WAT !

In early 1960, a seven-year-old girl with a bowl-shaped haircut sank into her grandmother’s overstuffed chair. Following ritual, she grabbed a National Geographic Magazine, drawing her bobby socked feet up under the skirt of her Catholic school uniform. Before the girl opened the first page, her grandma placed an afghan across her lap. She was now ready for transport to exotic lands and alluring cultures. The wing chairs and floral wallpaper disappeared as she saw herself entering Angkor Wat, in a far-away place named Cambodia.

 

 

 

I am that child. Flash forward to 2018. Filled with excitement to be seeing the deserted city for the first time, I arrived armed with childhood memories. When I was young, I thought the Khmer Empire complex might be as large as my three-storied elementary school. Later, I reassessed. Maybe it would be huge, like my high school. Nothing prepared me for the actual size–ninety-six square miles of many temples, royal cities, villages, and hydraulically engineered moats that grew two or three crops of rice per year to feed the large population.

As my feet traversed the path traveled by an ancient, mighty culture, I reflected on images in my mind and felt unprepared for the complexity of the portraits and buildings carved from stone. Monkeys played in the brush or sat on motorcycles parked at the entrance.IMG_9610 I closed my eyes and took a moment to transport back in time, imagining the sounds of monks chanting, horns blowing, drums banging and dancers performing rituals.

Angkor Wat is a UNESCO treasure, but not the only jewel discovered in the jungle by French archeologists in 1914. There are over seventy archeological monuments representing different Kings from the 10th-13th centuries. Looking into the woods, I saw remains awaiting excavation.

 

 

 

We visited Banteay Srei, Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom and Ta Prohm. Each fortress, city, or monastery is distinct from the other.

CITADEL OF WOMEN

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Libraries for advanced learning

 

 

 

 Banteay Srei (citadel of women), established in 967, wasn’t built by a Khmer king but by Yajnavaraha, a scholar and philanthropist who helped those who suffered from illness, injustice, or poverty. If I could time travel, we might have been friends. The name of this temple relates to numerous, beautiful red stone carvings.

 

 

 

 

Some of the effigies are of dancing women. Many carved panels tell moral stories or ancient battles. Treasures have been stolen over the years. Phallic stones are missing.

 

 

 

A fellow tourist told me that when he first came here, it wasn’t safe to wander around the site as many land mines remained from the Pol Pot years of terror (1975-1979). Our guide told us that over 2,000 mines were removed. Approaching the temple on foot, I watched a young monk dressed in orange sitting under a tree. He was checking his cell phone for messages. IMG_9477This would have been very different from the life of a monk from long ago living in bare simplicity. His brother from long ago would have endured similar teachings but the need to interact with modern technology seems a long way from balanced karma.

Angkor Wat

When I was younger, I didn’t know that the word wat meant a Buddhist temple or vata from Sanskrit meaning ‘enclosure’. The full name means temple city and is built in a pyramid form to represent the sacred mountain, Meru. The five towers represent the peaks. It’s a visual reminder of the spiritual universe built by King Juryavarman 11 from 1113-1150, and is set inside a 570’ moat on about 500 acres.

 

 

 

There’s so much acreage but even sunrise is filled with hordes of people. These places would have been busy centuries ago as well, but with merchants selling wares and pilgrims carrying expensive gifts for the King or priests. Redemption carries a big price, then and now.

Getting into the complex structure is a challenge. The original steps are very narrow and steep, requiring the climbers to bend forward in submission and humility. Today, equally steep wood stairs at least offer a handhold for the faint of heart.

 

 

 

The temple is a series of rectangular sections with dark corridors leading to bright sunlit courtyards. Light and dark. Ying and Yang. Balance.

The carvings in the long hallways depict battle stories, similar to Helen of Troy, but Cambodian style. Another hall shows 37 heavens and 32 hells with terrible punishment for sinners. There are depictions carved in stone of long ago battles. Rounding another corner, I was impressed with a creation story.

 

 

 

There are small, very dark temples to Buddha spread throughout the sanctuary and it’s believed that Angkor may have been dedicated for the King’s funeral. I didn’t have my usual peaceful feeling, but rather felt fear and decay.

 

 

 

Leaving the darkness, I walked to the outer wall, admiring life-sized voluptuous dancers, cut from unyielding stone with diaphanous movement shown in wispy clothing. Some of the dancer’s breasts were destroyed, shot off by Pol Pot soldiers who occupied the site in the 1970’s.Those men had no regard for their ancient heritage or respect for women.

Angkor Thom

 

 

 

 Angkor Thom means great city, of the late 12th century by the magnanimous King Jayavarman V11. To enter, one must cross a causeway over a moat bordered by 54 stone figures. Demons are on the right and guardians on the left in reverse ideology.

 

 

 

Being left-handed, I appreciate the opposite thought. The city gate remains, and is large enough for elephants to pass through, but a tight squeeze for modern tour buses.

What I enjoyed about this place and this particular king was his love for common people. The carvings on the outer walls are dedicated to his subjects and show everyday life. There are people cooking, selling things and dancers. There are carvings dedicated to a midwife and women in labor that I especially appreciate because I was an L+D nurse. There are images of soldiers marching with spears, others are packed into boats, and one section shows the enemy being eaten by alligators.

 

 

 

Inside the sanctuary are pyramid-shaped buildings connected by narrow walkways. Certainly there are many more people visiting today than would have been allowed in the ancient past.

 

 

 

It’s hard to get photos without many multi-cultural faces jostling into you. Regardless, the immense faces carved in stone are majestic.

 

 

 

Is this a guardian of the past or an image of the king who commissioned this city?

Ta Prohm

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Ta Prohm means monastery of the King and was constructed in the late 12th century to early 13th by the very same civic-minded Jayavarman V11 who built Angkor Thom. This was a Buddhist monastery and university built in a flat style rather than the earlier pyramid shape. Once upon a time, 18 high priests, 615 dancers and plenty of wealth flowed into this center and the surrounding village of 80,000 people. It would have been a bustling place for prayer, training, and study.

 

 

 

Archeologists decided this complex should retain the feeling of emergence from the jungle.This is the temple used in the Tomb Raider movies for the sense of discovery and adventure. Trees grow over sections of ancient walls. Stones have fallen down and are toppled about, looking like dice thrown by giants.

 

 

 

Everywhere there is a sense of being the first person to set eyes upon a place of great mystery. Being the most visited archeological site in Cambodia, I suggest going either early or late in the day when it may be possible to get a few photos without crowds.

We sat across the moat, looking at Angkor Wat while we ate (and enjoyed) jerky strips of water buffalo, frog legs, and snake meat washed down with local beer. Being open to immersion in another culture awakens the senses—touch, hearing, smell, taste and sight. The little girl who dreamed of travel and the adult I became united in a heartfelt moment at the golden hour. The sun slipped below the horizon and I realized that I must go back. Cambodia is a land of great history, amazing archeological sites and beautiful people.

Royal Wat Xieng Thong

After a delicious lunch at Joma Bakery in Luang Prabang, we visited Wat Xieng Thong, built in 1559 as a royal temple where kings were coronated until 1975.

 

Wood doors covered in gold tell the life of Buddha. Enter the building to see carved Naga on the ceremonial cremation barge used for the kings remains. These snake figures are said to be a supernatural deity, and can be a protectress or demon, guardian and demigod. Evidently, some of them can turn themselves into human form, which might be kind of freaky.

 

Images of Buddha with various hand positions (called mudras) instruct us to follow peace, banish fear, quell demons or practise charity.

 

I was busy looking at sparkling glass tiles and painting on the wood beams of winged Pegasus and didn’t realize that the tour had moved to another building.

 

Three children were busy getting their fortunes. Delighted, they showed me how to pull a numbered stick out of a container and how to foretell my own future. Later, I learned doing this three times would have been better.IMG_9067

Across the courtyard is the temple where the Laotian Kings were coronated and where the sacred boat is kept.

 

Another favorite building is the Sim, or congregation hall, with the outer wall decorated in glass tiles in the shape of a tree of life that shimmer in the light.

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This golden guy is a cautionary tale about a peeping Tom and he got caught.  Of course, he had karma payback for his naughty actions.

 

In 1887, when rebels invaded and destroyed Luang Prabang, this complex was saved because the leader had once been a young monk who studied here.

 

Venice of the East (Ayutthaya, Thailand)

In 1350, a king of Siam relocated to a conflux of three rivers, 53 miles north of Bangkok, and called the royal city Ayutthaya. It’s believed he was escaping a smallpox outbreak in the old capital.

 

Imagine hundreds of temples and stupas sheathed in gold covering 9 square miles. By 1700, over a million people lived in Ayutthaya, making it the largest city in the world at that time. An amazing number (thirty-five) Kings ruled from here. Surrounded by water, the island was called Venice of the East.

 

 

Wat Mahathat means temple of the great relic and is one of the oldest (early 1350’s) constructed from cantilevered brick and once sheathed in smooth materials. It is surrounded by towering cremation and meditation stupas. This wat was also home to the supreme patriarch of the Buddhist monks.

 

 

In 1767 The Burmese army destroyed the royal city, murdering and raping the population and hacking hundreds of heads off the Buddha statues. This decapitation showed their power but also had a reason— gold and jewels were often hidden inside.

 

 

A tree grew around one Buddha head, creating this eerie scene within the ancient complex of Wat Mahathat.IMG_0011The entire ancient site isn’t under UNESCO preservation at this time. Touring the city requires a bike, a hired cab or jambo for the day. If you want to step back in time, you can even ride an elephant, just like royalty of old.

 

 

Ancient Crossroads, Patan & Bhaktapur Nepal

Patan is known as the Royal City or City of Beauty and is located five miles south of Katmandu on the southern side of the Bagmati River. It is one of three settlements of the ancient Kings of Nepal with over 1,200 monuments. Another UNESCO site is eight miles from Katmandu, named Bhaktapur or place of devotees with the best preserved ancient city center. It’s also known for the best sweet yogurt, so you must try some.

 

Patan and Bhaktapur are important religious centers for Buddhist and Hindu faiths.

The first historic records show Emperor Ashoka arriving in the valley near Patan with his daughter in 250 B.C. He established the geographic outlines of Patan with four holy stupas. This makes the shape of the UNESCO world heritage site into the symbol of a Buddhist Wheel of Righteousness.

The royal palace of the Malla Kings was first built in the 3rd century B.C. by the Kirat Dynasty and is now a museum and an architectural wonder.

 

although the majority of Durbar Square is from Medieval times. Evidence of severe architectural damage remain from the 2015 earthquake. Scaffolding and bracing of buildings precariously hold walls from collapsing as reconstruction follows a snails pace.

 

It’s not hard to imagine camal trains carrying salt along the twisting streets of Bhaktapur.

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Not hard to imagine Bhaktapur in Medieval times with the intact city center.

It was also a royal city with craftsman in Medieval times and the provenance continues today. Artists work in shops carving wood, metal work, stone, clay, and jewelry.

 

I loved both cities from the history, architecture, and shopping.  I felt sorry for our very patient guides as the ladies kept creeping into doorways. I would have loved to wander with my camera for another round about both places.  This is a photographer’s dream location, because you don’t know what you’ll see from one moment to the next.

 

K-K-K-K-K Katmandu

Bob Seeger wrote the song Katmandu when he was tired of his profession and wanted to escape. Hippy days are gone, but an observant person will notice marijuana growing wild in empty lots and alleys. Let me emphasize that you don’t need drugs to be high in Katmandu, because this city overloads your senses without a single enhancement. This is a place of extreme opposites. People wash themselves and their dishes from a roadside spigot. Modern appliances are taken home on the back of a bike. I found clarity and focus in Buddhist thangka art opposed by lung defying air pollution.

Traffic jams from hell don’t prevent appreciation of unspoiled mountain landscapes. The entire valley is a UNESCO site for important pilgrimages and monuments amid massive filth counter-balanced with beauty.

The profane competes with the revered and sacred. The ancient trade routes for salt, wool and silk continue to run through Katmandu. The amount of diversity and fusion of cultures left in the wake is unsurpassed.

Katmandu is the odd, bizarre, benevolent, always in a hurry, yet most compassionate and loving place on the planet.

Is Katmandu schizophrenia or extreme reality?  It is really entertaining or downright controversial. I can’t imagine anyone not loving it here.

Fifteen minutes out of the airport I saw my first cremation at the river edge. IMG_7795While flames consumed the body,  little girls walked in the muddy water with magnets trying to find offerings in the funeral ashes. Despite this macabre observation, I had a profound experience talking with a Brahman priest who spoke about our mission in life and karma. He blessed me, touching my heart with a force that I still feel today.

Monkeys’ ran around stealing cotton candy. Strange men who call themselves Holy pose around the stupas coaxing tourists to take pictures, for a price. It seemed like a creative way to be a beggar, but who am I to cast accusations? My guide made an astute observation, “Don’t all religions want to be paid?”

Soak it all in. Stop to see. Touch. Smell. Taste using your fingers the local way. Chant mantras with the background roar of motorcycles. Listen to singing bowls and inhale incense. Still your breath. Calm your mind amongst chaos. Dance with joy on the street with someone you don’t know. Reach out. Embrace. If I ever get out of here, I’ll go back to Katmandu.