Thursday, December 07, 2006

An Emotional Journey Through Cambodia

An Emotional Journey Through Cambodia
Updated:2006-11-06 10:22:34 MYT
By Christina Chin

I left Malaysia for Cambodia expecting a lesson in history but what I got was a lesson in life.

Angkor is more than just Angkor Wat, for Angkor Thom and Ta Throm are equally captivating.

Covering an area of over 200 sq km in northwestern Cambodia, Angkor was once a spectacular administrative and religious centre that housed more than 100 temples. The homes and public buildings constructed from wood have long decayed, but the stone structures built for the gods still stand proud.

A trip to Angkor will leave even the most jaded of travellers spellbound. Angkor is so much more than a tourist destination. It is one of Asia's great legacies and a foundation upon which the new Cambodia will hopefully flourish.

Most tours offer two days at Angkor, but you'll want to take one week so that you can tour the temples at your own pace, read through the guide books and scrutinise the details of the carvings. Certain attractions are worth visiting several times because, somehow, these structures take on a different quality at different hours of the day.

Angkor WatAngkor Wat impresses with its vastness, its soaring towers, dramatic carvings and courtyards, avenues, buildings and stone structures. But try putting the camera away and let your mind wander to a time when thet place was alive and bustling.

Pyramids of stone rising from a huge moat, the five towers of Angkor Wat are "jewels" surrounded by lush green forests. A wide causeway beckons the visitor into King Suryavarman's (1113-1150) reconstruction of Hinduism's cosmic universe.

The kingdom's architects designed Angkor Wat to resemble Mt Meru and its surrounding oceans and plains with three galleries encircling the five central shrines in honour of Lord Vishnu.

Carvings of apsara (celestial nymphs), lotus rosettes, gods and goddesses adorn the world's largest religious monument, recalling the Mahabharata and popular Hindu mythology. Statues of imposing lions, asura (demons), deva (deities), garuda and naga (serpent Gods) stand guard. Hidden away in the dark corners are little statues of the Buddha.

Standing on the causeway, as groups of tourists filed past, I felt for a brief moment as if I was trapped in a weird time zone, somewhere between the present and the past.Angkor Wat has been relatively well cared for over the centuries. Today fully restored, it is occupied by Buddhist monks who are friendly and approachable.

As I cross the moat to explore the vast temple grounds, I was amazed by the serenity of the place despite the busloads of holidaymakers wandering about.

Angkor Wat has been described as "commercialised" and "touristy," but the ruins are still a humbling place where you can experience the genius of a lost civilisation. The intricate carvings on the temple walls tell of a political and cultural world removed from ours. The many bas-reliefs are like 3-D photo albums and more amazing than any modern visual creations I have seen.

But the most unforgettable moment of my visit to Angkor Wat must be the gamut of emotions I felt while making my way up to the highest level of the central tower.

Looking up at the 40 steps that led to the pinnacle of the structure, I had considered giving the climb a miss.

It looked daunting and, besides, centuries ago only kings and priests were allowed access. Perhaps a commoner and foreigner like me had no right to climb the steps, I thought, and so for a good one hour, I watched others struggle up the steep 70° stairs.

Then, out of the corner of my eye, I saw an elderly, barefooted monk effortlessly climbing the narrow steps. There and then I decided I wasn't going to let an irrational fear of heights stand in my way.And so up I went, and was I glad I did.

When you stand up there and look into the forests (which has largely been cleared), you can almost see the old Khmers riding on their elephants and the villagers going about their daily chores.

As the sun sets with you perching on Angkor Wat's highest structure, you feel insignificant and small, humbled by the knowledge that one of the world's greatest civilisations once thrived here.

Ta TrohmUnlike the other temples at Angkor, Ta Trohm has been left as it was found, preserved as an example of what a tropical forest will do when buildings are abandoned to it.

To clear the century-old trees now would be to destroy the very essence of Ta Trohm, but to let nature take its course would eventually result in the destruction of an architectural wonder, such is the fate of the place.

In 2001, Ta Throm made its Hollywood debut in the action adventure Tomb Raider. As ravishing as she was, Angelina Jolie had to play second fiddle to the beauty of what must be one of Mother Nature's best works.

The ancient trees with their mighty roots have claimed the buildings for their own, looking for all the world as if they would crush those who dare disturb the tranquillity of the place.

As I navigated my way through the narrow corridors and rubble, I felt like a modern-day Indiana Jones trying to piece together the secrets that lay buried within the crumbling structure.

BayonAngkor Thom's most extraordinary monument, the Bayon temple, may not be as overwhelming as Angkor Wat, but it is probably the most intimidating of all Angkor temples.Regardless of your religious beliefs, you will find the feeling of being watched by over 200 faces carved on 54 towers quite unsettling.

The knowing eyes seemed to pierce my most private thoughts and the amused expressions seemed like a reaction to my many unspoken queries.

Some historians claim that the faces are that of Jayavarman VII himself, while others argue that they are images of the Buddha of Compassion.

After Jayavarman's death around 1219, the Khmer empire reverted to Hinduism and the Buddhist sculptures adorning Jayavarman's many temples were vandalised or destroyed.

Be that as it may, to behold this structural masterpiece, even if it is not in its full splendour, is a privilege not to be missed. (By Christina Chin, The Star/ANN)

No comments: