Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Cambodia

Bought an old book made of palm leaves with a long wooden cover back and front. It was in Sanskrit and was, presumably, a Buddhist text, as I’ve seen pictures of them being used in temples. Dinner was in the Vicies – delicious chicken with fried ginger, and mango with sticky rice. The restaurants here are fantastic. Recommend Khmer Kitchen, The Old House, Vicies. In some ways I prefer Khmer cuisine to Thai.
Ankor Wat
I’ve waited a long time to get here and here I am, in one of the greatest architectural monuments on the planet. The Khmer Kingdom’s temple complex, built over 700 years from the 8th to 15th centuries. You can’t really come here and get much, other than wonder, out of the experience without understanding something about why they were built and the ideas behind them. These are no palaces but deeply religious buildings. Angkor Wat, just one of over 100 temples in the area, is a complex cosmological representation of Hindu beliefs, and earthly model of a cosmic world. The five towers are Mount Meru, a mythical mountain that lies at the centre of the Universe and the walls the earthly realm and moat the surrounding ocean.
It helps to get familiar, at least with the Trimurti of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva, the Gods of creation, preservation and destruction. Ganesh, Indra and Yama along with the atavars of Vishnu are also useful. Hinduism seems to have failed to abandon its pantheistic past, as well as fail to have a definite philosophical position on anything. The history is interesting, the iconography is interesting but the religion is a mess. In addition to its pantheon of odd gods, it has promoted ‘caste’ as a sort of predestined hierarchy in a hierarchy of reincarnation. This has been, and continues to be a profoundly disturbing facet of Indian culture, even today.
In its favour it has produced some wonderful art and architecture, the Khmer civilisation being one of its architectural and sculptural highlights. While England was wallowing in Anglo-Saxon mud and wattle architecture, this civilisation was constructing enormous water projects, huge brick and stone temples and creating the largest pre-industrial cities in the world.
The Khmers transitioned into Buddhism, first by holding both sets of beliefs, then abandoning Hinduism, so as you explore, you need to be aware of what period and to what religious goals were each temples built.
Hired bikes at a dollar a day (3 for a geared Mountain Bike) and headed off out of town with the Tuk Tuks and motorcyles towards the entrance gate ($40 for 3 days). The first thing you hit is the enormous moat, and it is enormous, then across the causeway to the temple itself. You then hit the huge walls and enter a green area with lakes and then the temple. The outside walls of the temple have a gallery that runs round the whole outside of the building and is almost completely covered in high quality Bas-relief, everything from historical battles, to mythology and horrific images of heaven and hell. Inside are the enormous towers. The climb up to the higher levels reveals the enormity of the project.
Pol Pot’s huge irrigation projects were similar to the Khmer projects we see here and clearly used massive amounts of labour in a similar way, albeit to religious, rather than Marxist ends. Even the atrocities seen reminiscent of the murals on Angor and Baynan. Indeed, there is evidence that the Khmer Rouge wanted to emulate this older world of massive irrigation, with rice as the hard currency of the economy. In a curious twist of fate, on 1975 the remnants of the Khmer Rouge held out here, as they know the world would condemn an outright attack on the temples.
Angkor Thom
Again you hot the moat, then the southern gate of Angkor Thom is enormous and has a face on the outside. Here’s Gil cycling through one of the gates. Then to Banyon, Terrace of the Elephant, Phimeanakas, Ta Keo, Ta Prohn, Banteay Kdei. Chillout day swimming before wandering into town for some food at The Old House.
Election
There’s an election running here, and there’s lots of noise on the streets for the Cambodian Peoples’ Party but when I speak to working people they are quick to mention corruption and excesses. Most are in favour of the opposition. I have seen a hell of a lot of police and army around. Every temple has phalanxes of guards with rifles at the ready. Huge convoys of police vehicles pass. There’s something wrong here. Human rights seem to be getting worse as opposition politicians are arrested and demonstration suppressed. As Burma comes out of its authoritarian shell Cambodia seems to be going in the opposite direction. In a country that was almost destroyed by ideology, we now have rampant corruption and a new form of fear.
Preah Ko
Tower brick temple with six towers each with a Linga and Yoni inside. Yoni is Sanskrit for vagina and was seen in Hinduism as the origin of life. The Yoni is a phallus and the two together represent the transcendence of duality. There’s barely a room in the Angkor complex that doesn’t contain these., mostly smashed by the Khmer Rouge.
Bakong
A pyramid temple with elephants on corners. There was literally not another soul here apart from a couple of deaf kids and a feisty girl selling coconuts. We bought one each.
Lolei
Small temple, that used to be an island temple. Went into the monastery, where a monk was teaching a class of lads English. He invited me to join in, so I did, asking the class a few questions, hindered by the ceiling that was so low I had to hold my head at an angle to teach. It was fun. It was basic with a dirt floor, outside but inside I noticed something odd, a row of computer screens all plastic wrapped. It was a sorry, sight. The computers had been donated but they didn’t have enough electricity to run them. Same old story. The kids I met were attentive and keen to get on. One had lost both parents and his twin brother, others had come to the monastery as it was the only way their family could afford schooling.
Pol Pot
From1975 to 1079 Pol Pot headed up Angkar, the Communist Party that took class warfare to surreal levels. He turned young against old, students against teachers, country dwellers against city dwellers. Children were separated from parents, husbands from wives and whole groups of society were tortured and killed, all in the name of ideology and collectivisation. This was the real end of communism, a murderous abyss into which all humanity disappeared. Our tuk-tuk driver had lost his father and older brother. He was five to nine at the time, and hung his head as he related these simple facts to us. This is very recent history, everyone suffered and everyone remembers. There are all sorts of explanations for Khmer society ending up in such a genocidal mess, from inherent violence in Khmer history to an oral tradition and slavish obedience. My own view is that the old Hegelian dialectic, an idea mentioned in book 150 years earlier. Popper saw him as one of the chief architects of authoritarianism, with his idea of dialectics, taken literally by Marx, Engels, then Lenin and applied through political ideology to create class warfare that swept the globe, ending in the bloody cul-de-sac that was Cambodia in the seventies. Revolution stopped right there and Marxist dialectics became an academic pastime.
Third day of temples, by tuk-tuk, this time in the north east. These are less visited, more set in the trees and quiet. The Buddhist temple near our hotel was buzzing at dusk with families, incense and the sort of relaxed approach to religion one experiences out here, with kids running around the temple. Back to the L’auberge des Temples for a swim then out for dinner at The Old House, some shopping, a pedicure and remarkably, we found a bar (The Warehouse) showing Murray’s match at Wimbledon, so we ensconced ourselves at the bar and watched Murray win in straight sets to the sounds of the Arctic Monkeys and Kings of Leon. Only time we took a tuk-tuk home.
Last day and as I was swimming on my back I looked up and saw a perfectly circular rainbow with the sun at its centre. It was spectacular. The light from the sun is, of course, conical, so that the refraction into separate colours would of course be in concentric circles. Managed to get a few photographs of something I’d never seen before. Then last lunch of green Cambodian curry and beef lambok with lemon and pepper sauce and a big bottle of Angkor before taking a tuk-tuk to the airport. Nice way to leave this wonderful country.

Final night in Bangkok with son, before he heads off to Vietnam. He’s getting the same experience we got 30 years ago when we were here and also headed off to Saigon, which had no cars and almost no foreigners. As two tall tourists, one blonde, we were followed by people everywhere. Different now but I’m sure Callum will enjoy the trip and good luck to him. We’ve seen him grow up a lot here. He’s already been to Africa, Central America, China the US and much of Europe with us, but here he’s done his own thing, negotiated, travelled, found accommodation, met lots of new people, spent time on his own, fought in bars, dived, stayed in dives. Way better for a 19 year old than writing essays and sitting yet more exams.

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