March 16, 2017
Siem Reap, Cambodia
I have made the acquaintance now of each of the mosquitoes that hang out at the pool at our hotel at dusk. Each of them have left me a small ‘present’. Mostly on my legs. I’ve named them all – my favourite is “Spot”.
Lizzy warned us about the small beggars (by this I mean the mosquitoes at the pool, not the children) but unfortunately, I, as usual, wasn’t listening. As a result, I have now (at last count) 17 mosquito bites on my left leg which pretty much coat the leg from the top of my ankles to the … well, let’s just say to the top of my leg, okay?
Each of the bites has taken on a life of its own. By that, I mean they have a lifecycle of about a week, that I describe like this:
1. Day 1
“What the hell is that on my leg? Yikes, it looks like I got bitten by a piranha! God, that’s gonna leave a mark! Maybe a scar for life! Oh God, Oh God, Oh God! I’m never going outside again! Where is the mosquito net – quick, wrap me up in it and I’ll just maybe walk around with it, okay?”
2. Day 2 - Day 6
Repeat Day 1 remarks.
3. Day 7
“Oh, thank God, it’s getting smaller. Debbie, don’t you think it’s getting smaller? Why do you keep looking at me like I’m the Elephant Man? It’s getting smaller for sure. Yep, it’s gonna be okay and I’m…… Wait a minute…. What the hell? What the F--- is that thing over here on my other leg!! Oh God, Oh God, Oh God!!”
I was thinking about my sister Marla today, while eating my (by my count) 858th bowl of soup for breakfast. She plans marketing and handles logistics for events for the Soup Sisters non-profit organization. Soup Sisters would do well in SE Asia because everybody eats soup all the time but mostly for breakfast.
Some soup here is called congee. It is rice porridge into which a vast array of things can be put. Most of which used to belong to a pig. It has the consistency of rice porridge. It isn’t to my taste so I don’t want to talk about it anymore.
The other soups, on the other hand, are delicious. I’ve already written an ode to Pho for breakfast in Vietnam but I just think it bears noting that Cambodia is just as happy to start the morning with a bowl of delicious soup. Good for them. Good for me.
Yesterday Debbie got a break from playing Indiana Jones and the Temple of ____ (fill in blank with name of temple of your choice). Well, she didn’t actually get a break so much as threaten to break parts of me (that I actually don’t think you could break - medically speaking – but that I didn’t want her to try anyway) if I made her play Tomb Raider again.
But that was yesterday and this is today, so off we went to discover the secrets of Banteay Srei – “The Women’s Temple”, also known as the ‘Temple of Beauty’. This is one of the further flung of the Wats, Temples, and Palaces that make up the vast array of Angkor’s ruins.
The 38 km. took about 90 minutes to cover in a tuk tuk, each way, but the ride through the countryside and small villages in the jungle on the way to Banteay Srei was as fun and amazing as was our visit to the temple itself. And let me tell you, this was a simply stunning and gorgeous temple. Even ruined, as it is.
So, let’s talk Angkor for a bit, shall we? Here’s the thing, you would need an advanced degree (or maybe even 2 or 3) in both Hindu and Buddhist religion, art, culture, architecture and history to even pretend that you understand what the heck happened here leading to the rise and fall of the Cambodian kingdom(s) that built Angkor over many centuries.
Frankly, it might be better if you asked my nephew Robbie because I think it’s about as difficult as learning how to build a civilization in Minecraft. Here then, is my very condensed ‘History of Angkor’. *
*There may be portions of this that need fact checking. I’m pretty busy right now, so can I leave that to you?
1. Angkor was the capital city of the Khmer empire, which had its heyday between the 9th – 15th Century. By heyday, I mean that it existed and wasn’t totally wiped out at any point during that time, although there were a bunch of close calls.
2. The history of Cambodia is complicated. So complicated it makes my head hurt thinking about it. But at one point, the Khmer people were Hindu. Yes, I know that they are pretty much all Buddhist today but this is history and it doesn’t always make sense.
3. The Khmer Hindu King Jayavarman II declared himself “God-King” in 802. People went along with it. I have no idea why Jayavarman I didn’t think of it first. After all, it’s good to be king! Probably even better if you get to be God, too, I suspect.
4. Jayavarman II (I’ll call him Jay II here – we’re pretty close and he won’t mind) and his descendants ruled Angkor until 1351 when the Siamese took over and then the whole enterprise went south about 80 years later in 1431 when the Khmer rebelled and the Siamese sacked Angkor and everybody and their elephant left town.
5. During their 600+ year run, Jay II and his family built over 1,000 temples. Some are just bricks lying in rice paddies now. Others are pretty darn impressive, up to and including the granddaddy of ‘em all, Angkor Wat.
6. The ingenious irrigation system of Angkor helped alleviate water issues during the dry season, allowing the population of Angor to swell to up to as many as 1 million people – making it the largest city in history prior to the Industrial Revolution. (Side note: Robbie, you should take note of that – make sure your Minecraft World has a good irrigation system and you will rule all other worlds!).
7. Jay II didn’t stop at declaring himself God-King. He also declared independence from Java and called his new empire ‘Cambodia’ (or a word that’s pretty close to it so I’m going with ‘Cambodia’). I don’t know if Java was happy about this but, for our purposes, let’s just say that he got away with it.
8. Jay II built the temple complex for his capital city in Hariharalaya (which is now known as Roluos) – that place is about 13 km east of Siem Reap. We’re going there tomorrow so I won’t ruin the surprise here but …. there are ruined things to see!!!
9. Now comes the part which gets into the begettings. In the Bible, Abraham begets Isaac who begets Jacob and so on. In Angkor, Jay II begets Yasovarman (Yaz) who begets…. Well, you beget the idea.
10. What’s important about this is that each of the Godfathers (well, technically, sons of Gods or perhaps Godsons, but I’m liking the way this is going so I’m sticking with Godfathers) built their own capital city temple complex in a different place and so that meant that the slaves who just finished building Jay II’s capital city temple complex were now put to work building Yaz’s. Not for the first time, I’m guessing all the slaves were thinking, “This sucks.”
11. What’s important about Yaz’s temple is that it’s built way the heck up on top of a hill and has THE primo view of Angkor Wat at sunset. And so, way before Angkor Wat was even built, Yaz was thinking of future tourists. That’s a great Godfather for you, no?
12. The majority of all these capital city temple complexes are found in an area 15 miles (east to west) by 5 miles (north to south) but there are temple complexes as much as 30 miles further north. The size of the place is gi-normous. Bigger than present day Paris. With more stone used in the Angkor temple buildings than in all of Egypt’s ancient ruined stuff.
13. Of all the begettings, the ones I want to concentrate on are those of the God-Kings called Suryavarman II (“Sury”) and his successor, Prince (then King) Jayavarman VII (Jay 7). I’d call him Jay Z but it’s been done, so Jay 7 it is.
14. Sury built Angkor Wat between 1113-1150. The entire everything from Hinduism is sculpted around the walls. Hinduism is a busy religion with a LOT going on (don’t even start me with Vishnu, Brahma, and Shiva). But the walls of Angkor Wat are nearly ½ a mile long on each side so, as busy as Hinduism is, there is room for it all. In fact, there was even leftover room for Sury to include himself in a lot of stories. He’s easy to spot whenever he pops up in a story ‘cause he’s the guy on the biggest elephant with more parasol’s shading him than anybody else.
15. Now comes my favourite part of the story: It starts with the attack by the Chams (the people of South Vietnam at the time) back in 1177. They came up the Mekong River and then the Tonle Sap River in boats (just like we did last week!) and then crossed the expanse of Tonle Sap Lake before completing a sneak attack on the Angkor empire, killing the king and scattering the Khmer people into the surrounding jungle. (We did not do that last week – that is where the stories diverge).
16. Four years later, the hero of our story, Prince Jay 7, rallied the people and in 1181 the Chams were routed and sent packing back to Vietnam where, in much later years, they converted to Islam, which is a whole ‘nother story. Jay 7 became God-King and reined happily and in relative peace for a long time. To celebrate, he built the biggest of the temple complexes, Angkor Thom, within whose massive moats is, amongst other present day ruined treasures, the astounding Bayon temple. In addition (‘cause why stop when you’re on a roll?) he also built some other amazing ruined temples nearby, Ta Prom & Preah Kahn, in honour of his mom & dad. They must be so proud!
17. Because Hindu religious stuff isn’t complicated enough, Jay 7 decided to convert to Buddhism (which meant that everybody else had to, also). It’s at this point, then, that we start to see the introduction of Buddhist religion stories and iconography into the stuff built by Jay 7 & the Begettings (which would be a great name for a rock band).
18. As a result, while it is weird to see the melding of the two religions all over the temple complex ruins – in a ‘Spin the Wheel of Religious Fortune’ kind of way – it’s awfully pretty.
And that, I think, is a good place to end because, indeed, it’s awfully pretty.