Tuesday, August 13, 2019

Cambodia Splendor and Horrors, Trees and Wonders, Day One, Angkor Wat

Trees, temples and mysteries in Angkor. 
"Walking through the ageless complex of temples, snapping photos, the conversation turns to the trees. “Trees leaves absorb water.  If you cut the trees down you flood the world,” notes our guide.
Trees and wonder by Caroline Shepard 

We woke up in a discombobulated state.
Not enough rest.
Another strange room,
Another country.
Our tour of the ruins of Angkor Wat would begin in a few hours.
I could barely open my eyes.
A mosquito had its way with me in the night.
A hot day awaited.
Travel is wonderful.
Its also a challenge.

Borin, our guide, and Sambo,  our driver arrived at eight to meet us in our hotel in Siem Reap.

Caroline was still wondering about what to think of coming to a place still grappling with a genocide in  our lifetimes.
That’s a hell of a hangover.
One that that few seem  to want to talk about.

“No more colonialism next century,” hopes Borin, our guide.
“Yet it continues, economic colonialism.
No one is free.
Trade wars everywhere.”

On top of this, these good people live near a complex of magnificent temples.
“It’s the earliest  in the world, a 1113 Hindu Temple,” notes Borin, referring to the complex of stone buildings at Angkor Wat. Giant, images etched into stone,  trees overtaking the buildings.

Mom and Dad had come here years earlier before the Khmer Rouge, surprising us with what they saw, images of a mysterious lost world.

Intriguing the world with a mix of civilizations, crumbling temples, overtaken by the earth, trees recovering what was once theirs, wrapping themselves around the stone buildings, this space represents a dance of civilizations, ideas, images of mysteries, within a delicate interplay between nature and man, the city and the forest, faiths and ways of seeing.  It is an ecology people all over the world come to witness, trying to understand it and something about their own lives.

“Its going to be a busy day,” notes Borin, telling us we are going to visit Angkor Wat and Thom this morning.

This complex of religious monuments is dubbed,
“City/Capital of Temples.”

A philosopher, our guide speaks in broken English, telling us a story of his country and the magnificent temples surrounding it, its trees, civil war, and history.
Temple by temple,
each has a story, 
eliciting a memory. 
We trace a few of  them,
Ripple after ripple,
Drop by drop of associations,
Empires and civilizations, 
From Shiva to Buddha,
Puddles of ideas,
Trickling through the sky,
Cloud on top of cloud,
Images, ideas,
associations from each.
From birth to death,
Childhood to adulthood.
Memories of what was.
And what  might…

Driving by a river running through town, he tells us the water filling it comes from the Kulen Mountains, to make holy water for Shiva.
Monks are about talking on their cell phones.
Kids are playing.
Pigwood trees in the distance.
Hinduism and Buddhism overlap.

A civil war gripped the country when the Khmer Rouge took over, forcing people into camps,
Killing family members, including the parents and brother of our guide.
“I don’t want to talk about it.”
But he does.
They destroyed his house.
No one knows who did it.
It’s like finding a needle in a haystack.
From 1975-79 the Rhymer Rouge brought the Killing Fields,
 haunting the country.
1.7 deaths is the formal number.
2.5 is more like it.
Of 8 million people,
A quarter of the population,
In a savage genocide.
Close to a quarter of the country.
But numbers are hard to estimate.
In 1979, Vietnam chased out Pol Pot.
In the decade prior,
Millions of bombs fell, many from the US.
Landmines still buried,
Still maiming.
US back the Khmer Rouge,
While Russia backs Vietnam. 
Memories linger.
The country has no truth or reconciliation.
The current totalitarian leadership are former members of the Rhmer Rouge.
No trial of Nuremberg.
People want change but how do you do that?
State police are tough,
Wielding mallets and batons on those in the streets. 
The country needs a real democracy.
Everyone is looking for one.

“Its heavy following the tracks of the Vietnam War’s  destruction,”
notes Caroline, referring to our travels throughout Southeast Asia.

Our first stop  is the Baksei Temple,
From the 10th Century.
Where Shiva was converted into a Buddha.

Walking up, the image of the temple reminds me of
Chichén Itzá, the complex of Mayan ruins on Mexico's Yucatán Peninsula, we visited a few years ago.
Built 1500 years ago, we still knew very little about what happened to the people who made it.

Equally mysterious, we make our way to Baksei.
Through the forest,
Past a smiling Buddha,
A beng tree with roots winding into the distance.
Perhaps four hundred years old.

Unlike Chichén Itzá, one can actually climb the steps up the temple.
There are no guards.
No one to stop you.
No one to blame if gravity pulls you in a separate direction,
Separating you from the steps,
You fall backwards as happened in Chichén Itzá a few  years prior.
Up, up, up we make our way.
Looking out into the distance,
Through the forest,
Into what looks like forever.

On we walk all day long.
Our next first stop.
The Banyon Temple is part of Angkor Thom, 
“Large city.”
We enter at the South Gate.
Elephants brought the stones to create the complex in the 12th century.
54 towers for 54 provinces.
One for each.
37 remaining.
Buddhas with four faces rising into the sky,
Faces for charity,
And Empathy.
Looking at us.
Beyond us.

Baphuon Temple follows,
located in Angkor Thom, northwest of the Bayon.
A Hindu temple, with a reclining Buddha.
Here and nirvana.
Many of the temples converted from Hindu to Buddhist,
The interplay remains.
Within this philosophy of interdependence between all of us.
Connections among matter.
Through cycles of birth, death, and rebirth.
Cosmic realms of earth, heaven, and hell.
Angkor Thom considered a consciousness of the universe.
Between water and sky.
Land and forever.
Linking high and low, health and the under realms.
A causeway between humans and gods.
Demons and gods holding Naga,
Churning an ocean of milk.
Creating a universe.
A temple and a civilization.

Walking through the ageless complex of temples, snapping photos, the conversation turns to the trees.

“Trees leaves absorb water.  If you cut the trees down you flood the world,” notes our guide.
“I planted 3,000 trees along the canal. Twenty years later, the canal is thriving along with the best trees in the world. Without trees, there is no life in this world.”

Cambodia sells more timber than any country in Southeast Asia,  notes our guide.
Pol Pot used sales to pay for arms. 

Since  the prince left in the 12th century, trees are overtaking the palace, our guide continues.  pointing to the sky palace, habitat of the dragon with nine heads.

I have trouble following it all.
Writing notes when I can.
Taking in as much as I can.

We make our way to
a Hindu temple from the end of the 10th century,
shaped like a three tier pyramid.

Its hard for anyone to follow.
There are 1883 temples here,
Each built over around a two years period,
Taking some 3600 years.
Have you seem all?
But it would take a lifetime.

Following, we make our way to To Prohm, or old Brahma, dedicated to the King’s mother.
Walking the moat surrounding the temple built in 1186 with 39 towers, 18 still standing.
Statue after statue, half the heads missing.
Gone to places unknown.
And very known.
Some to the Louvre.
Others into private collections.

A tree holding the gate.
Interconnected stone and wood.
The trees started in the 15th century here.

Monkeys sit eating bananas.

“That’s the sort of thing you will never forget,” notes Caroline.

After lunch, we make our way to Angkor Wat, itself.
Looking at the Hindu structure,
Referred to as City Temple.
Entering East, leaving from the West.
It’s a story of water,
Looking for immortality,
God drinking the water.
Built in 37 years,
Its like entering heaven to go inside.
Six libraries.
Pillars for the elements.
Wall carving
Tug of war.
Gods pulling a dragon.
Seemingly jerking the servant.
Pulling each side before producing amrita –
An ocean of milk.
A creation myth of sex and birth.
A universe growing as a milky way.
Climbing to the top.
52 K from Siem Reap river to Angkor Wat.
Duelling demons
External and internal enemies.
On the way up to the sky.

It’s a day we will never forget. 


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