Thursday, August 30, 2012

Visions of Angkor

The Height of the Khmer Empire 1200 AD

 Having left Southeast Asia over seven months ago, I spend a lot of time thinking about the differences between there and the rest of the western world. The presence of spirituality is so prevalent there, now a primarily Buddhist area. The countries of Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam have an ancient understanding of the importance of religion and honoring one's history. The Khmer, the people that spanned this area, have left their impression on modern day culture and life in SE Asia. Their most impressive legacy, the temples of Angkor in north eastern Cambodia, is a reminder of the ancient wisdom that through spiritual and cultural evolution is the basis for life in this part of the world today.  If I close my eyes I can still see the ruins emerging from the encasing jungle, the sunlight filtering through the trees casts light and shadows onto ancient stone, some carved and shaped over ten centuries earlier. The intricate carvings and labyrinths of passage ways, shrines, and galleries spark feelings of mystery and divinity.

Panoramic photo By Cozette Hansen : View from the top of Bakong temple

 I'm lost in thought wondering what it must have been like to walk these steps at the height of the Angkorian civilization. The temples that remain represent only a fraction of the buildings that once existed here. Temples, to the Khmer, were not places of mass procession or worship, rather they were the house of the gods, a dwelling to hold the divine, and therefore they were built as exquisitely and elaborately as possible. These temples were at the center of cities of trade and growth. The cities themselves, built from primarily wood, no longer exist. But, what we are left with are the stories and histories of the rise and fall of a civilization carved into the walls of the temples. And, conveniently, the temples represent the most important aspect of Khmer civilization, the driving force of existence, religion. 

During the 500 years of civilization the Angkorian kingdom saw the rule of twenty-six different kings, most of which built or renovated the temples that still stand in ruins to this day. The oldest and first temples I visited were constructed in the 9th century. The Roluos Group, as their known, marks the beginning of Angkor's history as we know it. Although buildings and civilization did exist before these temples, these were the first structures built from materials that withstood the erosion of time. The Roluos Group temples were constructed under the rules of king Jayavaramon II and Indravaraman I, the second and third recognized kings of Angkor. These first temples were built when Jayavaramon II established the first capitol here, east of modern day Seim Riep, around the year 835 AD.
The carvings on these walls, and on the walls of most of the temples, stems directly from India as trade brought the influence of Hinduism to the area. The Indians, with their Hindu Gods, were prosperous with a booming civilization and good economic standing. Recognizing this, soon Hinduism was adopted as the religion of the Khmers.

Carved Elephant, one of eight,  at East Mebon
I'm amazed at the precision and intricacy in the design and building of the architecture. The temple East Mebon, built in the middle of the tenth century, was an island surrounded by a now dried out lake. The detail and skill in carving something like an elephant, one of eight sentinels guarding the corners of the temple, is baffling even with today's technology. Could you hand carve a giant elephant, or eight?
The temple, Ta Keo, built in the 10th and 11th centuries is a symbolic representation of the universe. This "temple mountain" represents Mount Meru, which in the Hindu religion, stands at the center of the universe and is surrounded by the primordial ocean. This temple, like all of the others, was considered the residence of the gods and was respected as such. When this temple was gifted to Yogisavara Pandita in 1010 AD he occupied only the lower levels, considering himself unworthy to dwell on the upper terrace. 


   Above: "Temple Mountain", Ta Keo.    Right:  On the upper Terrace of Ta Keo, view of one of the shrines
                  As Angkor was coming to its peak, Suryavarman II took the throne in 1113 AD and started the largest and most infamous construction to date. Creating the symbol on the modern day Cambodian flag and the most renowned temple of the Khmer empire, Angkor Wat. It was, and still is, a grand spectacle.
Angkor Wat, The World's largest religious monument.
A Buddhist Monk stands observing Angkor Wat.

The name Angkor Wat means just what it has become, "The city which became a pagoda". With the temple placed in the center, a vast capitol surrounded it to all four cardinal directions. The city itself was fortified by a massive moat with bridges on the east and west sides. With Angkor Wat, still the world's largest religious monument, and its surrounding city, the Khmer were boldly marking their place. Imagine coming to trade from distant lands and walking the causeway over the moat, through the gates, and into the busy city. You would observe daily life and people all around you. Then, if somehow you hadn't seen it from miles away, you would behold this massive temple, larger than any other in the world, literally the center of life, overseeing all. What an intimidating site this must have been, and a desirable one to scheming invaders. This was the height of Angkor, the strong hold of southeast Asia and the Khmer people. It would soon be overrun by revolting factions from the provinces, but not before some other smaller scale temples were constructed. The temples of Thommanon and Chao Say Tevoda were built in similar architectural style to that of Angkor Wat, with intricate carvings and detail.

                                                                                            Chao Say Tevoda
Carvings at Thommanon
In 1177 AD the city of Angkor was captured by a group who mounted a surprise naval attack from the Great Lake, to the south. In 1181 AD a prince returned to Angkor and drove out the rebels for which he became King Jayavarman VII, "The Last Great King of Angkor". Unlike his Hindu predecessors, he was a practicing Buddhist. Many of his temples have likenesses of The Buddha, not found in the earlier constructions. During his thirty year reign he oversaw a larger building program than any of those before him. Perhaps trying to out do the others, he cast off Angkor Wat and decided to build his own, larger capitol city, Angkor Thom.

Massive city gate, the entrance to Angkor Thom from the East
Surrounded on four sides by a stone wall and moat, Angkor Thom is considerably larger than Angkor Wat. At the center of Angkor Thom stands one of my favorite temples, The Bayon. With its innumerable giant smiling faces, there is speculation whether Jayavarman VII planned these faces to be likenesses of himself or that of The Buddha. In any case, The Bayon is one of the more complex and intricately designed temples.

Enigmatic visages of The Bayon
Apsara Dancers preforming the dance of the universe

 Within the walls of Angkor Thom JayavarmanVII also constructed numerous smaller, less significant, temples, as well as a royal palace made from non withstanding materials. Outside of Angkor Thom he  built some remarkable, jungle reclaimed temples. 
Ta Prohm and Preah Khan temples are my other favorites. Built in the Bayon style of architecture, unlike the temple mountains that came before, you can get lost in their elaborate mazes of connecting hallways and passages. Courtyards, open to sunlight, have fostered the jungle allowing it to take back what was theirs. Huge vines and trees climb and split through the stone walls, rising toward the sky. It's not hard to imagine yourself as an Indiana Jones character while exploring a sanctuary like this. It's no surprise that the blockbuster film "Tomb Raider" was filmed here. The complexity and sheer number of carvings in these later constructions is some of the best I’ve seen.

Indravarman II, who succeeded Jayavarman VII in 1220 AD, was the last to oversee any new constructions at Angkor, although Jayavarman VIII, who took throne after Indravarman II in 1243 AD destroyed much of the Buddhist imagery and improved some of the withstanding Hindu structures.
Banteay Kdei can be seen as one of the final constructions of the late Angkor.

The downfall of Angkor is debated. Vast cities are represented only by the structures that were built out of materials that could withstand the destruction of time. Some think that in trying to support the construction and growth of these cities, the area's resources were consumed and the civilization was forced to disperse. Others speculate that Angkor simply wasn't in a prime location for trade; Phnom Phen, on the Mekong river, would have been a better capitol. Regardless, it's a pleasure to take a walk through Ancient Angkor and imagine what life was like in the 10th or 11th centuries. And, how appropriate, that the backbone of Khmer civilization, the driving force of everyday life, the presence of God, is still preserved for us to contemplate with wonder and awe.


Freeman, M, Jacques, C 2000, Ancient Angkor, illustrated revised, Weatherhill

Coe, DM 2003, Angkor and the Khmer Civilization, illustrated, Thames & Hudson

Monday, December 19, 2011

Walking with Elephants

Look! She's floating!
Have you ever wanted to see elephants in the wild? Not chained or caged up, but actually behaving like elephants should? Me too! Well, if it's your dream to walk with elephants, then The Elephant Valley project, based in Sen Monoron, is somewhere you might be interested in visiting.

 The NGO - E.L.I.E ( Elephant Livelihood Initiative Environment) was the dream of a Brit named Jack Highwood. After working closely with elephants in Thailand and learning the techniques of a Mahout (ma hoot), an elephant keeper, he found his calling in eastern Cambodia. The elephant population in Cambodia was quickly diminishing as the elephants were worked to death either from heavy labor or from constant tourism (elephant ridding). Jack recognized this and decided to do something about it. He created his NGO and pushed to have it registered with the Cambodian government, realizing his vision in 2006. 

"E.L.I.E.’s primary goal is to improve the health and welfare of domestic elephants in Mondulkiri Province. The secondary goal is to work with the people and the problems that face them."      

 In 2007, The Elephant Valley Project was created in conjunction with E.L.I.E. As the domestic population of elephants aged and began to die, they were not being allowed to reproduce. This was creating an obviously tragic situation. Instead of traveling from village to village to look after and give medical care to the elephants, Jack and his team decided they should bring the elephants to them.

"Elephants are able to generate a large income for the impoverished indigenous peoples, but in many cases the elephants are not receiving proper care. E.L.I.E. has seen elephants that are dehydrated, emaciated, over-worked, abused, and some that should clearly be retired but are forced to continue to work because of the large income they create. Since the creation of the E.V.P, we’ve been able to bring the elephants used in logging, hunting, and tourism, out of villages where there are bad working conditions, and employ the mahouts, their families, and the elephants at the project, which allows the elephants time to rest, recuperate, and escape human activity."

Stinky butts...
 And that's just what E.V.P. did! When we arrived at the project we made our way down into a lush valley appropriate nicknamed "elephant heaven". Before long the gentle giants emerged from the thickets of bamboo chomping happily away, just the way an elephant should. During the day they are free to roam around, to forge and socializing with the other elephants. Although the project's current 9 elephants are not technically wild, this is the next best thing to re-introduction to the wilderness. Since the elephants have been domesticated and have no fear of people we were able to walk beside them, touch them and even help to bathe them in the river! 


E.V.P has short and long term volunteer opportunities available, a better moral option to taking an elephant ride or trek. Of course, all of the proceeds go to the continuation and growth of E.L.I.E. We spent the rest of the afternoon doing some work around the camp, pulling invasive weeds and assisting in the expanding construction of the project.

I won't say too much more about the project because you can find heaps of info already on the website and on the project facebook page. What a great way to experience the World's largest land mammal, combining Eco-tourism with the conservation and welfare of these amazingly burdened animals! Way to go Jack and the rest of the team!

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Laos Video

Laos, although still suffering from a turbulent and war-torn past, is a quiet, peaceful, country in the heart of Southeast Asia. Whether Wat-hopping in Luang Prabang, a  UNESCO World Heritage Site and the late Capitol of the Buddhist Kingdom of Lao, or taking in the easy climate and  atmosphere along the Mekong in the south, It's prime space for catching up on "soul time".

Check out this short video of my travel through the country:

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

The Market

Flower H'mong flood the streets.

In Bac Ha, east of Sapa, is a weekly Sunday market that we had heard was an event not to miss. This was an understatement. 
We step off of the bus into a street filled with color. The Flower H'mong are in town and with them they have brought beauty in every direction.

Raw meats, waiting for buyers

We stroll through the bustling market, the town's major source of commerce. All around, people are socializing, negotiating prices, and eating varieties of fresh foods.

Deep fried rice snacks
The meat market catches my eye, fresh cuts of beef, pork, chicken , and other four-legged mammals, are spread over large wooden tables. The sight would be a nightmare for a health inspector in The States. There's a commotion as men crowd around a table, apparently bets are made on how many hacks it will take to cut through a piece of pork. 

Goods and money change from hand to hand and everywhere we look there are people enjoying the weekly occurrence.It's more of a social event, it seems, than anything.The local tribes have all concentrated here and the combination of the colorful market goods and the striking outfits makes the scene worthy of a masterpiece. I can't take enough pictures. 

On the hill above town.
 On the hill above the market is where animals, primarily water buffalo, are inspected by picky buyers. I feel a remorse for the large beasts of burden, as they wait to be purchased,
but they will spend their days working in the surrounding hills, and will subsequently be well fed.
Selling herbal medicines.
After browsing for three hours, and reveling at the variety of goods, I imagine that anything a person could need would be found here. From fruits and vegetables, to coffee and spices, herbal medicines, to handmade clothing and jewelry, meats and live fish, tools and contraptions, everything is in surplus.
Surplus of veggies
Baby sleeps while Mom eats Pho.

In the center of the excitement are 100 or so tables all owned by different families. Fresh noodle soup, the infamous Vietnamese Pho, is being served to the patrons sitting at the tables. Meat is cut
right from a fresh hog leg and put into the soup, ladled from a giant pot boiling over open flame. Small limes are squeezed over the soup and small hot peppers and pepper sauce is added for an extra zing. We sit and enjoy the food and the scene simultaneously.

As the afternoon turns to evening, the crowd disperses and people pack their goods to go home. By dark the streets have metamorphosed from a flooded, chaos of color, to a sparsely populated, average mountain town.It's hard to beleive that we are in the same town that was home to the most dazling local market Iv'e ever seen. The week will surely pass with uneventful daily routeins. It's quiet now, until next Sunday.

Among the H'mong

In the rice-terraced mountains surrounding Sapa live a number of indigenous tribal peoples. The H'mong, Red Dzao, and Zai tribes populate the area and can be seen in town selling their woven handicrafts.

The terraced hills near a H'mong village

A Flower H'mong Woman
Nyui works on a shirt she is making
All of the women are clad in brightly colored traditional clothing and are adorned with beautiful jewlery and wrapped    headdresses. History is preserved in their appearance and the contrast between the traditionally dressed women and the surrounding French architecture is a unique spectacle. We meet a H'mong woman named Nyui. After talking for a short time we negotiate a price for her to guide us through the hills to stay in her village.


A river crossing
 The next morning we follow our guide out of town and down the steep slopes to the river valley below Sapa.The rice has already been harvested but the terraced hills still provide breathtaking views. It's as if we've take a trip back in time. Water buffalo wade through the terraces munching away at grass and chickens, ducks, pigs, and barefoot children run around, freely, through the villages. It's slow, village life.

Nuyi's two daughters study Vietnamese.

We cross the river and follow Nyui, climbing and zig-zagging up the opposite side of the valley until we reach her house, nestled between the terraces, with streams running past on either side. We meet her husband and her children, two girls and a boy. Nyui works on a shirt she is making, the children spend the day and evening playing and doing schoolwork. We relax, Cozette and I enjoy the view and or surroundings.

Baby on board.

 For lunch and dinner we eat pan cooked pork, greens of some sort (Nyui didn't know the name) , and rice. The food is cooked entirely over a fire pit dug into the floor of the dimly lit home. It's delicious. After dinner we're offered rice wine, a strong, pure, alcohol, made from the grain. We go to sleep early.

The next morning after breakfast and after the children have gone to school, we set off to visit another village before walking the 10 kilometers back to Sapa. The experience has been truly priceless and Cozette and I are on a high as we say goodbye to Nyui. Our stay in the terraced H'mong village has been a humbling experience that neither Cozette or I will be able to forget. The people are living as traditionally as possible in this day and age, and to have the opportunity to experience a day in the life of a H'mong family, we both agree, has been extraordinary.

Flower H'mong