Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Elephants and Temples

The next day's adventures started early again, to catch the cool of the morning and avoid crowds. We visited a number of temples, including the one that was used as for some exterior shots of the Tomb Raider movie with Angelina Jolie. It's a very popular movie here, because just as Canadians all get excited when we're mentioned on US TV shows, even though it's usually just to mock us, or make us the bad guys, people from countries many Americans have never even heard of are delighted to be recognized by the steamroller cultures of rich countries. The temple is overgrown with trees, right up on top of the walls and buildings, their roots simultaneously pulling the stones apart and holding them together. A busload of Japanese tourists was taking turns posing in front of one of the root-framed doorways, all miming shimmying up ropes or dual wielding pistols. As we leave we pass more tourists from all over the world. Listening carefully I could hear the name "Lara Croft" in a dozen different languages.

The terrace below was just a walkway, probably one of hundreds in the old metropolis, but this one happened to be a stone terrace all decorated with bas reliefs of elephants. As we said in more than one temple, bas relief isn't the right word, as many of the frescoes almost amounted to half-sculptures. Look at those elephant trunks! Many of them had been repaired over the years. One of the most interesting things about the elephant terrace was that it wasn't just a raised walkway with one side holding up an embankment, but for some reason it was a series of closely-spaced walls with staircases that allowed you to go down into the little spaces between them, and then wind your way around corners. It made no sense that they were built that way, and you could barely look at the sculpted walls because they were all so close together. It felt like being in a secret passage.

My second favourite temple in the whole of the park was Bayon. It had lots of interesting climbable structures and instead of being topped by towers or pyramids, it depicted huge faces with amazing personality. It so happens that I took my favourite photograph of the trip here, too. Right inside the walls of the temple was a structure with steep steps, probably one of those not-really-a-library libraries. I climbed up it to take pictures of apsara carvings on the walls, to see what was at the top inside and just because it is fun to climb things. There wasn't much inside, but it was a terrific vantage point to look at the layout of the rest of the temple and to take pictures. While I was there a group of monks came in and took turns taking pictures of themselves in front of it, then all filed along the side to go into the main temple. I love the colour of their robes against the stone, and their forms as scale for the giant faces.

The staircases inside were also very steep, and some had "Warning! Climbing at your own risk!" signs, a rarity for Cambodia where it seems to be understood by most people that no one else takes responsibility for your actions. The terrace at the next level puts you right up eye-to-chin with the giant statues. This is lots of people's favourite temple, and it's quite crowded. I'm standing on a ledge looking at some women costumed as apsara dancers. I think you can pay money to have your photo taken with them, but what I'm trying to do is line up a photograph of a Khmer man such that you can see his face at the same angle as one of the giant heads. A monk is coming by along the same ledge and I get out of the way, pulling my headscarf out of the way so it won't brush him. He doesn't make any effort in the other direction and I'm left wondering how much of this "monks can't touch women" rule is to enforce the monk's celibacy and asceticism, and how much is just asking women to stop what they are doing and throw themselves out of the way when a monk comes by. Women in my culture yield more to other people in a crowd than men do anyway. I didn't think to try out just standing my ground like a man and making the monks go around me, but it might have been interesting. I would have felt rude doing it, though. When in Rome.

Outside the temple there was a quiet side with an amazing fresco wall covered in a story that someone could probably spend a whole PhD thesis studying. You'd have to know the whole history of the wars and military campaigns mounted by the king who built this place, and learn about the equipment and battle strategies, and possibly individual generals. The whole length of that wall in row after row was covered by the pictorial story of soldiers and horses and elephants.

Below is a detail with a war elephant and a horse and some of the fallen soldiers. I think some of the bricks have been repaired or replaced, as they don't look the same as the others. I buy a couple of small pineapples from a vendor. They are pre-peeled and cored, and cut in a kind of spiral pattern so it's still in one piece, but easy to eat. I give one to the driver and eat one myself. It's incredibly sweet, not like the pineapples that come out of cans at home. We go for lunch. The menu offers "hold chicken" but I'm full of pineapple and just order a glass of cane sugar juice and some rice. The cane sugar juice is sweet, tastes like brown sugar, with a hint of of lime and coconut. It could believably be a Starburst candy flavour. I guess it's just not a very complex combination of esters.

While we are eating some French tourists just outside the restaurant are being besieged by child trinket vendors. "Une, deux, trois, quatre, cinq, six ..." the kids demonstrate, counting the postcards and waving their coconut shell bracelets. I wonder about the whole economy of the trinket vendors. They all have such similar wooden apsaras, silk scarves and wooden flutes in palm frond cases that it's not plausible that they are the result of independent artisans, even if they are all copying one another. Someone is coordinating the design, manufacture and distribution of these things. They're so cheap even at the tourist end, that the people who make them must get next to nothing for them. It is always more fun to buy things from the actual artist or his or her family. One man is selling rubbings that I do believe he has done himself, and I really like one, so I buy it. He gives me a palm frond tube to keep it in, and it keeps it safe all the way home.

By afternoon we have had enough of temples for a while and ask the tuk tuk driver to take us for a tour of the town. He offered one on the first day, before I asked to go to the temples. He takes us to a market, and we try to explain that we really don't want to go shopping, we'd like to see other sights. He takes us to another market and we struggle to explain. We'd rather see parks, famous buildings, a view of the river? What sights are there to see? He says there is a park and as we approach I see a tourist office and ask him to stop there. It's on the edge of the park, so we will go to the tourist office and then the park. The tourism staff are helpful and give us a map of town and some suggestions. I also ask them if there is a restroom here. That's the sort of thing one expects in a tourism office, but I don't see one. "Yes," he says, "behind my office," and gives me the key.

It's on the outside of the building. The floor and the toilet seat are wet, but not with urine. I assume it's just the humidity, but when I'm done I realize that there is no toilet paper and not that they are out of toilet paper, but that this is not a toilet paper using country. There is no bracket for a toilet paper dispenser, or anything. There is however a sprayer on a flexible hose, just like the one in a shower. I noticed these in the well-equipped toilets near the temples, but there there was also toilet paper and I assumed the sprayers were for cleaning or something. Now it dawns on me that they are cleaning me, and that the sprayed water everywhere is the result of similarly clueless tourists trying to use them. I now understand the prohibition sign that was posted in the temple toilets, and I have great sympathy for people who immigrate to Canada and are forced to figure out how to clean themselves with scraps of flimsy paper. It's not like you can ask, or that anyone will be able to explain it to you. I still have no idea how to do the job with a sprayer without getting water everywhere.

We walk in the park, which is kind of an adjunct to the royal residence in Siem Riep. Workers in the park are mowing the grass with gasoline-powered weed whackers, swinging them in slowly advancing arcs across the huge expanse of lawn. Other workers with rakes are collecting the clippings. They've upgraded from scythes and rakes to powered equipment without changing the job one iota. I can see people working with exactly the same motions a thousand years ago, keeping the royal residence well groomed. The king is not here, in fact he's never here. He spends most of his time in China. "China? Why China?" I ask incredulously. China, it turns out, built a nice home for the King and it's more comfortable and convenient for him to live there. "Aren't you worried about that?" I ask. "Doesn't it seem wrong for a foreign power to have that much influence over your leader?" Suddenly our driver speaks much less English than he did earlier. Oops. Clearly he too sees the same politics in play that the ancient Angkorians tried with their gods. I find something else to talk about.

Later I ask to go to the post office. He finds it and I go in, all ready with the Khmer for "Please I would like stamps," although it should be obvious what a woman with a stack of addressed letters and postcards wants. That's not necessary as the postal worker speaks good English and sorts quickly through my stack going to New Zealand, Canada, the USA, and England, weighing the envelopes and counting the postcards. She gives me a total in riels, which I pay in US dollars and she gives me the correct change, not the street rate change, and then just keeps the letters. She's going to put the stamps on herself. I thank her and walk away. And it seems you all got your letters and postcards, which to me says that there is not much corruption in that part of the civil service. It would be easier to take a foreigner's money and postcards and throw them away, but the system is such that everyone trusts that it will be done correctly, and it was. It was a good sign. Honesty was common in Cambodia. For all the merchants' hustling, they didn't try to cheat us on change or take advantage of us misunderstanding and handing over more bills than necessary.

In the evening I walked up the hill to Banteay Phnom and watched the sunset, then rode an elephant back down the hill. I sat in an upholstered seat strapped to the back of the elephant and the mahout sat on the elephant's neck and directed it by tapping its head with his bare feet. He never stopped texting on his cellphone the whole time.


Jez said...

I love the way your elephant ride is just sort of a side comment at the end :-)

Thanks for the detailed update as always!

Robert said...

This is great. I now know more about Cambodia. Maybe we could send you on more trips.

Devil in the Drain said...

Wow. Mahouts and texting.

Mahouts always make me think of Kipling, but his books don't have cellphones.

Kipling aside, maybe we could insist that those who want to text while driving have to drive elephants. 'Cause elephants are smart enough not to crash.

townmouse said...

@Devil in the Drain

elephants are smart enough not to crash

don't be too sure...

(although in this case the elephant wasn't really at fault.)