The nuptial flight: the phenomenon, an ode

Prologue:

This poem was conceived on the 6th of July according to my writing book. I had been looking for sexuals of ants, especially those of the most prevalent ant in these parts: The Black Garden ant- Lasius niger. The time had seemed right since the end of June. The ground still slightly moist from the summer-time rains in my part of Germany. Warm, sunny mornings and cooler, pleasant evenings. Giving one an opportunity to walk around to wind down after the banality that working from home during the global pandemic brings. A chance to peer into bushes and look for scurrying things ; which is my favourite pastime regardless of the season.

Though my labmates and I had to wait almost another week before we all started spotting multiple small nuptial flights around campus and near our residences, but this poem is a mix of emotions I have felt over the years when witnessing flights and winged ants across countries I have lived in.

               THE NUPTIAL FLIGHT

The winds that howled through the trees;
have changed to a soft whistling breeze.
I catch my breath I feel a chill;
as the silence grows loud and time stands still.

 
A hare scurries past, a welcome distraction;
But nothing compared to the main attraction.
The sun bids adieu, but I see the light;
for here it is, the nuptial flight.

 
Fly by me oh Queen, my heart it soars.
Mate and take your genes to newer shores.
The drones in limbo lie in wait;
To mate and then die;that is their fate!

 
And here I am; a fly on the wall
watching multitudes rise and fall;
some to their deaths and some to start new lives
get ready everyone; the new queen arrives!

 
The lonely street lamp; ’tis my companion here
as I soak up the majesty of this flight
Mist creeps in ; a muggy atmosphere.
as the dusk gives way to the night.

 
Fly by me oh Queen, my heart it soars.
Mate and take your genes to newer shores.
The drones in limbo lie in wait;
To mate and then die; that is their fate!
 
And mine is to wait and see;
revel in this reverie.
until I behold that wondrous sight;
that is yet another nuptial flight.

For those wondering what all the hullabaloo is :

You might have seen the phrase “Flying Ant day” , even quite recently when a weather radar in England picked up a large nuptial flight similar to rain clouds.

In most ant species, worker ants are exclusively female but incapable of reproduction. The reproducing member, like in the more famous Hymenopteran, the honey-bee; is the QUEEN. Once a colony is large enough, it will start investing in producing fertile individuals, who can spread the colony’s genes elsewhere.

In most ant species, the sexual offspring are winged males and females called ‘Alates’ who seemingly burst forth in multitude once or twice a year, from crevices and nest entrances widened by the workers in preparation. The drones, or males in many ant species are produced just for mating (although this may vary depending on the species and the geography). They arise from UNFERTILISED eggs. Their heads are smaller than that of the female sexuals and look leaner. It is not uncommon to see workers pulling at wings or legs of the alates and almost gathering them in one place in anticipation of the mate-seeking endeavour ahead. And then as you watch, winged individuals from multiple nests containing thousands to millions of sexuals take off. The fat, rotund females, mate with 1 or multiple males in quick succession and settle down, usually away from where they had started out; their and their mates’ colonies’ genes transported to new lands. The males die soon after mating, picked off by the birds having a field day. If they have managed to mate however, their sperm will live on in the female.

The newly mated female; if she manages to survive the ordeal, will lose her wings, find a good spot to dig into and lay low until she produces her first set of workers. She doesn’t feed during this period, instead utilising the fat stored in her abdomen, which is what shows up as her ‘rotundness’. She can now lay eggs to hatch into non-sexual workers, who will then forage and feed her. The eggs she lays are fertilised by the millions of sperms she has stored in that one mating flight right at the beginning; enough to last her entire lifetime (sometimes 10-15 years),as she turns exclusively to egg-laying, the reproduction based task (caste) established. And we lie in wait for her to start producing the next generation of ‘flying ants’.

RESOURCES
Logging a nuptial flight: https://antflights.com/

For when you have the next Trivia night:
1.What is a 'nuptial flight'/'Hochzeitsflug'?
2.https://www.nhm.ac.uk/discover/when-why-winged-ants-swarm-nuptial-flight.html
3.https://theconversation.com/six-amazing-facts-you-need-to-know-about-ants-100478
Male ants : 
4. Shik, J.Z., Flatt, D., Kay, A. et al. A life history continuum in the males of a Neotropical ant assemblage: refuting the sperm vessel hypothesis. Naturwissenschaften 99, 191–197 (2012). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00114-012-0884-6
What about species where male ants don't always fly:
5. Introducing Cardiocondyla 
6. Heinze J Life-history evolution in ants: the case of Cardiocondyla
Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences
2017 vol: 284 (1850) pp: 20161406 https://doi.org/10.1098/rspb.2016.1406

Ants are the bee’s knees

Prologue:

The scene was set. The table had been cleared of all distractions. I had showered and eaten. A steaming cup of tea and the strong suggestive glow of the lamp await. Nothing is going to stop me from seriously writing about Ageing in Ants and the experiments I have been conducting.

HOW WRONG I WAS. Because such moments are rife with promise of procrastination. This time in the form of inspiration for a poem. So, Instead of the results section of my paper, I wrote a poem about my passion for my study specimen. An unlikely ode at an inconvenient time but like most words…..it needs to get out so here goes.

 

ANTS ARE THE BEE’S KNEES

I’ve scoured the expansive ground;

I’ve scanned the tallest of trees;

there are some astounding creatures around,

but the ants are the bee’s knees.

 

Dolphins always cause a great furore

Monkeys inevitably manage to please

and there’s no sloth I could ever abhor

but the ants are the bee’s knees.

 

No need to pout, for I also love the roaches

and appreciate the tenacity of the fleas.

But there’s a corner of my heart no one else encroaches,

for the ants are the bee’s knees.

 

Their scuttering makes my brain aflutter,

the wiry legs puts my skin at ease;

my phrasing may be wrong and my life a clutter,

but the ants are the bee’s knees.

 

Epilogue:

It started with the phrase bee’s knees. I could not get it out of my head. And how it’s funny to call things “bee’s knees”. And though we know that ‘bee’s knees’ is used to compliment something, I never had the opportunity to check its origins. Many of you probably have not either so let me make it easier for you. And give me the satisfaction that I wrote something with an introduction, body and even references much like what my manuscript should be, although less poetry and more facts will probably be appreciated in the academic literature circles I normally run in.

The origin of “Bee’s knees”

7kvp

 

 

What the fluff?

I spent some time last week with my niece and nephew in Kerala and whenever they were able to get away from the evil clutches of Dora (the explorer) I observed them playing. It is becoming increasingly difficult to compete with TV when wanting to interact with children. And socially awkward aunt who is also unsurprisingly great with kids (read sarcasm) acknowledges this as a herculean task. The colourful rings of a child-friendly Tower of Hanoi lie forlorn as some informative lady sings ABC on the ‘idiot box’. Yet somehow my 2 year old niece is still being amused by the Malayalam version of peek-a-boo called “Oliche-kande” in the vernacular translating to Hid-found. It requires only two things 1) something to obstruct her view of your face and 2) your face. And as I watched her giggle at what seems like the universal way to amuse most children through time, I was reminded of the ‘What the fluff’ compilations that were doing the rounds on social media recently. It involved pet owners standing in front of their pet, throwing a towel over themselves or their pet and the pet watches in confusion as their master vanishes, probably having rushed and hidden behind a door or a bed. Hilarity is supposed to ensue as we see the pet searching for the owner. The more frantic the search, the better. Our affection for animals doing literally anything in videos circulating on the internet is phenomenon unto itself and will take a longer time to unpack but animal perception and related abilities are crucial to understanding cognition (And makes for a great dinnertime conversation if Dora the explorer is not going on).

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What we see here is animals displaying Object Permanence. It is the ability to know that objects exist even if they have disappeared from view. That is why the pets are confused and searching. The owner was just there and ought to be around. Object permanence was first described as a sensorimotor developmental stage in human children starting at 8-12 months, by the Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget. But the progression of the ability is such: at first when an object is first in one place and then in another, the child will search for it in the first location. Next phase, they can look for the object and trace its location if the location changes have happened in plain view but not otherwise [Although processing time for any information is a factor. Most adults are dumbfounded by the roadside tricks and may have lost time and money on shell  games which depends on tracking the motion of cups and a sleight of hand]. Last stage is where they search for objects sequentially in multiple locations.

Many animals including cats, dogs, dolphins, goats, birds of the crow family, monkeys and non-human apes have been tested on their ability to track objects when they are displaced although their ability to trace something when it changes location many times in a short time interval is variable according to species, individual and context. They would require object permanence to know where they stash food, where predators or prey might be if they have detected them among others. Animals may also be able to use their sense of smell or echolocation or social cues to figure out where the object went and prior experience with the location or the set-up may all be confounding factors, or sometimes animals just don’t want to do something, or do something they wouldn’t normally do because of the incentive they receive.  All these could lead to a biased result.

However, over various controlled studies, all slight variations of Piagetian experiments have led to the insights we have about our furry or feathery friends at home and our wild cousins with regards to object permanence. Our common pets, dogs have been domesticated for a while now and are particularly attuned to human non-verbal cues and may use them to follow instruction but thanks to domestication, their dependence on us is higher and they may be less self-sufficient in finding food and keeping track of where things are, making use of their nose and our help for their daily tasks. In fact most pets like toddlers suffer separation anxiety because they have object permanence.

In wild animals, species is important as is context. Where are they from? Are they solitary or social? What are their immediate pressures (food, prey/predator, shelter, mate) that could lead them to develop different types of strategy which may require specific skillsets. Most species have survived in the wild because somehow the strategy they use has been developed and naturally selected for. It is best suited to them in this time and space where they are. They will perish unless they change with changing context. Similar species living in vey different habitats thus can fare differently on such tests and animals that aren’t as closely related for eg- elephants, corvids and apes do similarly well. We cannot really compare different animals on a common, generic scale to conclude on their “intelligence”. [Because that requires defining “intelligence” which is subjective and contextual depending on the species, though we like being anthropocentric and using ourselves as the apex with which to compare everything with, intelligence in humans too is complicated and subjective] We can however use them to learn how such skills evolved and whether things like brain to body size have anything to do with it.

This also raises interesting questions like how animals might perceive sudden versus slow death of a known individual. Are we ignoring similar phenomena in the animals that aren’t considered stereotypically ‘cute’ because their responses are not as obvious as the raised eyebrows and crazy neck movements that remind us of ourselves?

Our brain is a beautiful organ but a lot of our actions are based on sensory cues, prior experience and context, processing all of which might take longer than necessary to win against those deceiving us, including our own brain. So watching our precious pets not throw in the towel after we have disappeared behind one is heartening and enlightening at the same time.

References and bonus links:

  1. Do dogs understand object permanence?
  2. Where’s the cookie? The ability of monkeys to track object transpositions doi:https://doi.org/10.1007/s10071-018-1195-x
  3. What Do Dogs know about Hidden Objects?                                  doi:  1016/j.beproc.2009.03.018
  4. A really simple summary and critique of Piaget’s theory on object permanence
  5. Dogs- what the fluff?
  6. Cats- What the fluff?
  7. The actual towers of Hanoi game

 Last Day at Angkor, 22nd March 2018

Author’s Note: First post covering Angkor Wat is here.

____________________________________________________________________________________________

Day 3,22nd March 2018: Last day in Siem Reap

  1. Floating/Fishing village

Knowing full well that we were going to overshoot our budget, but weighing it against the fact that we wouldn’t come here again we decided to book a tour of the floating village Kampong Pleuk on the river Tonle sap. And by “on” the river I don’t mean on the banks of the largest lake in S.E Asia, I mean during the rains….the shanty houses, precariously balanced 10m above the ground using wood-scaffolding look like they are floating ON the river. Since we visited in the dry(drier) season, we could actually see the clayey bank and plough our boat through the really murky water. We passed through the Kampong (village) along tiny channels of water, with houses on both sides. Some with many levels, fishing traps and nets hung underneath. The people here, around 900 families (5000 people) have lived here for 5 generations living off fishing and related activities, fighting for survival with the rest of the 1.2 million people dependent on the Tonle Sap’s 300 species of fish.

 

After the slow and difficult navigation through the murky and shallow water of the channels, we came out into a wider channel witnessing mangroves, floating restaurants, more ingenious fish traps and small scale fish farms. We learnt that basic amenities like electricity and drinking water only reached this village 5 years ago despite being barely an hour and a half from Siem Reap. The motorboat has been a boon because before that people would go on fishing expeditions and stay out on the lake in boats, coming back home only once in a while. We returned via another narrow turbid channel and narrowly missed a barely visible fisherman sunk low in the water-fishing with his bare hands. He displayed his catch, grinning wildly- whether about the skill displayed at fishing or avoiding death I couldn’t say. The fish I would presume….was NOT GRINNING.

As part of the tour we walked inside the village and saw that during the dry season, mini schools teaching English to the local kids would spring up. We visited one such little schoolroom with young ones getting people to practice their English on and the tutor getting a chance to collect donations for basic school supplies that a lady standing conveniently close by, had in her satchel. Each house had its own kiln/oven made of clay with stacks of fish being smoked or dried.

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Fish and bricks: Smoking is the most cost effective way of preserving fish and adding flavour

 

2. Banteay Srei

That Banteay Srei is different, is obvious from the get go. We had to pass through the Angkor complex checkpoint, getting our passes punched for the last time allowed. Banteay Srei, around 22 Km away from Angkor is a small non-royal temple built in the latter part of the 10th century by the counsellor Yajnavaraha in the court of Rajendravarman. The current name Banteay Srei litearally means citadel of beauty/women but as in other places, there aren’t many women/Apsaras featured here, which means the name is a result of some bastardization or weird translation that happened through time.

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From afar it is easily noticeable- the Bantay Srei was not about its size. It’s grandeur lies in its rich details

The temple was discovered only in 1914 by the French authorities when they seized 4 Apsaras that Andre Malraux was trying to smuggle out (He ‘woke’ up to the see the injustices against the locals and instigated anti-colonial agitations, wrote a book and was at some point a minister of culture)

After the temples from the last two days, this “Khmer jewel of art” demands that moniker, featuring beautiful intricate carvings, everything miniaturized but detailed lintels giving sandstone the appearance of wood featuring everything from Shiva and Parvati astride Nandi the bull to Krishna violently slaying his villainous uncle Kamsa, the usual Sagar Manthan and the monkey-people Bali and Sugreev fighting for their right to rule.

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Parvati’s lost her head but her companion Shiva and her are astride Nandi the bull

 

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So many features etched in such detail -probably of Sagar manthan-Indra in between the Devas and Asuras on the rich tapestry

We can no longer walk amongst most of these citadels containing the carvings because the carvings are delicate and tourists are touchy-feely bulls in a China shop. The main deity is Shiva represented by a linga which is not as exciting as the carvings and other embellishments. It is unfortunate that the sun was being a pain in our ‘place where the sun don’t shine’ leading to terrible pictures but there was a moment when it was obscured by a cloud and everyone went trigger-happy. It gave me a chance to notice the red appearance of the sandstone structure disappeared and the tarnished greys, black and mouldy greens stood out. We walked around the parched moat with the occasional muddy pools, lotuses abloom wondering why all powerful gods needed Dvarpalas, guards and sentries outside their chambers.

 

POST SCRIPT:

We got back, had a quick shower, made sure everything was packed (read stuffed), had a hasty dinner and got to the bus station to board a ‘Luxury bus’ to Phnom Penh. I was obviously fascinated with the luxury bus, air conditioned sleeper buses that had single/double beds affording you privacy and down-time. Ismail of course informed me that he had travelled on the Indian Airbuses, superior in quality, comfort, entertainment systems and ability to rock you to sleep. This did the job just fine for me.

I awoke to the sounds of “Phnom Penh” repeated multiple times. After some confusion, our groggy asses realized that we had reached a drenched and rainy Phnom Penh an hour earlier than we were supposed to- at around 4:30 am. Luckily our hotel was nearby and we were able to catch a tuk-tuk and make an early check-in, giving us time to catch some zzzss before being up again in the next 4 hours.

 

 

Day 2 Angkor:Rain on the ruins

Author’s Note: First post covering Angkor Wat is here.

21st March 2018

AFTER a late night gab session yesterday, we woke up late to a drizzly morning, glad we hadn’t gone to the extreme of rising early (and crabby) to catch the sunrise at Angkor Wat. Yesterday’s climbing had left its mark on our muscles but these things would barely register as a nuisance in our plan for today. We negotiated a customised tuk-tuk tour taking us to places that I researched about properly last night. And after a hurried breakfast we were on our way.
1. Banteay Kdei and Srah Sang:

The Khmer empire lasted from 802 to 1431 CE with two religions from India, Hinduism and Buddhism creating enough impact to have given rise to the large temple complexes at Angkor. And a temple complex meant most of the areas were small cities built around a temple enshrining one particualr deity and/or many small ones. (And we know there’s a lot of them.)

Banteay Kdei’s entrance immidiately screamed ‘Bayon style’ of architecture. And yes I had started to consider myself quite an Angkor architecture expert after just one day of touring yesterday.

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Decorated  gate containing the signature of Bayon-style: the brickwork making up faces on all sides. 

Built during the reign of serial-builder Jayavarman VII sometime in the late 12th century, this Buddhist monastic complex is probably built upon a site already used and devloped by his predecessor fom two centuries ago called Rajendravarman. It’s similarity to Ta Prohm is obvious thanks to a hall with standing pillars…the supported roofs long gone. These ‘mandapa’ structures seen in many old temples used to just be spaces for dance performances or gatherings and must have functioned the same way. The rain seemed to have cleaned these dilapidated laterite structures and probably faciliated some more moss growth on the bas-relief featured outside the doors and on windows and everywhere else. And I saw repeated again a feature I had noticed in many places yesterday. Apsaras holding their bellies. After conjecturing on the unusual choice of depicting people holding their lower abdomens awkwardly, we continued to walk along and into more of the unintentionally uncovered ‘mandapas’ or halls, the pillars of some were carved with Apsaras and some with Buddhas.

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Urinary infections, hernia and other maladies being depicted? PC: Mohammed Ismail

Upon exiting Banteay Kdei, we crossed the road to gaze upon a beautiful “baray” or reservoir called Srah Sang- the pool of ablutions, pool here means huge-ass water body of course. Though used as a royal pool exclusively for the use of Jayavarman VII and his wives though another source I read later told me that the pool was just used as a reservoir for anyone except elephants “the dyke-breakers”.

 

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The motifs and symbolism of the lions and the Naga-balustrade is repeated everywhere. 

2. Ta Som:

A small temple, surrounded by a dried up old moat on all three sides, I must admit was on my list because I was under the impression that this was dedicated to Jayavarman VII’s father after he had dedicated Ta Prohm to his mother.

Alas I was wrong but no temple here is not beautiful (it’s novel and the weather isn’t too bad which are probably contributing factors). ‘Small’ is by and lage a relative term here because Ta Som still housed around 22 deities albeit it’s simplicity and size was a bit of an irregularity considering it was also built during Jayavarman VII’s time…..what wasn’t?? Much like Ta Prohm, fig trees have taken hold of most solid structures, displacing rocks leaving structures stifled under overgrown roots and beautifully ‘ruined’, providing great photo-ops for all present. Lichen grows such that it becomes difficult to discern who is featured in a carving; the cracks in them now housing ants, spiders and skinks. The uncrumbled structures are propped up using scaffolding made from wood and other feasible strong material.

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Not vain! Just standing for scale so everyone appreciates the majesty of the tree. PC: Mohammed Ismail

We had just decided to break for lunch when the downpour began. Both Ismail and I have done serious fieldwork in some RAINY places so are not averse to getting soaked. But right then we were tourists who were glad to have completed the circuit of this temple to take shelter under a 12th Century Gopuram though not as glad to realise 12th Century Gopurams have a lot of leaks and seepages. And the water was gushing down into the temple situated on lower ground. As soon as the rain slowed we decided to make a run for it and take respite in a good bowl of hot fried rice while trying some local beer.
3. Preah Khan:

The rain stopped and we made our way to the ACTUAL temple made for Jayavarman’s father Dharanindravarman. It is a large area and from the stele they found inside, archaeologists figured out that it was probably built over an area that used to earlier be the palaces of predecessors Yasovarman II and Tribhuvanadityavarman (say them out loud and fast for perfect tongue twisters at your next soiree). This temple and Buddhist university housed the main image of deity Avlokitesvara in the image of aforemnetion father of Jayavarman VII….a deity I tried very hard to find before realising it was destroyed. The area also housed shrines for 430 other deities each of whom would have their fair share of food, clothing and other offerings of jewels, crowns, dancers, servants and ascetics. We approached over the former moat containing my favourite features- a causway with the naga ballustrade depicting the Sagarmanthan  and the Garuda very different from what I’ve seen in India. One subculture and religious wave influenced and subsequently melted into another and many temples here as in India bear witness to that fact though we have more proponents trying to buy into one narrative or claiming forceful usurpation of one subculture over another while ignoring the nuances leading to the current culture flavoured with local lore and history that can never disappear completely. While most temples had an obvious mix of Hindu and Buddhist deities or designs and architecture inspired by the different religious waves, woven seamlessly- thanks to our basic understanding of Hindu myths we could point out both aspects of a certain relief or pediment at most temples we visited.

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All that’s missing is a beak, some awesome talons and a pedestal of snakes. PC: Mohammed Ismail

The site itself once you enter is spread out and we walked through many Gopurams (decorated tower-like gates) and mandapams (halls/corridors) overgrown with sinewy roots and invoking a mixed feeling of despair, wonder and awe. Huge headless Dwarapalas (watchmen or doormen) guarded halls which contained reliefs of Buddha defaced by the ardent Hindu successor and zealot Jayavarman VIII when he came to power in the latter part of the 13th Century (or the narrative was changed such that Buddhas depicted became Hindu.

A possible theory for the decline of Angkor: The story of religion and politics

Many of the areas are interconnected but most doorways are blocked by collapsed temple parts. Sometimes you can’t help but step all over history while you revere it. After walking and taking some pictures of a now open air hall of dancers featuring many an Apsara we continued back in and quite accidently stumbled upon the Stupa very similar to what we had seen in Nepal recently as Ismail quickly pointed out…..a feature…an improvisation on the classic plain stupa design they call Chaitya. After failed attempts at a selfie in front of it we decided to get back to the entrance and to our last stop in Angkor for the day- Prasat Kravan.

 

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Wanting to ascend to get closer to a maker (who is always above)- seems to be a human condition reflected in many a structure: the Pyramids or this Stupa/Chaitya 

4. Prasat Kravan :

 

Unlike temples we had visited today, this one was laid out differently. Five reddish towers side by side on a raised platform and that’s it. The towers look plain on the outside and I was afraid I had again committed a blunder in my quick research to choose sites to visit last night (In our post-truth society….what is fake news and what isn’t anymore?). Ismail’s look as soon as we reached read “Is this it…seriously”? But there’s more to this unassuming brick building set than meets the eye.

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This was it. 5 small structures set up in a row. And with the power to confuse everyone with it’s layout. 

Built by high-officials in the court of either Harhavarman I or Insanavarman II sometime in the 10th century. And the brick work inside the towers hold all the magic. Cemented together using a vegetable based mortar, the bricks form bas-reliefs in the shrine dedicated to a Vishnu atop his Garuda or a standing 8-armed Vishnu surrounded by a multitude of miniature devotees on a pedestal featuring reptiles like crocodiles and lizards to signify the Vishnuite sect the work is specific to.

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Lakshmi too is featured here, being Vishnu’s consort and a deity demanding some manner of respect and devotion. Especially as she holds in one depiction, Shiva’s trident and Vishnu’s discus probably signifying that she transcends the triviality of the Shiva-Vishnu feud.

Glad that we had ended our day, witnessing the redness of the towers that stand out when the sun goes down, we made our way back to the tuk-tuk and out of Angkor. We ended the day like the day before…strolling through the Siem Reap’s famous Pub Street, delighting in some Durian-flavoured rolled ice-cream

 

P.S: It turns out both Ta som and Preah Khan were built to honour Jayavarman’s father. I guess you get multiple monuments in your honour if your son goes into a building frenzy.