19 April 2003 - Siem Reap

I rhapsodised endlessly about the temples of Angkor in a previous post, and I suppose I should write the contra-side of it. This isn't really a criticism, but an attempt to say why it may not affect other people in the same way as it did me.

We're spoilt, you see. In the last fifty years, it has been increasingly easy to travel around the world. Not just people travelling to places, but foreign ideas and cultures travelling to people. I guess we get jaded more often and even the fantastic has been seen somewhere, be it in a travelogue, a movie, TV or even Disneyland.

Let me take Disneyland. I think that was the first time that I was introduced to the idea of a temple in an overgrown jungle. It was either that or Jungle Book. At that young age, it looks... well, as normal as anything else, because everything is new, and you just take that idea and store it away as something. "Temple in Overgrown Jungle" - check.

The first thing that struck me when I visited Ta Phrom was that it was quite unreal. It was like a movie set or something. Roots of ginormous fig trees bursting through stone walls - you only saw this in movies, right? But it's all real.

I saw the Tomb Raider movie the other night, if only because I knew that the temples of Angkor had a bit part in it. I saw the trees, and the walls of Ta Phrom, exactly as I saw it in real life. It looked like a movie set, but it's real.

We are so used to seeing temples in overgrown jungles, in literature, in movies, in computer games, that our senses have been dulled to the wonder when we actually see it. Even if it is for real.

Or is it?

Well, yes and no. Ta Phrom and a few other temples are left more or less in their original state, in order to give visitors an idea of what it was like when explorers first stumbled across them. But it isn't quite the same. For a start, a nice path has been cleared to the temple, so you can practically drive up to the front gate, something you could never have done before.

It goes further than that. Some of the doorways and corridors are literally crumbling under the weight of the trees above it and need to be reinforced to make it safe for visitors to walk under and through them. Mixed in with the original stonework are wooden, steel and concrete beams.

That's not all. If you look at some of the carvings, the stones are oddly miscoloured. That's because some of the stones were left facing the elements, and the others fell down and were protected from weathering. When they restored the temple, they put the stones back up again, like a giant jigsaw. As a result some stones are almost pristine white, and others have taken on a dull, dark, blackish hue.

The bas-relief murals in Angkor have to be cordorned off with a piece of rope. It's estimated that 2 million foreigners come to visit the temples of Angkor each year. If each of them touch a carving, that's a little bit more weathering done apart from what nature doles out.

A tremendous amount of restoration work has been done on the temples at Angkor. No fewer than five international consortiums, plus the local government with the help of the World Development Fund, work around the clock to preserve the temples.

So, after all that preserving and restoring and restructuring, is it real? Is it any different from what you see in Disneyland? It looks the same, you can't touch either of them, maybe the grandeur is slightly different, but that's what special effects are for. Why bother travelling half-way around the world when you can practically get the same thing in your own back yard?

Well, I think there is a difference. I was walking around, and I kept thinking - this all is almost a thousand years old. A civilization was here, and it rose and expired and all that's left of them are these stone monuments. This is what they were capable of, shouldn't we be able to do better?

When I visited the fireflies at Kuala Selangor, I joked with some friends that if Disney ever acquired the rights to it, there would be monorail tracks that the boats ride on, and mixed in with the real fireflies would be fake electric ones - to 'enhance' the effect. I can tell the difference between what's real and what isn't. It's when we can't, I think then, that's when we're in trouble.


posted on Friday, May 02, 2003 - permalink
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