27 October 2008

Travel: Angkor Wat, Part 2

Elephants play a large symbolic role throughout the temples of the Angkor. The gate at Angkor Thom features three-headed elephants. The north gate to the complex is called the Elephant Gate. And one of the most awe-inspiring sights is the Elephant Terrace, a viewing platform overlooking a vast field, where King Jayavarman would review his troops returning from a glorious victory. The stone platforms stand 10 feet above the plain and face a series of towers in the distance that served as a forum for accused criminals to prove their innocence (I don’t remember the exact story, but it is reminiscent of how accused witches would prove their innocence in England and America hundred of years ago by being dumped into a pool of water – if they floated, they were deemed a witch; if they drowned, they were innocent).

To the west of the Elephant Terrace stands a large palace, accessed from each of the four sides by steep staircases, reminding me of pictures of Mayan temples. (Just to the north of the temple was a large man-made pool – lake, really – created hundreds of years ago, which was being enjoyed by two local boys doing back flips into the water.) While an intriguing sight, we skipped the interior of the palace to go to the crown jewel of Angkor Thom, Bayon Temple.

The iconic Bayon Temple is immediately recognizable from the faces carved into its stone towers. The visages, which face the four principal directions, are representations of the bodhisattva Avalokitesvara, although the face itself apparently is of King Jayavarman. The smiling faces have been referred to as the “Mona Lisa of the East”, and they are spectacular. The temple itself is quite a structure, with numerous levels, platforms, and dark hallways opening up to quiet chambers. When French explorers discovered the temple in the early 20th Century, jungle overgrowth had covered it and scattered its stones. A great amount of work has gone into reconstructing the temple, although you still see big stones piled around the perimeter, a testament to the difficulty of rebuilding the entire structure without instructions.

What I found particularly amazing was that you could climb pretty much wherever you wanted, with few railings or stairways. Those few stairways and ladders were pretty steep and not for the faint of heart. I can’t imagine something like that in the US. Of course, there isn’t anything like Angkor Thom in the US, so I guess the comparison doesn’t really fit.

The temple is surrounded by a wall decorated with a bas relief of various scenes from local history and legend. The wall is more than one kilometre long and contains 11,000 carved figures. One could spend hours just examining the intricacies of the wall.

The day was coming to an end, however, and we wanted to see Angkor Wat during sunset, so we took the short drive just down the road to the temple complex. It is a 500 metre walk from the road across the moat to the gate of Angkor Wat and another 500 metres to the temples. Along the way from the gate to the temple, you pass elegant libraries and a lily pond that offers a reflected view of the temples. We walked around the pond, past the hawkers with their t-shirts and books and paintings towards one of the corner towers on the outside wall of the temple.

As we approached, we could hear loud banging coming from scaffolding on the tower (many of the temples are being repaired through joint ventures with different countries – Germany, France, Japan, and the US, to name a few). This was the work of a monkey, either agitated or claiming his territory. We didn’t think much of it and approached the tower, where Claire sat down on the steps to rest and fix one of her shoes. As she sat with her shoe off, however, our monkey friend decided it was time to descend and investigate. He dropped off the scaffolding onto the stairs, 25 steps and two landings above Claire. But, he spared no time in coming down. By the time I realized that the monkey was actually making a bee-line for Claire, he was only a few steps away. I yelled, “Claire, the monkey’s coming to get you!” or something similar, and she sprang up and out of the way just in time as the aggressor scurried past. It was clear he wasn't cowed by us, as he made it a point to take his own route directly through the three of us, not go around. That was one bullying monkey.

With the near-attack behind us, we decided it was time to head into the temple for a quick tour before sunset.

21 October 2008

Travel: Angkor Wat, Part 1

I am always excited to receive visitors from the US, because it gives me a chance to show off Singapore a little and also visit places I have not seen yet. I was doubly excited when my friend Claire came over for a two-week stint in and around Singapore. Claire and I have known each other since our time in Washington working for Senator Bentsen. It was her first trip to Asia, and I had planned a full itinerary.

I gave her a full day to get acclimated to the weather and time change, and then we stepped on a bus to head up the road to Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia. I had only visited KL for one night last year. I enjoyed it but did not know the city well. On that occasion, I took the train, going up and returning on consecutive days. I spent more time on the train than I did in the city. This time, we would take the bus – or coach, as they call it here. It would still allow us to see some of the countryside and would get us to KL a couple of hours faster than the train (five rather than seven hours). We could have taken a forty-five minute flight, but when you factor in the travel and waiting time at the Singapore airport and the travel time from the KL airport to the city (about 40 kilometres), the coach seemed pretty reasonable. I ended up being a nice ride, with great views of the plantations lining the highways.

Once in KL, we stayed at my old favorite, Hotel Maya. This is just across from the Petronas Towers and gives stunning views of one of the world’s tallest buildings. As I did in my previous visit, we took the trip up Menara KL (the KL Tower), this time for good night views of the city.

But, KL was just to whet our appetite. We had an early flight the next morning, for two nights in Cambodia and visits to the temples of Angkor.

I had wanted to visit Angkor Wat, the temple complex near Siem Reap, Cambodia, for months. I hadn’t found the right time to do it, but Claire’s visit was the perfect opportunity. We lucked out by finding a guide through a colleague of mine. Samreth Kao is a long-time resident of Siem Reap and was an excellent guide during our two days with him. It is clear that Sam knows and loves the many temples and complexes that dot the landscape around Siem Reap. I highly recommend him to anyone that is thinking of visiting the area, and I would be glad to pass along his contact information.

People often refer to all the temples around Siem Reap as Angkor Wat, but it really is just one of dozens of temples and old cities, built between the 6th and 13th Centuries. Angkor Wat is most iconic of the temples, even featured on Cambodia’s national flag. And it is fascinating. But, there are other complexes that are just as fascinating, and I think it important that any visitor take the time to see some of these.

We started at Angkor Thom, which was an entire city, containing temples, royal residences, towers, parade fields, and homes for thousands of residents. It is slightly northwest of Angkor Wat, which is a temple complex only. Our approach took us across the bridge over a man-made moat with representations of gods and demons in what looks like a tug of war, using a Naga, a huge snake. This is actually part of Hindu lore, the Churning of the Sea of Milk, where the gods and demons cooperated to churn the primordial ocean, using the Naga, to produce amrita, the elixir of mortality.

The gate itself if fascinating, with representations of faces carved into the stones, alongside all kinds of animals and humans. You enter the gate into what can be described as a mix of forest and meadows, divided by a road into the heart of Angkor Thom. We drove nearly to the other side of the complex to start our visit at a small Buddhist wat still in use. We witnessed families paying the monks to have them pour water over them, in hope that it will bring the good luck. Sam even told us that people will bring their scooters and have the “washed”, as well. Look closely and you will see it. It was an interesting start to our visit.

One note – the temples of Angkor were originally built as Hindu temples. Subsequent rulers, however, converted to Buddhism. Then some converted back. Today, it is a Buddhist complex, and you can see icons from both religions in many of the temples. There are even instances where Buddhist icons have been essentially erased (chiseled away) by the Hindu regime. It is a fascinating mix of both sets of beliefs.

05 October 2008

Travel: USA

My schedule this year called for five potential trips to the U.S. These were mostly for leisure. Even doing this to see family and friends, it seemed like a lot! The true test was a three-week span that saw me make four flights across the Pacific to visit Colorado and California. While I spent more than four full days in the air to do this, the trips were well worth the effort.

Colorado was our bi-annual Hallerberg family get-together at the Bar NI Ranch, or the Cabot Ranch to those of us who have been going since the 1970s. The Ranch is located near Stonewall, about 30 miles west of Trinidad in southern Colorado. The four of us (Mom, Dad, Alex and I) have been going since we moved to Texas in 1976, and in 2002, we were able to extend the invitation to Dad’s side of the family. Since then, every two years, we pack everything up for a week of horses, jeeps, fishing, food, and Euchre. It really is great. And this year was no different. Rather than providing a narrative of our stay, I will let some pictures do the talking. A few highlights – I was not thrown from a horse this year, unlike 2006. Dad and Dale won the Euchre tournament (I have no idea how). And I made it back to Lost Lake after probably 15 years. Oh, and on the drive up from Amarillo, I quizzed Dad and Alex on all the planes and helicopters I saw at the Korean War Memorial. I would just say the serial number (C-123), and they knew every one! Impressive.

I returned to Singapore on Sunday evening and had 12 days there before turning around and flying to San Francisco. Napa was the scene for a group 40th birthday party for all of my fraternity brothers that were born in 1968. We had about 100 people at Monticello Vineyards, the family winery of Stephen Corley, my college roommate and fellow 40-year-old. He visited me in Singapore and Hong Kong for my 40th – I wanted to return the favor. And it was a fantastic time. We had revelers join us from all over the US and even the world – Singapore, London, Sydney (our London banker friend told us a joke - maybe - making the rounds reflecting the tough economic conditions there; essentially, European conditions were so bad that bankers had four choices - Dubai, Mumbai, Shanghai...or goodbye!).

Several sets of parents made it out, including Mom and Dad. And it was good to see that a bunch of successful 40-somethings can still act like 20-somethings once in a while.

I was able to stay in California for only four days, and about 10pm on Sunday night, I headed back to San Francisco for my 1am departure to Singapore, via Hong Kong. That was a quick turnaround – a whirlwind of a trip is a good way to describe it. And as much fun as I had, I was ready to not fly over the Pacific for quite a while.