Looking for Immortality (but will Settle for a Cold Beer) at the Angkor Temples

It’s the middle of the afternoon, the hateful sun is making my scalp tingle, and I am sweating in places I didn’t even know you could sweat. Seriously, why would my knees need to sweat? What possible cooling mechanism does one need for one’s knees?

The baked lava-like steps of Bakong temple loom in front of me. Oh, my apologies. The temple is composed of sandstone, not lava stone. “Bakong is the first temple mountain of sandstone constructed by rulers of the Khmer empire at Angkor near modern Siem Reap in Cambodia,” says the now damp Wikipedia page I printed out and brought with us.

Bakong temple
Note the numerous stairs.

We’ve been assured by our guide Nak that this particular temple—our seventh or eighth one in the last three days—has some of the best examples of guard lion statues in the area.

Three days ago, that little tip would have filled me with unbridled enthusiasm. I would have been agog: “WHAT? Lions? Made out of stone?? To guard the temple? And these ones right here are the BEST remaining examples? I cannot believe our luck! No, I do not need you to lead the way, Nak. I will find them!”

But today, looking up at these ridiculously narrow steps (how small were the Khmer people’s feet?? I practically have to tippy-toe my way up and down the temple stairs here) to the multitude of terraces that make up the Bakong temple, all I can think is, “Yes, that’s nice, but what are the chances that those guard lions are protecting a nice cold beer that’s been waiting just for me?”

The famous stone lions at Bakong temple
The famous stone lions at Bakong temple.

I was officially templed out.

We saw, like I said, seven or eight temples in the Angkor complex and we really only scratched the surface. There are literally hundreds of major temples spread out over a 154-square mile area, which, at its’ height in the 9th to 15th centuries, had a population of over 1 million citizens.

We were also getting a crash course in Cambodian history, Hindu and Buddhist religions, ancient architectural practices, and a graduate-level dissertation on obscure symbolism. All in 100 degree heat and humidity. It was enough to make anyone’s head swim.

Nevertheless, learning did occur and there were definitely some standouts who managed to stick in our soggy brains:

Bantreay Srei's pink sandstone.
Bantreay Srei’s pink sandstone.
  • Bantreay Srei: I think this was probably our favorite one. It was the farthest away from the main temples (about 20 miles), which means it tends to be a bit less crowded. We went fairly early in the morning, when the sun made the rose-pink sandstone carvings even more beautiful. The temple was originally dedicated to Shiva (the destroyer or transformer) and the name of the temple means “Citadel of the Women,” so not surprisingly, it’s got a lot of beautiful apsara (nymphs). And the bas relief carvings on all the pediments and doorways were amazingly well preserved.
Ta Prohm tree
You might recognize this famous celebrity tree. Also, I am LOVING that woman’s talons to the right in this picture. They are just everything and are perfect for this setting.
  • Ta Prohm – This was the first temple we went to and its claim to fame is that it was used as the movie set of Tomb Raider. There are lots of people posing for pictures with the twisted spung tree that sits over the ruins. The whole spung tree thing is pretty crazy. You see them growing up out of the temples, basically consuming them. It’s very easy to imagine the jungle eventually just taking Ta Prohm back. Most of the temples are under UNESCO protection and there are international efforts underway to restore or preserve them, but the groups decided to leave Ta Prohm as is so that people could get an idea of that interrelation between the temple and the jungle.
Buddhists as tourists at Bayon.
Hey guys, meet your spiritual leader, Buddha (at Bayon).
  • Bayon — The Bayon temple features a sea of over 200 massive stone faces looking in all direction. You see these smiling faces a lot through Angkor, and their believed to be a combination of Buddha and the King Jayavarman VII. It’s a favorite among the tourist crews, who swarm like little ants all over the three levels. It’s really is beautiful and ornate, even the crumbling bits look ornamental and intentional.
Angkor Wat at sunrise.
Angkor Wat at sunrise.
  • Angkor Wat – The big Kahuna. The granddaddy of them all. So iconic, it’s the symbol on the country’s flag (the only country to have a building on their flag, by the way).  The best time to see it is at sunrise, and our morning spent sitting on the edge of the reservoir surrounding it, waiting for the big, red-orange sun to show up is one of my fondest memories of the whole trip. Everyone’s just sitting there patiently, chatting in hushed tones while the tuk tuks putter past in the background and the frogs do their ribbetting frog thing. Once inside, there are bas-reliefs all along the walls on the first level. They depict Hindu stories including the mythical “Churning of the Ocean of Milk,” a super awesome name for a badass legend where Hindu deities stir vast oceans in order to extract the nectar of immortal life. AND to churn the ocean they used the Serpent King, Vasuki. I mean, how fantastic is that?? “Heya, Vasuki, what did you do this weekend?” “Oh, I had some of the guys over for tapas. After I ran out of Rioja, we went out and churned an ocean to get some Amrita nectar as a replacement. You know, as you do. So anyway. Crazy night.”
Churning away at immortality in Angkor Wat.
Churning away at immortality in Angkor Wat.

The temples at Angkor are amazing and wondrous. A once in a lifetime experience. And I’m so grateful to have had the opportunity to see them. I’m especially indebted to our guide, Nak, who helped arrange the temple-hopping schedule so that we avoided most of the crowds. And there were plenty of crowds. It was not at all uncommon for us to be exiting a temple right as a convoy of tour buses was pulling up and offloading hoards of (mostly Asian) tourists (there are approximately 2 million visitors annually).

This was during a quiet time of day.
This was during a quiet (hottest) time of day when most folks go back to their hotel for a nap before heading out again for another round of temple hopping in the late afternoon/early evening.

Here’s a great story on the somewhat negative impact of the massive interest in the temples, including the problem of aggressive vendors and rude tourists.

So, for those who wonder, yes, three days of Angkor temples is sufficient.

We came back to our “favorite temple in Siem Reap” (Nak’s joke) the Le Meridien Angkor each afternoon tired and sweaty, our brains fried by the sun and the unbelievable amounts of information that we’d probably never have reason to call upon again (Was that last temple dedicated to Shiva, Brahma, Vishnu or Naga?).  But we were also stocked with a slew of new memories and shared experiences, tons of pictures and definitely ready for a nice cold beer by the pool.

Poe's nose at Bayon
Rubbing noses with the local Buddha faces at Bayon. #nofilter #nomakeup #sweatglow
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Time Travel to Another Naples: The Bourbon Tunnel

In Italy, December 8 is a national holiday. Something about a feast and some reception and being really, really clean, like immaculate.

I don’t know all the details, but there was a parade with red banners and gold fringe. And a lot of offices and government buildings were closed, and everybody was out and about, shopping and eating.

Neapolitan parade

As far as I can tell, it’s the equivalent of Black Friday. The streets were mobbed with families pushing strollers and carting shopping bags.

Since I’m a good little tourist, I knew that it was a national holiday and tried to plan my visit around it.

I used it as an excuse to visit an underground escape route.

Naples has quite a vibrant little underground scene. I’m not talking “underground” as in, sketchy clubs and coffee houses frequented by emo kids looking to get buzzed while listening to My Chemical Romance (I’m not even sure that reference is accurate. What do emo kids listen to? Is anyone called emo anymore?).

I digress. What I mean is underground structures that you can visit in Naples. Like tunnels, catacombs, cisterns and bomb shelters. It’s surprising that streets don’t just collapse upon themselves since they’re seemingly built over the urban planning equivalent of Swiss cheese.

One of these underground tours was located right near my hotel. And, as luck would have it, it was only open Fri-Sunday and on Holy Days. Which included the National Holiday of Feasting on Immaculate Libation Day.

The Tunnel Borbonico, or Bourbon Tunnel, is down a small alley off the left hand side of a very small street off a slightly larger street off the Plaza Del Plebiscito. Basically, if you make it all the way down the street to the church, you’ve gone too far. Also, there’s a bike barrier blocking the alley, so….look for that.

Bourbon Tunnel entrance
Signage for the Bourbon Tunnel.

There’s another entrance/exit at a very posh parking garage nearby. I’m not sure if that’s easier or not, but it does provide a nice excuse to go shopping (although, you’d then have to carry all your bags through the tunnels).

The tours are at 10, noon, 1:30 and 5:30. Me, and the rest of holiday-making Naples, showed up for the 1:30 tour. The place was packed. There was a small holding area for the groups and it was brimming with people. All of them, as far as I could tell, Italian.

Sure enough, a diminutive and perky English-speaking tour guide (I think her name was Sarah?) comes in and calls for all us foreigners and I’m the only one who steps up. My 10 euros got me a private tour. (You’re not allowed to take pictures, so most of the following pictures are from the Bourbon Tunnel website and are linked)

Sarah explained the history of the tunnel as we proceed down a very narrow and cramped stone stairwell. It was conceived in 1853 by Ferdinand II of Bourbon as an escape route from the Royal Palace to the nearby naval barracks. You see, Bourbons had had a rough time of the whole king business, particularly in Italy.

In fact, turns out that trusting the Neapolitan military probably wouldn’t have been a good move for Ferdinand. In 1856, a soldier attempted to assassinate him, and it’s believed that the infection he received from the soldier’s bayonet led to his ultimate demise.

Ferdinand’s tunnel was never really finished during his shaky tenure on the throne. That’s because Ferdinand had some seriously grandiose plans for what was essentially a “get out of Dodge” tunnel. He wanted a whole underground world with shops and other distractions. He drove the poor architect, Errico Alvino, crazy with his add ons and demands.

The tunnel runs about 530 meters long, and 30 meters underground, and is full of caverns and evidence of it’s past as a aqueduct system that provided water for this area of Naples until the mid-1800s. Sarah, who was very much working on her Hollywood-style teaser hype (“You’ll never believe what happened next. Follow me to find out more!”) told me how workers tasked with cleaning and maintaining the wells would sometimes use them to sneak into the wealthy houses to steal from them during the night. And, sometimes, they would get frisky with the lady of the house and nine months later, the equivalent of the milkman’s kid. (She told me the Italian phrase for it but I can’t find it in my notes.)

During World War II, the tunnel and aqueducts were used as an air raid shelter and makeshift military hospital. All told, nearly 10,000 Neapolitans took shelter there throughout the massive German bombings. People whose homes were destroyed moved down into the tunnels permanently. There is tons of debris – handwritten messages on the walls, abandoned toys and household items. It was actually very moving.

After the war, the tunnels were used by the police as an impound lot until the 1970s. Several cars, motorcycles, and, of course, Italian scooters are still down there covered in dust. Finally, the tunnel was used as a sort of municipal dump, with people throwing piles of garbage down there (including dismantled statues), until 2005, when the Associazione Culturale Borbonica Sotteranea began a five year restoration effort and opened it to the public.

It was a lot of history for an hour-and-a-half tour. As I made my way up and out and back into the crowded streets, I thought a lot about the many lives of that tunnel, and the resourcefulness of the Neapolitan people, and how there can be a whole other world of living history right under your feet. How you can miss the whole thing, if you don’t know it’s there, or if you get lost on a tiny side street on your way to an even tinier alley. You really have to pay attention and look hard at things you might take for granted, I guess.

IMG_2254
The only picture I was allowed to take with my camera, at the end of the tour, looking back at the tunnel.

Ultimately, I decided to the whole situation might be better considered over a pizza and some wine. It was the Italian National Holiday of Feasting on Immaculate Libation Day, after all.

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Stalking Stateliness: A Visit to The Royal Palace in Naples

Hey, you know what I love? I mother f*#$k-ing stately home.

I cannot get enough of some grandiose living spaces, y’all. Something with tons of tapestries and baroque stone carved curlicues and some of those stucco putti kids and anterooms to rooms that serve no discernible purpose.

Show me a medal room. Show me a salon. Show me a hall of mirrors. Show me anything that screams over-the-top “Renaissance-in-the-style-of-Kim-and-Kanye.”

Ceiling at the Royal Palace, Naples
Subtle, yes?

I will gladly plunk down 7 euros (around $10) to breathe in your musty antiquities.

The Royal Palace of Naples did not disappoint in any of the categories in my mental “Stuff That A Mother F*#$k-ing Stately Home Should Have” list.

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Just to get some history and context out of the way, according to Wikipedia, the Royal Palace of Naples:

was one of the four residences near Naples used by the Bourbon Kings during their rule of the Kingdom of Two Sicilies(1730-1860). Construction on the present building was begun in the 17th century by the architect Domenico Fontana. Intended to house the King Philip III of Spain on a visit never fulfilled to this part of his kingdom, instead it initially housed the Viceroy Fernando Ruiz de Castro, earl of Lemos…In 1734, with the arrival of Charles III of Spain to Naples, the palace became the royal residence of the Bourbons.

And man, did those Bourbons know how to live it up. They started renovating the hell out of the place, adding the theater, rebuilding the great hall, and adding a new wing. Also, this cool escape tunnel from the palace to the coast to help the monarchy escape the often-rebellious people of Naples. Apparently, the French Bourbons weren’t the only ones who had problems with the populace. (I visited the tunnel too, but we’ll talk about that in another post.)

Things at the Palace got even fancier during the Napoleonic occupation, when Napoleon’s dandy of a brother-in-law Joachim Murat took over the palace. Check. Out. That. Hair. He’s like Prince or something. Loving it.

Joachim Murat

By the way, Murat’s last words while facing a firing squad after the whole Napoleon-getting-overthrown business, were: “Soldiers! Do your duty! Straight to the heart but spare the face.” Holy vanity, that is amazing. This dude? Baller.

Today, the Palace and the adjacent grounds are open to the public. There are all kinds of pseudo-government offices in there, including the Biblioteca Nazionale Vittorio Emanuele III. That, coupled with the fact that there’s a ton of construction and restoration work being done on both the inside and the outside of the Palace makes the whole visitor experience a little confusing.

Front of the Royal Palace, Naples
This is what the front currently looks like. Not cute.

But I’ve never been one to let a little hammering and scaffolding get in the way of looking at ridiculously ornate tabletop time pieces and portraits of dead fancy people.

side view of the Royal Palace, Naples
This is what the side of the Palace currently looks like. No scaffolding. Much cuter.

I wandered around a bit confused and overwhelmed on a chilly Tuesday morning, the weak December light making everything a bit more cold and austere and milky white.

Entry hall at the Royal Palace, Naples

I had an English audio guide lodged firmly to my ear, which made me unself-conscious enough to gawk freely at the restorers delicately dremeling the pale marble decorations along the entry staircase. I could always just point to the thing at my ear, and shrug if anyone stopped to stare back at me.

Entry hall at the Royal Palace, Naples

I walked past sleeping docents guarding empty theater rooms, their eyelids drooping like the old velvet curtains framing the stage.

Theater at the Royal Palace, Naples

I leaned in close to ornately inlaid wooden tables/bird cages/topiary holders staged in the middle of an otherwise-sparsely furnished room next to a single, stiff chair.

A Throne Room at the Royal Palace, Naples

I listened to two docents chattering away in Italian, pointing at their newspapers and waving their hands while keeping their elbows by their waists and glancing around to see if anyone else was around. When they glanced at me, I quickly became engrossed in a Sevres vase.

A Throne Room at the Royal Palace, Naples

I stood in awe in front of the ridiculously complex precipe (or nativity scene) housed in a chapel and sponsored by a bank. The true meeting of capitalism and religion.

Precipe at the Royal Palace, Naples

I wandered on, through a throne room or two (one for the king, one for the queen), the king’s study, the private apartments, the Hall of Hercules (a ballroom), a music room, a tiny little prayer closet for the queen.

Chapel at the Royal Palace, Naples

All in all, I probably spent about two hours engrossed in bygone splendor, only interrupted by my inability to figure out the sequential order on my audio guide (the rooms were supposedly numbered to correspond, but I could hardly find the numbers and just started guessing.)

That was fine by me. One should stroll through a mother f*#$k-ing stately home, not rush.