28 January 2006

More Temples & Art

The main language spoken in Cambodia is Khmer, not ‘Cambodian”, as I have miscalled it. I have seen the written form for years and have always been fascinated by its beautiful, dancing letters. The same is true for Indian script. You would have thought that I would have realized there was a connection between the two, but I didn’t until I was in Cambodia. Written Khmer has a Sanskrit origin, and that is all the presumed linguistic knowledge I will attempt for today.

Possibly, had I paid more attention to the fact that the Angkor temples were originally Hindu, I might have picked up on the language connection. It would appear that I have a lot of reading to do. But as I said before, I have to be in a place before I can internalize the basics like what language was spoken and what religion was practiced.

However, none of my cultural stupidity interfered with enjoying Day 2 of Temple Touring. Not even the sore throat that had turned into a nasty cold overnight could hinder the pleasure of being in Cambodia, although it did knock the exploring down a notch or two.

My tuk-tuk driver was waiting for me at 7am. I hadn’t spoken to him much the day before, but had correctly assumed that he knew where to go and at what time. I pulled out my Temple map and we plotted the first part of the day. I knew I wanted to go back to Bayon in the early morning hours when I hoped there would be very few others around, and I was right.

I walked into the temple grounds all alone, with just the sounds of the birds and a few, far-off voices. I was in heaven as I meandered through the walkways and corridors, often with no one insight and no voices to be heard. Now this was the type of ruins exploring I loved. It didn’t matter that I didn’t know what every carving symbolized, or that the temple was laid out in a very specific form. I didn’t need to know the details of what year this section was built and under what king changes had occurred. You see, you can just feel all of that. And if I were to stop and read something in a guide book, I would loose the connection. It was why I had only hired a guide for one day. In the isolation of ancient places, one needs only to rely on the voices and energies of the surroundings, which will speak to you if you listen carefully.

Eventually, I did move on to the next temple, one I had not visited the day before. It seemed that with most of the places I visited, you needed to first walk up a narrow, tree lined trail, before reaching the temple. On these trails I would often encounter small groups playing traditional music. Beautiful melodies drifted down the trail, accompanying your step as you approached the entrance. When you finally reach them, you find out that they are made up of landmine victims.

The first two groups I had heard at two other temples, were made up of all men, aged early 20’s to mid 30’s. I would stop and listen for a few minutes, then make a donation and thank the musicians. The third group I could only hear as I roamed around the temple. Their sweet sounds flowing through the columns and vaults. It wasn’t until I exited through the back entrance that I saw them.

This group was made up of boys and girls, men and women. When they finished one of their songs, I went up to put money in the donation box and ended up sitting down to talk to the director, himself a landmine victim. He founded the Angkor Association for the Disabled, which trains musicians and also has many projects going on in Siem Reap. Bookseller carts, in the center of town, are one the ways he has helped to enable people who, in the past, would not have been employable. The youngest of this musical group was a beautiful girl, maybe twelve years old. She played a stringed instrument that sits on the ground or on a table. I was taken by her musical ability. The director told me that she had only been playing for 15 days!

Their music carried me back through the temple and back on to the path out. Just as I stepped onto the trail, I stopped to look at the carved art work of an older gentleman. He sat carving while a young girl, possibly his granddaughter, stood next to a small table with items for sale. I was immediately drawn to the elegantly carved wooden egrets; three of them standing together on a piece of wood. They had articulated necks with their heads attached to strings which, in turn connected, puppet-style, to a wooden bar. The whole apparatus hung from a hook, and the egrets’ heads bobbed up and down. I had to have this. The artist told me it had taken him two days to make.

Back at the tuk-tuk, I showed my birds to the driver and then suggested we walk across the street and get something to drink. We sat at a table set up under an awning. My driver knew all of the people and helped translate when I bought a few t-shirts. The one I really wanted was only in a size L. And in Asia, I am a size XXXL. The women wouldn’t believe me and said I was very small for a foreigner. She told me to try it on, and even though I knew it wouldn’t fit, I really wanted it, so agreed. Where does one try on a shirt in a side-of-the-road shop? No problem; she held up a length of material while I tried to squeeze myself into the top. She assured me that if I washed it and stretched it, it would fit. I bought a couple of XXL men’s t-shirts instead.

While resting, I told my driver that I was really interested in other local crafts, such as my egrets, and asked if he knew where to find such items. He said that there was a basket making store close to the Banana, and would take me there when we got back. I think I did one more site before I called it a day.

We drove by the Banana, down a dirt ally, then onto to a slightly larger dirt street and stopped in front of a house that had two large baskets out front. My driver pointed to the house across the street and said it was his mother’s house that he had lived in until two years ago when he had married and gone to live with his wife’s family.

I should point out that all the houses I had passed were small places, built on stilts. The basket workshop was much larger, and the area under the stilts had been turned into a production studio. Women sat on the floor weaving large, laundry style baskets. It was great to see, but I was looking for the finer woven, small baskets. I was then directed to go inside and into another room. There, displayed on shelves, was an array intricately woven baskets in all sorts of interesting shapes and sizes. I also noticed a sign saying it was a Fair trade organization. I started asking prices. They started at $3, and I started picking ones to buy. Then I noticed these purses that were made from some sort of dried, dyed, Delta grass. As with the baskets, their shapes were amazingly unique, and the quality superior. I would have bought more but I started to worry about getting them on the plane. I stopped myself from purchasing a large, laundry basket, and filling it to the brim. One has only so much room in which to display artwork.

It had been another great day, which was not yet over. I had dinner plans with a few of my new found friends. I spent my one night on the town, first eating at a place that looked like someone’s idea of what a funky, Ft Lauderdale seafood restaurant would look like. Probably styled after something they’d seen in a movie or on MTV. The restaurant was a series of levels and platforms with low tables on each one where you sat on cushions. Lighting was sort of bluish and dim. In the middle, on a raised stage, they had a live, Philippino band. The gals could sing any song you requested, all the while dancing around in gigantic platform shoes. The wait staff wore t-shirts and jeans and had gangster-tied bandanas on their heads.

I sat next to my friends and we were joined by four of their friends from Siem Reap. It was really fun, the food was good, but I had to keep moving around to get comfortable. Fortunately, I could actually lie down if the back or knees got too stressed from sitting in a not-normal-for-me position. After dinner, we walked around the corner to a cozy little, quiet pub. At 11:00, I wussed out and went back to the Banana. Tomorrow would be the last day my temple pass was valid and I wanted to be ready for it.

I’m not sure if there is anything more to tell, but you will soon know.