Wednesday, May 9, 2007

Two Days of Ruins

As our motorbike driver last night told me, "Nobody would come to Cambodia if we didn't have Angkor Wat." Then he laughed, a common Cambodian reaction after talking about anything sad or even horrific. While probably not entirely true, Angkor Wat--and the many other ruins in the area--are the big draw.

We spent two days going around the ruins in a tuk-tuk with the same driver that picked us up at the bus station. We actually really lucked out. Paul sat in the tuk-tuk with us and acted as an informal guide, telling us things to look for at the sites, when they were built, whether they were Hindu or Buddhist, Hindu stories depicted, and answered questions when we got back. His brother drove the three of us in the tuk-tuk.

Paul in the tuk-tuk

The only downside to Paul was that he had a habit of constantly changing the price of things. When we found him at the bus stop, he was carrying a sign saying "25-cents to your guesthouse." As we walked to the tuk-tuk, he said, "$1 to take you to your guest house." When I pointed out his sign had said 25-cents he relented (though we paid him the equivalent of 50-cents, as 25-cents seemed pretty cheap). First he said either tour (there is the "big"and the "little" circuit) was $5 for both of us. Since we hired him for another day, we didn't pay yet, but Tyler thought he said something about it costing $12. We thought maybe there was some confusion, so before we set out this morning I asked again about the price. According to Paul, "Today $12, yesterday $5."

"So $17 for both? $5 and $12?"


And, not surprisingly, at the end of the day he wanted us to pay $24.

But besides that--and the astonishing heat and humidity--the rest was really great. Here are a few highlights:

I don't know why, but trees growing through ruins are always really compelling. Maybe it just shows the age and time they've spent on the land. Or nature overtaking man. I don't know, but it was always exciting to find.

Tree in temple at Ta Prohm. The site is also famous for being in Tomb Raider.

Tree overtaking the East gate at Ta Som

At first surprising--and then just surprisingly ubuiquitous--all temples contain desecrated Buddhas. Over the centuries, the kings vacillated between being Hindus and Buddhists. And then during the civil war, Pol Pot tried to wipe out religion. So there are lots of holes where Buddhas should be, headless Buddhas, and Buddhas with their faces scraped out or marked. It is amazing to think about the amount of energy that went into creaing and destroying Buddhas over time.

Buddha carving with a slashed face

If you look at the back wall, you will see where Buddha carving upon carving has been chiselled out

As Paul told us, the road to heaven or paradise is difficult. Or that's at least supposedly why the steps up into temples are so darn narrow and steep. Being a little bit afraid of heights, I can easily scramble up them quickly; it's the coming down part that makes my palms sweat a bit. But we got some great views of jungle and the ruins from these impressively tall towers.

Tower at Angkor Thom. And, yes, we climbed all the way too the top level and back down again.

Steps up to highest level of Angkor Wat. Because of the slow progress of tour groups going down with the extra steps and railing, we ended up climbing up the main steps to the right. Scary, steep, but worth it.

View of jungle from Angkor Wat

While the Incan ruins we saw in South America were impressive for their sheer size, location, and amazing positioning of stones, the temples and ruins of Cambodia are incredible for their ornamentation. No surface is left untouched--there are carvings on the walls between doorways that look like tapestries or wallpaper; there are carvings along almost every wall of gods, goddesses, trees; there are bas relief murals along every side of the base of Angkor Wat. Really incredible.

Wall carving at Angkor Wat

Wall carving at Preah Khan. I loved the detail of the tree behind the figure.

One of Cambodia's early kings (whose name has about six-syllables and Paul always said with remarkable speed) really liked the Hindu story of Churning the Ocean of Milk. From what I understand, two gods wrapped a snake (Naga) around the holy island and then pulled back and forth to churn the water. After centuries, they created an immortal elixer they then drank to become gods. It is everywhere, including as a big mural at Angkor Wat.

Statues part of the Churning the Ocean Milk legend at a gate into Angkor Thom. At other gates, many statues were destroyed or deheaded by bombs or later kings.

Naga at Preah Khan from an entryway depiction of the Churning of the Ocean of Milk

It's really nice when things live up to the hype. The temples were really amazing, and we really enjoyed getting inside Angkor Wat.

Tyler with two of the 261 faces at Bayon in Angkor Thom, one of our favorites.

Us at Angkor Wat!

Rainy season also lived up to its "hype." Here we are getting soaked through at Pre Rup, our last stop of the day.

Tomorrow we catch a fancy bus (it might even be called "Limousine Bus") back to Ho Chi Minh City. Hopefully the rain will hold off for some relaxing beach time before meeting up with my friend Alison for my birthday!


eddybles said...

Wow! This is a take my breath away kind of post. You are so right, the images of the trees growing up and around the ruins are incredibly powerful, marking how ancient the site is and how much history has happened around its crumbling walls. Incredible post Sarah.

Tim said...

Those temple steps remind me a lot of the steps of the Mayan pyramid in Chichen Itza. Not so bad going up, but amazingly steep when you look back down. (They have a rope to hold onto on the way down at Chichen Itza.)
Great pictures once again!
Thanks for keeping us all updated so regularly!!