Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Temple-trekking at Angkor Wat

Angkor Wat in the early morning (Photos by Narca)

Angkor Wat is, to my mind, one of the true wonders of the ancient world, on a par with Egypt's and Greece's antiquities and Peru's Machu Picchu. For our first three days in Cambodia, Alan, Jim, Rich and I are exploring the vast ruins of Angkor Wat and birding the temple grounds.

We begin our temple-trek before daybreak, driving out to the stunning central complex of Angkor Wat with our temple guide, Mardy, to watch dawn illuminate the ruins of Angkor. Mardy is a charming young man who knows his subject well. He tells us that the whole region is called Angkor. "Wat" means "monastery," and therefore the most well-known complex is that of the temple of Angkor Monastery. Cambodia is now a Buddhist country, but hundreds of years ago when Angkor Wat was built, the region was Hindu.

Huge faces gaze down from ruined towers

Erected in the 12th century by King Suryavarman II, Angkor Wat was conceived as a Hindu center dedicated to the god Vishnu. Vishnu represents that aspect of god which sustains and preserves the universe. Angkor was the king's capital city and the state temple. The immense towers are shaped like lotus buds. An intricate system of waterworks was one of the region's marvels.

Mardy teaches us

Bas-relief carving of a story from the Mahabarata

Hundreds of apsaras––celestial nymphs––dance over the surfaces of Angkor Wat. These two are draped in serpents.

Mardy explains the meanings of the elaborate shapes and bas-reliefs. Stories from the epic Hindu tale, the Mahabarata, are carved into the sandstone surfaces. Elaborations project from the roof and edges of all the buildings, and they represent serpents. I'm blown away. During years of marveling at depictions of the temples of Angkor Wat, I never realized that all those projections were serpents. Serpents adorn not only the angles of the buildings, but also the statues and carvings.

A King Cobra towers over this statue.

Even the balustrades of bridges are serpents ("nagas") and usually resemble King Cobras.

This balustrade is fashioned after a 7-headed cobra.

Serpent power or serpent energy is the symbol for kundalini, the powerful energy regarded in yoga as lying coiled at the base of the spine, which, when awakened, courses up the spine and leads to spiritual awakening. The whole immense, intricate, stupendous temple complex strikes me as a monument to the attainment of higher consciousness.

We roam through temple complexes for three days, yet I feel we have barely begun to explore what's here.

Trees have sprawled over many ruins. 

Marauding gangs of Long-tailed Macaques roam the ruins, ready to snatch an iPhone or a bit of someone's lunch.

And yes, even Asian Elephants stroll about, ferrying tourists.

Restoration is underway in several sites.

Fearsome demons adorn this restored panel.

At the end of a hike, we find a restful spot to scan wetlands behind one of the temples.

Here we find our first Pheasant-tailed and Bronze-winged Jacanas, our first Lesser Whistling-Ducks.

Lesser Whistling-Ducks are common in Cambodian wetlands.

Black Bazas, a small and elegant raptor, gather in family groups around the ruins. 

A lizard scurries away. Most of our Cambodian adventure still lies ahead.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Cambodia: First, the Khmer Rouge's Legacy

Our birding trip in Cambodia was organized by the Sam Veasna Center for Wildlife Conservation, based in Siem Reap (the city close to the famed temples of Angkor Wat). The center's work in meshing ecotourism with village economies is the most impressive example I've ever seen of bringing tourism dollars to very poor communities, to build local support for conserving wildlife and necessary habitat.

But we need to back up before we get to the spectacular species and the impressive efforts at conservation: we need to put that work into the context of Cambodia's recent past.

A street scene in Cambodia, where bikes and motorbikes far outnumber cars. (Photos by Narca)

A woman cooks breakfast for sale by the roadside.

Why is Cambodia so poor? In a nutshell, it is a battered society, still pulling itself together after the horror of the Khmer Rouge. Cambodians call themselves the Khmer, the People. The Khmer Rouge was the brutal Communist regime headed by Pol Pot, which during the 1970s brought genocide to its own people, killing 1-2.5 million men, women and children (by various estimates), or about 20% of the Cambodians then alive. This was a regime that separated children from parents, and trained those children to carry out torture and executions. For a much fuller account, see Wikipedia.

I remember when news of the Khmer Rouge atrocities hit the Western media, and my feeling of utter inability to do something about an intolerable outrage. Younger people who are unfamiliar with that grim period can learn a hint of the anguish from the movie The Killing Fields.

Ironically, the rise of the Khmer Rouge was likely helped by US carpet-bombing of Cambodia during the Vietnam War, when over 2.7 million tons of bombs were dropped on Cambodia, according to official US records. That gives Cambodia the dubious distinction of being the most-bombed country ever. The total tonnage of bombs dropped during World War 2, including the two nuclear bombs, was less than what Cambodia suffered. Tragically, the hundreds of thousands of people affected by the bombing became willing supporters of Pol Pot's insurgency and regime, not realizing what they were in for.

One legacy of the Khmer Rouge that still affects people and livestock today was Pol Pot's planting of millions of land mines across the country. The effort to remove those mines is expected to continue for another 10-20 years. Casualties from the land mines have been dropping each year; in 2008 the number was 270. About 1/3 of the deaths are children, because they are more inclined to examine or play with a bomb that they find.

Areas visited by tourists are considered safe, though it's still a good idea to stay on established trails! Thousands of visitors pour into the country each year, primarily to visit the astounding ruins of the Angkor Wat complex.

One of many temples in the Angkor complex near Siem Reap

Now birders are discovering this fascinating country, and finding a warm and welcoming––if poor––populace, which benefits tremendously from any ecotourism money that finds its way into the impoverished villages.

I loved Cambodia's people and its marvelous birds. Future posts will feature the wildlife. And a word to butterfly-lovers: you simply must go!

Asian Emerald Cuckoo

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Stay Tuned: Cambodia!

When there's a long break in my blog posts, you can bet I'm on the road. We have just returned from nearly a month and a half in Southeast Asia––Cambodia, Thailand, and Singapore––and is there ever a lot to report!

Here is a quick preview of one of Cambodia's many jewels: Crested Treeswift. It is related to swifts and to hummingbirds. Late in the evening, the treeswifts were gathering on perches at Tmatboey, a site famed for its Giant Ibis and White-shouldered Ibis; both are critically endangered species. But we'll get to them...!


Crested Treeswift, Hemiprocne coronata (Photo by Narca)