More splendors of Angkor temples, and a sobering visit to a land mine museum

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Exquisite carving on nearly every surface is the hallmark of Banteay Srei, one of the temples at the Angkor Archaeological Park in Siem Reap, Cambodia. In the center of this pediment are two elephants holding pots in their trunks, pouring water over the seated figure of Lakshmi, the consort of Vishnu.

By Betty Gordon

© 2016 text and photos. All rights reserved.

My friend Susan and I took a fascinating two-week trip to Vietnam and Cambodia in March. This is the 10th post in the series about our experiences.

Our second day of exploring the Angkor temples was shorter in duration and got off to a later start than sunrise at Angkor Wat (see previous post), but we were still on the road by 8 a.m.

Our guide, “Tony,” picked us up again at our hotel lobby, but with a different tuk-tuk driver.

We were heading to Banteay Srei, one of the temples farthest from the city of Siem Reap, and this gave us a good opportunity to get a lengthy look at village structures along the way, including how they differed in material and placement.

(Note to contact-lens wearers: A tuk-tuk is open on all sides with the exception of the roof. The driver sits in front on a motorcycle, which is attached to the passenger compartment, where riders sit on facing bench seats. Some of the main roads are paved, but you’ll likely also traverse ones that are not. A lot of dust gets thrown up, and it can be wind-in-your-face breezy, even though you’re going only about 20-25 miles per hour. That helps to cool your body temperature, but if riding in a tuk-tuk for any distance, you might want to opt to wear your glasses.)

As in Vietnam, Cambodia’s sturdier buildings are vertical. We did not see the architectural style known as a ranch house, a single-story structure.

We saw some clusters of cinderblock houses, nearly all with a balcony of some sort on the second level. Some houses I’d even describe as modest villas, nicely landscaped with native palms and flowers, including climbing bougainvillea, which I recognized from my Florida childhood, and surrounded by a high metal gate or brick wall.

These often had late-model cars or minivans — mostly American, Japanese and South Korean brands — parked in front. Signage in English seemed to indicate that some of the villas were available to rent.

But we also saw many less-solid dwellings, constructed of native woods and other materials such as palm fronds, perhaps homes of people lower on the economic ladder. During monsoon season, these structures probably take a beating. Chickens and pigs and the occasional cow or ox were more likely to be seen here. We also noted many stray dogs, which may have been pets … or part of the grocery list.

As with the previous day, roadside vendors were selling everything from homemade crafts and textiles to fruit (the small pineapples were especially appealing) and packaged food.

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Our guide, Tony (right), gets a plastic cup of palm juice for us to sample, like the one the woman at left is drinking.

We also sampled palm sugar and palm juice. Individual disks of palm sugar are sold like candy, bigger in size than a bottle cap and about three-quarters-inch thick. Palm sugar is light brown (almost tan), has a dense, pasty granule and is mouth-puckeringly sweet. One small bite was enough.

Palm sugar is used in some Cambodian and Vietnamese recipes and it is also a favorite of cooks in Thailand and other Asian countries. Roadside stands market it in jars in a variety of sizes.

The misty palm juice was equally sweet, like someone had put a cup of sugar too many (or more) into a liquid and then shaken it up. A few sips sufficed.

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A roadside vendor’s wares include palm sugar in jars (left side of photo), souvenirs carved from wood and coconut shells and a variety of textiles. The jar at top right and in the second row, second and third from left, contain palm candy disks. I don’t know the contents of the jars on the right side of the picture.

It took about an hour to get to our first stop: Pre Rup, which dates to the 10th century (961) and the rule of Rajendravarman II. It was constructed as a Hindu temple, with two of the top sanctuaries dedicated to Shiva, Michel Petrotchenko writes in his excellent “Focusing on the Angkor Temples.”

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Restoration work is under way at Pre Rup.

Overall, Pre Rup is in worse condition than most of the other temples we saw. Its central layout is a quincunx (one sanctuary at each corner surrounding the center sanctuary), the same as Angkor Wat, which we visited the previous day, and Banteay Srei. As with Angkor Wat, this architectural arrangement represents Mount Meru, the center of the Hindu universe and the abode of the gods.

Petrotchenko says a moat originally encompassed Pre Rup, but adds that only after the rainy season is there even a hint of this.

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Banteay Srei’s sanctuaries are constructed in a quincunx, that is, a sanctuary at each corner of a square surrounding the largest tower situated at the center.

Banteay Srei (banteay means citadel or fortress) was a short ride away. (It’s about 20 miles from Siem Reap, if we had come here directly.) Banteay Srei has several distinctions, the greatest of which may be the quantity and quality of its intricate, ornate carvings, all rendered in pinked-hued sandstone, and depicting mythological scenes.

It’s also one of the few temples to be commissioned not by royal personage but by two Brahmin brothers. It’s a Hindu temple dedicated to Shiva and dates to 967.

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A closer look at Banteay Srei’s pink-hued sandstone towers. Note the abundance of carving pervading the sanctuaries.

Another historical fact: Banteay Srei was the first Angkor temple in which the archaeological technique of anastylosis was used. In this method, all fallen and intact stones are numbered and inventoried as a structure is disassembled. Foundation restoration is completed, using modern technologies if necessary but preserving as much of the original as possible, before the monument is reconstructed with the inventoried stones. Banteay Srei was restored 1931-1936.

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Land mines, rockets and a variety of other weapons are displayed at the Cambodia Land Mine Museum.

Our last stop of the tour was the Cambodia Land Mine Museum, begun in 1999 by Aki Ra, a former child soldier of the Khmer Rouge. After the Pol Pot-led communists seized the capital, Phnom Penh — and power —in April 1975, they began a disastrous resettlement and agrarian program, sending city dwellers into the countryside and killing almost immediately anyone with money and an education.

This tortuous, chaotic period, at its height 1975-1979, would become known to the world as the “killing fields,” named such because of the estimated 1.7 million who were beaten, starved and worked to death in labor camps or executed at will in rural areas.

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Aki Ra, a former Khmer Rouge child soldier, is the curator of the Land Mine Museum. He also founded Cambodian Self Help Demining, a nongovernmental organization dedicated to clearing Cambodian land of all explosives.

Aki Ra’s brief biographical information is on a billboard at the museum. An in-depth, engrossing version is online. He says he doesn’t know his birthdate, but may have been born in Siem Reap province around 1973, though possibly earlier. The Khmer Rouge killed both his parents, indoctrinated him and taught him to lay land mines, make bombs, shoot guns and fire rocket launchers.

He says at about age 10, he was a Khmer Rouge soldier, which lasted for about four years, as the invading Vietnamese tried to eradicate the murderous regime. He was given the option of joining the conquerors or being killed. In 1989, the Vietnamese army left, and Aki Ra joined the Cambodian army to fight the remnants of the Khmer Rouge in the Siem Reap area.

Our guide, Tony, had mentioned in passing that the Khmer Rouge had occupied Siem Reap province, but Aki Ra’s biographical information reveals just how widespread their presence was, having taken over Ta Prohm (see my previous post) and other temples. The Vietnamese were stationed at Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom and elsewhere, he says.

United Nations peacekeepers arrived in the early 1990s and they were instrumental in training Aki Ra, his life having come full circle, to disarm mines and other unexploded ordnance. By his own count, he says he’s defused or exploded more than 50,000 devices.

The idea for the museum sprang from abundance of the wrong kind. Aki Ra says as he was clearing mine fields, he was constantly finding American-, Chinese- and Soviet-supplied arms (Ak47s, Kalashnikovs, M16s, etc.) and ordnance (bombs, grenades, launchers) and had nowhere to store his relics.

Slowly, with contributions and funds raised from his work as a tour guide, Aki Ra was able to build the museum. Ordnance is displayed throughout, and touring the facility can be accomplished in less than an hour.

Aki Ra and his team continue demining fields, concentrating on “low-priority” villages. About 100 have been cleared. An estimated 3 million explosives remain, he says, and that his work, and that of the nonprofit Cambodian Self Help Demining, which he founded in 2007 and is partially funded by the United States, may go on for decades.

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One of the paintings at the museum illustrates the disastrous results of children finding unexploded ordnance.

In a country that still depends heavily on agriculture, demining is continuing good news for farmers and the overall economy. More than 270 square miles have been decontaminated, and many of those fields are back in rice or vegetable production, but many hundreds of square miles remain to be cleared.

An area at the back of the museum, off-limits to visitors, is where young victims, permanently scarred or disabled, are cared for by Aki Ra and his wife.

Quick reference: Cambodia Landmine Museum: 7:30 a.m.-5:30 p.m. daily. Guided tours available. $5 admission, adults; children 10 and under and Cambodian citizens, free. The museum is less than 5 miles south of Banteay Srei, and if coming directly from Siem Reap, about 16 miles from town. http://www.CambodiaLandmineMuseum.org

Cambodian Self Help Demining: http://www.cambodianselfhelpdemining.org

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