Monday, February 9, 2009

At Angkor

February 4, 2009:
Last night I had a nice simple dinner of sour fish soup and rice. Typically Cambodian, I am told. Then to bed.

I wake at 6, up by 6:30, 50% rapid yoga, the standing poses only. Then to breakfast. Fruits, French bread, cheese, and black coffee. Then I am ready to go at 7:15. The tuk-tuk wallah is from the guest house. His name is R’ong, a twenty nine year old.

We leave behind the early morning bustle of Siem Reap in about 10 minutes, by 15 minutes we sail through a grand avenue lined with tall trees that remind me of old India, of its deciduous forests and blue sky, large leaves dusted lightly with a red dust.

Presently the tuk-tuk drives by a long moat, one that surrounds the main Angkor Wat temple area on all (?) sides. The tuk-tuk parks, and I step out to the expected throng of children who accosts you to buy something. Buy a water from me when you return, a girl instructs.

First shock is that a three-day pass is not $20 but $40. The daily pass is $20. Well, I am too committed to do anything now. So I get a three-day pass.

What can I write about the Angkor temples? It is a spectacle truly to be seen to believe.

In sheer size, area, grandeur, detail, complexity, the temple complex is just stunning, mind blowingly awesome. Imagine Palenque and multiply by a factor of 20 or 25. The preservation is terrible, yet whatever remains boggles the mind. Rows of walls curved with war scenes from the Mahabharata, another wall with Bodhisattva’s different incarnation’s escapades, another wall curved with war scenes from the times of Angkor king Jayavarmana VI. I see a total of eight massive temples today, with about five little additional ones thrown in here and there.

Having been familiar with the Pallava architecture of India, the founding colonizers of Angkor in 8th Century AD, I was particularly interested in finding out how much of the parent style remained. Some of the temples, the earlier ones are Hindu, appear to be reminiscent of the Pallava art in its fluid movement of its human images, in its simplicity of lines. Yet somewhere I see a more formal rendition. The height of the Pallavas is associated with exquisite naturalism and a brilliant ability to depict motion and weight in stone carvings. One remembers the rush of Durga, the Amazon goddess, wielding bows and arrows and other lethal weapons, towards the Asura, her arms supple, body in a liquid rush, her face that of a charming young woman whose lines of eyes and lips and the turn of her chin you can recognize readily among Southern Indian women of even today. That naturalism is gone, but its life though hidden is still palpable in the gentle curves and self-absorbed smiles, underneath a more solemn tempo of contemplative meter, a solemnity fittingly borne by a culture that arose from the depth of the tropical forest. And forest it is. Roots of massive trees that churn around the sand stone carvings in reptilian grace, which reflects the Angkor cultures obsession with snakes of the underworld, the Nagas, from which their kings had claimed to come. This legend is old: the Pallava kings had previously claimed the same. The later Buddhist temples are way more formal, but their Hindu ancestry is still palpable. Nags are everywhere.

I take photos like an obsessed man, forgetting his specialization that he does not take photos of inanimate objects.

He must rise to the occasion. His specialization can wait.

But to fall in love with a country is more than spectacular art.

It is to remember in deserted back alleys of ruined temples that are over a thousand years old, surrounded by forests of trees that speak only through the screeches of parakeets flying high on its branches. It is to remember the singsong tones as one exits each temple,
“Siiirrr, do you want wateeeee(r)
Only one dowwlaaa(r)
The thin childish voice rises and falls like a note breathed through a bamboo flute.

For lunch I buy two coconuts, two wrist-lets, a bamboo flute, and cut green sour mangoes with salt and chili, at various times from various urchins. And of course they have a great time pestering every one. Near the end of the day, one girl comes running, “Shirt for a million dowlaaa…, three for two dowlaa”, she breaks out giggling. I smile and ask what class does she study in, “Eight! See sir I just came after school so I did not sell anything yet, and the day is ending.” I smile and nod my head and go on. She turns around and dances away, singing a most beautiful tune under her breath. Among the trees hovering over the red soil and the falling sun it seems magical. Then I cross the street, and another one, even smaller and more cute, comes running, and asks me to buy a bangle from her, “Three for two dowlaaa…please buy one” she announces. I say I can’t. The little she-elf says, “No sir, you can but you don’t want to.” I laugh at this and say yes she is right. I don’t want to. She plays along, “three for one dowlaaa…three for zero dowlaaa…” At this I turn around smiling. She comes and gives me a little bangle, “this is for good luck, free for you” and turns around and walks away. I am stunned; I don’t know what to do. She then almost immediately catches a young man, a French, and gives him one, “Free for you sir” and runs away. The French guy is bewildered. He tries to run behind her and give it back, but she dodges him and runs away laughing. He looks at me sheepishly and says, “they are going to catch me on the way back, and sell $10 worth of stuff!”

On the way back, the sun is low on the horizon over the distant forest. The French man is at the back of a motorbike driven by a Cambodian (a motodupe, it is called, the cheapest transportation for foreigners in Siem Reap, which I am trying best to avoid). He waves at me in the tuk-tuk. What did you buy? He makes a zero sign and disappears.

I return limping. Whole body, particularly the lower portion, is leaden with aches. After a refreshing shower, R’ong takes me to a Cambodian food joint for the locals. Man, I could be violently ill tomorrow. The food is raw sea fish, beef, chicken, pork liver, and vegetable, which are cooked on the table over a steamer. The problem is not that, but unlike in America where they cook the whole thing together, here they add little by little with a pair of chopsticks these raw flesh and sea creatures, and with the same chopsticks they keep eating them as they are cooked, the uncooked juices no doubt mixing with cooked juices at various times in the chopsticks and little sauce dishes.

Tomorrow will tell. I am scheduled to leave at 7:30 AM for the next set of temples, this time a little far away. Wish me good luck. Certainly no more culinary adventure tomorrow even if I survive today’s with no incidence.

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