The Faces of Bayon, The Smile of Angkor

Arriving at the gates of Angkor Thom, one of the city temples in the Angkor Archaeological complex, was like something out of a movie, or better yet, something out of an adventure book I’d read as a child.

Entrance to Angkor Thom, Cambodia - YourLocalKatTo be completely honest, I had been sorely underwhelmed by my visit to Angkor Wat the day before; maybe it was my expectations for it, all the guidebooks swearing it’d be breathtaking, or its size, too large for me to grasp completely, but it just didn’t wow me the way everyone else seemed to be wowed. I knew I was looking at something special, big, important…it just wasn’t that special, big or important to me.

So I was stunned when I arrived at Bayon.

Bayon Temple

From far away, Bayon actually looks like a glorified heap of rubble; besides a few stone peaks reaching for the sky, the whole temple looks more disorderly than sacred, and the stone blocks scattered around the premises only add to its ‘accidentally left behind’ atmosphere.  The rubble of Bayon. Angkor Thom, Cambodia - YourLocalKatBut upon getting closer, something that resembles a face begins to peer from one of the towers. Soon, there is another, and then another, and all of a sudden the realization hits that there is much more to this temple than meets the eye.

History of Bayon

Bayon was built in the late 12th century for King Jayavarman VII as the official state temple of Angkor Thom, the capital of the Khmer Empire at the time. Situated smack in the middle of the “great walled city,” the Buddhist temple is said to be one of his greatest achievements.

Bas-relief at Bayon. Angkor Thom, Cambodia - YourLocalKatFollowing the architectural style of the temple-mountain, a representation of the sacred center of the universe Mount Meru, Bayon reaches over 40 meters high and expands its grandiosity over 10km2, its walls covered in a gallery of detailed bas-reliefs (shallow sculpted stone) that stretch for almost a kilometer, and depict historical battles, mythological events, and everyday life.

The Faces Of Bayon

A smile of Bayon

But it is perhaps the greatest attribution to Jayavarman VII that holds me where I stand in awe: from the 54 towers that look out onto the city materialize 216 smiling faces, watchful and reserved. It is breathtaking, bizarre, and almost otherworldly.

Rumored by many to be more than just a coincidental resemblance to the king himself, they stand almost four meters tall, carefully observing as they blend in and out of the slabs of stone from which they themselves are assembled.

It is fitting: generally accepted as the embodiment of the bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara, the faces exude compassion for their audience; as a representation of the king, they retain a sense of distance from it –

the wide forehead, broad nose, deep nostrils, almond eyes, and that smile, almost clown-like, upturned at the ends, is a graceful union between serenity and control.

The Smile of Angkor

Bayon is considered one of the most beautiful temples of Angkor, and I can see why – there is a magic in walking among the faces, as if each holds the secrets to a hidden past. But the temple itself is still shrouded in mystery, and that’s the most beautiful experience of them all: standing face to face with the enigmatic smile of Angkor, and letting Bayon slowly reveal itself.

Three in a row. Bayon, Angkor Thom, Cambodia - YourLocalKat

Photo of the Week: Battambang Bats

The dark gaping slit in the middle of the cliff that was supposed to be the bat cave didn’t look too promising.

And then dusk started approaching, and something inside the darkness began to stir.

Like clockwork, at 5:45, the fruit bats fluttering within shot out, quietly and daintily and soon you could see the dotted line snaking away into the sky for miles.  It was almost comprehensible, the sheer amount of bats overhead.

Bats flying off, Battambang, Cambodia - YourLocalKatEvery evening, the bats make their way towards the floating markets nearby where they feast on a banquet of mosquitoes, and there are so many of them that it takes about two hours for them all to fly out.

How many, you ask? Oh, about EIGHT MILLION :D.

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The bat cave is at Phnom Sampeu, about 17 kilometers from the city center of Battambang, Cambodia, and the bats fly out everyday around dusk.

Off the Rails with Battambang’s Bamboo Train

Rickety Rails. Battambang Bamboo Train, Cambodia - YourLocalKat
Rickety Rails

It might not be far off the ground, or go upside down, but there’s really nothing quite as thrilling as feeling like you might fly off the rails when barreling forward at about 40 kilometers per hour with nothing holding you down.

Battambang’s Bamboo Train, or nori, was first built by the French in 1927, the rails running all the way to the Thailand border. Nowadays, while still occasionally used by locals to carry bigger loads from town to town, the train is mostly used by tourists who come to experience the one-of-a-kind ride.

But to call it a train is a bit of an overstatement really. The contraption consists of a platform constructed from sparse bamboo strips and what is possibly a tractor motor not actually attached to the wheels that it runs on.

There are no seat belts, or seats for that matter, and passengers sit on a straw mat placed at the front for comfort and stability.

The rails are appropriately rickety, thrown down and attached just haphazardly enough that the train jerks at each junction. They are bent, whether from heat, time, or construction, and add a bit of a rollercoaster swerve as you fly through, bushes and branches occasionally swatting at your limbs if you dare to extend them past the platform’s perimeter.Train motor. Battambang Bamboo Train, Cambodia - YourLocalKat

There’s only one set of rails so when two trains going in opposite directions meet, one group disembarks and the drivers disassemble the platform from the wheels, put it on the ground, remove the wheels from the tracks, push the other train through, and reassemble the first train back together.Taking the train off the tracks. Battambang Bamboo Train, Cambodia - YourLocalKatIt is a 20 minute ride to a tiny village where you’ll have ten minutes to buy a drink, a souvenir or visit a small rice factory guided by the adorable children for $1, and then you hop on and head back.Tour guide. Battambang Bamboo Train, Cambodia - YourLocalKatThe Bamboo train is definitely a tourist attraction, but is likely one of the most authentic ones in southeast Asia; unfortunately, with the reconstruction of Cambodia’s railway system, it might not be around in a couple of years. There’s really no danger of having an accident, or flying off for that matter, but rattling through the Cambodian countryside on a flimsy raft of bamboo is really a thrill you have to experience before it’s gone for good.

The Bamboo Train is a $6 tuk tuk ride from the center of Battambang. The train costs $5 per person and runs everyday during daylight hours.

Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum: The Haunting Memory of S-21

From the outside it could be just another high school. It could be your high school. Except that it is fenced in by a barbed wire, surrounded by a corrugated iron fence, and is what remains of Security Prison 21 during Pol Pot’s reign.Highschool. Toul Sleng Genocidal Museum, Phnom Penh, Cambodia - YourLocalKat(Note: In case you’re fuzzy on the history, I’ve summarized the context of how Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge came to power here).

In 1975, Tuol Svay Pray High School became S-21, the most secret of the almost two hundred interrogation and execution centers in Cambodia where anyone considered a threat or accused of leading the uprising against Pol Pot’s regime was detained.

The classrooms were turned into cells that worked as cages for the prisoners with an iron bed, blanket, cushion and mat, and a bucket for bodily waste. Some classrooms were divided into smaller brick cells; others were kept open for mass detention. A fishnet of barbed wire covered each building to prevent the desperate prisoners from jumping and committing suicide.Barbed wire. Toul Sleng Genocidal Museum, Phnom Penh, Cambodia - YourLocalKatThe detainees were brought here, their photographs taken, their arrival elaborately documented, often without knowing the reasons for their arrest.

Once at S-21, they were tortured until they not only confessed to their nonexistent crimes, but also disclosed the names of family members and friends that were supposed accomplices.

Structures around the school were turned into interrogation machines; shackles, knives, whips and electroshock were used for torture.Gallows. Toul Sleng Genocidal Museum, Phnom Penh, Cambodia - YourLocalKatMany of the large cells were left as they were found in 1979, mostly empty with steel beds, some with pillows, some water cans, others chains and ankle bars.

Blown up photographs mirror the rooms they are hung in, a record of how each room was found so many years ago. In black and white, the disfigured corpses lie barely identifiable in pools of blood, but the bludgeoning is obvious. To see it is almost too much to bear; to stand in a room and know what the body looked like right there…is chilling.Ankle bar and can. Toul Sleng Genocidal Museum, Phnom Penh, Cambodia - YourLocalKatAnother building is filled with small brick stalls where the prisoners were leashed. Row after row, room after room. In one, a green chalkboard still hangs, faded, and I’m transported: this used to be a high school. It used to be carefree.

There are scratches and numbers on the wall and I’m not sure what they mean but at that moment it is the saddest photograph I’ve ever taken, and I can’t hold back my tears anymore.Brick cells. Toul Sleng Genocidal Museum, Phnom Penh, Cambodia - YourLocalKatThe galleries are in the next building – mostly mug shots of the prisoners, some defiant, some resigned, most just wondering ‘Why?’ Interspersed between them, photographs of people, so many, just lying there, bloody, gauged, dead. And I can’t look anymore.Prisoner photograph. Toul Sleng Genocidal Museum, Phnom Penh, Cambodia - YourLocalKat

Why? Why do these things have to happen?

Prisoner records estimate that the Khmer Rouge killed about 20,000 people at S-21, many of them children. Out of everyone that entered, only seven are known to have survived. With a third of Cambodia’s population wiped out, Pol Pot’s regime was responsible for one of the largest genocides in history; ‘keeping the memory of the atrocities committed on Cambodia soil alive‘ as the pamphlet urges, is crucial in preventing them from happening again.

I didn’t see the last building. I couldn’t. But what I learned I will definitely never forget.Numbers. Toul Sleng Genocidal Museum, Phnom Penh, Cambodia - YourLocalKatContinue on to the Choeung Ek Killing Fields.

Back to the eventual end of Pol Pot’s reign.

Tuol Sleng Genocidal Museum is on the corner of St. 113 and St. 350 in Phnom Penh city. Tickets $2.

Photo of the Week: Garbage or Corruption?

This is the scene in the market of Damnak-Changaeur, a four-block-square town on the road north from Kep, Cambodia to Vietnam.

The mess of Damnak Chang'aeur market, Cambodia - YourLocalKatNot somewhere you’d want to buy fresh meat from?

A local store owner explained:  The government in Cambodia is corrupt. It is so bad, that it doesn’t care about the ‘little people,’ and consequently doesn’t bother having the market cleaned up.

That could be one man’s opinion, but the lack of maintenance is evident: the mess that’s left when the market closes at 10am remains throughout the day until it gets somewhat tidied by the sellers as they set up again at three in the morning.

And that’s a reality.

After the market, Damnak Chang'aeur, Cambodia - YourLocalKatBut besides a few gathered garbage piles, the culture in Cambodia is to litter (plastic, paper, mussel shells) and expect someone to tidy up. Is it too ‘western’ to expect pro-active action? Is the government completely to blame?