Monday, January 05, 2009

Stopover at Siam Reap: Angkor Wat!

Sorry for the lack of posts recently but naturally I'm spending my holidays with my family overdosing on turkey and doing all those family thingies that people do.

I also decided to take a break from exploring webcomics and switched to exploring a real life destination that was on the "list of things to do before I die". So I spent my Christmas and the few days thereafter in Siam Reap, Cambodia.

Just a fair warning, this post has almost next to nothing regarding webcomics.

Prior to my trip I really didn't know much about Cambodia except for the tragedies of the Khemer Rouge, landmines and Angkor Wat. So visiting Cambodia, albeit as a touristy tourist, is something new to me.

Siam Reap (meaning "The Siamese Defeated"), is called such after the Cambodians repelled the Siamese occupiers who had had hold over the land for a few hundred years. This is also why the tension between the Thai-Cambodian border is so tense at the moment, as the Cambodian fear a repeat of being under Siamese rule. Back to the topic, Siam Reap is not the capital of Cambodia (Phenom Penh is) but merits its own international airport due to its proximity to the much vaunted Angkor Wat. This is the place most tourists go when they come to see the famous temple.

The advantage of a notebook and a well-stocked pencil-case is I can continue comicking while waiting in between connecting flights. Mind you, you may be subject to curious onlookers. It's amazing how random people start coming up to you and strike up a conversation when they see you drawing. I recently discovered the existence of chinese calligraphy brushmarkers, which are beyond awesome for inking on the run and will probably be what that makes me give up traditional brushes if I ever do.

Have sketchpad? Never be bored! iPod is optional but recommended!

The thing I noticed quickly is many of the Cambodians are very fiercely patriotic. This is reflected almost every aspect of Cambodian life, from my fiesty tour guide who frankly admitted he thought the Siamese were very "not good" people, to the motto of the local beer. (The local brew, Angkor Beer is something rather like a Carlsberg with a heavier alcohol content. Insisting on Angkor Beer for dinner will get you respected smiles from the restaurant staff it seems. "My Country, My Beer" seems to be the prevalent attitude; God help you if you prefer Singha Beer instead.)

This man was selling palm wine. I was tempted to try some but the tour guide warned us our fragile foreigner stomachs would not be able to handle it. And he's not talking about the alcohol content.

The language, Khemer, is rather reminiscent of Thai. In fact it shares about 4000 words with the neighbouring language. Given that my command of Thai is about as good as my Spanish (that is, limited to a few common and basic day to day words) I stuck to English, that seemed to get me by well enough, although the occasional sign language helps.

Poverty is prevalent behind the veil of affluence put on for the sake of the tourists. Four star hotels and even an air-conditioned mall nestle next to a dirt road pitted with holes; every time a car goes by a cloud of red laterite dust gleefully swirls around. Apparently December is the dry season in Cambodia.

Siam Reap is very dependent on the tourism industry, so much so that the recent economic crisis has hit them very hard as the expected flood of peak tourist season has been nothing but a trickle so far. While that augurs well for me as a visitor since I hate crowds, there is a rather melancholy feeling when you're sitting in a half-filled restaurant that was obviously prepared to cater for more people than your humble self.

The christmas turkey is almost visible in this picture.

The dependence on tourism is so much so that the money used is transanctions in Siam Reap is a bizarre mix of US dollars and local Cambodian Riels. That is, anything above the value of 1 US dollar is traded for in US dollars, anything less than that is traded for in Riels. So Riels are something like the paper replacements for coins, which does not seem to exist here. It also involves some mental arithmetic since 1 US = 4200 Riels so if something costs $1.30 USD you end up paying 1 US dollar and 1200 Riels (I don't think I've even seen anything smaller than a 100 Riel note, so they write off the extra Riels). Odd, but interesting system.

The whole of Siam Reap however, is more or less centered around the Angkor Wat. With good reason, the place is bone-chillingly awe inspiring. I spent half of today walking around what I thought WAS Angkor Wat, only to find out it was not even a tenth of the entire Angkor Wat complex.

This picture was just postcard perfect.

Angkor Wat is really beyond words to describe, and even the hordes of (very) pushy hawkers trying to push souvenirs onto you can't quite take away the awe of the place. The main section of Angkor Wat reminds me of CS Lewis' decription of a "Narnia within Narnia" where what you think is the temple is actually a temple around a courtyard within which lies a smaller, more magnificent temple. And within that temple is YET another courtyard with an even smaller temple in the middle.

When in Angkor, do as the Khemers do?

Almost every inch of the walls and archways is filled with stone carvings depicting scenes from the Hindu epics of old. Each balustrade is a giant naga, a snake/dragon kind of creature which always has odd-numbered heads (with seven heads, one for each day of the week being the highest number).

In the shadow of the Naga. I'm going to so use this effect in my comics sometime.

The architecture is amazingly symmetrical and built to precision. It is so precise that if you stand at the doorway of the innermost temple, you'll see it lines up perfectly with the straight walkway to the door of the outer temple that surrounds it, and the walkway beyond that. Walking in this place is like a real life lesson in perspective.

"And the vanishing point is over there!"

Their stairs aren't particularly friendly to use though, the sharp 45-60 degree incline and piddly step width (about half the size of a normal step) will give anyone with vertigo a hard time. Once you get to the top the view is amazing though.

There is a monk up at the very top of the stairs, rather like the hermit on top of the mountain...

There is also a sense of sadness as you walk through this place as well. When you walk through the ruins of this place and realize some of the gaps in the walls are bullet-marks, and many of the statues that used to stand in the place have been plundered or damaged and left in pieces.

A stone lion standing guard.

Angkor Wat, like I said, is not the only temple in the Angkor complex. There are dozens more, and to get to them you need to hire a car or tuk-tuk (basically a cab drawn by a motorbike instead of a horse). Sometimes the trip is more interesting than the temple, especially when you pass small villages and farms on the way that can yield some interesting conversation if you press  your tour guide with the right questions. My favourite occured when we were passing an army camp on the way to Banteay Sirei.

Tour Guide: That is the Cambodian Army's shooting range. For 1 US dollar a bullet tourists can go in there to learn shoot gun. (Seeing the horrified look on my mom's face). Don't worry, Madam, only they let you use the small guns only.
Dad: (Curious) What kind of guns?
Tour Guide: (Completely straight face) AK-47s.

Of the many temples I visited, Ta Phrom stands out as the one of particular note. You may remember it from the Tomb Raider movie. Yeah, the one covered in trees.

And this is why Ta Phrom is awesome and majestic.

Well er... I like trees. And giant trees growing in ancient temples are very interesting. It just gives the who place an added facet. I really have to come up with some fictional places in one of my comics with an architecture/nature combination like this.

Angeline Jolie walked past these same roots!

On the way out I ran into a quintet who were busking with some traditional asian instruments (mostly erhus and what looked like a xylophone). They stood out from your normal buskers in one way: they were all landmine victims. Most of them were missing limbs, one of them was blind.

Me picking up a few pointers from the pros.

But their skill and cheerfulness was nothing short of inspiring, and I went home feeling a little awed and humbled that I still have two hands I can draw comics with.

So Cambodia was different. Another one of those places out of my comfort zone, but I'm glad I went.

All that said, I'm happy to be home, with all of a new year in front of me, a buffer of comics at hand and ideas for many more. The economy may suffer, and no one's immune from paycuts and layoffs, but hey... Life is still good.


  1. AK-47s! wouldn't you like to have a go at it just to see how that feels as a small weapon :P Would've been great for the jaded :D

  2. Definitely wanted to fire off some AK-47 rounds but alas... I don't think that would have went down too well with the company I was keeping. heh.