South Korea: Part 16 and FINAL A Day in Seoul, backtracking (by elephant) and parting thoughts

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Our original concept for the stopover in Seoul was simple: we were using Korean Air, whose hub is in Seoul. Why not get off the airplane, break up the return flights so that we would not be so exhausted, and spend a day and night in Seoul? We probably should have thought a little harder about that “not being exhausted” part. On the day before, we had gotten up before dawn for our aborted sunrise Angkor Wat experience, and the day was busy after that. Our intent was to sleep on the overnight flight between Siem Reap and Seoul, but we did not get in the air until 11:25 PM. The flight was less than five hours in duration, hardly time to get a good night’s sleep. Then there was a two hour time difference between Siem Reap and Seoul, so while we hit the ground at 6:35 AM, it felt like 4:35 AM to us. Not our best plan.

The Koreans let you know right off the bat how the toilets are supposed to work in their modern city.

Another awesome sign that we saw but didn’t get a photograph of said, “Korean War Veterans, you will always be our heroes.”
In our bleary eyed state, we got into the wrong immigration line. By the time we discovered our rookie blunder, an entire planeload of Saudis had gotten in front of us in the foreigner line. Some of the ladies were wearing the full hijab, with nothing but their eyeballs peeking out. South Korean immigration was having none of that, of course, so each lady was having to discreetly uncover her face for the mandatory photo. It took so long that by the time we finally got through, our flight was not even listed on the bag carousel arrival board any more. We had to go to lost and found to collect our bags.

We met our guide, a lovely lady whose “western handle” was Inis, and began our tour immediately. She told us that our hotel would not be ready until mid-afternoon so we had some time to kill. Our itinerary had listed five different activities, but we knew right off the bat that this would be too ambitious. We asked her to explain them in more detail and we picked our top three.

The drive from Incheon Airport into the heart of Seoul took about an hour. Ines could see that we were fried, so she let us ride into town in silence. Genene put her head down and caught a few zzz’s. I think Greg and I did the same. We stopped first at a Starbucks-like coffee shop in the central city and got some strong coffee and pastries. We were surprised to find that English is not as commonly spoken here as it is in Thailand and Cambodia, but there was English on the posted menus. We were able to point at what we wanted and soon the caffeine was coursing through our veins. Even Genene got a cup of java.

Our first tourist stop was Cheongye Plaza, located at the starting point of the “restored” Cheonggyecheon Stream. The public space is actually an urban renewal project. After the Korean War, this area developed so rapidly that the original stream was covered up by transportation infrastructure. The government spent over $900 million to “rebuild” the dried-up stream, pumping water from the Han River up to the new headwater. The water flows back down to the Han, the ultimate in recycling. The project was very controversial when it opened in 2005 but has become a popular meeting place and recreational area for Korean people. It’s a bit like their version of Memorial Park, a place to stroll and run, to see and be seen.

 

22 bridges span the stream, and some of them are quite old. We walked underneath Gwangtonggyo Bridge, which was one of the most important and busiest bridges in Seoul during the Joseon Dynasty when markets could be found lining both sides. Construction of the bridge began in 1410 by King Taejong, who used the stones from the dismantled tomb of his stepmother Queen Sindeok. His disrespect of her tomb was intentional: he was repaying her for supporting her son–his half-brother– against King Taejong for the throne. King Taejong had her demoted posthumously from second wife to royal concubine. The stones with the visible carvings are from Queen Sindeok’s tomb.
Seoul is large and has a very modern feel, with its tall, metal skyscrapers. Over 10 million people live here. It makes Houston look like a quaint little village.
The Spring sculpture in the plaza put me in the mind of a seashell.

 

Our second stop was Gyeongbok Palace, where we were just in time to see the ceremonial changing of the guard. The palace was originally built by the first Yi Dynasty King, Taejo (circa 1395), and it served as a royal residence for nearly 200 years. Sadly, the original palace was destroyed by fire in the late 1500’s, and the area was abandoned until the 1800’s, when it was rebuilt. The Japanese came along in the early 20th century and wrecked it again, but the Koreans are gradually restoring the palace complex buildings to their original forms and locations.

There is no more monarchy, and South Korea is a constitutional republic, complete with three branches of government and a president. The guard changing ceremony is strictly ceremonial. It was colorful and beautiful on this fine morning.

This guy really made this shell sing!
The throne where the king would have sat when receiving guests at the palace.
The ceiling was painted ornately.
The dragon image was recessed into the ceiling in the middle of the palace. This dragon has seven claws, more than a Chinese imperial dragon. Was the Korean king trying to play a little game of one-up-you?
The Korean tiger looks more whimsical than some of his Thai or Cambodian counterparts.
Ines told us the story of the nobleman who was annoyed at never having been invited to the king’s parties in the reflecting pool area. He climbed the fence at night to enjoy the beautiful view for himself and was busted by the king. The king asked the nobleman why he should not be put to death on the spot. The nobleman did not have a great response, but he did have a parlor trick: he had memorized a 300 page book, which he recited word for word to the king. The king listened to the entire book and decided to make the man an advisor to his court. It’s always good to have an impressive trick up your sleeve.
We stopped at the Chinese zodiac and found our fortunes. Genene was born in the year of the monkey.
Greg is a dragon.
I am, of course, a snake. (Aren’t all lawyers snakes?)
We took a brief tour of the Korean Folk Museum, where we learned about the ancient customs of the Korean people.
A marriage bed:
When a child turns one year old, a big party is held. Various items are set out before the child, who is then allowed to pick: grab the book and junior is going to be a lawyer; grab the coins and his destiny is a banker; and so on. The ancient tradition continues today, only today’s child uses a computer mouse to scroll around and point to his or her future profession. It’s all in good fun these days.
Our third stop of the day was the antique market, an open air street market filled with souvenir shopping opportunities. We strolled up and down the street, but nothing spoke to us so we left Seoul empty handed, as far as souvenirs go.

Some young people had a display of “One Dream One Korea”, their dream for the reunification of the Koreas. They asked us to leave our handprints and a message. We left them our best wishes from the US. We hope they achieve their lofty goal, though it seems unlikely in this political climate.

At the entrance to the market, the young people stood with their “One Dream One Korea” placards, and a map of Korea was laid out on the ground. Any time a person walked across the map, they cheered and cheered.
These men were making a dessert confection from spun honey. The honey is pulled until it is in thin threads, much like cotton candy. Then almonds or other nuts are folded into the candy to make the dessert. We were headed to lunch, so we did not try any. I wish we had.
Ines took us to a real bibimbap restaurant, where the Korean staple was served in hot stone bowls.
The meal came with soup, many vegetable sides and kimchi, the traditional spicy sour fermented vegetable dish. This picture of Genene is very unflattering, but the food looks good!
After lunch, we were the walking dead. Our bellies were full of hot food, and we were running on four hours of sleep. All we wanted was to find a bed and have a nap. Ines could see our despair and called the hotel again. They agreed that we could check in at 2:30, so we needed one small after-lunch distraction. Ines had just the thing. She wanted to show us Seoul’s newest architectural wonder, the Dongdaemun Design Plaza, also called the DDP. The DDP is a major urban development landmark designed by Iraqi British architect Zaha Hadid and Korean studio Samoo. It’s all curves with a futuristic design. Some people think it looks like a spaceship. Others liken it to a funhouse. Each of the exterior panels is unique in size and shape and had to be manufactured specially for the space. Like the rebuilt stream, this project was controversial due to its cost and scope. It’s done now though, and the South Koreans are proud of the results. The New York Times featured the DDP prominently in a recent article about Seoul entitled “52 Places to See in 2015.” I felt very trendy just being there! It has 900,000 square feet of exhibit space and is used for design and art exhibitions.
 
Genene particularly enjoyed the interior of the DDP. There were many winding staircases and hallways, and they had many prototypes of chairs to sit in. Some were suitable to spin around in. Others could be lounged in. Genene tried them all.

At long last, Ines got word that our hotel room was ready. I hated that we were not doing this great modern city justice, but we were all just exhausted and wanted a nap. We were staying near the DDP at the Shilla, and it took only a few minutes to arrive. Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie stay in the Presidential Suite at the Shilla when they are in Seoul. We are not so fancy: ordinary people get an ordinary room.

The lobby area at the Shilla had at least 100 people in it, and I am not exaggerating. I felt like I had arrived late to the AWBD summer conference check-in. We noticed that there was a man stationed at each of the revolving doors with a camera pointed at everyone walking in. Turns out the cameras were infrared scanners. South Korea has had an outbreak of the viral disease Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), and the hotel was taking no chances. If the camera picked up the fact that someone had fever, they weren’t getting into the hotel. I thought it was a sensible precaution.

Ines helped us to navigate through the checkin, and we were soon in our nicely appointed room. Ines gave us some advice on where to have dinner and told us that she would see us in the morning and take us to the airport. She took leave of her walking dead clients.

We wasted no time taking a shower and getting into our skivvies. We discovered to our delight that our room had one of those fancy Korean Smartlets, also known as the smart toilet. It had more buttons than an Amish woman’s dress.

What do they all mean? Who knows?
The inside of the toilet was also lighted. Do I really need that?
I was afraid to use anything other than the basic bidet function on the pot. After all, I really didn’t want to bare my backside and press a mystery button. What if it grabbed me? Genene was much more adventurous. She is, after all, of the younger generation. Technology doesn’t frighten her; it emboldens her. Before long, she had most of the functions figured out, including the adjustable temperature of the bidet water, the “reach” of the bidet arm, and the like. It was hilarious to listen to her in the bathroom, giggling and squealing as she pressed each button. My favorite moment was when she exclaimed, “Mom, it’s blowdrying my butthole!!!” (Sorry, was that too much information?)
Anyway, we took a nice long nap and awoke in the late day, refreshed and, as usual for the Gordons, hungry. We were on the hunt (with our clean and blowdried backsides) for either Korean barbeque or fried chicken. Seoul is known for both. We chose barbecue at Song Won, a neighborhood restaurant down the hill from the Shilla. Again, we found that no English was spoken, but the menus had English words and, more importantly, pictures. We were able to make ourselves understood with gestures.
Greg had the Kloud beer while the charcoals glowed on the table.
Our waitress put the savory meat on the grill right in front of us, and the delightful side dishes came soon after.
We had not had much red meat in Cambodia or Thailand, and I guess we must have been missing it because we went to town on this meal. It was the highlight of our short stay in Seoul. We were proud of ourselves for finding a good restaurant and navigating the menu. We figured that any place that had been in busy since 1979 was probably good!
We strolled back through the neighborhood.
There was a steep flight of stairs back up the hillside to our hotel, and we stopped at the top to get this shot.

This was the view from our room.

We sat out our airplane traveling clothes and gathered our gear. Tomorrow we return to reality.

 

Monday, August 10, 2015

Our day began early. Inis and the driver met us at the hotel at 6:00 AM. We would have to get breakfast in the airport. The return trip to Incheon Airport took about an hour, and we passed over the mudflats. Ines described General Douglas MacArthur’s bold move during the Korean War to launch an amphibious attack at Incheon. Other UN generals expressed serious misgivings, because Incheon’s terrain was unforgiving. The entrances to Incheon were narrow and therefore easily mined. The water became mudflats during low tide and could easily trap a vessel. MacArthur explained that because the area was so heavily defended, the enemy would not expect an attack there. A victory in this northern strong point would cut off North Korean supply and communication lines, and a brutal winter campaign could be avoided. MacArthur got his way, and the attack was a success. Seoul was eventually recaptured by the South after a protracted land battle. Everyone knows how the story ends: with two Koreas. Those in the South are grateful to MacArthur that they have their democracy because without the battle at Incheon, the North Koreans might have won it all.

During some part of her discussion, Ines had mentioned “our brothers in the North.” Greg questioned her about this, saying: “Do you really think of them as your brothers?” Her answer was unwavering and unequivocal: “Oh yes, they are, quite literally, our brothers and sisters. Their government is stupid, and they are its victims, but they are our people.” She went on to describe, in moving detail, the issue of family separation between North and South Korea. I had never thought about this before. North and South Korea are technically not at peace; all these years later, they are at “cease fire.” When the borders closed between the two countries, entire families were cruelly separated. Husbands who had gone south for work and left their wives and children back north could not return. Siblings were separated from each other. Sons and daughters were separated from their parents. These people have not seen their families since the early 1950s! An effort was undertaken a few years ago to schedule family reunions. The government of North Korea is the sticking point. When the program began, 130,000 people applied for the chance at a family reunion. Getting the North Korean government to agree to a reunion is tricky, so they do not occur even once a year. When they do, the North Korean government grants only 100 applications. The reunion must take place in North Korea, for obvious reasons. If the good citizens of the North ever got the opportunity to go South, they might not go back. Ines explained that they know from intelligence that those families from the North who are selected are carefully “trained” in what to say and how to act. They must leave at least 1/3 of the food that is offered to them (to illustrate that they are not starving). They learn to repeat “I love it in North Korea.” They are given a new suit to wear so that they look presentable. Meetings are in large hotel banquet hall settings and are often awkward because the North Koreans know they are being watched by their government and even filmed. The people are getting very old, and their parting wish is often something along these lines: “Take care of yourself so that you can live until we can see each other again, when our country is one.” Ines showed us some youtube videos of the reunions, and they are heartbreaking to watch. The family members, now in their 80’s and 90’s, are together for a few hours before they are separated again, and they embrace and sob pitifully.

For the third time on this trip, I had tears in my eyes. I thought I wasn’t a crier! Greg cries at the Folger’s coffee Christmas commercial, so he was a complete goner. The tears were rolling down his face. As we got to the airport, Ines apologized for telling us such a sad story. We told her it was a perfect story. We come to foreign countries to learn about the people, whose lives are often so different from our own. The stories are not always happy ones, but they are real and meaningful.

The Korean Air representative in Siem Reap had given us a set of boarding passes for Seoul to Houston, and this turned out to be a huge boon. The checkin line was massive, but because we were already checked in, we got to go straight to the bag check line, which was much more manageable. Ines waited with us until we got the bags dropped. Incheon uses a slightly different procedure for checking bags. I am accustomed to simply dropping bags off and then racing toward the xray machines and gates. Incheon asks that you wait in a separate area for 5 minutes until your checked bags are inspected. In this way, if they find something they need to discuss with you in your checked bags, you are still close by. We waited the 5 minutes, and our name was not called, so Ines told us it was fine to proceed on to the gate.

While we waited, we commented to Ines on how well we had been treated by Korean Air and how beautiful their flight attendants are. She verified my suspicions: the ladies are selected based upon a beauty and style standard. They must wear their uniforms and their hair a certain way until they get inside their own home. The women are highly sought after by the men in South Korea, and it is a big brag if your girlfriend is an attendant for Korean Air. Boyfriends must take their women to and from the airport, and Ines says you can see the gaggles of men waiting outside. If the men do not treat their Korean Air women right, they can be “easily replaced.”

We said our goodbyes, and she taught Genene the Korean word for it. We made it to the gate in time for some pastries and hot coffee. The flight back was uneventful. We had another chance for bibimbop, which Greg took but I passed on. I had it in Seoul!

We left Seoul at 9:30 AM on Monday morning and after 13+ hours of flying, we arrived in Houston at 8:30 AM on Monday. We got back before we left! Global Entry was a breeze, although we got diverted to Agriculture because we disclosed that we had been in contact with farm animals. The Agriculture department was dead on Monday morning, and it took only a little time for them to xray our bags to make sure we weren’t bringing in a dead chicken or a pig’s foot. We stepped out into the Houston heat (which seemed like nothing) and grabbed an Uber ride from a young man who looked like he had been chugging Red Bull all night. He drove well though, and his car was clean and air conditioned. I have found Uber rides to be much superior to cab rides in Houston. I have been on many dangerous, hot, careening cab rides in our fair city, and Uber seems tame in comparison. It’s cheaper too!

We were home by midmorning, and Nala the wonderdog greeted us with squeals and whines of delight. The cats meowed incessantly and rubbed around our legs. I spent the rest of the day doing laundry, deleting or managing the 1300 work emails that came in while I was gone, and preparing for work. I will go in tomorrow morning and start “being real” again.

BACKTRACKING ON THE ELEPHANTS

I usually take my blogs in chronological order, but I have to go back to the elephant camp for a moment. Thai Elephant Camp had a photographer following us on our rides, and at the end we got a fully loaded DVD. I blog from an iPad, so I did not have access to the images until we returned stateside. Some of them are really good, so I must share. Also, because I am the photographer, I do not appear in the blog much, so these photos are a special treat for me (and my parents).

Here’s our Day 1 crew. I’ll leave you to identify the honeymooners, the French and the California boys.

When I die, I want one of these next three pictures sitting on my casket at the funeral!
At the lunch stop on Day 1:
Elephant kisses:
Mud spa:
We rubbed this elephant stem to stern with the black mud. Thai Elephant Home elephants have the best skin in Thailand.
When the guides showed the photos to all of us after the ride, these next two were particular favorites, eliciting much laughter from our group. I had no idea I was making those faces. I look like Grumpy Cat.
The mahouts made leaf hats for us. Greg looked particularly fetching in his.
My little girl is not so little any more.
I posted this one on Facebook, and several people have already said it should make the family Christmas card.
This last shot was taken just after our last ride. You can see the elephants walking away, back down to the paddock. You cannot see–but they are there–the tears in my eyes.

 

PARTING THOUGHTS:

What more can I say? A 16 part blog with hundreds of photos–maybe I should just shut up.

No way! It’s time for random observations.

Things that tickle: elephant kisses and fish spas.

Immigration officials can ruin your day in a heartbeat.

The man reading the paper is always the boss.

Tea that is designed to “restore balance” to your body will taste like crap.

Planting rice is backbreaking work.

Smart toilets are fun!

Thai massages hurt.

A Bangkok driver needs 10 eyes.

An elephant makes a big poop.

Men can go to war over a two-foot tall jade statue.

Red ants and beef are delicious.

Roaches crawling on your feet are not fun.

Mangosteens are the second best fruit in the world, right behind the Arkansas Elberta peach.

It’s Myanmar, not Burma!

I would be remiss if I did not mention our travel agents at Asia Transpacific Journeys. We decided to interview them after researching on the internet. We exchanged emails and had one phone conversation with their consultant, Jen Boyd. She asked us detailed questions about what kind of travelers we are and what our expectations were. After that, she produced the initial itinerary, which wowed us immediately. It was just what we wanted! We never interviewed any other companies. When someone “gets you,” you go with it! Their services were first rate in every way. We never had to wonder what was going to happen next. Every guide and driver showed up on time and in place. If you want professionals to customize a journey to Asia for you, I recommend them whole-heartedly. http://www.asiatranspacific.com/

Genene is getting ready to start middle school in two days. She is going to Awty International School, which will be a big sea-change from life at our local public elementary school where she happily spent the last six years. Awty is popular with the expat community, and people from more than 50 nations attend the school. I hope Genene’s travels will stand her in good stead at Awty. We are all very nervous and excited about the changes. Can vacation help with education? I know it certainly is a lot of fun, but maybe she is learning something too, if only how to say hello in several languages.

Back to our journey for just a moment: the people we met along the way were so friendly and warm. In particular, the Cambodians keep sticking in my mind. How can they greet everyone with such warm, friendly and open faces when the scar of genocide is still so fresh? They speak of it openly, in the hope that it can never happen again. I hope and pray they are right.

Will I buy another shirt made in Thailand? I’m sure that I will, but I will never do it again without thinking of the man who sews them day in and day out.

As for Amparo and Polo, “We’ll always have Siem Reap.” (I love Casablanca.)

I hope that someday Korea can be one so that all the torn families can be reunited.

I hope that Borin gets his house.

I hope that TJ remembers me when I come to ride her again.

Sawadee kha!

 

Cambodia: Part 15 Angkor Wat and Tonle Sap and saying goodbye

Saturday, August 8, 2015

Our schedule called for sunrise at Angkor Wat, and we were excited that the big day had finally arrived. Unfortunately, no one told the weatherman about our excitement. We awoke at 4:30 AM to a driving rain, complete with thunder and lightning. We had no idea what our guide would do so we continued getting dressed so that we could be ready to depart by 5:00 AM. Ten minutes before five, Borin called and told us to go back to bed. It was a frog-strangler, and there was no point in getting out in it. The sunrise would not be visible, and it was lightning. We made a new plan. He told us we would reconvene after breakfast at 8:00 AM and head straight over. We were disappointed not to see the iconic sunrise at Angkor Wat, but we knew we had come to Cambodia in the monsoon season. This is not the high season for tourists in Thailand and Cambodia, but it’s when we could come. With Genene in school, we have to take our vacations in the summer. The off season does have its charms. Crowds are not as large. The afternoon rain cools things down. Everything is very green. Anyway, we weren’t going out in monsoon rains, so we shucked off our clothes and went back to bed. Genene was happy to do so. When she was younger, she popped out of bed every morning with the sun. She’s not quite a teenager now, but she seems to require sleep like one.

After breakfast at the hotel, Borin and the driver picked us up on the dot at 8. The rain had stopped, so our fortunes were improving. On the way out of town, we passed by the Royal Gardens in the heart of Siem Reap. Borin had the driver stop so that he could show us the thousands of fruit bats hanging from the trees. The trees looked alive with the squirming creatures, and you could hear the squealing, squeaking noise quite clearly from the ground. This photo is not great because my camera lens was completely fogged up from the humid morning. Most days started this way. The camera stayed in nice air conditioned comfort all night (as did we), and when I took the lens camp off each morning, I had to wait about 5-7 minutes for the condensation to dissipate.

It took only a few minutes to get to Angkor Wat, and we already had our three-day pass to the monuments so we drove right up to the entrance. We were in the thick of things with the Saturday tourists, but Angkor Wat is so large it can accomodate a crowd. In fact, by some measures, it is the largest religious complex in the world. The temple complex is rectangular, and the dimensions are 0.9 miles by 0.8 miles. The central sandstone monument occupies only 5% of that area. The rest of the area within the moat and wall is today largely forested. Archeologists are using LIDAR data in Cambodia and have determined that the inner city area was once covered by wooden galleries and pavilions, long since reclaimed by the jungle.

The moat is 620 feet wide, and the excavated soil was used to make the imposing mountain temple. Unlike other Khmer wats, Angkor Wat faces west into the setting sun. There are several theories about why this was done: one theory holds that it was faced toward the former capital city. Another theory holds that the temple was dedicated to Vishnu, who is sometimes associated with the west. The most commonly accepted theory is that King Suryavarman II, who commissioned the temple, built it as his tomb or funerary. Thus it would face west toward the setting sun, symbolizing his death. Its western orientation is what makes the sunrise visit so attractive to photographers.

We approached from the west, climbing the steps of the cross-shaped naga terrace and onto the causeway.

Angkor Wat represents the height of Angkor civilization. King Suryavarman II ruled from 1112 to 1152, and the elaborate temple was built during his reign. According to Borin, the Angkor Wat complex took only 37 years to build. It is a source of great pride to the Cambodian people, and an image of Angkor Wat appears on their national flag.

The building survived the country’s civil strife with a few bullet holes.

Meet the 8-armed standing Vishnu, to whom the temple is dedicated. He is an object of veneration for Cambodians even today. He is locally known as Ta Reach.
Again, I was amazed at the stone work. Note that there is no room to slip in even a credit card. Also note that some ding-dongs have carved their names and initials into the soft stone. Morons are everywhere.
Some early efforts at restoration using concrete are clearly visible.
A library on the grounds:
The light was hazy, which frustrated me as a photographer because it sometimes made capturing the colors challenging. I turned this image into a black and white to try to compensate.
Family photo:
The galleries and their bas-relief carvings are stunning in scope and intricacy.
Another battlefield scene:
It’s never a good day when you get your face bitten off by a monkey (I hate it when that happens!):
This beautiful devata is carved into the wall panel. Can you see that she is baring her teeth? That is apparently rather unusual.
Another battle scene:
Detail upon detail upon detail, carved into the soft stone. How many hours of labor must have gone into these galleries? Who were the artists? Only their work remains.
As we toured the galleries, the sun came out and the tourists prowled the terraces.
We can tell that this is a king for several reasons: the parasols over his head indicate royalty. He is carved larger than the surrounding people. And he’s getting fanned. An ordinary guy never gets fanned.
Owls hidden in the leaves of the trees:
Birds and deer:
What happens when the sculptor makes an error? The chunk is removed, and a new carving is made and popped into place.
Unfortunately, as Borin explained, for many years Angkor Wat was “unsupervised.” Peasants sometimes believed that these replaced areas were a hiding place for jewels, and they would pop them out. Holes like this are visible in several places throughout the galleries.
In this photo, you can see some damage from water intrusion. Maintaining Angkor Wat and preventing its deterioration is an ongoing, large-scale project that requires the cooperation of UNESCO, Cambodia, and the governments of several other countries.
Borin explains a scene from the gallery:
The next set of bas-relief will stay in my memory forever because of how Borin related them to Cambodia today. The so-called Judgment of Yama depicts the three levels of human existence: on the top are the 37 heavens, filled with palaces, princes, princesses, and good times. In the middle is earth, where we all live. At the bottom are 32 hells, filled with starving people being tormented by devils.
This is Yama, judge of the dead. He sends the souls to various stops between reincarnations. This version of hell was much scarier and more graphic than the scene we saw on the mural in Thailand.
Borin then made the story real. “We had our own hell here in Cambodia,” he said. He told us about the Khmer Rouge genocide and the years of hell that his country endured. When the United States declared victory, fired up the heicopters and left Vietnam in 1975, they left a power vacuum in the entire region, and Cambodia was already in turmoil. Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge were ready and waiting. Pol Pot was educated in Paris and there met radical Marxist revolutionists. His version of communism was more than radical: it was maniacal and brutal. Pol Pot imagined that Cambodia could be transformed into a peasant-dominated agrarian cooperative. The entire population of Phnom Penh and other provincial towns was marched into the countryside to work as slaves. Even the sick, old and children were not spared. Educated people in particular were feared and mistrusted and were often executed on the spot. Disobedience meant instant death. Pol Pot declared Year Zero, abolished the currency and closed the post offices. The country cut itself off from the world, and for three years, eight months, and 20 days, the Khmer Rouge conducted its bloody genocide in the so-called “killing fields” of Cambodia. Finally, in 1979, the Vietnamese invaded, toppling Pol Pot’s regime, though he lived for many years in the countryside. When it was over, 3 million people were dead. Borin told us that every family in Cambodia was touched. His father had five brothers and sisters but was the only sibling in his family who survived. His mother lost her uncle and his entire family. He explained that you don’t see many old people in the country, because so many of them were killed. The country is at peace now, though many younger people think the current prime minister has been in power too long. Over 40% of the current population is under 16. More changes are coming to the country. I hope they will be peaceful.
The ancient scenes of torture in the gallery walls now seem contemporary.
Hand and feet bound together:
Spikes driven into stretched bodies:
Bodies beaten and tortured:
Well, that was depressing. We sat down for a few minutes in one of the shaded galleries, drank some water and gathered our thoughts. There was still a lot more to see.

Though highly skilled, the Khmer architects did not discover the self-supporting arch that the Romans used. They used corbelling to span the spaces, placing successive blocks 1/4 to 1/3 of their length projecting inward until the two sides met. Consequently, arches are narrow, and the roof is heavy.

We saw several renditions of this next mural throughout the Angkor complex, and even in Thailand. It’s called “Churning the Ocean of Milk.” The gods lined up on one side and the demons on the other. Vishnu riding on a tortoise occupied the center spot and acted as the referee. They pulled on the snake named Vasuki, who was coiled around Mount Mahendra. Their goal was to churn the ocean until the amrita, the nectar of life, came up. Those who drink it would have immortal life. (Is that you, Indiana Jones?) A ton of other creatures, good and bad, came up from the ocean’s depths during the churning. In the end, Vishnu abandoned his neutrality and helped out the gods. I think a couple of the demons stole a drink or two.
Churn!
Steady, boys!
Churn!
 
The haze burned off and the sky turned blue.
I think these are apsaras, the dancers. To me, it is difficult to tell them from devatas. The devata is a temple guardian, while the apsaras are dancers. If she looks like she’s gonna bust a move, she’s an apsara.
We waited in line to climb to the very top tower. Only a certain number of people can be at the top at once, so the guides do not typically accompany their charges. Borin had prepared us well, because only those who are dressed appropriately are allowed to go. We saw the guards walking the line and telling many ladies in shorts, “Not permitted.” One lady tried to tie a shawl around her waist to make a skirt, and the guide said, “Not possible.” Our knees and shoulders were respectfully hidden, and the guards didn’t give us a second look. Children under 12 were not permitted, but Borin told us to say nothing about Genene. He figured she could make it through. I am happy to say that while her height cost us $2 and some heartache at immigration when we entered the country, we got karmic repayment today. The officials didn’t ask a question or bat an eye. They gave her a badge and sent her along with us up the steep stairs.
The views from the top:
 
 
Nearly all the people you can see seated below in this photo are the tour guides waiting for their charges to come back down from the top:
I think she’s a devata. You can see clearly that once upon a time, these walls had color.
Devata or apsara? Not sure, but I do know that men the world around like big, bare boobs.
We descended the steep stairs and found Borin waiting for us, just where he said he would be.
Hey, ladies!
This was once known as the Gallery of 1,000 Buddhas, though few remain today.
We finished our tour, exhausted, after about four hours. We barely scratched the surface. We could have spent days just wandering around marveling at the sculpture, the structure, the grounds.
Family photo:
We watched these four monkeys playing on the ballustrades.
This guy obviously stole somebody’s lunch and was enjoying himself.
I had no desire to pet him. Look at those nasty, sharp teeth!
We took a couple of last long looks and put Angkor Wat in our rearview mirror.
 
Throughout this vacation, it has been hot and sticky, and today was no exception. Genene often wallows me. She leans on me; she hugs my neck; she holds my hand. I confess that sometimes I am annoyed, mostly because it is so very hot. Each time I think of snapping at her and telling her to stand up straight, I remind myself that soon enough, she will reach for me no more. She will be grown and gone. I try to be the good mom and let her wallow!

Borin took us back into Siem Reap for lunch at a local restaurant. Our waiter loved practicing his English with us. In fact, he stood at our table for much of the meal, asking us questions and talking to us. One time, another waitress came and shooed him away but he found his way back. He told us that he has used Google to teach himself enough French, Spanish, Chinese, Japanese and English so that he could communicate with all the tourist customers. I admired his industry. He also wanted us to know that he does not like Cambodia’s prime minister and all the young people want change. Their prime minister has been in power since 1998, and elections are held, though they are not free and fair. Change is coming to Cambodia. I am not sure what variety.

I’ll just have one beer with lunch:

I ordered the whole catfish. It looks a little different from the Fish Bowl version in Ashdown, Arkansas.
Genene ordered a whole quail with her fried rice.

 

After lunch, we went for an afternoon tour of Tonle Sap, the largest lake in southeast Asia. The freshwater lake is innundated every year by the Mekong River. The Tonle Sap River is 75 miles long and connects the lake to the Mekong. During the monsoon season, the Mekong River grows larger and feeds water down the Tonle Sap River and into the lake. During the dry season, the Tonle Sap River reverses course and drains the lake. The lake is 1,000 square miles during the dry season and swells to 6,200 square miles. The rich sediment pouring in with the river provided opportunities for farming to the Angkor people 1,000 years ago and still does so today. The river brings fish as well.

There are floating villages along the banks of the Tonle Sap, and the villages must move as the lake moves.

We caught one of these boats and headed out onto the water.

We could see the rain coming in.
People fished everywhere. We also saw people bathing in the water and swimming. Borin said that if he or we jumped into the water, we would be sick within a matter of days because these people use it for everything, including their toilet.
Homes were modest. All of them had generators and TV antennas.
Swimming:
I’m glad we are getting this cleared up!
Nothing comes between me and my Calvins.
Hey, little guy!
I found this to be interesting. Someone in this house obviously likes to garden. Amid the floating shacks-some might even say squalor–the flowers bloom.
We could not see the far shore, and the monsoon season is just beginning. Tonle Sap will get a lot bigger.
He is happy any time we are on water.
We stopped at a floating market of sorts. You can buy a catfish from this container….
…and toss it into this one!
It ends badly for the crocodiles.
Before we made it back to the dock, the skies opened up with a drenching rain. The locals kept right on fishing. When you stay wet all day, I guess a little rain does not slow you down.
When we boarded the boat, someone had snapped our pictures. When we got off, they were waiting for us with a cheesy Angkor Wat/Angkor Thom plate with our photos stuck on it. I was not tempted, but Genene’s picture actually looked cute so we bought it. Borin thought we overpaid scandalously and should have gotten all three plates for the $10 we paid for the one.

Borin returned us to our hotel in the late afternoon. Our flight will leave at 11:25 PM (ugh!) so he will be back to pick us at 9:00 PM. The hotel staff welcomed us “home” for the last time with the cold, moist towels. The manager came forward, called us all by name, and asked us what we had seen and done. I guess he couldn’t really cope with Genene’s first name, so he called her by her middle name: “Katherine, how was your day? Did you see Angkor Wat?” At first, Genene was looking around because she wasn’t sure he was talking to her. I loved the staff there. They were so attentive and friendly.

As we walked up our stairs, the little souvenir plate slipped out of Genene’s hands and crashed to the floor, breaking into a dozen pieces. In that moment, I saw my little baby girl again. Her eyes brimmed with tears, and mine did too. It was just a piece of junk, but she really liked it. I hugged her in the stairway and told her I was sorry…and then, just like that, the little baby was gone. Her face cleared, and she began to pick up the pieces. “Maybe Dad can glue it together.” I remember wishing for her to be more grown up. Now sometimes, I wish she were my baby again.

We got most of our packing done. It had been a long day, starting with the aborted sunrise wakeup. We were tired and decided to take dinner in the hotel. We had not dined with them except for breakfast. Dinner was delightful, and we even ordered desserts.

Borin and the driver arrived right on time at 9:00 PM, and we were off to the airport. My last memory of the Shinta Mani was of the manager and all footmen lined up at the entry, their heads bowed and hands clasped respectfully in the Sampeah until we pulled away and were out of sight.

Borin told us he had no gift for us except for our memories. That will be enough. He asked if we would remember him and I assured him that we certainly would. He wanted to know when we would be back. I told him honestly that I didn’t know but I hoped it would be sooner rather than later. He said, “I would love to visit you in America, but it is not possible. I will be here when you return. Perhaps a little older. Perhaps I will have a home of my own by then.” I hope that he does.

We got to the airport within a half hour, and Borin took us as far as he could and we said our goodbyes and handed him his tip. We started inside, and it just didn’t feel right. We turned back around and went back to hug him. (Greg settled for the manly handshake, but Genene and I hugged him long and hard.) I cried when we left the elephants. I cried when we left Borin. He is a special young man. I hope his dreams of being a lawyer and having a place of his own do come true.

We are taking the red-eye to Seoul, where we have one more day and night of exploration before we must return to Houston. South Korea, here we come!

Cambodia Part 14: sunrise with the monks, visiting Cambodian-Dutch Organization school and hospital, Preah Koh and Bakong

Friday, August 7, 2015

Our day began very early at 5:20 AM. Borin and the driver picked us up at the hotel and carried us a short distance to the monestery. We were in for a special treat: we would get to hear the monks chanting at sunrise and receive a blessing from them. We arrived at the temple at first light.

I did not want to disrespect the religious nature of the ceremony or spoil the experience by snapping pictures the entire time. Genene says that I do enough of that as it is. She gets tired of being photographed. I limited myself to a couple of shots before and after the ceremonies.

The monks were already in place and chanting when we arrived.

 

We removed our shoes and sat at the back of the room. About 60 monks sat on the floor, feet behind them. Our guide taught us to respect Buddha by three prostrations: you start in a prayer position and then bow to put palms to the ground three times. After each bow, hands are returned to the prayer position. It is disrespectful to turn one’s feet toward the Buddha, so the proper way to sit is with knees folded and feet extending backwards on one side of your butt or the other. It’s easy work for Genene, but I’m not 11 anymore and that position is pretty hard on the knees. I need to do some yoga! We eventually found a reasonably comfortable position.

The ceremony continued as if we were not there. One monk seemed to be delivering advice to the others, who listened respectfully. This is only my guess, as my Khmer repertoire is limited to “hello” and “thank you.” After a time, the lead monk began chanting, and everyone followed. It was very rhythmic and almost musical. You could easily lose yourself while listening. It made the hair on the back of my neck stand up. It only lasted a couple of minutes, and I was sorry when it was over, for I could have listened to it much longer. The monks rose to their feet and quickly exited the room. Some of them looked in our direction, and all faces were open and friendly but they did not linger.

I snapped one photo of them leaving to start their day.

We remained with three monks, who welcomed us to sit at the front of the room with them. To receive a blessing, one must “make merit”–i.e., bring a gift. Thankfully Borin had done all the heavy lifting for us on that score and had three wrapped baskets containing food and gifts.
Borin set out the gifts:

The three monks sat down at the front of the room facing us. The one in the center spoke good English and told us the meaning of the blessing we were about to receive. When Cambodians embark on any kind of new venture–building a home, starting a business, getting married–it is important to receive the blessing of the monk to drive out any evil spirits. Gifts are given to the monks by those requesting a blessing. The gift is given on behalf of oneself and one’s ancestors. Borin explained that we each needed to crawl forward one by one to present the gifts. We were not to touch the monks. We simply needed to make a show of taking the gift and pushing it forward toward the monk. One by one we did so and crawled backwards to our places.

The monks gave us a blessing in return. The three of them chanted in unison for three to four minutes as we sat in a respectful, prayer-like pose. The monk in the center had a bowl of holy water with him, and he dipped a stick into the water from time to time and flung holy water on us as they chanted. After they stopped chanting, we were asked to come forward one by one. The center monk tied a small red string around our wrists and said a blessing. Monks are not allowed to touch a woman, and I noted that he managed to tie my string and Genene’s without breaking the rules. Afterwards, they told us that the blessing roughly translated as one for prosperity, good health, and “to get rid of evil.” They allowed us to ask a few questions, and we discussed the life of a monk and the various lengths of service: most men serve as a monk at least once. Some are only a monk for a few days, while others choose to be a monk for life. They asked if we would like to have our photos made with them, and they even suggested the pose.

We thanked them and went out the way we came. The sun was coming up, and I got this shot of the graveyard on the grounds of the monastery.

 

We were finished by 6:15 and drove the short distance back to the hotel. One thing we are coming to love about Siem Reap is how compact it is. It seems to take no more than 20 minutes to get to the sites. Most restaurants are within easy walking distance. It feels wasteful to have our big air conditioned van, when most things are a short tuk-tuk ride away. That said, I love the convenience of having the driver waiting for us. He carries cold, moist towels in a igloo between the two front seats and hands them to us anytime we have been out in the sun. Ah, the life. Anyway, he and Borin returned us to the hotel, where we had breakfast and prepared for the next part of our tour. We got some strong cups of coffee so that we would be ready for our day.

Borin and driver returned to pick us up at 8:00 AM and we hit the open road. We traveled to the remote Cambodian countryside to see the work of the Cambodian-Dutch Organization, a non-profit that works on community development projects. Their headquarters were modest, to say the least:

We stopped to pick up our local guide, and he showed us the living quarters for the volunteers. The volunteers are typically Dutch and German. They stay for a week or more teaching English to the local children. They are roughing it. This is their sleeping room:

The kitchen:
The chicken coop:
Yard birds hanging out:
They have a hand pump well for fresh water. I asked Borin about where they get rid of the waste, and he said that some houses have outhouses and latrines, while others simply use the “happy bush.”
The rice and food storage is in a separate building. This way, if the house burns, all the food is not lost.
This family was sitting in front of their house, enjoying the morning:
See the haystack? Many of the homes keep a cow. Borin said that Cambodian people do not use banks for saving money. The cow is the bank. If a family anticipates needing to make a big expenditure, a cow is bought as a calf. Any spare money is used to buy food for it to fatten. The cow grows up and is sold, and the proceeds used to make the large expenditure.
Most of the homes are raised off the ground on stilts. During the day, people live under their houses, where it is cool. At night, they go upstairs to eat and sleep.
We stopped at the Cambodian-Dutch private school, where younger children get some initial education.

The teacher continued with her instruction as if we weren’t there:

Ready to learn:
While we were there, one of the classes turned out for recess. I expected that the children would rush up to us and want to know about us. Instead, they zoomed past us as if we were invisible and headed for the playground equipment. Kids will be kids anywhere in the world, and these were not giving up their recess to hang out with us!
This poster demonstrates the proper way to perform the Cambodian greeting, the Sampeah, which is done in conjunction with saying “joam reeb sue” (hello). The placement of the hands is different, relative to the person being greeted. The hands are placed higher on the face, depending upon the “rank” of the person greeted. In order, they are 1) for worship; 2) the monk; 3) one’s parents; 4) an older person; and 5) a contemporary or “equal.” The Thai do something similar, but theirs is called a wai. Both derive from the Indian greeting, praṇāmāsana, which is done while saying the word Namaste, which in Hinduism means “I bow to the devine in you”. Anyone who has ever seen the Texan’s Arian Foster make a touchdown knows this one by heart.

We saw a young man running a tiller in the nearby field. Borin said the Cambodian name for it is “motor cow.”

He rode it when he could.
He got off and pushed when he had to.

Our next stop was the Cambodian-Dutch hospital, a very basic structure. The hospital provides medical services to people in the countryside, particularly giving assistance to mothers in labor.

Just inside the front door, the doctor and nurse wait to do intake. A long bench stretches out to the left, outside the frame. A few people sat there waiting their turn. I made sure not to photograph them. Who would want someone snapping pictures of you when you are at the hospital?
A delivery room:
Here’s how they weigh the newborn babies:
We saw a young mother whose baby was born yesterday. The guides and the hospital nurse simply opened the curtain to her room for us to see. I did not take a photo because I would never have wanted someone to take a photo of me right after I gave birth! The baby looked to be a strong, healthy boy, and the mother looked beautiful but tired (of course). The father looked very proud, as all fathers do. We smiled at them from the doorway and moved on.

This “ambulance” is a specially painted tuk-tuk, with a wide bench on one side on which to lay the patient, and a smaller bench on the other side for the family members to ride. Our guide told us that this tuk-tuk often means the difference between life and death in the countryside. Before it, people had to make a litter and find enough people to carry the sick person to the nearest hospital.

Our next stop was a public school in the area. Notice that they are not wearing uniforms like their Cambodian-Dutch private school counterparts.
The teacher asked Genene to instruct the class on the proper pronunciation of the words on the blackboard. The teachers enjoy having native English speakers drop by for a few minutes. Many people in Cambodia speak English, and that is the second language of choice throughout the country. (French has gone the way of the dodo. Only the old people speak it.) However, the Cambodian’s English can be a bit difficult to comprehend, so they welcome the chance for the kids to hear a true native speaker. I guess I qualify, although my thick Arkansas accent probably isn’t the best example of the Queen’s English. Even Borin, whose English was quite good, asked us on occasion to help him by pronouncing unusual words.
The children then asked us questions. “What is your name? What is your favorite color? How old are you? Where are you from?” We always tried to answer in complete sentences so that they could hear the proper response: “My name is Lori. My favorite color is red.” The children and the teacher were amazed that Genene was only 11. They asked some of the children who were 11, 12, and 13 to stand up. Genene was head and shoulders taller than all of them. She’s the jolly blond giant of Cambodia!
They pulled a world map out of the cabinet in the back, and the children’s eyes got wide as we showed the route of the airplane that brought us to them. Our guide had to translate this part. They sang to us: “The ABC Song,” Watermelon” (to the tune of “Frère Jacques”) and “If You’re Happy and You Know It.” They asked us to sing, and we came up with “Row Row Row Your Boat” and “Old MacDonald.” (They loved my “oink oink.”)
Isn’t she beautiful?

 

Before we left, Greg needed to use the restroom. There were bathrooms at the school, but they were all locked up. He had to go find a happy bush, and I think that is what the children have to do here as well.

Our next stop was to have been Prasat Banteay Ampil, an abandoned temple in the countryside. There are more than 300 temple ruins in the Siem Reap area alone, so if you want to go to one off the beaten path, it can be arranged. We drove up the road and it got narrower and narrower. At the edge of the small village, the driver and Borin called out to a lady sitting under her house. She walked to the road, and there was a lengthy exchange between her and Borin. We could tell by her animated gestures that there was some kind of problem. Bowden translated: the roads ahead were being flooded for rice paddy cultivation. He asked us if we wanted to go and said he was willing to try it but we were going to get wet and our vehicle might become stuck and we might have to push. I’m not afraid of getting wet, since I spent three days in the water with the elephants. That said, this did not seem like a good plan to us. Who wants to spend their vacation on the side of the road pushing a car? I told them that the van seemed very nice, and I did not wish to put them to any trouble. Borin said, “As long as you are happy, I am happy. I can show you other beautiful temples.”

We turned back, dropped off our Cambodian-Dutch guide and headed back toward civilization. Our first temple ruin of the day was Preah Koh (Sacred Bull), a pre-Angkor temple. It was the first temple to be built in the ancient and now defunct city of Hariharalaya, about nine miles southeast of the main group of temples at Angkor. The temple was built under the Khmer King Indravarman I in 879 to honor members of the king’s family. The temple gets its name from the three statues of sandstone located in the front of and facing the temple’s central towers. These statues represent Nandi, the white bull who serves as the mount of Shiva.

First look:

From 1975 to 1979, the Khmer Rouge used this temple as an ammunition dump and a storehouse for foodstuffs. Doesn’t that seem profane?
There are six towers, three in the front and three to the rear. The larger front row towers are dedicated to the king’s male ancestors and the smaller ones in the rear are for the wives of those ancestors. Two of the northern sanctuaries are built closer together than their southern counterparts, and the design is deliberate. The reasons are unknown. Perhaps it illustrated the closeness of family ties?
Nandi (the bull) was probably gleaming white. The towers would have been covered in stucco and decorated with artwork. It looks pretty spectacular to me now. Imagine how it must have looked back in the day.
Notice the use of bricks instead of sandstone. This marks it as “pre-Angkor.”
The temple ruins were beautiful and we were practically the only people there. It wasn’t a jungle ruin in the middle of a rice paddy, but we had the place to ourselves. We wandered to our heart’s content, admiring the delicate carvings.
Some inscriptions remain on the temple walls. Borin told us that these are written in Pali, which is a dead language. He says he can comprehend some of the letters but the words don’t make sense to him. Monks study the language, just as Christian theologians study Latin.
 

Our second temple was nearby Bakong, one of the first temple mountains of sandstone constructed by rulers of the Khmer empire at Angkor. In the final decades of the 9th century AD, it served as the official state temple of King Indravarman I in the ancient city of Hariharalaya. The mountain temples are meant to be earthly manifestations of Mount Meru, the home of the Hindu gods. The soil from the excavated moat is piled inside, to make the temple look even taller.

The temple is surrrounded by a moat that never goes dry. Borin says there are many big fish down there. Local legend says that the spirits of two large snakes and a big crocodile live in the moat. To see them, a person must have a loyal and honest character. I didn’t see a thing.

The bridge entrance faces east, as do most temples, to signify life. The bridge was flanked by nagas (the seven headed serpent), but most of the the ballustrade is gone. The nagas are common in Khmer architecture and are used to protect water crossings.

The architects used the principle of proportional reduction. The guardian lions flanking the stairways up to the top diminish in size with each rise in level. This trick of the eye makes you think the temple is larger than it really is.
 
The structure of Bakong is a stepped pyramid. The entrance to the temple is guarded by lions while elephants guard the corners. The single tower in the middle was constructed much later. The rest of the structure has the architectural style of the 9th century foundations of Hariharalaya, but the central tower was built at the same time as the 12th-century temple city Angkor Wat. This demonstrates that the structures were living, evolving monuments.

 

At the entrance to each ruin, we have encountered persistent “salespeople.” Mostly young children, they attach themselves to you as soon as you leave the van. “Scarf, ma’am. $1.” “Would you like some bananas?” “Do you like this purse?” We always said “No thank you” politely, but it is a little sad to see. There is a desperation in their attitude. I never see anyone buying anything from them, but someone must or they would not be there.

We were very happy with the change in plans. Borin told us he had visited “the other temple” several times, and it was not historically significant. Its main selling point was that it was in the middle of nowhere so that visitors were usually alone. The temples we saw instead today were beautiful and rich in history. Best of all, I didn’t have to get out and push the van.

We got back to Siem Reap town for lunch at 12:45. Our lunch was included in the tour today, and we went to a nice restaurant called Palate. Our guide and driver waited patiently outside while we dining in luxury. It is pointless to ask them to join us. We tried. They will not. I think they enjoy the down time too. I ordered a nice cold Coca-cola. I am not sure there is anything more refreshing to me than that on a hot day. It gives a nice jolt of sugar and caffeine.

We had an appetizer of beef wrapped in bacon. (What a great idea!) There was a butternut squash soup that was to die for. Genene out-ordered us all with beef with red ants!

Borin had offered to take is to an artisan market after lunch, but we were shopped out, and our early morning had taken its toll on our energy levels. Our bags are almost at their weight limit, and I knew that if I went to the market, I would just find more things I did not need. My memories are enough. We asked him to take us to our hotel, where we took a hot shower and had a siesta. The next two days are going to be action packed, so we are happy for a few hours of down time. We read books. Genene watched silly youtube videos.

The sun went down, and this was the view from our balcony.

For dinner, we decided to take a tuk-tuk to the night market. We all love the tuk-tuk rides.

Would you like some frog? How about crocodile?
We liked the Siem Reap night market much better than Chiang Mai. There were plenty of people, but walking was easy.
We wandered down to Pub Street.

We found a restaurant serving “authetic Khmer cuisine.” Our table was actually in the side alleyway just outside the restaurant. We settled in, ordered our beers and waters and watched the crowds go by. I said, “Genene, stop putting your feet on me.” “Mom, I’m not.” It kept happening. I had the sensation of something on my feet. I would look down….nothing. Finally, I saw it: a giant cockroach, as big is the Texas palmetto bug variety!!! (I think I saw his brother fried up on a cart in Bangkok.) I squealed. Greg laughed. Genene went on high alert and put her legs up in her chair. It skittered across my feet again, and this time, I got it with my heel. He was such a monster that I didn’t kill him, but he was maimed and wandered off, never to bother me again. The meal was good, but I must admit being a bit distracted. I kept wiggling my feet and stomping them periodically to ward off the night creatures!

Authentic Khmer cuisine (no bugs, please!):

We wandered back through the night market. When we reached the edge, we got a tuk-tuk and headed “home” to Shinta Mani.

Our day begins before sunrise tomorrow. It’s Big Kahuna Day! We are finally headed to Angkor Wat.

 

Cambodia Part 13: Bayon Information Center, Angkor Thom and Ta Prohm

TECHNICAL NOTE: Some people have signed up to receive notifications of my new blog entries via email. I have noticed that sometimes the email does not display the pictures in the correct order, which can make the discussion confusing. I do not know why that happens, but the solution is simple. Simply double-click or touch (depending on your device) the title of the blog above my “rambling razorback” byline. It will open the blog into a browser window, and the blog should display properly.

 

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Borin told us our day could start “late” at 8:00 AM. First we had a delightful breakfast at Shinta Mani Resort, our hotel. Bowden and the driver met us promptly and we hit the road.

Our first stop was the Bayon Information Center, which is an interpretive center that houses information and artifacts from the Khmer Empire. Our tour operator felt that it was important that we understand some history before launching into a tour of the various temple ruins. We watched a 10 minute film on the architecture and history of the area. After the film, we met a young woman who has studied archeology. She explained the historical periods, roughly divided as pre-Angkor, Angkor and post-Angkor. The inhabitants of Cambodia were among the first peoples of southeast Asia, but they left little in terms of written history so their origins are still the subject of much debate. What they did leave behind are some fabulous temple ruins. The pre-Angkor people were animist in their beliefs: the rocks, trees, wind–all might be the gods. They had a great deal of trade interaction with Indian people, and the Hindu gods were introduced. Buddhism also flourished. It seems that the pre-Angkor people were willing to incorporate all of these gods into their belief system and architecture, and this is why we can find the Buddha, Vishnu, and all the gang carved together on the walls and inside the temples.

The young archaeologist kept discussing the importance of a Hindu architectural feature she called the Shiva linga. It can be found inside many of the temples. She kept referring to it, and I guess she could see the blank look on our faces. “Do you know Shiva linga?” she asked. We admitted that we did not know what she was talking about. She said, “I can tell you, but it’s a little bit rude.” (She didn’t know us very well.) We said, “Please do.” She leaned in close and whispered conspiratorially, “It look like the dick.” Oh! Okay, I understand!

The Angkor civilization began in 802, when King Jayavarman II was declared (by himself) the universal ruler of a large territory previously ruled by multiple warlords. His successors gradually annexed more territories and the wealth of the kingdom accumulated. The temples became more and more magnificent. The Angkor era peaked in the late 1100’s. Think about that: before the Magna Carta was drafted, these people were building this empire! The Khmer empire ended with a Thai invasion and the sacking of Angkor in 1431, before Columbus sailed the ocean blue.

The temples range from simple to grand. Some have pyramid type structures, while others are pavilions and galleries. Most use laterite stone for their foundation. Laterite is a reddish brown mudstone. It’s soft and easily cut from the ground but hardens through oxidation. Pre-Angkor structures use brick on the top, while Angkor structures use sandstones, onto which are carved the most fabulous bas-relief.

The temples fell into ruin after the collapse of the Angkor civilization, and many of them toppled or were overtaken by the jungle. The French colonized Cambodia, and in the late 1800s and early 1900’s, they began to try to document, clear and restore the temple ruins. The Cambodians harbor ill feelings about the French occupation, but they grudgingly admit that the French intervened to save many of these structures that had been neglected for centuries. There are over 300 temples in the Siem Reap area alone, and the Cambodian countryside has over 1,000.

Our first stop after the information center was the old capital city of Angkor Thom, which flourished from the late 12th to early 13th century. The walled city was the largest preindustrial settlement in the world. The city was planned under King Jayavarman VII to wow the other kingdoms of southeast Asia. A gigantic moat was hand-dug around the city, and the dirt from the moat was used to raise the elevation of the city so that it appeared to be a dwelling of a “mountain king.” The temples in this area were built from the 9th to the 12th century by the Khmer empire, which controlled not only Cambodia, but also large parts of what are now Laos, Thailand and Vietnam.

Our next stop was the temple complex itself, where we met an architect in charge of the temple restoration. This work is fascinating, and our guide was passionate. Over the centuries, many of the stones have fallen from the structures and been repurposed into road bases and other structures. The architects are trying to reconstruct portions of the original temples. It is an impossible three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle. Many of my engineer friends would enjoy this work, I think.

All of these stones were once in temples, and the architects are trying to figure out how to put them back. Humpty-Dumpty!

The architect had page after page of plans like this. Can you see that each stone is catalogued and marked?
You can see the marking the French carved into this one.
The foundations were prepared by compacting the soil by hand. If a temple is being restored today, mechanized equipment is not typically used. Cambodian people still do this work the old fashioned way. Many Cambodians consider it something of a religious or cultural obligation to spend some time doing temple restoration work.
Genene tried her hand at foundation compaction, as Borin looked on.
You can try carving bas-relief into the sandstone. Genene was able to chip a little stone away, but it was slow going.
This contraption is used to lift and place the heavy stones.
I wasn’t sticking my finger into this photo for scale, but the big guy was at least five inches long.
We got our first look at Bayon, the temple at the heart of the city of Angkor Thom. At one time, over 200 of smiling stone faces were carved into 49 towers. 37 towers remain, and the temple is beautiful and awe inspiring.
The sky was a stunning shade of blue today.

The architect took us right into the hardhat area to give us a behind-the-scenes tour of the restoration.

He told us that the French had used concrete in their restoration efforts, but that is no longer favored. Architects nowadays try to use the original materials in the restoration, though sometimes a metal I-clamp is used to stablilize a structure. Many countries cooperate in funding temple restoration projects: Japan, India and Germany seemed to be frequent good citizens. The United States has sponsored some projects, but I was disappointed that we were not doing more to preserve these priceless artifacts. Perhaps it is a matter of lack of public awareness.

I was intrigued by the architect. He had a light in his eyes that is only seen in those wonderful, crazy people who have found their true calling. This restoration will be his life’s work, and he is making a difference for centuries to come.

We completed our hardhat tour, and the architect and archeologist took their leave of us. Borin escorted us into Bayon and began to show us the stunning bas-relief. The galleries told story upon story upon story about the Angkor kingdom and its people. There were depictions of great battles, migrations, and daily life.

Marching into battle:

Migration:
Naval warfare:
A tiger attack:
Hunting with Dad:
More fighting:
Childbirth:
We stood with Borin while he described the details of many of these bas-relief depictions in great detail. In the absence of much written history, these carvings tell the stories of the people who once ruled this land. These pictures do not do justice to the magnitude of the carvings. They went on and on and on. It is difficult to conceive of the work that went into making them. We listened attentively, though the sun was hot. Borin praised Genene for her attention to the stories and the history. He said that most kids are ready to go to the pool within the first hour. Genene said, “Well, I know that Mom and Dad wouldn’t let me go to the pool anyway so I may as well listen.” Borin knows that the way to our heart is by saying a kind word to Genene or about Genene. I was proud of her too. It was hot out there!
Don’t their smiles remind you of Mona Lisa? It’s a smile, but it’s an enigmatic one.
The good thing about the temples it that there are still lots of interior spaces where one can take a little break from the bright sun. We popped into one of them, sat down and took a rest. Borin told us a little about himself. He’s in his early 30’s and has been a guide for 10 years. He has several siblings, and there wasn’t much money when he was growing up. He did well for himself, and he is ambitious. After he was a guide for some time, he saved up his money and studied law at university. He did well, but he told us that the field of law is filled with corruption and nepotism. After finishing law school, he did not have the money to pay the necessary bribes (about $20,000!) to pass the examinations. He had exhausted his savings on the education. He said very matter-of-factly, “My dream of being a lawyer is not possible. So I continue as a guide.” We told him how sorry we were, and he said simply, “I get to see many interesting people. My life is not bad.”
One last look at Bayon:
There are many temples in the Angkor Thom complex and not enough time to see them. We drove past the Terrace of the Leper King, the Terrace of the Elephants, Baphuon, and so forth. A person could spend weeks visiting the temples.
We stopped at one of the Angkor Thom city gates. There were five of them: four at the cardinal points on the compass (I am always intrigued by how early people knew how to align with the stars, planets, sun and moon; nowadays we are too busy aligning with our televisions and iPads.). The fifth gate was called a Victory Gate and was marched through after…you guessed it…victories.
The gate would have impressed any traveler to the city, and the surrounding wall provided protection from invaders.

 

Our next stop was Ta Prohm, a late 12th century temple sometimes called the jungle temple. When the French rediscovered the temples in the 19th century, this is what they would have seen, a temple reclaimed by nature. While the French acted to restore the great temples of Angkor, they elected to maintain Ta Prohm in its natural state as a “concession to the general taste for the picturesque.” (Don’t you just love the way the French say things?) You may recognize the temple from the movie “Lara Croft Tomb Raider.” Borin spoke respectfully about Angelina Jolie. I never thought too much about her before, though I know she has been involved in a lot of humanitarian efforts across the world. When she crossed my radar, it was only as the wild companion of Brad Pitt. Ms. Jolie is someone different to the Cambodians. She is well known to them. They all know that she has an adopted Cambodian son, whom they call by name as if he were their dear friend. As far as Borin is concerned, she has helped to put Cambodia on the world map and is worthy of respect.

First look:

The trees are intertwined and inseparable from the temple. In some cases, the roots are quite literally holding the stones together. In other cases, the opposite is happening: the trees are tearing the temple apart. The threat from falling trees has forced human intervention in some cases. Trees have been felled to protect the structure.
King Jayavarman VII constructed Ta Prohm to honor his mother. He must have loved her very much because it is beautiful. I found this temple to be especially evocative. You can imagine the excitement of the French upon rediscovering it. You can feel some sense of the adventure–and probably a healthy dose of fear–that they must have felt as they wandered around in the jungle and in these ruined structures.
In this picture, the keystone has separated so you can actually see how the stones are put together.
The tree roots grew naturally around this carving, creating the appearance of a peekaboo face, smiling its mysterious smile.
Last year, we went to Machu Picchu and marveled at how the Inca people put together stones without mortar so that not even a credit card can be wedged between them. The Angkor people were two centuries ahead of them.
Doesn’t this guy look like a stegosaurus? Most scholars think it is a creature from Hindu mythology called a makara.
Can you see Angelina Jolie peeking out?
Greg, Genene and–almost but not quite–Anjelina Jolie.
Last look at Ta Prohm:
As we walked back to our van, we happened upon a musical band. They were all victims of Cambodian landmines and are missing limbs. Their music was beautiful, and I tossed some money into the bucket. The landmines are the sad legacy of Cambodia’s civil war and were placed by various factions in the 1970s. There may have been as many as 4 to 6 million mines placed in the country. After placement, even the soldiers couldn’t remember exactly where they all were. Also, the land floods frequently, moving the mines. It takes a lot of time, effort and money to remove them. Princess Diana brought attention to the matter some years ago, and removal efforts are still underway. There are some 40,000 amputees in the country. People are still wounded and killed by the mines, but as removal continues, the numbers are thankfully getting smaller. In 2013, there were 22 deaths and 89 injuries. We were told never to wander off established and cleared paths.
 
On the way back to the city, Borin asked us if we had ever tried durian, “the king of fruits.” We had heard of them before, and they are even available in some of the Asian markets in west Houston. I have always been afraid to try them because they have a strong odor. Asian people swear by them and say, “Once you get past the smell, you will love it.” I think I have already mentioned that they are prohibited in most apartment complexes and hotels because of their obnoxious smell, which has been described as rotten onions or sewer. I have a pretty acute sense of smell and wondered whether I could get past it. Borin gave us some encouragement, and so we said we would give it a try.
The lady at the fruit stall used a large knife to cut past the spiky, hard exterior, revealing the yellow fruit inside.
Greg, Genene and I all tried it and found it to be surprisingly good. It has almost a buttery, nutty flavor and is very fillling.
We wanted to buy some souvenirs, and Borin knew just the place. He told us that this silver shop was owned by Cambodians, employed Cambodians and made their wares on site. We watched a lady carving a bowl out front.
We went inside and the friendly but full court press started. The proprietor lady put a snake bangle onto my arm, and I think she cast a spell on me. I don’t even like jewelry but found myself staring and smiling at it. She went and found the matching necklace, a huge, chunky thing that made me look like Wonder Woman. The lady kept intoning, “Madam, show your husband. Show your husband. Let him see.” Even though I usually buy what I want when I want, I think I was under her voodoo. I went to show Greg, and he laughed out loud and said, “Yeah, it’s pretty but what are you showing me for? If you want it, get it.” I wore it for a few minutes but then decided that the necklace was a bit much. As soon as I mentioned to the lady that I thought the necklace was too heavy for me, she nodded immediately as if it were ridiculous that we ever considered it. She said, “Too heavy! Too heavy! Let’s get it off.” I bought the bangle, Genene got some cute earrings, and we got a small bowl. We went through a couple of rounds of negotiations before settling on “best price for you, friend.”
By the time we escaped from the silver shop lady’s spell, it was late afternoon. We went back to Shinta Mani, where we were welcomed “home” with the cool, fragrant face towels.

We rested for a while, cleaned up and walked to nearby Chanrey Tree, where we had an excellent dinner. We were lazy and caught a $2 tuk-tuk ride home. It’s a fun way to see the city.

The ladies at Shinta Mani shape these floating flowers. They make a fragrant, beautiful display in the courtyard and pool areas.

Our day will start early tomorrow. Borin is meeting us at 5:20 AM to take us to the monastery, where we will listen to the monks chant, and afterwards continue touring. Our vacation is not very relaxing, but it is a lot of fun!

Thailand and Cambodia: Part 12 Leaving Chiang Rai and on to Siem Reap

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Our guide and driver arrived at 6:30 AM to escort us to the airport. We were going to the Chiang Rai airport, which was a new destination for us, as we had come to the area overland. The fine people at Anantara Resort packed a boxed breakfast of fruits and pastries for us so we wouldn't starve during the hourlong drive to the airport. We ate our pastries, napped and enjoyed the scenery. Greg had to make a pit stop along the way, and our guides knew the perfect gas station with a bay of toilets in a detached building along the back side. It was no Buc-ee's, but it got the job done.

The international airport at Chiang Rai is small and tidy. We strolled right up to the check-in; there was no line. The Bangkok Airways representative looked harder at our paperwork than anyone else has so far. She pointed out a “problem.” She noted the August 4 date stamp on our passports, and today is August 5. She intimated that we had overstayed our alloted time in Thailand. (Tourists get 30 days without a visa for visiting.) I was proud of myself because I actually understood where she was going wrong. I pointed out that the date she was looking at was actually the Thailand exit date stamp that we received yesterday when we crossed into Myanmar. When we crossed back into Thailand, we got new entry stamps. For the land crossing, we got another 30 days (starting yesterday) so we were well within the allotted time. It always makes me a little nervous at these entry and exit points. It's good to be on vacation, but it's good to be able to go home too! After she took a second look, she agreed with me, gave us our boarding passes and sent us on our merry way.

We were even able to get all our Thai exit immigration paperwork done at this airport so that when we land in Bangkok, we would simply have to make our connection and go onward to Siem Reap in Cambodia. They put a blue sticker on our shirts so that we would be clearly identified as having passed through immigration and thus get sent to the right place at Bangkok's monstrous airport.

Our flight left on time and we said goodbye to northern Thailand. We enjoyed our stay there but were looking forward to seeing Cambodia. Bangkok Airways is very efficient. In terms of their airplane fleet, think Southwest Air. In terms of their service, it's much, much more. On the hour long flight, they served us a meal, water, coffee, tea, juice, with a moist towelette for before and after the meal. It was very civilized.

We had a three hour layover in Bangkok so we found a little pub to have a snack and a beer while we waited. Perhaps we were addled or sleep deprived, but it took us a little while to figure out how to find the entrance to our gate. There are various concourses, and we found the right one. The concourse had levels, and we got on the wrong one. We could see our gate but could not figure out where the entrance was. Eventually we figured out that we had to go up a level and back through another set of metal detectors and x-rays to be able to enter the gate. We lost another water bottle in that transaction.

The plane to Siem Reap was even smaller, with two seats on either side of an aisle. They served us yet another meal on a one hour flight. My diet is shot to hell, but I will worry about that tomorrow. Thailand is not the place to try to live a low-carb lifestyle. Noodles and rice are the mainstays of the day.

Cambodia requires a visa, and we had gone to a lot of trouble to get evisas online before our arrival so we could avoid the “visa on entry” line. There were plenty of agents on duty, and it did not take long for our turn to arrive. They required each of us, even Genene, to approach the counter separately. I went first. My evisa worked perfectly, and I was on the other side in no time flat. The baggage carousel was already turning, so I ran over and started looking for our bags. I wrestled all three of them off and was so proud of myself. Then I turned and looked across the room and noticed that Genene and Greg had not been permitted to pass to my side. I had to roll the three bags back across the hallway. It's hard to roll three bags and carry a backpack and a purse. I got as close as I could, but Greg was too far away to be able to speak to me. By his gestures, I understood that Genene was being required to get a visa. The forms clearly state that children under 12 are not required to have a separate visa and may travel under one parent's visa. We had put Genene under Greg's evisa, but apparently the immigration official was having none of it. Genene told me later that he just kept repeating “no visa, no visa.” It scared Genene because there she stood by herself with the immigration official, whose English was apparently limited to the words “no visa.” Greg came up to the counter and got nowhere when he told them she was 11. We had another problem. I had gone through the immigration area with Greg's backpack because he was gallantly carrying my much heavier backpack, filled with camera gear. That meant that I had his cell phone, the extra passport photos, and most of the money on me. He had a nice big bag full of camera gear and diarrhea medicine. The immigration officials turned a blind eye while we leaned way out and stretched our arms across the barrier. I handed Greg some money and his cell phone. It was a nuisance and a time waster, and it cost us $2 to get Genene a separate visa.

By the time Greg completed Genene's visa paperwork, the line was virtually non-existent, so we really lost only a few minutes. Once Genene had the paper visa, she was waived through immediately. They accepted Greg's evisa for his entry. It was more unnerving than anything. Genene told me that it had frightened her because the immigration official had her separated from me and from Greg, and she said his command of English was pretty rudimentary. It wasn't the smooth start we had hoped for, and it was more annoying because we had done our homework in advance and still ended up in the “visa on entry” line.

The airport was fairly small, and as soon as we went out the door into the bright sunlight and wet heat, we saw our guide Borin. He introduced himself, smiled broadly and said, “Thank you for coming to my country. You are giving me a job for a few days, and I am very happy. This is the beginning of the rainy season, and my work is not as busy.” We felt better immediately. We told him the problem we had experienced, and he said, “The immigration officials just want more money.” He also theorized that Genene is very tall for her age, and perhaps the man at the counter simply did not believe she was 11. He could have done the math. Her birthday is on her passport.

On the 20 minute trip into the city, Borin told us a bit about the reign of terror of the Khmer Rouge and its brutal leader Pol Pot and the “genocide” (his word) that occurred from 1976 to 1979 in his country. Over 3 million people were killed. After Pol Pot had to retreat into the countryside in 1979, civil war ensued. Orderly government was not restored until his death in 1998. Cambodia is nominally a kingdom, but real power rests with the prime minister, a member of the Cambodia People's Party who has been in office since an “election” many years ago. The youth of Cambodia believe this prime minister has too much power and that new elections need to be held. The future is uncertain, but for now, the country appears to be stable.

We got to our hotel, the Shinta Mani, in the heart of Siem Reap. We were greeted the moment we hopped out of the van and handed cold, moist, fragrant towels. The manager said, “This will be your home while you are here in Siem Reap. Welcome home!” Every person from the bellboy to the manager to the housekeeper greeted us with hands clasped together at their faces as if in prayer. Heads were bowed, and the traditional Khmer greeting–which sounds like “joam reeb sue”–was given. We felt like royalty. We had practiced the greeting on the airplane and returned it, to their obvious delight. Learning a simple greeting in the language pays such awesome dividends. Genene has an excellent memory, and we can depend upon her to lead the way and remind us of basic words, such as hello, thank you, and please.

We unpacked our bags and rested for a few minutes. Tonight we were in for a special treat. My law partner, Taylor Goodall, married a very fine lady back in February. His wife Mariana de Barran is Mexican, and their wedding was a blow-out, all-night party in San Miguel de Allende. I remember some of the evening, which included a LOT of champagne and a dance party with a midget! Why am I telling you this? Because at the wedding, we had the excellent fortune to meet the bride's parents and became instant friends. They were quite busy with the wedding, of course, but we learned that they like world travel as we do. We kept in touch through Facebook and learned that they were taking an Asian vacation at the same time we were. We compared itineraries and found that we would in Siem Reap on the same evening. What a fabulous coincidence. We had to have dinner together!

We met Leopoldo and Amparo at the Foreign Correspondents Club, a nearby restaurant. It was a wonderful evening. We talked about Taylor and what a hot mess he is (my words; they would never talk about their son-in-law in that way, but they may have smiled when I did). We talked about their beautiful daughter Mariana. We talked about past trips and travels to come. It was magical.

As we sat there enjoying the evening, the French family we met at Thai Elephant Home last week came into the restaurant and sat down at the next table! The city of Siem Reap has a population of 170,000. According to Trip Advisor, there are 583 place to eat there. What are the chances we would run into our Thai Elephant Home friends? What was it that Rick said in “Casablanca”? “Of all the gin joints, in all the towns, in all the world, she walks into mine.” We waved to them, and at first you could see their confusion as they tried to place us. After all, we were reasonably clean and not wearing a mahout uniform. We exchanged greetings and discussed where we had been and where we were going.

Both our bellies and hearts were full. We had enjoyed a great evening with fellow travelers. We said goodbye to Amparo and Polo and watched them climb into a tuk-tuk and motor away. They are going to Angkor Wat at sunrise tomorrow and then will head Kuala Lumpur. We will stay in Siem Reap a bit longer and take in several temples. Hand in hand in hand, we strolled back to our hotel.

 

Thailand and Myanmar: Part 11 Daytripping across the border

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Today was to be a full day. Our itinerary called for us take a longtail boat across the Mekong into Laos and Myanmar. Our guide was to meet us at 10:00 AM. Anantara Resort gave us free tickets to the Opium Museum, which was located right across the street. Our only chance to see it would be this morning, so we elected to start over there on our own at 9:00 AM and have the guide meet us there at 10:00.

We rode our first tuk-tuk from the resort to the museum. I don’t think that really counts, since it was the hotel’s tuk-tuk and was all spiffed up. We should have taken one of the Bangkok “take your life in your hands” tuk-tuk rides!

As we rode through the lush grounds, we saw the mahouts and their elephants out for the morning walk.

I was blown away by the Opium Museum. It was a huge building with exhibits on two floors. No photography was permitted so I will just have to give you a brief description. We entered the museum through a cave-like tunnel that went for hundreds of feet. The lighting was low, and after a time, our eyes began to adjust and we began to notice that the walls were not just plain rock. It was bas relief: there appeared to be faces, writhing bodies, skeletons, all coming out of the wall. Genene said she saw something that looked like Munch’s painting “The Scream” and a Medusa. It was quite creepy and set the tone. If this is what an opium trip looks like, I don’t want to go on one.

We didn’t do the museum justice. We took about an hour and 20 minutes to run through it. It was easily worth 2 to 2 1/2 hours. It traced the history of the opium trade, and the British were definitely the villain of the piece. Basically they traded opium for tea in the region for centuries, and an industry was born. The museum also summarized the various opium wars and the geopolitical reasons for the trade and the various governments and corporations that have profited from the trade. I can’t believe I just tried to summarize several centuries of history in two sentences, but there you have it.

We saw photos and a depiction of two different opium dens. There was a den for rich people, with a nice day bed with a cool, smooth surface, a hard pillow to rest your head, all the necessary “appliances”, tea and snacks for afterward (apparently it gives you the munchies). The den for the pathetic addicts was much simpler: a hard block to lay your head on, a hard platform to lay on, dirty equipment and nothing more. They also had a room full of pipes and scales, some of which were quite beautifully crafted. There was a complete mock-up of a British clipper ship that would have been used to carry the opium from India to China, where it was exchanged for tea and spices.

At the end, there was the usual warning about how doing drugs will ruin your life and a description of the efforts made by Thailand’s king to stop the opium trade in their country. The royal foundation spent $10 million building this museum, and the intent is to open the eyes of the world to the moral hazards of the opium trade. It was very well done, and I was sorry we didn’t have more time to spend there.

We met our guide, a lovely woman named Toy, at the exit to the museum. She began discussing a change of plans immediately. She was quite worried about the itinerary, which called for a longtail boat ride across the Mekong River into Laos and Myanmar.

The Mekong River was very high. We knew that from looking out our window at Anantara. No one there seemed concerned about it, but I guess no one was trying to cross it in a junky little boat with a car motor attached to it. Toy explained that the Chinese were releasing water from dams upstream to relieve their own flooding situation. They were causing downtream flooding to their “good neighbors” in Thailand and Vietnam. Toy shrugged her shoulders and said, “They are a big country. They can do what they want.” Toy suggested that we go to the Golden Triangle and make a final decision after reviewing the launch point.

We got there, and the first thing we saw was this boat going sideways down the river. Toy joked that they would probably end up in Vietnam.

Can you see the floating logs and trash in the roiling river?
Doesn’t this sound like a news story that you could hear any given night: “Tourists killed when boat capsizes in flooded river.” I hear stories like this all the time, and I always think, “What kind of idiot would take a risk like that?” We had a pang of disappointment that we wouldn’t get to check two more countries off our passport list, but we have Genene to consider. Greg and I pulled the plug and told our guide to think of something else. Perhaps if we had been on our own, but even then I am not sure I would have done it. We didn’t want to put ourselves in danger for a boat ride and a passport stamp. We had already been on a great longtail boat ride in Bangkok. I didn’t feel the need to make an unscheduled stop in Vietnam on The Minnow.
We settled for a family photo in front of the big Buddha.
Our guide seemed relieved we had decided against trying to make the crossing, although I think she would have done it if we had said the word. She suggested that maybe we would like to see a tea plantation or some hill tribe people. We told her that we had already done those two activities and did not really have a desire to repeat them. She got on the phone with the hotel for a few minutes and came back with a new plan: she suggested we might be able to do an overland crossing into Myanmar at Tachilek. We were all over that. We said, “Vamanos!”
Along the way, we saw rice fields being planted. Toy said that the farmers were planting about a month later than usual because water has been scarce. She talked about the effects of global warming and the fears of the farmers for their crops. Her husband is a farmer so she has first-hand knowledge of the difficulties.
I asked her to stop, and she obliged. One nice thing about a private tour is that you can do what you want when you want. We watched the workers planting the flooded paddies. They work amazingly fast. They stoop to plant each rice plant one by one. It is back-breaking work.
It was pouring rain, but I suppose it doesn’t matter much when you are going to be wet all day anyway.
We got to the border and found it open. The waters were high but people were crossing freely. Crossing can be accomplished by car or by foot.
We walked across. I believe this was Genene’s and my first land border crossing.
 
Even the name of the country is disputed. In 1989, the military government changed the name from Burma to Myanmar to remove all references to the English occupation. Some governments refuse to recognize the authority of the ruling government to rename the country.
The original cost of our border crossing ($10 each) had been included in the tour, but only US dollars are taken in Myanmar. I happened to be carrying some on me, so we saved Toy a trip to the bank and used mine. (She gave me the equivalent in baht. More money for souvenirs!) Toy warned me that the immigration officials were very particular about the bills. I pulled out $30, and the official liked my Andrew Jackson but he turned down my Alexander Hamilton. I had some more Jackson in my pocket, so I just spread them out on the table and let him choose. He might have forgotten to give me my change, but Toy was there to remind him to give me back a crisp, tidy Hamilton. They were the friendliest border officials I have ever encountered. They were all smiles, and one of them had the betlenut stains all over his teeth. They invited us to take a seat in the tiny office while they did the paperwork. There was a map of Myanmar on the wall, and Toy used it to show us the lay of the land, while they pitched in helpfully with their limited English skills. The only time I saw them frown was once when Toy called it Burma. One gentleman quickly corrected her: “Myanmar!”
The Mae Sai River separates Thailand from Myanmar. It was on a rampage this wet day.
Some of the markets were flooded out. Toy shook her head sadly and said that some people had lost everything.
The streets were bustling.
All over Thailand and and today in Myanmar, I saw children riding with their parents on mopeds, motorcycles, scooters. Sometimes three and four people are on one motorbike. Helmets are seldom used.
Toy grabbed a tuk-tuk driver, and we started our tour of the city.
I saw this pretty cat sitting in a market area.
The streets are quite narrow.
Toy took us through the local market.
Pepper, anyone?
Pig foot? Pig snout?
This pretty little guy stared right at me.
Want a fresh fish?
Toy showed us a Buddhist temple. She told us the pillars were gold leaf. The picture does not fully capture the gaudiness of the Buddha display. There were blinking lights, much like Christmas lights, along with neon. In one of the buildings adjacent to the temple, we saw many people gathered. Toy explained that they were illegal aliens and would be returned to their countries after they received a meal here and got their paperwork processed.
We were scheduled to have a picnic lunch back in Thailand, but it was noon and we were already starving. Toy suggested that we stop at one of the food stalls. I think this was the bravest thing we have done so far. The “kitchen” is just what you see here: a table with some ingredients on top. A pot of boiling water is out of the frame to the right of this lady’s leg. Toy insisted that our snack be steamed, which I thought was a great idea. Hopefully the bugs would be killed.
We ate a rice crepe with vegetables and pork. It was actually quite delicious, though Genene initially had a hard time using the chopsticks to eat it. The nice lady offered to use her scissors to cut it for Genene, but we had all seen her using those scissors on EVERYTHING in the food prep area. Genene got motivated and started stabbing that thing with her chopsticks and declined the offer of the scissors of doom.
Our chefs. Can you see the white powder-like substance on the lady’s face on the right? We saw this on many of the ladies in Myanmar. Toy explained that it is a fashion statement. The substance is the ground bark of a particular wood, something like sandalwood. It is called thanaka. It is cooling and provides sun protection. Most of all, the wood is expensive, so wearing it is like a status symbol. It says, “Hey, look at me. I’ve got money.”
The town well.
The tuk-tuk driver took us to the highest point in the city.
Thailand does not allow casino gambling, so for those so inclined, a border trip can scratch the itch. Toy asked us if we wanted to see a casino, and said, “Sure!” The road up to the casino was much different from the dirt pathway in the city.
I was not allowed to use my camera in the casino, so I will just say that it looked like a very small version of a casino you would find anywhere. There were slot machines and baccarat tables. We saw games that looked something like roulette with dice. The room was filled with smoke. We got a few odd looks as we walked through the place with Genene. The biggest difference from an American casino was that there was no alcohol. People were dead serious. They are there to make money. Toy told us that she knew many people who had lost everything there. I told her we had a saying for that: “The house always wins.” On the way out the door, there is a desk where you can sell your cell phone, if you need to play just one more hand.
We headed back down toward the border. Greg tried a Myanmar beer while Toy sipped a Coke and told us a little about herself. She met her husband at university in Bangkok. She was a “big city girl” from Bangkok while he was a farm boy who had done well enough to go to the city for an education. They met and fell in love, but the match was not approved by either of their parents. His family had chosen a different spouse for him, and likewise her family for her. They were stubborn and refused the matches. They had to wait 10 years for both sets of parents to wear down, give in and let them marry. As a condition of their marriage, he had to return to his parents’ home and go back to farming, and so they live with his parents. She can make more money from tourism than he can make from farming. They have two children and are happy together.
The water continued to creep into the markets.
Need a bra?
 
 
We saw at least one stall selling endangered animal parts openly. The Chinese people sometimes frequent this border crossing because they value rhino horn and ivory. I did not take a photo.
People walk through the stalls.
We headed back to Thailand, where this cheerful sign was waiting for us. I wonder if I could get a job translating government signs.
We had our late picnic in a quiet park pavilion back in Thailand, and it was delicious.
Toy would have taken us to see the old city of Chiang Saen, but it was already after 3:00 and we were toured out. We asked to go back to the hotel.
The river bottom at Anantara continues to look threatening.

 

We spent some family time at the pool.
Some people enjoyed the bubble massage more than others.
We had Thai dinner at the hotel. We will be sad to leave this place. The food has been wonderful and the service first-rate.
I had a delicious beef salad.
The elephant motif is everywhere at Anantara, even on the candleholders.
During our walk back to our room, we saw this big fella on one of the outer walls. There’s nothing to show you scale, but he was at least six inches long and an inch wide.

Our gear is packed. Tomorrow we leave Thailand and head for Cambodia. The adventure continues.

 

Thailand: Part 10 Make and Mend Day at Anantara

Monday, August 3, 2015

We had no alarm set. It was glorious. It was raining steadily outside so there was no incentive to get up. We all enjoyed the luxury mattresses and soft, cool sheets. We ate a late breakfast at the hotel. Anantara is also an elephant resort, and we strolled to breakfast behind their “baby” elephant, who was making his way from one paddock area to another. He is actually quite large now but still walks right through the grounds of the hotel. When we arrived yesterday, our concierge showed us the rub marks on the walls and archways. She says that in another few months, he will be too big to come through hotel and will have to go around the grounds on the outside. We had no plans except for a cooking class at 5:30 PM and so enjoyed a quiet day of reading and relaxing. It was awesome. We could have taken a shuttle into town, but we all felt lazy and didn’t want to get wet.

Our room has a three country view in the Golden Triangle area. The triangle is made by the border meeting of Thailand, Myanmar (formerly known as Burma) and Laos. The opium trade flourished here, and the various local currencies were not accepted in trade. Payments were made in gold, giving the area its name.

This is the view from our balcony. At our feet is Thailand, where the lodge is located. Directly across the mighty Mekong River directly is Myanmar (Burma). To the right (looking northeast) you can see the mountains of Laos. We spent a lot of time today on the balcony listening to the sounds of the rain, the tree frogs, the elephants. It was very relaxing. It has been raining hard, and there is a lot of flooding in the area. Our hotel is high on the hill so we can watch the rising water in the riverbottom in complete safety. It looks like a lot of water to us, but the locals just shrug their shoulders. I think this is pretty common for this time of year.

The baby elephant walks right through the hotel and down these steps every day. In a few months, he will be too big to go through and will have to go around.
 

There are two restaurants at the hotel: Thai and Italian. We were THai-ed out and so for lunch we had Italian. It made for a nice change of pace, although the Italians are not known for their low-carb lifestyles either. I’ll get back on the diet later.

We had a wonderful day at leisure. Greg read books. I blogged. Genene watched youtube and played games. We napped. It was nice to recharge our batteries.

At 5:30, we headed down to the cooking area to take a class from one of the chefs. It’s the first time I have done such a thing. I am not allowed to cook in our house, except for some baking. I am not very good at cooking, and I end up wrecking the kitchen. Greg loves it, and so I have abandoned our kitchen at home to him.

Genene loves watching the cooking show “Chopped” and enjoyed getting to make her own meal.

Tonight’s menu was chicken satay, green papaya salad, and shrimp pad thai. I could get used to this kind of cooking. The chef had all the ingredients pre-measured and in little bowls. As we prepared each course, the ingredients appeared magically. At home, we invariably start cooking, realize we have forgotten some key ingredient and end up rushing off the the store. The chef encouraged us to add spice to our liking, so Greg and I each tossed in a whole chili to give our dishes some Thai spice, not farang or falong (foreigner). There must be a lot of finicky white people vacationing throughout Thailand because most restaurants are afraid to make anything for us with spice.

Chicken satay and green papaya salad:

Shrimp pad thai:

 

We got to eat what we cooked, along with a bottle of nice red wine. We got great parting gifts too: an apron, cutting board, shopping bag and recipe book. I can’t wait for Greg to try some of them at home.

We wandered back upstairs and had drinks at the bar. One of the bartenders was a frustrated magician and showed Genene several tricks. She enjoys magic and she loves pranking and being pranked. She and the bartender giggled as they played together. A woman sat cross-legged on a day bed in the lobby nearby and played a yangqin (Chinese hammered dulcimer) softly.

This place is beautiful and romantic. I can imagine having a pampered honeymoon here. My friend Sara Anderson says that she wants an elephant experience but does not want to rough it as we did in the Thai Elephant Camp. I’m going to send her here. They have a very humane elephant program here, and people can get the same sort of mahout training and then go get a half-day spa treatment.

We walked around the beautiful grounds at night.

Even the towels are folded like elephants.
We enjoyed having a day at leisure as a family. Tomorrow we will be back to another hectic day of touring.