Awesome Agra

Often, when it comes to traveling, I am underwhelmed by ‘must see’ sights that everyone else seems to love. At Yellow Stone, I didn’t find Old Faithful to be particularly punctual or impressive. In Cambodia, I preferred several temples over Angkor Wat. Even in Thailand, I preferred Elephant Nature Park and Ayuttaya over the crowded beaches. Agra, however, was the exception to that rule…Although I arrived at the Taj Mahal expecting to be underwhelmed, within minutes, I realized I had underestimated India’s most iconic building.

IMG_0418

We traveled for hours in a thick fog and Dave and I were both very worried that the visibility was so bad that we wouldn’t even be able to see the building. Luckily, as the sun climbed in the sky, the fog dissipated and we arrived at Taj Mahal’s front gate with beautiful blue sky above us.

Taj-Mahal-foggy-side-view-Agra-Dec-2015-1
India’s pollution problems + Winter fog = poor visibility for some tourists!
IMG_0343
We were so glad the sky cleared by the time we made it to the front gate.

We were provided with a tour guide while we were in Agra. I don’t typically like guides, because they can take so much away from the experience (I hate being shuttled around) but this one was pretty good. He offered a lot of information about the structures themselves, although we did find out later that some of his facts weren’t exactly true (more on that later). The things that were true, though, made it worthwhile having a guide at this particular attraction.

IMG_0340
I doubt he liked us very much, though. He learned quickly that we weren’t big spenders when we opted out of the 1/2 km carriage ride to the Taj Mahal. The weather was nice and so was the walk 🙂

Now, about the the building and grounds themselves…

In 1631, the Mughal emperor of India, Shah Jahan, lost his beloved wife during the birth of their 14th child. After spending a year in secluded mourning, the emperor hired an architect to design a beautiful building both to commemorate his late wife, and to act as her final resting place. The architect did his job well and today, thousands of tourists flock to the Taj Mahal to visit the burial sight of Emperor Jehan and his wife, Mumtaz Mahal.

Now that you have some history, I should explain why this UNESCO World Heritage Sight is so renown. I like lists, so let’s do it that way…
#1 – The Optical Illusions

When you are (finally) done with security and have bought your tickets and paid for your camera fees, you make it through the front entrance. This is when you first see the Taj Mahal. It looks enormous and very close, and you can’t quite figure out why you hadn’t seen it behind the front gate.

IMG_0355
When you first see the building, you realize that photos could never possibly do it justice.

But as soon as you step through that doorway, you realize that there is quite a bit more walking to do before you actually get TO the building itself. The doorway just makes it look closer than it really is.

IMG_0358
The view from the other side of the gate

There are also optical illusions on the building itself. For example:

IMG_0414
This pillar does not actually have points everywhere. It only looks like it is because of the way the stones are inlay-ed (we’ll get to that…)

More interesting yet, depending which time of day you visit the hall, it changes colours! I had always seen the Taj Mahal in pictures during sun sets, so it surprised me a lot when I saw that it is white! The entire building is made of high quality marble. The material is actually partially translucent, so it reflects light in some very interesting ways.

Pink-Taj-Mahal
With a really beautiful sunrise or sunset, the building actually turns pink

This marble is very valuable and delicate, so India has come up with an interesting cleaning regiment for their famous landmark. Instead of washing dust and dirt off with a pressure washer (or a harsh equivalent) they cover parts of the building with mud, and then gently wipe it away by hand. The mud helps to delicately scrub away any built up pollutants on the Taj Mahal’s pristine facade. They were working on 2 of the towers when we were visiting.

IMG_0374
#2 – The Symmetry

Every aspect of this building is symmetrical genius. From the trees, to the pools to the mausoleums that stand on either side of the main building, the Taj Mahal is balanced. As you walk through the gate, you are met by a long pool that leads up to the Taj Mahal itself. The line in the middle of that pool runs directly to the center of the main building, making for perfect picture taking. Even the most amateur photographer can get a straight picture if they know where to look.

IMG_0358

And everything from the trees to the stone steps to the pools on either side are mirrors of themselves. It’s really quite impressive because as long as we were with our guide, he never seemed to run out of things to show us that were perfect mirrors of one another. Both inside and outside of the building, everything from the art to the pillars to the shape of each room is a perfect reflection of the other side.

Taj-Mahal-and-surrounding1
Obviously I didn’t take this picture, but it shows that no matter which side of the Taj Mahal you are standing on…you see the same thing!
symmetrical-structures-taj
Similarly, the pools are designed to reflect the Taj Mahal perfectly and there is a mosque built on either side of the main building. Each of those mosques are also perfectly balanced.

But wait! I’ve saved the best for last!!!

#3 – The Inlay Art

What impressed me the most about this incredible structure wasn’t the symmetry or the marble. It was actually the art and how that art was made.

IMG_0384
A close up of one of the entrances.

Now, the Islamic writing around the arches is painted on…but all of the other art you see…the flowers and vines…that’s not paint!

Every piece of those flowers and vines are actually made of precious and semi-precious gems. Here’s how it’s done…

The high quality marble that was used to make the Taj Mahal was carved into by artists. The designs were chosen ahead of time, and gems were brought from as far away as China and Egypt to complete the task. The gems were sanded down to fit into the holes in the marble and then glued into place. So instead of having paint all over the Taj Mahal…you have incredibly detailed inlay work.

IMG_0402
All symmetrical and all inlay-ed precious stones

We went to a factory where this form of art is still being practiced.

This form of art is called Parchin Kari in India or Pietra Dura elsewhere. In order to decorate the Taj Mahal, Emperor Jahan had Jade brought from China, Sapphire brought from Sri Lanka and even Turquoise from Tibet. The results are magnificent. Not only is the art beautiful, but when the light hits certain gems just right…the whole building sparkles!!!

IMG_0389
It is a bit difficult to catch on camera, but you can sort of see it in a few places here.

Sadly, because this building is so famous, it gets a lot of attention from thieves. Repair work is almost always being done on the building because tourists try and remove stones and are sometimes even successful!

IMG_0404

Myth vs Facts

India has worked hard to protect this building, and during the second world war and wars with Pakistan special measures were taken to keep the building from being bombed.

ogcrX
Although only partially covered in bamboo here, it is believed that India covered the entire building during WW2, to keep the Nazi and Japanese forces from recognizing and bombing their most famous landmark.

Of course, this is one of the more interesting TRUE stories about the Taj Mahal. I learned later on that some of the other interesting stories our guide told us are completely fabricated. For example, there were never plans to build a second BLACK Taj Mahal across the river. It is a myth being perpetuated by tour guides in India.

Another myth that has added interest in the Taj Mahal states that the Indian Government had plans to demolish the building and to sell the marble. This story has no more truth to it than the black Taj story does, but it continues to be told because it increases interest in the famous landmark.

To me, I think the building is fascinating enough WITHOUT fabricating additional stories. But hey…I suppose they know what they’re doing…there’s no such thing as bad press, right?

After visiting the Taj Mahal we also went down to Agra Fort, which was built during the same period for the same emperor’s family. It wasn’t as interesting as the Taj Mahal itself, but it was still pretty neat and definitely worth some photos! (click on the photos for captions and explanations)

I have 1 last post that I’m still working on for India. I hope to have it up soon!

If you found this blog post interesting, please feel free to share with your friends. As always, comments and likes are always appreciated (and make me feel a little less like I’m talking to myself;) )

Angkor National Park – Cambodia’s Treasure (Part 2)

We had limited time in Cambodia (7 days is hardly enough to experience an entire country, after all!), and had to pick and choose where we would spend our time during our May Holiday.  Although there were several places that we wanted to visit, Angkor National Park was our main reason for visiting Cambodia, so we decided to book a 2 day tour with  Happy Angkor Tours, instead of the 1 day tour that we allocated at all our other stops.

tempguidemap
After all, there are hundreds of temples to see in Angkor National Park. Even 2 days wasn’t nearly enough time to see everything we’d wanted to see.

Dave and I aren’t usually big fans of tours (mainly because we hate other tourists) but this one wasn’t too bad.  Our guide had passable English and knew a lot about the Buddhist history in all the temples.  He tried very hard to keep us happy, even in the heat, and ended both days a little earlier than had been planned because we were both dealing with pretty awful sun stroke.    This meant that we missed the sunset part of the tour we’d booked on the first day.  It’s too bad, as it would have been beautiful to see the sun go down behind Phnom Bakheng, but by the time we had finished at Bayan Temple, all either of us wanted to do was make our way back to our hotel to take it easy.  Looking back now, I’m kicking myself, but of course, in addition to the heat, we had spent the previous night on a bus and neither of us had gotten much rest, so the idea of an air conditioned room with a comfortable bed was more appealing than seeing the sun go down.

We stayed at Villa Medamrei while in Siem Reap.  The hotel was beautiful and the staff went above and beyond (letting us check in about 6 hours earlier than they had to so we could shower before our tour started).  If you're looking to stay in Siem Reap...I strongly urge you to check this place out.  Great pricing for a beautiful stay!
We stayed at Villa Medamrei while in Siem Reap. The hotel was beautiful and the staff went above and beyond (letting us check in about 6 hours earlier than they had to so we could shower before our tour started). If you’re looking to stay in Siem Reap…I strongly urge you to check this place out. Great pricing for a beautiful stay!

And it was a good thing that we got that additional rest, because Day 2 of our holiday started an hour before the sun came up…

Angkor Wat – Round 2

We woke up at around 4:30am, showered (we couldn’t do enough of that in Cambodia!!!) and met our tour guide outside our hotel.  It was still very dark out and there was nobody in the streets.  A half hour later, we were walking up to Angkor Wat again, though we couldn’t see it against the black sky.  Our guide found us a fantastic spot on the bank of the man-made pond, we bought some iced coffee from a vendor who was selling them to tourists who were there for sunrise, and we waited.

2 angkor
At first, we could only see the beehive shaped outline of Angkor Wat

3 -  angkor

4 - angkor

7- angkor

As it got brighter and brighter we realized not only why it was worth waking up at 4:30am for this, but also that we were not the only ones who’d made this trip.  The gratitude I felt for our tour guide, who had gotten us here before the crowds, also multiplied as I looked around me.

IMG_5774

8- angkor

Eventually, the sun rose completely, giving us this spectacular view to start our day:

9 - angkor

Chong Kneas – A Floating Fishing Village

Cambodia has 2 seasons:  wet and dry.  The wet season runs from May to October and the dry season from November to April.  The Mekong River varies greatly between these two seasons, as Cambodia receives 75% of it’s rainfall in the wet months.  So believe it or not, this is the same river:

Mekong
The Mekong as we saw it
Mekong 2
The Mekong River at the height of the rainy season.

But human beings have survived for all these years because we are so adaptable.  As a species, we survive all over the globe in a variety of environments and conditions, and just like Canadians bundle up into layers of clothes to survive the winter, Cambodia has found ways to survive the rise and fall of the Mekong River.

mirelescambodia-4723-L
A Cambodian home in the dry season
vylet-plovoucivesnice-002
A Cambodian fishing village during the wet season

Entire villages are built on stilts to account of the rise and fall of the Mekong, and we were lucky enough to visit one of these villages.  Here, people don’t walk down the street.  Instead, they hop into a boat and row to their destination.  Even livestock is kept above ground.

10 Chong Kneas
The type of boat we took to the village
16 Chong Kneas
Us, in said boat
11 Chong Kneas
This was a convenience store of sorts
12 Chong Kneas
These fishing villages are quite multicultural. Many of the fishermen here are Vietnamese and this is a Korean School
A fishing trap used by locals
A fish trap used by locals
14 Chong Kneas
We also got to see some of these traps outside the water. I honestly still don’t understand how this one works haha!
IMG_5886
This is Sap Lake. There are several fishing villages on it, including the one we visited. It is fed by The Mekong, which begins all the way up in Southern China and flows all the way into the South China Sea

Banteay Srei – The Lady’s Temple

Next, we set off to see another temple…and though I’d never heard of it, it is quite famous within Cambodia.  Unlike many of Angkor National Park’s temples, this sight was not built by a King of the era…it was built by a Hindu Brahman who happened to be the spiritual teacher of the king at the time.  He had the temple built in honor of the Hindu deity, Shiva, but today it is known as the ‘Lady’s Temple’ because of it’s most unique feature:  the temple is constructed entirely of hard pink sandstone.  It is truly a beautiful location to visit and I got some amazing pictures while we were there.

17 banteay srei

20 banteay srei
The temple is also famous for its intricate carvings
18 banteay srei
All windows had an odd number of pillars. This one has 5, but many have 7. Odd numbers are lucky in both Buddhism and Hinduism.

19 banteay srei

23 banteay srei
So many beautiful structures in this “small” temple

22 banteay srei

24 Banteau Samre
The pink sandstone was so beautiful! It made the whole temple glow 🙂

Banteay Samre – Our Final Stop

Our last stop of the tour was at Banteay Samre, a temple built in around the same time as Angkor Wat.  It was dedicated to the Hindu god Vishnu and once had an impressive mote surrounding it, that would have made it something to see in its day.  The colour of these ruins was gorgeous.  Just like at Bayun Wat, I feel like we were too tired to truly appreciate how elaborate this sight is.  I guess we’ll just have to go back some day 🙂

26 Banteau Samre
There were so many beautiful buildings at Bateay Samre
27 Banteau Samre
Many of the towers are shaped in the same fashion as Angkor Wat
25 Banteau Samre
This sight was restored quite effectively a few decades ago, though it hasn’t had any restoration for a while now.
30 Banteau Samre
The spikes on many of the roofs are what stood out for Dave. I honestly hadn’t noticed them at the time but they definitely added a lot of texture to the buildings
32 Banteau Samre
The back entrance to Bateay Samre

So that wraps up our stay in Siem Reap!  Next, I’ll be writing about Kratie…home of the Irawadi Dolphins!!  Stay tuned!!!