Sunday, July 29, 2007

Cambodia at last! Part V: a balloon ride, a thousand lingas, a reclining Buddha and a waterfall

WARNING: video "intense" blog, FIVE OF THEM!

Our 4th day in Cambodia was pretty intense too. Actually, the whole trip was SO intense, I can't believe how you could do all in a quick weekend trip to Siem Reap... for us, 5 days were JUST enough, like, barely!

So, our 4th day started with... a balloon ride! About 1km from Angkor Wat, a huge yellow balloon rises high up, giving you a wonderful 15 minute ride. We were pretty excited about this thing, and even though Angkor Wat was not that easy to see in the distance (especially with all the sunlight, even early in the morning), the views of the green lush ground below, with the water shimmering and bright thanks to the sun, and just that moment of... peace, contemplation and excitement once above was well worth it. Truly awesome. In the video, Angkor Wat is exactly in the middle (not sure the quality will let you appreciate it, though).

Once we were done with that, we headed for Cambodia's most sacred mountain, Phnom Kulen, through long and winding jungle roads. The goal: a reclining Buddha inside a temple atop the mountain. To be honest, we have seen our share of reclining Buddhas, and sacred mountains, and truth be said this one was neither particularly impressive nor beautiful, though of course that doesn't make it any less sacred for Cambodians. The place was hot, the dirt road leading to the temple gave the place a dry, unkempt appearance. Some stray dogs added to the roughness of the scene. We enjoyed the visit, but what made it special was, when leaving the temple where the Buddha was, going down the steps leading down the temple to the ground, there were these old women, beggars, sitting, waiting. And amongst them was an old man, blind, who apparently could sing. So we asked the guide to ask him to sing something (we felt that giving money for a song was a bit more dignified than simply throwing bills into an extended hand). The song was... well, you better hear in the video. It moved us, even without knowing what he was singing. Anyhow, we figured that it was probably just some religious song, or a traditional one, or maybe one about the sorrow of not being able to see. But when we asked the guide to translate, he said the old man was asking Buddha for him to be born, in his next life, blessed with sight. Wow. We didn't expect that, and it did provoke a sudden and unexpected pang (because it was painful) of compassion.

Once we left the temple, we headed for a more "watery" part of the tour: the Thousand Linga River, or Kbal Spean. When you approach, you just see an average sized river in the mid of the jungle. Even when you get close, you don't quite see what's so special. And then, your eyes adapt, they get used to the patterns the water creates, and you see them... row upon row of lingas, Hindu phallic symbols, covering the whole riverbed! And you know, the symbols, in and of themselves, may not be that impressive, but in toto, when you see them as part of a gigantic effort to cover the riverbed, and representing one thousand phalli exploding and releasing their energy into the river flowing downhill, THAT's impressive (and marvelously worded, as the same could be said in a most uncouth way, of course!).

Finally we headed for our last stop: the waterfall of Phnom Kulen. Not to big, but definitely very refreshing, as the temperature was still damn high. And nature, and Buddha, decided to give us a parting gift for our last stop. What nature gave us was, besides the lovely setting, butterflies! so many of them! and we happened to take a break right next to a boulder where water had formed tiny "ponds" where the butterflies would go and drink! It was such a spectacle, so soothing, so hypnotic... We stared quite a while, enraptured...

And what Buddha gave us... another kind of show alright: one by one young monks, in bright orange and red robes, appeared and made their way jumping from boulder to rock to clearing to make it to the waterfall, and enjoy a refreshing day out! It was really cool watching these young monks just having fun and enjoying "a day off at the waterfall", a real surprise!

And so, this post ends. Next (and last on the "Cambodia Series"), one of the most beautiful temples of Angkor (Banteay Srei), lake Tonle Sap, our flight back to Singapore, and our last night there! Until next Sunday!

Monday, July 23, 2007

6th Anniversary

Ladies and Gentlemen… here’s a toast… to the 6th anniversary of my habib and me crossing paths!

The HOW: believe it or not, chatting on the internet on a Sunday afternoon, meeting on the afternoon of a Monday, having a second date THAT SAME EVENING, and never letting go off him since!

The WHEN: the online meeting, a Sunday 2001. The “off-line” meeting, the following.

The WHY: after two hours of deep, honest talk at our very first date, and after a more intense second date, I marked the guy as well worth holding onto. Still holding onto. And planning to hold onto for as long as possible!

The BEST moments: there’s been a great number of unique moments, but to mention just a few that come to mind right now… watching the moon set in Santorini’s caldera for our 3rd anniversary; exchanging rings at sunset in front of the Dead Sea in Jordan for our 2nd anniversary; scuba-diving for the first time in our lives, in Aqaba, Jordan; sharing a birthday with close friends, eating strawberries covered with brown sugar, in our balcony in Beirut… and many, many more.

The WORST moments: driving my poor habib repeatedly up the wall while learning to live together for the first time in Beirut; escaping from a bank being held up by a guy with a bomb belt in Beirut, only to see he had not run out with me, and waiting in anguish on the street until he finally was let out with others.

The OTHERWORLDLY moments: when my habib writes, and reads his writings to me; sometimes I'm moved, sometimes I marvel, sometimes I'm baffled because I can't follow, but I always get this feeling of creation taking place, creation beyond my comprehension even, but wondrous creation nevertheless.

The RULES: 1. To let each other to pursue personal and professional happiness and fulfillment freely, and always to support that quest, never hindering it because of jealousy or selfishness. 2. To not lie, ‘cause real and solid things can be built only on truth and trust. 3. To not take love for granted; to feed it, create it, tend it.

The FUTURE: Looking full of more love, more adventure, more experiences, more dreams come true.

So, cheers! The images: a Southeast Asian statue of Guanyin, given to me as a present by my habib for as a birthday gift, watching over two little Japanese sake cups (bought by my habib in Hong Kong for us) with which we toasted, in Beijing, to the beginning of the 7th year!

Gaudí at the Capital Museum

Because we were not going to miss an Antoni Gaudí exhibition at Beijing's Capital Museum (首都博物馆) - one of our favourite museums in the city -, right? After all, his architecture is pretty well known, but it's not that often that you can get close to his decorative art! 

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Cambodia at last! Part IV: Ta Prohm (or "Tomb Raider's Temple")

After all the wonders we'd seen, we still had AT LEAST one more to do: Ta Prohm. A Buddhist temple built in the 12th century and dedicated to the mother of the then king, it must have been an incredibly busy temple, with thousands of people inhabiting it, taking care of it, worshipping, wandering along its numerous corridors, halls and shrines... halls and shrines that, today, have been overtaken by roots, tenacious trees and verdant jungle.

This is pretty much how you'd expect a newly discovered temple in the middle of the jungle to look like. Of course, nature hasn't been left to go as wild as it could or, more accurately, it's been fought back a bit, so it may be visited once more, though this time the temple admirers consist of groups of camera toting Japanese, Chinese, Russians, Spaniards... and us two, of course.

Unfortunately, this temple was used for a scene in Tomb Raider. Yes, we actually watched that movie, and even though neither of us could remember a scene that included the temple, we do remember recoiling in horror at the ease with which ancient monuments were destroyed in that movie's plot... but that's another story. Anyhow, apparently, Angelina Jolie's appearance in the film AND at this temple means that some 95% of what our guide (and, probably, everybody else's guides) had to say included the words "Tomb Raider", "Angelina Jolie", "film" or "famous". The other 5% was rubbish of other sort. So we just tuned off to what he had to say, and tuned in to what surrounded us...

We stared in disbelief, imagining how beautiful the place must have looked like, how imposing, and picturing it along all the other wonders we had already seen... looking at the strong doors, the towers, corridors that must have lead into prayer halls while capturing some sense of dramatic tension, playing with carvings, perspective and light to provoke awe when entering their sacred spaces... and then your eyes would focus on the tree pushing its way right through a lintel, on another one perched high atop a hall, its roots hugging and crushing the building beneath, the jungle pushing through, pulsating into, across, over what once were hallmarks of civilisation, completely unhindered by tons of rock carved by thousands. Truly eye-opening how such a beautiful feat of technique and power had become an equally beautiful show of nature's power.

We explored the place for quite a while, it was so much bigger and complex than you could imagine, all of it hiding in the jungle.

Afterwards, we still visited Sra Srang, or the Pool of Ablutions, a huge reservoir which provided a nice and cool break from our "temple adventure". And at night we had dinner at "La Noria Restaurant" to watch a shadow puppet show. It was an interesting experience, although not an overly artistic one: little children are taught traditional Cambodian arts (like shadow puppet theatre and folk dances), so what you see is a lot of good-will from non profit organisations trying to give uneducated or maimed Cambodians a chance at self-sustenance, quite a bit of a lack of technique (after all, most true masters are dead by now), and an ambivalent feeling towards this art-cum-commercial product which nevertheless brings extra cash money into really needy hands...

Until next Sunday!

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Cambodia at last! Part III: Faces, frogs, and shadow puppets...

It's Sunday and, as promised in my last e-mail, it's time for another post! As for the title ("Faces, frogs and shadow puppets"), you'll soon see the why behind it...


After the Bayon we still visited a few more places. I know, Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom, and then still more? But it was still early (we had got up really early, to avoid the heat), and still had some energy left. So we visited the Elephant Terrace (which was a sort of viewing stand for ceremonies, the Prasat Suor Prat (or Temple of the Tightrope Dancers), and the Terrace of the Leper King. Now, the terrace itself did not seem that remarkable (especially after what we had seen), but, if you went down one of the sides of the terrace, you enter a narrow corridor formed by the terrace and an outer wall. Now, that corridor was something: you went in, and you found yourself cut off from the outside world, and all you had were these walls with row upon row of gods and demons, nagas and garuda-like figures, some placid, some terrifying. The secluded atmosphere gave you the feeling you were in some sort of lost treasure or adventure film, approaching some mysterious and secret temple...


After that, and lunch, it was time to go back to the hotel. But, since that implied going back more or less the same way that we had reached the terraces, I asked the guide to stop at the Bayon. I so wanted another look at that marvelous temple. So we went back, got off the car, I chose a quiet spot overlooking the temple across the moat, and admired it once more, in silence. Then, when I took some steps closer to the water, to get a better angle... dozens of small frogs started leaping from the shore into the water! and the most amusing thing was that the whole shore of the moat was packed with tiny brown frogs, so when I started walking along the shore, I kept seeing dozens and dozens of frogs jumping (almost invisible to me, because of their colour) into the water. The visual impression was most strange, and it's uniqueness befitted the temple so well!


On our way back, my habib remembered that there was a puppet workshop in some small temple on the outskirts of Siem Reap, and we decided that we still had just enough energy left to go and take a look. After all, the puppets they made there were being used for the only shadow puppet theatre in town. We asked around, and we finally made it to Wat Preah Inkosei, a temple with somewhat spacious grounds (for its size) and, in a nondescript corner, a wooden shack, the House of Peace workshop, a German funded workshop attended by an old woman and her cat. It was a simple place, with a screen on one side (to show how the puppets looked), and leather puppets representing all the required characters in the Reamker (the Cambodian version of the Hindu Ramayana): Shiva, Hannuman, Vishnu... we bought a Hannuman and a Krishna. After Cambodia's bloody civil war episode, it's interesting to see all the efforts being done, with support from the international community, to revive the arts, and to give Cambodians (many of them handicapped) a chance at rebuilding their country. Unfortunately, many of those efforts seem sometimes so... insufficient, and not because of lack of effort, but because of the scale of damage the Pol Pot era brought upon Cambodians...

Next week: The Tomb Raider Temple! (the irony of the title will become clear, next week!)

Sunday, July 08, 2007

Cambodia at last! Part II: Bayon

After our impressive visit to Angkor (after which you feel, "what else could there be that can amaze me as much?"), we went on to our second visit of the day: Angkor Thom (a fortified city built by King Jayavarman VII, 12th century).
First, the approach: our car drove up to the south gate of the city. There, the road leading up to the gate was flanked by long nagas being held by deities and demons, a clear reference to the churning of the ocean of milk, from the Ramayana. It's a long and quite fascinating story, which we actually saw represented in Bangkok as a traditional Khon theatre play. Suffice it to say that the naga had been tricked into coiling around an upside-down mountain in the ocean of milk, and deities and demons were pulling it back and forth to churn a wonderful potion that would render the gods powerful. It's one of the most famous stories of the Ramayana, and it's imagery was so vivid, I was really excited to see this scene at the gate. To the right of the road you could see a sot of pond, quite a big one, actually, where some boys were tending some water buffalo. The grass was so green, the light reflected on the water with a myriad of reflections, the whole scene was so placid... and then, you'd turn your head to the gate. Oh, the GATE... you just look at it. Need I say more about the gate itself?

After such a wonderful introduction to the site, we continued down the road, finally reaching IT: The Bayon, the temple with TWO HUNDRED AND SIXTEEN FACES. It was, by far, the place that... I don't know, it cast a spell on me. It became my favourite, in a strange and very emotional way, it was THE temple for me. The others were amazing, this one was MAGIC, utter craziness, stepping into it was, definitely and without exaggeration, like stepping into a different dimension. There were carvings on the walls surrounding the first level, carvings that depicted different aspects of life at the time yet, for me, looking at them and walking AROUND the main building was just like wetting my appetite, holding back a bit, before letting yourself be engulfed by IT.

The temple, which is surrounded by water, consists of three levels, the first two on a square base, while the third one is round, and there it is where you find yourself surrounded and being watched by, from every angle, monumental heads, with a half-smiling half-meditating look. It's just so otherworldly. Being the place I liked the most in Cambodia, I find myself lacking words to describe it. When you're there, standing, with a head as tall as a man (or bigger) looking back at you, with the three other faces of the head looking at the other 3 cardinal points, you just feel overwhelmed by awe, wonder, disbelief...

So, before I start repeating myself, here are some pics (and a bad vid), which will certainly do a terribly poor job of transmitting the power they project...