Monday, 14 June 2010

Epic Temples and Dances

[On June 30th I wrote:]
It feels slightly strange starting to write this about Cambodia as I sit in LAX airport, waiting to bid farewell to Los Angeles and say hello to Miami, having uploaded the pictures to this blog over two weeks ago during my nine-hour wait at Hong Kong airport… I think I may well have covered more of the planet over the last few weeks than over the entire year so far…
But before I head back to Cambodia, a small digression. I am becoming very sceptical of some of the supposed benefits of the so-called developed world. By far the most tortuous and badly-organised of any of my passages through customs was on my arrival in LA. Somehow the fingerprinting as soon as I stepped off the plane, bleary-eyed after a near 30-hour journey, gave the “Welcome to the USA” a rather hollow ring (if the convoluted cattle-herding via self-satisfied officials hadn’t already). And of all my many, many check-ins, the most painful was this morning’s, courtesy of American Airlines. Oh yes, give me Delhi (“Only one bag, Madam?”) or Leh or Dharamsala or Chennai or Mumbai or Bangkok (very whizzy) or Phnom Penh or Hong Kong any day. And Phnom Penh and Hong Kong have free wifi everywhere, which Western airports have yet to cotton on to…
As you can see, I’m not finding my re-integration into the West very smooth…
I am however glad to note that my uncanny ability to estimate weights and measures remains undiminished (Once, in my class of seven year olds, we were arguing over the length of a metre. “It’s about this long,” I said, holding my hand above the floor. One of my classmates went to get the metre rule and under the eyes of all, I was proved exactly right. It didn’t make me smug at all – honest). You may recall that I estimated that I was carrying around 35kg on my very sweaty passage through the Thai-Cambodian border. Well, on leaving Phnom Penh, my checked-in luggage was 28kg (which required separation as two bags are allowed to America, apparently, but not exceeding 23kg each. All was well and remarkably smooth, after some unzipping, some tying, the $3 cellophane-wrapping service, and helpful Cambodians all round). Out of curiosity, I weighed my hand luggage on the way to pay my departure tax and found it was 7kg. So 35kg. Yes, I am a beast of burden. And here’s me heading to LAX airport this morning, just to prove it. It’s a new rucksack, a rather expensive but much easier to carry (if not to pack) replacement of the one that required sewing up in Bangkok.
But back to the beginning of June and Cambodia. Here are some pictures of the boat journey from Battambang to Siem Reap. These are typical houses just outside Battambang:
And here's a distant Chinese fishing net (memories of Kerala):

The huge lake (Tonle Sap) that looks like a brown sea:

I arrived in Siem Reap still rather dazed from my Vipassana experience and was very glad to find Paul and Sara at the Red Lodge, where we spent their final night in Cambodia together and they helped me negotiate my two days with my moto-taxi driver around the temples of Angkor.
The temples at Angkor are a World Heritage Site, and by Cambodian standards, FANTASTICALLY expensive. My pass for two days (valid for three but two was as far as my time and energy would take me) cost $40, which to put in context, was roughly the cost of two nights in my swish hotel in Battambang, a few of my meals there and my boat ticket to Siem Reap. My driver for two days, after some hard bargaining, cost me $25.
[This entry is written piecemeal, so some time more recently, I continued:]
I’m not quite sure what I made of the temples at Angkor. There are many, many, many of them, dating from some time around the 8th century to the 13th. The most famous is Angkor Wat, the largest religious structure in the world (according to Lonely Planet) and built around the same time as Chartres and Notre Dame. It was originally conceived as a Vishnu temple, but after various religious re-structurings, Vishnu was replaced with Buddha (all very well and good, as in some lines of Vaishnavite thought, Buddha is one of the incarnations of Vishnu). There are some famous frescoes lining the walls outside, depicting scenes from the Mahabharata. This is quite unusual, as the Mahabharata is not particularly well-known anymore in Southeast Asia, whereas that other Hindu epic, the Ramayana, remains very popular, with local variants in the retelling.
Here's the approach to Angkor Wat:
And one of the flame trees I enjoyed so much all over Cambodia:

Another story you just can’t escape in Cambodia is the churning of the ocean of milk (I wrote about this at some length in the entry entitled “Dancing the Enchantress through the Keralan Odyssey”, if anyone wants a reminder). Virtually every entryway to every Cambodian temple is decorated with demons on one side and gods on the other, pulling at the serpent to churn the ocean. I saw far more Khmer representations of this than I ever did in India.
I was very confused about the varying subjects of worship at the many temples of Angkor and it took me some time to work out the rough order, give or take a few deviations. This wasn’t helped by the fact that most of the temples have no information outside them whatsoever. Many don’t even have a panel citing the name. One of the rare exceptions to this was the Swiss undertaking at Banteay Srei, an old pink and very beautiful Shiva temple. The visitors’ centre was a mine of information and that and the adjoining restaurant were in beautiful harmony with the natural surroundings, down to the water-buffalo they had encouraged local farmers to reintroduce in the adjoining fields. I was very grateful in this instance for the Swiss mania for organisation.
They call it “Brahminism” rather than “Hinduism” in Cambodia, but it seems to be essentially the same thing. So I think the genealogy went: Shaivism (around the 8th century on), then Mahayana Buddhism, then a brief spell of Vaishnavism, then Theravada Buddhism (which it has remained, by and large). So I explored temples that had been built to Shiva, to Vishnu and to various incarnations of the Buddha. Most of the Shiva and Vishnu temples had been converted to Buddhism somewhere along the way, and it was quite strange seeing empty yoni after yoni, where a Shiva-linga had once sat, occasionally replaced by a statue of the ascetic Buddha. The conflagration of imagery (Buddha on a vagina, bluntly) was startling (to me), to put it mildly.
Here's the entrance to Banteay Krei:
The Indian Archaeological Survey seems to be restoring Ta Prohm in all its Indiana Jones style glory:

It was also sobering to learn that the temples at Angkor were about the only ones in the country left standing by the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s. Pretty much anywhere else you go in Cambodia, the Buddhist temples are new as all the old ones were destroyed.
Here's Bayon:

Another thing I found rather dispiriting was the number of children hawking around the temples. Cambodian children do cute like no others I have ever met. I, however, have a heart of stone when it comes to winsome children and was pretty impervious to their pleadings, even if really rather depressed by their circumstances.
“Two foh one dollah. Pleeeease, you buy later?... Where you from miss?... England: London, David Cameron,” only a couple of weeks after the election, which was really quite impressive, “sixty miyyon peepol… I no money go skool. You buy miss?”
But of course, if I was buying, no one was every sending her to school. Apparently, these kids are all managed by cartels of adults, so it’s very questionable how much money they or their families ever see of what they sell.
Here was a particularly appealing girl, perhaps five or six years old, perfectly placed to ambush all comers over the flooded walkway to Preah Khan:

I had to get very strict. “That’s enough now. I’ve said no. You need to STOP now.”
“Ohhh, miss, you no nice.” And off she went to find more sympathetic prey. She had a nasty cough I didn’t like the sound of and wished she were home and out of the oncoming tropical rainstorm.

Once inside the walls of Preah Khan, which at one point was a whole university-cum-city, I bumped into two Vietnamese monks for the second time that day. They, like me, were sightseeing (I wish I’d thought to ask whether monks get a discount as I really can’t see how they’re supposed to afford the temples otherwise). The one with the most English stopped to chat to me again, insisted on taking my email address (even though he doesn’t have access to the internet) and gave me his postal address in Vietnam, on a scrap of paper he ripped out of the exercise book he was carrying in his tiny suitcase. He had to open the suitcase to get to his exercise book, which was of the kind with the lined squares I was taught to write on in French schools - to this day my favourite writing paper with the miraculous ability to make my handwriting look rather artistic. So now I know what a Buddhist monk carries around on holiday: a pen, an exercise book, a spare set of orange robes, a packet of fags and a lighter. Slightly incongruous, but there you go.

From orange robes to orange butterflies on toes:

After my two very hot sticky days wandering around temples and clambering over their apparently endless steps in varying stages of decay and dizzying steepness, I gave myself a more relaxed day mooching about Siem Reap (which apparently means “Thailand Defeated,” neither the most diplomatic nor accurate name for a town near the Thai border). Siem Reap is a great town for food, I discovered. Having eaten the Asian food of whatever locality I happened to be in almost exclusively for nearly nine months, I had developed a complete aversion to it by the time I’d got to Siem Reap. I can’t explain why this might be, other than boredom and the strange effects of the Vipassana experience. Fortunately, Siem Reap is definitely the best place I have been in Asia for Western food (the French weren’t there for nothing). I managed excellent Italian, Mexican, and general all-round hippy food. It’s expensive by Asian standards, but very good.
These days, any journey under twelve hours sounds short to me. After my two bus rides totalling nearly that to Kampot in the south of Cambodia, I realised that it doesn’t feel remotely short. Perhaps I have reached my saturation of long overland trips for the moment. Kampot, however, is a charming town, well worth the effort, not far from the sea, with a river running through it and lots of lovely dilapidated old French colonial architecture.
I was there to volunteer for my friend Katie’s charity, Epic (click here to see what they’re about).

Having witnessed plenty of evidence of Cambodia’s poverty, what they have created there rose up like a minor miracle. In many ways, Cambodia is the most shockingly poor place I have ever been. It’s not that I haven’t seen more extreme poverty in India or sub-Saharan Africa, but there at least, there is a middle class. In Cambodia, everyone is poor, apart from the few fantastically rich - and generally one wonders how they got that way, as the corruption is some of the worst in the world. An example of this is a story told to me by a Czech woman who had been visiting an orphanage she had previously volunteered at. Some Japanese sponsors of the orphanages wanted to bring the children to Japan on a trip. When the orphanage director enquired about passports for the children, he was told he would have to pay a $500 bribe to the official involved to process the request. This is before passport and visa fees. For orphans. $500 is a fantastic sum of money in Cambodia. And stories like this are fantastically common and fantastically depressing.
But back to Epic:
Essentially, they are an integrated arts company, using performing and visual arts as training, work and creative empowerment for disabled people. There are virtually no facilities for disabled people in Cambodia, so their work makes a big difference. They run a lovely café in town, staffed by deaf young people, at which I ate half-price as a volunteer and made the most of this as the food was extremely good and the café a lovely place to hang out. Slightly further from the town centre (a five minute bicycle ride away perhaps), is their new performing arts centre, a beautiful building with views of the Bokor hills, a fantastic huge studio with sprung wooden floors and a lovely light office and meeting area. I was to spend the mornings that week teaching workshops to the students on the Vocational Training Programme. Katie was to start choreographing a piece on them and my work was geared towards supporting that process.

Most of the students were deaf and a couple used wheelchairs. The translation situation was very comical at times: into and out of Khmer for the ones who hear, into and out of sign language for those who don’t – and all of it for me. I was given my sign name and soon realised that I knew my group only by their sign names and not by their spoken ones. This would lead to some rather surreal conversations. “Haircut needs to work on this" and "Pointing-to-the-Mole-on-His-Nose does this nicely…”
I also had to completely rethink my communication strategy. I realised how strong is my tendency to introduce an exercise, set its parameters and then add information, image by image, as the group I’m working with moves through it, usually for extended periods of time. Of course, this isn’t possible with deaf people without utterly disrupting the flow and focus in order for everyone to turn round and watch someone sign. I learnt how much of what I say is superfluous and also how much it is possible for me to release an idea to the group, that I don’t have to be on top of it all the time. The deafness gave me permission to back off, give space, without worrying that I was being lazy or somehow short-changing my students.
Not a bad view from the studio...

I had a lovely week with them all, some of whom are very talented movers, quite a few of them easefully and joyfully acrobatic in a way I have always rather envied. All of them were fabulously creative and hungry and a pleasure to work with.
My birthday (my 37th, which is really rather a shocking thought) was mid-way through, and I was treated to a huge mango birthday cake at the mid-morning break.
I can’t remember the last time a group was so excited by my birthday (perhaps it was just the chance for some cake) and I was very touched. Cutting something like twenty slices got a little tricky when I was told to ignore Chok. Chok is nineteen and has Downs syndrome. Until Epic came along, he had no support or education and most people assumed he was deaf and stupid (which he isn’t). Now he has plenty of people who make a big fuss of him and a regular special needs class. However, nineteen years is a lot to catch up on and he hasn’t yet understood the concept of rules. One of these is that he is not allowed to take wheelchairs from people who actually need them.

Undeterred, Chok would regularly wheel through my class on a purloined chair, join in for five minutes and then wheel off again when he got bored.
Well today, a company decision had been taken that he would get no birthday cake until he got out of the chair.

And apologised.
It took a while and I felt extremely mean. Chok is very appealing when he asks nicely.
But we got there in the end.

“What’s he saying sorry for?” I asked, as Chok bowed his apology to me, hands pressed together.
“No idea, but it’s good he’s saying sorry,” I was told.
And Chok got his cake to widespread applause.
It was lovely to spend some time with Katie after a gap of seven years, I was rather alarmed to work out. It was good to share ideas and work with her, get to know her lovely husband Hal and her nearly-two year old (also extremely lovely), Ben. I was inspired and humbled by the great work she has instigated at Epic and that all those who work with her carry out.
On my last night in Kampot, we went to swim in this river as the sun set. I shan’t forget it in a hurry.
I hope it’s not another seven years before I see Katie again.
Another, much shorter bus ride took me to Phnom Penh, where I spent my last weekend in Cambodia. My Facebook status after my first day read:
Lucy May Constantini dilemma of the day: what’s a girl to do when part way through her motodop (motorbike taxi) ride in an unknown city, she discovers her driver is drunk?”
Which says it all.
“Walk and pray,” was one of the responses – which is exactly what I did do, but in reverse order, alighting at a traffic light and thanking my stars that I had thought to tear out the map in my Lonely Planet and stuff it in my bag.
But Phnom Penh was generally a fairly pleasant and friendly experience, shopping at the “Russian” (who knows why?) market for gifts and unessential essentials I absolutely had to get before I finally left Asia, and spending my second day at museums.
That Sunday morning was by far the grimmest of my experiences so far. I spent it at S-21, the high school turned detention centre by the Khmer Rouge and now a genocide museum. Nearly seventeen thousand people went into that place and only seven were alive at the end. If they didn’t die of torture, they were killed at the infamous “Killing Fields” just outside the city, often bludgeoned to death to save precious ammunition. Classroom upon classroom is filled with the headshots of the prisoners: men, women and a depressing number of children, quite a few women holding their babies (toddlers got their own mugshots). And only seven came out alive. Grim, grim, grim.
I didn’t take any pictures while I was there. It felt fatuous to do so.
Upstairs in one of the blocks was a small exhibition explaining the history of the Khmer Rouge period. Pol Pot’s genocidal regime ruled Cambodia from 1975 to 1979, during which between a fifth and a quarter of the population died. Some historians hold the regime killed almost two million people, others only seven hundred and fifty thousand. They don’t dispute that two million died but reckon the American carpet-bombings finished off the rest. The Khmer Rouge regime rounded everyone up into agrarian work collectives where they were basically used as slave labour, many dying from overwork, starvation and generally preventable diseases, as well as murder and torture. Anyone educated was killed and schools were abolished.
It took the Vietnamese, tired of Pol Pot’s army massacring their villages on the borders, to invade Cambodia and liberate it from the Khmer Rouge, installing a new government. Meanwhile, the US didn’t like the Vietnamese because of the recent Vietnam War, the Chinese had their own reasons I don’t understand, and the Thais didn’t like the Vietnamese so close to their borders. Between them, these three countries persuaded all the rest not to recognise the new Cambodian government and instead the Khmer Rouge represented the people it murdered at the UN until well into the 1990s. Pol Pot died peacefully and at liberty of natural causes and only now are some of the senior Khmer Rouge cadres facing trial. Hurrah for the international community. Aren’t we great?
After this very upsetting morning, I whiled my afternoon away at the National Museum, mainly looking at statues that had been removed for safe-keeping from the temples at Angkor.
And so ended my time in Asia. A large part of me didn’t want to leave while another part of me was up for some Western convenience, decadence, call it what you will. I needed new walking sandals and a new rucksack and knew it would be more reliable and easier (if more costly) to get them in the USA. I can’t imagine a bigger shift than between Phnom Penh and LA and it was a shock when it came.
But more on that anon.
Wishing you easeful transitions and happy landings, wherever they are,
From Lucy, with love xx

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