Sunday, July 8, 2007

Angkor -- Ta Prohm

I'm now in Phnom Penh, and have been here a few days, but it's just today that I have time to get caught up in reporting what's been going on. The last day or so in Siem Reap was marked ever-multiplying internet problems, so I lapsed into radio silence for while. I've got reliable (mostly) access here in Phom Penh, but have been too busy.

So... where was I? Ah, yes, Angkor. We spent the entire day of July 3 at the temples at Angkor, departing from our hotel as eager and curious little faculty tourists, bubbling with questions about history and religion, environmental justice, the politics of preservation and restoration, and determined to somehow experience the sights in some way that would distinguish us from the mass of other tourists collecting their photo of Angkor Wat like a merit badge. We returned to the hotel a collection of limp, sweaty, itchy heaps, each of us probably privately thinking that if we could live a long time without trudging through the heat and humidity to another pile of stone in the jungle. After a shower and a beer, however, I was much keener on the whole Angkor experience, though I did not use my free day to go see more of them.

Built from about the 8th to the 14th century, the temples at Angkor all draw from the same lexicon of religious symbols and architectural features. And yet, there is surprising variety among them as well. They are, like Cambodians say, "same-same, different," which means, according to the astonishing 12 year-old girls peddling books we talked to last night, have the same generic features, but differing in details. Two American women, for example, one tall and one short, are same-same, different.

Here's the first temple we visited, Ta Prohm (begun in 1186). The hook on this site is that it's supposed been left to look like it did when the French "discovered" it in the jungle in the 1860s, so it has collapsed galleries and these huge trees with root systems all entwined with the stones (it's the one in the "teaser" picture.) French archeologists called this particular tree the "fromage," supposedly because it looks like a soft cheese melting. At least that's what our very smart Cambodian guide told us. I think they were just hallucinating in the heat.

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