Angkor Recollections and Reflections

IMG_1600, originally uploaded by noveltimes.

Well, Angkor is a week or so behind me, but the experience and the ruins definitely deserve a word or two. But how to begin my tale? By the time I had reached the remaining temples at Angkor, I had already done a fair amount of research. My dear friend Lauren, of Vermont days of old, was my temple-hunting partner. For two days we hired a local guide who had a good knowledge of the temples and helped to answer our questions. On the third and my final day at Angkor, I rented a bicycle to cruise a few out-of-the-way temples that I had not yet seen. Despite some hectic traffic on the main road and a flat tire way far out in the park, riding a bike again was a great joy, and a great way to see the temples.

First, a word on my photos of the temples. An accurate perspective of Angkor is hard to capture considering the many obstructed views, not to mention the sheer scale of the complex. The spatial intesification that takes place over scores of kilometers — moving from wide open spaces to intense, intricate detail — is spectacular, but hard to grasp without aerial perspective. Hence, many of my photos are closeups — far shots cannot do justice. However, this allows for a closer look at the excruciating detail on every facade. The symbology depicted is overwhelming. Friezes and lintels, chedi and stuppa all bear the marks of some truly cosmic and transcendant intentions.

One of the most interesting aspects of Angkor is the checkered past of religious dedication at each temple. Starting around 800 B.C., the modern era of temple building began with devotion and homage to Hindu deities, in particular Shiva and Vishnu. Temples were dedicated not only to important ancestors, but also one or many Hindu gods and goddesses. Eventually, the tides turned and Mahayana Buddhism became the en vogue religion, with images of Buddha much more prevalent. Briefly, towards the end of the Angkor empire around the 12th centure, Hinduism was again dominant. Even with all of this flip-flopping, the amazing cast of gods, demi-gods and magical creatures is self-consistent within both Hinduism and Buddhism and makes for an incredible array of carvings, structures and statues.

Unfortunately, the depth of these religious motifs are lost to many tourists. Instead, it would seem they perceive the ruins as an amusement wonderland of sorts, rather than religious edifice. Take sunrise at Angkor Wat, for example, a hallowed tradition amongst pilgrims to the park. Not so sacred, as it turns out — throngs of visitors line the reflecting pools, many laughing, some yelling, most disturbing the early morning calm while waiting to snap the same photo taken by thousands before them. The amusement park side of Angkor can also be seen in the rampant development of Siem Reap, the entry point for the Angkor Archaeological Park. As it is in most places, money charts the course of development, and usually that course is short-sighted and vacuous. Seeing the condo-ization of Siem Reap, I hope for the best, but I also wonder about other possibilities. What if the ruins were approached with solemnity and awe instead of quick cash draw? I only wish I could have visited a decade previous.

The temples are stunning, though, and I was fortunate to have a few experiences outside of the tourist throngs, most notably an early morning at the Bayon. While Angkor Wat (‘temple city’) is probably the most famous temple of the lot, I was stunned by the Bayon’s delicate intracacy. Lying at the heart of the sprawling square of Angkor Thom (‘great city’), recent archaeoastronomical research suggests that the Bayon may well be a represention of the ecliptic pole around with the zodiacal constellations rotate over periods of millennia. With a circular inner sanctuary, rare for Khmer temples, it is obvious that this construction is meant to represent something vast, perhaps even the incomprehendable itself. The Bayon sanctuary, decorated by 54 temples on three leveles, each with four smiling faces, encompasses a wonderful engima, embodied in laterite and sandstone.

As easy as the ruins are to enjoy, they are just as hard to interpret, given not only the temporal divide, but also the cultural. The three days I spent touring Angkor I was entirely absorbed by the ruins. I barely checked my email and I rarely went into town (our “splurge” hotel had all the amenities, including a pool, so I had little need to leave). The sheer profundity of the ruins allowed little else but looking at them, reading about them, and trying to think about them. Processing their meaning at that time was beyond my mental reach. Upon leaving Angkor, with some time and distance, I began to put the temples into some perspective, although their meaning is still shrouded in mystery. Struggling to ground the Angkor temples in our modern world, I wondered what structures of the modern age can compare? Surely nothing matching the complexity on so many levels – precise site orientation and layout, advanced construction methods, religious motifs and symbology. Even Catholic churches, resplendant with with iconography and vaulted space, built for the most solemn of purposes, are dwarfed by the achievements at Angkor.

What exactly was afoot during the Angkor Empire? I can only conceive such small words which offer so little explanation. Intuitively, though, I can sense an intention of reaching upwards to the sky in order to find an inner space of revelation and awareness. Even though orthodox anthropologists insist that these temples were built to worship ancestors and the egos of god-kings, I felt something different at Angkor. I felt a culture that was expressing a grand appreciation for the beauty of life in a focussed effort to achieve understanding and enlightenment. Such a message contained within stone and space still stands against the waves of time, if we only look beyond the wonderland and into the wonder, with openness and awe.

Cambodia, Flickrized

IMG_2033, originally uploaded by noveltimes.

Some of my Cambodia pics are finally posted, but I’ve no time to talk. I’m wrapping up here in Vietnam and preparing for Japan is paramount. I leave tomorrow morning and there is lots to do, not the least of which is procuring a Japan Rail Pass. Don’t worry, some thoughts about both Cambodia and Vietnam are forthcoming. Really looking forward to touching down at my guesthouse in Kyoto and have some time to relax — 7 days in one place is a luxury! Next post from the land of the Rising Sun…

At A Loss For Words (And Pictures)

It’s been a while since I’ve written but I’ve been quite consumed as of late — just got into Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, after an amazing three days trapsing through the ruins at Angkor.  As implied, I am still quite speechless with regards to what remains of the Angkor Empire, and, unfortunately, this here here “Premium Multimedia Computer System” with the sprawling 14″ monitor doesn’t want to recognize my digital camera.  Consequently, photos and words of my temple time will have to wait.  But worry not, dear readers!  I am safe and and sound in yet another country and will have some time in the next few days to share the glory of Angkor to the extent possible given the limits of 1’s and 0’s.  More soon!

Lovely Luang Prabang

IMG_1346, originally uploaded by noveltimes.

I must say that the week or so I just spent in Laos has been some of the most enjoyable time of my trip so far. I’m in Cambodia now — just arrived this morning after a terribly early and woefully delayed flight from Vientiane, Laos. I haven’t seen much of Cambodia other than Siem Reap, the gateway to the ruins of Angkor, but already it reminds me of the hustle and bustle of Thailand. Motorscooters, throngs of tourists, general mayhem. Laos was anything but.

As one of the poorest nations in the world, infrastructure — and, hence, tourism — has been slow to develop in Laos. That being said, development is not far behind. You can feel it in the streets of Luang Prabang, which already cater to a surprisingly ritzy euro clientele. With the NY Times Travel Section recently ranking Laos the top destination of 53 featured spots around the world, the days of a sleepy Laos are numbered. For now, though, the countryside is beautiful and rugged, the people kind and welcoming, the going somewhat rough along winding routes through craggy mountains. In fact, Laos is one of the few places where I have actually seen an abundance of agriculture in or around cities and towns, which tells me that many folks here still tend to the soil and live close to the land.

Despite the immediacy of the Loas experience, it brings up some misgivings for me. It would seem that so much of the “real” travel experience hinges on witnessing another culture or country’s misfortune and poverty. There are certainly plenty of Westerners that would prefer to jump from Starbucks to KFC to 7-11 and never be inconvenienced or confronted by the reality of another culture, content to skim the cream off the top. But just as many tourists are looking to see and feel life on the ground in the developing countries they visit. Perhaps the desire exists to remove themselves, if only for a few days or weeks, from the amenities and abstracted maze of the developed world. But the very process of purchasing this cultural experience, of inserting oneself in another culture, brings about change which cannot be reversed. Such transmission of money, information and values cannot be avoided, I suppose, but it weighs heavy on mind my as I participate in the tourist frenzy that is the high season in Southeast Asia.

More photos of my time in Luang Prabang are waiting for you here.

Slow Boat to Laos

IMG_1281, originally uploaded by noveltimes.

Slow boat. Night train. Tuk-tuk. How have I traveled? Let me count the ways… Yes, I have employed quite a few methods of transportation on this trip, but none quite as unique as the “slow boat” ride on the Mekong River from northern Thailand to Luang Prabang, Laos. The whole trip took two days — about 14 hours on the water in a traditional long boat that has been used on the Mekong for centuries. However, lest I give the wrong impression, this boat was filled with “falang,” that is, Westerners of every nationality. It was a hardier lot than you might see elsewhere in SE Asia, though. After all, sitting on a hard wooden bench for that long does limit who gets on the boat. To ease the journey, we did have cushions, and an ample supply of beer.

After hearing some decidely mixed reviews, the boat ride turned out to be a wonderful mix of social outing and relaxing introspection, not to mention an amazing way to experience the Mighty Mekong and the gorgeous Laos countryside. Best of all, it carried me and my companions away from the hectic scene in Thailand and into the laid back land of Laos. Check out some pictures from the slow boat and stayed tuned for more from Laos.

All Hail The King

IMG_1159, originally uploaded by noveltimes.

London has her Queen and Thailand has her King. And walking around any town in this county, you’ll never forget it, either. Pictures of HM King Bhumibol Adulyadej are everywhere, from calendars to framed portraits to fifty foot high tributes to his Royal Majesty. And the people love him. Kind of odd for me to witness such adulation — I’m sort of anti-authoritarian when it comes down to it — but this King has presided over a very prosperous period for Thailand. Word on the street, though, is that the King’s son is quite the deliquent. Today just happens to be Adulyadej’s 80th birthday and many shops are closed in observance. I’m going to guess that many of those same shopowners are hoping for another 80 years of the same.

Universal Waste

IMG_1039, originally uploaded by noveltimes.

I snapped this photo on my way to the ruins at Sukothai and it really sums up my questions about the developing world and our global future. First of all, let me say that Thai children are adorable, and this little fella was no exception. I don’t know what kind of scrap he got into that left those scrapes on his forehead, but they only increased the cute factor. He was fidgeting quite a bit on the bus ride out of town. All that stopped completely, though, when his mom handed him a single -serving package of potato chips. When she did, my heart sunk.

Although I don’t eat too many chips these days, I have certainly had my fair share in the past. After all, who am I to say that Thai children shouldn’t have the same conveniences as I? In fact, every child here of a certain age seems to have his or her own cell phone/camera. I am not begrudging them their chips or their cells. In fact, if we Westerners can have them, shouldn’t every nation be allowed, even encouraged to have the same? And there’s the rub.

In many ways it saddens me to see the wholescale adoption of the Western lifestyle by cultures that only a few decades ago had but the smallest exposure to our virtues and vices. Certainly there is the problem of environmental impact, not only in the production of consumer goods but also in their disposal — a problem which only intensifies as more efficient production lowers price points and allows greater access to consumer goods. I won’t even go into the market penetration being pursued by some of the usual multinational corporate suspects. More insidious, though, is how these goods begin to influence cultural change at a pace far beyond that which has been experienced by traditionally rural communities. Changes in diet, probably not for the better; changes in social communication and values, probably not encouraging the strength of family and community units; changes in local economies, probably not ensuring long-term stability for access to basic needs.

I don’t claim to have any answers to these problems. Heck, I’m not even sure these are problems to begin with. The broad view of cultural evolution is certainly beyond my comprehension. Somehow, despite the bleak future to which these trends seem to point, all of my questioning eventually resolves into some sort of unsettled acceptance of our wild and wily 21st century. An acceptance that contains a shard of hope and faith that evolution will continue to pursue higher forms of expression and Life. After all, countries like Thailand have been host to some of the most beautiful expressions of Life yet to grace our planet. There’s no reason to think that such beauty will not be seen again.

One Night In Bangkok

IMG_0976, originally uploaded by noveltimes.

Bangkok is a big, beautiful mess. Sprawling in all dimensions, packed with people, littered with cars, taxis, touktouks and cycles of all kinds, the city is almost too much too handle. As a gateway to Thailand, Bangkok serves to whet your palate for much of what the country has to offer: amazing food, filth in the air and on the streets, truly kind people, temples of stunningly detailed beauty and indulgences of every stripe.

I know the title of this post is somewhat trite, but I had to use this overused phrase because it was true. I stayed in Bangkok for only one night and one day and that seemed enough for the moment. I missed my chance to view the legendary Reclining Buddha at Wat Pho because of a religious ceremony in process, but I did walk the grounds of the Grand Palace, a grand buddhist temple at which I took the above photo. Considering a mild head cold in London that turned into a terrible sore throat due to horrid Bangkok air quality, I was ready to shove off for parts north.

Pad Thai Touchdown

IMG_0930, originally uploaded by noveltimes.

Upon touching down in Bangkok, my first mission was simple — determine if Pad Thai in Thailand tastes anything like what they serve as Pad Thai in the States. Well, I’m happy to report, readers, that the Pad Thai you know and love is remarkably similar to that of its native land.

After walking the nighttime streets of Bangkok, searching for just the right food stall in which to conduct my culinary experiments, I found much more than I had expected. In addition to the delicious yet familiar noodle dish, I also sampled some incredible chicken satay. The Pad Thai (wrapped in a fried egg, mind you) was great, but the satay was delectable. Incomparable to any I’ve had in the U.S. Mmmmm….

For more food photos and other sights from Thailand, check it out!