27 June 2013

How Cambodians earn a buck

These are just some of the ways the people of Cambodia earn their living.

Fish is a staple in the diet of the average Cambodian. Much of the population lives near water, whether it’s the mighty Mekong river, Tonle Sap – the largest freshwater lake in southeast Asia, or one of the smaller rivers that crisscross the countryside. Surprisingly, though, the average Cambodian doesn’t have to live close to a large waterway to eat fish regularly, as they have dug shallow ponds, large and small, almost everywhere. Both planned aquaculture and the floods of the rainy season help spread fish into these small ponds, where they survive into the height of the dry season and provide much needed protein to impoverished locals. Most fishing is done by simply throwing a net into the water.

This woman was one of many locals selling a huge variety of fish at the large and rather smelly local market in Kampot, a seaside town on the Gulf of Thailand where fishing forms a large part of the local economy. An estimated 5000 motorised wooden longboats fish the marine waters along Cambodia’s coastline, which extends from Thailand in the north to Vietnam in the south (FAO, 2004), and the majority of the fish caught are mackerel and anchovies.

Farmer’s wife
Life is hard for the average Cambodian, who lives in impoverished conditions in the countryside. Cambodia is one of the world’s poorest countries, with a current ranking of 139 out of the 187 countries listed on the United Nations Human Development Index. An estimated 36% of the population lives below the poverty line, and rural households, especially those whose income is primarily based on subsistence agriculture, make up over 90% of the poor. It is still common for women and children to scavenge for frogs, snails, rats and various insects to supplement their daily intake of rice. More about the life of this particular woman can be read here.

As well as rice, fish and vegetables, fruit forms an important part of the local diet. Staples like bananas are available year round, with a huge variety of other fruit for sale on a seasonal basis, including mangoes, papayas, rambutan, jackfruit, pineapple, lychee, watermelon, mangosteen, longan, durian and palm fruit. This elderly woman was selling her fruit on the entrance causeway to Angkor Wat when I visited last weekend.

Lotus pod seller
Another, rather unusual food to be found in Cambodia is the seed of the lotus plant. These can be eaten raw – you simply break open the pods that this young woman is selling, and eat the small oval seed inside, though it is best to remove the tiny shoot in the middle as it can be quite bitter. These seeds are crunchy, a little like eating raw peas, though not as sweet, and are very nutritious, being low in saturated fat and cholesterol but high in protein, manganese and various other minerals. The seeds can also be dried and shelled, to be eaten as snacks or used to make a variety of dessert dishes.

Iceblock man
What kid doesn’t love a cold iceblock on a hot day? And, while there are many many hot days in Cambodia, there is not so much refrigeration equipment. So, commercially made iceblocks like we find available in most western countries only exist in the large cities here. The majority of kids get their iceblocks from small vendors like this man, who was doing a roaring trade selling flavoured ice to the local primary school kids from his specially adapted bicycle.

As one of my great-grandfathers was a confectioner, I was particularly fascinated to watch the making of this local delicacy, palm sugar fudge. Slits are cut into the stem of the Palmyra or Date palm to collect the sap, which is then boiled in big metal bowls over an outdoor stove (made of clay and fired with bits of wood). The mixture is stirred as it gradually thickens to become fudge, then poured into small circular palm-leaf moulds to dry and harden. It is delicious, though extremely sweet.

Stone carver
Anyone who has visited the World Heritage site of the Angkor temples can see that stone carving is a centuries-old tradition in Cambodia and, though a whole generation of artists was annihilated during the Khmer Rouge years, stone carving is once again a flourishing profession in this country. This is partly thanks to organisations like Artisans Angkor, which are working to revive and transmit vocational skills like stone carving to the rural poor.  My photo, however, shows a man who has his own workshop, near the Roulos group of temples, and sells his masterpieces mostly to passing tourists, though carvings like this aren’t exactly the lightest of souvenirs to pack in your suitcase.

Stupa maker
I’m not sure who first said ‘there is money in death’ but it’s a truism the world over. I met this man, whose speciality is constructing the burial stupas to be found in huge numbers at every pagoda in Cambodia, while wandering around Wat Polangka here in Siem Reap. His English was good and he was happy to explain a little of the building technique and proud to be photographed in front of his latest construction. The basis of the stupa is bricks which are mortared together to form the rough shape, then a variety of concrete moulded shapes are cemented on, before the decorative mouldings are added at the end.

23 June 2013

The Shadow Puppeteers

I was lucky enough to be invited to a rehearsal recently of the world-renowned Wat Bo shadow puppeteers and it was superb. A storyteller narrates the story, musicians play on traditional instruments, and the puppeteers perform a kind of slow-motion traditional dance as they also move their puppets in front of a backlit screen.

The Wat Bo shadow puppeteers are world class! As our guide Vireak– himself a highly talented puppeteer – explained, the Wat Bo troupe recently performed in New York at the 'Season of Cambodia', a celebration of this country’s visual and performing arts.

Shadow-puppet theatre is a centuries-old tradition here in Cambodia, probably because the materials needed are readily available and inexpensive. The puppets are made of tanned cow hide, 2 or 3mm thick, from which the unwanted pieces of leather have been cut or chiselled to create something resembling a stencil. The puppets we saw were large, perhaps a metre tall, and heavy to carry. No wonder then that when we arrived at the rehearsal, the puppeteers were doing a series of warm-up exercises. You have to be fit to be a puppet performer.

Another factor that no doubt contributes to the ongoing popularity of puppet theatre is the flexibility of the venue. The puppets work in silhouette, so with a strong back light and a large light-coloured screen – a bedsheet would do the job – a performance could be held almost anywhere; it could as easily be set up between palm trees in a rural village as in a modern theatre.

The story depicted is usually the Reamker, Cambodia’s interpretation of the Ramayana, an ancient Hindu love story. This epic tale is well known to all Cambodians, young and old alike, so they can easily identify the various characters and anticipate the narrative. 

Smaller puppets are also made for other types of performance, with long sticks being used to move their partially flexible limbs, and these now form part of the souvenir trade for visiting tourists. All the puppets are handmade and obviously required a high degree of skill to create. Luckily, these creative skills are still being passed down to young Cambodians, generating an income for talented artists and preserving one of Cambodia’s traditional art forms. 

When I was wandering around one of the local wats a few days after seeing the Wat Bo rehearsal, I encountered a local woman who runs a small NGO, the House of Peace Association, where the children are being taught puppet-making skills. I had a wonderful chat to the woman and, of course, purchased one of the smaller puppets, as a souvenir of my time here in Cambodia and as a way to support the continuation of this traditional art form.

19 June 2013

A wat or six

I think I am rapidly gaining a reputation as the Mad Wat Woman of Siem Reap, at least in the opinion of my friendly neighbourhood tuktuk drivers and their associates. I doubt if any white person ever in the history of tourism in this city has visited as many of the wats as I have. It’s a very good thing I’m leaving Cambodia soon as this could turn into an addiction.

I can’t help myself. These places have the most incredible architecture, and are often extremely colourful. They are almost invariably empty of tourists. They’re inhabited by friendly monks who are only too happy to practise their English by answering my questions and who seem to appreciate my interest in their sacred places. And, although these are all living monasteries where poorer members of the public can seek shelter in times of crisis and so are never entirely deserted, they are invariably tranquil places to wander around. They offer a fascinating insight into many aspects of the local culture, not just religion. And I love the tuktuk rides I have to take to get to most of them.

So, here are some photos of my recent explorations. All six wats are within 15 kilometres of the city centre, and situated close to the main road than runs from Siem Reap city to Tonle Sap, the largest lake in southeast Asia. I’ve drawn a rough map for anyone visiting the area who also wants to check these out.

Wat Svay
I walked to this wat, a hot sweaty walk there and back alongside the river with no shade. But it was worth every bead of perspiration. There are two temples here, an old one that is in a very sorry state of repair and, judging by the amount of bird poop all around it, is now more of an aviary than a place of worship.

In comparison, the new temple is a shining light of Buddhism, all golds and oranges, with the bright blue highlights of the garudas, the ornamental roof supporters. There are many other buildings, including an old meeting hall built on high stilts, perhaps an indication of how high the river waters can rise and threaten this place.

Wat Kong Mouch
Not much further down the river, this place is quite a contrast to Wat Svay. It looks much older and the grounds are quite unkempt, but the temple itself is no less elaborately decorated, with particularly beautiful windows and doors, and a ton of burial stupas lined up around it in neat, repetitive rows.

Wat Atwea
The next wat down the road is Wat Atwea but I’ll say little about that here so I’ve already blogged about my visit to this place. It has the added attraction of ancient Angkorian temples in its backyard so is worth a visit for those alone.

Wat Po Banteaychey
This wat was a wonderful surprise. The main temple is a colourful many-splendoured construction but there is so much more: an equally splendid meeting hall and lovely office buildings, many vibrantly coloured statues, a large pond with its own small temple sitting in it, and behind the main complex, an extra revelation – a square structure with peaked towers at each of the four corners and a huge tower in the centre.

Wat Aragn Sakor
The architecture of this temple is remarkably different from any other I’ve seen in Cambodia. Although its wooden window shutters are painted in bright reds, blues and golds, the rest of the temple is quite plain and painted a simple dirty white. And its columns are most unusual, with spiral fluting more reminiscent of an ancient Greek temple than something found in southeast Asia.

The rear of the wat backs on to farm land, and that was also like stepping back in time, as I watched a farmer ploughing his rice paddies with an old wooden plough and two large white cows.

Wat in Phnom Krom village
Last but by no means least in this little jaunt along Tonle Sap Road is the wat in the village at the bottom of Phnom Krom (phnom means hill in Khmer), where I had my very own little group of local girls as tour guides. This temple is a very tall structure, with wonderful multi-coloured bands around its base, garuda statues and mint-green-painted nagas guarding its entrance stairways, and an abundance of burial stupas filling its grounds. From the cremation chamber at the rear of the enclosure, you can look out across the fields or back towards the hilltop, where yet another pagoda sits, beckoning the explorer. But that, as they say, is another story.

16 June 2013

Cambodian weddings

Posing for wedding photos
Three is considered a particularly favourable number in Cambodia because of its correlation with the "three jewels" of Buddhism: the Buddha, the Sangha (brotherhood of monks), and the Dhamma (the Buddha's teachings). It should come as no surprise then that Cambodian weddings traditionally last three days and three nights.

I will include here only the main ceremonies that form part of every Cambodian wedding. There are others which families can choose to incorporate: a ritual cleansing, a plea for blessings from the families’ ancestors, and blessings by local monks. As family bonds are extremely important to the Cambodian people, the most significant aspect of all weddings is the joining together of two families.

The ceremonies begin with the groom and his family travelling to the bride’s family’s house to take a time-honoured range of gifts, including foodstuffs like fruits and vegetables, pastries and desserts, amongst other things. Sometimes, this can involve busloads of people travelling to the bride’s homeland but, where the couple lives in the same town, traffic stops as the groom and his entourage process through the streets in all their wedding finery. And finery is the most appropriate word to use here as everyone dresses in their best clothes and the women, in particular, make a dazzling display of flamboyant colour. Tops sparkle with beading and sequins, and the rich, vibrant silks of their ankle-length skirts shimmer as they walk elegantly along.

Above centre is the groom (wearing white and yellow), flanked by his parents
The women in their finery
Glittering fabrics at a local market

The bride and her bridesmaids are also resplendent in gorgeous traditional clothing, often wearing different costumes for each of the three days. As the expense of all this finery quickly mounts up, the costumes are often hired – I remember walking behind a wedding party who had stopped for photographs and seeing the women’s costumes had been pinned together at the back to fit their slender bodies.

The presentation of the dowry is accompanied by traditional songs – in fact, when you live near someone who’s having a wedding, it seems like every single minute of the three days and nights is accompanied by songs, very loud songs that blast out at a multi-decibel deafness-inducing volume on loud speakers designed to disperse the joyful music far and wide. As well as the music, there is often a master of ceremonies, a compere who loves to hear the sound of his own voice and explains every single thing that is happening.

The dowry procession is not the only thing that stops traffic. Inevitably, the bride’s family house is not large enough to contain the hundreds of wedding guests, so a marquee is erected – in the street, if their property isn’t large enough to accommodate it. The marquee itself is every bit as colourful as the guests it contains - lipstick pink is a favourite hue - and the entrance is often decorated with a vivid array of flowers and a sign inscribed with the names of the happy couple.

Brings a whole new meaning to the idea of a drive-in

On day two of the wedding, the hair-cutting ceremony is held. These days the hair cutting is symbolic rather than actual – the bridge and groom wouldn’t have any hair left by the time the master of ceremonies, both sets of parents and all the various relations and friends had snipped off their portions. This ceremony apparently symbolises the beginning of a new start for the newly weds, and is accompanied by blessings and well wishes for their future happiness and prosperity – and more traditional songs.

The pairing ceremony is held on day three. This is where the bride’s and groom’s wrists are literally tied together with special strings by their family members and friends – presumably, ceremonies like this in various cultures are the origin of the saying ‘tying the knot’. And, of course, the knot tying is accompanied by even more traditional songs. 

And then the party begins, with much feasting and drinking and dancing. For the happy couple, the solemn rituals are over, and they can relax and have fun. The amount of fun they have on their wedding night (and for many nights afterwards) becomes apparent nine months later, when their first baby makes an appearance! 

These days, wedding costumes can be a mixture of the traditional and the modern. 

08 June 2013

Wats and garudas

Wat Chedei
I have been fascinated by these guys since I visited my first Buddhist temple here in Cambodia almost four years ago. I had no idea what they represented – and from questioning many locals, I can report that most of them don’t know either. Until recently, I just thought of them as decorative roof supporters, and I took photos of them whenever I visited a new wat.

Not all temple buildings have these as it depends on the architectural style, though if the temple building itself doesn’t have them, then other buildings in the wat often do, if only in a stylised form.

Two different designs at Wat Kesararam
Stylised form on the administration building at Wat Bo

They are, in fact, representations of the Garuda, a divine being who appears in both Hindu and Buddhist mythology (garuda is the Sanskrit word for eagle).

Combining characteristics of both birds and humans, the Gardua is usually depicted as having the golden body of a strong man with a white face but an eagle’s beak, he has wings and wears a crown on his head. He often wears winged boots, with toes that resemble an eagle’s claws, and he functions like a Cambodian Atlas, supporting a superstructure.

Garudas can be found in many other forms of Cambodian architecture, often in conjunction with the naga, a seven-headed hooded serpent – more on that in a future blog. 

As you will see from the images here, the depiction of the Garuda motif varies greatly on the local temples, presumably at the whim of the maker.

Wat Bakong (note the different head on the Garuda on the right)

Two slightly different designs at Wat Polangka

A corner cluster at Wat Kong Mouch (with pigeon nest) (and it looks like someone got the measurements wrong!)

Two designs at Wat Preah Enkosa and black garudas on an administration building at Wat Damnak

Another from Wat Kesararam

A plain version at Wat Run and a glorious Garuda at Wat Svay

A much more human-like depiction at Wat Chork

02 June 2013

Wat Damnak

I first started exploring Wat Damnak, just across the river from downtown Siem Reap, back in February, when I was taking part in the Giant Puppet Parade workshops and I have visited at least once a week ever since.

Not only is it on a slightly circuitous route to town from where I live, but its Buddhist pagoda, shrines and stupas, its gnarled frangipani trees and beautiful waterlilies, its delightful frogs and darting lizards all make good subjects for my photo-a-day project. 

I also find it a tranquil place to wander and sit – this despite the primary school incorporated inside its extensive grounds, the occasional young man asking for a donation to support some good cause or other, and the constant comings and goings of monks and laypeople.

The central pagoda is currently undergoing internal renovation

This is a living Buddhist monastery with an interesting past. It was a royal palace in the days of King Sisowatch, ruler of Cambodia from 1904 to 1927, hence its name: dam nak is Khmer for palace, and it also served as a Khmer Rouge military depot in the dark days of Cambodia’s recent civil conflict.

Now its biggest claim to fame is its Centre of Khmer Studies, an international NGO whose primary aim is to facilitate global understanding of Cambodia, its history and its culture. The adjacent CKS library is the second biggest public library in the country and its 11,000 publications draw scholars from around the world seeking to research Cambodia’s intriguing past.

The Centre of Khmer Studies

Though I am a book lover through and through, for me the library holds a very different fascination. Running along the front of the building is a long narrow water feature, filled with the most gorgeous varieties of waterlilies and the biggest population of green paddy frogs I have ever seen. The markings on the waterlily blooms, which come in subtle shades of white and cream, pink, blue and lilac, seem infinitely varied, and I return often to photograph them. I am also drawn to the cute little frogs – they actually make be laugh out loud at their frantic panicked leaps, and the comical way they sit and stare goggle-eyed at me. So funny!

The monastery grounds are also home to the Kossamak Nearyroath Institute of Buddhist Studies, a facility to educate monks and the general public in the ways of Buddha, and to a second NGO, the Life and Hope Association Sewing School, which has the wonderfully practical aim of providing young Khmer women with a vocation and a future.

Wat Damnak sits in large park-like grounds, which are well filled with buildings and meeting halls, temples and stupas, as well as a large deep pond, in which sits a bright yellow shrine. The air is sweetly scented with frangipani, the large trees provide welcome shade, and the Khmer architecture mesmerises with its intricate detail. I think you can see why I return again and again to this charming location.