Friday, November 28, 2008

No Christmas?

Christmas is not celebrated here in Cambodia.

There are no decorations, no big trees and no holiday.

Christmas day is just like any other working day so yes J will be working.

To make matters worse B too will be working and so will not be making the trip north. He will have Christmas in New Zealand with my family.

It's our first Christmas our little family will be separated and I'm not so sure I'm ready....

So we are going to Singapore the week before Christmas to get our Christmas fill.

Here are a few pictures of Singapore, last year, all dressed up in it's Christmas best.

This is the view from our apartment looking towards the Christmas glow of Orchard Road.

There is months of work and planning involved. Every plaza and mall employs a Christmas design team who spend weeks and the GDP of a small country in an effort to be better dressed than their neighbours.

Tanglin Mall created a Christmas village complete with soapy snow...

Orchard Road drapped itself in shiny baubles and twinkling jewelery.....

Ngee Ann was swathed in masses of fairy lights.....

Takashimaya sprouted a gingerbread house dedicated to the great M &M.....

One mall built an ice rink, flew in some Aussie ice skaters and put on two shows a day....

Even the big guy couldnt resist that!!!

Ngee Ann's tree was a colour coordinated 3 floors high.....

While Paragon chose huge couture reindeer......

and an even bigger bejeweled tree.

But the biggest tree belonged to Vivocity, so grand it had a special place on rhe rooftop garden.

I wonder what we'll find this year?

Monday, November 24, 2008


One of my heroes is the Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

Described by Nelson Mandela as 'sometimes strident, often tender, never afraid and seldom without humour...' Tutu speaks the truth with an astuteness and perception that comes not just with age and life experience but with real understanding. Tutu has at times been refered to as 'South Africa's moral conscience' although his voice, a voice of reason, a voice of certainty and optimism is also a global voice of wisdom.

He was the person photographer Andrew Zuckerman went to when he was creating his new work, 'Wisdom'. A diverse group of actors, politicians, activists and artists are photographed using bright white light against a white background in an attempt to take them out of their careers, the things they are famous for and illuminate their individual presence and their words which become powerful in the ordinaryness of it all. I was and still am captivated not just by their words but by their voices, their accents, their wrinkles, their eyes and their expressions.

What do you think?

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Khmer Gold

The Spider and the Silkworm

Having received an order for twenty yards of silk from the Princess Lioness, the Silkworm sat down at her loom and began to work. She worked slowly and deliberately but with great ardour and passion. Spider soon came around and asked to hire a web-room nearby.

The Silkworm agreed, and the Spider began to spin and weave with great speed. She worked so fast that in a short time the web was finished. "Just look at it," she said, “see how grand and intricate it is. You cannot but acknowledge that I'm a much better worker than you. See how quickly I was able to finish."

"Yes," answered the Silkworm, "but your work is designed only as base traps, and they are destroyed whenever they are seen, and brushed away as useless dirt. Mine are stored away, as ornaments of Royalty."
Aesop Fables

While we were up in Siem Reap we were invited to visit a silk farm owned by some friends. It was quite a way out of Siem Reap towards Banteay Srei, the last part of the trip was on a muddy crevasse filled road that has been rendered almost impassable by the huge trucks that dominate it every day. It seems even to get to the silk farm required significant skill and hopefully a four wheel drive.

Sericulture, the art of raising silk producing silkworms, has been an industry for so long the moths have evolved to become flightless and completely dependent on humans for food and reproduction. Silk weaving in Cambodia has a long distinguished history dating back to Angkorian times. Stone carvings record stories of textiles traded for land and slaves, and fabrics, the details of which are suggestive of the same motifs and symbols used today. There is evidence silks were used to, and still often are, clothe Angkor’s sculptured deities. During its peak Cambodia was a trading centre along the famous Silk Route between China and India.

Sericulture in Cambodia is primarily and proudly done by women and is a skill often handed down through families. This was however halted by the Khmer Rouge who completely obliterated the industry and destroyed all but 15 hectares of vital mulberry bushes, the food of the silkworm. Once peace and stability returned to the region various attempts were been made to revive the industry. Much of the inherited knowledge was gone, women had to relearn the art of silk making. In 2006 the revitalised silk industry was estimated to be worth about four million in export dollars with an impressive five year goal of 25 million. Exported silk goes primarily to France, Italy, Japan and Switzerland, Australia, Germany and Singapore. Our friend has shown her silk in France and has had interest from some pretty swanky designers.

The Cambodian silk worm is indigenous to Cambodia and like its Chinese counterpart is raised on the mulberry bush. The mulberry, the Khmer silkworms prefer, has a smaller leaf which means more plants are needed to sustain the worm until it reaches its cocoon stage.

Worms are raised on trays like these. Everything is raised off the floor and the tray legs sit in containers of water to protect the worms and helpless moths from predators.

Thousands of silkworm eggs are placed on sheets of paper like this until they hatch.

The silkworm eggs hatch into tiny black worms who gorge themselves on young tender mulberry leaves so their hatching must time with the availability of the new leaves. They eat and grow multiplying to 10 000 times their hatched size. They turn from black to gray and then white moulting 4 times as they grow.

Equal numbers of male and female moths are placed in a container to mate. On the left of the picture are some spent moths. On the right if you look closely you can see a huge hole in one of the cocoons. Look at their beautiful colour though!!

When they are ready to cocoon a tray is placed over the worms, which they attach themselves to, and then they begin to spin. The cocoon of the silkworm is spun in one long continuous thread sometimes more than a mile long. When the moth hatches out of the cocoon the thread is broken and thus rendered useless.

Timing is crucial. The cocoons must be plunged into boiling water to kill the moths, before they make a hole in the all important silk thread. The hot water also helps to unravel the long treasure.

A mixture of degummed and 'natural' silk hanging in the spinning shed.

The silk is then degummed to remove the sericin the natural substance that protects the fibre in a similar way to the way lanolin protects wool. This sericin, mostly discarded with the waste water in Cambodia, is often used as a protective protein and antioxidant in hair and skin products, medicines and food and used as a antibacterial coating for air filter filaments and in products such as disposable nappies and wound dressings to protect skin from the natural or artificial fibres of the material.

The ‘washed’ yarn is then spun on homemade wheels and dyed using natural dyes, from bark, berries and fruit, to produce a range of colours that are used in unique designs.

Looms are set up according to the particular pattern of the silk being woven. The loom is 'warped' (strung with the warp threads) and pulled tight. Heddles, in this case white cord you can see in the picture, are used to separate each warp thread. As there is one heddle for each thread of the warp there can be a thousand heddles used for fine or wide warps. The warp threads are strung through the 'eye' of each heddle so that when raised or lowered the heddle brings its warp thread with it. The shaft, the long wooden pole at either end of the heddle, is what is used to move the heddles. The warp is threaded through heddles on different shafts in order to obtain different weave structures. The shaft is raised or lowered according to the pattern. Raising the shaft pulls warp threads up so that the weaver can pass the shuttle with the weft thread on it through the gap.

The girl in the picture above is setting up the heddles and shafts in the correct order so that a particular pattern can be weaved. I find it completely exhausting just thinking about how complicated the set up must be when weaving an intricate design such a brocade pattern.

Some of the girls had their babies with them crawling around the floor or sleeping in a hammock or even at the breast while they were working. They will become the next generation of spinners, stringers and weavers.

The space created between the warp threads as the heddles pull them up and down is called the 'shed'. The weft thread (above) is wound onto a bobbin which is placed into a shuttle. The shuttle is slid through the shed from one side to the other as the weaver moves the shafts and heddles in a mesmerising dance. The raising and lowering sequence of warp threads gives rise to an almost infinite number of possible weave structures from the simplest plain weave to more mind boggling and complex interlacings.

These warp threads are ready for the weaving process to begin.

Some designs, such as ikat, require an extra step where the thread has to be tie died before being woven. Before the warp strings are attached to the loom they are arranged into bundles which are tied and dyed separately. The process is repeated for each colour. We saw girls tying plastic string on threads, strung on a small loom, in an intricate geometrical pattern.

Weaving! This one is a scarf judging by the width of the warp and finished fabric. The girls make bed covers too which are woven on a huge loom with a warp the width of a queen size bed.

A finished ikat. Ikat is an Indonesian word literally meaning to tie or bind indicating the manner in which the pattern is created. A double ikat is when both the warp and the weft threads have been dyed.

These silks are of the cheaper kind, made of white silk, found at the markets in Siem reap and Phnom Penh. It looks as if they are dyed using artificial dyes too but what gorgeous colours!!

Friday, November 21, 2008

The secrets of Neak Pean

There is no hint of the uncommon quiet beauty of Neak Pean from the road nor from the hard packed dirt path that bisects a still and murky waterway and winds itself around various vendors selling ‘peeled’ skewered pineapple, bananas and bottles of cool water. Eventually you pop out of the foliage and up a small rise and there she is, in a clearing, five walled pools, in cruciform, of calm green water and in the centre an island with a single sanctuary prasat like an illustration from an ancient story book; Mt Meru surrounded by Himalayan Lake Anavatapta, whose waters had the power to soothe the fires of inner torment, and four ‘rivers’ at the four cardinal points.

Its design is based on the ancient philosophy of balance common in many belief systems with four pools representing the four natural elements; earth, wind, water and fire and the fifth pool, the heart of it all, being the source. The Hindus believed akasha (the fifth an esoteric non-material element) was used by God to create all the others. Jayavarman VII built the pools, with a mixture of Buddhist and Hindu iconography, as a place of healing. Since the human body is made up of the same five elements they believed swimming in the pools would rebalance the elements within the bather thereby curing any disease or dis-ease. In early Buddhism, the four elements, perceived as both external and internal, are the foundations for the theory of suffering and for the release of suffering hence bathing in the sacred waters could be conceived as therapeutic.

Neak Pean is different in the dry season when the pools dry up and it is possible to reach the centre ‘island’. The island is encircled by two entangled naga (‘neak pean’ in contemporary Khmer) their fanned raised heads face east, the intended entrance. Remains of one of the four guardian elephants is also evident. The now idol-less sanctuary, crowned with a lotus form, its pediments decorated with detailed images of the life of Buddha, like the ‘rivers’, has four ‘doors’ facing north, east, west and south. All but the east door are false, the others festooned with panels of images of Lokesvara, the compassionate bodhisattva. It is not hard to imagine the visiting devout resting on the steps to the centre pool before crossing the medicinal waters and climbing the delicate stone steps to lay their offerings of yellow gold, coloured jewels, aromatic perfumes and prayers at the foot of the Buddha inside.

Next to the temple, rising above the water, is Balaha, the legendary horse king. We sat next to one of the smaller sanctuaries and read from the guide book.

The story goes that a huge storm shipwrecked a merchant named Simhala and his men on an island of monster cannibals, called Rakshashas, disguised as alluring maidens. The men were quickly convinced by the maidens but Simhala was not so sure. He searched the island and discovered a tower full of prisoners who warned him about the tricky Rakshashas and told him of a flying horse, Balaha, who could, if called from a certain spot, save them from their grizzly fate. Simhala raced back to his crew who were, by this time, completely intoxicated by the pleasures of the islands shape shifting inhabitants and while the Rakshashas slept managed to convince the men to follow him to Balahas landing strip. Balaha appeared on cue.
‘Climb upon my back, close your eyes, and I will take you home. But you must not look back,’ Balaha warned.
The men mounted the great stallion with Simhala at the head. All the commotion woke the Rakshashas who wiggled their tempting bodies and cried in sweet voices, ‘Look at all the feasts, luxuries and treasures that are yours if you stay.’
Simhala’s men looked back one by one, fell and were immediately eaten by the angry ogres. The weathered sandstone Balaha stands at Neak Pean reminding followers that they too can be saved but only if they are not tempted by their desires.

The stele of the nearby Preah Khan describes Neak Pean as a pilgrimage site that held not only images from Buddhism but also a thousand lingams, the symbol of creation, and the images of fourteen gods.
By this time the sun was almost directly overhead. Time for one more stop before going back to wallow in the cool salty water of the Victoria’s pool.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Three of the best one at a time.

The next three places on our list were, as it turned out, my favourites of all the temples we have been to so far. They are just through the northern gate of Angkor Thom.

Preah Khan, built in the 12th century, like Ta Prohm is gripped by huge tree roots which are probably not doing temple preservation any favours but make great oracular statements in photographs. There has been some restoration but efforts have been made to retain its overgrown Indiana Jones atmosphere. Steeped in royal history Preah Khan was created by one of the most prolific builders of the Angkorian empire, Jayavarman VII, for his father Dharanindravarman (they must have had nick names surely) as a Buddhist temple. It was filled with shrines to 450 Buddhist deities as well as altars to Hindu cosmotological gods, local genies, royal ancestors and other sanctified human figures. Now that’s what I call covering all your bases!

In its day Preah Khan was not only a royal palace (while the king waited for his new home in Angkor Thom to be constructed) but also a Buddhist monastery and a university employing more than 1000 monks. According to its foundation stele, which was found at the site, it took ten tons of rice (provided by the surrounding villages) to sustain the temples population of more than 97 000 inhabitants.

It’s a large temple with long passages, multiple doorways, countless fantastically preserved carvings and some unusual statues. Two huge beheaded dvarapalas, reminiscent of the colossal Egyptian statues we saw at Christmas time, guard the main entrance.

Pediments and lintels are illustrated with Hindu characters Rama and Ravana and Shiva and Kama in scenes from Hindu scripture. In each area dedicated to a particular god or deity identified by carved depictions of their lives; the battle of Lanka, the Ramayana, Shiva Nataraya the ‘lord of the dance’, dragons, serpents and the often fearsome Garuda, who appears in both Buddhist and Hindu mythology.

At the centre of the temple, in place of the original statue of Lokesvara, is a stupa built several centuries after the temple's initial construction.

Other enclosures and niches hold Buddhas, although many are without heads or have been defaced, stupas, Garuda and Kinnari, winged mermaid like creatures with garlands of flowers for legs.

There is an incredible two storey columned structure in the courtyard called a pavilion in the guide books. It no longer has access to the second floor nor a roof but it is impressive none the less. Just on its left is a large raised platform guarded by lions at the base of the steps which is thought to have been used for ceremonies or even cremations.

We sat opposite the ‘pavilion’ for a while poured over the guide book and tried to take everything in. We definitely missed things just as well we will be back!

We had to walk back through the complex, down the wide entrance avenue, past the band of landmine survivors, back to where our beaming tuktuk driver was waiting. On to Neak Pean one of the most important and unusual sites in Angkor.