Thursday, April 11, 2013
Wall painting of ordinary life scene in the vihear of Wat Bo, Siem Reap
Vihear (temple), Wat Bo, Siem Reap, Cambodia
I'm fascinated by the occasional representation of ordinary life that can be found in old Khmer art. Unlike the usual depictions of deities, royalty and religious tales, images of daily life (e.g. bas-reliefs of a market scene on the Angkorian-era Bayon) provide revealing glimpses into common Cambodia, the life that most people of the time knew, but was only rarely recorded for posterity. Though much more recent than the 12th century carvings on Bayon, several scenes of turn-of-the-century French colonial Cambodia are tucked amongst the century-old wall paintings of Siem Reap's Wat Bo pagoda, including the amazing tableau pictured above. Sometimes called the 'market scene,' it portrays several shops and dozens of people, many of them foreigners, involved in activities ranging from hauling water and selling silks to meeting friends and getting stoned.
|Panels depicting the Reamker|
Monks at Wat Bo estimate the painting to be about a hundred years old, which corresponds well with the costumes depicted. It's about a meter wide and a half-meter tall. Though sometimes referred to as the 'market scene,' it looks more like a street scene to me. The compartments in the upper half are not shaped like market stalls but like shophouses (combined shop and home) that are longer than wide. And though the presence of wares seems to indicate that they are shops, the proprietors also seem to be engaged in homey activities including grooming and smoking. The painting would appear to be a representation of a row of shophouses with proprietors (upper register,) and people passing in the street in front of the shophouses (lower register).
|French soldiers from panel on east wall.|
Like others, the head monk estimated the painting to be about 100 years old. He asserted that it was not a representation of some particular market or street of the time, but was rendered in the spirit, style and even time of the Reamker (or Angkor) with contemporary characters that the artist had seen in his daily life inserted into the scene. Further, that the characters were signifiers of peoples present in Cambodia at the time - Chinese, Indians, Khmer and ethnic minorities. I tend to disagree. The costumes and accoutrements (e.g. umbrellas, guns, clock) are contemporary with the artist. The architecture is not inconsistent with the artist's time. And the presence of Europeans would seem to contradict the notion that these are signifiers from a millennium ago. This is a contemporary scene.
The following descriptions of the various characters from the painting are not definitive but amount more to notes from the meeting with the head monk, talks with other monks and guides over the years, and my own speculation. I have not been able to find any significant writings on this painting but I figure there must be something on it somewhere, most likely in French. If you know of any existing papers or articles, please let me know.
2: Khmer male. Wearing a neck scarf and a sampot, suggesting Khmer ethnicity. Image is badly damaged.
Tuesday, April 2, 2013
Filtering through old photos I took of at Angkor in the 90s I found a few of Siem Reap Town I took in 1995. Unfortunately the photos are not in great shape, but good enough for a couple of comparison shots. The April 2013 photos were taken today, standing in the approximately the same spots I did 18 years ago.
Wat Bo Road, April 1995. At the time Wat Bo Road had several wooden guesthouses, catering primarily to budget travelers, but there were no hotels or restaurants along Wat Bo.
Wat Bo Road, April 2013.
Corner of National Route #6 and Wat Bo Road, looking east down Route #6, April 1995. Route #6 at the time was in very poor shape. There were no buses or regularly schedule road transportation from Phnom Penh. It was possible to hire a taxi, but due to road conditions the trip could take 9-14 hours, there were dubious military checkpoints along the way and the KR was still about. Most travelers from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap took the river ferry or the plane. Even the trip from Siem Reap to the Roluos Group (only 13km) was a chore, that stretch of dirt road particularly trenched and pot-holed.
Corner of National Route #6 and Wat Bo Road, April 2013. It's a smooth, paved 5-6 hour drive to Phnom Penh. Buses rule. The river ferry only runs part year now. Roluos is an easy 15 minute drive.
Garden House Guesthouse on Wat Bo Road. Fan, bed, net, shared bathroom, $4/night. April 1995.
Garden House Guesthouse on Wat Bo Road. April 2013.
The Ya Tep Statue in the center of town, in the middle of National Route #6, near the Hotel Grand d'Angkor Park. April 1995. Ya Tep is a neak-ta (powerful spirit) local to Siem Reap and is said to help bring protection (and winning lottery numbers) to the faithful. At the time people told me that she likes "ugly things" and she always used to be surrounded by stinking chicken skins left by worshipers. I haven't checked thoroughly, but these days the offerings seem to consist mainly of incense, flowers and fruit.
The Ya Tep Statue in the center of town, April 2013.