Friday, January 15, 2010

Angkor Smile

Angkor was the center of the ancient Khmer Empire and is located at the northwestern part of Cambodia of Southeast Asia, approximately 200 miles northwest of Cambodia’s capital city Phnom Penh. Khmer Empire was founded by King Jayavarman II in early 9th century. It was once a dominating power of Southeast Asia between 9th century and 15th century. At its peak, Khmer Empire controlled much of the mainland of Southeast Asia. Khmer kings had built impressive capital cities and numerous temples in Angkor region that is now one of the greatest archeological sites in the world. While Khmer kingdom at Angkor lasted till the end of 16th century, its decline began before 15th century when the center of trade moved south to Phnom Penh area and the rivaling Siam Kingdom (today’s Thailand) attacked and defeated it multiple times.

Westerners did not know about the existence of Angkor until Henri Mouhot, a French naturalist rediscovered the abandoned complex in 1861 with the assistance of locals. Today Angkor is recognized by UNESCO as one of the World Heritage Sites and is on top of the must-visit list for anyone who is seriously interested in historical sites and cultures (personally, it is more impressive than some of the New Seven Wonders of the World of 2007). Angkor Archeology Park covers about 160 square miles in which there are literally over a thousand temples; many have not been restored. Unlike the wooden structures and the later temples built after the adoption of Theravada Buddhism (which is the religion of 95% of Cambodians today), these Hinduism and Mahayana Buddhism temples of Angkor were built with sandstones and lava rocks with amazingly advanced techniques still stood partially. With the international preservation efforts of this once endangered archaeological wonder, we are indeed lucky to have the opportunity to appreciate the architecture style, culture, and religion of the Khmer Empire in first hand.

With the geographical proximity and trade, ancient Khmer people (which makes up 90% of the Cambodians today) had received significant infusion and influence of the Indian civilization and in particular, the religion. Hinduism and Buddhism have been adopted by Khmer kings and people early on. Khmer language, the official language of Cambodia, was strongly influenced by Sanskrit and Pali as they are the languages of the religious scripts. It would not surprise anyone that some of the Khmer people have blood and are descendents of Southern Indians.

A visit to Angkor can easily take days and is certainly well worth it. The most popular tour itinerary is to fly into Siem Reap and get a Three Day pass (for US $40) to see half a dozen or so the most majestic and well-known temples. In chronological order of when the temples were built and in geographical proximity, they are briefly described below. For further details, one can refer to any of the numerous literature and research about Angkor.
Bakong and Preah Ko of the Roluos (used to be called Hariharalaya, the first capital of Khmer Empire) which is 15 kilometers east of Siem Reap. Bakong was first constructed in 881 CE as the State Temple of King Indravarman I, the third king of Khmer Empire. It was the first most significant temple mountain of Angkor (note temple mountain and galleried temple are two most important Angkor architecture styles). Its size is quite large, measured 900mx700m with a five tiered pyramid that is about 14 meter high from the ground. The center tower at 15 meter tall appears to have been built later in 12th century in the style of Angkor Wat. It stood at the top tier was dedicated to Shiva, the Destroyer and one of the three most important Hindu Gods (the other two are Vishnu – the Savior and Brahman, the Creator). Stone lions guard the staircases of the pyramid while stone elephant statues stand at the corners of the lower three tiers to guard the pyramids. The decoration on the lintels is considered one of the most beautiful of all Khmer Arts.

Before reaching Bakong, one would have passed by and visited a smaller temple Preah Ko, the fist temple built by King Indravarman I in 880 CE. It has six brick towers on a single base. The front center tower is dedicated to Shiva while the towers next to it are for the protecting gods of King Indravarman’s maternal grandfather and father. The three towers at the back row are for their protecting gods’ principal queens. The temple is also nicked named “The Sacred Bull” with the statues of three kneeling bulls in front that represent Shiva’s Nandi.

Pre Rup was the State Temple of King Rajendravarman, the 9th king of Khmer Empire, and was completed in 961 CE. Its imposing center tower, surrounded by four slightly lower towers in four corners soars into the sky. From the top of the three tiered pyramid which is 12 meters above ground, one can see the tip of the center tower of Angkor Wat a few kilometers to the west. There is a stone cistern east of the pyramid that would prompt the tour guides tell a story of cremation rite of the king at this temple although scholars believe the temple’s modern and strange name of Pre Rup (means “Turning the body”) is completely misleading and the cistern was the basement of a Nandi statue.

Banteay Srei (Citadel of Beauty): 20 km further north of Pre Rup is the small but the most exquisite temple of all, the Banteay Srei. It was completed in 967 CE by Yanavaraha, one of King Rajendravarman’s counselors and the guru of the future king Jayavarman V. Its unusually deep pink sandstone relief carvings that cover almost completely the stone surface is exceptional and is the finest of all Khmer Art. Despite its size and status (of not being a royal temple), Banteay Srei strikes the nerves and is definitely my favorite artistically.

Angkor Wat is the most well-known of all. Wat simply means Temple in Khmer. It is the worlds’ largest religious monument, measures 1025m x 802m and appears on the Cambodia national flag. Built in early 12th century by King Suryavarman II and dedicated to Hindu god Vishnu, it is an architectural master piece that purports to be a microcosm of the Hindu universe. “The moat represents the mythical oceans surrounding the earth and the succession of concentric galleries represent the mountain ranges that surround Mount Meru, the home of the gods, The (five) towers represent the (five) mountain’s peaks” according to the book Ancient Angkor by Michael Freeman and Claude Jacques. The steep angle of the steps of 11 meters tall leading to the uppermost level of the temple will definitely make you feel like climbing a great mountain. As visitors approaches its main entrance at the west (one theory is that the temple was originally the tomb of King Suryavarman II as every other temple in Angkor faces east!), one would be greeted by a broad moat of almost 200 meters wide. Over 600 meters of bas-relief of the exterior long galleries are awesome with its immense bas-reliefs describing rich legends and stories. The 2,000 asparas (beautiful dancing girls who are the wives of the Ghandarvas in Hindu mythology) look alive and remain eternally beautiful despite their ages.

Ta Prohm & Banteay Kdei: Many movie goers have got a glance of Ta Prohm on the Hollywood action-adventure-fantasy movie Tomb Raider by Angelina Jolie. Ta Prohm is a ruin (intentionally not being restored) but charming and mysterious. This sandstone temple was intertwined and swallowed by the python-like roots of silk-cotton (Ceiba Pentandra) and strangler fig (Ficus gibbosa) trees in an unimaginable ways; you have to see it to believe it. Many dramatic photos of it have been produced as a result. It is built by King Jayavarman VII in late 12th century and was named Rajavihara(or Royal Monastery)

A little southwest of Ta Prohm is the smaller temple of Banteay Kdei, built by King Jayavarman VII as well in the same period. Opposite of Banteay Kdei is the man made lake and retreat of the king called Srah Srang. Neither was that memorable, compared to the rest.
Angkor Thom (Thom means big): Last but not the least is Angkor Thom, the new capital city built by King Jayaarman VII in late 12th century as he relocated his government from Angkor Wat. At 3 km x 3km with an estimated half a million population within the city wall, it is one of the largest of all Khmer cities. (As a comparison, Chang’an, the capital city of Tang Dynasty (618—907) of China was about 8 km x 10 km with a population of near 1 million including private citizens.) Most visitors enter Angkor Thom from the magnificent south gate with a face tower on top. The causeway In front of the gate is flanked by 54 Devas (angels) and 54 Asuras (or demons) on each side, pulling the body of Naga (the King Cobra god). In the center of Angkor Thom, one finds Bayon, the State Temple of King Jayavarman VII, a Mahayana Buddhist. With its complex structure and sophisticated bas-reliefs, it is one of the most magnificent religious structures of the world.

On the top level, there are several of the original 54 giant four faced towers, each over 15 ft tall with a compassionate, mysterious and illusive smile, often referred to as “Angkor Smile”. Some scholars believe it is based on the face of King Jayavarman VII as he is a devoted Mahayana Buddhist who believes one can achieve Buddhahood and work for the benefit For your convenience, I am putting up a public domain photo of a statue of King Jayavarman VII (at Musée Guimet of Paris) right next to that of the face tower. You can decide for yourself if the speculation is valid.

After the decline of Khmer Empire, Cambodia became mostly a vassal state of Thai and Vietnam alternately for centuries. In 1863, King Norodom seek protection of France who was pursuing colonization ambition of the region and had successfully overwhelmed the Nguyễn Dynasty in Vietnam in 1858. Soon Cambodia became a part of the Indochina, the French colony that includes today’s Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. It wasn’t until 1953, after the WWII, King Norodom Sihanouk led the country to become an independent nation.
Independence and new constitutional monarchy of Cambodia did not bring it peace and stability. The country was caught in the conflicts of the Cold War and in particular the Vietnam War. Prime Minister/Prince Norodom Sihanouk tried to maintain neutrality and survive in between the superpowers only ended up being ousted and exiled to China in 1970 during a military coup supported/conspired by US. Subsequently, with the backing of China and Prince Sihanouk, Khmer Rouge, the notorious communist rebels led by Pol Pot took over the country in 1975 as US retreating from South Vietnam.

Cambodia has suffered tremendously for decades, first during the bombing and invasion from US and South Vietnam at the height of Vietnam War. It became known as “Killing Field” during the brutal rule of Khmer Rouge from 1975 to 1979 as Pol Pot waged bloody social engineering and genocide. By some account, Pol Pot government had executed an estimated 1 to 3 million of the 8 million people! Communist Vietnam invaded Cambodia and set up a new government in 1979. However civil war ensues as supporters of Khmer Rouge continued to fight against the Vietnamese occupation and the government it backs. It wasn’t until late 1991, peace settlement was reached under the supervision of UN. To this day, tourists can easily find handicapped survivors on the street without limbs, mostly due to countless land mines placed by all sides during the wars throughout the country.

Cambodia has come a long way since its independence in 1953. Today the government is dominated by Cambodian People's Party led by Prime Minister Hun Sen who was a former Khmer Rouge leader and has been the leader of the country during Vietnam’s military occupation of the 80’s. The country’s economy is developing at a rapid pace especially in tourism, thanks to the Angkor Temples. Indeed tourism is the second largest industry of the country, after the textile. Siem Reap, once a sleepy village right next to Angkor Archeology Park with less than 10,000 residences ten years ago, is now a bustling town of population over 100,000 with new and modern facilities added every day. The transformation is easily seen eveywhere. Many motorcycles are seen on the street where a new one could cost about US $1200 or more than 2 years of average wage of workers. While there is no public bus in the area and very few private cars, tourists can enjoy rides of “tuk-tuk”, an ingenious taxi service that can take four passengers in a trailer attached to a motorcycle. At the same time, you will find carts pulled by a pair of ox strolling down the road.

20 kilometers south of Siem Reap lies Tonle Sap, the largest lake of Southeast Asia. It covers 16,000 square kilometers (or more than 40% of the size of Taiwan) and up to 9 meters deep in rainy season and is only 1 meter deep and 2,700 square kilometers wide in dry season. With the dramatic difference of its water level, many people who live off the water build floating houses and structures, public facilities like schools and gyms included, while those who live on the edge of the lake build houses on stilt. It is an interesting experience to take a boat tour of part of the lake. It is most reassuring to see that despite the material shortage and harsh environment, kids we saw there seem spirited and playful, including those who are selling merchandises to the tourists. They play games with each other on water and on boat as if they live on land. They got big smiles. Sorry, not the Angkor Smile; most of them are ethnic minority of Cham and Vietnamese.

Next stop: northern Vietnam, another fascin ating region of Southeast Asia. Talk to you soon!

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