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.

 

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