Friday, March 5, 2010

Bali, Cambodia, and Thailand: September 19, 2009

All material including photographs are ©2009 Ronald Dunlap / Doglight Studios

After our breakfast of pancakes and honey, I was revved up to go. Mr. Pines arrived right on schedule and by 8 a.m. we were off to visit Angkor Wat. I always do a lot of research before a trip, and from what I'd read, if you use the rear entrance you get a much more intimate experience and you also get to avoid the circus-like environment of the main entrance.

There was a minor traffic jam at the rear gate. The Buddhist temple next to Angkor Wat was having a celebration that day. Tons of locals, dressed in their Sunday-best and loaded down with flowers and food offerings, were streaming up the pathway that led to Angkor Wat proper and the North Buddhist shrine located next door.

It's not every day that you have the opportunity to take part in such an event, so we followed the throngs to the celebration. The place was glowing in the morning light and bustling with activity. Ann, Poy, and I agreed on a one-hour time limit to explore and photograph the festivities. Ann was delighted, for her priest-stalking impulses had kicked in; there was no denying the magnetic attraction the saffron-robed young men and their Buddhist ideals held for her. I watched as she merged into the crowd. I preferred the shadows, trying to be as unobtrusive as possible; attempting to grab as many candids as I could without being too annoying or getting my ass kicked (photographer's paranoia).

The devoted formed long lines that snaked around the shrine's grounds. Carrying pots of rice and other food-stuff offerings to the recently departed, they patiently waited to enter the temple and make their contribution. A senior nun was directing the process, annoying some by only accepting a portion of their gift. I learned later that preserving this amount of food was a very difficult undertaking, so rather than let the food go to waste, the priests preferred to send it home with the parishioners.

I shot at least a couple hundred photographs. After snapping one especially lovely photograph of a very serene offering-taker, her changed expression compelled me to donate some cash. Everyone was happy and enjoying themselves and tolerated outsiders with a welcoming good grace. Ann was again floating on air. When our hour was up, we rendezvous-ed at the entrance and moved on to Angkor Wat.

The temple has a more formal layout that the places we visited yesterday. I find the formality -- or maybe it's the restoration -- has diminished some of the panache that Angkor Wat had in pictures from the turn of the last century. But it is still a wonderfully preserved example of the Khmer classical-style temple architecture. Built in the 12th century for King Suryavarman II and dedicated to Vishnu (and later to Buddhist ideas), it still remains a functioning religious center, and you will see many devotees making the pilgrimage to this holy place.

We stopped out front to get a shot of the spires in the reflective pool, but the water level was lower than usual. The lily pads were floating in flotsam and jetsam, giving the pool an overall appearance of being dirty.

Just inside the left entrance are walls covered with bas-relief friezes that depict episodes from Hindu epics. You will notice that portions of the reliefs have a shiny and reddish-colored surface, which is the result of visitors touching the stone and making rubbings. The residue of skin oils and Conté crayons have indelibly left their mark for centuries to come.

Almost anywhere you look, you find images of Apsaras and Devatas. These buxom celestial dancing girls and guardian angels are replicated in sandstone and adorn major portions of the building, giving an uplifting erotic sensibility to the temple that makes Western minds flower.

It was hot and the sun was unrelenting. Every 15 minutes we had to take refuge in the shadows, kicking ourselves for not bringing more water. After 45 minutes in the main structure, we were drained of moisture and looking forward to a cold drink. But the front entrance and our waiting van was still a good 20-minute walk away. Laughing, we knew that waiting wouldn't improve our condition, so we braved the sun and made our dash to the temple's front entrance.

As we exited the compound's structure, we walked past a large standing Buddha. The many-armed statue is still the center of much adoration and was surrounded by the devoted. Always dressed in a fine orange silk and adorned with flower garlands, this one is my favorite of all the Buddhas I have encountered.

We were almost crawling on our hands and knees by the time we got back to the van. After downing a couple liters of cold water, I was hydrated enough to recognize my surroundings. There in the distance was a yellow balloon. I had almost ridden in it last year, so I decided that now was right time to visit the skies.

Since we didn't have reservations, we were lucky that there were only a few people in line and the tour group who had reserved this time slot was late. This was a helium-filled balloon tethered to the ground by a large reel of steel cable. They charge you 15 bucks to reel you up 200 meters in the sky for about 15 minutes, then reel you back to load up the next group. Once at the top everyone tries to get a view of Angkor Wat, tipping the viewing platform at an unpleasant angle. Since I only had a 70mm lens and the temple was so far away, I contented myself with grabbing shots of the surrounding farms and rice paddies.

Lunch was at the same place. They didn't have spaghetti, but I settled for chicken soup, which was pretty good. This place is really interesting, totally cosmopolitan. There is a broad cross-section of the world eating here. Almost everyone speaks enough English to order and conduct business even if their accents are a bit distracting. It really is as if English is becoming the Lingua Franca of our times. Or, as I say, English is the language of money.

The "outer ring" of temples was on Mr. Pine's afternoon list of places to visit. Ann was beginning to get a little restless and tired of the stone monuments. She wanted more interaction with people. It was only a couple more hours until our afternoon break and dinner, so it was agreed that she'd just rest in the van while I hiked to the different stone venues.

Our first stop was Pre Rup, a very steep, three-tower structure. I'd climbed this one last year, and it was scary-steep. The thing that is interesting is that some of the Apsaras (dancing girls) statues are made of plaster of Paris and still in pretty good shape for being 500 years old. Since I started taking some high-blood-pressure medicine, one of the side effects is vertigo, and my balance is just so-so. So with the rise of the stairs being almost twice that of the tread, I was hanging on for dear life as I ascended and descended.

The sun continued to be relentless, making these little outings almost painful.

East Mebon temple was next. What distinguishes this temple are the large elephant statues at the corners of the building. They were beautiful, but our visit was ill-timed. The sun was just in the wrong place and the sky behind the statues was burned out along with the top of the statues themselves. My photographs couldn't do them justice, which is something I really hate. When I can't get the image to convey the essence of a place, it's depressing and a waste of a lot of money.

It was the hottest part of the day when we got to Neal Pean. It's a quarter-mile walk down a long dusty path lined with an amputee band (mostly maimed by land mines) and lots of kids trying to sell souvenirs. At the end of the walk is what looks like a fountain complex: a small Buddhist temple in the center of a large square pool surrounded by four small pools located at the compass points. The small pools have vaulted chapels containing the large heads of either a human, a lion, an elephant, or a horse. These heads function as spouts for water from the main pool, allowing pilgrims to wash away their sins. Neal Pean wasn't very photogenic due to the very low water levels.

Ta Som was next. It was a small temple and, like Ta Prohm, is overgrown in spots with trees. By now it was a little later in the afternoon, so it was a more pleasant experience. Ann even came along.

We made one last stop at Banteay Prie. It was nearing dusk and the light was pretty nice. Nothing special, but since we were the only ones there it made a much better subject.

A little rest and then down to the Soup Dragon for dinner, then some shopping.

There was a little shop that sold "antiques" and didn't hassle us too much, so we made it a regular stop. I was in the process of getting a bone-handled dagger and Ann was adding to her Buddha collection. The little shop girl was friendly and her English was very good. I saw the knife I wanted but didn't get it that day. I'd come back tomorrow and bargain some more. We walked back through the market. Ann was still looking for shoes. The place is like any other market, a collection of butchers, rice merchants, luggage sellers, antique dealers, and a myriad of others.

We had the same waitress and told her we were having the same thing as yesterday. She shook her head and laughed.The food was great, as usual, and the chocolate ice cream was especially yummy, as Ann would say.

It had been an especially tiring day and I was glad to hit the sheets.