Sunrise at Angkor Wat
I begin with an apology, and a story. First: despite my best efforts, I’m still posting far more photos than I’d ordinarily think reasonable. But I hope you’ll agree that what I’ve seen is awe-inspiring enough to make it worth your perusal. Second: slice of life from Colombo, as I went for my lunchtime swim at the Otter Swim Club the other day (mostly Sinhalese, lots of families; we are NOT talking 24 Hour Fitness WeHo here, people) , what should my wondering eyes hear over the speakers but that early 1980s gay classic, Bronski Beat’s “Tell Me Why.” Wow. I’m sure I was the only one in the whole club who had any clue what I was listening to.
Goodness me, it seems three months have passed since I last took time to post anything to the blog. Perhaps this is just as well, since the last entry was chock full and friends are still writing to tell me they’ve only now looked at my pix from Polonnaruwa and Sigiriya. Lest you think I fell down on the job, fear not: you’ve noticed I’m loathe to post unillustrated entries (even as it is, I’ve been criticized for being a mite text heavy), and sadly enough, I didn’t leave Colombo – no, not one single day trip let alone overnights – between returning from Kandy in early November and heading off for a much-needed two-week vacation outside Sri Lanka on December 30. Gosh, when you put it that way I understand why I was getting a bit depressed and frayed around the edges by late December.
A lot of you who read this also get sporadic email updates from me about the status of our work in Sri Lanka and how I’m doing, so I won’t go into much here. Through patience and diligent efforts, we were able to relaunch our surgery & emergency medicine project in Point Pedro, on the Jaffna Peninsula, at the end of December (we treated our first patient on December 23, the day after the team got to Point Pedro). The other two MSF sections that are working in Sri Lanka have since then also been able to begin the projects they’d been planning for. It’s great that we’re able to work. It’s balanced by a great deal of sadness about the ongoing conflict in the country, and concern about what the future will hold; but we do what we can.
All around the innermost building of Angkor the four walls are decorated with exquisitely detailed bas relief scultpures depicting stories from the Ramayana, achievements of the kings of Angkor, and so on. Among the favorites are The Churning of the Ocean Milk, in which demons and gods battle it out to extract the elixir of eternity from the ocean by playing tug of war with a big serpent, and the capture of Sita (consort of Vishnu…I think…they all have many identities and avatars and so on, it’s most complex), is captured by an evil demon and taken to his island kingdom of – wait for it – Lanka, whence she is then rescued by Hanuman and his monkey army. Enjoy the highlights I’ve captured here: Howard, let me know if you enjoy the turtle. Naturally, I thought of you. 🙂
As the tons and tons of photos you’re about to see will tell you, I got special dispensation to leave Sri Lanka (normally we’re supposed to stay in country for the duration of an assignment, even on rest or vacation periods) for two weeks of vacation. I met my mother and brother in Thailand and guided them to Siem Reap and Phnom Penh in Cambodia, then back to Thailand for several days of beachy relaxation on Phuket Island before they headed back to the USA. I returned to Sri Lanka shortly thereafter (thanks again to Tony for hosting a couple very enjoyable days in Bangkok), and it’s wonderful to have an active project to support and work with. After so many months of uncertainty, it feels great to finally be part of something active and vital, and likely growing (possibility of opening another project has been discussed, if there is need and agreement among those involved).
My time in Sri Lanka is winding rapidly down, and I have to admit I’m not terribly sad about that: I’ll miss lots about this country and my work here, but I’m tired. I came down with (probably) Dengue Fever in mid-December, which knocked me flat on my back for five full days, and compromised my energy severely for the two weeks or so thereafter; in the month of January I’ve twice had some sort of nasal or sinus infection complete with sore throat and popping ears. Bottom line: I think I’m getting a bit run down and need a long rest period back on home soil. Which is in the cards: I’ll leave Sri Lanka in late March; train and do some tourism in France for parts of April, then land back in the states from late April through, very likely, most of July. As you can imagine, I’m quite looking forward to an extended home leave and the chance to do things like eat lots of Mexican food, take intensive Chinese lessons again, and…oh, yeah, see all of my friends and family again! :p)
Some factoids: Cambodia’s mostly flat, with some mountains around a couple edges of the modern-day borders. A big feature is a lake which appears massive on the map, called Tonle Sap. It connects, via a 120-km or so long river (the lake itself is that long or longer, end to end), to the Mekong in Phnom Penh. Get this: the Mekong and Tonle Sap meet in Phnom Penh, and the main Phnom Penh riverfront is on the Tonle Sap (I always imagined it was the Mekong). Better yet: during the rainy season, the Mekong gets so full that it backs up (runs upsteam!) into the Tonle Sap river, which backs up all the way to the Tonle Sap lake, which grows into an enormous mud puddle. I know it’s a mud puddle, because we’re only talking about 10 meters or so of height: the embankments in Phnom Penh, in early January partway into the dry season, only showed about 10 or maybe 20 meters’ worth of open height, so I figure the elevation difference between PP and the lake can’t be more’n about 20 meters if that – meaning, when the lake grows, it’s mighty big and mighty shallow. And mighty productive of freshwater fish.
But let’s get to the stuff that makes the Khmer really proud. We know it as Angkor Wat – and think of it, most of us I suspect, as “a temple.” We know it’s magnificent, we suspect “it” is one of the most remarkable things we may ever see. But it’s not an it. It’s the largest and most compelling complex of temples I’ve ever seen or heard of anywhere. Angkor Wat itself – Lonely Planet tells me – is the largest religious structure ever built in the world. t is also, on its own, one of the most beautiful creations of human imagination and faith I have ever seen. But it is one small part of the overwhelming splendor of Angkor. There are more than 20 major temples and buildings, many dozen less important ones spread across an area maybe 100km by 50km or more in size, approximately.
But in the meantime: let’s talk about Cambodia, modern-day home to the magnificent ruins of the once proud Khmer Empire. Angkor Wat: a name that’s held mystery and allure for me as long as I can remember – literally. I’m quite sure I knew about Angkor Wat before I was ten, and as long-time readers know, landlocked little Paulie Brockmann was obsessed with the world beyond Lake Erie and the Ohio River when he was still in Bugs Bunny PJ’s. I discovered – somewhat to my amazement – that many well-versed citizens of the world have never heard of Angkor Wat. So…how did you guess!? Time for a brief history. I promise to keep it short, since I’m even farther from any kind of Cambodia expert than from being any kind of Sri Lanka expert.
Capturing the purrrrrfect image of the sun rising behind the central towers of Angkor Wat, as you see, is something of a pursuit for most tourists. Mom and Steve stayed outside the compound, by the moat, until after the sun rose; at which point the hundreds, maybe thousands, of people perched at on high grounds for the exact right moment flowed back out the doors, rather like bath water once the plug is pulled. The place was remarkably peaceful and even more beautiful, to my eye, in the peace that ensued before the first hordes arrived in their tour buses.
Details: Steve with bas-relief figures in background (shows scale), a roof detail that shows some of this was once painted (reminds me of things I saw in Polonnaruwa and Sigiriya in Sri Lanka), and carved stone window posts that look for all the world like wood.The Khmer empire rose out of the flat but probably fertile – and flood-prone – lands at the northeastern edge of the Tonle Sap lake. There aren’t any obvious sources of wealth and power, other than the lake and the presumably productive terrain. Mom, Steve and I decided that a big part of what drove the Khmer Empire was pure leadership: some strong, visionary leaders in the right place at the right time, who took it to the heights. And they did scale the heights: from the late 800s (CE) to about 1200, they controlled much of modern-day Thailand, Vietnam, and Laos, and even a touch of what’s now China, Burma and Malaysia, if I read the maps correctly. Compare that to their status in the mid-1800s, when they might have been partitioned between Vietnam and Thailand, had they not invited the French in. Little wonder that Siem Reap, the more recently-named town that grew up south of the main temple areas, has a special meaning in Khmer: “Siam Defeated.” That’s all I’m going to say. May the pictures speak for themselves, and please pardon me for putting so many up. You read the blog, you know I’ve seen a lot of magnificence and beauty, both human-made and utterly without our intervention. The temples and structures around Siem Reap fully awoke my sense of awe, beauty and wonder. Go. Before it’s utterly overrun by tourists and ground to dust or broken up piece by piece and sold on illegal antique markets around the world. This is a glory of world culture, and will not disappoint.
I have to admit: this is one of my favorite shots, so I chose it to end my – first – presentation of images from Angkor Wat. Hope you’re not too overwhelmed.