Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Indiana Jones and Lara Croft: The Temples

It's spring break for Garden International School. Of course there's not really a spring in KL's consistently tropical weather; nonetheless, the kids are on a two week holiday.

We spent the first week of break hanging out, completing the "Marvel Movie Challenge" (the kids challenged themselves to watch the Marvel superhero movies from Iron Man 1 through Captain America: The Winter Soldier in one week), swimming, visiting friends, and doing craft projects. Somewhere between Marvel and crafting, Tyler decided he wanted to make a Hawkeye costume (No, not the guy from MASH; the Marvel bow and arrow sharpshooter also nicknamed Hawkeye). We had excellent results from instructions we found online -- plus the kids now know all about PVC pipe fitting, including purchasing, cutting, drilling, and cementing PVC (http://lifesprinkledwithglitter.blogspot.com/p/the-avengers-homemade-hawkeye-costume.html).

We also had a visit from Brian's friend from medical school, Walter Cheng! Walter's parents live in Taipei, Taiwan and when he heads to Asia to visit them, he enjoys taking a side trip somewhere in Asia. This visit he side-tripped over to KL for a few days. While catching up over some char kuey teow, Walter was pleased to hear the kids' basic Mandarin skills. Upon learning that the kids don't yet have Chinese names, Walter decided to create names for them. And he didn't just give the kids names, he also found a carver in KL's Chinatown area and had official hand-carved name seals made for Violet and Tyler -- or should I say 高愛樂  and 高太樂. Name seals are an important part of Chinese culture. The seals can be registered with the government and used with an ink (often a bright red ink) for official transactions, in a similar way to how we use our signature. Love you, Walter! Next time, we'll meet you and Courtney in Taipei.

Also during spring break we celebrated Passover with Ethan and his mother, Louise (Robin, A, and J hadn't yet returned from their spring break trip to the Philippines). What a fantastic evening! We loved seeing the family's collection of Passover Haggadah from across the years and sharing in the blessings, songs, food, and wine. Thank you for sharing the Passover Seder with us! As you can see from the picture below, Violet has very much missed matzo. Someone heading out here from Baltimore -- please bring us a couple boxes of matzo ball soup mix! :o)

For the second part of Spring Break, we visited Siem Reap, Cambodia to see the ancient Angkor temples, including Angkor Wat. Of course we first did our homework -- we watched a National Geographic special on YouTube -- my selection. And then Brian made us watch Tomb Raider! (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fvqqja0r-pg)

We were really pumped that Monique, Dave, and their kids decided to join us for the holiday. They were not at all phased when I sent them the Excel spreadsheet itinerary. Although they cheerfully pointed out when we diverged from the itinerary and asked why they didn't receive a memo, in triplicate, noting the deviation from aforementioned spreadsheet! Yep, I love traveling with these guys. We took so many pictures and had such a blast in Siem Reap, that I've broken the blog into two parts. First I'll share our temple experience. In the next post, I'll discuss adventures beyond the temples. I've been asked by a couple people how doable Siem Reap is with kids, so I'll post our itinerary (updated with changes) in the next blog entry as well.

So Cambodia is a quick direct two hour AirAsia flight from KL. Cambodia was home to the Khmer Empire, which consolidated and controlled the region from about 800 - 1400. The Empire formed huge cities with vast irrigation networks to enable large scale rice farming to support the population. The Khmers adopted Hinduism from India and it was during the Hindu period that kings ruling the Empire built huge temples as monuments to the gods (and to the king). Visiting the ruins of these temples is the major attraction in Siem Reap. AirAsia's early morning flight put us in our hotel, Memoire D'Angkor (http://www.memoiredangkor.com/) at 9 am. Our guide, Mr. Borey, met us at the hotel. We'd originally planned to visit Angkor Wat first, but Borey suggested we change the itinerary because our arrival day was the final day of the Khmer New Year. As we traveled out of town, we saw truckloads of people (really -- hundreds of people riding in the back of trucks) coming into Angkor Wat to celebrate. So good call, Mr. Borey!

The entire Angkor complex is managed by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site (http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/668). Foreign visitors must purchase passes for entry anywhere into the vast complex area. The efficient pass purchasing system included snapping a digital photo for the pass. The passes for 3 days cost $40 US dollars (with kids under age 12 free). By the way, in the tourist town of Siem Reap and across the Angkor sites, the US dollar is the currency of transaction. Everything from street vendors to restaurant menus quote prices only in USDs. The ATMs dispense greenbacks. You'd think this would make it easy, but for a reference point--and for our Dutch friends--we kept converting back to Malaysian Ringgit (to then mentally be converted to Euros...).  They have dollars but no coins, so almost everything, regardless of size or actual value, costs a dollar.  Cab ride? 1 dollar.  Coconut? 1 dollar.  Beer?  1 dollar.  Piece of gum?  1 dollar.

Our visit took us to the first temple site of Banteay Srei, also called the Pink Lady temple. This was a great temple to view first because it is smaller in scale with very intricate carvings in the pink sandstone. Mr. Borey began introducing us to temple construction and decoration terms, as well as many Hindu figures and stories that we would see in temple motifs here and across the Angkor complexes. Banteay Srei was rediscovered by the French in 1914. As the French were clearing and reconstructing temples in Angkor, they selected Banteay Srei as the first temple for reconstruction in a processes called anastylosis, a technique developed by the Dutch in Indonesia (at Borobudur! see our post from January) in which the ruins are cleared, cleaned, and restored using architectural building techniques as similar as possible to the original construction. At Banteay Srei we also grabbed a shady spot under a tree to hear a band play music with indigenous instruments. This sparked Brian's intrigue about the music and he ended up later purchasing a tror chhe, a two stringed fiddle in which the hairs of the bow pass through metal strings and the resonator is covered with a snake skin front.

After a pretty bad lunch at Banteay Srei, we headed out to Beng Mealea, a temple still very much in ruins. This temple, about 40 km outside of the main group of Angkor temples, permits climbing up the large heaps of stone.  The kids put on their Indiana Jones and Lara Croft personas and ran up and down the stone piles. Beng Mealea is one of the larger temples in the region and is also contemporary in age and building styles with Angkor Wat. In its ruinous state we were able to see the building construction with the inner laterite stone and outer sandstone. The half collapsed galleries provided us a cross sectional view of roof building techniques. It's also shady, uncrowded and just a very pleasant temple to visit.


The kids saw a big group of Chinese tourist young adults doing
a jump shot in front of Beng Mealea--they had the camera
on a tripod and all. Of course our kids joined the photo session!

Beng Mealea was only opened to the public about 10 years ago after extensive minefield clearing. Landmines are a devastating part of Cambodia's recent past. Under the Khmer Rouge and throughout Cambodia's civil war, all sides of the war planted an estimated 4 to 6 MILLION landmines. The US sadly had a hand in these cold war era tragedies. Landmines kill. But landmines also tear off legs and arms -- Cambodia's amputee rate is about one in 290, the highest in the world. Landmines are also devastating to the rural economy when farmers cannot plow their land for fear of the mines. I remember one of my public health classes in college discussing the Cambodian landmine crisis. This was somewhere around 1998 when the Khmer Rouge had finally fallen and the landmine clearing efforts were just beginning. Today, the temple is open and cows graze in the fields surrounding the temple. Sadly, there are said to still be a million landmines buried in the Cambodian forests and countryside. I found a very moving piece in National Geographic about landmine clearing. Check it out: http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2012/01/landmines/jenkins-text.

Thursday morning got us up super early to catch the sunrise over Angkor Wat. The hotel packed us to-go breakfast boxes and we were out the door, breakfast in hand, a few minutes after 5 am. Angkor Wat's complex is massive. In this modern era I can't even begin to understand the vast engineering endeavor that was undertaken to build this temple. King Suryavarman II began construction of the temple around 1120 AD taking about 35 years to build. Because the foundation is on a huge flood plain that swells with seasonal rains and then substantially dries out in the dry season, building this temple took engineering genius. The temple is surrounded by a huge moat that is fed by the nearby river. Underground channels keep the sand foundation of Angkor Wat at a constant dampness from water flowing from the moat, thus retaining a consistent foundation. Pretty amazing. All the stones of Angkor Wat are laid without mortar and the seams are near perfect. They also employed a lot of woodworking techniques to fit stones together with essentially stone dowels (or as Tyler called them, "Giant heavy rock legos!")

The temple's decoration is beautiful. The outermost walls of Angkor Wat are surrounded by open air (and open light) galleries with bas reliefs. The reliefs were carved after the giant stones were set in place. I included a few pictures of the reliefs to try to give a sense of detail and scale. They are amazing! Unlike other temples in the region, Angkor Wat was never abandoned. The highest area of the temple was converted from Hindu to Buddhist and is still a holy site. Fun fact: a profile of Angkor Wat is on the Cambodian flag.

Photo credit: Violet

A close up of a bas relief to show detail
A bas relief to show scale. This is the Churning of the Sea of Milk.
We saw this Hindu story portrayed multiple times in sculpture and relief across the Angkor temples.  

I took this picture to show the scale. We'd already cross over one of the
outer areas and up several flights of steps. And yes, those are the boys
at the base of the wall!

A view from the top of Angkor Wat.

I'm so very glad we visited at sunrise. In addition to seeing the
beautiful sunrise, we were walking out as hundreds of tourists walked in!
We wrapped up our visit to Angkor Wat around 9:30 and headed back to the hotel for second breakfast (yes - the amazing food in Malaysia has turned us into hobbits) and a much needed coffee. After swimming and relaxing, we jumped back in the van at 3:00 to head to Ta Prohm, AKA "The Tomb Raider Temple". I haven't yet mentioned that Siem Reap in April is very hot. Like sweating through your clothes at 9 am hot. Like can't go out at noon because you'll collapse hot. Like apply sunscreen every hour hot. (I live in the tropics, so I hate to complain about heat. But this was hot!) When archaeologists were clearing and reconstructing the Angkor temples, they opted to repair Ta Prohm while keeping the trees very much in the wild state in which they were found when Ta Prohm was rediscovered. This is the temple with the massive tree roots that pour over and through the temple walls. The temple is a burial monument and monastery, so there are many small rooms and burial pits. It's a great place for photos and a great place to "discover" cool nooks.  See if you can spot the place where Lara Croft found the jasmine and fell through the roots of the tree to the hidden temple below. Violet and Tyler are into Lara Croft. As Violet remarked as we were watching our post-trip decompression edition of Tomb Raider, "She's just like Indiana Jones, except she's a girl - that's cool!"

Our third day in Siem Reap was our final day temple-ing. We sensed that the kids were probably getting a little weary of temples by day 3 so we pulled out some extra magic for the Angkor Thom visit - elephants. That's right, we rode 2 km through the East gate of the complex on the backs of Asian pachyderms! Tyler was beside himself with glee when he saw Violet's elephant poop on the trail. The kids also got to feed the elephants whole pineapples which was pretty fun to watch.

Angkor Thom is a sprawling temple city that includes a number of large and interesting temples. It is probably best known for its multiple towers that have large stone faces pointing in each of the cardinal directions. There are various theories as to who the faces represent but they are probably all depictions of Jayarvarman VII, the king that built this temple. JV, as Brian likes to call him, was pretty cool. He was known as a man of the people. During his reign he built a lot of temples but he also built rest houses for travelers every 15 km along main roads and he constructed over 100 hospitals. The healing pools where sick people would communally bathe (including lots of folks with leprosy), was probably not the best public health idea, but his heart was definitely in the right place.

Probably the coolest temple we visited in the complex was the Bayon, JV's state temple. The stone reliefs depicting both battles and daily life were among the most detailed and interesting that we saw during our visit. The moat surrounding the city was at one time filled with crocodiles for defensive purposes so their were lots of scenes of enemy soldiers being eaten by crocodiles (Tyler especially loved the reliefs. They also provided the motivation for our BBQ crocodile dinner - but more on that in the non-temple blog).

Pausing for a few minutes to build their own temples...

JV was a Buddhist so Bayon has a lot of Buddha reliefs and places to pray and meditate. Violet was particularly interested when Mr. Borey taught the kids how to bow to family, friends and elders and took it upon herself to teach Dave and Monique's youngest daughter the proper technique!

Overall, our temple experience in Siem Reap was a combination of fun and engaging physical activities with the kids and great opportunities to learn about ancient Khmer history, culture and building techniques. We hope to return at some point in the next two years!

Our guide, Mr. Borey, was outstanding!

No comments:

Post a Comment

We would love to hear from you! Please post a comment or email us directly.