There are few things in life which I enjoy more than a holiday aboard a Thompson (TUI) cruise ship. That little blue plastic card is the ticket to two weeks of paradise! The first stop on our trip was in Cambodia – not the most obvious choice of a tourist destination but interesting nonetheless.
Our first trip out from the boat was to Sihanoukville on Cambodia’s south-west coast overlooking the Gulf of Thailand. With only an afternoon free in this port we boarded a tuk-tuk (complete with smoking engine and decorated with green astroturf) around a couple of areas of interest, including the famous ‘golden lions statue’ and the Wat Leu Temple on the outskirts.
There is a lot of poverty in Cambodia and it is impossible to ignore people living by the roadside and children begging for money in the streets. There is also massive construction work of luxurious apartments and it seems that every other renovated building is a casino, which is a shame.
Cambodia has a terrible history as I am sure you are already aware, and any decent tour guide will point out the killing fields and the legacy of the Khmer Rouge 1975 -1979, when Buddhist temples were destroyed, desecrated and used as mass graves. Even before this, the country was bombed consistently in the Vietnamese War with America.
The country is trying to rebuild and establish itself as a tourist base, and it does have a lot to offer, although there is such a lot of work needing to be done. Should we visit Cambodia again in, say, another ten years’ time, I am sure that it will look very different…
Shaped like a giant lotus flower, the sacred symbol of the Buddha, Borobudur is the world’s largest Buddhist monument. Set inspiringly, amongst the lush rice paddies in the centre of the Indonesian island, the structure of the temple is unique. It is shaped like a huge pyramid overlooking a sacred plain and it is a both a physical representation of Buddhist cosmology and a place of pilgrimage. The pyramid is stepped, in 6 rectangular story’s, topped by 3 circular terraces and a central domed stupa, forming the summit. The monument has 3 distinct sections: the lowest level symbolises the physical world, or World of Desires, and is called the Kamadhatu; the second level is the Rupadhatu, the World of Form, a transitional sphere in which humans are released from their physical bodies. The highest level of ascension is the Arupadhatu, which is the World of the Formlessness, the sphere of enlightenment. Pilgrims’ follow a path that circles around the monument in a clockwise direction: following a meditative journey to its summit. The temple was founded around AD 750 and was for a while, the islands main spiritual centre, although it was eventually abandoned due to its proximity to the erupting volcano, Mount Merapi.
Angkor Wat, Cambodia
The vast temple complex of Angkor Wat is the world’s largest and possibly most impressive religious monument. It has been classified as one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. It is Cambodia’s most beloved symbol and powerfully evokes the splendor of Khmer Civilization. The temple, which was originally Hindu, then became Buddhist, was commissioned by King Suryavarman II in the early 12th century, as his state temple and eventually his mausoleum. The scale of the temple is quite staggering, the central towering soaring 200 metres into the sky and the site is so large it could accommodate the Vatican State 12 times over! The temples’ design is a symbolic representation of Mount Meru, which was belived to be the dwelling place of the Hindu gods and center of the universe. Its structure is layered, with access becoming progressively more exclusive with height; the common people were restricted to the lowest level, while the uppermost levels were reserved solely for kings and priests. The five towers on the highest level represent the peaks of Mount Meru, while the moat beneath symbolises the primordial ocean. Angkor Wat is best known for the extensive decorations which have been incorporated into its architecture, depicting interesting and significant mythological and historical scenes.
The Shwedagon Pagoda, Burma
Known as the Great Dragon Pagoda, and also the Golden Pagoda, this 2,500 year old temple famously enshrines strands of the Buddha Guatama’s hair as well as many other religious artifacts. The temple is located west of the Royal Lake in Yangon, Shwedagon on Singuttara Hill and dominates the skyline of the city. It is the most sacred buddhist pagoda for the Burmese with relics of four past Buddhas enshrined within it. The Shwedagon Pagoda consists of hundreds of colorful temples, stupas and statues, which reflect the architectural era of over 2,500 years ago. It is a monumental work of art and architecture and a magnificent symbol of Buddhism to the Myanmar people. The glittering stupa is made of genuine gold plates, which cover the brick structure and are attached by traditional rivets. Myanmar people all over the country, as well as monarchs in its own history, have donated gold to the pagoda to maintain it. The practice continues to this day after being started in the 15th century by the Mon Queen, Shin Sawbu, who gave her weight in gold! The main stupa is encrusted with an amazing 4531 diamond; the largest of which is a 72 carat diamond! This temple is definitely one of the wonders of the religious world.
Wat Rong Khun, Thailand
Wat Rong Khun in Chiang Rai, Thailand is unlike any other Buddhist temple in the world. The startlingly white, highly ornate structure is gilded in mosaic mirrors which shine magically, reflecting the light, to represent the Buddha’s wisdom shining out across the Earth and the Universe. The temple is designed in a contemporary style and was built in 1997 by the renowned artist, Chalermchai Kositpipat. Wat Rong Khun is not a traditional temple; the artist has reinterpreted Thai art for the modern world by constructing a surreal vision of Buddhist teachings with superheroes, movie stars and cartoons incorporated into the temple murals, enhancing traditional Buddhist motifs. Fantastical sculptures and architecture cover this amazing surreal landscape. But despite its modernism, every detail of Wat Rong Khun carries deep religious symbolism. Much of the temple’s teachings and messages refer to escaping desire, greed and passion and moving towards a state of the sublime, through Buddhist teachings. To reach the main temple hall, visitors must cross a bridge over an ocean of ghostly hands reaching up from the cycle of death and rebirth. The temple building symbolises the realm of the Buddha: rising to a state of nirvana.
Temple of Heaven, China
The Temple of Heaven is considered the most holy of Beijing’s imperial temples. It has been described as “a masterpiece of architecture and landscape design”. It is a Taoist temple which was constructed in 14th century by Emperor Yongle of the Ming Dynasty (who also built the Forbidden City) as his personal temple, where he would pray for good harvest and to atone for the sins of his people. Being seen to pray was very important for the emperor as a bad harvest could be interpreted as a fall from Heaven’s favor! The design of the Temple of Heaven is very complex, in keeping with its sacred purpose; its design reflects the mystical cosmological laws which were believed to be central to the workings of the universe. Both the overall arrangement and the buildings, reflect the relationship between sky and earth, which was the crux of understanding of the Universe at that time. The entire temple complex is surrounded by two walls; the outer wall has a taller, semi-circular northern end, representing Heaven, and a shorter, rectangular southern end, representing the Earth. Both the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests and the Circular Mound Altar are round, each standing on an ornate square, in order represent Heaven and Earth.