We first came to Foshan in 2006, fresh and new to Asia. We left for awhile but came back in 2011 to remeet old friends and rediscover the city. And has it changed! Foshan In the past six years Foshan has grown, modernized and beautified. Take a look at the article, and browse throughsome of my old blogsabout it on Travelpod.com, to learn more about this fascinating, changing city.
Like a tin wind-up toy, the food server danced toward us in near frantic rhythm.
Sweating a little, and worried that my scarf has slipped too far off my hairline for propriety, I watched him from my seat on the floor.
Left foot sideways. Ladle in the bucket. Right foot sideways and back. Ladle out. Left foot forward, and, plop!, a deposit of green pea curry in the metal tray of the Sikh woman in front of him.
She sat cross-legged with her family on the long woven mat with her dishes in front of her, like me and Dan, just one of the thousands of hungry who come to the Amritsar Golden Temple's langar, or community kitchen.
I can't watch the pea curry guy for long though, because someone is coming with water to pour in the metal bowl in front of me, and another man is coming with the chapati basket. All of the scurrying servers, cleaners and cooks are volunteers.
They have to rush--hordes of people wait for every twenty-minute seating. After our quickly eaten meal of curry, dal, rice pudding and chapati, the diners carried their trays, bowls and spoons out to the communal dish washing area. I have never seen dishes washed so religiously.
Leaving the area to the hand washing station, groups of men and women clustered on the floor peeling onions and garlic for a future meal.
We visited the Golden Temple to try to get a picture of Sikhism, a religion from Northwest India. Sikh men are easily recognizable by the large, tightly wrapped turbans they wear.
From what we gathered from the museum and other reading, in general Sikhs believe in community service and standing up for the poor. They are fierce soldiers and have no caste system. The founder of the religion mixed some Hindu and some Muslim beliefs with his own workaday spiritualism.
As nice as it was at the Golden (as in real gold!) Temple with it's huge pond for ritual purification and laid-back shady colonnades, we weren't in love with Amritsar city itself and decided to press on to the Himalayan foothills after only a few days there.
If you died and came back as an animal, what would you like to be?
Bet it's not a rat.
But, the desert temple of Karni Mata in small town Deshnoke, Rajasthan, protects a whole flock of rodents the faithful believe were locals in their past lives.
We came across several versions of the story, but it seems that a girl who lived in the town some 500 years ago turned out to be an incarnation of the goddess Durga.
One of the miracles attributed to her, along with saving people from snakebites, creating springs of water in the arid desert, taking the form of a lion to fight enemies and feeding an army from just a few chappatis and a bit of yoghurt, is that she saved the souls of a group of people from going to the death god, Yama. Instead of going with Yama, these peoples' souls are reborn in the form of the holy rats that scamper about the temple consecrated to Karni Mata. Which group of people are now living rodenty lives seems to be a matter of confusion—whether it's storytellers in general, the relatives of a specific storyteller or the family of Karni Mata herself, wasn't clear to me after our visit.
The temple is a small one, down a dusty dirt road surrounded by low buildings and near the train line. At the entrance, people hawked the normal things you find by any temple in India—bangle bracelets, religious tracts, effigies of gods and goddesses and cups of tea. At this temple, they also sold food for the rats.
Entering the temple, I clumsily stepped through wet, clotted globs of pigeon doodoo, feeling the crumbs of yellow sacrificial meal (read: rat food) between my bare toes. Rats ran freely about the enclosure, snacking on the meal or slurping down milk from large steel pans placed there just for them.
The first rat—though Dan and I agreed it would be better termed a 'large mouse'--made us jump a bit.
We're in agreement--we've reached a new level of gross. But, strangely, though the thought of going to the rat temple had made my skin crawl while we were planning our trip, at the temple it seemed as normal as anything else we've done traveling.
The mice were pretty cute, really, scrubbing their little whiskered faces with tiny pink paws and scurrying back to the many holes in the temple walls to escape the increasing brilliance of the morning sun. A lady took a special interest in us and showed us how to walk around the back of the altar and where to hug the wall if we wanted to pray.
We spent awhile craning our necks in an alcove watching a few mice in the shadows, trying to spot the holiest of holy rodents—the albino rat. A man standing there, seemingly for that express purpose, told us to watch out for it. We had no luck there, but did spot a jaundiced-looking yellowy rat in a different part of the temple. The guidebook also mentioned that if the mice ran over our feet, that would bring good luck. We had brought some cookies with us on the bus for breakfast and decided to give the rest to the rats. While we did this one climbed up my bag, and later some nibbled on our toes, mistaking them for cookie crumbs. I figure, we're in good with the rats.
So, if you do come back as a rodent, mention my name.
Once upon a time, the king and queen had a beautiful daughter. Her eyes were as beautiful as a fish's, her hair luxuriant. Her face was lovely, and her personality as sweet as a Tamil Nadu mango. The girl was perfect in all ways except one. She had three breasts.
Triple breasts was really a triple blessing, wise men told the horrified family. All little Meenakshi had to do was wait until she found her true love, and then the unnecessary appendage would melt away.
So little Meenakshi enjoyed her time in the palace of her father and mother. She lived behind the tall walls in cool courtyards. Gardens full of flowers were her playground and peacocks were her friends.
When she was a teenager, and the story of her beauty and her odd affliction were becoming worn with the telling and re-telling, it seemed for awhile that Meenakshi's true husband would never come. No matter how many suitors she met, her third breast stayed put on her chest.
Then, suddenly a handsome young man appeared in a village not far from Madurai. It wouldn't be wrong to say this mysterious prince was as beautiful as a god, because, that's what he was. An avatar, or incarnation of the god Shiva, he came to Madurai and asked for Meenakshi's hand in marriage.
Her third breast disappeared, and the princess, besides having to go out and get all of her clothing altered to fit her new, sleeker physique, duly married the handsome stranger.
As wife of the handsome god (unlike another maiden-turned-deity, poor little Kanniyakumari, who missed her wedding to Shiva because of an evil trick) Meenakshi herself was a goddess, the reincarnation of Parvati.
The people of Madurai constructed a gorgeous temple for Meenakshi, where to this day she listens to their prayers. Her husband Shiva also has an altar in her temple, and every night, after their holy business of listening to people's worries and hopes is over, the priests of the temple bring the statue of Shiva through the incense-infused corridors, give him a goodnight snack of a banana and fan him with peacock feathers. Then, he is brought into the inner sanctum where his wife's statue awaits him, so they can rest together before the temple opens the next morning.
We got to watch Shiva's bedtime ceremony twice while staying in Madurai. Friday nights, it seems, are the god and goddess' date night--Shiva gets to stay up a little later, and has a little extra pampering before meeting up with Meenakshi. Monday nights, on the other hand, he goes to bed at 9 and has a less elaborate goodnight ritual.
We missed Madurai's Float Festival by a few weeks. During this festival, I read in our guidebook, statues of Meenakshi and Shiva are taken to the tank (a large artificial pond where holy water flows) and put on floats. At the end of the festival they go back to the temple to make love, and in doing so, re-create the universe.
In Kumbakonam, we found a laid-back little town with friendly people and a picture around every corner.It's a 'Temple City' whose skyline is spiked with slope-sided gopurams—the town purportedly boasts 20 temples but it seems like more.
We took a look through the two listed in our Lonely Planet, and then spent the rest of our time just exploring the streets, with a vague objective of finding the river and/or wireless internet.
No luck on the wifi cafe, but on the advice of a guy we chatted to near the river, we stopped off at a neighborhood temple for a glance and ended up welcomed into the inner sanctum.
Leaving our shoes at the door, as always required in temples, we took pictures of the small gopuram and entrance hall of the Sri Kalahasthevswarar Temple, but didn't venture in farther for a few minutes.
Unsure about whether non-Hindus were allowed past the main entrance, Dan and I stood smiling in the doorway, carefully avoiding messing up the rice-flour drawings on the stone floor.We looked around, at the pillars leading to an image of Shiva, at a few men and women sitting on the floor, and grinned at everyone.
One short woman selling flowers got up eagerly.
“Country?” she asked.“USA,” I said.
“Country?” she asked again, followed by a burst of Tamil—utterly unintelligible to me. “America?” I tried.
“America!” she exclaimed, nodding her head. Then, shaking my hand and talking in Tamil, she led Dan and I to the south courtyard. It seemed we had a guide.
We walked around the front altar and checked out the carvings and minor shrines along the side. The lady talked, and sometimes asked me questions—none of which we could understand. We'd shrug and laugh, and she'd grab my arm and laugh too, and then go right back to asking questions.
In the center of the temple were two bigger altars, housed inside a stone room accessed from the south courtyard. It looked like these altars got a lot of traffic because metal crowd-control barriers had been cemented in to show clear exit and entrance chutes.
When we got there the metal grate to the shrines was locked but the woman started calling out and soon a green-skirted priest came up, unlocked it and lit candles on a salver for us. We still didn't know what to do, but tried to look respectful. He motioned toward the flame, so we did too. Then, chanting under his breath, he took his thumb and forefinger and smeared white ash on our brows, and then dabbed the middle of that with a large dollop of red paste.
Then, with a big smile, he asked, “Country?”
After the priest's curiosity was sated, the woman ushered us to the west courtyard and pointed out each of the places where people prayed.Then, in a surreal twist, she showed us that one of her legs was a prosthesis, and asked lots more questions we had no way of understanding and laughed.
From the north side of the temple, we could enter another sanctum.From the other temples we've seen, I'm guessing that each of these altars, shrines and sanctums were dedicated to different gods, or different manifestations of the same god.A little like the Catholic saints, if a person has a specific prayer, then they will seek out whichever deities are in charge of that kind of complaint.
To me, it seems like a big celestial bureaucracy, but I'm trying to find a book that will explain it a little better, like I did with the lives of the saints when I lived in Europe. Going to so many temples to look at carvings and paintings without knowing who the artwork represents and why it's important frustrates me..
Anyway, the north-entrance sanctum was carved out of a big block of rock, creating a crypt-like room filled with incense and mystery.We nearly left again when we saw men lying on the floor, touching their heads to the stone, but they got up, smiled and told us in plain English to “come in, please.”There, another priest gave us a sprig of mint (or basil—Dan and I disagree) and told us it was “medicine” and we should eat it.We took a nibble to be courteous and then fed it to a wandering cow later.The cow didn't want it but followed Dan around for awhile anyway.
That wasn't the only temple we visited, though I think we'll remember it best.
The day before we'd been able to look around the largerSarangapani Temple and chatted to another priest. This guy had worked in Texas, USA for a year before coming back to do his religious duties at the temple. He had so many questions for us that I wasn't able to ask him what job he'd held in Texas before he was called away from our conversation by another priest.
At the Kumbeshwara Temple at sunset, a group of men were involved in some kind of ritual—purification, maybe?A professional videographer was filming so we decided we could take pictures too.A line of men sat cross-legged on the floor and washed rice from their hands, chanted, and wound red scarves around their heads. We were lucky to find it—if we weren't so nosy about looking into every corner of the temples, we would have missed it.
After relaxing into the friendly, non-touristy atmosphere of Kumbakonam for a few days we decided to take a bus five hours south to bustling Madurai for more temples, a palace and hopefully some better internet access.
Our waiter carefully plopped a big spoonful of spicy chickpeas near the rice on my round banana-leaf-lined plate and watched Dan and I eat with our fingers:Mush it up, hold it up, poke it in with the thumb.Were we doing it wrong?
It's more difficult than I thought it would be, eating with our hands. No chopsticks here, or even the strange double-handed fork-and-spoon combination of Malaysia. Most of the restaurants we've been patronizing (cheap and busy) are all-local establishments, and while the waiters sometimes bring us a teaspoon or two, having read or seen somewhere that foreigners need tools to getfood in their mouths, we are trying to go native.
Rule number one of eating with our hands seems to be that there's no 'hands' about it. In India and other places in South East Asia and the Middle East, theleft hand is used for dirty things like the bathroom and your shoes.That means your right hand has to do all the 'clean' things which so far seems to be eating and shaking hands. It's harder than I thought to repress the urge to just pickup some food with both hands. Try eating a chicken wing one-handed, for example. Pretty tough.
After rule number one, I'm shaky as to what the other rules are, or if there are any.I carefully watch other diners, trying to see how they maneuver their food to their mouths, but it's hard to do that and eat at the same time.Some foods are easier. The breads aren't too bad—chapatti or naan breads are a little absorbent and they soak up the curry gravies.
Rice is another story.
Like in our favorite restaurant here in Thanjavur (Tanjore), the Srii Devhar's Cafe, which we discovered by accident while walking to and from the ever-closed tourism office.This all-vegetarian, all-you-can-eat place serves useach nine small, refillable pots of vegetable curryon a banana-leaf-lined platter, a second plate each brimming with tender short-grain rice, and as many poppadoms (chickpea flour crackers) as we ask for.
What we then do with all this food seems to be a source of good-natured amusement to the waitstaff.
First, we go wash our hands. Every restaurant has a hand-washing station. Quite a few have soap, though this one doesn't.Next, we use a chemical sanitizer to sanitize our hands.This always gets the other diners' necks craning.
Then, we take all the little pots of curry off of the metal eating platter. Most restaurants use only metal dishes and cups.Usually, the pots have left rings of water on the banana leaf, so we take tissues or napkins and wipe this off.The waiters usually stop what they're doing to watch us clean the, in their mind already clean, plate. Remember, for local people who are used to the water, they probably don't even notice it, let alone get sick from it.
Next, using the left hand to lift the dish but the right hand to touch the food, we shovel some rice onto the banana leaf.Then, we chose one or more of the curries to dump on the rice. Kneading the gravy into the rice sticks the grains together, and then we can lift small portions to our mouths, using primarily the tops of the fingers. We use four fingers to hold, and the thumb to push up from underneath.
A lot of rice escapes, but we're getting better. At least we think so.Judging from their facial expressions, the waiters aren't in agreement.
* * *
Thanjavur hasn't been all eating though.
We came here on the advice of a guy we met in the airport coming to India; he gave us his phone number in case we made it here but we were unable to reach him. It has been a good stop though.The town has two main tourist draws, the Royal Palace of the local aristocracy and the Brihadishwara Temple.The first day we explored, the second day we checked out the palace, the third we went to the temple and the last day we just relaxed, took vitamins and tried to shake off the cold Imust have caught on the airplane.
The Royal Palace is in a walled part of the city that, from reading the guidebook, was once the nexus of an empire that reached all the way to Angkor Wat in Cambodia and Bali in Indonesia.The present palace, though, is now famous for King Serfoji II, a scholar in the 19th century who collected a lot of local artwork and local and foreign literature. We walked through the gallery of thousand-year-old statues and the library of palm-leaf books and English engravings for a glimpse of the path.
We also climbed the bell tower and met a group of hyperactive boys who wanted to talk to us all at the same time and practically pushed themselves off the walls to get us to take photos of them.We had a good time talking to them, but it was soured a little bit at the end when we figured out that they'd opened our backpacks (in mischief, rather than thievery, I think) without us knowing. Time to buy some padlocks, I guess.
It was a weekend to meet schoolkids, because the next afternoon while we were waiting for the sunset light to hit the golden sandstone of the 11th century Brahadishwara Temple, we were surrounded by kids on a field trip. Most of them just wanted to know our names or shake our hands, but some asked us to take their portraits, and none of them got into our bags.
Next stop: A town near Thanjavur, called Kumbakonam. Also recommended by our airport friend, it's described as a city of temples.
Red-garbed pilgrims at Sri Rangam Temple in Trichy
I don't think we're actually allowed to be here.
A priest, at least that's what I'm calling him because I don't know my way around a Hindu temple yet,offers a metaltray to the middle-aged woman who just maneuvered her way through the small door cut in the rock. She gives him a plastic bag of leaves and flowers, which he distributes methodically behind him, on and in the altar.Dan and I crane our necks trying to see what's happening without getting in the way.
The priest sets a burning candle on his tray and the woman cups it with both hands, almost stroking it.Our two new friends, the reason I'm assuming we haven't been asked to leave the inner sanctum, give a few coins to the priest and do the same, and motion for us to follow. I ask them how and what it means, but before they can satisfy curiosity a horde of boys and young men push through the small door and we back off to give them room.
Our friends dab ash on their foreheads and we go outside to look down on the city from our 80-meter perch on Rock Fort, Trichy's tallest landmark. They seem to find it strange we don't know what to do in the temple, but don't really comment on it, just waggle their heads from side to side. Everyone we talk to does this bobbing headshake, but we haven't yet pinned down what it means when they do it. Yes? No? OK? Maybe a mixture. We chat to the men about Trichy and the view, but they're in a hurry to get back down the 300 or so steps to the bottom of the giant rock outcrop and we still want to take some photos, so we say goodbye with many handshakes and an exchange of business cards.From a Western viewpoint, you'd think we'd known each other for years, not just the last fifteen minutes.
But that's how it's been during our time in Trichy, and even waiting in the Kuala Lumpur airport before we arrived. Our interactions have been extremely friendly--people want to stop and chat, or just say hello, or simply shake hands. It's the friendliest place we've ever been.
We spent the first day here exploring, wandering side roads and just getting a feel for things. I keep wanting to compare it to China—the dust, the crowds of people, the noise, the sanitation. But really, this town looks more like some of the ones we saw in Thailand and Cambodia. It's low-rise and, although it's a city by population, it looks more rural than it is.
The second day we ventured to Rock Fort, and the temples to the Hindu god Shiva that have been built into it.We explored a few streets of the bazaar at its foot, bought a Punjabi shirt for Dan and got persuaded to wear ropes of flowers in my hair by a woman so zealous she braidedmy hair for me and gave me her own bobby pin.
Our third day we saved for the biggest temple in Tamil Nadu—Sri Rangam. This 600-year-old island temple dedicated to Vishnu has eleven walls around it and 21 gopurams (tall, almost Aztec-looking towers). The tallest gopuram is more than 72 meters tall and is painted in eye-catching pastels, mostly blue and red; we saw it clearly from the top of Rock Fort the day before.
For this trip we decided to hire a guide so we could start to understand the mythology of the Hindu temples; after the tour was done, I realized I still have a lot more reading up to do! Vishnu, one of the three gods Hinduism worships, has 10 incarnations, if I remember the guide correctly. These incarnations are called avatars, and each avatar has a special history, and, I'm supposing, special attributes to worship. The gods (and their avatars?) also have wives, and brothers, and servants... a lot to take in on just one tour.
A lot of the fun of visiting temples in China was surreptitiously watching the worshipers; it's the same here but it doesn't seem like we have to be so secretive. Several people came up asking for their pictures to be taken.We also watched a family getting their portraits done after the kids had had their ears pierced. The kids had shaven their heads, been blessed by the priest and had their ears decorated with big gold studs. This is an important ceremony here, the guide said.I'm intrigued to find out if this is important all over India, or just here in Tamil Nadu—everything we learn about India brings to mind even more questions.
Next stop: Tanjore, a trip graciously suggested by a man we met at the airport in Kuala Lumpur.
Our tuk tuk driver pulled to a stop in a dusty lot shaded by huge canopy trees. A dozen small children rushed to meet us, waving postcards, silk and cotton scarves and bottles of Coca Cola.
“Here, then back home,” the driver said, ignoring the calls of “Hey lady, postcard! You want postcard?”
Back home? Dan and I were thinking. It was barely 11 o'clock! We still had hours of temple seeing in us.
We struggled our way through the sellers as politely as possible:
“No thank you. No, no I don't want any cold drinks. Yes, your scarves are beautiful but I don't want one. Thank you. Yes, that is cheap, but I don't need any wooden wind instruments right now. No thank you. I'm from America. Yes, the capital is Washington, D.C. No, he's from Australia. That's right, Canberra. No, he doesn't speak Japanese. You speak Japanese? How old are you? Well, you're a very clever 9-year-old. No, I don't want a tee-shirt. I'm wearing a tee-shirt, see? I have no money to give you to go to school. Sorry. Sorry, no. Yes, OK, if I want a cold drink, I'll look for you. Okay. Thank you! Bye!”
Eventually, at the blue-shirted ticket checker, the gaggle of underage touts diverted to another pair of tourists and we were able to look around. We were at the Rolous Group, Angkor Wat's oldest temples.
Ninth century Lolei was in disrepair—some wooden scaffolding indicated an attempt to keep its bricks from falling apart altogether. However, it was a nice visit because it is still a working temple—a modern Buddhist temple and a school for monks have been built around it, so the site is still used for worship. We noticed little piles of rocks and a few offerings around most of the temples and contemporary Buddha statues in the big ones, but this was the first one that looked like it was in everyday use as a religious site.
Preah Ko was in a better state, though still more rubble than standing bits. Its carvings were good, and it showed the origins of the later Angkor temples. This was the last temple, our driver had informed us, so we took our time in the grassy bits between the reddish rocks that had once been pillars and doorways a millennium ago.
And then, back home.
Both of us had misunderstood the driver—we weren't going back to the guesthouse, not yet! Instead, to the crown of the Rolous Group, the temple-mountain of Bakong. While Lolei and Preah Ko had been smaller than the other Angkorian temples we'd seen, the towering Bakong, surrounded by a large moat, was built to impress. From here, it was easy to see how the ancient Khmer kings had worked their way up to building ginormous Angkor Wat.
* * *
For this, the last day of our three day ticket to the Angkor Wat Archaeological Park, we had chosen to go to some of the outlying temples. That morning, we had gotten a different tuk tuk driver, one with a more genuine smile, and set off for Banteay Srei, 37 kilometers away.
We rode through little spread-out villages, along rice paddies and under coconut palms, past white, grazing brahmin cows and speeding boys on bicycles. Every few hundred yards we saw a small store selling drinks for tourists, rattan baskets, or gasoline in glass Pepsi and Sprite bottles.
Then, we arrived at Banteay Srei, or as I started to call it, DisneyWat.
Throngs of tourists wearing identical brightly-colored hats pushed past us, on their way to the bathroom, the exposition hall, the temple entrance. I heard tours go by in a dozen languages and tried to pick pieces up. It sounded like this: En cet porta zai xiamian you peut ver oden hou zi. Okay, using five languages, I got that there was a monkey carved somewhere by the door. But why? I listened further but Japanese, Korean and Polish threw me off.
Angkor Wat is a huge, huge complex, made up of perhaps 70 or more temples. While there were a lot of people out to watch the sunrise at the main Angkor temple, we were always able to have a quiet visit in the other temples. But not at Banteay Srei that morning. This temple, from the late 900s, is notable in the Angkor group because of it's exquisite carvings, particularly around the doorways, but we hadn't realized just how famous it was.
Because Banteay Srei is farther from the main groups of temples, it's a more expensive tuk tuk ride, so I had surmised the opposite--that there would be a few less people. I had underestimated the power of the tour bus.
However, the temple's fame has brought it one thing that made it a better visiting experience than the other temples—it has an interpretive center with pictures and explanations describing what the different carvings represent, comparing it to other temples and time periods, and giving some history about the excavation of the site. This is something the other temples could use, but, with ongoing excavation and projects overseen by a dozen different governments through UNESCO, the realization of that is probably a long way off.
Unlike the tourists being herded back and forth from the buses, though, we had all day to look at Banteay Srei if we wished, so we walked through it twice, once to eavesdrop on the tours and once to look at the carvings we missed when the crowds pushed us through.
Because we had a long time before we had to go back home.
The biggest, clearest full moon I've ever seen lights our passage up the three staircases on the east face of Pre Rup temple-mountain.
I clamber, hand and foot like a monkey, up the uneven and worn stone steps, wondering at the stillness of the night. Can we really be the only people here? Wouldn't everyone want to watch the sunrise from the top altar of a 1,100-year-old mossy temple?
There's a coolish breeze but the stone isn't cold beneath my hands or knees while climbing. I pull off my scarf at the second level of the temple and use it as an impromptu tripod, trying to catch the moonlit shadowy profiles of the temple towers.
The temple is probably 5 stories tall, if you were using a modern building to gauge the height. From this altitude we can see over the trees of the jungle that has consumed Angkor Wat, but we can't make out any other temples' towers from the darkness of the other trees.
Eventually another couple and their guide come, but we stay in peaceable silence with them, watching the eastern horizon, brighten, flame up and then pale to cornflower blue as the throbbing sun rises on my birthday morning.
Since it was my birthday we had a less hectic sightseeing plan than our first day at Angkor Wat. We spent the photographic “golden hour” after the sun rose at tall, weedy Pre Rup, then examined elephant statues and our picnic breakfast of orange juice and chocolate cookies at nearby Eastern Mebon.
Rundown Ta Som was next, and a favorite. This small temple had root-overtaken walls, mossy blocks of worn-down carvings, miniscule frogs jumping by our feet, the cleverest soldier in the army of children selling postcards (we only succumbed twice to their sales pitches), and a tour group of monks showing a Californian brother around.
By 11:30 it was time for lunch, we decided, and treated ourselves to another picnic, at Preah Khan, one of the largest Angkor temples. We'd discovered that the French influence on Cambodia had brought them cheap European wines, reasonable cheeses and nice fluffy bread—so we bought a bag of these goodies and some foie gras for a real feast in the shade, sitting on stone rubble by the eastern gate. After the bottle of red wine, we weren't very good at taking pictures, but I have to say my somewhat fuzzy recollections of Preah Khan make it my favorite temple that day. It's another of the temples that got caught in the middle when the Angkorian empire switched faiths from Hinduism to Buddhism. The result are carvings of the Buddha along with bas reliefs of Hindu celestial dancers, lotus flowers in the doorways and linga (stones worshiped as the god Shiva) stands in the passageways.
We let our driver off early and got ready to go out in the evening—to a different kind of sightseeing. Siem Reap is becoming famous on the backpacker circuit as being a good night out. The most notorious of the bars is called Angkor What? --serving a literal bucket of rum and coke for $5. If you buy two buckets, they give you a free shirt. I got a shirt, Dan got a shirt, our new friends got shirts...that's not counting the free shirts from the margarita pitchers at the Mexican bar either!
After that kind of hilarity, we were ready to lay low for a few days before checking out the oldest temples at Angkor Wat, the Rolous Group.
Our motorcycle-pulled wagon, or tuk tuk, raced through the pre-dawn dimness just a tad too fast for comfort.
I wondered what the hurry was—it was 5 a.m and our goal was a 6:15 sunrise, after all.
Then I turned around, and saw behind us a line of headlights. Tuk tuks, motorcycles, buses. So that's who we were racing.
We were on our way to Cambodia's biggest tourist attraction, Angkor Wat. It's a holy place with the ungodly early ritual of watching the sun rise from behind the three pine-cone shaped towers of the biggest temple, the one the whole park takes its name from.
Our driver pulled up in a dusty parking lot where tuk tuks, cars and buses were releasing their sleepy crowds. “I'll be there,” he says, pointing in the opposite direction, a pitch black area.
“Sure,” we say groggily, brushing the dust from our ride off of our faces, and with that join the other tourist-zombies carefully making their way over the ancient, uneven paving stones to the moonlit silhouette of famous Angkor Wat.
The wat is a mammoth edifice, or series of them, with a giant moat around it and a small lotus-strewn pond on the west side, perfect for catching the reflection of the temple and the dawn sky behind it.
We vie with the other tourists for plastic chairs to sit by the pond bank and take photos of the sun: the newest kind of worship at this temple that has been Hindu and Buddhist. Later, we wander through the still-deserted hallways and past the shallow engravings on the sandstone walls, worn away by time and love. We exit on the east side and watch a very money-conscious couple take their own wedding photos with a tripod. The woman is in a full, frothy bridal dress, the bustier of which she hitches up while her groom adjusts the camera. Then, pushing the self-timer button, he kicks off his crocs and runs to pose with her.
Our driver, on a $12 all-day agreement through our guesthouse in Siem Reap, has planned a marathon of temple-seeing for us today, so before too long we are back in the tuk tuk and zooming through the vast Ankgor Wat Historical Park, made up of dozens of temples and ancient, holy sites.
Angkor Wat is the remains of a mostly Hindu (sometimes Buddhist) empire that had trade links with China and cultural links as far south as Indonesia. Today's ruins were started in the 800s with a series of smaller temples known as the Rulous Group and then extended a few kilometers west to the huge, walled royal city of Angkor Thom, just north of Ankgor Wat. In its heyday, the city probably had more than a million residents.
Angkor Thom has the second most famous temple there, Bayon temple. People who watched Angelina Jolie's Tomb Raider movie will know Bayon as the gate of the temple that gets pulled down by the bad guys. Angkor Wat is breathtaking for the sunrise, for the immense proportions of it. Bayon, though, is as astounding as something from a comic book come to life—huge, blue-gray omniscient faces peer down from the four sides of each jutting tower on this temple built to remind the viewer of a Hindu holy mountain.
We climbed to the top story up steep new ladders and sloping, rounded old stairs and tried to catch portraits of the weathered stone faces. What fun to be able to climb a temple! Tactile tourism.
Then, there were the grounds of the ancient Royal Palace to be explored. The palace and the other buildings of this 800-year-old city were wooden and long since disintegrated, but we could stand under the trees and among the rubble of the holy buildings and imagine.
Later in the day we climbed another temple-mountain, Ta Keo and visited another Tomb Raider set—the overgrown Ta Prohm. In this scene, Angelina Jolie looks for a jasmine bush in an abandoned temple to find the secret entrance to the underground temple the dumb bad guys are pulling down Bayon temple to get to. (Our guesthouse kindly lent us the DVD to refresh our memories about this film.) Ta Prohm isn't as tall or large as Angkor Wat, and doesn't have the spooky faces of Bayon, but its moss-covered, lost-in-the-jungle feel is peaceful. Motorcycle-width trees grow out of the sandstone blocks of the temple, their root systems draping over doorways and crushing statues. Looking at the massive trees on top of the walls is a clear reminder of just how old the temples are.
And, since there's nothing like being in an ancient place to make you feel young, we decided to start the next day, my 29th birthday, on top of another temple-mountain.