Monday, 31 October 2011

Siem Reap Day 2 - Angkor Wat & Angkor Thom

The Monkey King. The Leper King. Monkey Mind. The Monkey Do's and the Monkey Don'ts


It was a sunny day, but not unbearably hot. It' only 3 to 4 degrees above an almost perfect walking temperature.

national flag of CambodiaOur 1st stop of the day was the much anticipated (for almost a decade) of the UNESCO listed Angkor Wat. The largest temple complex in the world. Like everything else, nothing could be popularised quite the way Hollywood was able to. Angkor Wat is no exception. Lara Croft: Tomb Raider (2001) did a much better job in spreading the good words than UNESCO ever could (also, think the Bridge On the River Kwai (1957) does similar promo for the nearby tourist site in Thailand). My mate Lan told me that while she visited in 2002, the tour guide gave her blow by blow account where the film was shot. Much to her frustration, she never watched the movie.
Apart from its famous outline of the main temple that appears on the Cambodian national flag, are the various bas-reliefs along the temple walls. The wall depicted 8 different themes/stories/mythologies as described by this website.
The best bas-reliefs (and not just my own opinion), at least from the preservation point of view, is the Battle of Lanka. This part shows the scenes of Khmer's version of Hindu Epic Ramayana where the monkey-army battles with the demon king Ravana.
Monkeys seem to feature strongly in Asian culture and mythology. Hindu has Hanuman, Chinese has Sun Wukong (孫悟空), and the Japanese has Three Wise Monkeys that are well known in the West. One could easily argue that the Sun Wukong - aka Monkey King - the most interesting, lovable and central character in the Chinese literature classics Journey to the West, would likely be inspired by Hanuman. After all, the story was about a Chinese monk's pilgrimage to India to obtain the Buddhist Scriptures. And when Buddhism continued to spread eastwards to Japan, the monkey character went along for the ride as it had done for the Chinese Classic (only in the opposite direction). Monkey - the central character in Journey to the West - symbolises spiritual progress from our busy, restless lives towards peaceful enlightenment. This is shown by the fact that Sun Wukong in the early part of the story turns the Heavenly Order upside down in Havoc in Heaven where he demanded to be called "Great Sage, Equal of Heaven" (齊天大聖). At the end of the story, he has become an obedient, calm, well adjusted members of the pilgrimage - a team player. In Zen Buddhism, the restless mind is often called Monkey Mind.
An eureka moment zapped me as I'm typing this why Journey to the West is THE Chinese classics. This story - or accurately the central character Monkey - captures and resonates with the 3 Chinese cultural System of Thoughts - Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism. The changing, mercurial nature of the Monkey reflects the Taoist philosophy, the obedient Monkey represents Confucianism, and the spiritual progress implies Buddhism. In fact, while it's a story about Buddhist pilgrimage, the allegory of the story is at its very heart, very Confucian. Play nice, be a team player, don't be a rabble rouser, know your place. This is the central messages of the story. The core of Confucianism.
Sorry I digress. I think it's more than Hindu influence that the Monkey lore arose in China. Monkey is 1 of the 12 Chinese zodiac, which predates the Chinese classics by centuries. Even the original Hanuman begs the questions, why monkey? Here's my theory, the monkey is the product of the marriage of 2 things - animism and the widespread of monkeys in Asia. Many temples I had gone to in Asia, I run into these animated creatures. Batu Caves in KL, temples (the names escapes me) in Bali, etc. The question is, which comes 1st? Monkey or the temple? Do Hindus deliberate build temples where many monkeys dwell? Or do the clever simian would come to the temple because they are being fed (and never mind being revered)? Who know? It's of those eternal chicken or the egg question.
 Back to the bas-reliefs of the Battle of Lanka in Angkor Wat. The Japanese 3 Wise Monkeys are found in a temple, so they're monk monkeys. That's why they need to follow don'ts. Don't do this, don't do that. The monkeys in this bas-reliefs are warrior monkeys. They don't don't do. They do.
The monk monkeys have commandments, the army monkeys have mottos. So instead of "see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil"; they have "bite your leg off, bite your torso off, bite your head off". All these MA-rated action-pack battle scenes are meticulously and lovingly carved on the wall. Yum! Fingers lickin' good!  Do warn the kids not to monkey see, monkey do.
Angkor Wat, CambodiaMoneky, Battle of Lanka, Angkor Wat

bas-relief, Monkey army, Anglor Wat

(Click on photos for full size. Better still right-click, open new window)

Angkor Thom is only 1.7km north of Angkor Thom. Close enough to walk, which was what we did. Just like Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom is surrounded by a moat. And both sites are connected via causeways. This causeway is more memorable than the Angkor Wat's, franked by large sculptures of devas on the left and asuras on the right.

Bayon, Angkor ThomWe made our 1st stop in Angkor Thom to Bayon. This is a very richly decorated temples that would be described as baroque style of the Khmer architecture.

The wall on the eastern gallery has a mixture of mythology, every life scenes, and history.

On the historical front, this relief on the left depicts a battle marching scene. 2 types of soldiers could be seen. The one marches in the front has buns on their tops, and some have goatee. Anyone who has seen the entombed warriors knows that these are Chinese soldiers. And it is.

The Khmer soldiers who marches in the back have no buns in their hairs, have very long ears, and are clean shaven. (Ancient Chinese didn't cut their hair their whole life. Cutting their hair or any part of their body is a symbol of unfilial disrespect to their parents because these things are endowed from their parents).  It's too small to make out in this photo, I could tell you that the Khmer soldiers are barefoot (the individual toes and digits were exquisitely carved. Click on the photo to look at it in full size) while the Chinese soldiers wear army boots. The uniforms and facial features of the 2 groups are also quite distinct. One Chinese soldier - the closest to the horse - carrying  a gong. It was customary for Chinese troop to bang on gong during battle to spur morale, also used as commands communication tool.

In the watch towers of the Great wall of China, smoke signals were used as communication tool (like American Indian). In the midst of battle, setting up a campfire smell of laid back attitude to life (let's smoke a peace pipe, and become friends). The gong is much more appropriate signalling tool. It sounds more like an urgent Kill! Kill! Kill!

The mounted military general (I assume) would be Chinese, judging from his hair bun, goatee, uniform and facial feature. In short, the carving details are meticulous and very well preserved.

The battle scene shows that the Chinese fought side by side with the Khmer against the neighbouring army of the Kingdom of Champa (in present day central and part of southern Vietnam). In a way, history has not changed much . Vietnam isn't in such a friendly term with PRC today (much worse off in the last 3 decades. A border war sparked off between PRC and Vietnam in 1979), while the most important political figure of modern Cambodia - Norodom Sihanouk - had a close career-long ties with China. In fact, he died in a Beijing hospital in 2012.

Actually there's 1 more Chinese connection to Cambodia. Possibly the most important one. During the Yuan dynasty in year 1296, a Chinese envoy by name, travel bug by game, called Zhou Daguan (周達觀) came to Chenla (真臘), what Cambodia was called by the Chinese then. After returning to China, he wrote a travel guide titled Chenla: The Manners and Customs (真臘風土記). The book - travel blog wasn't available yet - became an instant bestseller in China (don't know for how long), and it was soon forgotten. Some 500 years later, Henri Mohot stumbled upon that book. It was believed by some that it was the reading of that travel guide (French translated version, of course) that he decided to explore Cambodia.

Our driver cum tour guide from the villa (read my previous diary "Siem Reap Day 1") took us to Banteay Srei before the lunch break. This temple is notable for its small size. What it loses in size, it gains in its generous intricate and rich decorations. It's also known among tourists as "Citadel of Women" or "Citadel of Beauty" for its tiny size and delicate charm when compares to its grander cousins like Bayon or Angkor Wat.

It's built using red sandstone, which is something Aussies (at least Sydneysider) know all too well as construction materials. Many of Sydney public buildings were made out of this stuff that gives it the red hue (Sydney sandstone is less red because of its lower iron content). Bricks and laterite also used in the temple. As both of these are red, they masquerade themselves reasonably well.

Banteay Srei, Sieam Reap, doorwayBantey Srei, Siem Reap, window

The walls surrounding the window and doorway are constructed with porous, coarse laterite material while the door and window frames, as well as window posts are made out of much smoother building materials like sandstone. Many of the buildings and sculptures in Sukhoithai and Ayutthaya in Thailand are also constructed with laterite, which seems to be common in Indochina (and hot and wet tropical areas in general). The window posts are so symmetrical and precise that it tempts one to think that these ancient craftsmen may have some kind of rotary tools.

We made our way to Ta Prohm after a Khmer lunch at a local restaurant (we insisted to the tour guide that we only wanted Khmer dishes for lunch). Because Bantay Srei is 37km from Siem Reap, the tour guide arranged to give us a siesta nap after lunch while we were driven back to Siem Reap.

Ta Prohm, Siem Reap, CambodiaTa Prohm was built in the similar rich baroque style as Bayon we visited this morning. But the most well known feature, in fact its tourist draw-card, is the many instances of banyan trees devouring buildings. The kind that you see in documentary like Life After People where nature reclaims her dominion over the human creations like architecture in the early stage.

All man-made objects in Siem Reap were devoured by the jungle at different stages of digestion by Mother Earth after they were abandon. Most of this devouring trees had been cleared away (for the benefits of tourists). Some, like Ta Prohm, are more extensive into the digestion process, and so the process of restoration are still on going today. At least, it still not totally merged with the jungle. You wouldn't have the chance to see those.

Another even more important reason for its popularity is, well you've guessed, Tomb Raider. And for this reason, it had been given the showbiz name "Tomb Raider Temple" (remember "James Bond Rock" in Phuket, Thailand?).

As we headed back, we retraced the our route through Angkor Thom, where we stopped for Terrace of the Elephants, and the Terrace of the Leper King. Why didn't we stop there when we were there this morning? Perhaps because this 2 sites were considered minor by our tour guide, and priority were given to the other sites. And only stopped here on our way back if we still had time.

While it's sandwiched between the end of low season (read high temperature), the and the start of peak season (read mild temperature), the weather could be unsettled as one would expect. We were lucky to have a sunny, yet reasonably mild day. The tourist crowd was small. Angkor Wat and Ta Prohm were somewhat busier, but still not getting to shoulder to shoulder density, which according to our tour guide would be the case during Dec, and Jan.

The distance between our villa and Angkor Wat/Angkor Thom isn't far. It would only takes 15 to 20 mins if the road condition was good, now took 35 mins. There was flooding in this area for a few months that coincided with the flood in Bangkok that made headlines (even though the two are unrelated. At least not on the same river system). The flood led to the significant water damage that left many large and deep potholes on the road.

Except for Banteay Srei, most of the temples in Siem Reap are either within walking or cycling distance. This lead to many tourists doing sightseeing on bikes if the weather is fine. According to my tour guide, the weather in Dec and Jan is in the early 20°C. With the very good exchange rate and low labour costs, Siem Reap is a great weekend getaway, especially if you're living nearby.

Giving all these attractive factors, I'm thinking of coming back here some day to look at other temples. According to our tour guide, there're as many as 700 temples in Siem Reap alone!!! We seen less than 10 today (albeit the most well known). I'm not sure if the figures are correct. But then the Angkor period spans from 6th to 16th century. With devoted effort, you could build a hell lot of temples in 10 centuries.