Category Archives: Cambodia

Phnom Penh Aerial Snapshots

On our way back to Singapore our plane made a brief stop over in Phnom Penh. While on its path to land, I had a great view of the densely populated capital city. The former French colonial capital is home to some 2 million inhabitants. This includes Filipinos who came here to teach English.

From up above, I saw the three wide rivers of Mekong, Tonle Sap and Bassac intertwine.  Mekong, one of the world’s longest, runs through China, Thailand, Burma, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam.

This country is slowly rebuilding. The infrastructure and the entire economy is fairing well. That the Filipinos are coming here to look for work is a sign that there’s progress. Even Filipino big business now invest here. One of our biggest company is in the process of becoming a majority holder in Cambodia’s major airline company.

People they say, vote with their feet. They go where there are better opportunities.

Parang Manila lang…

One of the three wide rivers of Cambodia

Lego-like houses

—-

April 2013

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Suryavarman II and his Vishnouïte Temple

I’m no longer in Cambodia but the place is stuck inside my head! The other day, I dreamed about its fantastic temples. I was walking on this graveled road, to my right is Angkor and to my left is Manila. I’m sure this means nothing. I think I’ve been imagining seeing these two places the moment I fell asleep.

Asian Pyramid

I was  revisiting some of my notes and found a page of factoids about Angkor Wat. These were written before I went to Cambodia. They’re what I call ‘reviewer slash checklist’. This ensures I don’t miss out on anything.

A few things about the Angkor Wat that might interest some of you.

The Angkor Wat is a rectangle area of 1500 by 1300 meters. The moat that surrounds it is about 190 meters wide – all in all, it covers around 200 hectares. Which means the temple’s moat alone is four times the size of Intramuros!

So what’s so special about this temple? Everything. From how it was built to the motive why it was constructed. It is our region’s version of a pyramid. Like the Pyramids of Egypt, it was designed for the mortal to bridge the after life. The Khmer king, Suryavarman II wanted a funeral temple that would do just that — so he had the Angkor Wat built!

According to the head of  Service Archéologique des Indes Néerlandaises, Dr. Bosch, the westward orientation was ‘typical of the Indo-Javanese funerary monuments’. So the biggest religious site in the world was nothing more than what we Filipinos call, ‘museleo’, those elegant house-like tombstone of the elites in our cemeteries. Angkor Wat is that only a million times bigger.

A buddha with its head stolen.

While many deified Suryavarman II, experts suggest that he was more of a saint in his kingdom religion. Now, the temples started as a Hindu site but was later rescued by Buddhists that  took the liberty in adding Buddhist icons everywhere. Some of it were looted by locals and sold to westerners in the 1900’s. But the Siamese (in the 14th century) ransacked it first. And I’m not surprised that people stole from it. The bas reliefs and other religious items were once adorned with pure gold!

Suryavarman II plans ahead. He had the Angkor Wat constructed (first half of the 12th century) in less than 40 years — enough time for him to be accommodated by it after his death (his ashes is believed to had been scattered around the temple). While the rest of the west was constructing their opulent Christian churches and having all sorts of problem keeping them together (majority of which were finish after nearly a century) the Khmers completed theirs in just a few decades. And to add more difficulty to what’s already a daunting task,  they picked a site that was in the middle of a tropical forest!

“Bayon, placed exactly in the center of the Khmer capital and acting as the mythical omphalos or navel of the Khmer empire, would have taken the position of the ecliptic North Pole in Hancock’s celestial diagram…built by King Jayavarman VII in the early 13th Century, was amongst the latest temples ever built at Angkor. Jayavarman VII moved the capital to Angkor Thom, which he encircled within a 9 Km long wall pierced by 5 gates (one in each cardinal directions, and two to the East) and a moat over 100 meters wide. He built the Bayon as his state temple in the heart of Angkor Thom, at a place which symbolically represents the ecliptic North Pole and the heart of the celestial dragon. Each one of the 54 towers bears a face of the Bodishattva Lokesvara, which many identify with Jayavarman VII himself.” – Uncharteredruins.blogspot.com

The Khmers had to quarry the stones from Mt. Kulen, transport it in rafts to place them on site where it is transformed into pieces of arts and not only building components. It’s easy to do these kind of operations today with all of our heavy equipment but think about how they accomplish this using their bare hands in the 12th century? The transportation of these massive rocks was one thing, putting them together and transforming them into a temple bedaubed with exotic religious art  is another story. The Khmers technique was without a doubt superior to that of the west during its time. Seeing these monolithic structures ancient aliens believers theorize that it must have been by giants!

The problem in studying the ancient Khmers is that their written records is somewhat lacking. For example, not much is known about their day to day lives. But such an advance society for certain established a library where  records were kept. These records were either lost to some natural event or was intentionally destroyed by their enemies. It’s hard to imagine that Suryavarman II and his scholars skipping record keeping because they evidently recorded so much about them in their temples. The absence of written documents is one of the reasons why scientists are finding it hard to complete the puzzle that is Angkor Wat.

According to Hancock, the city of Angkor is a diagram of cosmic precession, recording precise astronomical constants. In the book, Hamlet Mill’s, the authors gives us this analysis: ” Each of these roads is bordered by a row of huge stone figures, 108 per avenue, 54 on each side, altogether 540 statues of Deva and Asura. And each row carries a huge naga serpent with nine heads. Only, they do not “carry” that serpent, they are shown to “pull” it, which indicates that these 540 statues are churning the Milky Ocean, represented (poorly, indeed) by the water ditch, using Mount Mandara as a churning staff, and Vasuki, the prince of the Nagas, as their drilling rope. The whole of Angkor thus turns out to be a colossal model set up for “alternative motion” with true Hindu fantasy and incongruousness to counter the idea of a continuous one-way Precession from west to east.

This is the bridge figures going to Angkor Thom. They represent the “Churning of the Ocean of Milk”. 54 figures on each side pulling a mythical snake with several heads.

Where did they acquired this unbelievable knowledge of the cosmos? How could they have known the positions of the stars (not visible to the naked eye)? The precession of the equinoxes? The earliest type of telescopes was invented in Europe sometime in the 1600’s, where did their stargazers studied the cosmos, under who?

This is what you’ll find in the center of Bayon temple. A small vent on top of its tallest tower. The Angkorians are masters of stone carving and aligning their works to significant celestial bodies.

Around the 13th and 14th centuries the Khmers was moving away from their Hindu roots and was slowly gravitating towards Buddhistism. This shift disconnected the Khmers from the tradition that gave birth to their golden age. The transfer of knowledge was severed and this should explain why there’s very little known about the Hindu Khmers.

These people inhabited the largest pre-industrial settlement in the history of man – why did it suddenly vanished?

There are several theories why the whole kingdom collapsed around 1400’s. Popular theory is that a combination of climate, economic and political factors overwhelmed the kingdom. The kingdom and its subjects depended on their complex water system — I wonder if severe droughts drove them to go out. Some believe that it was the conversion from Hindu to Buddhism, others postulates that it was the continuous wars with its rival states that destroyed the state.

No one knows really what brought the kingdom down — but imagine if the ancient Khmers did not leaved behind their mystical and exotic temples?

The end of a memorable temple run. For now.

A researcher who blog’s at http://unchartedruins.blogspot.com has been a great resource for me.


The Bas Reliefs of Angkor

There are a total of eight bas relief sections in Angkor. I started with ‘the Battle of Kuruksheta” (south wing), from the Mahabarata poem memorializing the battle between the dynastic Hindu kingdoms of Pandava and Kaurava (all related to one another). Next to this is the gallery of “Heaven and Hell”. Followed by the ‘Churning of the Ocean of Milk’. The most popular portion because of the many symbolism it is believed to represent. Then there’s the chilling depiction of  “Vishnu Conquering the Devils”. The last three are as follow: “Vishnu’s Victory over Bana”, “Battle of the Gods” and “Battle of Lanka”. This would have taken you around the outer wall of the temple. A total of 800m of art work of narrative scenes from the Hindu mythology. One thing to note is that the figures were meticulously carved individually. This explains the figures having distinct facial expressions. No two are alike — now, that’s attention to detail!

Now, back to Cambodia. I just finished a whole day trip to the Angkor Wat and the other ancient Khmer structural relics nearby. The heat was unbearable but I had to ensure I visit all places in my itinerary within the day. My pass is only valid for the day. I did not rush the trip but hardly rested. I reached the top of Angkor around noon time (and got a burnt skin for it!) I think this weather explains why Khmers have a slightly brownish complexion compared to their neighbors.

The day ended in the ruins of the old Khmer capital, Angkor Thom and Prasat Bayon, one of the many great temples that had been incorporated into the old city in the 12th century. Fascinating was how the ancient Khmer made the moats, both in Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom. Up in a plane, these moats are visible. The bigger moat belongs to Angkor Thom, the smaller, to Angkor Wat. If it where not for these moats, especially in Angkor, the temples would have been completely destroyed by the forest. I would be least surprised if the ancient Khmers foresaw this and created the moats to ensure their legacy would be preserved forever.

My Khmer friend told me that crocodiles were once kept to guard the temple. A recent theory postulated by Japanese archaeologists suggest a possible route the Khmers took from Mt. Kulen going to the ancient sites — they used navigable waterways that was connected to the moat. How they carried tons of stones in rafts sounds crazy but they made it possible.

You see, here we are in the 21st century and we have yet to unlock the secrets of these venerable ancients. And these people walked this earth just a few centuries ago, we still have significant remnants of what they left behind, now imagine if we uncover a civilization 30000-50000 years old with only elfish pieces of their technology?

Imagine if the prehispanic Filipinos left behind something like the Angkor? Those historians who claim that we had a golden age of civilization no longer needs to debate those who go against them! All they have to do is point to where the megaliths and temples to prove their point. This photo is belongs to the ‘Battle of Kuruksheta’ gallery.

They say that Angkor was made to imitate heaven on earth — but I’m sure of one thing, the ancient Khmers created something that was designed to last until heaven comes to earth — these people understood that stones would be around forever. But the temple had been looted before — if there are any real threats to these ancient temples, it is the man who does not appreciate its history.

Pay attention to the paper thin line that runs across this bas relief. That is where the stone block had been joined. What kind of cutting tool the Khmers used to achieved such precision? Evidence shows that they had used very basic tool for carving but no evidence how they manage to slice these solid materials in laser  like precision. To this day no one has an answer.

There are a total of eight bas relief section in Angkor. I started with ‘the Battle of Kuruksheta”, from the Mahabarata poem memorializing the battle between dynastic kingdoms, whose heirs are all related. Next to this is the “Heaven and Hell”. This gallery is followed by the ‘Churning of the Ocean of Milk’. The most popular because of the many symbolism it is believed to represent. The there’s the chilling depiction of “Vishnu Conquering the Devils”. Then there are the “Vishnu’s Victory over Bana”, “Battle of the Gods” and “Battle of Lanka”.

The King has left the building! While I walked along the bas relief, I made sure that I would have a good look at it. It’s astonishing that you’d hardly find a face with a similar expression! The Khmer King, Suryavarman II, a Hindu,  was the guy who ordered the Angkor Wat to be built around the 12th century. Hindu traders reached Cambodia and taught them their religion. They have far more impressive Hindu temple (but Angkor Wat is now a Buddhist temple) than anything the Indians ever built. It’s amazing how Suryavarman II instructions led to something like the Angkor Wat. Throughout time, religion had played a big part in the building of civilizations and monuments. It is interesting how the converted usually becomes more religious than the people that converted them.

Riding the war elephant! The French, after discovering Angkor Wat, could not believe that their subjects ancestors built it. To their mind only the west could build such monuments. What they did not know at that time was that Angkor Wat was built around the time as their Cathedral of Notre Dame and that the two are almost equal in height! The Angkor was finished in under 40 years, the greatest European Cathedrals took a century to finish!

Angkor Wat according to Hancock was designed to make people look at the sky and contemplate the heavens. There’s this pond that reflects the temple, with its tower, as if it was put there to get people to look at it. The fact that they built everything using stone meant that they understood that what they’ve created would be around forever. This is their version of “Heaven and Earth”. How come every form of religion speaks of a heaven and earth? Either these religious leaders are copying from each other or they’ve been taught by tradition that has been handed down from one generation to another.

The Churning of the Ocean of Milk is a popular episode in the Puranic texts of Vedic Sanskrit literature. In the photo Vishnu accompanied by the turtle Avatar Kurma beneath him while the Asuras and Devas, both on the left and right side pull a serpent that acts as a rope. I remember seeing this from our ‘Humanities’ class back in college. But I never understood what it was about. It’s not easy to understand Hindu because we don’t study other great religions in school. From what I gather is that by alternately pulling the ‘naga’ serpent, the motion stirs up the ‘ocean milk’ and this in turn releases the fluids of immortality. Now, some believes that this episode is the representation of the actual cosmos. It’s interesting to note that the ‘Milky Way’ galaxy got its name from classical Greek but the Hindus had always referred to the existence of a ‘Milky’ heavens in their literature.

An unfinished carving of an Apsara dancer. One of the questions that baffled experts for years was how exactly did the ancient Khmer carved the bas relief. There are two suggestions: first, it was pre-carved before it was set in place, second, the Khmers carved it when the blocks were already positioned. I think, the second is more probable. The image above shows that they start working only after the walls had been put in place. And this is more challenging because these are massive blocks of stones quarried from a mountain before being transported to the site. Any mistakes would’ve been disastrous. Imagine a block of stone being removed because a sculptor messed up. This only proves that the men that worked on these stone temples are masters!

April 2013


On top of the Angkor

Perched on the steps of one of the towers (the top is 699 ft from ground) of the ancient Khmer’s Angkor Wat. Taking a shot at the hoards of tourist trying to reach the highest platform in what is the biggest religious monument known to man. These tourists doesn’t seem to mind the scorching summer heat (this was around noon time) of the Cambodian plains. The yearly number of tourist that visits this place alone is around 3.5 million, Philippines on the average gets 4.5, for the entire archipelago. I’ll post a couple of articles about Angkor Wat later this month. My fascination with it started  5 years ago when I went mad reading UK journalist Graham Hancock investigation on ancient civilizations. This is the closest I’ll get to Pyramids of Egypt (Hancock believes the two are related somehow) for now.


French Connection, Night Attractions, English Conversations in Siem Reap

How Siem Reap’s old ‘colonial French’ era buildings survive the country’s savage conflicts is a miracle. A few decades ago, things were very different, everything was in decay. The French language, the former language of the elite and educated, was hardly spoken, in fact, speaking it meant death in the late 70’s. Today, there’s a fairly large group that studies French and its poised on making a come back. Khmer celebrities are being interviewed by French reporters in French. In the streets, it’s not unusual to hear Cambodian tour guides speaking French to their clients. I asked a Khmer friend if French speakers are growing in numbers and he said it is because aside from it being promoted by both local and the French government (through their aid groups), there’s a lot of Cambodians that studied and lived abroad that are now returning home.

But most impressive is the progress in the proliferation of English. Even ‘tuktuk’ drivers could speak it.  Some of the most interesting discussions I had was with the average Khmer on the street! Motivation to learn English is driven by their tourism-based economy. Remember, they’re a former French colony, not English, so they’re learning the language practically from scratch. There’s an economic advantage in learning it and they know it. I was walking around the other day and saw several institutions offering English courses. I guess they’re done with the idea that learning foreign languages is unpatriotic. There’s a reason why the Filipino–Spanish speaking elite of the 20th century made Spanish a kitchen language–they don’t want their lowly servants to understand it. On the contrary, those heroic 19th century Filipino revolutionaries, who knew that Spanish was not prevalent during their time insist in communicating in Spanish–reason, they want even the lowliest of Filipinos to learn it.

But the most interesting discovery is the Filipino soap’s unwavering popularity here. Just the other day, while having lunch, I saw the staff that runs the eatery watching a fairly recent Filipino soap. I don’t know whether I should be proud or embarrassed but I guess these are revenue generating ventures that adds to our economy. They dub it in Khmer and it’s strange seeing Filipino actors made to sound like a Cambodian. They use to watch translated Thai dramas but I was told that it’s not popular now because of the small border wars between the two country. Marian Rivera’s ‘Mari Mar’ and the other show ‘Dyesebel’ were big hits here. While most of these shows are asinine and debasing, thanks to its quickie ‘pitu-pito style’ production, at least Khmer finds our actors attractive.

The streets of Siem Reap comes alive in the night time. I’m not into the ‘nightlife’ scene but the good eating spots in the area are in the vicinity of where the bars, the restos, the massage area and the ‘night market’. Just the other night I saw a group of Korean tourist, complete with a guide touring the streets at around 10pm. Sometimes the ‘Pub Street’ is teeming with tourist life that appears to mimic how Divisoria looks like before the beginning of school year. There was even a shop selling books in the middle of the night! And everybody, from the restaurants to the ‘tuktuk’ drivers, accepts US dollars which makes it easier to shop and move around. Unlike in other places where you’re hounded by vendors like hyenas, Cambodians here don’t sell too hard, they’d leave you alone when you say ‘no’. ‘Tuktuk’ drivers instinctively would offer you rides but tell them you don’t need one and they’ll go away. The bargain prices of food and the hospitality of the locals  makes Siem Reap great for tourist. The Khmer driver that fetched me from the airport guaranteed the entire place to be safe even at night. I took his word for it and was never disappointed in his thoughtful counsel.

Early 1900’s hotel in Siem Reap. The name of the entire province means ‘defeat of Thailand’. Historically, they’ve been fighting wars against each other. There are still border wars today.

Khmers are stone carving masters. Their skills in masonry and stone carving is legendary.

A night market food stall. Good cheap chow by the way

They call it the ‘pub street’. I don’t know what ‘pub’ means in Khmer. But it’s pub street where the pub’s are.

A Singaporean couple enjoying Khmer cuisine and the company of a Cambodian askal. They have a lot them here.

A night bookshop selling books in French and English. Some familiar titles here.

A nice row of colonial era building near the old market. Streets are clean, white tourists safely roaming the streets…

They love their spices here. I thought these were shops that sells sweets for pasalubong. Turns out, everything’s spicy around here.

A rosy building in the town’s French quarters. Tuktuks and people riding bicycles, both tourist and locals are usual scenes around these streets.

Some colonial era structures undergoing restoration work. Love the vibrant colours.

Imitating Parisian cafes. Surprising is that Cambodia still have newspapers and TV shows in French.

Cambodians in these part of the country loves to keep their streets clean. Bicycle is a good mode of transport here because the area is generally flat and the streets are safe.


‘Killing Fields’ Pagoda, Wat Thmey

When I saw the film “The Killing Fields” I was in grade school. Growing up I’ve always wondered what really happened here in Cambodia. Even today It’s hard to wrap your mind around the millions of Cambodians that lost their lives. Disturbing is that this genocide happened in our lifetime! And if it were for Khmer Rouge’s insolence and idiocy, involving its army in costly border wars against battle hardened Vietnam, this people would’ve stayed in power longer–imagine how many more would’ve died! Dith Pran, the subject of the film, was born and raised here in Siem Reap province, where this  ‘killing field’ (Wat Thmey) pagoda now stands. According to him, he lost around 50 family members. This doctor turned journalist is attributed for coining the phrase ‘Killing Fields’. The actor that played him in the film, Haing S. Ngor, won Oscar for ‘best supporting actor’ in 1985. It was the first time he acted, the first ‘non-actor’ to ever win the coveted award. He was murdered in the US after allegedly refusing to give up a locket with a photo of his deceased wife to a group of thugs. A sad irony for a man who fled to the US as a refugee.

It’s a good idea to see this simple memorial (Wat Thmey is not far from Siem Reap town proper) for the Cambodian’s that died during the reign of the Khmer Rouge . It’s an eery reminder of what happens when power and control of government falls into the wrong hands. There are more of these memorials in the capital Phnom Penh. Dith Pran who campaigned against the violence and corruption in his native Cambodia said, “the killing fields is one too many,” sadly, genocide still happens in other parts of the world. It’s a vicious cycle that’s got to end somewhere.

Skulls and bones in Wat Thmey. I wonder why they have not properly buried these remains. They have more of these memorials in the capital.

According to historians, about 1 out of 4 Cambodians was killed during the Khmer Rouge regime that only lasted some four years. The people getting killed were not even openly opposing the regime, most are just average people forced into a utopian ideology of agrarian communism. Khmer Rouge and its atrocities also highlights China playing colonist missions. Historians believe China sent steady military subsidies to support Khmer Rouge wars.

I asked Heng, a Khmer friend, for his opinion why the Khmer Rouge did what they did to their own people. “They’re crazy people”, he said in a loud voice. Most Cambodians are still adjusting to life without conflict (actually there’s one with Thailand now). Heng told me some horror stories during the Khmer Rouge’s agricultural revolution–they’re the scariest things imaginable. He believes that the number of people that died from hunger and disease possibly surpassed the executions. If the Khmer Rouge suspects you of aversion or dishonesty, or even speaking French (their colonial tongue), you get your throat slit.

Buddhist icons where people (I saw 3-4 buses packed with Korean tourists) offer incense and prayers.

The head of this ‘murder inc.’, Pol Pot, was not some dim-witted man who came from nowhere. He went to France, studied there and became a member of that European country’s communist party. He must’ve been Hitler-like, charismatic, eloquent, firm, mad. He believes (and he successfully made his cadres believe) in Khmer’s superiority over her neighbors–hence the need to purge the Khmer society. The US secret bombing and later invasion of  Cambodia (because it was being used by the North Vietnamese to attack the south) provided the radical communist in Cambodia the platform it needed to expand their power and influence. The spilling over of violence in Cambodia was a direct result of the Vietnam war. Not only did the US had responsibility in what happened in Cambodia, the biggest tragedy was that they allowed the Khmer Rouge to take the country because Cambodia’s government then was neutral.

High profile Khmer Rouge leaders stood trial, some were imprisoned (house arrest for Pol Pot) but the long politicized process left a bitter taste among those who campaigned for these people to be prosecuted. Imagine what happened to those young Khmers that carried out the brutual policy of the Khmer Rouge as they were forced to reintegrated into society. One must wonder if that’s even possible.

If there’s no hell, these evil men got a free pass. I choose to believe there’s one and that the people who did the millions of innocent Cambodians wrong would answer before God.


pong tia koon, Cambodian balut

While I was trying to find  my way to Siem Reap’s famed ‘night market’ I saw this woman vending boiled eggs in a traditional shoulder pole, balancing two wooden sieves of equal weight on both ends of the stick. Eggs are boiled in a metallic pot and a clay stove. I noticed the discarded shells have these brownish dark veins running through its interior. Now, that looks like a ‘balut’. Unfortunately the vendor doesn;t speak English (rare because most people in town speaks ‘ok’ English) so I had to buy to sample. The last time I’ve eaten one was last year–I was salivating like a rabid dog!

And lo and behold, it’s ‘balut’!

They serve it in this charming ceramic egg holder on a plate sprinkled with Cambodian mint leaves. You’re provided with a teaspoon, to crack open and scoop out the duck embryo egg. Yum. Instead of salt and vinegar garnished with ‘sili’ and garlic, Cambodians use lime, richly sprinkled with powdered pepper. The mint leaves are then dipped in this mixture and eaten. This somehow balance the taste of ‘pong tia koon’. But honestly, give me rock salt and I’m going to down these ‘baluts’ like chips!

I did pretty well. I ate, what, four? This amused the lady vendor. She probably thought that this was my first time consuming what she believes is a uniquely local delicacy. I tried telling her we have ‘pong tia kun’ back home and that it goes by the name, balooooot! But we can’t understand each other and so, I just proceeded binging on her ‘boiled duck eggs’.

Teary eyed while peeling egg shell before sipping that delectable boiled embryo egg’s ‘sabaw’. Lady vendor watches.

In the US, and I think in most western countries, the tradition of eating boiled fertilized egg embryo is largely identified with us Filipinos. I remember that ‘Fear Factor’ episode where contestants were made to eat ‘balut’. What a terrible show. Some of the contestant almost vomited. Most of them are not even chewing it–it’s going straight down. While we Filipinos savor every moment of it–we sip the ‘sabaw’ like a rare vintage wine.

I thought that the Chinese only brought ‘balut’ to our shores–turns out, our south-east Asian neighbors likely had knowledge preparing fertilized duck embryo long before we claimed it as ours. That the Khmers and Vietnamese have their version of ‘balut’ could be explained by their southern Chinese heritage.


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