Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Asian Spotlight: Cambodia

I was exhausted after a series of travels across India and South East Asia. But when I woke up on 4 am, Sunday, Dec 17 (2006), I was energized because in an hour's time I would be standing in front of Angkor Wat, a place I had wanted to visit for the longest time. A private taxi dropped me off at the entrance. With the exception of a few street lights, darkness surrounded me. I crossed the main bridge to slowly walk towards the temple. Pitch black. Yet, despite the darkness I could sense the presence of something at the end of the path. I had seen the pictures enough times so maybe that played a part. But in the darkness, I could make out something large and imposing.

The above picture was taken between 5:20 - 5:40 am. The early pictures at 5:20 am came out dark and using a flash didn't make a difference. Initially when I got there only a few people wandered about. After 5:30 am or so, the tourist buses arrived with groups of people arriving with flashlights and making a lot of noise. Eventually, everyone headed to find their favourite spot to observe the temple during sunrise. I continued to stand in front of the temple, even though that may not have been the best spot.

The next few pictures show the gradual arrival of light:

The lotus lake around the temple appeared to be the best spot to take pictures as I found out later on.

Interestingly, this lotus lake was transformed into a fake floating market in Tomb Raider. In the movie, Lara Croft (Angelina Jolie) arrives on a boat as other locals row their boat around her. She gets off the boat and enters the temple.

The name of Angelina Jolie is to be found around Siem Reap quite a bit. All the local guides know the spots where the movie was shot and point that out to travelers. As it turned out, the Red Piano hotel I stayed in had a restaurant where Miss Jolie had a drink and the spot is quite famous. Although, I didn't bother venturing in the restaurant (which was 2 blocks or so from the hotel), here's a picture of it from the outside.

The Angkor Wat temples were quite an experience. But one of the most surprizing things was to find that the walls were covered with myths from The Ramayana and Mahabharta. Even though I knew the temples were dedicated to Hinduism, it was eye-opening to see those myths charted out in beautiful detail and accuracy on the walls.

One of the most haunting images for me was the Ta Phrom temple. The temple is famous for having the trees taking over the rocky structures. It was surreal to see the following:

This was an example which showed that if humans were not around, nature would take over. It appears that since the Angkor civilization had disappeared, seeds dropped by birds in the cracks between the stones started sprouting into plants, which grew into large tree like structures. The trees grew so long and strong (almost as strong as metal in parts as I found out) that they started cracking the temple. Incredible!

Symbols, Streets and pace of life

While Angkor Wat has become a positive symbol of Cambodia, the Khmer Rouge is the opposing negative symbol. Unfortunately, most international news only focus on a country to cover the horror and evil present there. And in Cambodia's case, its legacy of horror and killings still threatens to hog the headlines, even though all around Siem Reap expensive tourist hotels are being built to anticipate more and more tourists heading to the temples. Also, the old legacies of Khmer Rouge's torture spots are being made into tourist attractions. During conversations with the locales, they may refer to "the war" as a matter of fact without attempting to explain which war because they know that everyone knows what they are talking about. All around Siem Reap one can see books on the Khmer Rouge and even DVD's which keep the memory of those dark years fresh in everyone's minds.

While I picked up a few books on Cambodian history, for some bizarre reason in a lapse of judgment I didn't buy a DVD copy of S-21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine. Recently, I made amends and finally saw the movie. Rithy Panh's documentary brings together an old survivor of the regime along with some tortured victims and even the S21 prisoner torturers. At times, it is painful to see all these people trying to make sense of pure evil. The regime engaged in extreme torture via interrogations. Most times, it was innocent people who were being tortured. Since the victims had no information to give, the prison guards only increased the tortures because they were under instructions to get some information. One can imagine similar techniques being used by almost all countries around the world engaged in interrogation of spies, terrorists and rebels.

I have not seen the film The Killing Fields but I have Christopher Hudson's book by the same name. It has been on my reading list for some time now but after having read Francois Bizot's The Gate, I decided to space out reading more books on Cambodia. Bizot's book talked about his time as a captured prisoner in one of the Khmer Rouge's camps. While watching Werner Herzog's film Rescue Dawn last year, I thought of Bizot's book and his experiences in the camp. Words and images meshed together in my mind even though it was a different experience portrayed on the screen in front of me.

At the end of the day, memories of my brief stay in Siem Reap are regarding the hauntingly beautiful temples and works of man's achievements. It was fascinating to see how the forests around the temples took over the structures in the absence of any humans. It was a reminder that in the distant future, nature will eventually take over all our current civilizations.

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