Siem Reap

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

imaginings of vietnam & cambodia ….

Here I am, Tuesday, January 11, 2011, sitting in Daegu, Korea and finalizing the details of my trip to Vietnam and Cambodia.  I leave this Thursday, January 13;  my plane takes off at 2:15 pm from Incheon and arrives in Hanoi at 11:15 the same evening, after a 5 hour layover in Guangzhou, China.  As usual, I am stressed out, as I always am before I travel; thinking of all the details makes my head spin. In addition to the regular stress, something has happened to my back; I didn’t do a thing, just got out of my bed after a nap on Sunday, and voila, I couldn’t move!  Why is it that I always get sick or get some physical pain right before I leave for a vacation?  So, in addition to being stressed because there’s not enough time to get everything ready, now I have to take the time to visit the hospital for physical therapy on my back!

I’m excited, as I always am, to travel to an exotic land.  But, I’m also feeling a little melancholy about this trip, mainly because of the extensive reading I’ve been doing to prepare. Vietnam and Cambodia are countries that have suffered unbearable trauma, some of this trauma in years that fall within my own lifetime.  I am a child of the Vietnam War-era; though I was too young to know & understand everything that was going on at the time, I remember the frightening images of the war on T.V.  I remember the student protests on U.S. college campuses, especially the Kent State massacre.  It seemed to me that the world was a crazy and scary place in those years of my youth.  In later years, in one of my writing classes, I read a great short story by Tim O’Brien, “The Things They Carried;” it told about the things American soldiers in the Vietnam war carried with them and the meanings behind these things, which in essence told the greater stories of the soldiers’ lives and the horrendous war they were part of.

Vietnam

There is still a lot I don’t know about Vietnam and Cambodia, but in the last several months, I’ve tried to immerse myself in the culture from afar, reading novels, guidebooks, memoirs, historical books and watching movies.  Before I started my recent reading binge, I had seen one movie about Vietnam that evoked a peaceful and slow-paced culture.  The 2000 movie, Vertical Ray of the Sun, was about 3 sisters and their families and their loves.  The movie is full of lush greenery, drenching rains, romantic scenes.  This movie has colored my imaginings of Vietnam since I saw it nearly 10 years ago.  Of course, when I was younger, I also saw violent Vietnam war movies, such as the 1979 film Apocalypse Now, Platoon, Good Morning, Vietnam, Born on the Fourth of July and others.

My Korean friend Kim Dong Hee had seen the movies Indochine and The Scent of Green Papaya, so she was determined that I should see those movies.  One night we went to the DVD bang and watched the 1992 French film Indochine, with Catherine Deneuve and Vincent Perez.  Set in 1930s French Indochina, it tells the tale of a love triangle between a rubber plantation owner, her adopted daughter and a younger French navy lieutenant.  The rising Vietnamese nationalist movement is the backdrop of the movie.   It’s a great movie that gave me a feel for Vietnam under the French Protectorate.

In that same vein, I’m currently reading a book by Uyen Nicole Duong called Daughters of the River Huong, that tells of 4 generations of women in the same family, beginning with the story of the Mystique Concubine of the King at the time when the French were in charge in Vietnam; the love story continues through to the modern-day.  I adore this book so far and am getting a feel for the beauty and the mystique of Vietnamese culture.

On the other hand, I read Catfish and Mandala, a memoir by Andrew X. Pham, a Vietnamese-American guy who bicycled all around Vietnam to explore his heritage.  He and his family escaped Vietnam after the fall of Saigon in 1975.  This book tells a true story of Vietnam from a victim’s perspective, with no gloss or glimmer.  The horrors visited upon families during the war are depicted here; when he returned to his home in 1989 for this trip, Vietnam was still a very poor country, rife with corruption and filth.  It’s a memorable and sometimes disturbing personal story of war and a search for roots and identity.  Some parts were difficult to read, but I’m glad I did, because I could really feel for Andrew’s struggles and the search for peace in his life.

When my son Alex came to visit in Korea, he brought me two movies, The Scent of Green Papaya and Three Seasons.  Finally, this past Friday night, Kim Dong Hee, who has been dying to see The Scent of Green Papaya for months, went with me to dinner at Little Italy across the road from my apartment.  We shared an entire bottle of wine and then took my DVD to 3 DVD bangs before we were able to find one that could play an American-made DVD.  We settled in to watch it.  It’s really a mood piece, depicting the simple daily lives of a Vietnamese family and a servant girl.  It has very little conversation and even less action.  After all the wine I drank, I’m sorry to say I fell asleep and missed parts of it!  Kim said it looked to her like I slept through the whole thing, but I think she’s mistaken because I remember a lot.   A lot of lush green leaves dripping with dew, green papayas, cooking, scrubbing of floors, and ants.  Taken from Wikipedia, here’s a plot description:

A young girl, Mui, becomes a servant for a rich family. The family consists of a frequently absent husband, a wife and two young boys. When the husband leaves, he takes all the household’s money. As Mui grows up, the family falls on hard times, and eventually she becomes a servant for a pianist who befriends the family. That man is engaged to be married, but he prefers playing the piano to spending time with his fiance. One night, after blowing off his fiance yet again, the pianist sleeps with Mui. The engagement is broken off. The pianist starts teaching Mui how to read and write. A pregnant Mui reads to her unborn child.

I read another book by Duong Thu Huong called Paradise of the Blind, the first Vietnamese novel published in the United States in 1988.  It is currently banned in Vietnam because of the political views expressed.  It tells the story of a girl whose family is torn apart by the Communist takeover, including the land reforms and the so-called Rectification of Errors.  The girl’s uncle is the primary culprit in the novel and is really the personification of the evils of Communism.  It’s a powerful book; it infuriated me to read it.

Last but not least, on Christmas Day, Myrna lent me her computer, since mine crashed two days before Christmas, and I watched the 1999 movie, Three Seasons, a movie that takes place in Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon, well after the war.  It tells intertwining tales of different Vietnamese characters in a changing Saigon, including that of an American ex-soldier who comes in search  of his lost daughter and a cyclo-driver who falls in love with a Vietnamese high-class call girl.  The movie may be somewhat romanticized but I found it also depicted the dark underbelly of the city, especially in the story of a little boy, Woody, who lived on the streets.  But the story was also a hopeful one, one that shows a Vietnam on the verge of a new life, caught up in modernization and globalization.

Finally, when I leave here on Thursday morning,  I will take along another book by Andrew X. Pham called The Eaves of Heaven, which I plan to read while I’m traveling, in between writing, seeing the sights, floating on a junk in Halong Bay, and eating some great Vietnamese food!

Cambodia

When I originally planned this trip, the only place I had in my imagination was Angkor Wat, in Siem Reap.  I had heard from various people that it could take 3 full days to see all the temple ruins, ruins that are engulfed by huge trees and their immense snake-like roots.  Pictures of this place have fired my imagination for years.  I really knew nothing about it except that it looked mysterious and beautiful.  Angkor Wat is a temple complex in Cambodia built for King Suryavarman II in the early 12th century.   It was originally a Hindu temple, then Buddhist, and is now the world’s largest religious building.   Restoration of the temples started in the 20th century, but was interrupted by civil war and Khmer Rouge control of Cambodia during the 1970s;  amazingly little damage was done to the complex during this time of upheaval.

I’m embarrassed to say I really didn’t know anything at all about Cambodia.  I remember hearing of America’s bombing of Cambodia during the war, but I didn’t understand Cambodia’s involvement or why we were bombing them.  My first introduction to the horrors of the Khmer Rouge was through the non-fiction book called First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers, written by Loung Ung, Cambodian author and survivor of the Pol Pot regime.  It’s an intense and highly disturbing account of her personal experience during the years of Khmer Rouge rule.  I was so shocked by this book, and especially shocked by my own ignorance of what happened during these years of the 1970s.  These horrors were happening in Cambodia shortly after I graduated from high school and during my college years, while I was partying and studying and enjoying life to the fullest.  How could I have been so blind to what was happening in the world at this time?  Loung Ung was a mere 5 years old when the Khmer Rouge emptied the entire city of Phnom Penh and sent everyone to the countryside to work in the fields.  She saw her parents and siblings die in the Killing Fields of Cambodia;  she saw horrors no child should ever see, suffering starvation and humiliation under this terrible regime.

Here is Loung Ung’s personal website: Loung Ung

In the midst of reading this book, I became intensely curious to know more and so I watched another horribly upsetting 1984 movie, The Killing Fields, which I had never seen before.  The film opens in 1973 in Phnom Penh when the Cambodian national army is fighting the Khmer Rouge.  The story follows three journalists, two of whom include Cambodian Dith Pran and American Sydney Schanberg. Later the movie moves ahead to 1975, when the international embassies are being evacuated in anticipation of the Khmer Rouge invasion of the capital.  When the Khmer Rouge demands that all Cambodian citizens be turned over, the other journalists try desperately to forge a passport for Dith Pran, identifying him as a British journalist.  Their attempts fail, and Pran is turned over to the Khmer Rouge; he barely survives the next years under the horrible conditions as a captive of the totalitarian regime.  He endured four years of starvation and torture before Vietnam defeated the Khmer Rouge in 1978.  Dith Pran died at age 65 in 2008, years after he managed to escape from the Khmer Rouge death camps. He coined the phrase “killing fields” to refer to the clusters of corpses and skeletal remains of victims he encountered during his 40-mile escape. His three brothers and one sister were killed in Cambodia.

Finally, I read another book by Cambodian author Somaly Mam, called The Road of Lost Innocence.  Somaly herself was sold into sexual slavery at a young age and endured a horrible existence in the brothels of Phnom Penh.  She managed to escape with the help of a French humanitarian worker who became her husband.  She has worked tirelessly in her adult life to help other Cambodian girls who have been sold, often by their own parents, into sexual slavery, and she founded the organization AFESIP Cambodia (Acting for Women in Distressing Situations): AFESIP

Here is an article written by Mariane Pearl about Somaly Mam in the August 2006 issue of Glamour magazine:  Global Diary: Cambodia

All of these books about Cambodia were intensely disturbing and opened my eyes to a part of history I’m sad to say I knew nothing about.   With so much depth added to my body of understanding and knowledge, I actually became more curious about Cambodia and decided I wanted to explore Phnom Penh as well as Angkor Wat.  Thus I changed my plans to spend 5 1/2 days in Cambodia and 4 days in Vietnam, as opposed to splitting my time evenly as I first planned.

The last thing that happened very recently was the mass stampede at the Khmer Water Festival that killed over 300 people in Phnom Penh on November 22 of this year.  Apparently, according to a Cambodian journalist, the panic was caused by police firing a water cannon onto a bridge jammed with people.  He said police fired the canon to get people to move off the bridge when it started swaying, which caused a panic.

So much sadness in Cambodia and Vietnam.  I am hoping to find more optimistic places on my journey.  Hoping to believe in, to find evidence of, the resilience of the human spirit!

Here is my itinerary:

January 13-14 & January 17-18: Hanoi Ngoc Mai Hotel: Address: : 07-17 Cua Dong str., Old Quarter, Hoan Kiem Dist, Hanoi, Vietnam

Tel: (84-4) 3923 1931/39231932 – 3828 6236/38282605
January 15-16: Indochina Junk on Halong Bay (The Dragon’s Pearl Junk): Indochina Junk

January 18-20: Villa Langka in Phnom Penh: Villa Langka

January 20-23: Auberge Mont Royal in Siem Reap: Auberge Mont Royal d’Angkor

Categories: Angkor Wat, Cambodia, Halong Bay, Hanoi, Phnom Penh, Siem Reap, Vietnam | Tags: , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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