Khmer Provincial


This post begins in January 2019, when dry season was about to begin, turning landscape to brown and yellow. Last photos are from September, after monsoon rains had washed the region already for months.

Royal Road system of Khmer empire, connecting Phimai, Wat Phou (Phu) and other provincial centers. Credit: Mitch Hendrickson (source). Kingdom at its zenith, see: map.

Term “all roads lead to Rome” is not just a catchy phrase, but actually a precondition for any long lasting empire in olden times. Without a good road network, enemy forces threat even its existence, if warning of their approach came too late. In Khmer kingdom roads span from the capital Angkor and headed to all directions, facilitating commerce and enabling pilgrims to come worship in majestic temples of the capital. Roads no doubt had a military angle as well, improving intelligence gathering and making it faster for the God-King (Khmer Devaraja-cult of ruler being avatar of a God) to project his power where this was deemed necessary. Six main highways are sometimes called Royal Roads to signify them from the rest. These roads likely formed on top existing infrastructure of pre-Angkorian times, but were largely expanded as means and needs increased. Along the way wooden bridges were rebuilt using stone, roads were raised to prevent flooding, water reservoirs were dug, rest houses that combined as temples (fire shrine) were built. Two of the longest and most important routes were one heading to Phimai in north west (today in Thailand), and second to north east to Wat Phou (in Laos). Following text describes these places, as well as few other provincial centers. Third and final “Khmer post” will be about the capital itself, but that is yet to be made.

Wat Phou, 11th to 13th century

Lower temple buildings and surrounding region, including water reservoirs, seen from upper temple of Wat Phou. If landscape provided, holy sites were built on visible places to signify their importance. Such was the case also with Phanom Rung (see bellow), Phnom Bakheng (on a hill in Angkor) and Preah Vihear (at Dangrek mountain range).

Plumeria trees are distinct feature of Wat Phou temple park.

Wat Phou is Hindu temple in southern Laos built by Khmer’s when region was part of their empire. Like other temples dedicated to Shiva, Vat Phou is oriented towards the east. Temple is built at the foot of Phu Kao Mountain “Lingaparvata,” so named because the natural formation seems to resemble Shiva’s linga. “Parvata” means “mountain,” so “Lingaparvata” is literally “Linga Mountain”. This is why mountain was considered the home of Shiva, and Mekong river representing the ocean or the Ganges, the perfect location for a religious center, that served civilian and administrative center in the region. People who arrived for praying have seen the mountain already afar when slowly approaching. Once arrived, long corridor with 1.5m stone pillars were surrounding the first approach. There were three stages of stairs approaching the holiest, the temple atop of hill and just beneath the steeper slope to the mountain top. Road south from the temple through town of Lingapura, and then began longest of the Royal Roads, heading to capital Angkor.

Long corridors are believed to be used as processional walkways during rituals, the spectacle performed by royals and other nobility. Similar and better preserved walkway is in Phanom Rung (see bellow).

Half collapse temple of Wat Phou at the mountain. Survived buildings date from the 11th to 13th centuries.

While originally Hindu, temple has been converted to Buddhist use.

Human size “crocodile stone” is believed to have been used in human sacrifice during pre-Angkorian times. ”A Chinese 6th century text mentions ”near the capital there is a mountain called Ling-chia-po-p’o (Lingaparvata), on top of which there is a temple which is always guarded by a thousand soldiers. It is consecrated to a spirit named P’o-to-li, to which human sacrifice is made. Each year, the king goes into this temple and himself offers a human sacrifice during the night”. (Michael Freeman: A guide to Khmer Temples in Thailand and Laos, 1998)

Phanom Rung, 10th to 13th century

Along with Phimai, Phanom Rung is best preserved temple parks in Thailand and showcases what Khmer’s were capable of. Complex is built on the rim of an extinct volcano at 400 meter elevation. It is said to symbolize Mount Kailash, a holy mountain in Hinduism on top of which Shiva lives, to whom Phanom Rung is dedicated. Phanom Rung lies on the ancient route from Angkor to Phimai. Nearby is another Khmer complex called Muang Tum, from the same era. It resides in low lands and not have views from elevation like Phanom Rung.

Every year on April a interesting phenomenon occurs in Phanom Rung. On April 13th rays of the rising sun shine through all of the portals of the temple. This was actually a common feature in many Hindu temples: they are oriented usually towards general direction of east, astronomy playing an important role in Hinduism. Either true east – the direction guarded by Indra, and direction of sunrise at winter. North-east – the direction guarded by Isana, an aspect of Shiva. Some are orientated slightly to the south-east. Ancient builders didn’t always get the direction exactly right!

Royal family is believed to change their attire in buildings (distance in the picture above), and then enter the processional walkway, finally ascending to the main temple. 160 meter long walkway is impressive feature of the temple, and is paved with laterite blocks. It is bordered by seventy sandstone posts with tops of lotus buds.

Phimai, 11th to 12th century

Phimai was where western Royal Road ended. Its temples can be seen a sort of proto-Angkor Wat, predating it and many construction styles were then honed to the fullest in the capital. Because the region of Phimai during Khmer reign was already Buddhist, temple was dedicated to Buddha, instead of Shiva or Vishnu. Phimai is oriented towards the south east, in the direction of capital Angkor. Main building resembles the peak of Mount Meru at the center of the universe (sacred and mythical mountain in both Hindu and Buddhist cosmology). Main temple has three towers (Prang) which was common feature is similar regional temples (see Lopburi bellow).

Phimai was northern region of kingdom, but judging the size, it must have been an important administrative and religious center. 225 km long Royal Road, or Dharmasala pilgrim route connected Phimai to capital.

Dharmasala route explanation by Asger Mollerup (source):

“In 1925 the French archaeologist Finot wrote about the vahni-grihas and without any arguments coined the term dharmasala. This term has since become widely used and is correct to the extend that these small sanctuaries were places (sala) for Buddhist conduct (dharma).

Even the author favours terms as vahni-griha or agni-sala, or a translations as ‘temple with fire’ or ‘fire-shelter’, the more commonly used dharmasala will be used in this paper. The route from Angkor to Phimai is therefore named the Dharmasala Route.”

Statue of Jayavarman VII, was ruler of the Khmer empire during the end of the 12th century, and considered as last of great kings. During his reign grandiose building projects were started both in capital and provinces. The statue was discovered in one of Phimai’s prangs, and can be seen in museum outside the historic park.

Phimai temple park at morning.

Lopburi, Lavapura, Phra Prang Sam Yot, Late 12th to early 13th century

Thai town of Lopburi has Khmer and later period temples, although it has been debated if Lopburi/Lavapura was semi-autonomous state within empire, rather than integral part of it. Road system mentioned earlier didn’t reach this far west from Angkor. Nevertheless Lopburi was heavily influenced by Khmer’s, which shows today. Phra Prang Sam Yot is one of oldest and best preserved temples in the down. Temple has three prangs, which also give name to it, “three holy prangs”. Unlike in Phimai or Phanom Rung that have separate park areas, in Lopburi history scattered around the living city. Monkeys run free withing couple quarters of old town. Temple was likely founded in the late 12th or early 13th century during the reign of great builder king, Jayavarman VII.

Monkeys outside cannot get access inside the Phra Prang Sam Yot. It is home for many bats living in the roofs.

Lopburi is famous not only from historic sights, but also monkeys that roam free on streets.

Phra Kan Shrine is active Hindu sanctuary, modern temple has been built on top of old one. Several ancient objects have been discovered on the grounds of the shrine, such s the 19th Inscription, now exhibited at the National Museum, Bangkok (see link).

Khmer sites today

Today there are hundreds of historic Khmer sites in mainland Southeast Asia, and only couple of the best known were described in this post. Thailand clearly has better means and resources to restore its heritage, compared to Cambodia and Laos. This becomes evident when comparing Wat Phou in Laos to any of temple parks in Thai side. Angkor in Cambodia is exception to this rule, amounting over 10% to the GDP of the whole country. Some historic sites are located at Dangrek mountain range which forms a border between Cambodia in south and Thailand (Khorat plateau aka. Isaan) in north. Because of financial relevance and somewhat disputable location right at the border, both countries have been trying to claim temples as their side. There has been even army involved in solving these questions, such as was the case with Prasat Ta Muen and Preah Vihear.

Further reading

While studying topic, two good sources provided lot of additional information used in this post:

  • Danish Asger Mollerup writings about historic Khmer sights in Southeast Asia: link.
  • American historian Mitch Hendrickson about Khmer road network, research paper: link.

View from Phanom Rung to low lands and rice paddies, a scene that hasn’t change much since time when Khmer’s watched down from the mountain.


Traveling in Northern Vietnam — War Years and Independence

Traveling around Northern Vietnam winter 2018-19, first of the three part posts.

What a delight to have real keyboard. Been traveling in Southeast Asia and piling up material, now lets blog some!

Scenery in Lung Cu at Chinese border, at northern tip of Vietnam.

Sparsely populated northern regions of Vietnam have often been safe heavens for groups having trouble with the established order, such as revolutionaries, smugglers and militias groups. In mountainous and forested Cao Bang, right next to Chinese border, revolutionary leader Ho Chi Minh first setup a shop 1941 in a cave.

Cave in Ho Chi Minh jungle camp in Pac Bo, near town of Cao Bang, where he was hiding Japanese troops and organizing movement in the country. Decades later when Chinese troops were occupying the region, they vandalized it with explosives, knowing the importance to Vietnamese.

Memorial temple in Pac Bo. Location has long been pilgrimage like destination in Vietnam.

Ho was on a mission to build an movement that would evolve into a regime fighting first the Japanese occupiers, then wrestle control from French colonialists (Chinese troops were also in country because of Japanese, complicating things further), then thwart American advances and their bid of independent South Vietnam, and finally Chinese again because of Vietnamese war with their Red Khmer ally in Cambodia. Wars also spread to neighboring Laos. All this while building new nation in a process. Ho Chi Minh was a Communist icon of twentieth century much like Lenin, Tito, Mao, Castro. Like them, Ho Chi Minh didn’t hesitate using also ruthless and coercive methods, as he deemed required. When wars finally had quiet down, Uncle Ho was long embalmed in a mausoleum in Hanoi downtown. Today he is important historical figure in Vietnam, his statues, posters and flags can be seen everywhere.

Dien Bien Phu. From the valley floor, one can awe low mountains surrounding plateau from both sides. Looking easygoing life in this small provincial town, sun setting behind western hills and people minding their businesses, it’s hard to grasp the role it has to play in the country’s history. Old Japanese built airfield is still in same place, and has flights to Hanoi, pretty much as it did in late 1953…

@Dien Bien Phu museum: General Navarre, Commander-In-Chief of French army in Indochina, inspected Dien Bien Phu fortification group (29th of November 1953)

Couple days go fast visiting in war memorials, museum and cemetery and looking the scenery, although they can be done easily in a one day if in a rush. Many travelers en route to or from Laos simply treat Dien Bien Phu as a bus transit point. There are couple low hills in the valley, that became French only strong points, a far cry from what their enemies had. Unbeknownst to French, Viet Minh (Communist led independence movement of Vietnam), after realizing the base building deep in the mountain region, had started their own concealed effort to counter it. Arduous work of transporting artillery pieces, mortars and anti-air weapons to region, hauling them to mountains, digging them to positions in tunnels. When all was said and done, guns could be pointed downward to valley and shot with direct fire.

French trench system in strong point Eliane and large crater made by Vietnamese mine detonated under defenders.

Judging the valley scene, it is perhaps around 5-10 kilometers east-west, but is longer north-south. If they had wanted, Viet Minh could have shot from one side to another, over the valley, with their bigger guns. French, when eventually realizing something big was going on, underestimated the its scale and overestimated their own abilities. When Viet Minh guns finally opened up, they soon cut the only lifeline of French garrison had, the airfield unusable. French could not get out and could not defeat the surrounding forces. Their air-power and artillery proved useless against camouflaged and well defended enemy, artillery commander made his own conclusions and committed suicide after his earlier confidence had been shattered by the reality. Patrols to mountains were facing an enemy of 2-3 times of their own size. With a benefit of time its easy to be armchair general and make all the right decisions, but one cannot still help but wonder what went on in the heads of French military leaders (Henri Navarre in Hanoi, Christian de Castries in the valley). War museum in town can give some insight. By looking how primitive weapons Viet Minh were known to have, what chances they would have opposing WW2 veteran troops from all across the French empire, equipped with modern weapons and technology.

@Dien Bien Phu museum: Viet Minh air defense system (assumed by French)

What was less well known was the level of Soviet and Chinese material and advisers. Combined with cunning of Viet Minh commander Vo Nguyen Giap, and endurance of Viet Minh soldiers and workers, French surrounded after bitter deference in a hopeless situation. A mere decade later US forces led by William Westmoreland would face similar problems and eventually, the same end result for Americans.

@Dien Bien Phu museum: Viet Minh air defense system (actual, on transport)

French command bunker where Col. de Castries isolated himself, once the situation had become evident for everyone.

Clips from movie Jump Into Hell. Cel. de Castries in the center right.

Jump Into Hell movie now on YouTube was done soon after the actual events. Watching today, it’s quite comical experience and shows how movies have changed. French commander is depicted as gentleman with a strong will and admiration of his men. Movie also offers a glimpse of Red Scare mentality in American experience of Cold War.

After French left Vietnam in mid 1950’s, Americans would enter almost a decade later in increasing numbers. Their presence in North Vietnam was limited to using air power. Historic sights and places are further south and central Vietnam.

“Dien Bien Phu in the air”. Poster from 2012 (my first trip to Hanoi) is an allusion to earlier victory over the French.

@Museum in Hanoi. Much to dismay for Americans during late 1960’s, latest Soviet surface to air missiles were available for their Vietnamese comrades. Americans would later turn the favor, by providing missiles to Afghans when Soviet Union tried occupation there.

Old American TV series Wings Over Vietnam can be found from YouTube. Series show how different branches of American air-force evolved during to war, from mid -60’s to end of war in early -70’s. It also has distinct Cold War ethos and is interesting to watch from this perspective. More contemporary conversation about Vietnam War is on Foreign Policy Research Institute (American think tank based in Philadelphia) YouTube.

Road sides in Vietnam are full of surprises.

Street scenes in Hanoi.

Haiphong downtown, kids playing football at old opera house.

Haiphong downtown.

Haiphong. Air feels moist with a tiny tinge of salt in it. Actual Gulf of Tonkin starts from pretty far from downtown, at the mouth of Red River. Haiphong is main port of North Vietnam and Hanoi. During the Vietnam war it became lifeline to arms and supplies from China and Soviet Union, and was thus heavily bombed especially in 1972 when Nixon administration tried to force reluctant Vietnamese leaders to negotiating table (Paris Peace Accords). Today it still is a large port city with lot of industry and businesses. There are not many sights for travelers, but nearby Cat Ba island and Hua Long Bay are must see for everyone in Haiphong.

Tanker heading to Haiphong port. Seen in nearby Hua Long Bay.

Leica Photography In The Tropics — Then and Now

This is a camera geeking post!

After introduction in mid 1920’s, Leica photography became synonym for more agile and reactive way of taking photographs. It made possible to use a camera in situations and locations that hadn’t been considered with earlier equipment. Bit like iPhone of its day, Leica camera defined a before-and-after point in photographic world. Lets travel back to 1937 and take Leica into a jungle! Quotes bellow are from book The Leica Manual, Willard D. Morgan, 1937.

Kilimanjaro national park, Tanzania.

“Several years of photographic work under difficult tropical conditions … a 600-mile trek across the Central African Highlands in the middle of the rainy season . . . 400 miles by dugout canoe in the humid swamplands of southern New Guinea . . , and the highly variable conditions encountered in the uplands of Fiji and the Solomon Islands, have satisfied me of the singular advantages of the Leica camera, and the Leica method in general, for hot-country work.

One virtue which the Leica possesses is: It is the only camera I know of that when in use is sufficiently sealed to guard the film inside from moisture. Practically no humidity, I find, penetrates the closed camera. If the film has been cared for properly before and after use satisfactory results are certain. Nothing can happen to it while it is in use.”

Infrared photos taken with Leica M8. Victoria Falls at Zambian-Zimbabwean border. Iguazu Falls at Brazilian-Argentinean border.

“My own methods of caring for film under tropical conditions methods which have proven completely successful are these.

I purchase all the film I need before leaving home. Even the less durable grades of super-speed pan will, I know from experience, last at least a year, if one takes care. And, so far as the tropics are concerned, I distrust the mails.

Some travelers order film to be sent out to them at various stages of their voyaging. The idea seems reasonable. Fresh film, straight from the factory, it should be fine. It is, unless it happens on the way to have had a long trip through tropical waters in the mail room of an average steamer. I have been in those mail rooms. They are usually amidships near the engines; near the equator their normal temperature is often well above 120(F). And somewhere, in the midst of it, someone’s film is simmering. For the same reason I allow no cases containing film to be taken to the baggage room. They stay with me in the cabin.”

Irrawaddy, main waterway of Burma.

“Film should be carried in a steel African uniform box. Boxes made in England for use in Africa and well worth the high price one pays for them boxes guaranteed airtight and watertight. I have one which is large enough to hold, except for the cameras themselves, all of a rather extensive photographic equipment. It is roughly the size of an ordinary suitcase. And one should improve it in one particular which the makers overlooked. African uniform boxes are painted black when one gets them. Mine is now painted with a white enamel. When, as it often is, the box is being carried in the sunlight on the top of an African’s head or a South Sea Islander’s shoulders, the difference in the interior temperatures between a black box and a white one is decidedly perceptible. And very important.”

Leica Manual — A Manual For The Amateur And Professional Covering The Entire Field Of Leica Photography by Willard D. Morgan; Henry M. Lester. Source.

Mayan temple complex in Tikal, in the sea of Guatemalan jungle.

Khmer temples in Angkor Wat, Cambodia.

Taj Mahal, India.

50 years later, African uniform boxes and steamers had largely disappeared. But world of photography was still analog. Gunter Osterloh, Leica M Advanced Photo School gives few tips about problem fungus can cause to photographic equipment. Quote:

“Long visits to areas with a hot and humid climate expose the entire photographic outfit to the risk of fungus growth. Film, lenses, leather cases, all of them can be damaged by fungus. The more frequently we expose cameras, lenses, and accessories to fresh air, the lower the risk of fungus formation. Fungus growth is much more likely to occur when the equipment is not used very often.

Film react even more sensitively to a hot and humid tropical climate than cameras and lenses. Problems result from the absorption of humidity by the film, causing it to swell and to stick to the inside of its cartridge, for example, or to the take-up spool of the camera. The emulsion may then be torn from its support during the winding or rewinding operation, destroying any pictures that may have been taken on it. Bits of emulsion that remain behind (mostly in the vicinity of the pressure plate) will foster the growth of fungus.”

Leica M Advanced Photo School, latest edition is on Amazon.

My own experience echoes Osterloh. When living in Thailand I foolishly left my equipment into a closed bag for few months. After finally taken out, outer lens elements were already growing fungus, but it hadn’t penetrated inside yet. Watch out especially with expensive gear such as Leica’s!

Golden Triangle seen from Thai side, at the confluence of the Ruak River and the Mekong River. The location is border tripoint of Thailand (behind), Laos (right) and Burma (left).

Lets go forward 30 years to 2017. World has largely shifted from analog to digital (film is also experiencing a resurgence like vinyl records and tube radios). Photo can be shared instantly and without costs across the globe. Democratization of photography has progressed also further. Where there was perhaps one Mr. Morgan to hundred thousand who didn’t own any camera, and one Mr. Osterloh to ten thousand the same. Today, thanks to phone cameras, figures are opposite.

What else to consider today, if heading somewhere warm and humid? Past several years I’ve been lugging my Leica and other cameras into tropical countries in Africa, South Asia and America. Couple points to take into account:

– Obviously our dependency on electronics has become a norm. Batteries for the camera and other equipment, and needed accessories (chargers, adapters) all add weight to the backpack. Same goes with storage and backups. Connectivity with the rest of the world. Editing and sharing work on the go.

– Electronic dry boxes are nowadays affordable and a cheap insurance against the fungal growth. The device contains a small cooler, which removes moisture from the air by condensing it out. Consider them if you live in tropics for longer periods of time. Silica gel bags are alternative for those who have to change location frequently.

Sunset at Vinales, Cuba and Vang Vieng, Laos.

– Digital sensor is more vulnerable to dust than film. Sooner or later spots start to appear on your photos even if you are careful when and where changing lenses. For a long trip, sensor cleaning solution is must have backup, least for me.

– Developing countries often have shoddy power grids. Leaving a gadget plugged in for long periods risk it to power spikes that can fry delicate electronics. Cameras that can share same batteries reduce need for constant charging. Wall chargers disconnect the device from direct connection with grid.

Then and now, many things are different but some similarities also do exist. Leica’s still a specialist tool and costs a fortune!

Further reading: Article by The New Yorker from 2007.