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Photography Travels

[2616] Reward and punishment in the afterlife, at Angkor Wat

A friend of mine will be spending a number of days in Cambodia later this month. Upon learning her travel plans, I began to reminisced my long hot lazy Cambodian days. I began to imagine going through the temple ruins all over again, and the walks I walked, the rides I rode, the conversations I engaged in, the drinks I drank, even the diarrhea I suffered.

So at the end of my work day, I drove home and the first thing I did was to switch on my laptop and went through my Cambodia album all over again. Sigh…

You know this entry will be about Cambodia.

Angkor Wat has a number of impressive bass reliefs along its outer corridors. The famous one is the Churning of the Milky Ocean. The myth of the Churning of the Milky Ocean is an important narrative in Hinduism. I also learned a lot of Hindu mythology from Angkor Wat and its reliefs.

Below is a bas relief telling the story of reward and punishment in the afterlife from Hindu perspective.

Some rights reserved. Creative Commons 3.0. Hafiz Noor Shams

There are some graphic representations of hell but this particular section of the relief is about the righteous being brought to judgment, if I remember correctly. This is also another significance to the relief: Angkor Wat was built in the honor of death unlike other temples. The king—Suryavarman—ordered the construction of the temple to prepare for his death.

Some parts of the relief appear polished. It is only so because visitors have the habit of touching the relief with their hands.

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Photography Travels

[2615] Life on Tonle Sap

I spent some time near the northern part of Tonle Sap, close to Siem Reap. While I did enjoy the temples and I did wish that I spent more time exploring more temples, the change in view was not that bad.

Tonle Sap Lake is the largest freshwater lake in Southeast Asia. I read about the lake when I was a teenager and it was an awesome feeling to have finally been there.

There are multiple interesting facts about the lake. One is that its size during the dry and wet season differs remarkably. So does its depth. At some places during the wet season, the water level can reach the canopy level of the forest. Two, the lake is connected to the mighty Mekong at Phnom Penh some hundreds of kilometers to the south east and that river flows upstream during the wet season and the Mekong overflows and downstream during the dry season. It is the overflowing of the Mekong that contributes to the size of the lake during the wet season.

Both Cambodians and Vietnamese live on the Tonle Sap lake. The Vietnamese would come to Tonle Sap when the lake swells the size. In the dry season, they would return to Vietnam. I find the transnational nature of the Vietnamese fishermen as amazing. Many other countries including Malaysia guards it frontier in the sea jealously. Cambodia employs a liberal policy instead. Tonle Sap is located in the middle of Cambodia and the Cambodian government allows Vietnamese fishermen to settle here during the peak season. There is a background story to this but I think that is too complicated for me to tell in this entry.

I visited a village or two on the lake. They are villages of fishermen. The reason for that should be obvious: freshwater lake, fish.

Here, two brothers were busy catching some fishes.  This was near the edge of the lake.

Some rights reserved. Creative Commons 3.0. Hafiz Noor Shams

When I reached that particular village, most fishermen were done working at the lake and they were collecting their catch caught in their nets.

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Photography Travels

[2612] Lost in Preah Khan

Which is my favorite temple ruins among all the Angkor temples that I visited?

It is Preah Khan.

Some rights reserved. Creative Commons 3.0. Hafiz Noor Shams

Unlike others which are mountain temples, Pheah Khan is a collection of chambers and open space. And unlike others which at once impose their presence upon sight, Preah Khan is unassuming. Its entrance is an open courtyard with statues of devas and demons lining up on both sides. That leads to an door or archway which in turn leads you to the temple itself.

You will only realize its vastness once you are inside. Indeed, I was lost within the temple ruins after wandering with my camera. Its greatness is subtle and I like subtlety.

Pheah Khan is also interesting to me because it is the clearest example of Hindu-Buddhist conflict in the past. The Khmer Empire was primarily a Hindu polity but for some decades, its rulers decided to adopt Buddhism. The Hindu reaction came later when its rulers embraced Hinduism again. It was during this time that various Buddhist images were vandalized or redone as Hindu icons. In fact, Hindu kings converted Buddhist temples into Hindu temples.

Here is an example of Hindu reaction to Buddhism in the Khmer empire; images of Buddha were chiseled out:

Some rights reserved. Creative Commons 3.0. Hafiz Noor Shams

Here is another where a Buddha image was remodeled as a Hindu holy man:

Some rights reserved. Creative Commons 3.0. Hafiz Noor Shams

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Photography Travels

[2604] A tree at Ta Prohm

Ta Prohm is one of the temple ruins in Siem Reap, Cambodia, which have been reclaimed by nature. Trees grow everywhere, within the compound of the ruins, and on the temple itself.

Some rights reserved. Creative Commons 3.0. Hafiz Noor Shams

Complete restoration of the ruins—meaning removal of the trees—is not possible without damaging the temple. The roots have grown intricately through the temple walls and killing the tree will mean damaging the ruins. From a pest, the trees have formed a symbiotic relationship with the ruins. The trees are now supporting the temple together, for now.

There is a philosophical debate here: preservation versus restoration: leave it be, or “restore” the ruins to its original glory. Here, the preservation camp sort of won and the trees remain.

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Economics Society Travels

[2595] Good things happen to good people

If one looks at various socioeconomic statistics, it is easy to conclude how far behind Malaysia Cambodia is.

Yet superficially, if one landed in Siem Reap in north Cambodia, one would find it hard to differentiate rural Cambodia from rural Malaysia, apart from Khmer writing on the billboards and posters as well as the spoken language. The homes appeared Malay and the people themselves looked Malay. There were a number of times when a Cambodian spoke to me in Khmer, only to giggle finding out that I did not speak their tongue.

The substantive difference became clearer only once I was in the town of Siem Reap. Most parts of the town were dusty to present a Wild, Wild West impression. There was clear under investment in infrastructure. The statement on infrastructure was true elsewhere as well. There were not too many cars. Whatever seen on the road would be driven by westerners, or belonged to the government or some aid organizations. The locals would either ride a bicycle or a motorcycle generally instead.

The tuk-tuk and the likes formed the backbone of public transport. A Cambodian tuk-tuk is essentially a small cabin attached to a motorcycle.

In Siem Reap, Battambang and Phnom Penh, every single available tuk-tuk driver would hail me and ask if I needed a ride. Sometimes, it appeared almost everybody on the road honked at me to ask plainly, ”tuk-tuk?”

A college friend of mine whom I was traveling with me told me that her brother visited Cambodia a few years earlier. She joked that he was traumatized by the tuk-tuks. She went on to buy a tuk-tuk-themed T-shirt for him as a cruel souvenir.

The persistence was noteworthy and it did not end with the tuk-tuks.

As both of us explored the Angkor temple ruins littered throughout the land, children would approach us and beg us to buy something from them. It could be a bottle of cold water, a flute, a book, a piece of cloth, anything. They would beg in the softest of voices that would melt the heart of an untrained traveler. There was a hint of desperation in their voices. And they were persistent.

After a while I became desensitized to the incessant pleas, as many other travelers eventually did. My friend made the desensitization easier. She said we could not possibly help them all by purchasing everything from everybody.

What struck me the most, and informed me the most about the state of Cambodian society beyond the cold statistics, was our guide.

We employed a Cambodian guide, who led us into various ruins. He explained to us in detail the history, the story behind amazing Angkor’s bas-reliefs and shared tidbits about temples for a moment worth of amusement. We thoroughly enjoyed his company.

By the end of the day, we wanted to go to where we wanted to go and he had to go to where he had to go. We parted ways. We paid and thanked him for a splendid day.

He thanked us for the payment, as it is customary to do so. What was unusual was that he exhibited further unnecessary gratitude. He explicitly thanked us for providing him with employment.

It was quite clear that he not only wanted a job. He also needed it.

What I am about to do is an attempt at generalization. There are always perils at doing so but after observing the Cambodian society as a foreigner, I do think Cambodia has a bright future.

It is true that it is poor now, with children working on the streets when they are supposed to be in school.

Yet, I do not believe those rough edges are enough to negate my optimism. I am optimistic because Cambodians in general appeared to have that hunger to move forward and leave the past behind.

Life in the capital Phnom Penh is the symbol of that hunger. The city is not as modern as Kuala Lumpur and it will be many years before the two are at parity.

Nevertheless, Phnom Penh is developing even as it maintains its old colonial charm. One can immediately feel the go-go spirit in the capital as one skyscraper or two slowly inches toward the sky, as the tuk-tuks laze across the city. The newly found Cambodian openness will further aid progress.

For years, Cambodia was held back by inward-looking world views. Judging by what I saw in Cambodia, from the rural north to the urban south, that self-damaging age has come to pass almost fully.

A new Cambodian era introduces its own issues.

Cambodians complain of corruption and suspicious political maneuvering. But as the society matures as it is inevitable with continuous economic progress that was impossible 30 or 40 years ago, chances are these issues will be arrested along the way to a more tolerable level.

I do hope Cambodia progresses to emerge out of its ancient Khmer predecessor’s shadow.

As I was haggling with a merchant at a market in Phnom Penh for an item, an American saw me and smiled. He approached me and said: ”They’ll take every penny from you. But they are good people.”

Good things are supposed to happen to good people.

Mohd Hafiz Noor Shams. Some rights reserved Mohd Hafiz Noor Shams. Some rights reserved Mohd Hafiz Noor Shams. Some rights reserved
First published in Selangor Times on September 7 2012.