Posts Tagged ‘Buddhism’

Angkor Wat, Angkor Wonder

Tuesday, October 9th, 2012

From Bangkok, I took the 10 hour trip by train and taxi to Siem Reap, the city located outside Angkor Wat, the most beautiful and largest temple complex in the world.  Siem Reap is a city that was literally built for tourists, comprised of hotels and guest houses, restaurants and bars, markets and food carts, and souvenir shops and art galleries.  The only reason to visit Siem Reap is because you are visiting Angkor Wat, and what can I say…I loved Angkor Wat.  I dig this sort of stuff, ancient ruins, especially if I can rent a bicycle and ride around all day. 

The temples of Angkor Wat were influential at various times during the rule of the Khmer Empire, from the 9th-13th centuries, when the Khmers ruled the majority of SE Asia, before being overthrown by the Kingdom of Siam.  The temples were important not only for their religious significance, but also for being central to daily Khmer life.  Angkor Wat was initially built as a Hindu temple dedicated to the creator, Vishnu, and eventually became a holy place for Buddhists, as well.  The influence of both these religions is displayed in the intricate carvings found throughout several of the temples, as well as many shrines dedicated to Vishnu, Shiva, and Buddha.

Day one was spent with a guide visiting the three most famous temples of the complex: Angkor Wat, the largest and most important of the temples, and the national symbol of Cambodia with its three distinct towers;  Ta Prohm which was abandoned in the 15th century, allowing for the jungle to encroach and is well known for the number of huge trees growing out of it, as well as the fact the it was featured in the film Tomb Raider starring Angelina Jolie; and Bayon, located at the center of Angkor Thom, featuring 37 towers, each carved with four faces of Buddha, or it’s been said four faces of King Jayavarman VII who identified himself with Buddha and the bodhisattva of compassion.  This was one of my favorites.  I loved the calm and kindness which the faces emanated, and the intricate carvings on the temple walls which depicted daily Khmer life.

Day two, Cora (a woman I hung with from Portland, OR) and I rented bicycles and rode through the complex.  We started at Phnom Bakhong, a small temple with very steep stairs and a temple dedicated to Buddha at the top.  It is also the oldest known temple in this group, which is apparent in the way the sandstone has corroded.  Then, we returned to Angkor Thom, the last capital of the Khmer Empire, to explore the several temples there aside from Bayon.  Among these is Baphuon, which is one of the largest temples, and was a section of the royal palace.  Initially dedicated to Shiva, it eventually becoming a Buddhist temple, at which time a 27 foot high 210 foot long reclining Buddha was added to the west wall.  It takes a discernable eye to see the Buddha, but it is possible.  Here you will also find the Palace of Phimeanakas and the Terrace of Elephants, which was used for public ceremonies.  We finished the day at Preah Khan, just north of Angkor Thom.  It was central to Khmer religious life as it was a large Buddhist temple surrounded by several Hindu temples.  Today, like several of Angkor’s structures, it is in a state of major disrepair.  Several foreign countries and organizations are doing restoration work on many of the temples, yet the World Monument Fund, who is in charge of Preah Khan, has only done some minor repairs in wanting to stay true to nature and history, thus they have left much of the temple walls in the piles of rubble to which they have fallen.  They say that there would be too much guess work in rebuilding it.  This is in contrast to say the French who have been working on the restoration of Baphuon, or the Indians who have been working on Ta Prohm, and have had to use complex analysis to make sense of it all.

Day three I hired a motorbike to travel a bit further to the Roluos Temple group, the first capital of the Khmer Empire.  It was wonderful to ride through the Cambodian countryside and small villages surrounded by canals and rice paddies.  The most interesting of these three temples is Bakong, the very first temple to be built.  There is evidence to support that Bakong remained an important temple even as the capital moved to Angkor Thom.  It was constructed as three levels, each one a bit smaller, like a pyramid.  At each corner there is an elephant sculpture for protection, most of which no longer have tusks or ears, and for some no faces.  Like so many of the Angkor temples, this structure is surrounded by jungle and a moat, allowing for a beautiful natural setting.  Also on the property is a modern day Buddhist temple, with an active monk population.

So, if you have the opportunity to visit Angkor Wat, it is well worth it, even if you make the trip for just a few days from Thailand.  It is rich in history and natural beauty, and we are all lucky that the Khmer Rouge did not destroy and loot it all when they were in power (side note: there are several pieces missing believed to have been destroyed by the KR, or to have been stolen by local people to sell or trade just to be able to have food to feed their families).

Link here for pictures of Angkor Wat.

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Posted in history, Spiritual, travel | 2 Comments »

Ancient & Tropical Sri Lanka

Sunday, September 2nd, 2012

India must have won my heart.  While I would return there in a heartbeat, Sri Lanka, eh…probably not.  Not to say that I didn’t enjoy my visit, or that the country is not interesting or beautiful.  It is, yet in my perception it just didn’t have the soul of India.  Now granted, I was in India for 4 months and Sri Lanka for a rushed 9 days, but still, for those who have travelled a lot, when you get somewhere you just know.  Regardless of those feelings, I did have a great time, saw noteworthy sites and met many people.

I started to write this blog while I was sitting in a beachside café in Uppuveli, taking in the second to last day of my stay and a bit of peace for a short time (next stop is Bangkok, which I do not expect to be tranquil in the least).  I’m really glad I made the long bus ride to Uppuveli, the beach there is beautiful, tropical, serene, and romantic (if only my man were with me).  Through my eyes, Uppuveli is much nicer than Negombo Beach, where I spent my first two nights a short distance from the airport, but a good place to get my bearings and figure out “a plan.”  The northeast area of Sri Lanka, where Uppuveli is located outside the city of Trincomalle, was hit hard by the tsunami, as well as being one of the last places the civil war ended only a few years ago.  They seem to be recovering well though.  There are lots of tourists, both Sri Lankan and Western, on the picturesque white sand beaches.   The village is poor and simple, there are lots of concrete structures that appear to have been bombed out, but the people are happy and grateful and always smiling.  Perhaps this is because they are on the other side of things, life is getting better.  I heard from a few locals of my generation of how hard life used to be, and how it has been improving in the last several years.

This area is also the best place for diving.  I didn’t go diving, but I did snorkel the reef at Pigeon Island National Park.  More and more I realize how spoiled we are in the Keys.  (Oh, tropical beaches and sultry ocean breezes, how could I have thought I didn’t love you anymore?)  The coral structure is very different then what I’ve experienced before, there was a lot of diversity in the variety of tropical fish, saw some small reef sharks, and it was very beautiful on many levels, but not quite the variety of the Keys, known for the large number of fish.

In between beaches, I spent four days exploring the cultural ruins of the ancient Sinhalese civilization, which dates back to the 4th century BC, but peaked in the 12th century.  The government is doing a fair bit of restoration to some of the sites, and some are preserved better than others, allowing for a good feel of what these ancient cities may have been like.   My travels took me to the city of Kandy, not an ancient city, but it is green and temperate with scenic views, set in the foothills of the tea country.  Sri Lanka is 70% Buddhist, and Kandy is home to the largest Buddhist temple in the country, the “Temple of the Tooth,” which houses a tooth of Buddha’s.  What I really enjoyed was the fairly new Museum of Buddhism, which takes us through Buddhism as it spread through 18 countries in Asia.  It offers a really interesting history and some gorgeous statues and artwork.

From Kandy I took the bus to Sigiriya, with a stop at the Dambulla Caves on the way.  These five caves, on the top of a hill, are adorned with numerous Buddha statues, and the walls and cave ceilings are painted with colorful murals depicting religious life.  I really enjoyed the scenic walk up a stairway that was built in between huge boulders and is lined with many beautiful trees, in addition to the amazing views of the surrounding area.  On to Sigiriya, a World Heritage Site, which is known for the palace built atop Sigiriya Rock.  The esplanade which leads to the rock is lined with a water garden, supposedly a very intricate system, but bone dry at the moment because Sri Lanka is experiencing a major water shortage.  Some areas have not had a drop of rain in eight months.  Here, too, the stairs up were built into the boulders and mountainside.  They have put in stairs for tourists to use because to climb the stairs that exist one would literally be scaling the rocks.  Not much is left of the palace, but there are some impressive cave paintings and they have done restoration on lion’s feet which flank the stairway up.  And, once again, the view is stunning.

Next stop, Polonnaruwa, the second largest of the ancient cities in Sri Lanka.  This site is incredibly well preserved considering how old it is.  Supposedly, this is due in part to the fact that it was hidden in the jungle until discovered by the British in the mid-nineteenth century.  Many walls, pillars, and statues survive, while all the roofs, which are believed to have been made of wood, are gone.  Polonnaruwa covers over four square kilometers, so I rented a bike and explored for about 6 hours.  Influenced by Buddhist and Hindu religions, there were temples, monasteries, and stupas.  There were signs of an advanced civilization with a hospital and town center lined with vendor stalls.  This is also the site of three of the most beautiful well preserved Buddha statues carved from stone, in addition to the countless statues which now stand headless throughout the site.  And it is from Polonnaruwa that I ended up in Uppuveli.

Some of the ways in which Sri Lanka has been an incredibly different experience to India: it is obviously more developed, which is most noticeable in the prices.  SL is way more expensive and Western in things like clothing and music, and as a tourist you do feel like you are being taken advantage of with the prices of entry fees and the like.  It was odd in that almost every tourist I met mentioned how much more expensive it was than they had expected, and how much it cost to see the historic sites;  The food is spicier, yes spicier, the seafood is incredible, and then there are the two traditional dishes of rice and curry, the heaping plate of rice accompanied by 6-12 vegetable dishes and sambol (the Sri Lankan version of chutney), and Kottu Roti which is their version of stir fry;  Then there are the people.  They are very friendly, super nice, and inquisitive, although with many of them once you get past “which country?” and “how long stay Sri Lanka?” they understand minimal bits and pieces.  It’s funny in that in India the children were incredibly curious and asking lots of questions where in SL the children seem to be a little more timid while the adults will engage you in conversation.   And let’s not forget the tourists.  I met many really terrific people from Australia, Germany, Greece, The Netherlands, and Israel.  They each had a part in making Sri Lanka a wonderful experience for me.  For more pictures of Sri Lanka, click here.

Now, on to Southeast Asia, and I am ready.  Super excited for Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos, Burma, and Thailand.  Til the next blog… sà-wàtdii kà.


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Posted in nature, Spiritual, travel | 6 Comments »