A dinosaur at Angkor

Steggie – note how he’s a fair bit paler than the carving at the bottom

More precisely, a stegosaur at Ta Prohm. A stegosaur, as I’ve no doubt you already knew but perhaps it had slipped your mind, is a herbivorous dinosaur that lived some 155 million years ago in North America, says Wikipedia. Wikipedia’s slightly wrong – they lived in Europe and Asia too – but the basic point is, they died off a long time ago.

In which case, what’s this doing on a doorway at Ta Prohm? (Link to Wikipedia again). TP was built in the general Angkor complex in the late 11th/early 12th centuries, and is no place for a dinosaur.

This question was recently discussed on Alison Carter’s blog. She says it’s not a steggie, and as an archaeologist she should know. I’d say, at an guess, that 99.9% of experts agree on that. What they don’t agree on is what it actually is. Some say it’s a buffalo (water buffalo that is), on account of the horns, if that’s what they are. Others say it’s probably a wild boar, or maybe a chameleon, or a rhino, or possibly something else. Alison’s money’s on a pangolin, which is a kind of scaly ant-eater. The failure of experts to agree on what it is, as opposed to is not, is a bit embarrassing for us scientific rationalists, I must admit.

A large, or largish, number of non-experts think they know the right answer. Almost to a man (and woman), these are biblical fundamentalists out to prove the wrongness of evolution and the foolishness of geologists who claim that the Earth is more than ten thousand years old. It looks like a steggie because it is a steggie. This gives a good idea of the on-line chatter among the incognoscenti:

If Stegosaurus lived in Cambodia only 1000 years ago when the Angkor Wat/Ta Prohm temples were built, why are there no Stegosaurus bones found in Asia, whether in archeological sites or in the fossil record?

Good point. Nothing between 150 million BC and 1186 AD, nada. Where were they hiding out?

Since they quarried rock to build their temples the only sensible answer is that they did indeed unearth a good stegosaurus skeleton.
Perhaps it was carved on the temple for “interest”, just like things are placed in museums for us to wonder about.

Except then they’d have to reconstruct Steggie from the skeleton, and that’s not easy – and complete fossil skeletons are very rare in any case.

a poor rendition of a chameleon when many more of the other carvings are accurate…and superbly executed.

A poor rendition of a chameleon I’d agree with, but superbly executed? I mean, are we talking Michelangelo’s Pieta here, or maybe a Khmer Buddha with a mystic smile? Well, it’s ok.

of course its a frigging stegosaurus. use your eyes. what else is it, seriously?

And so on. Reading this stuff could seriously send you in search of a nice cup of tea.

Some of the more biblically-inclined are actually more thoughtful and quite honest. I liked this one, and regret I can’t identify the author. He gives instructions for finding the carving, and a little background information that’s otherwise hard to come by. He says it was cleaned by Claude Jacques, a respected historian and the author of Ancient Angkor, an illustrated guidebook to the temples. This explains why the steggie is lighter in colour than the other carvings in the group.

The fact that it’s lighter has led skeptics to suggest that Steggie is a forgery, not an outright one but that an original carving of something else – a buffalo, say, or a rhino, or even a pangolin – has been improved by the addition of those plates on top of it.

If a forgery, who and when and why? Unanswerable questions. I gather that Jacques’ book (1999) was the one that brought Steggie world-wide fame, along with an earlier edition in about 1997. Claude Jacques certainly wouldn’t alter a carving at Ta Prohm (I doubt he’d clean one up for a photo, either, but let that pass), so any alteration had to date from before then. The 1990s were a wild and wonderful period in Cambodia, and anything could have happened and not been noticed for years. (Try improving a carving today and you’ll get arrested instanter … probably).

Steggie at the Smithsonian website

And if not a forgery, then what? This brings us back to where we began. But while the evidence for Steggie not being a stegosaur seems pretty overwhelming, the evidence for him being anything else is just as undefinitive. Very frustrating.

A real stegosaur, looking not all that much like Steggie – note the size of the head, the spikes on the tail and how it’s held, and where are the horns on the head?

Interview with a gangster

Screen Shot 2014-11-23 at 1.07.17 PMI carried out this interview in the course of investigating magical tattoos – what they were, why people had them. I was told that the most likely people to have them were police, gangsters, and soldiers. So I went and found myself a gangster.

Not really a gangster any more, in fact a very nice guy with a touching story. He’s 37 years old, and came to PP from the provinces with his family aged 8. At that time (about 1985) PP was a wild and dangerous place. Aged 13 (about 1990) he left school over his father’s strong objections and joined a gang on Riverside, the tourist strip along the Tonle Sap river. Got tattoos when he was about 16, to attract girls. Also got some amulets to make himself invulnerable to knives and to make himself brave. You can just see a tattoo at the very top of his singlet.

The gang robbed and intimidated everyone on Riverside – vendors, shopkeepers, tourists. Fought other gangs with knives, knuckledusters, bike-chains. The police were afraid of them. Boss of the gang was named Kmao, a very violent young man afraid of nobody.

One day there was a major battle with another gang. The other side had guns, Kmao’s side didn’t. Two of Kmao’s side were shot. Our friend had to jump in the river and swim for the far bank, because the enemy were searching for Kmao’s gang up and down Riverside and would kill him if they caught him. Out in the river he promised that if he survived he’d leave the gang and start a new life. And he did.

That was many years ago. Now he drives a tuktuk. All his friends from that time are either dead, or in jail, or driving tuktuks. Several have become monks, and one is an abbot. He bitterly regrets his wasted youth – he has no education, just a tuktuk driver. He was almost crying by the time I finished the interview, being forced to remember the past. I felt a bit guilty.

Alessandro Vanucci – photos from Angkor

Some rather beautiful photos from Alessandro Vannucci. He runs photo-tours around Angkor and Siem Reap, which look well worth the taking – go to his website to see more of his work (look under the tabs “workshops and travel photography” and “portfolio”).

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The tattoos are a mix of magical and simply decorative – generally speaking, magical ones are more schematic, look more like diagrams. The purpose is always either to protect the bearer from harm, or to attract girls. Monks are not supposed to have tattoos, but they do, it’s a sure sign that they’ve led an interesting life. possibly including time as a soldier or maybe a gangster.

Boats possessed by spirits


A post on the racing boats used in the annual Water Festival. Or I should say the so-called Water Festival – in Khmer it’s called Bon Om Touk, which means Festival Row Boat – in other words, it’s a boatrace festival. Maybe 200 boats and a million people from all over the country gather in Phnom Penh for a program of races over three days in October or November, presided over by the king, and much honour accrues to the winning team.


Boat Festival in Phnom Penh

But it’s more than just a boat race, it has religious overtones. The boats represent villages, and are stored in the village monastery. As the boat festival nears, the monastery neak ta (spirit) is asked to help the village team, but that’s not enough: the neak ta can’t travel, he’s bound to the monastery,and the boat is off to Phnom Penh. What to do?


Monastic neak ta shrine at a village near Phnom Penh

So the village gets a powerful spirit called a bray to inhabit the boat for the duration of the festival. The bray is the spirit of a woman who died in childbirth or while pregnant – she’s inconsolable, and grief makes her evil. Most spirits are essentially neutral, but the bray goes out of her way to cause harm, especially miscarriages, for which reason pregnant women should not go near the village racing boat. But she can be tamed, by the village kru arak and kru baomey (types of shaman), and the monks.

And so a bray is enticed into the boat. This is essential because all the other villages will have their bray, and without protection these bray will attack the rowers. So while the rowers battle it out on the river, the bray also do invisible battle, fighting off the attacks of the rival spirits to protect their team.

Below are some photos of the a bray-shrine and some offerings to the bray on the riverbank at Siem Reap at the recent boat festival there – the festival is held in several towns around the country, although Phnom Penh is the biggest because of the king.

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