Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Wat's Up, Siem Reap

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Once again, we had a lazy morning. While MA showered and dressed, D went to Starbucks again for coffee and the internet. For better or worse, there was nothing really new for either of us. D also posted the latest entry in the blog. Once back in the room, he made last minute adjustments in the luggage. We have distilled our clothes for the next week to one suitcase so we can use the so-called “rolling carry-on” as checked luggage since it is twice the weight allegedly allowed by Silkair. At 15+ kilos, it would have been difficult to get in and out of the overhead bins anyway.

At 11 a.m., we called for a porter to fetch the baggage and then checked out. The porter brought our bags to the front and loaded them into a taxi, then rolled the ones we were not taking to Cambodia to the concierge area where, we hope, they will be held until our return in a week. The taxi whisked us to Changi airport without incident; the ride gave us another opportunity to marvel at the beauty of Singapore. We decided that it must be a city planner’s or architect’s dream location.

We checked our bags and cleared passport control on our way to the gate. The Singapore airport, or at least Terminal 2, reflects the city – beautifully designed, extraordinarily clean and bright, and filled with high-end retail stores. What other airport houses a Ferragamo store? We got directions to the free wireless area and sent an e-mail telling Jon where we were; he said it would turn up as a text message on his phone. It didn’t. Next, there was the text message directly to his phone, but, of course, it was to the wrong phone. Finally there was the text message to the right phone. Nada. He never received any of the messages.

By this time, it was 12:15 or so. We hadn’t had breakfast and were hungry, so we got pizza and Cokes and waited. And waited…..MA got tired of waiting and went looking for the family. She found them not 100 yards from where we had been waiting, playing in the “kids’ zone” nearby. She sent Jon to find D and we returned only to have Carter come running up yelling, Grandpa!” No more Peepah, just ordinary Grandpa. We talked and played with the kids until 1:45 when we could, in theory, board the plane for our 2:45 departure. In fact, we had to clear security at our gate [not a cattle call as in most other airports] and then fill out paper work for entrance into Cambodia.

We had hardly made a dent in the forms when the plane started boarding. This was good because there was no stampede but bad because we had that much more time on the non-moving plane. Caiden was especially vocal in his displeasure. The plane was full but left on time and we were fairly comfortable in an exit row for the two hour flight. We set down amid rice paddies, a reminder that we were not visiting a large metropolitan area.

The heat was stifling when we exited the plane. Siem Reap has a one-story terminal and we had to walk down steps to the tarmac and then wait for The Boys paraphernalia [strollers, backpack] to be unloaded. As a result, we were at the end of the line when we entered the building. A helpful staffer took pity on our group of six and walked us around the immigration/passport lines. Once we were in the lobby of the terminal, he collected our passports and $20USD for each of us and disappeared to take care of the entry visas. Jon and D collected the luggage while we waited for the official’s return. He reappeared in short order, distributed the passports and pocketed the “tip” [read: bribe] Jon handed him. We then left the terminal and found the driver from our hotel.

The ride to our hotel showed both the opulence of expensive resort properties and the poverty of many of the locals. There were road-side food stalls as there have been in several other countries; cattle grazing at the roadside; motorcycles and bicycles. The Casa Angkor is in the city proper but has the look and feel of colonial times. It is a sprawling 4-story complex with a relatively open first floor housing the front desk and a deserted restaurant. In this, it is like the Villa Lumbung in Bali where we stayed with the kids last year. It is a modest establishment when compared to others; indeed, we can see the back and elaborate swimming pool of the larger neighboring resort. The biggest problem when we checked in was that the air conditioning was not working in either suite [yes, suite – bedroom and living room for $100 per night, breakfast included]. Jon called and eventually both units in both rooms were running full blast.

Aside: An interesting peculiarity of most of the Asian hotels we’ve stayed in is that the electricity to lights and outlets is activated by inserting the room key card into a receptacle by the entry door. We discovered this the hard way in Japan last year. It held true in Bangkok and Singapore on this trip as well as here in Siem Reap. This system saves electricity and money, but it means that the A/C turns off when the key is removed. We solved the problem by removing the traditional metal key from its holder so we could go to dinner, take the key but leave the A/C turned on. Jon says that a credit card or even a business card will often activate the system.

We went to dinner around 6:30, Jon and Briton making the decision on our destination. When we inquired at the front desk, we were told that the best, perhaps only, way to get to the restaurant was to use the local version of the tuk-tuk [tewk-tewk]. We had seen tuk-tuks in Bangkok and a cousin, the bajai, in Jakarta. They are three-wheeled motorized vehicles which provide cheap transportation for two or three people. In Jakarta, they seemed to be powered by lawn motor engines. In Bangkok, they were more substantial. In Siem Reap, they are two-wheeled passenger compartments pulled by a motorcycle. For two dollars USD, the drivers would take us to the restaurant. We needed two tuk-tuks because there were six of us counting Caiden. The drivers not only took us, they returned in an hour to retrieve us. Tuk-tuks are as thick as New York taxis.

Dinner was good [pan-Asian], but Jon says there is too much space spent on describing meals and Cokes, so we’ll skip it tonight. And the whole Coca Cola thing has become a joke to us and, we hope, a running gag in the blog. We tuk-tuked home and said goodnight. We have to be up early tomorrow for our first day at Angkor Wat. We are praying for cooler, drier weather.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

We were up early today so we could be ready to meet our guide at 8:00 a.m. Jon has engaged this guide for two days. Like all tourist guides in Cambodia, he is licensed by the state, so he should know what he is talking about. In fact, once we met him, we found him to be quite charming and helpful. On more than one occasion, he took Carter’s hand or helped push Caiden.
We ate breakfast as a family which means Jon and Briton sort of took turns eating around their Caiden duties. Both of the boys are charmers, but they are also quick to change moods and change back again. The hotel dining room had big paddle fans and we waited for Humphrey Bogart, Claude Rains and Sidney Greenstreet to appear; we hummed As Time Goes By.
Tuk-tuks seem to be our only exotic mode of transit in Siem Reap as we will be touring in an air conditioned minivan. The six of us barely fit despite the fact that Jon reserved a 12 passenger van. As long as the A/C works, we will be happy campers.

We spent today visiting the ruins of palaces and Buddhist temples in the area. Most of these date from the Thirteenth to the Fifteenth Centuries, more or less. Now, they are largely in ruins with large piles of rubble prominent. The remaining stone work is magnificent. In most cases, sandstone has been covered by harder stone hewn into large blocks. These facing stones were then carved with elaborate displays including elephants, dancing women, warriors and kings. So much has been lost to time and erosion as well as antiquities thieves that we may never know what these temples and palaces looked like.

Our first stop was at the Angkor Thom which featured a long entryway over a moat. [Note: Angkor is the area, Wat is a temple, and we think Thom is a palace] The bridge held railings of stone and the railings were topped with carved heads. Surrounded by throngs of tourists, we walked along the bridge admiring the stonework. Once through the gate at the end of the bridge, we got back in the van for the drive to the site. Although much was been lost, it is still easy to see the 5 main towers. Four of them have faces carved on four sides while the fifth has faces on eight sides. There are, or were, 54 towers altogether with fifty-three having four-sided towers and only one having eight. Everyone but MA climbed to the top of this complex and took pictures; MA waited in the shade of the stairway until we returned.

The weather gods had favored us once again, sort of. It was hot and humid but not rainy although we are still in the rainy season in Siem Reap. The Bayon area had a lot of deep and steep stone steps, so the touring was tiring and occasionally treacherous. It was even more exhausting for Jon and Briton because of Caiden. At one point, Jon, Carter, Caiden and MA returned to the car while Briton and D continued with the guide. As Ed said in Kyoto, “If I don’t have a picture, I must not have been there.”

Our next stop had fewer steps but was still hard. We were at an almost-deserted temple which was known for its Secret Sword. On the approach to the temple, we saw a small musical group all of whose players were handicapped as a result of land mines. In the past fifteen years, Cambodia has cleared millions of mines placed by the Khmer Rouge, but millions more may remain. On the way out, we put money in the donation basket. Outside the temple, we found an old woman selling fresh fruit, so we gave her a dollar for about 5 bananas. Caiden and Carter ate most of them.

This temple had more of a linear design. There was a main “aisle” through the complex with only a few side “halls” visible. Like the gardens in China, in which each room was a separate building, this temple was a series of rooms. The doorways became increasingly small as we approached the center, then became larger.

Jon stayed back with Caiden and Carter while D, MA, and Briton walked through. MA stopped partway through and waited for us to return. Briton and D saw the whole complex although they encouraged the guide to move a little faster. We picked up MA and returned to Jon and the boys. We were all hot and sweaty, so we decided to return to the hotel to dry off and get lunch.
We ate in the hotel dining room and were the only customers for most of the time. Once again, Jon and Briton ate by turns while the rest of us enjoyed our meal. After lunch, we rested and then met the guide at 3 o’clock for the last tour of the day.

Angkor Wat. Even the name conjures up pictures of steamy jungles and remote places. It is actually only 20 minutes from our hotel. If the Royal Palace and Temple in Bangkok is the typical poster for Thailand, the buildings at Angkor Wat are quintessentially Cambodian. Tall spires behind a reflecting pond silhouetted against a clear blue sky. Saffron-robed monks. Japanese tourists. It wasn’t the mob scene of the Bayon, but it was plenty busy.

It is an immense complex with a straight path leading through ante-buildings. There are two libraries [in ruins, of course], one on either side of the path. The temple itself seems to be a series of hollow squares. Again, there were numerous horrendously steep steps, so MA, Jon and Caiden stayed back while the rest wandered through the ruins. There were friezes carved into the stone walls inside and out; the remains of four swimming pools; lotus-patterned ceilings; and more of the “Chinese style” doors with tall steps in them, perhaps to keep evil spirits at bay; these often had had three wooden risers added so tourists could walk through without the big step.

When we were done, we had some confusion finding the other half of our group but finally made connections. We discovered that Jon had twisted his foot rather badly after carrying Caiden and his stroller over one of the afore-mentioned risers. Caiden was fine but got scared when Jon fell. Other tourists assisted them and Jon was a bit gimpy but not seriously injured.

Jon’s injury was not the only one of the day. Carter fell and got a nasty scrape on his arm but recovered quickly. MA hurt her good knee when she tried to exit the van at the hotel and lost her balance. As a result, she sort of slid forward in the seat and jammed her knee past the normal bending point. We had to pull/push her back into a normal seating position before she could get out of the van. We decided that we were in trouble if D was the healthy one in the group.

We were all exhausted so returned to the hotel to wash up and get ready for dinner. We tuk-tuked into town again and ate at a barbecue restaurant. This is not what it sounds like but is more like upside-down fondue. We each selected what meat we wanted and it was brought out raw with a whole egg on top. It was accompanied by a plate of noodles and fresh veggies. Next, we were presented with a red-hot cooker and had to cook our meat ourselves. The eggs were broken up and stirred into the meat; broth was added to a channel on the edge of the cooker; and the noodles and vegetables were added to the broth. We had no real idea what we were supposed to do, but we grilled the meat, put it in a bowl and added broth, noodles and vegetables to make a soup. It was tasty but hot sitting near the cooker. Briton took the kids home at 8 o’clock and we cooked her supper and brought the meat home to her. It was definitely one of the most unusual meals we have ever had.

Tomorrow, we are to see more temples. Maybe it will rain.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Early to bed, early to rise makes people tired. We were ready for Bunta [Boohn-ta] at 8 this morning and were on the road around 8:15. We have decided that visiting the Cambodian temples is like taking a safari – you go early in the morning and then in the late afternoon to avoid the worst of the heat. In Siem Reap, of course, it’s always the worst of the heat and humidity.

We spent the morning at two temples whose names are unimportant and unpronounceable. Both were made of red stone and the oldest dated to the 8th Century. The decay and rubble were worse here than at Angkor Wat which is only natural considering their ages. The friezes were just as detailed but of different styles. Only pictures can do any of these temples justice.
At all of today’s stops [including the afternoon visit] we have been accosted by highly aggressive vendors. Despite our fervid refusals to purchase t-shirts, books about the temples and other handicrafts, the sellers persist. If we won’t buy on the way in, they ask, how about on the way out? Around the gateways to the temples are souvenir shops of every kind – textiles, wood work, tchotchkes and food. The assailants are unfailingly polite, but are very persistent. Since so many are children [a sure way to appeal to the guilt of well-off tourists], we wonder why they aren’t in school. Jon says their parents are too poor to afford the tuition which is a sad commentary on the central government.

After we had climbed and sweated enough, we drove back to Siem Reap for lunch. Bunt and the driver found a neice local place near the river. We couldn’t see the river, which isn’t particularly pretty during the rainy season, but the restaurant was quiet and cool and we enjoyed our typically Asian lunch. And Cokes.

We gathered in the lobby at 3 to visit our last temple of the trip – the Lara Croft, Tomb Raider movie site. As usual, we were beset with vendors who even followed through the temple gate. It was peaceful inside the gate, but we had a long walk ahead of us. We also had a small lake/stream/moat to cross. We knew we were in trouble when the entry led to sand bags on the ground. We realized the large building stones which formed the crossing over the water. Some presented deep steps and others were low; some of the stepping stones were almost at water level; and all had weathered over the years of tourist visits. MA was hesitant to cross because both of her knees were bothering her and insisted on sitting in the shade while the rest of us went on. D insisted on waiting with her. She almost won the contest of wills, but Bunt pointed out that he could not get hold of the driver to tell him to fetch MA and that the tour ended at a different gate. MA decided that she could make the crossing and then proceeded to prove it [with a little help].

She was glad she had. The temple was magnificent, even though most of it was a shambles of rubble and rock piles. Although we had not seen the movie, we could appreciate the cinematic possibilities of the temple. It has been deserted for so long that gigantic trees have grown over, around and through the remains. Each vista showed something even more fantastic than the last, and fantastic is the right word since the scene looked like something from Tolkien. Again, only pictures may convey some of the beauty of this site.

When we had finished this tour [with only one fall by Carter and no tears], we drove back to the hotel. There are lots of other temples and ruins to be seen, but we had seen enough; we were overloaded by carvings, temples, towers and humidity. We all washed up and then went to an early dinner in the hope of getting the children back on their normal schedules. We took tuk-tuks in a light rain a few blocks to the restaurant, had another fine eclectic Eurasian dinner and were “home” well before 8 o’clock [Note: MA had noodles and D had amok, the local curry]. MA and D went to their room where D caught up on the journal and they both watched CNN. Like Coca Cola, CNN is a safe bet world-wide.

This part of Cambodia, at least, has a high water table. Much of the land is flooded for rice production – and we saw plenty of rice fields – and Bunt says the there is enough water retained in the area to have three crops each year. We can’t understand what made Angkor such an important place since it doesn’t have any geographical advantages. It is not on a major river like Shanghai, Bangkok and Saigon or poised in a natural trading locale like Singapore. This area has always been strictly agricultural although now tourism is the major player in the economy.
Today’s temples were farther from downtown SR than yesterday’s. The country-side was definitely rural and squalid. There were store shanties along the road along the way, as well as several linear towns [i.e., they seemed to exist in a straight line along the road]. We saw rice paddies, of course, but also coconut and banana trees and lots of bulls and oxen; for some reason, we saw no cows.

SR is also undergoing a building boom. High-rise buildings would be out of place here where the tallest structures seem to top out at 4 stories. A number of mixed us buildings are under construction, all following the same basic plan: three stories with housing on the upper floors and businesses on the street level. The street level units might have been configured as parking in the US if these had been townhouses, but here they are fitted with ugly but functional pull-down steel doors. They will be rented as commercial space and, sadly, many will end up being “one stop” stores just like all of the others.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

We said “farewell” to Siem Reap today. We have grown used to this little town and its tuk-tuks, potholes and standing water in the streets. We did a bit of touring in the city today or at least tried to.

We started with a guided tour of an artisan workshop. Young people come here to learn one of several fine arts with the goal of apprenticing and then going out on their own. All of the techniques being taught here are aimed at preserving the native folk arts albeit with new materials. Skills include acrylic painting on silk; silk manufacturing and weaving; wood working; and antiquing. The participants are either handicapped or poor.

For example, all of the trainees in the silk painting program are deaf. They are learning to paint traditional scenes of temples and other things on stretched silk. Their work is beautiful if not really inspired. They are learning technique, not creativity, so they will be painters, not artists. In the same way, the wood workers are using laminated woods [think really thick plywood] which they carve in representations of Buddha and other mythic figures. They, too, will be skilled workers but not artists because they are using models and stencils to perfect their technique. At the end of their training, they may only be proficient in one figure and will recreate it endlessly to support themselves. Others are learning how to paint figurines and apply bronze leaf to create an antique appearance or how to carve stone to imitate the ancient temple carvings. It was fascinating to watch and reassured us that similar products are hand-made even if simultaneously mass-produced.

We tried to go to the local historical museum which is relatively new. It is housed in a stylized Cambodian building reminiscent of the temples but thoroughly modern in appearance. Staff gave Briton a hard time about bringing in the backpack with Caiden’s paraphernalia and then we learned that we would have to pay for both boys. Even at half price, it seemed ludicrous. Since the total admission for the group would have been $60 and the boys bored to crying, we left quickly.

Jon, MA and The Boys returned to the hotel while Briton and D took a tuk-tuk to go shopping. They went to two modern shops, one of which was run by the handicapped where Briton bought 2 scarves and D bought the final mask of the trip [that makes 4 so far]. They followed that up by going to the old market in the center of town for more shopping.

The old market was like the one we visited in Saigon although there was no outer ring of government approved shops. This one was one block square and had its outer stalls filled with vendors of textiles, wooden souvenirs and junk. The inner section was a native food market – poorly lit and poorly ventilated – filled with people selling vegetables, fruits, fish, meat, sea food, chickens and God knows what else. There was no refrigeration and we could only hope that the local restaurants did not purchase anything here.

We returned in time for lunch at a nearby restaurant which was classier and more expensive than we wanted but which we enjoyed anyway. The children got restless as it was Caiden’s nap time, so Jon and The Boys went back while D, MA and Briton got the check.

Our trip to Phnom Penh was uneventful. Our plane was only one-quarter full and the flight took less time than our wait in the Siem Reap terminal. We were met at the PP airport and then endured a half-hour of the worst traffic and pollution we have seen. Jakarta’s traffic may be worse but not by much. We discovered in Siem Reap that traffic control lines and lane markers are only suggestions; drivers of motorcycles and cars pass over double lines as if they didn’t exist and horns are more important than turn signals or brakes. We made it to the hotel without incident, but we were a trifle nervous when the horde of cyclists cam at us against traffic on the wrong side of a traffic island.

We ate in the hotel after we checked in because we were too tired to go out. MA was in bed and asleep by 9 o’clock and D went to bed around 9:45 when he finished today’s entry.

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