Saturday, January 19, 2013

SIEM REAP: 02 - Let's Put a Smile on that Face

When those Khmer emperors from centuries ago had their temples constructed, they probably did not have any idea that a tourist infestation would occur later on. And so, as much as you would like to think that Jayavarman (Jayavarboy, Jayavargirl, I am not really good with names) had those awesome Mahabharata depiction carved here or those topless Apsara dancers there especially for you, well, time to wake up dude. The world does not revolve around you, but it does around THEM. Call them narcissistic but that is how it worked back in the good old days. Lest you forget, those rulers were also politicians, and although one could only guess if what they really wanted was a premature election campaign infomercial, like that of Empress Cynthia Villar, for example, their technology back then could not really afford such innovation. Hence, they turned to architecture.

Take Bayon, for example. How many faces inscribed could you see within that how many square meters of temple complex? More than 200. Nowadays when you look at them, you would probably think of it as ridiculous. I mean, narcissism to the nth degree? It is like seeing Kris Aquino's face everywhere you turn to when you pass by EDSA, and then you realize: Hey, that makes sense! In an era when billboards were alien capitalist concepts from the future, the best way to remind the peolle of your greatness is to have your face appear everywhere. The particular monarch who constructed Bayon really took that advice to heart, and now, his descendants are making a living out of it. Not bad.

One could only imagine how impressive those faces seemed to be during that time. Visualize yourself as an outsider getting lost one night in that complex. You see an arch with a giant face smiling at you. No, you cannot hear any tuktuks nearby because they did not exist yet. You manage to sneak in and find yourself in that temple. And then as you look around, in every direction you see that very same face with a perennial grin like some hippie on crack. That IS creepy. Very creepy. You must admit, though, that it is plain genius. In a time when the Khmers had no access to Google or Wikipedia, having the said experience would truly be mind-boggling. All you would ever resort to is the conclusion that your rules is omnipresent, watching you from every direction. A deity you should worship like TV network fantards come their starlet idol's fan's day.

But things are different now. The prestige is obviously there but admit it, having to contend with representatives of every race on Earth for a spot in front of one of those faces is a sport in itself. If you are learning Korean then congratulations because they are everywhere. And not just Cambodia. I digress. The point is, you do not go to these temples and expect a moment of quiet in an attempt to commune with ghosts from the past. The closest you could get to that is bumping into an old tourist who resembles an ancient mummy. But we are talking about Bayon, so let us stay there for the mean time.

The main feature is obviously the barrage of faces, which is said to be a mix of that particular ruler and Buddha himself, characterized by a peaceful smile that could rival that of La Gioconda. You know that kind of controversial smile as if telling you that your secret is not really a secret. Paranoid individuals should try to avoid the place, it might further fuel your delusions. However, camwhores are more than welcome. Put your creativity at play! I have seen some original poses really worthy of recognition, and definitely more innovative than the typical jump shot or the demure stand beside the face and make a peace sign kind of thing. Did I mention that there were many Koreans?

Oh yes. Knowing some history prior to your visit is a good plus. It would help you appreciate what you see instead of just staring at one of the faces and feign admiration as if you have always been a fan of archaeology. Do not kid yourself. You are no Lara Croft. For the typical tourist, getting a photo is enough. If you want some bit of history, the research is up to you. Or you could always blend in. There will always be hordes of tourist roaming around. If you at least have basic knowledge of whatever their mother tongue might be, the information comes for free, and saves you some Google time.

Bayon is just the tip of the iceberg. Of course, you have already passed by Angkor Wat. Spread out farther north are what they call the small circuit and big circuit where you would end up seeing more temples and weird architecture that guide books tend to leave out in favor of the ever popular Angkor Wat. A bicycle would be a good companion if your legs are not fond of complaining. In no way would you look weird if you go around by bike, as it is a common method of sightseeing for Caucasians in Siem Reap, while East Asians tend to prefer tour buses.

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