Monday, February 9, 2009

Terracotta Marvels

February 6

One must not miss Banteay Srei.
This is among the most ancient of the temples in this area; a small and compact temple, situated some 35 kilometers from Siem Reap which takes over 2 hours in R’Ong’s slow tuk-tuk, so he got me to motodupe. It was fun. The temple is a masterpiece. I go mad taking in the exquisite panels, molted on terracotta panels that appear to cover every millimeter of this stunning building. I have never seen a work of art so exquisitely rendered. Unfortunately I go there at a time when everyone else also appear to have gone. So I have to wait an eternity to get a clean shot of any of the panels. So I switch to the 105mm tele; what a marvelous change. The intricate carvings jump into view with a freshness and immediacy that I was missing so far.

I am having a temple-fatigue. So I decide not to visit any more temple after Banteay Srei. It is the pinnacle after all.

On the way back we stop at the Siem Reap land mine museum. It is founded and own by an ex-Khmer Rouge child soldier, who was taken in at the age of seven after they killed his father and dispersed his mother. He learned to set booby trap mines for the Khmer Rouge at the age of seven, and became an expert in mines. He confesses to have maimed or killed hundreds, including innocent civilians, in fact at that time he had thought it to be almost a sport. At the age of nineteen, after slowing realizing the folly of the Khmer Rouge, he defected to the Vietnamese army, then became an office of the new Cambodian army, and ultimately was recruited by the UN to be trained as a de-mining expert, in which excelled. He then acted for many years as a trainer of UN de-mining teams himself. He claims to have removed hundreds of thousand mines, many of which he himself might have deployed in the past. Now retired, he runs this museum with his wife. The museum is a stark reminder of the machinations of war.

One statement stood out in the museum. Mines were developed to maim more than to kill, because a soldier killed is a soldier eliminated but a soldier maimed incurs more cost to the enemy in terms of attention to the maimed individual and resources needed to attend to the maimed soldier.

At least 30 countries still refuse to sign the international declaration not to develop and deploy mines any further. Among these countries are: USA, India, China and Russia. Most of the mines on display were manufactured or developed by the USA and the Soviet Union.

After a long trip back to the guest house, I freshen up, then take a walk to the Siem Reap’s famous tourist spot, the pub street, where I sit down with a glass of chilled draft and see the flow of international crowd past me. A German couple settles down beside me and begins to fight in German. Little do they suspect that their linguistic privacy is a mirage. A little later a couple from Manchester joins me and strikes up a conversation. They give a contact of a person in Phonm Penh, who does some volunteer stuff with street kids, and say he would be happy to have a helping hand for a day. We shall see. Sunset brings with a glorious sky and neon signs. I walk to the McDormet Gallery, where Sohrab had an exhibition last November, but now someone else’s photos are on display. Good work.

I go to a restaurant in The Alley and order an Amok. Delicious. But I remain hungry. Should have ordered a soup too, but too late. So I order a dessert. Dah….I get a bowl of daal cooked in sweet milk. I try to down it, but give up after a while. Return to the guest house and to bed. Tomorrow I go to R’Ong’s home.

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