Saturday, June 04, 2005

Siem Reap (Aliyah)

June 3, 2005

I am sorry that it has taken me so long to update. I am sitting here in the Bangkok airport waiting for a flight to Chennai. It’s about nine in the morning and I arrived here from Phnom Penh last night. I spent the night on the floor of the transfer room, which was really not at all unpleasant. As airports go, Bangkok is much quieter, cleaner, and altogether more pleasant than most, without seeming too sterile. It is also sprawling. I calculated that I have already walked almost three miles this morning to get breakfast, check on flight times, and such.

I spent the past five days in Cambodia with Bhoomikumar. I arrived Saturday afternoon in Siem Reap, where I was met by Bhoomi. We stayed in a hotel and spent two days touring Angkor Wat and the surrounding temples. Angkor Wat is by far the largest, most impressive, and best-preserved of the temples, and the bas-reliefs, showing, among other things, scenes from the Indian epics the Ramayana and Mahabharata (as well as a depiction of Hell which I think would make a very good illustration for Dante) are beautifully detailed. Like many of the other temples, Angkor Wat was originally Hindu, dating from the 12th Century, when there was a great deal of Indian influence in Cambodia. Now, like the rest of the temples, it has become Buddhist. In some places, images of Hindu bearded holy men have had their beards carved out and made into Buddha images. In other places, sculptures of the Buddha have been given a third eye, and made into sculptures of Shiva. On the top level of Angkor Wat, Bhoomi finds an inscription penned in Tamil on one of the pillars from the landlord of a village in Tamil Nadu, who visited in 1904.

One thing that struck me as we went from temple to temple is that these monuments are no longer truly places of worship. Yes, there are some monks walking around looking at the sights, and incense is still offered to the images, but the overwhelming atmosphere is that of a tourist attraction. This is one thing that I have never yet encountered in India. When one goes to the temples at Madurai or at Thanjavur, two of the largest and oldest temples in South India, one gets the sense of uninterrupted worship for more than 800 years, a sense completely lacking in Angkor. Impressive as these temples are, and they are wonderfully impressive and amazingly beautiful, they are ruins.

As well as Angkor Wat, the last stop on our trip, Bhoomi and I went to Bayon, with its hundreds of individual carved faces staring from the many towers, each smile slightly different, and each carved from several blocks of stone put together. We went to Ta Prohm, which has been left mostly as it was found, with trees merged into the architecture. We went to several other temples, which have merged together in my mind. It took us two days. Each day we would stop and have a “fruity lunch,” of lychees, bananas, and oranges. I have been introduced to many new varieties of fruit in Cambodia. One morning, I ordered a plate of mixed fruit for breakfast, and was presented with seven or so different varieties, of which I recognized four. There were mangoes, papayas, bananas, and oranges, and then there was a plum-sized bristly red fruit resembling a lychee, with a white juicy pulp and a large, hard stone; a brown, tough-skinned, cherry-sized fruit with a jelly-like inside and a name that translates to “rich man’s fruit”; and a dragonfruit with a brilliant magenta rind and a white inside sprinkled with small black seeds. They were all delicious except for the dragonfruit, which despite its visual beauty, had a very bland taste and the texture of a slightly overripe watermelon. The mango season is much longer in Cambodia than in India, so I’m bringing some mangoes for Jagannathan, as well as the palm sugar candy that he likes, which is a local specialty of Siem Reap. I hope I don’t have any problems with the mangoes. Last time Bhoomi brought some, they looked like bombs in the x-ray machine at customs!

I’ll write back soon about Phnom Penh.



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