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January 15, 2009 Thursday (continued)
Warm welcome on a cool morning. In Cambodia, we met Roy Clark and his protégé, Pich. Clyde and I decide to stay in Siem Reap for at least a week. We’ll then head down to Bangkok and celebrate the Chinese New Year and get ready to head back to the U.S.A. We met Roy’s son, Sinin. We haven’t met his friend Khan or his granddaughter Aliza yet. Khan and his wife have four sons. Sinin has a son on the way with his partner, so that will be two grandkids for Roy in their family. Roy’s Raison d’Etre Endeavors is helping many young people in Cambodia. We’re staying at the Golden Banana. The room has no T.V., and that suits us fine. We had a great Khmer dinner (with Angkor beer). After talking with Roy, we got the idea of taking the bus down to Phnom Penh. That’s about a six hour trip. His friend Channy can pick us up in Phnom Penh and take us to a local hotel. The next day, we’ll go see the killing fields and other sites associated with Pol Pot. Then we can get an Air Asia flight to Bangkok.
Roy, Clyde, and I had dessert afterwards at a roadside shop which Sinin owns near the University. The Khmer dessert doesn’t have a name, but it’s very much like halo-halo, so I like it. The BBU (Build Bright University) let out classes at 9 p.m., so there was an armada of motorcycles as students headed out. Sinin and his partner and their daughter, Aliza, joined us there when Sinin got out of school at 9:00 p.m. I think that Sinin would like to start an orphanage. He grew up on the streets of Siem Reap without a mother or father.
January 16, 2009 Friday
Securely Angkored. Today we went with Pich in his tuk-tuk to see the colossal Angkor Wat temple.
We saw Angkor Thom as well.
The most comforting thing about Angkor Wat were the stones on the floor smoothed down by centuries of people who had walked before. The bas relief epics make one think of a Christian cathedral’s icons and stained glass windows, but you don’t see stories of dancing and fighting on church walls. The stone sculpture was well-preserved but the European and Japanese tourists had decayed beyond possible restoration. (Just kidding). The inner chambers were missing most of their Buddhas, but some were in place, adorned with saffron, and being used for worship with incense. At Ta Prohm, the trees had grown into and over the temple buildings. I was exhausted from seeing all the temples, so I took a nap when we got back to our room. We had dinner at 7 p.m. tonight at a great traditional Khmer restaurant with Roy. The food was excellent and we talked a long time.
January 17, 2009 Saturday
Watch your step. I want to cry this morning, but I heard our room gecko chirp-barking this morning, which I always take to be a good omen. Clyde decides to look for a better hotel, so he seeks out what he remembers as the hotel which Roy recommended on our walk to the desert shop. He booked us at the Millennium (I think it was called the “New Millennium” back in 2000). It costs $11 per night instead of $28, and it’s nicer, in my judgment. Actually, Roy recommended the “Mandalay” down the street, but it’s no big deal, except that we can’t get wi-fi in the room. We went out in the country to a wonderful red sandstone temple with intricate carvings. Pich drove the tuk-tuk about an hour and Clyde really liked the countryside. It was much like the Philippines he remembered from his childhood. At the temple, we spent awhile sitting up against the outside wall in the shade, enjoying the Saturday morning, the pond with pink lotus blossoms, parrots in the trees and about six kinds of butterflies flitting around. It was very peaceful at Banteay Srey. As trendsetters, our shady tourist-slacker example encouraged Japanese tourists to do the same. The French were less inclined to rest. Clyde bought bootleg DVDs about the temples and the Khmer Rouge from some hawkers, and we got a CD of traditional Khmer music sold by handicap musicians who had been victims of landmines.
The temple of Banteay Samre was a stop on the way back. We also visited the amazing Aki Ra land mine museum and relief fund. That’s a sobering account of how so many nations have played Johnny Appleseed sowing millions of landmines to maim anyone who comes upon them, friend or foe, war or no war. Each is a living monument to senseless violence costing only $1.00 apiece to produce and $1,000.00 apiece to deactivate. They’re ghastly. It gives new meaning to the phrase “hostile wilderness” when your countryside has been rigged to kill. Where do children play? Clyde and I have seen plenty in one day. We had dinner tonight at a good Indian restaurant which Roy recommended: the Maharajah.
January 18, 2009 Sunday
A three-hour cruise. Today we are to travel to the silk farm and Tonle Sap Lake. We’ll be out in the countryside today. We ordered breakfast at the “Why Not?” restaurant. The food is great there. After Breakfast Pich took us out to the silk farm where we saw how mulberry trees and silk worms are grown and how Artisans d’Angkor are trained to weave both raw and fine silk. The worms were just adorable, feasting on their freshly picked mulberry leaves. Each group of worms has one keeper so that they have the same scent and do not become sick as they are well-fed and tended so that they can start weaving their cocoon. Once the cocoon is completed, about 80% of them are boiled, dried out, or otherwise wasted. Only 20% survive to mate. That’s better odds than tourists have in the pubs. After the free tour, in the tourist shop I buy a beautiful green Cambodian grass notebook cover.
Later we saw Tonle Sap Lake which is a great fresh-water lake that extends to the horizon.
The ethnic Vietnamese there live pretty much on the water, even the school is on stilts. The basketball court is enclosed by a bright blue metal grid so that the ball doesn’t hit the water. The game must be a combination of basketball and racket ball. Although we had already paid a sizable fee upfront, the young boat skipper continuously gave us a tourist-trap speech about making additional “donations,” so we cut the “three hour cruise” short and rescued ourselves. We had dinner at the Millennium Hotel tonight, which was good. Two geckos watched over our table. There was the usual tiny friendly one and a much bigger customer who kept a steady watch over our heads, looking for bugs. It’s getting warmer now in Siem Reap. The locals like the change.
January 19, 2009 Monday
And no snakes, spiders, or rolling boulders. CNN breathlessly tells the world that it will cover Obama’s inauguration for 24 hours, though it only takes a few minutes at noon on Tuesday Jan. 20, according to the 20th Amendment to the Constitution. They even ran a poll as to how well America thinks Obama is handling the transition. He’s got positive ratings so far. But it will truly be a global event. Thousands may freeze on the Capitol Mall, but there are no bad seats on the planet.
Pich took us over to Handicap International (Belgium) this morning. They make prosthetic devices for landmine victims. One of their medical workers gave us a good bit of information on their organization and showed us their rehab area, which is a small obstacle course for someone on an artificial leg. The staff does quite a bit of dedicated social work with their clients as well, since those who need the service are often poor. They also educate people in rural areas about the dangers of landmines and UXO (unexploded ordinance — bombs, mortars, grenades, and other explosives dropped by the U.S.A. during the 1970’s).
Clyde and I then did more temple trekking. But I lost Clyde in Preah Khan. It’s billed as “highly explorable” which means bring any kids you don’t mind losing. There were just too many fascinating grungy gnarly trees and semi-ruins. So, we got to know this temple well as we searched for each other. Neak Pean was fascinating. It’s actually an island temple which looks like it’s wrapped in a huge stone snake’s coils. During the dry season you can see where the four pools are fed by carved animal shrines which are spouting water features. There were half a dozen kinds of butterflies flying around, including one small one that looked like a pale spring violet on the wing. During lunch, some little peeping chicks ran under our table to escape a curious puppy. Their mother hen quickly found them and averted the crisis. Ta Som was fun to wander around, with fig and silk-cotton trees growing deep roots into the masonry. One huge tree grew out of a huge Buddha head whose smile was cheerful for a god who’d become a flower pot. Ta Som was also interesting — the carvings looked less like apsara chorus girls and more like characters with their own stories and personalities. Later, we climbed through the mountain temple of East Mebon, which was fun and had statues of elephants at all four corners. We didn't visit the West Mebon ruins which had been built by King Udayadityavarman VII. His forgotten reign would have undoubtedly endured for generations in epic story and song if anyone could have pronounced his name correctly and with a straight face. J Pre Rup was the last temple mountain of the day, and a great view of the countryside, including Angkor Wat in the distance. The climb to the top was worth it.
Although I thought I had already attained the end of my temple appreciation for the day, I really liked the Prasat Kravan temple, which is peaceful in warm late afternoon. It’s the only one we have seen constructed of brick with intricate bas-reliefs rendered in the brick. If this kind of work had been done on paper by monks, it would now be treasured medieval calligraphy under glass. If it had been carved in ivory, the Chinese would never let it see the light of day. But, it’s in brick, and even though it was reconstructed by archeologists, it looks like a few good sneezes would cave in the towers. The prayer chambers have the day’s offerings for Buddha but the bas-reliefs on the inside brick walls are Hindu.
We met up with Roy and his good friend Khan this evening. Khan took us out to a small neighborhood Khmer restaurant. The menu was entirely in Cambodian, so we trusted him to order, and all the food was good. We toasted a few times with Angkor beer. Khan himself was born in 1978 at the height of the Khmer Rouge, and he can hardly remember eating before he was ten. The very first little mall has opened in Siem Reap. The Khmers haven’t quite picked up on malls yet. Perhaps they need to import a few thousand Filipino shoppers to create the right ambience. J
January 20, 2009 Tuesday
Obamathon. It’s Inauguration Day in the United States. Clyde and I can watch it live on T.V. but only at midnight. It’s also a good day to get a haircut. Roy’s barber, Hak, gave me a good $2.00 haircut. Hak explained that the music broadcasted up and down the block was for a wedding nearby. Clyde was already visiting with Sinin who introduced Clyde to some Cambodian music. He has a beautiful home, not far from downtown. Not bad for someone who spent his childhood with no parents, living on the street. We looked around trying to find two wooden spirit houses which we could have shipped back to North Carolina, but no luck there. Every home and business has one in Cambodia, but they’re typically made of painted concrete — not the sort of thing we’d want to ship. We discover they’re not made of wood, unless they’re homemade. The indoor Chinese Buddhist shrines are wooden, but that’s not what we’re looking for. The odd thing is, we’re not Buddhists or animists, so it’s a curious item to purchase, but it has caught our imagination. We had lunch at the Mandalay trying to get wi-fi. Even when the hotel techie generously spends lots of time fidgeting with our computer; no luck. There is an incompatibility somewhere.
January 21, 2009 Wednesday
Temple doggin’ It’s amazing that we’ve had not a single drop of rain on our visit to Cambodia so far. It really is the dry season, and the cool dry season at that. This morning, we had a light breakfast at the Millennium guest house. Pich retrieved us at 9:00 a.m. and we went to the Roulos temples. At Bakong, there were little stacks of rocks arranged near the empty and crumbling old stupas. These are the work of the Wee Khmer who live in the dark corners of Bakong and only scamper out at night to stack rocks in Celtic style. Clyde says that I should actually read the guide book history of the temples, but this is my story, and I’m sticking to it. Oh yes, and the typical temple mountain confirms Von Däniken’s “ancient astronauts” hypothesis. Clearly, the block steps were built for alien creatures with spidery appendages utterly unlike our own. J Each of these temples does have its own history and story, but the crumbling laterite and sandstone architecture seems to grow right out of your subconscious. It’s hard for my imagination not to get fully involved.
We saw an interesting sleek and shiny lizard near one of the entrances with a white belly and orange almost coppery color on top. He froze when he spotted us. The warm temple rocks are a great place for lizard lounging.
I called the temple of Preah Ko “praying cows” because there are four cow statues kneeling bucolically at the entrance, contentedly facing the temple. They’re the only statues of cows I’ve seen at the Angkor temples. We stop by a local orphanage and buy some of the kids’ leather shadow puppets we liked. The boys wanted to be photographed with their handiwork, which was fine with us. Their workmanship is excellent. I think Clyde wanted to adopt all of them.
We then go back to the Millennium to fetch my laptop and then have lunch by the pool at the Golden Banana where we can hook into their wi-fi. We both look through e-mails and answer a few that are urgent. Steve Dobbins can’t pick us up at the airport Tuesday evening, but Thomas Sherratt will meet us. It snowed in North Carolina yesterday, and Elon had to cancel classes Tuesday afternoon.
We then go back out to further explore the Ta Prohm temple. Ta Prohm is famous as a set for jungle action films — with many kapok trees growing roots into the temple walls. There’s actually a moat around it which we inexplicably didn’t see the first time we visited. It was great to venture into new passageways and nooks of the temple, and over piles of rubble to see detailed old carvings on the walls. It was annoying to have to push aside generic signs saying something about “danger,” “no entry” and “do not climb.” Had there been serious danger, the signs would surely have been in Japanese and French as well, and not just in Cambodian and English. This place would be a paradise for kids to rummage through.
We walked up the Siem Reap River with Roy this evening, which is a very nice promenade. He took us to a Khmer BBQ restaurant which has a unique BBQ pot at the table where you can grill or boil your choice of meat from a great buffet. I couldn’t identify every dish I tasted, but it was all great. The floor captain, Mingli, was very helpful. He also did a good job directing the staff and keeping the customers happy. Clyde found out that he’s vegetarian, but he does a good job advising on meat too, and mixing spices. He’s also only 16. You wonder what a kid like that would accomplish if he had Western opportunities and the support of an older generation which hadn’t been killed by the Khmer Rouge.
January 22, 2009 Thursday
War and Pieces. Clyde had breakfast with Roy this morning who shared some good photos of Roy and friends. I joined in a Christian praise and worship service upstairs on the roof of our guest house with some Western young people from “Youth With A Mission,” mainly from Australia, U.S.A., and Canada, but also Hong Kong and Finland. They are there to help the orphans in Cambodia. Their team leaders are a couple from Australia. We sang some praise songs to the guitar, read scripture and prayed together.
Clyde and I visited the National Angkor Museum today. We paid Pich’s admission so that he could spend time learning about Khmer history, art, and architecture. He appreciated it, but he has less tolerance for snooze-inducing display chambers of stele and artifacts than we do. The media technology was first-rate. It was a great way to follow-up our treks through the towers by figuring out the context. The gallery of 1000 Buddhas was impressive. Pich wanted us to see the war museum down the street, which was basically a lot with rusted American and Soviet artillery guns and tanks from the war years. After seeing the Angkor Museum’s accounts of linga and worship of Shiva the destroyer, the phallic mortar and anti-aircraft guns showed the cult of destruction lives on. On a more optimistic note, Pich, Clyde, and I went to the Hospital Jayavarman VII that evening to hear a cello concert by Dr. Beat Richner who uses his concerts to raise money for Kantha Bopha Children’s Hospitals. He’s a pretty inspiring healer who provides free first-rate care for Cambodian kids who would otherwise die. That means he’s also spent years raising money to build hospitals.
January 23, 2009 Friday
Kicks on Route 6 to Phnom Penh. We took the 6 hour bus trip from Siem Reap south to Phnom Penh. It was sad to leave Roy and Pich at the bus station, but, with hugs all ’round, we said “good-bye.” Roy had reserved us seats in the front of the bus for Clyde’s long legs. We’re the only foreigners on board. The bus had Cambodian video karaoke, a Chinese martial arts film with bizarre English subtitles. I dubbed the film “Hidden Dragon, Crashing Boor.” Roy’s smiling friend Channy met us at the bus station and took us to Her Royal Highness. It’s a budget hotel near the riverfront — and only $15.00 per night. We’ll just need it for two nights. Phnom Penh is a big bustling city, but lovely. The countryside between Siem Reap and Phnom Penh had more rice paddies as we got closer to the river. We decided to drop in at the Anchor Bar near the hotel for dinner. The owner and her teenage son and daughter were lots of fun. We played some board games, at which I lost. We found a little Internet shop across the street and answered a few e-mails. Clyde teased one of the employees about letting his son spend too much time playing games on the computer without doing his homework. A bunch of them were competing with each other playing the computer action game “Stadium.”
January 24, 2009 Saturday
Village Commons. Channy drove us out to Choenung Ek village south of Phnom Penh. These are the notorious “killing fields.” There is a white marble pagoda-crowned memorial in the center of the fields which displays thousands of human skulls. The grassy field contains several old trees and grass-covered depressions in the ground. The depressions are the sites of excavated mass graves. One gnarled old tree was where a loudspeaker was hung to drown out the noise of the victims’ moaning. Children were beaten against the other tree before being dumped into a mass grave next to it. The meadow has an eerie quietness as tourists walk through. The atmosphere reminded me of the campus of Columbine high school when I visited it only a week after the shootings: it’s a silent weight which wraps around you, like scuba diving far below the surface. The only bird sound is from a species which I heard at Angkor Wat a few days ago and had dubbed “the dripping faucet.” It sings one repeated monotonous note. It fits here. There are many types of butterflies, tiny lemon ones, sky-blue ones, and others. One couple of tourists had a toddler who insisted on chasing the butterflies across grave sites. Maybe the butterflies are ghosts of murdered children.
Afterwards, we went to Toul Sleng genocide museum (the former prison and high school) S-21. Its former classrooms now contain only rusted metal beds and electrical wires hanging from the ceilings — part of the regime’s “education” prior to execution. After finding out what they did with the pull-up exercise bars outside, you can never look at a gym the same way again. There are also many black and white photographs of the prisoners. The Khmer Rouge’s victim faces made quite a human gallery. That’s a grim tour, but well worth it. I’m thinking about Jordan Mohr’s paper on genocide. It was a perfect storm in Cambodia. Could it happen in America? I don’t ask the Cambodians I meet about their family or personal experience of the Pol Pot regime, but the looks on their faces when I mention visiting Cheoung Ek or S-21 says it all. Not a topic for casual conversation. We don’t press Channy for the story about losing his parents.
Saturday afternoon, Channy had lunch with us at a good and inexpensive corner Khmer restaurant he likes. He has a great sense of humor. The route is through the market area. Sitting in a tuk-tuk, the interaction of hordes of motorbikes, pedestrians, autos, cycles, and tuk-tuks reminded me most of all of the fish I saw in the coral reefs of Calibao Island in the Philippines. They look as though they should all run into each other, but the flows, twists turns, and dives somehow all work together. The market itself is like an immense coral reef.
Channy let us off at the Royal Palace and the Silver Pagoda. The Main Throne Hall was closed to tourists, but the Silver Pagoda made up for it. We sat quietly on the rug watching tourists from different countries show different sorts of obeisance and respect to Buddha with incense, bows, and quiet attention in the midst of the bustling crowd. As we sat peering at the floor between the rugs, the inscribed tiles looked odd: something like burnished tin or pewter. When I got a better look, I realized that all the tiles are solid silver though mostly covered by rugs in front of the glass-enclosed solid gold diamond-studded standing Buddha and the emerald Buddha elevated behind it.
We had dinner tonight across from the Arrow Inn. The business supports a tiny craft shop across the street which features the work of villagers who need the income. We bought some items, including a painting of a sunrise by one 15 year-old girl, named Phalla.
January 25, 2009 Sunday
Lunar Peace and Quiet. I think that people are practicing for the Chinese New Year. I hear the drums and fireworks this morning. But that’s all the celebration I heard. This afternoon, Channy took us to the airport for our Air Asia flight to Bangkok. The roads were unusually quiet, which Channy attributed to Chinese and Vietnamese leaving town for Sihanoukville and Siem Reap for the holiday. Roy sent plenty of info on a possible hotel for us in Bangkok: the New Fuji, where he’s stayed 40 times or more. He said to mention that we’re friends of “Mr. Roy.” I hope that brings a smile to their faces. The hotel is small and low-budget, but we got one of the rooms which Roy recommended as best (no. 505). We found their sister hotel, the “Trocadero,” down the street and had supper there, and then got chocolate ice cream at an Indian restaurant on the way back.
January 26, 2009 Monday
“Beware of your valuable possessions!” That Thai tourist sign has some Buddhist wisdom in it. We made tour plans for our single day in Bangkok this morning. Clyde and I wanted to take the cheap river ferry up the Chao Phraya to the Grand Palace. So, we hiked over to the pier through nearby streets paved with semi-precious gem stores (or, as Clyde puts it, “semi-conscious” gems, since I wasn’t quite awake). We also found the ferries were sardine-crammed with tourists. That’s not the way we wanted to travel, so we got a cab to the Grand Palace. That drive brought back memories of our visit in 1991. There are many poster-sized images and portraits of the King on display along the boulevard and at government offices.
Of all the structures in the Palace complex, the Phra Wiharn Yod was my favorite. It’s got an intricate tile and multi-color jewel-encrusted roof which only a pastry chef could have whipped up out of sugar and cream. It’s Chinese New Year, and the beginning of the Lunar Year, so there are loads of holiday visitors and traffic. The locals dipped lotus stems in holy water at the Wat Phra Kaew temple next to the Grand Palace and anointed their heads. Clyde pointed out one lotus blossom in a pool which had a dozen or so very tiny bees on the blossom. These little bees are stingless. You couldn’t get all these blossoms without them. We spent a few respectful minutes sitting on the floor at the Royal Monastery of the Emerald Buddha. After touring the Palace and the Throne Room, we walked in the direction of China Town. Most stores were closed for the holiday, but there was a huge green statue of Ganesha the elephant god in the street which was getting its share of votive candles and marigold wreaths. It was a very happy looking idol ready to offer good luck and success. We immediately found an air-conditioned street mall with a vegetarian food court. Coincidence? After a long traffic-choked cab ride back to the New Fuji, I rested while Clyde shopped for a new belt on Siloam Street. We went back to the Indian restaurant we discovered the night before. We ordered some masala cheese uttapam (sort of South India pizza) and some delicious sweet and minty rabdi for dessert. We have to get up early tomorrow morning to catch our flight on All Nippon Airlines.
January 27, 2009 Tuesday
“Departures.” The Suvarnabhumi Airport is Japanese-sleek and security-sterile. After security, we waited in a service-less holding area outside our locked departure waiting area. Our flight stews couldn’t immediately figure out how to open the lock to our gate, but Clyde did it for them. (With his opposable thumbs, he’s a very clever primate). All Nippon Airlines was very eager to please, and we were eager to be pleased. I saw a wonderful Japanese film, “Departures,” with English subtitles. It was a sort of Japanese “Six Feet Under” story. An out-of-work cellist gets a job assisting with “encoffinment” which is the preparation of the body for burial, in the presence of the family — very much about ritual, care, and conferring dignity in death. We got quite spoiled on the flight to Japan, with attention and amenities before airport security confiscated Clyde’s unopened little bottle of Chardonnay and we were crammed into our American Airlines coach seats for 11 hours from Japan to Chicago. When I pushed up the window shutter in the middle of our “night,” snow-covered Illinois was super bright outside. Thomas Sherratt met us at RDU after our short evening flight from Chicago to North Carolina. It was good to be home.