is to ensure you get the full value from your visit to the temple. Its important to have someone bring it alive, and fill in all the small details, as well as giving the bigger picture stuff. And Omnoth is one of the very best at that. I bumped into Kim Rieng during my tour, he was guiding a couple of American tourists, and hope to catch up with him later this afternoon.


Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Shower time

Just time for a shower before going out for dinner. Up early for a dawn visit to a completely empty Ta Prohm then onto Banteay Srei, which has changed dramatically since my last visit a few years ago. Now you cannot get near the central structure - before you could clamber anywhere you liked - and the road that passed by the front entrance has disappeared into a brand new car parking and refreshment area. We stopped by the Aki Ra landmine museum on the way back for my first visit there too before I got dropped off at the back entrance of Angkor Wat to visit Now, who was helping her sister sell souvenirs on her day off. After lunch we took our guests to Angkor Thom to visit the South Gate, Bayon and East Gate and then a hotel inspection at Hotel De La Paix before shower-time. They are off to a dance show at La Residence, I'm off for dinner with Now at Shadow of Angkor. More later.

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Sunday, July 5, 2009

All our yesterday's

It's like opening Pandora's Box. Inside there's a forgotten store of good and bad waiting to pop out - in this case, out of a packing box in my spare room has tumbled a series of news cuttings, magazine articles and stories that I'd forgotten that I'd collected whilst living in England. The following magazine article appeared in Asiaweek, published in Hong Kong, in March 2001 and it sounds a warning about the lure of visitors to Cambodia in the wake of the movie, Tomb Raider. There are a couple of tenuous links, one is that Paramount Pictures' location chief Sam Breckman contacted me about filming in Cambodia and I put him in touch with Nick Ray, who later became the location manager for the filming at Angkor for Tomb Raider. Now we work together at Hanuman Tourism in Phnom Penh.

Lights, Camera - Tourists! by Alexandra A Seno
Cambodians hope the movie Tomb Raider will lure more visitors. They should be careful what they wish for.
This is no average movie set. The magnificent sandstone ruins of the 9th-century Angkor Wat monument loom in the background. In a rowboat, American movie star Angelina Jolie, dressed in black battle fatigues, has been paddling around the pond for hours in 35-degree heat. On shore, hundreds of Cambodian villagers are jostling for a glimpse of the Oscar-winning actress. A tall white stuntman in a black wet suit and flippers watches her every move, too - just in case she should fall in. "With water and stuff you can never be too careful," says production designer Kirk Petruccelli. It's been a thrill-packed five days. Paramount Pictures brought in minesweepers to check out the set before Jolie and the crew arrived. A few days after shooting started, an armed rebellion erupted on the streets of Phnom Penh, just an hour's flight away. Eight insurgents died after their assault on a military building. "There was a moment of concern," admits Jolie at the end of a day of filming. She says her stint in Cambodia has been a life-altering experience, though. "If anything was to happen to me here, it would be worth it."
With a little luck, the only thing that will happen is that Jolie will become an even bigger star. Paramount hopes Tomb Raider, which is based on the exploits of curvaceous videogame star Lara Croft, will be this summer's biggest blockbuster. Cambodian officials are praying for a hit, too. They want the movie to help put their country, one of Asia's poorest, on the international tourism map. Since the Khmer Rouge surrendered in 1998, and the ruins of Angkor became safe from rebel attacks, the country has again become more attractive to tourists - but until now, they have been mostly limited to intrepid backpackers and super-luxury travelers. The country, whose economy was ravaged by the Khmer Rouge's brutal regime, followed by decades of civil wars and bad government, desperately needs more tourism dollars. "Tourism is going to go crazy," says Nick Ray, author of the Lonely Planet Cambodia guide, who was hired by Paramount as a location manager. "People who see the film are going to look at Cambodia and know it's a real place and will want to come here. They'll say: 'If Hollywood can go, then I can go.'"

Sounds like a typical Hollywood happy ending, right? Think again. Though tourism will give a vital boost to Cambodia's comatose economy, hordes of visitors could destroy Cambodia's ancient treasures. Conservationists already worry that tourists clambering over the ruins threaten to damage sites already in need of major restoration work. Over the centuries, the temples and other buildings around Angkor literally had disappeared into the tropical jungle, until they were rediscovered by French explorer Henri Mouhot in 1860. In recent years, the United Nations named the temples World Heritage sites, and millions in foreign aid has flowed in for restoration work. But with little central government control and rampant corruption, looting and destruction have continued as traders cart Khmer busts and other relics off to the antique markets of Bangkok, Hong Kong, and New York. Meanwhile, tourists are allowed to freely wander the sites - with no controls over what they take or what they do. "Any number of tourists will cause some damage," says Anita Sach, author of the European Bradt travel guide to Cambodia. "Currently visitors are privileged to have such freedom to wander but with that there is the risk of long-term damage." Tomb Raider is just the beginning. Cambodia is going to the movies big-time. Much as Tibet became part of the pop culture conversation via movies in the 1990s, the drama of Cambodia's history, the breath-taking nature of its aesthetics and the frisson of danger has somehow launched the dusty town of Siem Reap, near where Angkor is located, into trendy status in Hollywood. Cambodia is this year's Tibet - the flavor-of-the-month among movies seeking an exotic Asian setting . No fewer than four high-profile productions will include scenes among the ruins of the palaces and temples of what was once Southeast Asia's great empire.

Some outsiders think Hollywood isn't exactly what the sacred temple of Angkor Wat needs. The temples are the stunning legacy of a kingdom that ruled Southeast Asia between the 9th and 12th centuries; in many ways, they represent the soul of the Cambodian nation. "We hope Tomb Raider will encourage more visitors to come to our kingdom," says Sambo Chey, Cambodia's undersecretary of state for tourism. But as Cambodia struggles to emerge from its war-torn history, will Lara Croft send the right message to the world? The deputy director for culture at UNESCO, the Paris-based United Nations organization, wrote a letter last November to Cambodian monuments officials urging them not to give Paramount permission to make the film in Cambodia. "I would like to call your attention to the violent nature of the adventures of Lara Croft," wrote UNESCO's Mounir Bouchenaki. "The association of [Angkor's] image with a film about tomb raiders isn't appropriate." More importantly, he said, the filming could "cause irreparable damage to the monuments." Paramount is aware of such concerns. "[Lara] is not a looter," says Jolie. "And she'd probably shoot you for saying so." When the Cambodian preservation authorities negotiated with Paramount for the rights to film at Angkor, they expressed concern that a film about raiding tombs would portray the wrong image for their country - particularly given continuing concerns about rampant looting of Khmer antiquities from the temples. Paramount eventually persuaded them that the film's plot isn't about looting of the sites. The preservation officials did insist, however, on excising a celebration scene with fireworks, which they thought sounded too much like bombs. Given the fact that Khmer Rouge rebels hid in the temple during the 1970s, and that bullet-holes are visible in the stone walls, bomb-like fireworks seemed tasteless. Paramount dropped it from the script. Nonetheless, the film is a rough and tumble, shoot-'em-up story. On Jolie's first filming day, Croft dropped by parachute onto Phnom Bakheng, the hilltop 10th-century Hindu temple. "I looked around at this great view and it was, like, I had arrived," says Jolie. Over the next few days, she did car stunts in a Land Rover in front of the sacred Bayon temple, perched at the edge of a cliff ["the Cambodians thought I was insane," she says], and received a blessing from Buddhist monks. Jolie says she was "amazed" by the experiences. But the film isn't exactly spiritual. In the movie, Croft, the fictitious British aristocrat who turns thrill-seeker after surviving a Himalayan plane crash, is in hot pursuit of a mysterious "Magic Triangle."

So far, about 1,000 tourists a day flock to Angkor Wat, clamoring to capture the monument as the sun rises behind it. If more tourists are going to start swarming in, Cambodia has a lot of work to do. The hotel and services industries are tiny and underdeveloped. In Siem Reap, which is the country's most important tourism destination, of 32 hotels, only two are five-star. "To tell you the truth, we are not well prepared," says Ang Choulien, director of culture and monuments for the government preservation effort in Angkor and the key negotiator with Paramount. "Very quickly the number of tourists has increased. We are rather overwhelmed by the multiple tasks." Last year, 470,000 foreign visitors arrived in Cambodia, up 30% from 1999. Prime Minister Hun Sen has vowed that the million-tourist mark should be reached by 2003. To achieve this goal, the number of hotel rooms will have to go up from 7,000 two years ago to 17,500 by 2005. Tourism receipts already account for about a 30% share of the national budget. In 1999, the most recent available year for which the figure is available, Cambodia earned $200 million from the entire tourism sector, a record amount. The government is forecasting that the industry will post a 25% annual increase for the next decade - the global average is under 4%. Such dizzying growth only highlights the problems that the country faces in achieving visitor-nirvana. So far, Cambodia has had no real tourism plan to speak of. The Asian Development Bank has just allotted $136 million for tourism-related programs, including building roads and training tourism officials on forming master plans for hotel and service industry development. But the authorities' prime focus is still simply boosting the numbers of arrivals. "They need to learn how to channel interest in Angkor Wat so they can manage how to do minimal damage to the monuments and forests," says Barend Frielink, the Cambodia officer at the Manila headquarters of the Asian Development Bank. In December, noting the 8 million visitors that were welcomed by Thailand, the location for over a dozen films last year, Cambodia announced a "two countries, one film locale" promotional campaign with its neighbor to jointly attract more movie projects.

Be careful what you campaign for. The Paramount Pictures operation by itself strained the country's primitive infrastructure. In early November, 27 heavy trucks, trailers and container vehicles roared onto Vithei Charles de Gaulle, one of Siem Reap's main streets. Rains had washed out many of the roads between Thailand and the Cambodian town, so an advance crew had to repair roads and build bridges before the caravan could set out. "At one moment, I thought we weren't going to have anything," says production manager Chris Kenny. "But everything got here at the last moment and we made a movie." To guarantee electrical supply, Paramount brought in generators. It also shipped in a mobile kitchen truck to feed the 150 crewmembers - and cater to Jolie's idiosyncratic diet, including health bars, tuna, and sardines. Understandably, the people of Siem Reap were a little overwhelmed by the filmmakers' demands. Around the set, many of the conservation department's guards, peasants from surrounding villages, had never used walkie-talkies before. On the first day, batteries ran out, and coordination broke down. Angry tourists complained that guides hadn't told them that sections of the monuments would be blocked off. At the Sofitel Royal Angkor hotel, where Tomb Raider occupied 70 rooms - half the total - staff members happily volunteered information about how much the company was paying for the rooms ($1,900 for Jolie's suite) and who was staying where. Says Weng Leong Aow, Singaporean general manger of the Angkor Hotel: "People here have a natural charm and grace but do not understand what quality of service truly means." Given the country's tragic, recent past, the young Cambodians working in the hotels and travel agencies could hardly be expected to know what "service" means. But villagers have had no trouble figuring out how to make a buck from tourists. Swarms of souvenir and snack vendors assault foreigners outside the monuments. "One dollar, one dollar," they shout, as they tug on tourists' bags, pants, or whatever they can grab. The numbers of hawkers no doubt will increase. And some Cambodians, like Princess Rattana-Devi Norodom also worry that the sacred meaning of Angkor will be lost in the quest for dollars. One problem: local children have been dropping out of school to sell trinkets. Says the granddaughter of King Norodom Sihanouk, the ceremonial head of the country: "The little children selling Cokes at the temple are cute, but I am not so sure that they are growing up to respect a sacred place. Finding the balance is something Cambodia will be struggling with in the years to come."

Tourists arguably will bring in money to help guard against looters and to finance preservation. "The interest ensures that there is investment, so that the temples don't disappear into the jungle again," says guidebook author Sach. According to Cambodian press reports, Paramount paid the preservation authorities $10,000 a day to film at Angkor. "They got screwed," says one foreign businessman. But in a country with an average urban income of $300 a year, even that amount of money can go a long way - if it's used properly. The conservation process so far has been an opaque one, raising concerns that inexperienced operators are in charge of taking in the money. APSARA, the official preservation department, lost its right to collect fees for tickets into Angkor in 1999 when Sokimex, a privately owned petroleum company that allegedly has ties to high-level officials, was suddenly given the license. Tourists pay Sokimex $20 a day to visit the temples. It pays from 50% to 70% of its proceeds to APSARA, depending on how many visit.
The Siem Reap natives, meanwhile, loved the production. Postcard hawker Prak Mon, 25, was determined to be part of the film. A Titanic fan, Prak had heard there would be parts for monks - so he set out to become one. A week before shooting began, he joined a Buddhist monastery on the Angkor Wat grounds. He put up with the awkwardness of his newly shaved head and nights of going to bed hungry observing the temple's evening fast. Then his skin began to itch - he caught ringworm from the communal blankets. Prak stayed long enough to get on the set for a day. "Somehow, I enjoyed it," he says. For his troubles, he earned $20. "I would not be here if I truly thought they hated us being here. We have plans to give back quite a lot [to the local community]," says Jolie while waiting to do a scene with monks in the main Angkor Wat building. Known for her tattoos (in addition to one on her arm that says "Billy Bob," her husband's name, she just announced that she has a new one on her pubic bone) and naughty image, Jolie "isn't a sanitized version of Lara," says Simon West, the director of the movie. "She doesn't do it for the children's eye hospital. She does it because she wants to have fun." West hopes she will become a heroine for a new, pop culture-crazed generation. The Cambodians, meanwhile, have a different sort of poster girl in mind. Says preservation official Ang, a James Bond fan: "I hope people will talk about Angkor because of Tomb Raider." For the Cambodians, the film is not just about the money - it's also about the country's quest for peace and respect in the world. "I am very happy that this big movie has come to Cambodia," says Leung Choun, 65, the abbot of the monastery next to Angkor Wat. "This is a sign that a prediction in Buddhist scripture is being fulfilled. It promises peace in our country and that Angkor Wat will become great again." His dreams of religious revival may come true. But if Lara Croft conquers the box office, the abbot will have to brace himself for a new kind of pilgrim: the international tourist.

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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, February 20, 2009

Earache amongst the beauty

Angkor Wat in the moments just before the sunrise
After a flurry of sunset shots in recent postings, here's a few sunrise views from a recent visit to Angkor, where I joined the thousands of mainly Asian tourists who had got up early to watch the sun rising from behind the scaffolding-clad towers of Angkor Wat. The western tourists arrived in their one's and two's whilst the Japanese and Koreans arrived by the busload, or fleet of buses, chattering away incessantly and taking photos of everything that moved, and didn't move. Obvious tip of the day - if you are looking for a quiet sunrise, don't go to Angkor Wat, or at least take earplugs.
The morning sun makes its first appearance above the treeline
A slight shift of position and the sun's position also changes
Another shift and the sun drops behind the towers for this photo of the reflection in the north pool
My final shot of the sun and the pool reflection as it rises between two of Angkor Wat's towers
A last look back as I leave the inner courtyard of Angkor Wat
There is so much decoration on the walls of Angkor Wat that it's easy to overlook some of the beautiful artwork that adorns the temple. At the north gate of the west gopura there are some fantastic tapestry carvings worth looking at. This warrior with a conical hat is just one example.
This figure is almost Greco-Roman in appearance in my view. The hairstyle is very unusual. It could be an asura holding a club but doesn't look fierce enough.
I think this is a male figure standing on a dancing horse but I could be wrong
This beautifully carved devata has been savagely hacked


Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Neak Ta and women to the south

The most lively carving at the south gopura is a headless Vishnu on the shoulders of Garuda and surrounded by an army on the march. This is at the western end.
The south gopura and the building you see when you enter the Angkor Park
Completing my Angkor Wat discoveries, some fifteen years after I first started, meant I took the little-used track past the pagoda until I reached the southern gopura of the 4th enclosure and the last piece of the Angkor Wat jigsaw. When I think about it, I feel a bit ashamed with myself. I've travelled far and wide across the Cambodian countryside on the hunt for Angkorean temples, getting excited at finding a few sandstone blocks in the middle of a forest and yet, under my nose, there were parts of the greatest temple on the planet that I still hadn't visited, and enjoyed. So last week it was with the greatest of pleasure that I finally made it to the two farthest-flung gopuras that I reckon 99.9% of visitors to Angkor Wat don't even know exist. And I don't blame them, as there are more than enough wonders on show in the main body of the temple to keep 99.9% of visitors fully occupied. It's only members of the Angkor Wat brotherhood society that make it out to the remoter parts, but that suits me just fine. So what did I find on my travels? The south gopura is actually seen by nearly everyone who comes to Angkor. As you turn right or left at the end of the long road that brings you from town to the moat of Angkor Wat, the south gopura is the building you see amongst the trees directly opposite the end of the road. It's just that you never bother to visit it. If you do, you'll find 25 devatas, mostly in pairs, some pediment carvings in good condition and a large Buddha statue inside the main chamber, usually with a couple of older ladies giving offerings. The statue is a Neak Ta called Ta Pech and is badly eroded and partly-covered by a huge termite mound. I'm told that it's known for it's malevolence and that if an aircraft flies over Angkor, it must make three turns around Ta Pech or else it may crash into the moat. Ta Pech can also divulge winning lottery numbers if you provide it with wine and cigarettes. I don't believe it but the locals do. The gopura is a nice and secluded spot for a picnic or just a brief respite from the tourist hordes that are trampling all over the main temple about four hundred metres away. But don't forget to bring some goodies to keep Ta Pech on your side.
Two devatas with effervescent hairstyles on the wall of the south gopura
The northern face of the south gopura, as you approach it from the main temple
Two uncrowned devatas front-on though their feet are turned sidewards
This is the legend of Ta Pech, a malevolent Neak Ta according to my sources. It looked like a big termite mound draped in an orange robe to me.
Worshippers on a pediment fragment that probably housed Vishu makes his giant strides
Half pediment battle scene at the south gopura, southern face
A lively battle scene on a half pediment on the southern face
Two beautifully crowned devatas on the wall of the south gopura
An angled look out of the southern gopura and onto the large moat