Sunday, March 29, 2009

Cambodia is Complicated Feb 15 - March 6: "The Temples are Still There"

Beng Mealea

The Khmer temples were the reason we went to Siem Reap, Cambodia in 2003. 5 years later it was that memory that called us back. However, in the interim, we had learned of other aspects of Cambodia (specifically the world of and need for NGO's-- more on that in a later post) This post is about the temple ruins.

Beng Mealea was where we wished to go first. We had not seen it before, and all the guide books described it as less visited by tourists because it was some distance (37 miles) from the larger complex that accommodated most of the visitors to Angkor, but no less worthy. Moreover, it had been largely left to the ravages of the eons and strangler figs. Now I don't know what that says about the person to whom that is an appealing ad. They also mentioned it had at last been demined. (may explain the sparse tourist attendance.)

Among the fallen blocks are still the lintels and such-- structural features so skillfully crafted by ancient artisans to honor to the Khmer deities.

One special thing about Beng Mealea is you can still clamber over the tumbled blocks --this is no longer allowed at most of the Angkor temples. The negative side is that we chose to do just that -- clamber over the fallen blocks, and it was there that Keith experienced severe aggravation to his bursitis, a situation that would prove to be the undoing of the entire rest of our stay.

This is my favorite photo of the day. It grandly captures the towering structure atop the geometric rubble of eight and a half centuries and is at once being strangled amid and supported by the jungle vegetation.

Here the causeway is still somewhat in tact, and yet the passage of time is quite evident in the substantial trees. You might be interested in how other seekers of sacred places have interpreted Beng Mealea. Try this link:

Just a simple pretty stone in a simple pretty place. Well, maybe not so simple.

The 7-headed naga guarding the eastern entrance provided a nice sunny location for the requisite photo.

Eight and a half centuries in a tropical jungle climate can cause a little bit of wear, but these two teethy naga faces are still quite fearsome. Perhaps it's the upturned nose.

Nice renderings of the Apsara figures (Hindu celestial dancers) at the base of the corners of this tower catch the sunlight to accentuate their shadowed shapes.

With this visit to Beng Mealea, we had been in Siem Reap a week and kept hoping the aches and pains of traveling and general old age would lessen if we just kept going. That didn't quite work. (Clambering over the ruins at Beng Mealea was a glorious way to finally acquiesce to that reality, however.) A day of rest would lead to renewed energy and "a step forward" which would in turn rapidly lead to two steps backward. At the end of the second week, we had to call on an old friend to "rescue" us from our own folly. We needed to give up, rethink, regroup, relocate, and try to salvage what strength and sanity we could for the long flight home.

Another Day Another Temple (or two)

Here we catch a glimpse of the sunrise on the road out to Bantey Srei, a temple to which I particularly wanted to return.
Our guide, Srun Sopheak, worked with us on an adaptive program that helped us experience the highlights of Siem Reap without depleting our physical reserves and giving Keith's shoulders and hip a chance to heal.

This delicate, detailed and intricate sandstone carving is typical of many of the style elements throughout Bantey Srei. The name is said to mean "Citadel of Women," and while, not only smaller than many Khmer temples at Angkor, it is different in other ways as well.

Here again is the detail of story in the surface texture of the temple architecture. The small temple was unusual in that it was not built for royalty but for a favored guru and teacher. There is some suggestion it was a prototype for the eventual main event -- Angkor Wat itself.

Here is one more Apsara perspective on the deeply carved sandstone. This stuff must be incredibly hard, in order to hold its shape through all these centuries.

The inner enclosure was catching the early morning light and it was here I decided to find a quiet corner and sketch a bit. Keith and Sopheak went back to the entrance for coffee. They sent me a baguette and coffee in a bag. I was in heaven! The sketch didn't turn out that well; I never was very good at scale.

The depth and substance of stone were appealing here.

Here, it was geometry and color.

I liked the obvious effort at reconstruction here. I think it was the Swiss who were instrumental at this site.

Laterite sides of this walkway are still ever so strong and well placed.

This pediment and lintel are awesome. Nearly every inch is carved. The little guy on the corner above the column is a kick.

Do you get the feeling there is/was something pretty heavy smashing down on these blocks? The colors are pretty cool too.

On to Ta Phrom

We thought we'd just make a little tiny stop at TaProhm for old time's sake. I really wanted to prioritize my time by going first to Bayon, but I was outvoted. It was late morning and quite warm and worst of all, swarms of bravely, wilted tourists were trying to see as much as they could and take as many pictures as possible. They were cuing for photo ops.

OK, we succumbed and posed for the Laura Croft classic. They now have a platform/stage-- how convenient.

Still in shaded, secret corners there were little treasures to be awed at by the closely observant.

The ravages of savages, weather, and time have taken a toll, but it sometimes only heightens the appreciation for what has survived.

Peek-a-boo (enlarge to see the face among the roots)

Note: as we were exiting against oncoming busloads of tourists and taking a few last photos, our camera battery died. So even though we continued on to Bayon and I got to climb to the face towers on the upper terrace. (Yay! ), .... I didn't get any photos.

But here is one we took 5 years ago. It's pretty good and the old guys are still smiling the same way. 5 years older when you're already 850+ years old doesn't make a lot of difference.

I invite you to check out the Wikipedia treatment of Bayon in lieu of my other personal photos. It tells you more than I could begin to. It's a very special place.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Cambodia is Complicated Feb 15 - March 6: "People We Met"

Yarann is cousin to Ronnie Yimsut team member of Project Enlighten, with whom I had corresponded about staying at their place in Siem Reap. Yarann met us at the airport and took us to "Yimsust Suites". They had gone to considerable effort to provide a warm and welcoming place for us.

Yarann's wife, Saeng, daughters: Thavy and Chien, as well as a family friend, Somali, live on the ground floor. Often during the day, Yarann and Saeng go to the family home in Bakong Village, west of Siem Reap where she supervises and does accounting for the cow bank and micro lending projects connected with this aspect of Project Enlighten.

Three key Project Enlighten team members meet for breakfast at Soup DragonRestaurant (old town Siem Reap), Lisa McCoy (far right), Bill Morse (left of Lisa) from Palm Springs, Ca and key sponsor of demining activities. Across the table is Richard Fitoussi a Canadian journalist and International Project Manager of CAMBODIA LAND MINE MUSEUM RELIEF Fund

Lisa McCoy, all around maven of good works, and Naret, try to pinpoint the sites of the various on-going efforts of Project Enlighten in the Bakong locale. See Lisa's AMAZING blog at

Naret effectively fills the role of the indispensible translator and coordinator (along with Yarann and Saeng) for projects such as Micro Lending, the Cow Project, and now the Bike Project that serve the villiage of Bakong. Ronnie has also undertaken a major project of building a technical college (BTC) with lots and lots of potential to affect the lives of these folks. The Cambodian people "get it" that education is their future.

Canadian Jay Harrison, a Rotarian, consults with Mr. Tough, principal of the free school at Volunteer Development Children's Association Cambodia on the edge of Siem Reap town near the temples.

Linda Harrison, visiting from Canada with her husband handing out shoes for village kids (and adults) Linda, a nurse, was also able to utilize her considerable health care skills in several other endeavors during their 2 week stay.

Sim Sao, designated #1 tuk tuk driver for Project Enlighten enjoys bringing visitors to his home village of Pongro in Kantreng Commune. Sao was a very young survivor of the Khmer Rouge genocide. He lost his identity in that he never knew his parent's names--so he didn't know who he was. He has a family now and a purpose. He heads up TukTuks for Peace.

At Sao's village we are priveledged to meet his beautiful wife and 9 month old daughter.

Next door (actually across the road) from Yimsut Suites, while out walking, we met this young couple enjoying their newly born son. Their pride and happiness were contagious. I love this photo for capturing their evident joy.

Keith's painful joints became more and more aggrivated and we finally had to admit that we needed to be in a slightly more convenient location. So, we called on our tour guide from 5 years ago, Srun Sopheak. He helped us relocate and also to revisit some of the great ruins we'd been wanting to see again.

Mr. T. was still the driver for Sopheak. It has been a slow year since tourism generally is down. However, there are more and more Korean, Japanese, and Chinese tourists these days which is a good thing.

Sopheak's family: Tarro, (age 7) Naret, and Vichea, (age 3.) Join us on our last night. The Pizza parlor next door to our hotel had a playground setup for kids which was roundly enjoyed by the boys and we got a chance to say good-bye.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Cambodia is Complicated Feb 15 - March 6: "On the Street Where We Lived"

This charming site was rather an anomaly and a little anachronistic.
Don't get the wrong impression. Siem Reap is no "horse and buggy" town.
It is a bustling, vibrant, amazing city! We were here 5 years ago, and it has
vastly changed. Because of the tourism for the ancient temples of Angkor,
it has quite exploded -- especially with high-end resort hotels.

We were fortunate enough to have learned through a
friend about a Cambonian-American couple who had a
guest house available a couple of miles from the center
of old town. Here is the dirt road in front of the place
where we spent the first two weeks. It was a neighborhood
of wonderful variety. We really felt we were allowed to
see a part of what living in Siem Reap would be like.

Here is the first flight of stairs to our third story room.
I had a wonderfully long phone conversation at its top
one day when my son phoned from Brussels. Unfortunately,
Keith acquired some mobility problems and these quickly
became problematic. Ah, to be young again . . . .

The third floor with an overview of the big high school.
Always there were at least 2 or 3 soccer (excuse me: football)
games going on if there was any daylight at all. This veranda
was shared with one other guest room (the suite) occupied by
a Canadian woman who was involved with several NGO's
(more about Lisa later). Internet was by a pre-paid card and
connectivity was spotty at best.

I loved Somali's laundry domain here. She stays with the family
of Yarann and Saeng who live on the ground floor with their daughters.
Yarann is the cousin of Ronnie Yimsut, the owner. All of these folks
are very involved with small NGO's trying to help the Cambodian
people improve their lives as they recover from a generation
of war and genocide.

One interesting feature of this neighborhood was the prevalence of
numerous "private" schools. (Small crowded desks or benches with a
single white board or green chalk board. These are attended in addition
to the public schools. It is said the kids love school here. I tend to
believe it if attendance is any indicator. Of course, I couldn't tell
how many did not go to school. It was suggested that some
teachers deliberately omit some necessary part of their subject
so students must take a private lesson to complete the curriculum.
It is true teachers are not particularly well paid.

In Thailand gasoline for motorbikes was stored in
soda bottles. Cambodia goes for whiskey bottles.

The University of South East Asia is a few short blocks
away at the paved street that took us west into town. It was
just a wee bit too far to walk in the heat of the day, so
we rented some bikes that helped us get around. It was
still best in the early morning.

This is the turn off from the paved street onto
our little neighborhood. We enjoyed patronizing the
local stores. As much as we'd like, we couldn't quite
pull off being a "local," but folks were patient and
very friendly with us "barang"