Temple of Preah Vihear: Sacred amidst Tensions

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When I found out that it was possible (albeit near-impossibility at that time) to visit this sacred temple on a day trip from Siem Reap in 2012, I immediately grabbed the opportunity to see it while it was then — once again — enjoying a short “time of peace”. For a very long time in the past, as a disputed territory, the promontory of the Temple of Preah Vihear and its environs have had some serious history of crossfires between the Cambodian and Thai military forces. In fact, a few months prior to my visit, several soldiers from both camps were killed in an unexpected clash.

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The iconic first gopura, which contains some of the most impressive carvings in the temple complex.

Three years after that brave trip, as I look back, it is still perhaps the single most unique experience I have had in visiting a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Back then, it took me nearly four hours on a private vehicle to reach the temple from Siem Reap. Given recent road constructions, the travel time is now reduced to nearly half of what it took when I went there.

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The second gopura: the carving style of the pediment is different from the first one.

The Temple of Preah Vihear never failed my towering expectations, to say the least. After all, it was confidently inscribed on only one criterium: “(i) as a masterpiece of human creative genius”. So far, only this temple, the Taj Mahal, and the Sydney Opera House are inscribed solely on this basis.

The third gopura as seen from the elevated fourth gopura that encases the main sanctuary of the Preah Vihear Temple.

The third gopura: the walkway leading to the fourth gopura prior to the main central sanctuary is dotted with lingams. One lingam near the portal can be seen in this photo.

In my opinion, the temple rightly deserves to be on the same ranks as Angkor Wat and Bayon, if not even better. The incomparable beauty of this site stems from the following:

1. its history – older than those in Angkor, dedicated to Shiva and, according to some sources, is also one of a few that has a history of critical lingam worshiping;

2. its location – situated right beside a cliff, on top of the Dangrek Mountains to a height of nearly 600 metres. From the temple, one can already gaze at the Golden Triangle, an area shared by Cambodia, Thailand, and Laos;

The Infamous Golden Triangle: transnational boundaries of Cambodia, Thailand, and Laos.

The Golden Triangle

3. its relevance – a major pilgrimage site for Khmer kings, as well as a rare key temple off-route the Angkorian Royal Road;

4. its architecture – the extensive 800m-long layout of the temple is unique, the galleries surrounding the central sanctuary served as inspiration for the arrangement of Angkor Wat 300 years later, and the carvings offer a different style from those in Angkor (notice the style of its nagas, and the impressive quality of its carvings can only be compared to those of the much younger Banteay Srei); and, lastly,

5. the geopolitical struggles and controversies associated with its WHS-inscription in 2008, and the earlier landmark International Court of Justice (ICJ) ruling in 1962. More recently, in 2013, another ICJ ruling finally awarded the contested peripheral forest zone of the temple to Cambodia, putting an end to the long-standing dispute between the two Southeast Asian kingdoms.

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As a military zone, several soldiers are stationed in and around the temple complex. A political statement such as that in the photo clearly asserts Cambodian ownership over the promontory and its immediate vicinity.

As the Temple of Preah Vihear lies in an active military zone, it comes, then, as no surprise that not many travelers take the effort in seeing this site when I made my visit. In the five pleasurable hours that I spent there, I only managed to see about three other civilians — who might just be even locals — in the temple complex.

The central sanctuary guarded by a military personnel

The central sanctuary that is guarded by chanting monks. Outside, a soldier is also on guard.

Aside from the breathtaking view from the top, I truly enjoyed receiving blessings by chanting monks guarding the central sanctuary; as well as exploring the interior of the largely ignored vegetated Tower of the Long-haired Lady that is reminiscent of Ta Prohm in Angkor.

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The tower of the long-haired lady, an isolated structure that has been overgrown by plants and a tree.

Clearly, I got the strong impression that the Khmer people are indeed proud of the Temple of Preah Vihear as suggested by the displaying of the flags of UNESCO, Cambodia, and the World Heritage Committee not far from the first gopura. Such subtle declarations never fail to get noticed.

The temple of Preah Vihear together with its brother temple atop Phnom Chisor in the province of Takeo, which I also got the chance of visiting back in 2010, will always have special places in my heart for the wonderful experiences they have left me. In sum, the Temple of Preah Vihear clearly and easily justified itself as being one of the best single sites I have seen so far.

Just behind the temple: one simple mistake and I am history. The cliff drops to a height of 600 metres.

A view of the plains of the Preah Vihear province. This was taken at the edge of the Dangrek Mountain cliff.

There is no entrance fee to the temple. But, at the base camp, visitors have to pay for the motorbike that will transport them to the top for a fairly reasonable price. On this trip, I also went to the nearby town of Anlong Veng, visiting some ‘Khmer Rouge’ related sites such as the house of Ta Mok and the final resting place of Pol Pot.

Jogjakarta in Hindsight

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“It’s Jogja not Yogya!”, I’ve been corrected a hundred of times.

All throughout my stay in Central Java in 2013, I was at the receiving end of the generosity and kindness of Krido and his family. They did not only open their warm home to me, but they also took their precious time in bringing me to the best places there are in the area and endlessly feeding me with the delicious nasi gudeg and different varieties of sambal sauce to pair.

I used this colourful and historic city as my base in exploring three UNESCO World Heritage Sites nearby, namely: Borobudur, Prambanan (together with the Rotu Boko ruins), and Sangiran Early Man Site. The photos in this post, however, are those from Jogjakarta itself.

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The historic Tugu Jogja, the most representative landmark of Jogjakarta

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The Dutch-built Fort Vredeburg and its front moat. The fort was meant to intimidate the then reigning sultanate of Jogjakarta, hence it was constructed right in front of one of the royal palaces (locally called kraton) of the city.

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Mirota Batik is a specialty shop along Malioboro Street, the main thoroughfare of the city. One of the highlights of this boutique is the live demonstration of batik-making. Indonesian batik is in the register of Masterpieces of Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.

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A wonderful artwork standing at the heart of Jogjakarta. The city center still has a lot of Dutch colonial-era buildings to boast.

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the corridors of the Sumur Gumuling, the eccentric underground mosque inside the Kraton Jogjakarta complex.

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The circular well with five staircases at the center of the underground mosque is considered to be a unique architectural feature of the Sumur Gumuling.

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Modernity and Antiquity: inside Kampung Taman, the village adjacent to the kraton complex.

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Taking a break from the hot weather outside: in an artsy nook in Kampung Taman.

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Taman Sari, known to the Dutch as the “Waterkasteel”, used to be the royal bath of the Jogjakarta sultan’s family.

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On top of the central tower of the Taman Sari is the former private chamber of the sultan. From here, would have been able to see everything that was happening inside the bath.

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The stylized gable of the front gate of the Taman Sari.

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One of the best hangout corners in town: Kalimilk, a truly Jogjakarta brand. Durian milkshake – checked.

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We traveled more than thirty minutes out of the city (at 11pm!) to go to this eatery (locally called warung). Krido and his cousins told me that this one is their favourite.

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Aunt Willy, my “supermom” in Jogjakarta. I felt so safe knowing that I was with her! 🙂

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Krido’s mom and dad, who were also in town when I was there, gave me this traditional Indonesian sarong that is typical from their hometown in the Dieng Plateau.

To Krido – I appreciate the gift of friendship. Ours is indeed another proof that it is possible to cultivate deep and meaningful connections from online platforms such as Instagram. Thank you for being with me from my arrival at the Jogja airport, to the magnificent temples and far-flung dig sites we visited, until my day of departure up in Semarang!

Three years and counting 🙂

Abra in Colours: The Tingguians, Bamboos, and the Art of Dyeing

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Abra is a province in the Cordillera Administrative Region (CAR) that is notorious for its records of election-related violence more than any other thing. Development is slow in this province and not much is really happening inside. It is, therefore, not at all surprising that this place is not one of those that would be in your priority of places to see in the Philippines: to mention that you are going to Abra to other Filipinos will surely invite some stare of judgment and even dissent.

What led us to Abra in July 2013 is to feature its “natural dye makers” — the indigenous highland people called Tingguians — for What I See travel photography show.

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The view of Bangued, the capital town of Abra, from the top of the Cassamata Hill National Park.

Right after the storm: International photographer Francisco "Paco" Guerrero scouting the surroundings of the long Calaba Bridge for the best capture there is to find.

Right after the storm: International photographer Francisco “Paco” Guerrero, the host of What I See, scouting the surroundings of the Calaba Bridge and the river basin for the best capture there is to find.

The Bamboo Split Weavers

The Tingguians, also called Isneg, are engaged in various crafts. The most important of which is bamboo crafts production. It is for this reason that Abra is aggressively positioning itself as the “Bamboo Capital of the Philippines”.

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The Natural Dye Makers

In documenting the production of natural dyes from plants, the team went to the Tingguian village of Namarabar in Penarubia, a town an hour away from the capital Bangued.

Norma Agaid, a Tingguian elder and the sister of the “Father of Philippine Natural Dyes” Luis Agaid, explained which plants yield what kinds of colours: mahogany for red, jackfruit and ginger for yellow, the malatayum plant for indigo, the narra tree for brown, among others.

Of all the mountain tribes in the Philippines, we have the most number of colours. We only get these colours from sources present around us“, she proudly shared.

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A local icon: Norma Agaid sporting an authentic Tingguian attire. Notice the “frog” pattern in her skirt. Traditionally, this is worn during the rainy months in the belief that this will please the gods and their ancestors in giving them the best out of the planting season.

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the malatayum plant produces the colour indigo that will later be used in dyeing textiles with various shades of blue.

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Brewing narra barks in this earthenware produces the colour brown sap. The narra is the national tree of the Philippines.

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The Tingguian women — in their native backstrap-woven clothes — preparing to serenade the What I See team with a traditional welcome song that they composed only a few minutes before we arrived.

The charm of Abra stems from the fact that it is not at all in the tourism map. Indeed, it is highly ignored by outsiders. Hence, our experience in this rustic province can only be as natural and authentic as we can get. Indigenous dyeing is obviously a dying art. It is important to shed light into it as it is a part of the bigger “Filipino identity and local artistry” that most of us Filipinos tend to take for granted.

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Tingguian designs are largely linear and simple, but are assigned with many meanings. Some textiles are reserved for use only during special occasions such as birth-giving, nuptials, and harvesting. The vividness of colours in this shroud only suggests the level of mastery they have in controlling the strength of the dyes they make from readily available sources around them.

Paco Guerrero, whose background is no less than Anthropology, could not have described the Tingguians any better, “In the forest, they do not only see trees and plants. They see colours.”

The Philippines through the Hands of Ten Filipinos

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A Tingguian bamboo split weaver in the province of Abra in the Cordillera Administrative Region. The Tingguian people, also known as Isneg, are a lowland indigenous people group that traces their ancestry to the much older Itneg group of the highlands.

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Hand of a Tagbanua bird’s nest (an expensive ingredient for an exotic soup) hunter holding a locally-prepared torch used to lighten up the deepest parts of the caves in Coron Island of Palawan. Gathering bird’s nest is known to be one of the most dangerous jobs in the world. The Tagbanua people are sea-dwellers and are some of the first to occupy the archipelago.

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A traditional healer performing “bulo-bulo” (a form of cleansing done by blowing a water-filled glass containing an amulet) to a curious patient in Siquijor. Sometimes, just right after the ritual, foreign objects — such as sand, pebbles, and even worms — emerge inside the glass! This small island is notorious for its history of sorcery, witchcraft and the dark arts.

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A Taubuid Mangyan showing a pipe he made using a bamboo twig and clay with some tribal etchings. These people inhabit the central parts of Mts. Iglit-Baco National Park, and are some of the oldest known groups in the Philippines. They have an ancient writing system identified as a paleograph and is registered in the Memory of the World list.

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A local potter in the “Pagburnayan” village in the historic town of Vigan, a World Heritage Site. Pottery was introduced by Chinese merchant-craftsmen who have been trading with earlier Filipinos since time immemorial. The Pagburnayan village is home to one of the longest extant dragon kilns outside mainland China.

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An Ifugao preparing a “moma”, a bettelnut chew in Banaue. The Ifugao are the same people who constructed the world-famous rice terraces of the Philippine Cordilleras (a World Heritage Site), and are, likewise, the guardians of the “Hudhud” chants (a Masterpiece of Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity).

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An Iraya, a lowland Mangyan sub-group, making a broom out of tiger grasses in Tamisan, a village on the foot of Mts. Iglit-Baco National Park, an ASEAN Heritage Park. Even with extensive and heavy use, these local brooms are known to last for years.

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Hands of a Maranao woman inlaying mother of pearls to a wooden chest. The Maranao people of Tugaya beside Lake Lanao are some of the most artistic groups in the Philippines. Nearly all households in town are engaged in various traditional ‘okir’-based crafts such as wood carving, weaving, brass-ware making, among others.

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An Ilocano showing an heirloom “abel” textile from Paoay in Ilocos Norte. The half century-old textile featured in this photo follows the “sinukitan” technique. Abel are loom-woven textiles that are known for their versatility, sturdiness and creative patterns, as well as the critical role they played during the galleon trade years with Mexico and Spain.

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A Tagalog tourist holding a newly hatched Hawksbill turtle in Puerto Galera, a declared World Biosphere Reserve. The Philippines is recognized by the scientific community as the center of the famed Coral Triangle, a region home to the highest concentration of marine biodiversity in the world.

Puerto Princesa Subterranean River National Park

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A complete “mountain to sea” ecosystem, this karst landscape in the Philippines has the sole underground river in the world that flows out directly to the sea. This unique topography subjects the lower part of the underground river to tidal influences – a remarkable natural phenomenon that has no equal elsewhere across the globe.

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The limestone cave passage where the underground river exits from the karst mountain to join the South China Sea

 

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The “candle”, one of the spectacular displays of gigantic stalagmites inside the chamber.

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The underground river has a total length of 8.2 kms. The 1.2kms leg that is open for the public allows visitors on paddled boats to view  rock formations that can be as old as 20 million years (Miocene period).

 

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As a site for globally important biodiversity conservation, the park boasts eight forest types that are homes to various endemic species of plants and animals.

 

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World Wildlife Fund reported that the park is largest and most valuable limestone forest in Asia, which also boasts a beach forest and a mangrove forest.

The Puerto Princesa Subterranean River National Park is part of the bigger UNESCO-led Palawan Biosphere Reserve that was established in 1990. The park was also declared as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1999, and, in 2012, it was also proclaimed as one of the Seven New Wonders of Nature though a global popular poll.

These, my friends, are the real bragging rights of this natural gem in Palawan, the Philippines. 

A Pilgrim’s Progress: Our Lady of Caysasay

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A rare opportunity to have a photo taken of an all-women devotees presented itself. The photo below was taken from the back of the Nuestra Señora de Caysasay, a Marian image canonically crowned by virtue of a Holy See approval in 1954.

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Though I cannot come up with anything conclusive as to what the ongoing activity might have been then, the fact that the service was only attended by women made me feel alienated, and a bit awkward about my presence inside the shrine when things were unfolding. If any, however, despite my unconventional stance on religion, one cannot deny the experience and fulfillment in capturing religion in action as a material culture here.

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Pilgrims to the Shrine of Our Lady of Caysasay in Taal, Batangas may receive the plenary indulgence that is granted to those who visit the ancient church of Sta. Maria Maggiore in Rome.

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The old town of Taal is one of the only four heritage towns in the Philippines — together with Vigan in Ilocos Sur, Pila in Laguna, and Silay in Negros Occidental — designated as National Historic Landmarks by the National Historical Institute of the Philippines.

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