Monthly Archives: January 2011

the “grand tour” of angkor ~ and back to korea :-(

Sunday, January 23:  My last day in Cambodia, and though I’m burned out and want to just lie by the pool all day, I decide at the last-minute to see some more of the Angkor temples.  After all, I can lie by a pool anytime, especially once I return to the U.S.A. The hotel picks one of the tuk tuk drivers from out front, from  a group of guys they use frequently.  They tell me they don’t recommend using random drivers from the street because they are undependable and end up changing the price halfway through.

the west gate of preah khan

the west gate of preah khan

So, I hop in the tuk tuk with this guy.  It’s quite a long ride in a tuk tuk to the temple complex because the vehicle moves so slowly.  About halfway to our first temple, Preah Khan, the driver tells me I should take my time at this temple.  He suggests that I take an hour and 40 minutes.  I say, No!  I don’t want to spend that much time at any of these temples today.  I just want to have a quick look around and then move on.  I tell him I’d like to be back at the hotel to lie by the pool for a while before my flight home.

the gods and demons at preah khan

the gods and demons at preah khan

He proceeds to tell me that yesterday, he arranged with some people to pick them up at their hotel and take them to the airport.  They never paid him his fare from yesterday, so he needs to do this after he drops me off at Preah Khan, to meet his obligation with them and to collect his fare.  Now, I know how far the airport is and how far Siem Reap is from the temple complex and I know how slowly a tuk tuk moves.  I tell him, no, I’ve arranged to have him for the day, and I only want to spend 45 minutes at Preah Khan, and then move on quickly to the next temple.  But he insists he has to go pick up these other people.  We agree that he should pick me up in 45 minutes at the far (east) gate of Preah Khan.  I say if he is not there in 45 minutes I will take another tuk tuk and he will lose out on his fare for taking me to Preah Khan.

a little Cambodian boy at Preah Khan

a little Cambodian boy at Preah Khan

He leaves me and I walk through Preah Khan (Sacred Sword), one of the largest complexes at Angkor.  I like the entrance over the moat with its decapitated demons and gods.  I run into several poor and dirty Cambodian children sitting on stone stoops, trying to get handouts from tourists.  I walk around through the complex admiring all the beautiful carvings of Apsara dancers and kings.  It’s a maze of vaulted corridors and jumbled stones, much like many of the other temples.  At this point, I’m afraid these temples are starting to look a lot alike.

vaulted corridors at Preah Khan

vaulted corridors at Preah Khan

I walk through quickly, as I planned, and exit through the opposite gate, as the driver had instructed me.  I finish in 45 minutes.  This gate of the temple is not on a main road and there are about 15 tuk tuks there waiting, but all of them are taken.  These drivers are patiently waiting for their customers to return.  But, as I feared would be the case, there is no sign of my driver.  I wait and wait.  Fifteen minutes pass and there is no sign of him.  I am pissed now because I feel like he trapped me.  If he had told me about this other fare he had from the beginning, I would have hired another tuk tuk from the hotel.  But he waited until we were almost to Preah Khan before even telling me this.  I don’t know what to do because I have no phone and I’m really out in the middle of nowhere.  Finally, I ask one of the waiting drivers if he’ll let me use his phone.  I call the hotel and tell the story to the manager.  He is flabbergasted.  “Why didn’t he tell me he had this other fare before he agreed to take you?”  He assures me he will call the driver and find out where he is and call back.   After awhile he calls back and says he talked to the driver and he is on his way, so I should wait.  But he can’t tell me how long it will be.

the east side of Preah Khan

the east side of Preah Khan

I wait 5 more minutes.  By now I’m furious.  I ask one of the other drivers if they could take a few minutes to drive me to the next temple, Preah Neak Pean, on what they call “The Grand Tour,” which includes the lesser Angkor temples around the periphery of the complex.  Finally one agrees that it will only take a few minutes and he’ll take me there for $2.  I take him up on the offer.  He drops me and I ask him if the guy from the hotel calls, can he please tell him I’m now at Preah Neak Pean.  He says he will be happy to.

the big square pool at Preah Neak Poan

the big square pool at Preah Neak Poan

I wander around Preah Neak Pean, and there isn’t much here, just a square pool with a kind of island in the middle and some other square pools surrounding it.  This temple is another built by Jayavarman VII in the late 12th century.  I don’t even know why I bothered to come here.   I return to the street and still no sign of my driver.  I now see all the guys who were waiting at Preah Khan, and they say they haven’t seen my driver, nor have they heard from my hotel.  So I ask again if I can use the phone, I call the hotel, and he tells me the driver is just now arriving at Preah Khan!  I tell him I’m now at Preah Neak Pean and he assures me he’ll call the driver and have him head to me directly.

one of the jigsaw puzzle carvings at Ta Som

one of the jigsaw puzzle carvings at Ta Som

When he arrives I chew him out like there’s no tomorrow.  I’m so pissed.  He was nowhere close in his time estimate, and I’m doubly pissed that he not only left me stranded but also because he waited to tell me about all of this when he knew damned well there was nothing I could do about it.  I was trapped!  I determine at this point that I’m only going to give him $6 (the $8 we agreed upon less the $2 I paid the other driver, and no tip besides!)

Pre Rup

Pre Rup

We make a quick stop at Ta Som, another small temple built in the 12th century for Jayavarman VII.  I spend most of my time here admiring and taking pictures of the intricate carvings in reddish stone.

I’m hot and tired by this time and all I want to see is Pre Rup.  It’s a reddish-colored mountain temple, built for Khmer king Rajendravarman in 961 AD.  It’s built of brick, lacerite and sandstone, and its pyramidal structures throughout have bushes and grasses sprouting off their tops, like tufts of silk on a corncob.  I love the deep rich color of this temple in the sunlight. This, Banteay Srei and Ta Prohm are my favorite of the Angkor temples, for their rich beauty and their interesting features.  I climb and climb the stairways to heaven at this beautiful temple.

Pre Rup

Pre Rup

I’ve determined I want to eat lunch at Butterflies Garden Restaurant, which is a garden patio surrounded by netting to keep the butterflies afluttering within.  I ask my tuk tuk driver to drop me off and I tell him I’ll find another ride home.  I had planned to give him only $6 since I was so pissed at him earlier, but he’s been so penitent and kind since, that I give him $10 after all.  How stupid is that, rewarding such bad behavior?  I go into the garden courtyard, order a Pepsi and an omelette and enjoy the warm afternoon watching the few butterflies in the garden while I eat my lunch.

Butterflies Garden Restaurant

Butterflies Garden Restaurant

Back to the hotel to pack. On the way to the airport the driver stops at Les Chantiers Ecoles, the school Mani had wanted to take me to the day my camera was acting up.  This school teaches traditional Khmer artisanship to impoverished children, skills such as lacquer-making or wood-and-stone carving.  I watch demonstrations by the children, who actually look more like young adults, making various objects which are for sale in the high-priced attached shop, Artisans Angkor.

teaching impoverished children to be artisans

teaching impoverished children to be artisans

I leave from the new Siem Reap airport around 7 pm, where they charge all foreigners a $25 exit fee (!).  I’m supposed to have a 10-hour layover in my favorite airport, Guangzhou, but I’ve made no arrangements for sleeping overnight in China.  As a matter of fact, I’m just planning to sleep in the miserable airport, in a test of my own mettle.  I want to prove I can be tough. 🙂  However, when I arrive in Guangzhou, after much miscommunication with immigration, who disappears with my passport for a long time with no explanation, and with more miscommunications with the airline, I’m finally made to understand that China Southern will put us up for the night in a hotel.  We drive in a bus for what seems like an eternity out into the mysterious city of Guangzhou, China, where I share a filthy, cold, miserable room with a Korean girl for about 3 hours of sleeping, only to get back on the bus again at an ungodly hour to catch the early flight to Seoul.

the beautiful Pre Rup

the beautiful Pre Rup

I adored Cambodia.  Vietnam was fascinating and edgy.  But never, NEVER, will I fly China Southern Airlines again!

Categories: Butterflies Garden Restaurant, Cambodia, Les Chantiers Ecoles, Pre Rup, Preah Khan, Preah Neak Pean, Siem Reap, The Grand Tour | Tags: , , | 6 Comments

exploring the fringes of siem reap: beng mealea, kbal spean & banteay srei

Saturday, January 22:  Yesterday, Mani tried to convince me to hire him for more tours today, but I made the excuse that I could only afford the package I already bought through the hotel.  I didn’t want to spend another whole day having to try to decipher his English!  So today, I just get the driver, who is not particularly loquacious.  Relief!

on the road to beng mealea ~ houses on stilts

on the road to beng mealea ~ houses on stilts

Today we go further afield, quite a long haul.  Beng Mealea is 65 km northeast of Siem Reap over a sealed toll road.  We cruise by the poorest of the poor, me sitting in the back seat staring out the window at houses on stilts in the middle of nowhere.  Through the window I see the same, same, same.  Palm trees and palm-leaf and betel-leaf houses on stilts with whole lives being lived underneath the homes, in their shadows.  In the wet season, the occupants stay inside, but in the hot season, they sleep in hammocks under the houses.

Cambodians on bikes

Cambodians on bikes

Houses on stilts

Houses on stilts

Dirty brown children run amok in mismatched clothes, mothers stir food over fires, fathers work on engines on these dirt floors, swept to a hard surface.  Colorful clothes hang on lines under the houses, or in the sun.  Huge bales of hay sit under the shade of chestnut trees.  I ask the driver how these people make a living and he says most of them grow rice.  There’s not enough water out here to grow vegetables.  He says the rich people have mango farms or cashew nut farms.  These are not the rich people.

We arrive at Beng Mealea, and as I walk down the long path to the temple, I come across some filthy but adorable Cambodian children sitting on a fence.  I ask if I can take their picture and then they ask for a dollar, but the smallest thing I have is a $10.  I’m sorry, I say.

cambodian children on the way to beng mealea

cambodian children on the way to beng mealea

As I walk further, I notice a Cambodian guy with long greasy hair following me, stopping when I stop, moving when I move.  When I arrive at the temple, he hovers around me, waiting for something.  Then I notice almost every foreigner has a Cambodian, either adult or child, orbiting them, pointing out odd things about the temple.  I realize they are all trying to give little tours to the tourists, certainly expecting a tip in return.  I don’t like the looks of this particular guy ~ he’s so sleazy looking.  His hair is so filthy it must be full of lice.  I tell him to please not follow me!  I don’t want a tour!

Beng Mealea

Beng Mealea

Beng Mealea

Beng Mealea

beng mealea in the grasp of octopus roots

beng mealea in the grasp of octopus roots

Here nature runs rampant even more than it did at Ta Prohm.  Trees and bushes and vines strangle every standing wall, every fallen stone.  This temple was built to the same floor plan as Angkor Wat by Suryavarman II, but the floor plan is virtually unrecognizable.  It’s an incoherent mess.   Ta Prohm at least retains some semblance of its former self.  This is just a jumble of fallen stones and decaying walls.  Though the Lonely Planet describes it as “Angkor’s ultimate Indiana Jones experience,” I think it’s too much.  I don’t know why they don’t just bulldoze it all down.  At the very least maybe someone could try to make some sense out of it all.

strangling roots at Beng Mealea

strangling roots at Beng Mealea

Beng Mealea

Beng Mealea

Beng Mealea

Beng Mealea

Children scramble around on the ruins of Beng Mealea

Children scramble around on the ruins of Beng Mealea

Leaving the temple, I meet a young guy named Chris from San Francisco.  He has already spent 1 month in Vietnam, 1 month in Cambodia, and 1 month in Thailand.  The last month of his trip will be a whirlwind through Hong Kong, the Philippines, and Singapore.   He just graduated from college with a major in finance.  He started applying for jobs, but then his father told him: “Money will always come and go, but the memories you’ll have traveling with a friend will last forever.”  He asks about me and I tell him and he says it’s really great what I’m doing.  He said most people your age just dream about doing something so adventurous!  They never DO it!

inside beng mealea...a jumbled mess

inside beng mealea…a jumbled mess

I find my driver in a cafe chatting with other drivers.  We get in the car again for the longest leg of the drive, down a red dirt road ~ we’re in a Toyota Camry, remember! ~ grinding and bumping along slowly and painfully across gravel and potholes and uneven road.

on the road again

on the road again

red dirt roads and houses on stilts

red dirt roads and houses on stilts

Along the road to Kbeal Spean

Along the road to Kbal Spean

It’s a disaster, and though our destination of Kbal Spean is only 50 km northeast of Siem Reap (shouldn’t that be around 15 km from Beng Mealea, which is 65 km northeast of Siem Reap?), it takes at least an hour and a half on this road.  I keep staring out the window at the nothingness around.  There are long stretches where there aren’t even any houses.  I’m glad I trust my driver, because if we were on a road like this in Mexico or many other places, I’d be worried about a gang of bandits attacking us.

sights along the red dirt road to Kbal Spean

sights along the red dirt road to Kbal Spean

a little temple in a random field in the middle of nowhere, on the way from Kbal Spean

a little temple in a random field in the middle of nowhere, on the way from Kbal Spean

We arrive finally at Kbal Spean, known in English as the “River of a Thousand Lingas.”  At the entrance, we stop to eat lunch first.  The driver points out one cafe in a long line of outdoor restaurants and tells me I should eat there.  I look at the menu and decide I don’t like what they have, so I move to a place next door which is quite crowded, always a good sign.  The woman in the first cafe yells, Your driver said you should eat here!!  I say, No!  I want to eat next door!   The driver than follows me sheepishly next door and gets a meal at the same restaurant as me.  I think he must get some kind of kickback for bringing customers in, but I wonder why he was so insistent on the first place.  Maybe he has a business deal with her but no arrangement with the restaurant I choose.  Curious.

It takes 1.5 km to climb uphill to the riverbed which is carved with ancient figures.  I plan to go it alone, but the driver insists on coming with me.  We arrive first to a waterfall where some young foreigners are standing under the falling water, laughing and getting soaked.

Me walking up to Kbal Spean

Me walking up to Kbal Spean

The ancient carved stones of Kbal Spean

The ancient carved stones of Kbal Spean

We walk up another path to the riverbed, with its famous carvings.  It’s amazing that someone carved these so long ago, pieces of art in the rock bed.  The driver mentions how someone found someone else decapitated here in these woods.  I say, What??  I remember how Richard the Australian told me that the police reports in the paper often listed decapitation crimes.  I say, Who was decapitated?  A local person or a tourist?  He looks at me funny.  We go back and forth for some time trying to understand each other, and finally it dawns on me that he’s saying some of the CARVINGS were decapitated, much like the ones at Angkor Wat.  Heads chopped off and sold for a profit in some underground market.

more carvings at Kbal Spean

more carvings at Kbal Spean

ancient carvings in the riverbed

ancient carvings in the riverbed

After criss-crossing the river and looking at the carvings, we start the walk back down.  At this point, had I been by myself, I would have been thoroughly lost, so I’m thankful the driver insisted on coming with me!  I had figured there would be crowds of people to follow, but it really is quite deserted!

Pond on the way to Banteay Srei

Pond on the way to Banteay Srei

Finally, we head to the finest temple of them all, Banteay Srei.  This temple is cut from stone of a pinkish color and the stone carvings are exquisitely detailed.  Though small, this temple is neat and orderly and quite beautiful.   Carved monkeys sit at strategic corners of the temple, like little deformed midget kings. This temple was built in AD 967, commissioned not by a king but by a Brahman.

Entrance to Banteay Srei

Entrance to Banteay Srei

Banteay Srei

Banteay Srei

Banteay Srei

Banteay Srei

Banteay Srei

Banteay Srei

Banteay Srei

Banteay Srei

Exquisite carvings at Banteay Srei

Exquisite carvings at Banteay Srei

Banteay Srei

Banteay Srei

the rose-colored banteay srei

the rose-colored banteay srei

Banteay Srei

carved monkeys at Banteay Srei

Banteay Srei

Banteay Srei

Banteay Srei

Banteay Srei

Banteay Srei

Banteay Srei

Banteay Srei

Banteay Srei

Banteay Srei

Banteay Srei

We make a quick stop at the Cambodia Landmine Museum, where the history of landmines is told, to bring awareness of the pervasive landmine problem in Cambodia.  It also is a home which provides victims of landmines with education and support.

Cambodian Land Mine Museum

Cambodian Land Mine Museum

On our way back to Siem Reap, we stop along the side of the road to buy a little sugar cane.  The locals are sitting along the side of the road selling it and they show me how they prepare it to eat.

Boy with sugar cane

Boy with sugar cane

A family prepares sugar cane

A family prepares sugar cane

Back in Siem Reap, I put on my bathing suit and sit by the pool.  I actually try to go in for the first time, but it’s freezing!  So I sit by the pool and read my book and close my eyes.

Later I go to a fabulous restaurant, just a several block walk down the same street as my hotel.  Called the Sugar Palm, it’s an open air cafe on the second floor of a house, with dark wood and a large square bar in the middle.  When I go in, there are no seats so I ask if I can eat at the bar, my favorite thing to do anyway.  A woman around my age seats me and we strike up a conversation. It turns out she and her husband own the restaurant.  Her name is Kethana and her husband, who she introduces me to, is Bruce.  He’s Australian and she’s Cambodian but speaks perfect Australian English.  I order a glass of red wine and she recommends the Asian eggplant with minced pork.  I’m usually not a pork eater, but this is one of the most delectable things I’ve eaten on my entire trip.

the sugar palm ~ my last delicious dinner in cambodia

the sugar palm ~ my last delicious dinner in cambodia

While I sit at the bar, she comes to join me with her own glass of wine and we have a great conversation.  She tells me about her marriage, hinting that marriage is sometimes difficult; she tells about her family and their lives straddling two continents, Australia and Asia.  Later, some friends of hers come in and chat with us; they’re from West Virginia and he has a private airplane that he flies here.  They have spent every winter in Cambodia for over 20 years.  They ask me what I’m doing in my life and I tell them.  I also say it’s been a lonely year in Korea, that I miss my family, especially my kids.  I tell them sometimes I struggle with the dilemma of wanting to go back to my marriage, although I don’t even know if my husband would be interested.  The woman becomes quite insistent; with humor in her voice, she says, “I think you should just keep going!”  She then asks her husband, “I told her to just keep going, what do you think?”  They both agree that I’m on a roll now and I should just keep traveling the world.   They all suggest that I should try to teach in Cambodia, that Cambodia is amazing.  I can see it is amazing!  I love it myself.  But I still have it in my mind to teach or work in the Middle East.  They all three are appalled by that.  Oh my gosh, forget the Middle East! they say emphatically.  Asia is so much better!!

I don’t know what to say to this.  I know where my heart leads me.  Whether reality will take me there remains to be seen.

Categories: Banteay Srei, Beng Mealea, Cambodia, Cambodia Land Mind Museum, Kbal Spean, Siem Reap, Sugar Palm Restaurant | Tags: , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

siem reap: ancient temples & cities, the world’s largest 3-D jigsaw puzzle, and a little meltdown

Friday, January 21: Mani is my guide today, a 35-year-old chubby Cambodian whose English pronunciation is quite mangled. Our driver is an English literature student, but he doesn’t put his English studies to use as he is just the driver.  Immediately after breakfast at my plush tropical hotel, we head to the temples for my own private tour.

mani, my own private cambodian tour guide

mani, my own private cambodian tour guide

While riding together in the back seat of a Toyota sedan to Angkor Thom, Mani tells me that 1.4 million people live in Siem Reap and 14 million live in the whole country of Cambodia.  Siem Reap means “Thai defeated,” the name resulting from the defeat of Thailand by Cambodia in some 16th century war.  Whenever Mani talks, I find myself having to think hard about what he is trying to say.  There are recognizable English words interspersed with babble, and many times I either just sit quietly and nod, not having a clue what he is saying, or I question him, which inevitably leads to more confusion.

So, what I relay here may be totally screwed up information.  Nevertheless, I’ll try to convey what I learned, whether right or wrong.

looking across the moat to the east gate of angkor thom

looking across the moat to the east gate of angkor thom

Mani tells me that at the end of today, he wants to take me to a children’s training center where poor children learn traditional Cambodian crafts such as stone carving, wood carving, lacquering, electricity, copper and weaving.  It turns out we never get to this center, due to a little meltdown on my part.  This story I will relate in the course of this entry.

We wander around some ruins outside of the gates of Angkor Thom, and after I take a few pictures, I suddenly get a message on my camera: CARD ERROR!  I can’t take a picture.  Every time I try to snap, I get a black screen that again says CARD ERROR!  I turn off the camera, always my response to any technical malfunction in any piece of equipment.  When I turn it back on, it seems to work, so we go on our way after a few moments of panic on my part.

the east gate of angkor thom, flanked by 54 gods and 54 demons

the east gate of angkor thom, flanked by 54 gods and 54 demons

Before we enter the gates of Angkor Thom, I use the ladies’ room and in there I encounter an old woman handing over her pants and underwear, which have apparently been soiled, to a Cambodian girl.  The woman has a scarf wrapped around her bottom.  She asks the Cambodian girl if she can wash the woman’s garments and the Cambodian girl shakes her head.  I feel horrible for the woman and have a bad feeling that someday that could be me.  Old age is a thing that haunts me.  Sometimes, when I see things like this, I think I would rather die than grow so old that I don’t have control of my bodily functions.  In Buddhism, it is said you must accept death, old age, illness, and any problems that life throws at you.  I am still fighting this.  Enlightened I’m not, I’m afraid.

the east gate of Angkor Thom

the east gate of Angkor Thom

We enter the south gate of Angkor Thom, known as Great Angkor or Great City.  The entire city is 10 square kilometers and was built by the “greatest Angkorian” King Jayavarman VII (1181-1219).  This king came to power following the Khmer defeat by the Chams.  In its heyday, in the 13th century, the city had a population of 1 million, while London was a tiny town of 50,000.  The outer wall of the city is a normal steep wall on the outside, but on the inside, dirt ramparts lead to the top of the wall; these enabled soldiers to climb up easily to defend the city.

some of the 54 gods leading to angkor thom's east gate

some of the 54 gods leading to angkor thom’s east gate

Cambodia practices Buddhism, Hinduism, and, in the mountains, animism.  In the first century, Hinduism took root in Cambodia.  There are three gods in Hinduism: Brahma, the creator of the world; Shiva, creator of the human world and destroyer of the world (?) (I’ve always heard of Shiva as the god of destruction.  As a matter of fact, I once met an Indian guy named Shiva who told me he was Shiva, God of Destruction!); and Vishnu, creator of the world and protector of the world.

me & a few of the 54 demons

me & a few of the 54 demons

From the 1st to the 3rd century, Buddhism took over in the country.   Later, in 1113 when Angkor Wat was built by Suryavarman II, he dedicated it to the Hindu god Vishnu.  Until the 11th century, the king had believed in Buddhism.

In Angkor Thom, all public houses, buildings and palaces were constructed of wood.  Brick or stone was reserved for the gods.  This is why today, all that remains of the city are the skeletal remains of the temples and holy places.

the gods and the moat in front of Angkor Thom

the gods and the moat in front of Angkor Thom

The gates of the city are 20 meters high and are decorated with stone elephant trunks and four faces each, representing Charity, Compassion, Sympathy, and Equality.  There are two east gates: one is the ghost gate, through which people entered if they lost a war.  The other is the victory gate, through which soldiers went to war and re-entered if they won the war.  Through the west gate, prisoners and people who were to be cremated exited.  Priests and holy men used the north gate.  The general population went through the south gate.  In front of each gate are statues of 54 gods to the left and 54 demons to the right.  These gods and demons are taken from the story of the Churning of the Ocean of Milk.  It’s some kind of story where a mountain is used as a churning device, and the king of serpents is wrapped around it.  On one shore, one person held the tail of the serpent and on the other shore, another held his head.  They they pulled the serpent back and forth, churning the ocean. (I swear this is what Mani said!)

The number 54 is significant because at the time, there were 54 provinces in Cambodia: 21 which are now in modern-day Cambodia (now there are 24 as 3 were added in 1994), 21 now in modern-day Vietnam, and 12 in modern-day Thailand.

the bayon, where the faces of the king stare down on you from every angle

the bayon, where the faces of the king stare down on you from every angle

We go to the Bayon, which King Jayavarman VII built and which showcases his great ego.  Within the Bayon are 54 Gothic towers decorated with 216 smiling faces of Avalokiteshvara, who bears a great likeness to the king.  These faces stare down from every angle, looking like Big Brother watching.  Bas-reliefs carved all over the Bayon have over 11,000 figures.  Carvings on the outer wall depict everyday life in 12th century Cambodia.  We wander around the Bayon, taking pictures of all angles with the King’s faces staring down on us.  There are some Cambodians in costume and we take pictures with them for a tip (of course).

at the bayon with cambodians in traditional costume

at the bayon with cambodians in traditional costume

At the Bayon

At the Bayon

one of the faces of Avalokiteshvara at the Bayon

one of the faces of Avalokiteshvara at the Bayon

We depart by the Elephant Wall, or the Terrace of the Elephants, decorated with parading elephants.  This wall was used as a viewing stand for public ceremonies back in the day.  Mani also points out the terrace of the Leper King, with its replica of a leprous king on top. Around it are numerous nagas, or mythical serpent beings.

Standing at the top of the Elephant wall, I try to take another picture and I get, once again, the dreaded CARD ERROR!  This time turning the camera on and off does nothing to fix the problem.  I open the bottom of the camera, take out the card and put it back in, thinking maybe it’s become dislodged or shaken askew.  When I turn on the camera, it works again and, snap!  More pictures.  At this point, I’m starting to get a little worried as this CARD ERROR! has appeared too many times for comfort.  I have a whole day at these famous temples and I don’t want any problem with my pictures!

the baphuon surrounded by blocks of stone: the world's largest jigsaw puzzle

the baphuon surrounded by blocks of stone: the world’s largest jigsaw puzzle

We walk up another 200 meters to the Baphuon, a pyramid structure that represented the mythical Mt. Meru, home of the gods.  This marks the center of the city, but was built before Angkor Thom was constructed. It was built on land filled with sand, so the structure has been unstable throughout its history.  The French apparently started dismantling the structure in 1960 in order to reconstruct it.  Each stone taken from the Baphuon was numbered and records were kept of each stone and where it belonged.  Apparently, reconstruction efforts were disrupted by the Cambodian Civil War and then all records were destroyed during the Khmer Rouge years.  Today, thousands of huge stones litter the grounds around the structure, the scattered pieces of the world’s largest 3-D jigsaw puzzle.  The reconstruction efforts are seriously hampered, as the archeologists must take a couple of blocks at a time to see if they fit in a particular spot.  If they don’t fit, the blocks are taken back to their spots, and 2 more blocks are taken.  I can see, looking over this field of stones, the project’s immensity, and I wonder how many lifetimes it will take before this structure is reconstructed.

this young English literature student is my driver my entire time in Siem Reap

this young English literature student is my driver my entire time in Siem Reap

We make a stop at a little group of hut-like merchant stands where I sit in a plastic chair and have a drink while Mani takes a bathroom break.  While waiting, I look in one woman’s shop at her silk scarves and end up buying a beautiful navy blue one for $4.  Then I see another shopkeeper with a terra-cotta scarf around her neck and I tell her I’d love one just like hers.  She scrambles around in her collection, but she can’t find one the same color.  Then all the other vendors search frantically through their collections.  No one has a scarf that color!  Next thing I know the woman sneaks off into another shop and comes out with the scarf that was around her neck.  I say, NO!  I don’t want the one you were wearing!  I want a new one.  No one is ever able to find one that color.  In the meantime (Mani was in the bathroom a long time!) I take a picture of our driver, whose name I can never quite capture.  This is the first picture I take after my last CARD ERROR! message.

After this we head to Ta Prohm, a temple built from 1186 by Jayavarman VII.  Ta Prohm is the place you always see in photographs of the Angkor temples.  It is in a severe state of ruin and nature has overtaken it.  Trees grow over its decaying walls, their roots strangling the stone structure like giant boa constrictors.  Moss and lichen grow all over the bas-reliefs.  Shrubs sprout from rooftops and balconies.  Jumbles of intricately carved stone blocks clog corridors.

the entrance to Ta Prohm

the entrance to Ta Prohm

It’s like a scene from Indiana Jones;  even Angelina Jolie’s Tomb Raider had parts filmed here.  I’m a picture-taking fool here, snapping away.  It’s nice to have Mani along as he can take pictures of me in this jungle of a place.  We spend quite a long time here.  I keep thinking I’ve seen nature in all its destructive power taking over this place, and then I turn a corner and find another huge tree grasping a wall, its monstrous roots like an octopus, encircling its prey.

Tomb Raider material

Tomb Raider material

After all this, I’m pretty tired, and Mani takes me to an outdoor restaurant where we have lunch.  He goes off to eat with the other tour operators and I’m left to eat by myself.  I order a Pepsi and a shrimp with lemongrass dish, and as I sit and wait, I decide to look through all my pictures.  I go back and back and back on the camera, and suddenly I come to the picture of our driver.  I go one step further back, and I’m back to my latest picture at Ta Prohm.  What?  I look again.  This can’t be.  My heart is pounding and I’m breaking out in a sweat.  I go back again through all my pictures and it hits me like a stone toppled from Ta Prohm.  All the pictures I took from when I put the new card in my camera at Boat Noodles in Phnom Penh to right before I took the picture of our driver are gone.  Vanished!  Every picture of Phnom Penh, the sunset at Angkor Wat, the morning pictures at Angkor Thom and the Bayon and Baphuong, wiped out.  I can’t believe it, I don’t want to accept it,  but I have a sinking feeling in my stomach.  The CARD ERROR! pops into my head.  I check again and again.  I take the card out of the camera and put it back in, thinking maybe then my pictures will magically reappear.  No matter how many times I click through the pictures, it’s the same.  All gone.  By now I’m afraid to even have my camera turned on because obviously every time I got a CARD ERROR! my pictures are being erased.  So I turn off the camera.  My face burns and a my throat grows dry and thick.

at Ta Phrom, where trees are king

at Ta Phrom, where trees are king

The shrimp with lemongrass comes out and I try to eat it, but the lemongrass is horrible, bitter and chewy.  It dawns on me that I’m probably not supposed to eat it.  Maybe it’s just for decoration, or for flavoring.  Anyway, I gobble through the shrimp, but I can’t sit still.  I try to think what to do.  We are deep in the middle of the Angkor temple complex and it’s a long way back to Siem Reap.  But I cannot go the rest of the afternoon taking pictures when I never know if a CARD ERROR! will erase more of my pictures or not enable me to take any more.  I’m thinking: I am spending thousands of dollars to come on this vacation and now I won’t have pictures of anything in Cambodia.  I’m sick.

My heart is banging itself against my ribs and I think, I MUST go find Mani.  Now!  So I go in search of him and finally find him and, I can’t help it, I burst into tears.  I say I’m so sorry, but he must take me back to town.  I need to get a new card for my camera because the people in Vietnam sold me a bad card.  I was scammed.  I should have known something was fishy when the card was just in a plastic box and not packaged in cardboard and plastic.

corridors of jumbled stone at Ta Prohm

corridors of jumbled stone at Ta Prohm

Anyway, he is baffled and can’t understand how I could lose my pictures.  He says it must be the equipment, because the card couldn’t be bad.  But I know better.  My camera is new, I just bought it in October;  it’s a nice Olympus and I’ve never had a single problem with it. I know about the card and the circumstances of the purchase in Vietnam.  He and the driver take me back into Siem Reap, where we talk to a guy in a camera shop.  He says he has encountered problems like this with cards before, and 9 times out of 10 he is able to recover the pictures.  He says to give him 2 hours and he will see what he can do.  No guarantees, but he feels almost certain he will recover them.  I ask him to please call Mani as soon as he knows one way or the other.  I need him to relieve my worry.  I buy another 8GB camera card, sealed in full cardboard and plastic packaging, for $50.

the guy in the camera shop who recovers most of my pictures :-)

the guy in the camera shop who recovers most of my pictures 🙂

So Mani and I go to Angkor Wat for the official tour, but of course I’m on edge the whole time.  Wondering if the guy will be able to recover the pictures.  I don’t know why in such a case I just can’t let go.  I wish I didn’t worry about things that I have no control over.  I hate this aspect of myself.  I try to listen to Mani, but now I’m distracted and worried and I’m getting a headache from trying to understand his poor English all day.

angkor wat in a different light...but with the same green netting!

angkor wat in a different light…but with the same green netting!

He tells me Angkor Wat is the largest religious structure in the world and it was never abandoned to the elements as other temples were.  The temple is a miniature of the universe, the central tower representing Mt. Meru, with smaller surrounding peaks of the lower towers, bounded in turn by continents (lower courtyards) and oceans (the moat).  The moat surrounding Angkor Wat is a giant rectangle 1.5 km by 1.3 km.  Angkor Wat was built by Suryavarman II (1113-1140), who unified Cambodia and extended Khmer influence all over southeast Asia.  He devoted and consecrated the temple to the Hindu deity Vishnu.  It was built about the same time as European Gothic temples such as Notre-Dame in Paris.  Virtually every surface is carved in bas-reliefs.  It’s estimated the workers to build the temple would have been in the thousands, including many highly skilled artisans.

carvings of Apsara dancers in angkor wat

carvings of Apsara dancers in angkor wat

It was built of some 5 million tons of sandstone blocks quarried 50 km away and ferried down the Siem Reap river on rafts.  Experts say that today it would take 300 years to build Angkor Wat, but in reality it was begun soon after Suryavarman II took the throne and finished soon after his death, over 40 years.

As we’re walking around we see many headless statues.  Mani says that thieves have decapitated the statues over the centuries to sell them in the black market or to museums.

We spend a lot of time walking around the temple; I have to put on long sleeves to cover my arms when I climb up to the top of Mt. Meru, to show respect for the gods.  When I climb down from Mt. Meru, Mani and I walk around a corner and he motions for me to sit and rest.  He then proceeds to tell me a story that goes on for about a half-hour (seems like 2 hours), something about two brothers, the older of whom kills his enemy in a cave and because blood pours out, the younger brother thinks his brother has been killed so he seals up the cave, following the older brother’s instructions.  I am totally lost trying to follow this story and get so impatient that it never seems to end.  Finally, I can’t take it any longer and I stand up and start moving away.  He gets up to follow but keeps talking.  My head is pounding.  Then we run into a woman from California with two bad knees who asks Mani to help her down some stairs.  She is so grateful to him that she gives him $10!!  I am so floored by this as I am paying some unknown package price for this tour (for which Mani is already getting paid) and I will be expected to tip him on top.  I had planned to give him a $5 tip, but how can I do so now after this woman gives him $10 for 10 minutes of his time??    Besides which I don’t even feel his tour barely worth even a $5 tip as I could hardly understand anything he said all day!!

inside the temple

inside the temple

Finally, we go back into Siem Reap and we’ve decided against going to the children’s center since we took so much time to get my camera card sorted out.  We stop at the camera shop, and happily (***!!!***) the man has managed to recover my pictures and has put them on a CD-ROM.  He asks me to look through them and see if they’re all there and in a quick glance, it seems they are!  I’m so relieved.  Thank God for this kind and talented man!!  (Later, once I get back to Korea, I find that still many pictures are missing.  Maybe 50 or so are still gone.  I still have the card and will take it back to the U.S. to see if someone can recover the remaining photos.)

Apsara dancers

Apsara dancers

Back at the hotel, I relax for a bit by the pool and read my book.  I get ready to go out to see a show of Apsara dancers.  When I look in the mirror I am so discouraged at myself.  I have gained weight in Korea mainly because I don’t exercise at all due to my bad knee.  Also, I’ve sworn off Korean food which is supposed to be healthy, and I eat too much pasta and pizza and probably drink too much beer (although I really don’t drink that much!)  So, I feel frumpy, old and aching.  My hair looks and feels like straw and my face is aging minute by minute.  I don’t know what is happening to me, but I hate it!

In the evening, at the Apsara show in a huge open-air pavilion, I get my meal from a huge buffet that includes some Khmer food, but mostly regular Western buffet-style food, fried chicken, spaghetti, etc.  The Apsara show is beautiful, with the delicate movements of the dancers and their exquisite costumes.  But once the waiter serves me a beer early on, I never see him again the rest of the night.  I hate venues like this, with their bulging crowds of tourists, pigging out on huge portions of bland uninspired Western food.

the beautiful mythical girls

the beautiful mythical girls

I’m happy to return to the hotel tonight, where I curl up in bed and read and watch some mindless television.  And sleep, hoping tomorrow will be a better day ~ and I’ll miraculously look and feel a lot better, possibly young again! 😦

Categories: Angkor Thom, Angkor Wat, Baphuon, Bayon, Cambodia, Siem Reap, Ta Prohm | Tags: , , | 3 Comments

bus ride to siem reap & sunset at angkor wat

Thursday, January 20: In the morning, I take the 8:30 Mekong Express Bus ($11) to Siem Reap.  It’s a 6-hour ride, and luckily it has a bathroom on board!  I have never encountered an on-board bathroom on any bus since I’ve been in Asia, so I’m relieved I don’t have to worry about this issue!

the mekong express bus

the mekong express bus

My bus mate is Richard, a 69-year-old Australian who was once a medical lawyer, then a nurse, and later an English teacher in Cambodia. He’s lived here on and off for years and adores Cambodia and the people.  His wife Janet died of pancreatic cancer in 2009; they had been together for 5 years but only married right before she died, at her request.

auberge mont royal in siem reap

auberge mont royal in siem reap

Richard teaches me hello in Cambodian: sua s’dei (I hear it pronounced as sauce-a-day).  Goodbye is lia suhn haoy (He tells me it’s just lee-high) and thank you is aw-kohn.  He tells me that he has an apartment in Phnom Penh where he supports several Pakistani and Cambodian boys.  He has put several Cambodians through college.  He says he can afford it and he likes to know he’s helping to get some of them out of poverty.

tropical abundance at auberge mont royal

tropical abundance at auberge mont royal

Richard is a talker, so the 6 hour bus ride passes quickly. He tells me that one of the boys in the apartment is getting married.  His wife, he says, is very superstitious.  She thinks if she looks over the edge of a balcony, the building will collapse.  Recently, she found a lump in her breast.  When Richard insisted she go right away to see a doctor, she refused, saying that particular day wasn’t an auspicious one to see a doctor.

the lobby of the hotel

the lobby of the hotel

He tells how he just got a skin cancer removed from his forehead and now he’s numb on that side of his head.  He remembers that Janet used to stroke his head as he lay in her lap.  Ironically, Janet went and then the feeling in his head disappeared as well.

When I mention my upcoming trip to Kyoto in February, he tells me in great detail about a Japanese film called Departures that made him sob. He says it’s funny how a film made him cry yet he never got emotional over Janet’s death.  He celebrates her life and feels they had an amazing love that ebbed and flowed between them.  He says Janet was the kind of person who either loved you or hated you.  There was no in-between, no neutrality with her.

the pool :-)

the pool 🙂

As he flips through the newspaper, he reads me the local crime report which includes some burglaries and arson and destruction of property.  He says the police reports in Phnom Penh very often report decapitations among the locals.  He mentions that in Tunisia, protestors are demanding the ouster of the current government.

my room at auberge mont royal

my room at auberge mont royal

He then asks me, “What did you leave behind when you went to Korea?”  I tell him my story.  We continue to talk at some length about my life and people I know and about someone I’ve known and cared about for many years.  He asks many questions about this person, and says the person sounds like a high-functioning Asperger’s Syndrome sufferer.  I am taken aback by this and find myself becoming defensive.  It just can’t be.  But as he continues to ask questions, I am shaken when I find myself answering in the affirmative to most of his questions.  Richard outlines the symptoms: awkward social interaction, stereotyped and restricted patterns of behavior, activities and interests, no clinically significant delay in cognitive development or general delay in language.  An AS person does not withdraw from other people and may approach them and engage in a long single-minded discussion of a topic, without recognizing the other person’s impatience, disinterest or desire to leave.  There is often a lack of social or emotional reciprocity.  The person may stick to inflexible routines or move in stereotyped or repetitive ways.  An AS person may have difficulty identifying and describing one’s emotions.

the tuk tuk driver who takes me to angkor wat at sunset

the tuk tuk driver who takes me to angkor wat at sunset

Richard goes on and on analyzing this person I have known for many years and I am flabbergasted.  Is he right?  I have to go home and look this up.  I wonder if it is true, if it has possibly never been diagnosed.  I wonder if it would have made any difference in my relationship with this person if it is in fact true and if I had known it from the beginning.  Would I have been able to live with it, adapting my behavior and my expectations to the syndrome?  I don’t know.  The conversation leaves me shaken, and wondering.  This is something I will have to explore.

getting into the tuk tuk to see angkor wat

getting into the tuk tuk to see angkor wat

Later, we finally arrive in Siem Reap, where a young Cambodian guy picks me up in a van to take me to my hotel, Auberge Mont Royal.  In the van I meet a Cambodian couple who left for Montreal on a study-scholarship in 1971, so they luckily missed the Khmer Rouge years.  The man tells me since I’m an English teacher I should apply at the J. Prescott Academy, a school for Cambodian children in Siem Reap.

walking across the moat to the outer gate of angkor wat

walking across the moat to the outer gate of angkor wat

I check into my lovely hotel, Auberge Mont Royal, on a little side street choked with dust, tuk tuks, and more concrete hole-in-the-wall businesses.  My hotel sits within a yellow gate behind which lush greenery abounds.  Across the street is the purple-painted Villa Siem Reap.  The rest of the street is lined with dumpy businesses, nice guesthouses like exclamation points in an otherwise unsightly landscape.

angkor wat decked out in green netting

angkor wat decked out in green netting

As part of the package I bought at this hotel, I get a tuk tuk ride to sunset at Angkor Wat.  My driver and I take off right away and he drops me across the 2.2-mile-long moat that circles the outer gate of the famous temple.  I walk across the moat and through this gate and there in front of me, across a wide expanse of lawn,  is Angkor Wat.  Immediately, I’m taken aback ~ and I have to say, disappointed.  All over the front of the facade is emerald-green netting, put up for renovation, I assume.  There is no way around it.  No way to take a picture without the ugly netting.  I walk up closer and find, despite the netting, the temple is still quite lovely because of the way the setting sun colors the stone.  It’s rich and golden-red, glowing.  I go inside the temple complex and look at all the beautiful carvings of apsara dancers and royal people and gods and battles and everyday life. Apsaras are beautiful, supernatural women. They are youthful and elegant, and proficient in the art of dancing.  A huge Buddha wrapped in an orange sash surrounded by gold glitz and glittery leaves, flower offerings before him, beams serenely down at me.

the buddha at angkor wat

the buddha at angkor wat

It’s stunning, the waning light on the temple.  I wander around the ancient stone buildings, fading to skeletons in their slow decay.  How many years before the temple turns to dust?  How many centuries, how many generations?  The power of nature is indefatigable.  It slowly erodes everything man puts in its midst.

Most people know about Angkor Wat, but here’s a tidbit of history.  It’s a temple complex built by King Suryavarman II in the early 12th century.  It was the state temple and capital city and was first Hindu, dedicated to the god Vishnu; later it became Buddhist.  Apparently, it’s the world’s largest religious building.  It’s said the building of this temple was likely the cause of the demise of the Khmer empire.

in the interior courtyard of angkor wat

in the interior courtyard of angkor wat

I take my time wandering, captivated by the way the light attaches to the stone.   The tuk tuk driver has told me it will probably take me 1 1/2 hours, so I enjoy slowly.  I know I will get a proper tour tomorrow, with an English-speaking guide, so I simply enjoy the warmth, the sinking sun, the multitudes of carvings.

The front facade of Angkor Wat faces the west, so it’s impossible at sunset to get a picture with the sun behind it.  I sit on the front porch of the temple, or the balcony, with a smattering of other tourists and watch the sun set behind the outer gates surrounding the temple.  Sunrise would be better for photos here.  Still.  The color of the stone, the shadows cast, are gorgeous at this time of night.

people settling in to watch the sunset

people settling in to watch the sunset

Later, I go back to the hotel and lie on a lounge chair by the kidney-shaped pool and read my book.   Then I take a tuk tuk to dinner in downtown Siem Reap, a charming little area overflowing with massage parlors, Khmer and Indian restaurants, and shops selling all kinds of enticing things.

the sunset from angkor wat

the sunset from angkor wat

The Angkor Palm is a lovely colonial-type restaurant that spills out into the street.  I sit outdoors on the sidewalk so I can watch the people walk by.  I order the Angkor Palm Platter for One.  It’s a sampler of Khmer food: fresh spring roll, green mango salad with special smoked fish, local pork spareribs roasted with honey and spicy sauce, homemade green curry with chicken, cha’ta kuong or stir-fried morning-glory with oyster sauce, steamed rice, and a Khmer dessert of white pumpkin with a sugary sauce.  As usual, I have a glass of red wine.  It’s pleasant here on the street of this quaint town, sampling delectable food and watching the tourists and locals traipsing past.

the angkor palm in siem reap

the angkor palm in siem reap

After dinner, I wander through the night market where I’m temped to put my feet into a tank of fish that eat the dead skin off your feet.  “No piranhas!” a sign proclaims, but I have no idea what kind of fish they are.  There is stiff competition among the multitudes of fish tanks with perks promised on the signs: “$2.50 for 20 minutes!  Free Angkor beer or coke!” or “$3 for unlimited time!”  Yes, I think, I would like to spend an unlimited time sitting on the edge of a fish tank with my pants legs rolled up, having my feet nibbled on by fish.  After all, I probably have that much dead skin on them. 🙂

sampler for one at the angkor palm

sampler for one at the angkor palm

The night market blooms with colorful silk scarves, handbags, smiling Buddhas, wooden apsara dancers, T-shirts, pillows, tablecloths, glittery jewelry.  So many things to buy, but so little ability to carry them all home.  I gaze into big open-air rooms with teak lounge chairs where tourists are having hour-long foot massages for $3.  I come away with a handful of scarves for $4 each and a 3-piece Buddha plaque with gold flecks on it.  I love this kind of market, much like the Sunday market in Bangkok, with so many enticing things you could spend days there, lost in the glamour of it all.

the outer wall of angkor wat reflected in the moat

the outer wall of angkor wat reflected in the moat

I haven’t had a manicure or pedicure in my whole time in Korea (only a pedicure in Turkey this summer), so I get both in Siem Reap.  It’s lovely to sit and be pampered.  However, this one pales by comparison to ones I get in the U.S.  In the U.S., nail technicians apply a clear top coat to keep the polish from chipping.  As they don’t do that here, my fingernails chip by the end of the night!

looking across the moat at the sunset

looking across the moat at the sunset

One of the girls in the salon, a beautiful Cambodian with an asymmetrical bob, is happy to see me and asks if I’m from America.  I say yes.  She says with such a reverent tone in her voice: I love your country.  Your country and Canada are the best, because of the people I meet here.  They are so nice!  But, she says, the ones I don’t like are China, Japan and Korea.  Funny, I think, she doesn’t like the other Asian countries, of which Cambodia is one.

But. I must admit.  Cambodia is different.  I see it.  They’re definitely Asian, but they have a special culture, one distinguished in class from the others.  I need to work on describing the feeling I get when I’m here.  Cambodians are so gentle, so delicate yet sophisticated.  They’re classy, open, kind-hearted.  Lovely.  They’re like gold and emerald treasures along the rice paddies and papayas of the Mekong.  Butterflies.  Tinkling bells.  Hummingbirds. Gentle but exquisite in their speech, their music, their movements, and especially, in their hearts. I can’t help but wonder how did the Khmer Rouge ever take root here in this gentle country?  How could it have possibly happened?

the outer wall of angkor wat

the outer wall of angkor wat

Categories: Angkor Wat, Asia, Auberge Mont Royal, Cambodia, Mekong Express Bus, Siem Reap, Travel | Tags: , , | Leave a comment

phnom penh: wats, royal palaces, & killing fields

Wednesday, January 19: The breakfast buffet at Villa Langka is a still life, redolent with tropical fruits: melon, papaya, bananas, mango, pineapple, passionfruit, dragon fruit.

breakfast at the villa langka ~ I love this place:-)

breakfast at the villa langka ~ I love this place:-)

My plate is so artfully arranged, I don’t want to disturb it.  I linger, sitting by the poolside surrounded by tropical abundance, savoring these jewel-fruits, these bursts of mellow sweetness.  A perfect start to my day.

Mr. Lo is waiting for me with his tuk tuk.  We start off by heading to Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, the former high school turned prison and interrogation center in Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital.  It served as Security Prison 21 (S-21) for the communist Khmer Rouge regime from 1975-1979, the years when they were in power.  The regime converted the buildings by enclosing them in electrified barbed wire.  The classrooms became tiny prison and torture chambers and windows were covered with iron bars and barbed wire to prevent escapes.

mr. lo and me in his tuk tuk

mr. lo and me in his tuk tuk

I walk around the former prison, which has been kept in the state it was when the regime fell in 1979, except cleaned up.  It’s haunting.  I first walk through the larger rooms where people were strapped to beds, tortured and interrogated.  Nearly every room contains one metal-framed bed, a few torture instruments and a black and white photograph of someone being horribly tortured.  When prisoners were brought here, they were stripped, and all their possessions taken.  Then they made confessions of all their activities from the moment they were born until they were arrested, which were transcribed by the prison officials.  Often these confessions would be thousands of words and would interweave truth with fictions of spying for the CIA or Vietnam (probably obtained under torture).

a horrifying picture of torture

a horrifying picture of torture

Men, women and children alike were tortured by horrible means:  beaten and tortured with electric shocks, searing hot metal instruments and hanging. Some prisoners were cut with knives or suffocated with plastic bags.  Other horrible means of torture were used as well, including waterboarding and pulling out fingernails while pouring alcohol over the wounds.  Often the confessions obtained through such tortures included the names of hundreds of the prisoner’s friends, family or acquaintances who were guilty of some crime against the Khmer Rouge.

rows of tiny cells in the prison

rows of tiny cells in the prison

It’s such an incredibly distressing place.  So dark, you can almost feel the evil that once lurked here.  After the torture rooms, I go to another building where there are rows and rows of tiny rectangular cells, the size of long skinny closets, where prisoners were shackled to the tiled floor.  In other rooms, there are giant boards of black and white photos of young and old, male and female, Cambodians staring desperately at the camera.  It’s deathly quiet in the museum.  Deathly.

The Khmer Rouge apparently kept detailed records of every prisoner, every confession, every action they took.  All this is on display at the museum.

faces of victims

faces of victims

It’s estimated that anywhere from 17,000-20,000 prisoners were held here during the Khmer Rouge reign, with 1,000-1,500 at any one time.  Prisoners initially included people from the previous Lon Nol regime:  soldiers, government officials, as well as academics, doctors, teachers, students, factory workers, monks, engineers, etc.  Later, the Khmer Rouge paranoia extended the killing to those within their own ranks.  Most prisoners stayed for 2-3 months, after which time they were killed and buried near the prison.  When space eventually ran out, the regime transported prisoners to the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek.

one of the tiny closet-like cells

one of the tiny closet-like cells

When I leave this horrible prison, Mr. Lo drives me in his tuk tuk to  Choeung Ek, about 15 km outside of Phnom Penh.  I follow in the footsteps of around 18,000 people who were transported from Tuol Sleng to The Killing Fields and brutally murdered.

It’s a slow drive in a tuk tuk to the Killing Fields.   I am all eyes and ears as we ride along, motorbikes buzzing all around.  Again, as in Vietnam, we pass businesses of every sort imaginable operating out of concrete cubbyholes with rusty corrugated metal roofs.  In store fronts, there are racks of old-fashioned and dirty Pepsi bottles filled with a yellow-green liquid.  I can’t help but wonder what is that liquid the color of urine in those dirty bottles.  Later, I find out they contain gasoline for motorbikes.

street scene on the way to the Killing Fields

street scene on the way to the Killing Fields

on the way to the Killing Fields

on the way to the Killing Fields

Barber shops seem to be everywhere, men standing with scissors in hand snipping away at customers wearing bibs around their necks.  Children run around on the streets in dirty clothes with naked bottoms exposed.  In the midst of the poverty, shiny cars with LEXUS emblazoned on their sides cruise the streets.  Women walk the streets in cartoon-covered pajamas while men play billiards in open air concrete garages.  In open-air movie-theater type rooms, sparse groups of people sit in plastic chairs watching a community TV set.  Huge carts of stinky durians and leafy greens and bamboo and sugar cane are pushed by little old ladies in colorful mismatched outfits. Men covered in black oil toil away at engine repair shops, steel welding operations, or tire shops with corrugated tin roofs.  Dust settles, permeates, resides.

the commemorative stupa at the killing fields

the commemorative stupa at the killing fields

We buzz on.  I have my backpack clutched between my legs on the floor of the tuk tuk because Mr. Lo warned me against keeping it on the seat.  I have read that people snatch bags from foreigners as they drive by on their motorbikes.  Corncobs cook on carts.  Hyundai Porters (like I see constantly in Korea) and Toyotas roll down the poorly maintained streets.  Surprisingly, I see a garbage truck, the first one I’ve seen in either Vietnam or Cambodia.  I also see garbage dump-type places. The debris is not as prevalent here as what I saw on the fringes of Hanoi.  The Cambodia-Japan Friendship Skills Training Center buzzes with people-in-training.

Forty-five minutes later at the Killing Fields, I face the entrance gate and a giant commemorative stupa.  I discover later that the stupa is filled with the skulls of 8,000 victims who were murdered here.  I go directly to the tiny museum where a film is in progress about the history of Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge regime and of this place.  The film is brutally honest and doesn’t try to gloss over the barbarity of this horrible regime.  I find often in my travels that museums try to downplay the despicable actions of their country or to gloss over history.  For example, in Musée de l’Armée in Paris, there is hardly any mention made of the Americans liberating Paris after WWII.  You would think when visiting there that the French single-handedly defeated the Germans.  Revisionist history.

the khmer rouge uniforms

the khmer rouge uniforms

The film here at Choeung Ek  is truly sickening and brings me, and many other tourists, to tears.  After the film, I collect myself, and walk around the grounds where I see some of the mass graves that were unearthed.  There’s a grave where only naked women and children were found.  Another grave contained headless corpses. Yet another only miscellaneous bone fragments. There is a tree where the regime would hold babies by the feet and bash their heads against the trunk.   Their rationale for killing babies was so that the children of victims wouldn’t seek revenge on the regime when they grew up.  One sign says that this particular tree held a loudspeaker to drown out the screams of those being bludgeoned, so as not to disturb the neighbors.

one of the mass graves

one of the mass graves

Mass grave filled with headless bodies

Mass grave filled with headless bodies

Choeung Ek

Choeung Ek

To save ammunition, the prisoners at  Choeung Ek were usually bludgeoned to death with iron bars, pickaxes, machetes and many other makeshift weapons.  Others were killed with poison, spades or sharpened bamboo sticks.  Prisoners were often forced to dig the mass graves themselves, but as they were weak, the graves were often shallow.  Even now, decades later, it’s said that clothes, teeth and bones surface during heavy rainfalls from the huge numbers of bodies that are still buried there.

8,000 skulls in the stupa

8,000 skulls in the stupa

Human skulls at the Genocide Museum

Human skulls at the Genocide Museum

on the grounds of the Killing Fields

on the grounds of the Killing Fields

After this depressing morning, which is educational but emotionally draining, Mr. Lo takes me back to town and we go to Wat Phnom, meaning Hill Temple.  It’s set on the only hill in Phnom Penh, more like a mound at 27 meters.  The locals swarm all over the place.  Here Buddha worship is taken to extremes; it’s big business.  Inside the temple are hundreds of Buddhas, each of which is holding on its crossed legs or in its arms several Cambodian Riel, bananas, oranges, flowers, or little skewers of white flowers that smell like freesia (I can’t find the names of these flowers anywhere!).  I walk behind a young Cambodian guy who devoutly walks around the perimeter of Buddhas, bowing and placing a Riel on each Buddha.

Wat Phnom

Wat Phnom

Wat Phnom

Wat Phnom

There are easily 25-30 people within the temple busying themselves arranging or collecting or distributing the multitudes of offerings.  Others are on their knees praying.  Outside in the back are other smaller Buddha statues in front of which, on a beautifully colored quilt, other food and fruit and flower offerings are placed.  As soon as the quilt gets full, a man promptly gathers up the offerings.  Further back on the hilltop behind the temple, I find schoolchildren eating the fruit that has been removed from the Buddhas.  On the far right of the temple is a production area where people are arranging flowers, cutting fruit, burning incense, slicing raw meat and offering these items for sale.

the buddha clutches his offerings at wat phnom

the buddha clutches his offerings at wat phnom

I come across several stone dog figures with panting mouths; in their mouths are strips of raw bacon and under their sitting figures are raw eggs that have been cracked open and are slowly hardening in the heat.  Then I see other men and women come by to take away the bacon and the eggs.  It’s commerce at its liveliest, this Buddha offering activity.  All abuzz.  It’s like the altar guild decorating for Christmas Eve service in an Episcopal church, except this occurs every day.  Outside the temple are young boys with birds in cages.  I ask someone later what that’s all about; apparently they sell the bird’s freedom to people who want to earn merit with the Buddha.  Later, the birds return to their cages, where they are resold and resold and resold, an infinite number of times.

the production center where offerings are bought and sold at wat phnom

the production center where offerings are bought and sold at wat phnom

Legend has it that in 1373, the first temple at Wat Phnom was built by a lady named Penh as a home for four Buddhas that she found floating in the Mekong River.

Mr. Lo then takes me to Wat Ounalom, the headquarters of Cambodian Buddhism, which is beautiful but deserted.   Apparently it has one eyebrow hair of the Buddha himself, but I didn’t see it.  Later, when we leave the Wat and are cruising down the main road in Phnom Penh, two ladies and a child on a motorbike drive by and strike up a conversation with Mr. Lo.  After they speed off, he tells me, “That was my wife!!”

the riverside restaurant where i have lunch

the riverside restaurant where i have lunch

While we have been cruising in the tuk tuk around Phnom Penh, I see a riverside restaurant that reminds me fondly of the Grand Cafe on the Nile in Ma’adi, a suburb of Cairo.  I tell Mr. Lo I want to go to this cafe for lunch and since the Royal Palace doesn’t open till 2:00, he drops me off here.  I have about an hour and a half, so I order a Tiger beer, which they serve with miniature peanuts with the skin still on them, smothered in salt.  The surrounding tropical plants whisper in the breeze.  I hear the buzz of construction activity on the river, the roaring engines of cranes moving the mud in the river, the clanking of an anchor on a riverboat.  In the restaurant, I hear the nasal sounds of Asians talking, the whining Khmer music.

my view of the river

my view of the river

My meal of fresh steamed fish in lime juice arrives, artfully prepared, with three banana leaf cups full of peppers and sauces.

lunch of steamed fish with lime juice & leaf bowls of sauces

lunch of steamed fish with lime juice & leaf bowls of sauces

Later, as I write in my journal and watch the people and the activity on the river, I have a glass of red wine.  It’s quite lovely and relaxing, although the roaring cranes on the river ruin the ambiance a bit.  The Grand Cafe on the Nile it’s not, but it’s pleasant all the same.  I’m alone here after my first four days in Hanoi, where I was surrounded by people, but so far, I enjoy the solitude.   I’m feeling a little buzz because of the beer and the wine, but it’s a relaxing wait for Mr. Lo to return for me.

elephants march through the restaurant

elephants march through the restaurant

Though fellow travelers had told me Phnom Penh was nothing special, I would have to disagree. I find it quite pleasant.  It’s warm, the skies are blue brushed with wispy white clouds.  I see less pollution, less trash, a better infrastructure.  It’s so civilized and genteel.  Even though it’s poor, Cambodians seem to have a grace and elegance about them, much like the carvings of apsara (woodland spirit) dancers on their ancient temples.  When they greet me, they put their palms together in a prayer position, bow their heads and say “Hello, Madame.”  It’s quite charming.

drinks for sale in front of the royal palace

drinks for sale in front of the royal palace

I realize that I’m happiest in travel when the temperature is just right and I’m dressed appropriately.  If there’s a breeze, I’m even happier.  If I’m comfortably seated or lying down, or walking along and it’s not too hot, if I’m clean and surrounded by relative cleanliness.  If there is a sense of aesthetic around me.  Although I find myself fascinated by the impoverished street scenes, looking at the commerce and people scrambling for a livelihood, I know that I couldn’t live in this environment.  I’d be miserable for any length of time in such squalor.

In Korea, I live a very simple pared-down life, with just a small room, a few of my clothes, only a few belongings.  It’s possibly one step above a monk.  Maybe if I had to live like this forever, I wouldn’t like it.  But of course I know I can go back to my 3-story house in Virginia, where I have beautiful furniture, lovely and comfortable surroundings.  We in America are spoiled this way.  We’re lucky.  Most Cambodians and Vietnamese, even many Koreans, are not so.

the royal palace

the royal palace

more of the royal grounds

more of the royal grounds

Finally, after lunch Mr. Lo returns for me in his tuk tuk and takes me to the Royal Palace and the Silver Pagoda.  The Royal Palace is a complex of buildings that serves as the royal residence of the King of Cambodia. The Kings of Cambodia have occupied it since it was built in 1866, except during the tumultuous period of the Khmer Rouge.  Now, in the afternoon, it is quite hot.  The Royal Palace is lovely, all yellow buildings with curlicue roofs, in classic Khmer architecture.   Making my way through the throngs of uniformed schoolchildren on field trips, I walk through the Throne Hall, where today religious and royal ceremonies are held.  The students are chattering, giggling and yelling, putting their spin on the relative peace.  I snap a photo but a guard yells at me that no photos are allowed.  Too late.

the Royal Palace

part of the Royal Palace complex

on the grounds of the Royal Palace

on the grounds of the Royal Palace

Later I walk around the gardens looking for the Silver Pagoda, but I don’t see any silver buildings.  Finally, I ask someone and they point out a building I have already been inside, which certainly does not have the silver exterior I expected.  Inside the building,  no photographs are allowed.  It houses a beautiful 17th century Emerald Buddha, which I certainly WANT to take a picture of, but with all the guards hovering, I don’t dare.  It also boasts a near-life-size Buddha studded with 9,584 diamonds and dressed in royal regalia.  Apparently, before the Khmer Rouge, the temple floor was inlaid with 5,000 silver tiles, thus the name Silver Pagoda.  Most of this floor today is covered up with carpeting.

the silver pagoda

the silver pagoda

a mini shrine in front of the silver pagoda

a mini shrine in front of the silver pagoda

painted murals at the royal palace

painted murals at the royal palace

I spend quite some time wandering through the Royal Palace grounds, checking out the gardens with their beautiful flowers and topiary, the faded murals on the walls, Buddhas sitting serenely in little gardens, and the elephant room with its decadent elephant thrones.

on the grounds of the Royal Palace

on the grounds of the Royal Palace

a Buddha in the garden

a Buddha in the garden

the elephant room with the elephant thrones

the elephant room with the elephant thrones

Later, I exit to find Mr. Lo patiently waiting.  He takes me back to the Villa Langka.  I had told him originally I’d give him $20 for the day, but knowing that he has patiently waited for me all day, taken me far afield to the Killing Fields,  and been genteel and polite beyond anything I could have expected, I give him $25.  This is quite a killing for him, as I understand you can generally rent a tuk tuk for the day for $8.  I think the fact that I saw his wife ride up on the motorcycle also influenced my decision.  He has a family to support; I saw a personal side to him….  I can’t help but wonder if this was a ploy on his part, to have his wife ride up beside us.  But somehow, fool that I may be, I don’t believe this to be the case.

Lotus blossoms at the Royal Palace

Lotus blossoms at the Royal Palace

At the Villa Langka, I put on my bathing suit and lie outside by the pool for an hour or so, reading The Eaves of Heaven.  This is a great book, about the Vietnam War years from a Vietnamese perspective, but this afternoon I’m burned out from hearing and reading about war and violence and hatred.   I so desperately need a love story, but alas, I have no such book with me.  And I have no one here to be my actual love story.  Sigh.

the stunning restaurant Malis in Phnom Penh

the stunning restaurant Malis in Phnom Penh

After relaxing by the pool and then taking a little nap in my daisy-petal white bed, I venture out to the Lonely Planet-recommended restaurant Malis, where a seated Buddha greets me at the entrance.  The setting is stunning, a low-lit open air courtyard around an L-shaped pool brimming with lotus leaves. Giant palm fronds and bubbling fountains create a peaceful atmosphere.  I can see the kitchen staff in bright white baseball caps bustling about in the gleaming modern kitchen.

my ugly but delicious fish dinner

my ugly but delicious fish dinner

I have a glass of red wine because the dinner I order, baked goby fish with mango dips, takes 45 minutes to prepare.  Since I’m alone and 45 minutes goes by slowly, I have another.  The fish arrives with scaly skin and a viciously ugly head, but the fish flesh is tender and delectable, especially with the refreshing mango dips.  For dessert I have the Malis Signature Mousse, a “delicate mousse infused with jasmine, ginger and Khmer honey with a side of fresh fruit salad.”  Mmmm….

my last night at the villa langka :-(  ~ the pool by night

my last night at the villa langka 😦 ~ the pool by night

I’m tired from my full day, and I have to leave tomorrow morning for Siem Reap, so I go back to my room and stretch out.  I can’t get motivated to read my war book anymore, so I watch The Bachelorette on TV, a tiny taste of a love story gone awry (as most of mine do!).  Sleep, precious sleep.

Categories: Asia, Cambodia, Killing Fields, Phnom Penh, Royal Palace & Silver Pagoda, Tuol Sleng, Wat Ounalom, Wat Phnom | Tags: , , | 3 Comments

the security regulations at tuol sleng

Wednesday, January 19:  When I first enter the Tuol Sleng prison, I find the following security regulations on a board:

the security regulations at tuol sleng prison

the security regulations at tuol sleng prison

1. You must answer accordingly to my question.  Don’t turn them away.

2. Don’t try to hide the facts by making pretexts this and that, you are strictly prohibited to contest me.

3.  Don’t be a fool for you are a chap who dare to thwart the revolution.

4. You must immediately answer my questions without wasting time to reflect.

5. Don’t tell me either about your immoralities or the essence of the revolution.

6. While getting lashes or electrification you must not cry at all.

7. Do nothing, sit still and wait for my orders.  If there is no order, keep quiet.  When I ask you to do something, you must do it right away without protesting.

8. Don’t make pretext about Kampuchea Krom* in order to hide your secret or traitor.

9. If you don’t follow all the above rules, you shall get many lashes of electric wire.

10. If you disobey any point of my regulations you shall get either ten lashes or five shocks of electric discharge.

the rules in khmer

the rules in khmer

*Kampuchea Krom was the southernmost territory of the Khmer empire, once known as French Cochinchina.  It is now the southwestern part of Vietnam.  Besides the Vietnamese, there are other people living in Kampuchea-Krom, including the Chinese, the Chams, the Mountgards, and many other small ethnic groups.

no having fun??

no having fun??

In addition to these rules, I see a sign of a big smiling face with a big red X across it.  Does this mean you can’t laugh, you can’t talk? You can’t be human?  Here in this place, all humanity was stripped away.  People ceased to be seen as people.

Horrible.  Simply horrible.

Categories: Cambodia, Phnom Penh, Tuol Sleng | Tags: , , | Leave a comment

phnom penh via guangzhou: monks and boat noodles

Tuesday, January 18:  Another travel day, from Hanoi to Phnom Penh.  I have to be at the airport at 6:30 a.m. for an 8:30 flight on my favorite airline:  China Southern. 😦

the pool at the villa langka in phnom penh

the pool at the villa langka in phnom penh

The Hotel Ngocmai calls a taxi for me, and back through the dark, through the yellow haze we go.  I pay the hotel in advance for this taxi; I’m told the hotel pays the taxi directly.  When we get to the airport finally, the driver asks for his tip.  I look in my wallet and the smallest thing I have is a $10 bill.  I am all out of Vietnamese dong.  It’s not a problem here in Vietnam as they take dollars just as readily as dong.  I take out the $10 and ask the driver if he has change, in dollars.  He looks in his wallet and has only a few dong; not enough to give me change.   And no dollars.  I say, I’m sorry.  I can’t give you a tip unless you have change.  I am not about to give him $10 for a tip, when I’ve paid the hotel $15 already for the ride.  The taxi driver whines: My tip, my tip!  Where’s my tip?  I don’t know what to do, but I cannot afford to give him $10.  It’s mean, I know, but I tell him I’m sorry.  And then I walk away.

the villa langka in phnom penh

the villa langka in phnom penh

This bothers me the rest of the day.  It still bothers me today.  Should I have just given him the full $10?  That didn’t feel right to me.  But it didn’t feel right to leave him in the lurch either.  At the time I was worried about my flight and checking in on time, etc.  But later, I think, I should have gone searching in the airport for change.  I feel like I committed some petty crime.  If I had done this one thing right, I probably would have saved money on the rest of my trip.  Because from this point on, I find myself giving bigger tips to everyone else I meet along the way as recompense to that poor taxi driver in Vietnam.

my room at the villa langka

my room at the villa langka

Sometimes we can embarrass ourselves by own behavior.  Believe me, I have done this many times in my life.  I did something not good and it haunts me later.  There is no shaking it.  All I can do is to try to do better next time.  That’s all we, as humans, can do.

The flight is uneventful until I get to my all-time favorite airport of Guangzhou at 10:55.  I’m worried because I only have one hour between my flights and I know they put you through unreasonable rigmarole at that airport.  I feel relieved when I get off the plane because a woman from the airline is holding a card with my name on it and “Phnom Penh.” I say, yes, that’s me, and she ushers me to a special desk where she issues my boarding pass.  I think, it’s going to be easy!  But when she’s done she sends me through immigration after all, where the serious Chinese officials spend a great deal of time inspecting my passport and then they take it away and tell me to have a seat.  I say, Where are you going with my passport?  Of course, no one can speak English so I am left waiting and worrying what on earth could be the problem.  After what seems like a long while, they finally return with my passport, and I go back into the cold basement of the airport to wait for my 11:55 flight to Phnom Penh.

Wat Langka

Wat Langka

Another cramped flight with bad food, and a lot of turbulence.  I don’t often worry much when I fly, but this flight is so rough, I’m doing a lot of praying.  Finally, I arrive in Phnom Penh at 1:50 pm, where a driver from my hotel, the Villa Langka, is standing in the airport with a sign.  I walk outside and am hit by a wave of heat.  Oh, it feels so good.  After being cold and getting sick in Vietnam, I’m thrilled to be warm.  In the van, I strip off my layers and check out the streets of Phnom Penh from the airport to the hotel.

Wat Langka

Wat Langka

Ohm.

Ohm.

It’s a much more sedate and classy version of Vietnam.  There are motorbikes aplenty, but not nearly the numbers as in Hanoi.  It’s bright, colorful, cheery, but also poor and scattered with rubbish.  Not in-your-face rubbish, but rubbish nonetheless.

Looking out from the temple at Wat Langka

Looking out from the temple at Wat Langka

We arrive at my hotel, which is beautiful for $42 a night.  There is an open air lobby with tropical plants, an outdoor cafe next to a blue pool surrounded by leafy trees.  I check into my room, with two white-covered canopied beds pushed together, making a huge inviting expanse of sleep-beckoning glory.  I lie down for a bit, then go out and sit by the pool and have a glass of red wine.  Feeling quite happy by this point, I take a walk around the neighborhood.

two nice monks i meet outside of wat langka

two nice monks i meet outside of wat langka

Directly across the small side street is Wat Langka, one of Phnom Penh’s five original wats (pagodas).  Founded in 1422 as a sanctuary for Holy Writings and for a meeting place for Cambodian and Sri Lankan monks, it escaped destruction as it was used as a storehouse by the Khmer Rouge.  As I walk around, I am impressed by the huge Buddha statues, the offerings of fruits and incense, and the serenity on the grounds.  As I leave there, I run into two monks in orange robes, one of whom speaks English and asks me where I’m from and how I like Cambodia.

Wat Langka

Wat Langka

the shrines at Wat Langka

the shrines at Wat Langka

Back outside the hotel, a couple of moto-remorks and their drivers are waiting patiently for customers.  A remork is a cute, often fringed, canopied trailer hitched to the back of a motorbike.  It can fit about 4 people comfortably.   Tourists also refer to these vehicles as tuk tuks.  A Mr. Lo introduces himself and asks me if I’d like to rent him for the day tomorrow.  It seems I read you can hire one of these for $8/day, but I know I want to go to the Killing Fields and they are quite far out-of-town.  I offer him $20 for the day; he agrees to meet me at 8:00 a.m. on Wednesday morning.

mr. lo and his tuk-tuk

mr. lo and his tuk-tuk

After leaving Mr. Lo, I take a walk to find the Lonely Planet-recommended restaurant, Malis.  Walking along the street, I am captivated by the roar of the motorbikes, the tropical lushness, the bright-colored buildings in yellow, lime green and royal blue. I love the Cambodian lettering on street signs.  When I arrive at Malis Restaurant, I find it is closed for some kind of renovation.

Phnom Penh street scene

Phnom Penh street scene

I then seek out the restaurant Boat Noodles, a two-story wooden open air restaurant abundant with greenery.  From the second floor, I can see all the activity on the street corner below, the motorbikes, the tuk tuks, the cars, tourists and locals meandering along the sidewalks.  I order a Tiger beer and a Cambodian specialty called Grilled Amok fish wrapped with banana leaf.  It’s served with some light sauces, fragrant with cilantro.  So far, I am loving the food in Vietnam and Cambodia!  I try to take a picture of my meal, but I get the message again: CARD FULL!  I have the new card I just bought last night in Vietnam, so I switch the cards.  Then I take some pictures of my stunning meal before I gobble it down.

Boat Noodles Restaurant ~ amazing food :-)

Boat Noodles Restaurant ~ amazing food 🙂

After dinner, I look for a massage place recommended by a woman my age who is also staying at the hotel.  On the 2nd floor on a nondescript street, it’s difficult to find, but after riding up and down the street several times in the tuk tuk, I find OM, where I get a great hour-long massage by a tiny and limber Vietnamese girl for about $8.  She doesn’t use any oil or lotions ~ I would have had to pay more for that.  I feel my tight muscles turn to mush and when I leave, I’m floating.  I know I’m going to sleep well tonight.

I’m tired from having been sick the last couple of days, and from my travel day, so I get in my white fluffy bed early and read my book, Eaves of Heaven, falling asleep in the dream world of Cambodia.

the lush setting at boat noodles

the lush setting at boat noodles

Categories: Asia, Boat Noodles, Cambodia, China Southern Airlines, Guangzhou Baiyun Airport, moto-remorks, OM, Phnom Penh, Travel, Villa Langka, Wat Langka | Tags: , , | Leave a comment

the shabby old capital, “halong bay of the rice paddies,” & a french feast

Monday, January 17:  I wake up to a drearier day than any I’ve seen in Vietnam, my throat burning.  But, I’m on vacation, so I force myself out of bed and get ready for another local tour I’ve arranged, to Hoa Lu and Tam Coc, about 100 km south of Hanoi .

bikes for rent near the entrance to Hoa Lu

bikes for rent near the entrance to Hoa Lu

It’s a long drive to both of these places, and in the van, I get to know the other travelers.  Our guide is “Adam,” his American-version name that happens to be the same name as my own son.  Most of the day, I talk to Colin and Tracy, a couple who work for the postal service in Manchester.  There is Joao, a quiet older guy from Lisbon, Portugal, and an entire Vietnamese-Canadian family from Toronto: mother, father, daughter, and Chinese son-in-law. Danny and Kim are a young couple from Australia.  Danny is wearing a smart wool jacket he had tailor-made for dirt cheap in Hoi An and Kim says she had some great dresses made there as well.  They just came from Cambodia and loved Siem Reap.  Sathris and Leholm are two guys from Singapore.

"special food goat meat soup with chicken" ~ near Hoa Lu

“special food goat meat soup with chicken” ~ near Hoa Lu

The Vietnamese father escaped on a boat from Vietnam in 1983, when he was 49 years old.  He slaved in a Viet Cong labor camp and then was out to sea in this boat for 11 days with no food or water.  Luckily a British tanker picked up the passengers and took them to Hong Kong.  He eventually was able to join his family in Toronto; his wife had already left Vietnam years before.  His daughter and her Chinese husband escaped on a fishing boat when they were 20 and 23 years old, with two small children in tow.  They spent 4 days on a boat that eventually ended up in Thailand.  The whole family, now coming back to Vietnam for the first time since their escape all those decades ago, is happy that they left here.  They now have a nice life in Canada.  I am captivated by their stories, similar to Andrew X. Pham’s stories in Catfish and Mandala, one of the books I read before I came here.

Adam tells us that Hoa Lu, in Ninh Binh province, was the first capital of Vietnam. His English is bad so I don’t know half of what he’s talking about.

munchin' on a thailand plum from the "happy room"

munchin’ on a thailand plum from the “happy room”

He keeps referring to two-digit numbers like twelve o’clock as one-two o’clock.  He tells us we will see the Ling Lai Temple at Hoa Lu and then we will have lunch at one-two o’clock.  After lunch we will spend two hours on a small boat at Tam Coc, where we can see scattered tombs at the tops of the mountains.

We stop at another “happy room” on the long trip south; there I buy a Thailand plum, a cross between a pear and an apple, but not as sweet.   Back in the van, as I munch happily on this fruit, we fly past a biker pedaling along loaded down with big flat cone baskets full of limes and tangerines.

the entrance to Hoa Lu ~ the ancient capital

the entrance to Hoa Lu ~ the ancient capital

It’s a long drive in a van with no seatbelts on bumpy potholed roads. The driving style is the same; on two lane roads, people drive at an excruciatingly slow pace, passing bikes, motorbikes, buses or trucks regularly despite the traffic being heavy in both directions.  At the last minute, these passing vehicles manage to slide back into their proper lane before a collision occurs.   In between chatting with people, this is what I see out the windows: a gas station called Petrolimex; concrete open-air cubbyhole businesses, doorless garages with corrugated tin roofs.  Rusted chain link fences, piles of dirt, piles of gravel, refuse everywhere.  Palm-like tropical plants fuzzy with dust.  Two- or three-story thin rectangular concrete houses with fancy balconies, chipping paint in Mediterranean colors, some with red tile roofs.  Again, no paint on the sides, just windowless gray concrete.  A few exceptional houses painted nicely with plants on the balconies.

crazy rock sculptures?

crazy rock sculptures at Hoa Lu

wall at Hoa Lu

wall at Hoa Lu

a gate at Hoa Lu

a gate at Hoa Lu

Huge gravel lots dotted with grotesquely shaped rock sculptures.  Honda, Yamaha, Suzuki, Symauto.  Sidewalk barbers giving shaves and haircuts.  The Bank for Investment and Development of Vietnam.  Government buildings in faded banana yellow with brown trim, palm trees in front.  Another park with more huge Rorschach-blot rocks.  Motorbikers bundled up in knit caps, helmets, bubble jackets, slippers with fuzzy socks, masks.  Old buildings in various unfinished states of construction, much like the ubiquitous apartment buildings I saw in Egypt.  Not new, these unfinished projects sprout plants and weeds and vines on walls and floors;  I can’t help wonder why the projects died before they ever got off the ground.  Cemeteries filled with hundreds of miniature pagodas. The ever-present gray haze here with us even 50 km south of Hanoi.

the people you meet along the way

the people you meet along the way

And in the midst of all this, I write in my journal:  “A journey is really all the people you meet along the way.”

The truly nice and beautiful places around Hanoi are just specks in the overall landscape of rubbish and decrepitude.  This is more apparent on this drive south than on the eastward drive to and from Halong Bay on Saturday and Sunday.  In front of houses along the road, square or rectangular fish ponds are hemmed in by scrubby palm trees or refuse.  One of the Vietnamese guys explains that these ponds are filled with sunfish, meals for the local families.  Rubbish, rubbish everywhere.  Dust, haze, smog, gray skies.  It’s dreary and cold.

Colin & Tracy from manchester: "India is something you endure, not enjoy"

Colin & Tracy from manchester: “India is something you endure, not enjoy”

It’s a bit depressing today.  There is no attempt made by the Vietnamese to hide their piles of rubbish.  Piles of gravel, bricks, tires ~  the discarded building blocks of society in useless array.  Around the sculpture businesses, chips of stone are left where they fall, littering the ground.  I keep thinking that the rubbish collection business could make a killing here if the proper laws were passed and enforced, and public dollars went towards creating a rubbish collection infrastructure.  My question about the rubbish is this: is it just poverty, naturally sloppy Vietnamese, or poor government planning ~ no infrastructure?  I think the garbage problem is worse than what I saw in Cairo.

I mention my thoughts on this to Colin and Tracy from Manchester, who just came from a month in India.  Colin says in India I will see ten times the rubbish I see here.  They say there are rules that you can’t smoke in certain parts of India, but it’s okay to pee or defecate anywhere.  I ask them what was their favorite thing about India, and Colin says, “The flight out.”  They say a trip to India is “a trip you endure, not enjoy.”  Funny how their experience was the antithesis of Ryan and Thea’s trip.

Australians Danny & Kim: they thought Phnom Penh was rubbish

Australians Danny & Kim: they thought Phnom Penh was rubbish

Australians Danny and Kim say Phnom Penh is worse than Hanoi by far ~ impoverished, filled with rubbish, and not much there.  But they loved Siem Reap.  Later, when I get to Phnom Penh, I don’t see this at all; to me Phnom Penh is nicer than Hanoi; I find lots of interesting things there.  It’s so funny how each person’s experience of a place can be so different, how one’s experience can be colored by interactions with people, weather, where exactly one is in the place, whether transport goes smoothly.  So many factors.  Two people can have totally opposite experiences of a place, one loving it and the other hating it.  This is how I feel in Korea; while so many native English teachers love their experience, I dislike it altogether.

offerings to the Buddha in the temple at Hoa Lu

offerings to the Buddha in the temple at Hoa Lu

Finally, after an interminable drive through the dilapidated outskirts of Hanoi, we arrive at Hoa Lu, the political, economic and cultural center of 10th century Vietnam.  It was also the native land of three royal dynasties.  Today, the ancient Citadel exists no more, and all that’s left are some remainders of the dynasties.  I find the entire complex quite shabby.  No matter how we humans try, everything we create disintegrates around us.  While we’re there at Hoa Lu, we run into another tour group, and in their midst, surprise, are Roz and Sway and the Korean woman from my first day Hanoi City tour.  We are surprised to see each other again and spread hugs all around.

Sway and the Korean girl from my first day tour in Hanoi

Sway and the Korean girl from my first day tour in Hanoi

walkways at Hoa Lu

walkways at Hoa Lu

gates and walls of Hoa Lu

gates and walls of Hoa Lu

I don't know who this guy is... doesn't look like Buddha.  Possibly Confucius?

I don’t know who this guy is… doesn’t look like Buddha. Possibly Confucius?

another wise character

another wise character

on the grounds of shabby Hoa Lu

on the grounds of shabby Hoa Lu

When we leave the complex, locals descend on us from every direction and try to sell us bananas or water or postcards.  I feel stingy sometimes not throwing my money at every person trying to sell me something, but I can’t save the world and I can’t afford to be too generous.  I believe in buying goods made locally, but I must limit myself to buying only things that speak to me, things that I find aesthetically pleasing.  I cannot afford sympathy buys.

lunchtime :-(

lunchtime 😦

One old lady carrying bunches of bananas attaches herself to Adam, our guide, and won’t leave him alone until he buys a bunch from her.  She’s relentless; she must have given him the fellow-Vietnamese guilt trip.  Later, on the van ride home, he gives us the bananas for snacks.

our boat operator at tam coc

our boat operator at tam coc

While I’m at Hoa Lu, I start getting messages on my camera: CARD FULL!  I keep erasing old pictures, but for every 5 or so I erase, I can only take one more picture.  Finally, one of the guys from Singapore looks at my camera and tells me my pictures are set on RAW, instead of jpeg, meaning they are HUGE files.  I don’t know how this happened, but he corrects the setting.  However, many of the pictures I’ve already taken on this trip are now RAW, and I cannot delete them.  They are taking up the card space.  It appears I might have to buy a new card on this trip.

on the river at tam coc

on the river at tam coc

Tam Coc

Tam Coc

Tam Coc

Tam Coc

When we get to the lunch destination, near Tam Coc, I am hustled away to a table all alone, away from the rest of the group.  I protest that I came on a tour and I want to sit with the others.  But, they insist: you paid for the VIP tour. You get a table all to yourself!  I say, I never paid for any VIP tour.  I just want to sit with the group.  The group is eating a buffet dinner, while I am to eat from the menu.  That doesn’t sound like VIP to me, it sounds like RIP-OFF!!  I tell them I refuse to sit where they want me to sit, that I WILL sit with the others.  They don’t know what to do with me, but it apparently causes great consternation among the staff who insists that it’s a problem for the “menu” people to sit at the same table with the “buffet” people, because how do they monitor us to keep us from helping ourselves to seconds and thirds from the buffet menu?  I find all of this utterly ridiculous and just plop myself down in the midst of the others.  The “menu” meal is bland and cold, hands down the worst meal I have eaten in Vietnam.  The “buffet” people say the exact same about their meal.  So, what’s the difference?

so gray, cold and dreary :-(

so gray, cold and dreary 😦

We then head out to the metal rowboats, not as charming as the bamboo boats on Halong Bay.  Tam Coc, which means “three caves,” is a 2-hour boat excursion down the Ngo Dong River through rice fields, limestone karst towers, and 3 caves.  My partner in the boat is the Portuguese guy Joao, since we’re the only two not paired up.  On the boat ride, Joao keeps talking about the “visitation” in Portugal, and I say, What? Like the Virgin Mary? After much going around and around, I finally figure out he’s talking about the “vegetation” in Portugal.  Joao keeps hacking away and has been doing so the whole way down from Hanoi.  When I express concern about his health, he says he’s sick from going from warm Ho Chi Minh City to cold Hanoi.  I know what he means because I have felt sick all day, chilled, sore throat, nasal stuffiness and post-nasal drip.  Yuck.

the vietnamese are adept at paddling with their feet:-)

the vietnamese are adept at paddling with their feet:-)

The boat paddlers are Vietnamese of all variety, some young women with conical hats, some toothless old men.  Some paddle with their feet, all playful, laughing and joking among themselves, across the expanse of water.

We float along marveling at the sheer karsts; I keep looking for rice paddies.  This place is touted as the “Halong Bay of the rice paddies,” but I don’t see any at all.  Maybe it’s because it’s winter and the rice has all been harvested?  Since I’m expecting to see these and don’t, I have to say I’m disappointed.

We go through the 3 caves with their low ceilings, ducking to avoid getting clocked by the granite ceilings.

one of the three caves on the river

one of the three caves on the river

Our boat lady paddles us into a floating market, a virtual Vietnamese 7-11, and as we go into the midst of the boats, they surround us.  In their straw cone hats, they fling their sales pitches at us.  We are at the furthest point out and trapped.  One lady offers hot coffee and as I’ve been cold all day, I take her up on it.  She hands me a small dirty glass with her brown stained hands.  I drink it, unsanitary though I think it is, just to feel warmth for a few short seconds.  In the meantime, she holds out a coke and some crackers and motions that I should buy them for my boat lady.  Portuguese Joao remains stone-faced the whole time, acting as if he is totally removed from the scene.

the floating boat markets ~ oh thank heavens for 7-11

the floating boat markets

the boat market ~ oh thank heavens for 7-11 :-)

the boat market ~ oh thank heavens for 7-11 🙂

Later, when we escape the floating 7-11, the boat lady paddles out into the middle of the river and opens a big chest in the boat and starts displaying embroidered linens.  I say no, no, no, but she keeps bringing out item after item.  I just want to get back so I can be warm.  I say “No!” adamantly, and then make paddling motions, urging her to take us back to the start point.  During all of this the Portuguese is in a world of his own, saying absolutely nothing.  Nothing at all to contribute to the situation.  At the end, when we get to the shore, she says: Madame, Monsieur, tip??  I give her 20,000 dong ($1), expecting the Portuguese to give her another $1, but he gives her absolutely nothing, just totally ignores her.  I don’t know what his problem is, but it really irks me, this totally superior, standoffish, attitude.

Joao the Portuguese

Joao the Portuguese

Finally, we are on our way back to Hanoi in the van.  A repeat of the drive down, more of the same.  Late in this afternoon, it is gray and even colder than earlier, so I ask the guide and driver if they can please turn on the heat.  They tell me the van has no heat.  I have been quietly freezing for 1 1/2 hours.  Finally, I’ve spoken up, and still I will be cold.  Overall, it is a miserable day.  I would definitely NOT recommend this tour and I wish I had just stayed the day in Hanoi, exploring the city.

floating along the gray river at tam coc... where are the rice paddies?

floating along the gray river at tam coc… where are the rice paddies?

Traveling abroad takes me out of my comfort zone and throws me into an alien world.  Sometimes this world is comfortable, relaxing, beautiful, serene. Sometimes it’s a hardship, ugly, dirty, cacophonous.  I often feel dislocated, a little off kilter, because nothing is familiar.  Most times I like this; I feel my senses are heightened, I’m more present to the moment, I notice things I wouldn’t notice at home.  Other times, it can be drudgery.  But ultimately, I’m awake, I’m alive!

paddling through the caves

paddling through the caves

a mansion along Tam Coc

a mansion along Tam Coc

I think about my time in Cairo in 2007.  Egypt was a hardship.  In July, it was miserably hot, and being covered in long pants and long sleeves didn’t help.  Infrastructure was poor, the city was awash in dust and filth, the electricity was unreliable and sporadic, unexpectedly going off for hours at a time, several times a week.  Once a week at least, we had no hot water.  Internet service was slow and would cut off in the midst of a session.  Public transport and taxis were ancient and lacked air-conditioning.  Yet.  I felt more alive there than I had felt in a long time.  This is what I love about travel, that sharpened awareness, that immersion in cultures and different worlds.  It takes me out of my comfort zone, but it mesmerizes, it seduces, it jolts.

dinner at la badiane

dinner at la badiane

Finally, in the evening, I meet Ruth at her hotel and we go to a French restaurant, La Badiane, that Ryan and Thea recommended.  Ruth had to work today, but she also found time to go out and buy a warmer coat.  I am still cold.  We order a bottle of red wine and the whole set menu, with appetizers, main dish, & dessert.

appetizer at La Badiane

appetizer at La Badiane

The food is masterfully and artistically prepared.  Sadly, my memory is like a sieve and as I was enjoying myself too much to write down what I ate, I have forgotten.  But I swear it was delicious!!  We had an amazing time laughing and sharing our stories.  Thanks to Ruth, my day was saved!

Ruth & I have dinner at La Badiane

Ruth & I have dinner at La Badiane

As we’re taking our taxi back to the hotel, Ruth sees an Apple store and she needs something for her iPhone.  Next door, I see a camera store, so I run in to buy a new card for my camera.  I buy an 8MB card for about $25, but strangely, it comes in just a plastic case, with no cardboard packaging.  It isn’t sealed.  At the time, I don’t think much of it, but later, as you will see, this comes back to haunt me.  Ah, the perils of traveling and doing business in a foreign land.

Me at Tam Coc

Me at Tam Coc

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Categories: Asia, Hanoi, Hoa Lu, La Badiane, Tam Coc, Vietnam | Tags: , , , , | 1 Comment

fishing villages, the riff-raff edges of hanoi, and the green mango

Sunday, January 16: In the morning, we float among the descending dragon’s islets of jade.   My cabin gleams, its wood rich and brown and deep as the earth.  I’m in my down comforter cocoon.  The quiet is punctuated only by the lapping of tiny waves against the boat.  This is a time, this morning, when I savor  being alone, when I have moments to myself, but I know I can connect when I choose to.  I don’t mind being alone under these kinds of circumstances.  It’s only when I feel there is no one for me, no one to connect with, that loneliness haunts me.

Sunrise on Halong Bay

Sunrise on Halong Bay

Yes, I’m here on top of this water world, this bay of limestone and emeralds.  I love it.  Too much for words.  I lie in bed and soak it in, breathing the sea air, pulling the comforter close to ward off the chill seeping through the door.  I still taste the happiness I felt last night.  How, I wonder, can I have it again?  Why is it that I’m greedy?  Why can’t I just enjoy it when it comes without wanting it more, again and again?  Could Buddhism, I wonder, teach me to do this?

the morning after

the morning after

After breakfast, we go on bamboo boats through a floating fishing village.  In all of Halong Bay there are about 1600 residents of 4 fishing villages.  They live on floating houses and sustain themselves by fishing.  In this particular village, there are 59 floating houses and about 300 people.  They live here year round; they live with their children, who attend school at one little schoolhouse in the village, and their dogs, who protect what few belongings they have.  Ryan insists the dogs protect them from Somali pirates.

our bamboo boat operator

our bamboo boat operator

floating villages

floating villages

floating fishing villages

floating fishing villages

Most of the houses have generators for electricity, but they’re only allowed to use them from 7-9 each evening.  As we float past the villages in our bamboo boats, we can see flat screen televisions inside the huts, complete stereo systems.  Thanh has told us that generations live here, that their sole livelihood is fishing, that it’s a hard life.  I can believe it.  I can’t imagine living like this year round and rarely visiting land, or cities, or people outside this small community.

karsts and fishing villages

karsts and fishing villages

in the midst of the fishing village

in the midst of the fishing village

floating houses

floating houses

more colorful floating houses

more colorful floating houses

Before we came out on our boats, Thanh told us that there is a problem with the residents throwing “rabbits” in the water.  Several of us look at each other, baffled.  Rabbits?  Where would they get rabbits to throw in the water?  WHY would they throw these rabbits in the water?  I ask Thanh, probably with a “duh” look on my face: they throw rabbits in the water?  Thanh nods, Yes!  But one of our group knows what he is saying, “Rubbish, he’s saying they throw rubbish in the water.”  Ohhh.  That explains.  Thanh says Indochina Junk and other tour operators have a system set up to take away their rubbish.  To promote a green bay.  Bravo for them!

fishing villages

fishing villages

home sweet home

home sweet home

picturesque neighborhoods

picturesque neighborhoods

isolation

isolation

We stop near the little blue schoolhouse and go into a pearl shop where I see beautiful black and white watercolors of the fishing village for only $6, but since Thanh mentioned only that we should bring $3 to tip our boat operator, I have no other cash on me.  I have to pass up the watercolors, much to my regret.

kids who live in the floating fishing village

kids who live in the floating fishing village

bamboo boats

bamboo boats

a congregation of bamboo boats

a congregation of bamboo boats

more floating houses

more floating houses

I love the colors of the houses!

I love the colors of the houses!

rowing back to the Dragon Pearl

rowing back to the Dragon Pearl

me in the rowboat

me in the rowboat

boats docked at a floating house

boats docked at a floating house

We take a boat back to the Dragon Pearl, where we return to the dock and meet our van to return to Hanoi.

Ken, Ryan and Thea

Ken, Ryan and Thea

Christo and Julia

Christo and Julia

the two French boys

the two French boys

Ruth

Ruth

On the way back, we are all quiet in the van. Ken sleeps, Ruth reads, and I nap in between staring out the window, and closely observing, with clenched teeth, the harrowing chicken games on the road.  Out the window are the riff-raff edges of Hanoi.  Gray woolen skies.  Smoldering fires burning in open fields.  Women in conical hats bending over in rice fields with huge power grids in their centers.  Water buffalo grazing, oblivious to the slummy areas surrounding the fields.  Further along, more ladies in conical hats selling loaves of French bread hung on racks displayed along the highway, open to the elements, the pollution.  When the ladies make a sale, they bag the loaves in bright yellow plastic bags.  Many of these yellow bags have made their way into the unkempt patches of dirt and grass along the roadway, yellow blights yelping out to be noticed and hauled away.

All I know is that I feel a sore throat coming on.

Back in Hanoi we ride alongside the ceramic mosaic mural on the dyke beside Hanoi’s Red River.  The wall depicts scenes of the different periods of Hanoi, along with modern art work, children’s drawings, and paintings of Hanoi.  It is said to be the world’s largest ceramic mosaic.

the mosaic wall in hanoi

the mosaic wall in hanoi

the mosaic wall

the mosaic wall

I go back to my room at the Ngocmai, where I climb under the duvet and watch some TV, drink some orange juice, hope to feel better.  After a while, I go out to the fabulous Green Mango for a light dinner.   It’s an elegant and rich place, hung with draperies, dimly lit, with artistically stark dried flower arrangements.  Lonely Planet describes this place as having the feel of “an opium den.”

the green mango ~ rich and elegant

the green mango ~ rich and elegant

The wait staff all wear tee-shirts for a cause: Save the Cat Ba Langurs. The Cat Ba langurs are the most endangered primate species, with only about 53 individuals alive.  (Cat Ba Langur Conservation Project)

my waitress with the Cat Ba Langur T-shirt

my waitress with the Cat Ba Langur T-shirt

My dinner consists of beer, appetizer, salad, dessert, tea.  Grapes in goat cheese and cashew nut, Green Mango grilled prawn salad, lemon custard with strawberries and raspberries, chamomile tea.  The perfect ending to a perfect three days.

prawns salad

prawns salad

grapes with goat cheese and cashew nut

grapes with goat cheese and cashew nut

Categories: Cat Ba Langurs, floating fishing villages, Green Mango, Halong Bay, Hanoi, Indochina Junk, Vietnam | Tags: , , , | 1 Comment

junkin’ it on halong bay: the happiness cruise

Saturday, January 15: Winter in Hanoi is not winter in Korea, or even in Washington for that matter, but it’s cold enough.  Especially since I’ve brought only lightweight clothing.  Layers and layers, but cotton and knits, not wools and down.

some fellow junks on halong bay

some fellow junks on halong bay

Maybe because of this chilly and overcast weather, we are just three in the van cruising from Hanoi to Halong Bay .  Each on our own bench seat, we can stretch out like lazy cats and enjoy the ride.  Enjoy? Wait. We are driving slowly, as everyone seems to do in Hanoi, but the driver rolls across the center line and then lackadaisically meanders head-on toward the oncoming traffic.  At the last minute, he cuts smoothly  in front of the truck in the right lane, and continues on until the next time he repeats the same.  On this 4-hour drive, he plays chicken too many times to count. There seems to be some logical order to this kind of driving in Hanoi, but frankly, it doesn’t make for a very relaxing drive.

indochina junk

indochina junk

The road is chock-full of bicycles and motorbikes and slow-moving trucks piled high with all manner of tropical fruits, sugar cane, green leafy vegetables.  One couple whizzes by; the driver has a huge sack of rice between his legs.  Debris dots the roads, the businesses, the yards. Another motorbike scoots past with dead unplucked roosters piled high behind the driver. Weathered shacks and paint-chipped houses fly by.  At temples along the roadside, incense smoke spirals upward, prayers to the Buddha. The yellow haze of Hanoi follows and envelops us like an old ratty blanket, too threadbare to cushion any head-on collision.  Ruth comments on the ever-present haze: “At least it’s atmospheric!”

Ruth

Ruth

Ruth, a redhead who lives in Toronto but was raised in Australia,  is in the seat directly behind the driver.  She’s working in Hanoi for 3 weeks helping Vietnamese community colleges with strategic planning through a contract with the Canadian equivalent of USAID.  She’s close to my age and we immediately strike up a conversation, finding we have a lot in common.  She has teenage children in college, she’s been married and divorced twice, and she loves to travel.

Ken, the two French boys, Thea & Ryan

Ken, the two French boys, Thea & Ryan

Behind me, in the third seat, is Ken, a bearded New Yorker with a hearing aid who’s retired but traveling around the world, volunteering as he goes along.  Mostly teaching English, apparently.  He tells us that he was practically deaf for 5 years but had a cochlear implant.  Now he’s just “hard of hearing.”

We make a stop at a “happy room,” which is basically a shop for tourists that has a bathroom.  I buy a bunch of Vietnamese souvenirs, sucker that I am: a buffalo tusk bracelet, an alabaster box with a carved vine of pretty flowers, a leaf box, placemats, and a lacquer picture that looks like an impersonation of Gauguin.  Ruth buys some scarves.  We use the “happy room” and head on our way.

the dragon pearl III

the dragon pearl III

We arrive at Halong Bay and board a little motorboat that takes us out to the Dragon Pearl III, our own personal junk moored in the bay.  We luck out in that there are just 9 of us on a junk that holds 22.  We meet our fellow passengers, Julia and Christo from France, Pasqual and his friend (name forgotten), also French.  Thea and Ryan hail from Brooklyn; they’re a couple in their 30s who take one big trip every year.  Thea has her own public relations firm and Ryan works for a software company that enables online banking.  Ken, Ruth and I make nine.

halong bay ~ descending dragon

halong bay ~ descending dragon

cruising into Halong Bay on our junk

cruising into Halong Bay on our junk

When I first meet Ryan and Thea, they ask if I have kids and I say yes.  But I’m not the kind of mother whose life revolves around her kids.  Sometimes, I say, raising kids can be pure drudgery.  I think Ryan is taken aback by that and during the rest of the cruise, I feel he’s a little stand-offish, possibly judgmental.  They are in their 30s and of course see children in their future.

Halong Bay

Halong Bay

Underway on the boat, all polished dark wood and gleaming brass, our guide Thanh tells us there are 1969 islands in Halong Bay.  Its name means “descending dragon,” and it’s been recognized by UNESCO twice. As we cruise along, we marvel at the limestone karsts and isles that make Halong Bay famous. Legend has it that the gods sent a family of dragons to defend the land of Vietnam.  The dragons spit out jade and jewels which became the chain of islands that served as a blockade against Chinese invaders.  Later, the dragons settled here to live peacefully.  The place where the mother dragon descended is called Halong Bay.  It’s quite lovely looking out from our little junk, as we cruise along, at rock formations shaped like slit-eyed monster faces and other imaginary notorious creatures.

Thanh, our guide on the Dragon Pearl III

Thanh, our guide on the Dragon Pearl III

Our phenomenal 9-course lunch, which Thanh introduces to us by reading aloud the extensive menu, includes: soup with red beans and lotus seeds, slivered vegetable salad with carrot juice, Halong clam with fragrance smooth fruit and cilantro, oyster cakes with garlic sauce, deep-fried prawns with garlic and butter, steamed sea bass with soya sauce and vegetables, cabbage with garlic, steamed rice, and tropical fruits for dessert: passion fruit, watermelon and oranges.  I add a beer and a glass of red wine for good measure.

steamed sea bass

steamed sea bass

At lunch, we all share our travelers’ tales.  Thea and Ryan have been to South Africa; they loved Cape Town but not Johannesburg.  Ken went to Zimbabwe and Tanzania and loved Peru with Machu Pichu and its huge sand dunes and rain forests.  Ryan also loved Peru.   Thea and Ryan spent a couple of days in Tokyo on their way to Vietnam. They have often done home exchanges and say they did one with a couple in Montreal, which they loved.  Montreal is where Ruth’s kids go to college. Ruth tells about hiking the mountains in Morocco.

After lunch, we try to sit on the cushioned lounge chairs on the top deck, but it’s downright cold.  I walk around on the deck, shivering and taking pictures; I come across Ryan and Thea huddled under royal blue towels on the lounge chairs.

the lounge chairs on the deck ~ too cold to lounge!

the lounge chairs on the deck ~ too cold to lounge!

on the good ship dragon pearl

on the good ship dragon pearl

Wanting to be warm for a while, I retreat into my cozy cabin where I write a while and take a short nap.

my cabin on the dragon pearl III

my cabin on the dragon pearl III

After lunch, we are given the keys to our cabins and told we can settle in.  A little later, the crew instructs us to put on the rubber slippers in our cabin closets because we’re going to explore caves on a little island.  My slippers are about twice the length of my feet, so I feel like some kind of cartoon character harumphing about in them.

I feel like a little girl wearing my father's shoes

I feel like a little girl wearing my father’s shoes

the captain

the captain

ken, thea and ryan

ken, thea and ryan

the little island where we lay anchor

the little island where we lay anchor

another view of the junks on the bay

a view of the junks on the bay from the little island

our fearless group of nomads from dragon pearl III

our fearless group of nomads from dragon pearl III

the view climbing up the island

the view climbing up the island

view from the side of the island

view from the side of the island

the view of our junk, and others, from the path to the cave

the view of our junk, and others, from the path to the cave

On the little island, we climb a path to reach caves filled with, alas, stalagmites and stalactites.  Of course as in all things natural, rocks & clouds, we see familiar-shaped formations such as sea horses and dragons.

inside the cave

inside the cave

After exploring the cave, we clamber back down the path to the beach, where we don life vests and get into kayaks, promptly heading out into the rough and cold seas.  Ruth and I are not experienced kayakers. We zigzag through the choppy water, waves jumping into our boat at every opportunity.  Around the islands we go, paddling hard to keep up with the others, getting soaked and cold.

soaked and cold after our zigzag kayak trip

soaked and cold after our zigzag kayak trip

About halfway through the trip, Ruth and I see a path through the islands that looks like a shortcut back to our origination point; we ask if we can take it and then plow through.  Funny thing is, when we get back using the shortcut, the others, who have gone the long way, come in for a landing right behind us.  On the beach, we are welcomed by a rock formation shaped like a whale against the setting sun.

the whale on the island beach at sunset

the whale on the island beach at sunset

Another extravaganza at dinner.  Thanh again reads the menu aloud and tells us to get our cameras out as we will have much to see.  Ruth and I prepare to enjoy by ordering a bottle of red wine.  First, we’re served another fresh vegetable salad, covered delicately in some kind of spring-fresh sauce, cilantro abounding.  Then out come the spring rolls, accompanied by two herons carved out of turnips.  Prawns in a delicious sauce decorated by a dragon carved out of a pumpkin.  Crayfish, very messy to peel, but delectable.  Chicken, mackerel, rice, and more tropical fruits.  And the grand finale carving: a sailing junk carved from a watermelon.  Apparently, the chef spent three hours of his day carving these showpieces.

spring rolls with carved swans

spring rolls with two herons carved out of turnips

a dragon carved from a pumpkin ~ with prawns :-)

a dragon carved from a pumpkin ~ with prawns 🙂

At dinner, we’re all drinking wine and enjoying lively conversation.  Ryan marvels at Ruth’s eyes, tells her they are stunning.  Ryan and Thea tell how they met on jury duty where neither of them were actually chosen, but in a random twist of fate, they found they lived five doors down from each other on the same street in Manhattan.

Ken tells us he went deaf from being a child of the 60s: too much loud music and too many drugs!  We laugh about the drugs, questioning him as to what kind, and he replies:  “There are not many I didn’t know…”

the chef with his sailing ship carved out of watermelon

the chef with his sailing ship carved out of watermelon

We talk at great length about India, where Thea and Ryan went last year, and where I’m planning to go in March.  They say they hated Delhi: “It’s so in your face!”  But they adored Kerala, taking a house boat in Allepey: “it’s SO chill.”

the watermelon sailing ship :-)

the watermelon sailing ship 🙂

After dinner we go out to the deck, me wrapped in my black sweater and a royal blue towel ~  a fashion statement.  Ruth and I sit with the French couple.  Julia, short and squat and wrapped in a cream pashmina, has short blonde hair poking up in spots like a punk hairdo; she smokes and speaks French in a raspy voice.  She doesn’t know much English, but Christo does so he translates.  Ruth also speaks French quite capably and is able to carry on a halting conversation with both of them.  Julia has that French classiness and elegance about her, despite her age and being out of shape; she’s really quite chic in an old world sort of way.

Julia & Christo ~ the French lovebirds

Julia & Christo ~ the French lovebirds

Earlier they had mentioned their kids were 42 and 45; I can believe her kids can be that old, but not his; he definitely looks younger, but then men often do.   I say, I can’t believe you have 40-something kids!  You look too young!  Christo proceeds to tell us that there is a huge age difference between them; he is 51 and she is 70!! A 19 year age difference!  They’ve been married for 33 years;  he was 21 and she 40 when they got married, she a university professor and he her student, and they’ve been happy ever since.  We can all tell they are still madly in love, the little French lovebirds.  He is protective of her, like when we walked up the hills to the caves, he held her arm the whole time; he told Thanh that Julia didn’t care to go into the cave, so he wondered if we would exit through the entrance or through another exit.

When Christo tells me of their age difference and their long marriage, I say, Good for you!  I’m so impressed that you have lived your lives outside the box, outside of what is socially acceptable.  Bravo!  I comment that they have a “joie de vivre” that’s quite obvious and infectious.  I love the French lifestyle; as with most Europeans, they know how to truly enjoy life.

One of the two French boys (I know one is named Pasquale, but I don’t know which one, and the other’s name I don’t know!) is very quiet and the other is friendly and talkative and even a little flirtatious.  I’m thinking he’s quite cute.  But I’m unclear if the two are gay.  I can’t tell as I don’t see any physical affection expressed between them.  The one who’s quiet is such because he can’t speak much English, while the other (I’ll call him Pasquale) can speak English quite well.  The two boys go fishing for squid off the bow of the boat, coming up every so often to show off their tiny slimy catches.

Meanwhile, I am disappointed in my own inability to speak or understand the French that is flitting about in the night air, especially considering the years I spent in half-ass study.  It’s funny, I can understand Ruth’s Americanized version of French more than I can understand the French people’s speaking, in which all the words blend together in a string of unintelligible but lilting chatter.

happiness on halong bay

happiness on halong bay

Later, back in my cabin, I write a while, as I left my book behind in my suitcase at the Ngocmai Hotel.  I realize that today I feel quite intoxicated, high, not only from the bottle of wine I drank, but from life.   From two days surrounded by interesting and adventurous people.  From immersion in a fascinating culture.  I haven’t felt happy in a long time, and now at this moment I can claim true happiness, in this time and space, as my own.  I love meeting fellow nomads, soul-mate adventurers, sharing stories and our love of cultures.  I love sharing new experiences with other vagabonds.  We have a spirit connection, a thread of whimsy and a lust for life connecting us, dreamers all.

I’m floating, anchored, in the midst of whales and turtles and sea monsters in this bay of descending dragons.  My cabin is toasty and pristine, and I’m under a white-cloud duvet, on a bed of pure white, rich paneled walls surrounding me.  I try to draw the happiness I feel in my little notebook, but how does one draw happiness when one’s artistic ability is limited to stick figures, star doodles, hearts, musical notes, and smiley faces?  How can I capture this happiness, bottle it, and take it with me back home, to Korea, where happiness is elusive as a firefly?

Categories: Asia, Halong Bay, Indochina Junk, Vietnam | Tags: , , | 5 Comments

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