Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Angkor Wat at Sunrise, Banteay Srei and the Landmine Museum: venturing further from Siem Reap

Our (inadequate) guide from our first day in Siem Reap was not available on Christmas Day and our hotel was unable to secure the services of another, but we were determined to see more temples, so we hired our tuk tuk drivers from the first day who agreed to pick us u well before dawn so that we could catch sunrise at Angkor Wat.  We were instructed to be ready at 5 AM, although as it turned out the dawn did not begin until after 6:15, so a later departure would really have been possible.  We positioned ourselves in a grassy area outside the temple, with a small body of water separating us from the temple; the inner towers were only dark shapes against the dawning sky.

Other tourists were sitting on the edge of the platform and steps of a temple out-building behind us

Slowly it got light, color filled the sky as the sun rose and the towers were reflected in the pool before us

We walked back across a bridge toward our tuk tuks

As we saw the crowd leaving, we understood that THIS might well have been the best time for a visit to Angkor Wat – the fewest crowds and the least heat.

We drove away past this lily-filled lake

We drove past Bayon and stopped off so that Sam and Nafisa could take a jaunt through

We stopped for breakfast at a local outdoor eatery called the Bayon Smile: eating there made us focus on how unsatisfying we were finding the breakfast offering at our hotel.  There were other breakfast options such as the pancake that Nancy had, plus main courses such as the amok that Sam ordered and the hit of the meal that Nafisa ate: a pickled lime soup.

From this breakfast, it was a long drive through the countryside to reach our main destination for the day, Banteay Srei (I’ll write separately about the roadside scene).  Banteay Srei was built in 967 and dedicated as a temple to the Hindu god Shiva.  It is smaller than the other temples we visited, but also better preserved; and it is especially the exceptionally detailed red-sandstone carvings in the walls, pediments and columns of the temples that have been preserved.
We entered through an outer gate

whose pediment showed the god-king Indra riding on his three-headed elephant (Erawan). 

Here is a carving on one of the posts in a corner of the passageway through the gate

Then we walked down a long passageway, with two small gates on the sides, one of which had a pediment showing a mythical creature called a kala and the god Shiva.

Finally we could see the inner courtyard on the other side of the next gate

The pillars on either side of the passageway into the inner courtyard were entirely covered with Sanskrit inscriptions

And then into the courtyard, with several buildings called “libraries” in some of the guidebooks; each building is covered with detailed carvings. 

The buildings are guarded by human figures with animal heads; I gather that many of these are reproductions, with the originals being displayed in museums

The pediment of western gateway shows Vali in conflict with Sugriva

On the way out of the temple back toward our tuk tuks, there were a group of musicians performing; a common sight in the Archeological Park, these musicians are land-mine victims.

We had noticed signs for a landmine museum on the road toward Banteay Srei; I was confused at the time because some of the guidebook pages I had along suggested that the museum was located just north of Siem Reap.  But no, apparently, this was the museum itself (it was unclear from what we saw why the museum had moved to such a remote location), and some of us, at least, wanted to visit the museum (others found the whole subject too depressing, and besides the baby needed some downtime).

The museum was oddly impersonal.  It was founded by a former Khmer Rouge child soldier, who had later taken the Japanese name of Aki Ra, and to some extent it told his personal story of being forced into soldiering at a young age (he is not sure of the year of his own birth) after his parents were killed by the Khmer Rouge; then serving in the North Vietnamese puppet army after he was captured during the North Vietnamese invasion; it was during that service that he was assigned to plant landmines.  Later he worked for the United Nations clearing landmines, and eventually organized his own group of de-miners (landmine removers), veterans of the wars whose knowledge of landmines came from having planted them, which made them potential experts in landmine clearing.  Originally, he worked at the museum himself, but eventually he decided that he wanted to “stop talking about the past.”  So the entire account one hears at the museum is an audio-tour, narrated by a native English speaker, of unbelievably harsh times that the people of Cambodia suffered  from the early 1970's and into the early 1990's.  The audio told the tale of increasingly sophisticated means of landmine detection and removal, as financed permitted the obtaining of metal-detecting equipment and protective gear. There were audio segments connected to stops at the various displays: this set of landmines and other munitions

several poster boards festooned with photographs or explanatory text;

a display of mannequin soldiers wearing the various uniforms of the warring armies; the blue on the right was the uniform of the Khmer Rouge after they stopped wearing their original black

and, on the way out, a series of plastic banners featuring the personal stories of some of the wartime period, stories about small heroisms of helping victims at the risk of being killed oneself for such acts of kindness

The space for the museum itself felt cramped; out behind the museum was housing for a group of at-risk Cambodian children who were being raised with donations from the public including, the museum indicated, a dollar of every five-dollar admission charge (an additional dollar was said to go to landmine removal efforts of Aki Ra's group, Cambodian Self Help Demining).

On the way back into town, we paused briefly to look at Pre Rup, another 10th century temple in a high state of disrepair.

This was built in 962 as a state temple dedicated to Shiva.

Entering the outer courtyard, we could see a large pyramid at the center of the temple complex

The steep stairways to the top were guarded by statues of lions

At that, we headed back to town to rest for the afternoon; I walked around to do some prospecting for the shopping we might do that evening and the next day.  I visited the Artisans d'Angkor, a collection of craft workshops with artisans doing stone carving, wood carving, lacquer painting and other activities, along with an extensive shop selling their creations – fairly high-end stuff, but with some promising possibilities it seemed to me.

For dinner, we tried something new – Amok Restaurant, which had been recommended by a friend.  The menu was extensive and the food excellent – we enjoyed the appetizer sampler together and Nafisa was happy with her Cambodian sampler; I had Turmeric Paste with Chicken which was delicious.  And, they took credit cards, unlike everyplace else we ate while we were in Cambodia.

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