Monthly Archives: July 2016

Angkor Wat illustrations II

Understand: Angkor Wat is the name for the whole complex of many temples as well as the name for one particular temple which is regarded as the paragon of Khmer architecture. This iconic sanctuary is reputedly the largest religious building in the world. That said, I’d like to stress that medieval cathedrals in Europe were built around the same time (twelfth century) and are more impressive in terms of towering height and architectural skill. Angkorian architects didn’t know about arches and therefore many of the corridors are very narrow as they sought the walls to come together, a technique known as corbelled arches, which resulted in rather cramped rooms, reminiscent of the cheap hotels in the modern day town. However, the sheer scale is overwhelming and it must have been a cheerful place at the time.

History: Tons and tons of it. Including quite a bit of crackpot gobbledygook.

Angkor Wat: The biggest pile of stones in the area. It’s known for its reliefs, its size and the mindboggling number of Chinese tourists swarming around it.

Angkor Thom and the Bayon. After Angkor Wat this is likely the most prominent temple, featuring the famous two hundred and I don’t know how many faces of the Bayon, its main building, that look in the four cardinal directions. Enigmatic is the word you’re looking for.

If you know what that  means.

Ta Phrom: The ‘Tombraider’ temple. Where Angelina Jolie disappeared underground to reappear in totally random places much like James Bond in The Spy  Who Loved Me. In this movie, the secret agent ran around the pyramids and suddenly appeared in the Temple of Karnak, which, in reality, is located some 700 kilometres south of the pyramids…. Poetic license or a glitch in the fabric of Hollywood space time.

Ta Keo: Impressive temple but abandoned and never finished by the ancient Khmers . Luckily, the Chinese have taken over and are now finishing it in a joint development project. Expect concrete slabs and a karaoke bar…

Ta Nei: This temple is hidden in the jungle and only accessible by a narrow path. It was still and pristine. Nobody else had taken the trouble to come and I had a good time clambering over the ruins… Don’t feed the gibbons.

Ta Som: stands out for the tree that grows out of the east gate. Otherwise more of the same in terms of Jayavarna VII’s Disney empire. Aggressive selling of soft drinks and ugly wood carvings.

Bat Chum. Some forgotten temples from the early period. The three small towers were in a sorry state, but it was a nice bicycle ride through the country side with cows, buffalo and termite hills. Close to the temple stood a  little shack with chickens pecking around, piles of garbage, empty soda cans and a faint smell of diesel… Bucolic is I think the expression, other people might suggest forgettable.

At some locations people sell paintings of the temples. Because I had done some myself, I easily saw how creative some (most) of the work is. Some of it is very bad and a lot is very routinely made. Many of the works have some randomly orange clad buddhist monks thrown in and introduce elephants and non-existing lakes with stilted villages in front of temples. Some include all these themes in rather muddled compositions. Others show optimistically restored temples, almost as they would have been drawn by the architect…. Amazingly, one even featured an African elephant!



Not so happy about the lower left corner. Too dark.

Practicalities: The temple complex is extensive and about 10 to 15 kilometres north of Siem Reap. Or maybe east, it actually felt more east then north. I don’t know. The first two days I rented a bicycle for a dollar a day, but it had many spokes missing and the brakes weren’t working.
At all.
After that I decided to go more upmarket and for an extra half dollar I got a much better bicycle. Even so, they were still battered and way to small. As I didn’t do much more than around 30 to 40 kilometres a day, this was alright, even though the heat and the humidity were very oppressive.
On the first day I bought a pass for seven days which was to be used within a month. Most people buy the three day pass and even that is pushing it. After seeing a few temples they really all look the same and I quickly found out that it hardly pays to actually go inside the buildings. They are dark, gloomy and a dour smell pervades most of them. On one occasion I got trapped inside such a monstrosity when it started to rain and the water came running down the through the leaking ceilings. It was a rather disenchanting experience.

With the materials that I use, as in many other aspects of my life, I am a minimalist. The results shown in this and the last blog post are done with  just an aquabrush, one little pan of black paint and a sketchbook.


A lot of time was spent finding suitable locations around the temples. This is not as easy as it sounds. Not only is an aesthetically pleasing subject with an unobstructed view thereof desirable, it is also essential to find a convenient place to work. Often was I looking at scenes of outstanding artistry, but at the same time utterly unable to find a place in the shade, free from mud, safe from ants and not overrun by camera toting tourists….

Back at the hotel I dabble a bit more and when I think it is good, I make a photograph. Then upload the picture and experiment a bit with GIMP. So far, I’ve only used some automatic functions under the colour tab: white balance, colour enhancement etc.


Original of the technicolor version above.

Then I bought some extra colours: white, permanent yellow, cobalt blue, red, brown, pale orange and viridian. Till that day I had led a happy existence without ever knowing there was such a colour as viridian. My life will never be the same again…


First experiment with colour

The above watercolour was originally a failed drawing, but I decided to turn it into a watercolour to try out my new coloured paints. The result is very crude and it appears I have a lot to learn! Sadly, it resembles the quality of many of the little artworks that are for sale at the temples.


This is a somewhat more satisfactory result. The original is with patches of colour and it does look quite nice, but it doesn’t translate to digital very well with my camera. After a lot of experimenting it still didn’t come out the way I wanted it, and so I have reproduced it here in black and white. In this rendering the only extra colour that I had used and that shows favourably, is white. White is difficult to use with watercolours because it is translucent and fades to grey, but it worked out very well to show the sun bleached lichen on the weathered rock.

Next Phnom Penh and after that to Vietnam.



Angkor Wat illustrations

Sometime ago I downloaded GIMP on my laptop, a free graphics editor and a good alternative to Photoshop. Before that, I used MS Paint to crop photos and perform other minor adjustments to pictures. GIMP allows you to use layers and I thought that would be useful when making animations where it would save a lot of work. So far I haven’t been very successful as it doesn’t seem to work very intuitive. In other words: it never did what I wanted. Not ever. When I was playing with some colour options, however, I found out that I could easily manipulate the photos i took of  my water colours with some astounding results:


It was all like: how’s this? and I was all like: Wow!!
Not all water colours came out better with GIMP….

These, for example, became very blotched after the process. Maybe they weren’t very good to begin with….


This one, on the other hand, improved a lot after the paint job. The original looked like a sick mummy with a skin disease….

Still, I’m not very sure about those ‘effects’, it somehow seems ethically flawed and it makes you realise that all those fabulous pictures on so many travelblogs might look a lot better than in reality. Maybe that’s why I prefer writing as an art form… Although, undoubtedly, some day you will be able to download some AI software and  upgrade your writing. Maybe it will feature options like Hemingway cool, Jane Austen dialogue or Oscar Wilde wit. If you think it crashed, you might have accidentally chosen James Joyce mashup…

Next post more about Cambodia…

To Cambodia

From Bangkok I took a bus to Cambodia, but before I left I had researched the border crossing online and so I knew about what scams to expect. Close to the border somebody entered the bus and tried to sell us his visa service. For an additional 10 dollars. I politely declined the offer. The passport photo requirement is another laugh. If you don’t have one you pay and that’s the sole reason for the requirement: to ask for money. At the border they actually take digital photos… I don’t know what they do with the passport photos they collect. Maybe  they play games of Memory with them. I don’t know. When I paid my 30 dollars, the clerk wanted another 100 baht service  charge. I smiled and said I thought 30 dollars should be enough. He smiled back and took the money. That was easy.

The border itself was a beggar infested fleahole, dusty and chaotic. After completing the border formalities, I entered a gambling palace and asked if I could use the toilet. It was all smiles and straight to the back, then right, walking past arrays of slot machines. Thanks, more smiles. To avoid the touts and beggars,  I went back to the bus and enjoyed the air conditioning.

In the late nineties I had travelled from Siem Reap to the Thai border on the back of a pick- up truck. It was very wild then: a dirt road with enormous holes, many roadblocks where money changed hands faster than fleas from my fellow passengers. The journey took all day and on arrival, my hair was caked with sweat and dust and my shirt was covered with mud stains. Now, it took a mere two hours on a nice surfaced road in a comfortable bus. I want my money back….


For one dollar I rented a bicycle for a day and set off to Angkor Wat. When I arrived at the first check point I was told that the tickets were now sold at someplace else which meant  I had to cycle 10 kilometres extra. It reminded me of my cycling days. In the afternoon it started to rain and soon I was drenched. This too reminded me of my cycling days.


If you want to see really beautiful pictures of Angkor Wat,  you have to visit National Geographic or other professional we-try-to-make-you-jealous sites.



Angkor Wat, detail of mural.

Next blog post will cover more Angkor Wat and Tomb Raider.


Bangkok safari

On Sunday my usual place for breakfast, Lizard View, was closed. I called it Lizard View because the first time I had breakfast there, I saw a big monitor lizard sunning on some reed in the murky khlong. To my surprise I saw it slipping into the water and swimming to some garbage where it caught a big frog. For some time it was happily engaged in banging the frog on some stones, amid some incredible filth as I was eating my breakfast. Bangkok Safari. Later I saw another of these dinosaurs walking through a small park next to the Chao Phraya river, its head low while it flicked its forked tongue exploratory in the air.

On Sunday the eatery was closed, but I found a nearby stall where the proprietor didn’t speak any English and had to call her neighbour for help in negotiating with the farang. At least this was Bangkok and people are used to foreigners. In the past I’ve been in situations where the vendor, upon seeing me, got in a panic and started to frantically shoo me away, not able to deal with a foreigner.
The meal was nice: a spicy salad with mint leaves and some sticky rice.

Other culinary adventures involved scallops, but I found them without taste, and chewy, like pieces of rubber, hardly worth the effort of scooping them out of their shells. A score or so of these marine creatures had died for nothing.

One of the reasons I like Bangkok is the fact that I’ve been here many times and so I don’t feel the urge to go around and see the sights and so it was by accident that I stumbled on to the Nationl Gallery. The entrance was free and it had nice air conditioning.

To get some photos for the blog, I visited a nearby temple, which in Thai is called a wat .


Rule number one: take off the shoes of anyone on the premises

The temple was called Luang Pho To and it sported a giant standing Buddha that possessed magical power. Especially if it was presented with a head of a fish of the mackerel kind, a boiled egg and a garland of flowers. Thinking about this,  I imagined it took a lot of experimenting when monks first built the statue. Something along the lines of: okay, now let’s try the head of a frog and a Spanish omelet…
This is a photo of its feet:


… and thanks for all the fish…

Nearby I saw a Buddha that looked as if it was sculpted out of giant beer bottle. I wasn’t quite sure what the material was, but I dubbed it the Beer Bottle Buddha.



Beer bottle Buddha


Gold leaf Buddha

The pious buy tiny flakes of gold that they apply to statues that need gilding, which made this bust look like it suffered from some skin disease.


Inside were some nice paintings of rural life. The detail in the photo above seems to show some ladies wth D cups, having narrowly escaped a crocodile…




Night train to Bangkok

It was time to leave George Town and move on. No more uttapam in Little India, no more tandoori chicken at Mustapha’s. On my last evening I went to the frisbee field, but there was no one to throw the frisbee with and when the rain started to fall I walked back home. Home? Well, I guess that’s what it feels like if you’ve been somewhere for a month….


Delicious Vietnamese coffee. It was called tip tip tip


Next day, I checked out and took the ferry to Butterworth. From there I took the commuter train to the border. The landscape was flat and the rice fields shone with a brigthly green hue after the rain. The train intercom issued an interminable stream of information and warnings everytime we left a station. Customers were reminded not to leave their belongings, depart from the train in an orderly fashion and try not to fall on their face or cause any other delay.

The immigration offices of both countries were conveniently located on the platform and the procedures were straightforward so that I was swiftly stamped out of Malaysia and in to Thailand.

It was a very pleasant train and after it got dark and I couldn’t see anymore of the outside world, I got my book out of my bag and while eating my sandwiches, I started reading Graham Greene’s book The Third Man.. Later the train attendant made my bed and I slept like a rose.
Next morning I ordered some breakfast, but it was not quite the feast the pictures on the menu had promised. With three hours delay we arrived in Bangkok, which gave me ample time to finish The Third Man.

It was nice to be back in good old Bangkok and I found some nice lodgings. Somebody had left a Henry Miller at the small pile of foreign books in the lobby and the find of a new book always pleases me inordinately. Not long after I had arrived, I met some friendly Thais who had formed the Bangkok Sketching Club and they were lovely people so I joined them and we made some sketchings and water colours in the park. They then invited me for dinner and drinks and it was really nice. We saw all the videos of Michael Jackson and I was educated on his famous Moon Walk and it was all rather marvellous, even though I don’t really like Michael Jackson very much….Apparently, retired Thai architects do…. and I think I had a lucky escape because we were awfully close to committing group Karaoke….