27 April 2013

Cambodia's Cats

I am a cat person and I miss not having cats in my life. It’s one of the very few negatives of an itinerant lifestyle.

On the positive side, there are lots of cats here in Cambodia so, although I don’t have one of my own, I do get to talk to them and pat them and photograph them.

Apparently, there are no breeds of cat peculiar to Cambodia, though many of the cats here have no tails, short tails, or kinked broken tails. At first I thought either the cats here were very accident-prone or the subject of cruel acts.

I consulted Professor Google for an answer, which produced some bizarre results. One writer mentioned the people of Indonesia breaking the tails of cats so the cats wouldn’t be allowed into heaven when they died, thus leaving more places available for humans. Another reported a legend in which a cat did something to annoy a god and was punished with a broken tail. One more sensible explanation was that a calcium deficiency in the mother cat caused a malformed tail in its kittens – but why only in the tail?

The truth, in this case, is indeed stranger than fiction, as the misshapen tails are the result of a very odd genetic mutation, common throughout Asia, and they were, in fact, noted by that famous evolutionary biologist Charles Darwin. There’s a good factual report of various cat tail mutations here

Apart from this oddity, the cats here are really no different to any other cats around the world, except perhaps for being a little skinnier. In a poverty-stricken country, there’s not always enough food for pets.

So, here’s a pictorial tribute to some of the cats I’ve met and a few of my favourite cat quotes.

Charles Dickens: What greater gift than the love of a cat.

Robert Byrne: To err is human, to purr is feline.

Robert Heinlein: If you would know a man, observe how he treats a cat.

Sigmund Freud: Time spent with cats is never wasted.

Robert Southey: A kitten is in the animal world what a rosebud is in the garden.

Ernest Hemingway: A cat has absolute emotional honesty: human beings, for one reason or another, may hide their feelings, but a cat does not.

Jules Renard: The idea of calm exists in a sitting cat.

23 April 2013

Wat Atwea: the old, the new and the just plain funny!

Sunday has lately become wat day in my world, and last Sunday was no exception. And, first off, I need to modify a comment I made in a previous blog, about Wat Preah Enkosei being the only place to see Angkor-era temples for free – at Wat Atwea I discovered another (though I have heard some tourists have been asked to pay to look around).

I tuktuked, as Wat Atwea is about 4 kilometres from the city centre, along the riverside road towards Tonle Sap and then perhaps another kilometre down a dirt side road, straight in to rural Cambodia. The transition from city to country can be very rapid here.

The wat covers a large area, with the new living wat sitting within the boundaries of the ancient complex, whose boundary was once a moat that is currently mostly dry. You can’t see the ancient ruins at first approach, as they are tucked in behind the modern temple and its burial stupas.

I decided to have my tuktuk driver, Bunsoth, wait for me and was glad I did, as he was able to share some fascinating details with me, though he hadn’t been to this wat before or known there were Angkor ruins here. He came with me into the modern temple, knelt and made the appropriate obeisance, then walked around taking photos with his cellphone.

I was immediately struck by the large size of the main Buddha, especially considering how out of the way this wat is; and by the large number of colourful hangings dangling from the ceiling; and by the colourful bead hanging that was draped around all four corners of the Buddha’s enclosure, almost like the curtains around a four-poster bed.

Behind the Buddha were more surprises: two four-foot high lions – not dragons as I often think of them (Bunsoth pointed to their manes) – painted in the gaudy bright colours Buddhists seem to prefer. Against the rear wall was a large open-fronted cabinet, like a large set of bookshelves, on which sat an impressive number of small Buddha statues – gifts to the temple in exchange for favours from the deity, apparently.

On the lower three shelves were small cloth bundles, shaped a little like brown pumpkins, but much covered in dust. I was a little shocked when Bunsoth explained these were dead people, the ashes and pieces of bone that remain after cremations. 

For those well-off enough to afford it, these bundles would normally be placed in a family stupa but, for the poor who didn’t want to keep their bundles of ancestors in their homes or bury them in unmarked graves in their fields, they could deposit the bundles in the pagoda. Bunsoth said he was happy not to be in the building at night-time when the ghosts were about and, yes, he was serious. Most Khmer, especially those who live in the countryside, believe in ghosts.

There was one very large stupa in the surrounding grounds. It was bright white and obviously new, and had a small open-sided marquee in front of it. It was unadorned except for the ornately framed photos of three monks. Bunsoth said this would be the burial place of all the wat’s monks and had only recently been inaugurated, perhaps during the recent Khmer New Year celebrations.

Bunsoth escaped to his tuktuk, away from the draining heat, while I continued exploring, through the other burial stupas, around the ancient ruins and amongst the other wat buildings, chatting to a rather bored official who said he didn’t get many visitors and to a couple of monks who also seemed pleased to have a visitor to speak English with.

The ancient ruins are in relatively good condition. They look rather similar to those at Angkor Wat and, by examining the style and remaining decoration - though there is a general lack of carving, there are a couple of apsara dancers, some script, and some sculptural reliefs - experts have deduced that the ruins date to the late 11th century and were left unfinished. There has been some restoration, as the numbers written on some limestone blocks and the newness of other stones testify, and the scattering of masonry to the west of the temple is thought to be the gate to a second enclosure that was also not completed.

After the solemnity of the modern temple and the solitude of the ruins, my morning finished with a charming surprise. A small family – husband, wife and young son – were sitting on the steps of one of the wat buildings and, as I watched, a monk approached and began to drench them with water, a cleansing ceremony, usually to wash away bad luck and evil spirits. The husband and wife were quite serious at first, with hands held in an attitude of prayer but after a couple of bowls the man started to clean the dirt off his legs and the young boy, struggling to contain his joy, began to giggle hysterically. I couldn’t help but laugh with him and I don’t think it was disrespectful – after all, laughter is meant to be the best medicine, especially for chasing away unhappy spirits. I left smiling after another wonderful morning.

20 April 2013

Wat Preah Enkosei and its Angkor temples

On the first day of the Khmer New Year – year 2557 by their calendar – I set out to explore yet another of Siem Reap’s wats. This was the one I had intended to visit the previous day before I got sidetracked.

Although it is an easy two-kilometre walk from the central city, on the east bank of the Siem Reap River along River Road, I grabbed one of my local tuktuks, knowing I could enjoy the pleasant walk back a little later. This time we went further than Wat Preah Enkosa to the wat with the oh-so-similar name, Preah Enkosei.

This is a living wat, currently home to 35 Buddhist monks, but this is also the only place I know in Siem Reap where you can see Angkor temples, albeit small ones, for free. (I later found another freebie - see here.) Behind the modern temple sit two brick towers, the bases of two other structures, and the remains of the east gate of a complex dating from the mid- to late-10th century. It is possible that there were originally three towers but the third has now disappeared. As the platform base of the modern temple is made of laterite blocks, it seems likely that the building blocks of the ancient structure were used to help construct the more modern one.

The site was originally contained within a moat, though much of this has now been filled in and what remains has become something of a tipping place for garden and other rubbish. The towers, too, are now mostly ruins, though the larger of the two has a lintel with surprisingly well preserved sculptural reliefs. The broader lower panel shows a central elephant head flanked by dragons and other characters, while the narrow top panel features an interesting depiction of the Churning of the Sea of Milk. (This refers to a story from Hindu cosmology where the gods and demons toiled together for a thousand years to release from the sea of milk the nectar of immortal life.)

Gnarled old frangipani trees grew around the temples, filling the air with their sweet perfume and providing welcome shade on another of April’s over-40-degree days, and there was a pleasant breeze, so I sat a while in the shade of one tower, soaking up the peaceful atmosphere. I had expected the wat to be humming with New Year’s celebrations – and there were some (see my New Year’s blog) – but they were contained in two particular areas so didn’t encroach on the overall feeling of tranquillity.

The decoration on the modern building was relatively subdued for a Buddhist temple, but no less impressive. The reliefs above the doors and windows, the roof-edge ornamentation and the roof pediment decoration all gleamed with their gold and yellow paint.

Elsewhere in the wat, an ancient banyon tree was surrounded by more than the usual number of small shrines, and two stone Buddhas soaked up the sunshine, despite their golden umbrellas. All in all, it was rather a splendid start to 2557!

The burial stupas and a little monk washing

15 April 2013

Wat Preah Enkosa

I spent another couple of hours exploring a new wat last Saturday morning and I have to admit I came away slightly disappointed as I had read that it had some old Angkor remains, as well as the modern temple … but, no! And it wasn’t just that I didn’t find them, as I asked the two different monks I talked to and they both said there were no old temples to be found there.

I tuktuked along to the wat as it looked from the map to be quite a long way along River Road, though, in the end, it wasn’t as far as I thought, and it was a pleasant stroll back afterwards.

When I arrived, monks and men were preparing the pagoda for the following day’s Khmer New Year celebrations, placing flags in the pole stands on either side of the long tree-shaded driveway. One of the monks said hello and ‘where are you from?’, the universal greeting here, and our conversation continued as he gave me a tour of the temple building, unlocking it for me to see the two huge Buddhas inside, one seated and one reclining – as well as assorted smaller ones.

The monk’s name was Somurt and he is almost 23. He has been a monk for 8 years. He told me the temple is 99 years old and the interior paintings (of the ubiquitous scenes from Buddha’s life) are between 30 and 35 years old. This information may or may not be true but, certainly, the temple ceiling was showing much water damage, whereas the paintings still looked quite fresh and vibrant.

Somurt’s English was quite good but he wanted to practise so we sat a while and chatted. Eventually, he went back to his flags and I wandered a little further, though didn’t get far before I was waylaid by another young monk, Sopheap, who invited me to sit with him on a bench amongst the burial stupas. Our conversation was almost an exact repeat of the previous one but I was happy to sit and help a little with his pronunciation. Bizarrely, he had been listening to an Australian sports commentary on his phone radio. I’m not sure how helpful that was to his English learning and he admitted he couldn’t understand most of it – ‘too fast and a funny accent’ – his words, not mine.

I wandered some more, taking photos of stupas and temple buildings, a beautiful open-sided building full of golden seated Buddhas and, finally, what looked like an office building – or, perhaps, with offices downstairs and monk accommodation upstairs, as the building was mostly unfinished.

In front of its main entrance was an elaborately carved archway, under which sat another group of Buddhas and a set of glass boxes for donations for building restoration or monk education or feeding the monks or just general blessings. An elderly nun sat to one side, giving out blessings, so I tossed a buck in her basket and knelt to receive her good wishes for the New Year. She then agreed to be photographed, moving over to sit elegantly in front of the Buddhas, arranging her clothing to look her best. I showed her the photos I took and I gather from what she said next (in Khmer) that she wanted a copy of the pictures, so I’ll get some done and take back to her next week.

Postscript: I discovered, when I got back to my room, that I had gone to the wrong wat. My tuktuk driver had been going to drive past the entrance and I stopped him, thinking he hadn’t understood where I wanted to go. My mistake! There are, in fact, two wats quite close together and, turns out, their names are also quite similar: Enkosa and Enkosei. When I checked Google maps again, I discovered the first was hidden under cloudy skies – at least, that’s my excuse!

14 April 2013

Sousdey chnam thmey! Happy Khmer New Year 2013!

For the third time in four months, Siem Reapers are celebrating the New Year: the first was the western one on 1 January, then came Chinese New Year on 10 February, and now we have Khmer New Year here in Cambodia, from 14 to 15 April.

I wasn’t actually out and about last night, and was asleep by midnight, so I’m not sure if there were any ‘stroke of midnight’ celebrations. I’m sure young tourists and expats used the date as an excuse for the usual Pub Street drunkenness but most Khmers live by the sun, waking at dawn and heading to bed soon after sun down, so I don’t imagine I missed any fireworks.

In last week’s build-up to the big event, schools had end-of-year parties, buildings were adorned with tinsel decorations and large cellophane stars, and many businesses (including my hotel) placed small tables loaded with offerings in front of their premises.

Today, the city seems relatively quiet, which is undoubtedly because most locals take this opportunity to return to their homelands for catch-ups and celebrations with their families. Schools, NGO projects and many businesses are closed for at least a week to allow people to do this.

Many of those who remain in the city or who come from Siem Reap will be visiting their local pagodas today, to pay homage to deceased loved ones and make offerings to the local monks. At the rear of the wat I visited this morning, amongst the burial stupas, two monks were chanting prayers, while a group of locals sat in attitudes of prayer on mats before them. A few people were also saying more personal prayers and making offerings at individual stupas, presumably where they had a more personal connection.

Towards the front of the wat there was another type of celebration going on. A series of stupas had been made out of sand – I’d seen these at another wat earlier in the week and not understood their significance. This group had been decorated sparingly with frangipani flowers – the trees grew around the temple there – and enclosed with a makeshift pailing fence. The fence had gateways on four sides, perhaps marking the cardinal points, with large decorated panels above the gateways, and flags and pot plants had been used to decorate the little enclosure.

There was a queue of people, mostly dressed in white, waiting to enter. The procedure seemed to be to make an obeisance and say a brief prayer at each stupa before exiting. I thought perhaps the stupas had a symbolic function, representing the stupas of the deceased for those people who hadn’t been able to return to their homelands or whose ancestors’ ashes had no specific burial place but, in fact, they are part of the Buddhist Songkran Festival. Devotees are simply worshipping Buddha, and the sand is later used for construction purposes.

I’ve heard that venturing into the countryside can be a hazardous activity at Khmer New Year – local kids apparently set up barricades to slow passing traffic which is then bombarded with water bombs and white powder. This is a rather boisterous corruption of other traditional Songkran Festival activities: bathing the Buddha and the hands of your elders with scented water and splashing other people “in a polite manner” have been taken to more youthful extremes. Luckily, I don’t intend heading out in to the countryside any time soon! A more sedate and rather charming version of this custom is shown in the image below.

11 April 2013

Kesararam: the wat and the killing field

Earlier this week, in preparation for writing this blog, I googled Wat Kesararam, a wat in central Siem Reap, immediately adjacent to the five-star Angkor Sokha Hotel on Route 6. Little do the guests enjoying that hotel’s luxurious surrounds realise what sits next to their sumptuous accommodation. Much to my surprise and with not a little horror, I discovered that the wat had been the site of a security office, a prison and a killing field during the disastrous days of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge, a fact not much advertised in this town.

A news story from the Phnom Penh Post, dated as recently as 12 September 2012, described the finding of a mass grave during excavations for a new building within the wat grounds. The disarticulated remains of at least 18 bodies were unearthed and now rest in a small wooden hut, amidst the burial stupas of deceased monks. It is rather a gruesome sight but, sadly, a very real part of the all too recent history of this country.

The news article related a conversation with the wat’s head monk, Sambath Ly Yeut, during which he described previous macabre finds in the wat grounds: ‘In the last five or six years we have been discovering human bones. In 2001, when we built our temple, we saw many bones of bodies, buried with handcuffs.’ The most recent bones also showed signs of having suffered violent deaths, with arm bones trussed with ropes and leg bones fastened together by iron manacles. Indeed, the skull I looked at had a large hole above the left eye socket and a smaller one in the right temple area, which may have occurred during the excavation process but may also have been bullet holes, or worse. There were, apparently, 24 known killing sites in the Siem Reap area alone, with the number of victims at these sites estimated at 44,528!

I find such violence difficult to contemplate and it seems appropriate to me that Wat Kesararam is now a place for meditation and prayer. Many sources date the wat’s construction to the early 1970s but this seems unlikely given the site’s violent history: in the early 70s, the Khmer Rouge were slowly gaining control of Cambodia and their genocidal regime was in full swing. Ly Yeut named 2001 as the year of the temple’s construction, though the wat may have been founded prior to that.

The temple’s excellent state of preservation supports this more recent construction date, and both its exterior and its interior walls are decorated with immense and very colourful depictions of the events from the life of Buddha. Lions and nagas (representations of seven-headed serpents) guard the stairways at the four entrances to the building, with the nagas’ bodies forming the balustrades that border the temple platform and fantastical bird-headed creatures (garudas?) supporting these balustrades.

Wat Keseraram is also known as the “Pagoda of the Cornflower Petals”, perhaps from the shapes of the gold-painted moulding that adorns the roof edges of the temple. The anthropomorphic ornamental roof supports, the windows, doors and their frames also glisten with gold paint, as do many of the burial stupas near the boundaries of the wat.

Most impressive is the tall shrine that sits in the large courtyard in front of the temple. It’s the largest I’ve seen here in Siem Reap and is wonderfully embellished with intricate sculptural reliefs. And encircling the whole of this wat, and the dark secrets sheltered within, is a garishly painted boundary wall, making its location very easy to find. Perhaps all this wat’s bright colour serves as the monks’ way of banishing the grim truth of its not so distant past.