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!
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.
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…
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.