07 January 2013

Twice blessed

I can think of no better way to spend the first day of a new year than to go tuk-tuking and templing in the company of good friends. Mine was spent visiting the Cambodian temples of Preah Khan, Ta Som, East Mebong, Banteay Kdei and Pre Rup, with good buddy Marianne and new friend Steve, and our trusty tuk-tuk driver Vibol, who hugged me when we first met again – a very un-Cambodian thing to do and so very sweet!

First temple of the day was Preah Khan. The words mean ‘sacred sword’ and it was supposedly named for the ceremonial sword King Jayavarman II passed down to his heir. Apparently, whoever possesses this sword has the right to be Cambodia’s king. The temple has been a monastery, a university and, later, an interdenominational worshipping place for the followers of Shiva, Buddhu, Vishnu and 282 other gods – their tolerance of other faiths is to be admired.

The site is dominated by huge kapok trees, some of which emerge directly from cracks between the ancient stones and, if you’re lucky enough to find a quiet spot, you can sit and listen to the leaves fall. The temple itself has a long central alley way, with lots of side passages branching off it that are perfect for exploring. Marianne nicknamed me Indiannie Jones here, after my habit of scrambling over the ruins and disappearing through every portal and down every side alley in search of new and interesting carvings, stones, trees to photograph.

Preah Khan is where I received my first blessing of the day. Many of the temples still have small buddhas or other sacred statues where old women, usually widows with shaved heads, will pass on a blessing from their god and tie a simple woollen bracelet on your arm, in return for a small donation. Here, I had to crouch down next to the woman, who took my hand and spoke some words in Khmer, before blowing the bad spirits away.

Next, as Steve hadn’t eaten any breakfast and we were all flagging in the 35-degree midday heat and high humidity, we went for an early lunch. Vibol always knows good places to eat and, on this day of tuk-tuking, he was looking after us particularly well, with an ice-filled chilly bin holding water bottles, cans of coke and refreshing towlettes!

After 40 minutes or so, we set off again, this time to Ta Som. This is a Buddhist temple and was built in the 12th century by King Jayavarman VII. It is quite a small complex but has some huge stone faces built into its gate structures, one of which is being strangled to pieces by a huge strangler fig tree.

East Mebong was next. Built in 953 and consecrated to Shiva, this temple was once only accessible by boat across the now-dry East Baray. The temple is shaped like a pyramid, and has almost life-size elephant statues at the four corners on two levels to guard the structure. Much climbing up steep narrow steps is required to reach the top!

Banteay Kdei is one of my favourite temples and is reached through a cruciform gopura (ornamental tower) topped with huge faces, currently under restoration, and a 300-metre stroll through the forest. Time, the jungle and humans have inflicted severe damage on this temple complex but with a little searching you can still locate well-preserved and intricate sculptural reliefs and statues of female divinities. Here I also received my second blessing of the day, so now I am almost certain to have long life and good health and a positive 2013!

Our last temple for the day was Pre Rup, which means ‘turning of the body’, referring to part of the local cremation ritual. Built in 962 and also consecrated to Shiva, it is another pyramidal structure. Lions guard the precipitous stairways that lead up the centre of its four sides but, unfortunately, they are no match for the eager tourist. The site is a favourite for sunset-seekers so hordes of tourists descend on the place in the late afternoon, scrambling desperately up the ruins in search of the perfect spot to watch the sun go down. However, the reality is that you only get a view of the trees of the forest canopy from the temple top, so I came down to road level to photograph the temple’s stone towers and the tourists sitting on those towers silhouetted against the evening sky.

We escaped before the sun had set, leaving the tourists to negotiate those stairways in the darkening gloom and enjoying the refreshing breeze as Vibol guided our trusty tuk-tuk back to town. It had been a near perfect day!

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