I like cities- all kinds of them- the quaint old charming ones with a city centre, the brash new modern ones with their façades of glass and steel- I like all of them. Here I feature three cities with their tall sky scrapers and their brave architectural features.
Ta Phrom Temple is one of the more popular temples located in the Angkor Archaelogical Park in Siem Reap. It’s claim to fame- it featured in the Tomb Raider movie with Angelina Jolie. So it is often called the Angelina Jolie temple. Would archaelogists thousands of years from now wonder why Ancient Angkorians built a temple to Angelina Jolie and break their heads over why the timelines don’t match?
The temple has a number of tree growing through the ruins- the tree roots sometimes holding together the stones. It has been massively restored now (along with the support of the Archaeological Society of India).
Call it a personality trait- I am most definitely a morning person. But what I am most definitely not is a ‘sunrise junkie’. I certainly don’t go around the world crossing off a list of monuments or natural features that I have seen at sunrise. So it wasn’t until after I had actually decided to travel to Siem Reap, Cambodia and booked my tickets that I came across travel suggestions that listed Sunrise at Angkor Wat as an absolute ‘must-do’ for any visitor. Once the idea got into my head, however, I was certainly going to pay an early morning visit to the famous temple.
The Angkor Wat temple complex certainly needs no introduction and I decided that it merited not just one but two visits- one late in the afternoon and the other early in the morning for the sunrise. Although I had known about the Indian influences in the Southeast Asian region I was quite surprised to come across the Sanskrit names of rulers of the Ancient Khmer Empire. Angkor Wat was built in the 12th century AD by a ruler called Suryavarman II. The complex stands on an artificial island- surrounded by a vast moat that looks more like a lake.
The primary entrance to the temple is on the West and the causeway over the moat was once decorated by a Naga balustrade. Over the first gate I enter into the area where there is an open space two massive reflecting pools of water. At once I recognised the place where most of the ‘Sunrise at Angkor Wat’ pictures on the internet had been taken from and make a mental note. Ancient Angkorians certainly didn’t have cameras so I wonder how and why they built such strategically placed water bodies that were a photographer’s dream. Further inside the walls the covered galleries of the temple are covered with scenes from mythology and history. On one side the epic battle of Ramayana- on the other, the battle of Kurukshetra.
More than the scenes from mythic tales, I found the carvings of Apsaras, especially on the second level, to be breath-taking. Angkor Wat alone hosts hundreds of such carvings. What made them even more striking was that no two Apsaras were ever alike- each one had a different costume or hair dress. I was later told that there were 37 different Apsara prototyes in the Angkor Wat complex. I climbed higher inside the temple to view the five central towers that are synonymous with the temple. The original steps were so steep and narrow that the authorities have put in new stairs with hand rails- but even these stairs are quite a challenge to a normal person. After taking in the views from the highest level, I leave for my hotel for the evening.
I returned to the West entrance of the temple the day after next but this time with a guide as it was just 5am. It was quite dark and we had to use the flashlight on our phones to make our way across the causeway. As we got closer to the reflecting pool I noticed that there were already about 30 tourists camped across all the vantage spots. I instinctively hurried up when Darith, my guide suggested that it would actually be better to take photographs from outside the moat wall. But I had done my research, scoured google images and decided that I would take my sunrise photographs from the pool so politely refused Darith’s suggestion.
“There will be lots more people in a few minutes, and the crowds will be pushing you when the sun comes up, so it won’t be a good experience. Better to take photos from the moat” said Darith. I was not to be scared off “I come from India. Don’t worry I am not afraid of crowds” I tell him as I position myself at the edge of the water in one corner. Soon enough people start pouring in and enclosing us in a tight circle. Darith was not about to give up. “Actually the sun will rise quite far away from the temple towers so it is better to be outside on the moat to get a better perspective” he said. I had come all the way from India to capture this, so I was not about to pushed about either. “No I have seen a lot of photos and I have a wide angled lens so I can definitely capture this sunrise”.
It was still quite dark and it was only possible to dimly make out the silhouette of the towers. As it brightened the cameras started going off- sure enough a lot of my photographs captured a lot of arms and cameras besides the temple towers. It was literally a silent battle that we were all engaging in- all pushing and prodding each other- loudly cursing how people were being uncooperative- never directly complaining to the person next to oneself. Adding to the misery there was a thick cloud cover which meant that it was possible that we would not even see the sun.
I put up with the battle for another 20 minutes. By this time a lot of the tourists had already started walking away disappointed because of the cloud cover. Some of us moved into the more strategic points vacated by these people. But the light quality was still poor and so eventually after another 10 minutes I also decided to leave.
Just as I was at the enclosure wall about to walk over the causeway I noticed the sky turning a bright pink at one corner. Apparently the sun was going to break through at one point after all. I cursed myself for my stupidity and was quite angry. I had come all the way and was going to miss something spectacular because I hadn’t waited long enough- typical tourist disease. It was too late to turn back to the reflecting pool as the remaining photographers would have all closed ranks by this time and there was no getting to the frontline for an unobstructed view.
Darith moved in at this point and said “The moat is better- we might just be able to make it if we run”. I don’t think I have ever moved faster before. I didn’t want to turn around because of fear of seeing what I was missing. I just kept praying that the sun would just wait for a few more minutes, just enough time for me to make it past the few hundred metres of the causeway and then around the moat. We ran all the way and finally out of breath I turned around and started clicking.
The Gods had decided to be kind to me so the sun was still lazily poking out a few rays from behind the clouds when I started. I don’t think I stopped clicking until about 5 minutes later when the sunlight became too bright to be captured and hordes of tourists started spewing out from the monument- mission accomplished.
I was expecting Darith to gloat but I think he was just genuinely happy that we had managed to capture a spectacular sunrise after all. I guess in a way life was teaching me a lesson for lifer- that it was important to have patience. “It is never really over until it is really over”.
Return of a King: The Battle for Afghanistan by William Dalrymple
I follow William Dalrymple on Twitter and was following all the updates surrounding Return of a King when it came out more than a year ago. I was intrigued but was not sure if I was ready at that point to read about the British invasion of Afghanistan. So I dithered and dithered. Just last month I read about The Sunday Book Club (@TSBookClub, an online book group that discusses book related matters on twitter with a chat every Sunday between 15.00 & 16.00 IST) and their challenge where participants had to volunteer to read a random book assigned to them and then post a review. The rest, as they say, was history and I soon found myself reading Return of a King.
I have only read one book (Nine Lives) by Dalrymple before and even though I had enjoyed that book, I was not quite sure what to expect from Return of a King. Some of my fears seemed confirmed when I opened the book and started reading the Dramatis Personnae. Having no previous exposure to Afghan history – my head was literally reeling in minutes. I realised that this was not a good thing to do- so I just started with the actual book.
The book starts in 1809 and goes all the way to beyond 1842- starting with tracing the lineage and history of the then ruler Shah Shuja and ending with the withdrawal of British troops after a catastrophic defeat.
The context of British interests in Afghanistan essentially start with French & Russian interest in India and how they planned to use Afghanistan as a gateway to invading India. This spurred the British to start taking an interest in the region- making allies of local rulers in order to thwart any attempts from a Franco-Russian alliance. However even after the fall of Napoleon, Britain and Russia continued to play a game of shadows with the assumption that eventually their empires had to collide in Central Asia.
Dalrymple draws on a number of sources (he made extensive visits in the region)- including a few Afghan ones that had not been tapped before to portray the situation. He clearly lays out the reasons for why the British strategy then (and he draws modern comparisons as well and the more recent invasion efforts of the country) could not succeed.
We are made to understand that apart from a few exceptions Afghanistan never existed as one united country- that it was always a region dominated by warring tribes and the only things that could mostly hold them together was money or the promise of it. The region by itself could not generate revenues to support itself and hence any invasion and occupation was a big drain on the treasury of the East India company (as it has been since on the resources of any nation(s) attempting to occupy it). Forced with a ramp up or back out choice- the British decided to back out after a disgraceful defeat which could have been completely avoided at all costs.
There are important and obvious parallels that Dalrymple draws with the current situation of Afghanistan and the first failed British invasion in the early 19th century. History repeats itself- to be more specific human history repeats itself. But that is only because we humans are similar in how we act but refuse to learn from the past. We therefore keep making the same mistakes, leading to a particular situation repeat itself.
Technically there wasn’t really a situation between Russia and Britain that was not provoked or made worse by propaganda, misinformation and personal interests and ambitions at that time. The biases, prejudices and jealousy of a few men caused thousands upon thousands of lives to be lost and the course of the history of one region to be changed forever.
One can also draw parallels with the modern corporate world- companies decide on strategies based on partial information/ misinformation. Managers keep their eyes closed to uncomfortable situations merely because the person pointing it out to them risks turning out looking better. Therefore they stay the course- insisting that they have the better understanding and experience until the entire situation blows up in their face.
This book is a great read. Dalrymple’s style makes the history easily readable and understandable. Anybody with an interest in history must read this book. I am also now motivated to finish the other Dalrymple books sitting on my shelves.
Here’s his official website: http://www.williamdalrymple.uk.com/
I read the Lord of the Rings by J R R Tolkien when I was about 18 and it had a profound impression on my life. It also made me turn to books and reading. Here I gather a few quotes that I love from the book along with a few of my photographs.
“It is not our part to master all the tides of the world, but to do what is in us for the succour of those years wherein we are set, uprooting the evil in the fields that we know, so that those who live after may have clean earth to till. What weather they shall have is not ours to rule”
“It’s the job that’s never started as takes longest to finish”
“Yet such is oft the course of deeds that move the wheels of the world: small hands do them because they must, while the eyes of the great are elsewhere”
“All that is gold does not glitter, Not all those who wander are lost; The old that is strong does not wither, Deep roots are not reached by the frost.”
“All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.”
We all have our visions of Paradise. Here’s one version of it- white sandy beach, blue waters, a few trees- spread a mat, an umbrella, a good book and a cool lemonade and you’d be in your own paradise!
By far the most impressive cathedral and landmark in the French town of Clermont Ferrand, Notre Dame de l’Assomption is a distinct monument that stands tall. The twin spires of the cathedral are more than 96 metres tall.
The most distinct feature of this cathedral is that it is made from the local volcanic volvic stone giving it a sombre and dark appearance. I guess that adds a bit more dignity and makes the cathedral even more impressive.
The present cathedral in its full form took centuries to complete from the 13th to the 19th- though the site had been a base for Christian worship from as early as the 6th century AD.
There are a number of wonderful stained glass windows inside the cathedral. However as I always feel a bit apprehensive about photographing inside living places of worship I didn’t take too many photographs and the ones I took did not come out well! Oh well!
I love Macro photography- somehow the art of photographing something extremely small appeals to me a lot- it’s how you can see details that you can’t normally see- to delve into a world that you did not know existed.
I have a lens (mZuiko12-50mm) that can do a fairly decent job of macro but I’m thinking that the next lens I would invest in would be a specialist macro lens.
The Langkawi Cable Car and Sky Bride are two of the most popular tourist destination in the Malaysian Island archipelago of Langkawi.
The sky bridge is unfortunately closed for maintenance and renovation currently and is scheduled to open only at the end of 2014 (which incidentally is being promoted as the Visit Malaysia year). Is the cable car ride still worth it? In my opinion- definitely.
The entrance to the cable car rides is located in what is called the Oriental village- a shopping arcade that has been designed to look like traditional local architecture. I guess the lines to enter the cable car can be long at times (we had to wait for about 15 minutes).
There are two segments in riding the cable car- the longer first section is also quite steep- you don’t feel it going up but when coming down it can feel a bit scary- the cars almost go down vertically at a point.
You then reach an intermediate viewing platform where you can get down to take photos or just enjoy the views. Later you board the cars again to go to the highest viewing point with two viewing decks.
The views are probably best early in the morning or fairly late in the evening around sunset- otherwise the light is too harsh and there is quite a bit of haze. But if you have limited time and you can only make it at 11 am- I would still recommend a visit.