Joined February 2018 Message
  • Day51

    Killing Fields and S-21 Prison

    April 7, 2018 in Cambodia ⋅ ⛅ 27 °C

    The scourge of the Khmer Rouge and their impact upon modern life are ever present in Cambodia. In a four year period, the Khmer Rouge killed twenty-five percent of the country’s population, either through execution or starvation. Every person that we met during our time in Cambodia had some story about how their life was affected by the genocide, even farming families who couldn’t possibly have been a threat to the Pol Pot regime.

    Sophea, our local guide, spent a great deal of time trying to help us understand both how the Khmer Rouge rose to power, and how the country has been able to move forward after a war that pitted one neighbor against another. The rise of the Khmer Rouge is directly tied to American involvement in Vietnam. During the war in Vietnam, the Vietcong crossed the border into Cambodia, seeking shelter. The Cambodian government, which was deeply connected to the Chinese government at that point in time, agreed to provide shelter, and actually permitted the establishment of the Ho Chi Minh trail. In their quest to stop the Vietcong, the American army bombed the border between Cambodia and Vietnam, as well as the Ho Chi Minh trail, killing many Cambodians who lived in the area. The Khmer Rouge fomented anti-American sentiment, and presented itself as a force that would oppose further American incursions in the country. Of course, this was completely erroneous, as America had left already Vietnam by 1975, which is when the Khmer Rouge took over Phnom Phen. But, most Cambodians didn’t know this fact, and were fully prepared to believe that America was planning to engage in additional, deadly bombing attacks.

    During the Khmer Rouge regime, the farmers were pitted against the intellectuals, and average men and women were expected to enforce incredibly repressive policies and carry out a genocide. The first step in repressing the intellectuals and reforming the country was to move everyone out of the cities and into the countryside, where they could work on farms. Phnom Phen was emptied of all of this population on April 17, 1975 — which was the lunar New Year. The city was a virtual ghost town for the the following four years.

    In order to dispose of the intellectuals, foreigners, and anyone who supported the previous government, the Khmer Rouge began an unbelievably aggressive campaign of rounding people up, and interrogating them until they confessed to some crime (typically collaboration with the Americans). Then, once they confessed, these people were taken to a “killing field,” which was a place for mass executions, which was usually accomplished by burying people alive after they had been tortured and beaten.

    Although interrogations were conducted throughout the country, the largest interrogation facility was located in a former school inside of Phnom Phen. S—21 was the site of the interrogation of 15,000 prisoners during the course of the war. The forced interrogations took 7 days, during which prisoners were brutally tortured. Not too surprisingly, everyone eventually confessed. Only 7 people survived detention at S-21. The school is now a museum, which we were able to visit. During our visit, we met two of the seven people who survived after being taken to S-21. We spoke to one of the former prisoners, who shared his story about the torture that he endured, and his survival which is attributable to the fact that he was detained very late in the war, and had skills that the Khmer Rouge needed.

    Our next stop was one of the largest killing fields in the country, which is located outside of Phnom Phen. Touring the next site was chilling, but just as devastating was hearing that the executioners were typically 15 year olds, who were prompted to act by the fact that each of the people slated for execution had “confessed” during their detentions. We learned that the executioners were told that they could carry out the executions, or be killed themselves. Today, these executioners are in their mid-40s, and a large percentage are suffering from severe PTSD.

    Obviously, many of us asked a lot of questions about how the country was able to move forward after this genocide, as former members of the Khmer Rouge continue to live in the country, often side-by-side with people that they victimized. Sophea explained (as did Phat whom we had taken the food tour in Siem Reap) that there a number of explanations. First and foremost, the Buddhist faith teaches the value of forgiveness and living in the present. Almost 90% of Cambodians are Buddhists, so their strong faith allowed them to forgive, although not forget, what happened. The fact that many of the executioners were given no meaningful choice about whether to participate also helped people forgive. Second, there is a code of silence about those years that is only starting to be broken. Members of the Khmer Rouge were invited to participate in the government. There has been no “truth and reconciliation” commission, and only 4 people have been prosecuted for war crimes. Parents did not talk to children about what happened, because they did not want their children to engage in revenge killings. Third, the government controls the dissemination of information and free speech is non-existent. The government seems to have no interest in revisiting the past, and represses all independent efforts to do so. And, the economic devastation that followed the war led to a complete focus on moving forward, as so much rebuilding was necessary. As Sophea patiently explained this to all of us, I watched as people shook their heads in disbelief. Clearly, our understanding was hampered by our western views.

    As Arie and I talked about the day, we were again struck by the role that America played in creating a deadly conflict in another country. Without planning to do so, our sabbatical has taken us to four different countries that suffered devastating internal conflicts fueled by the CIA — Chile, Argentina, Vietnam and Cambodia. At the time, our government lied to us about what was going on, and the truth only came out years later. I can’t help but worry about what else we don’t know, and what ill-conceived policies were continue to engage in.
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  • Day51

    Phnom Penh

    April 7, 2018 in Cambodia ⋅ ⛅ 26 °C

    After lunch, we docked in Phnom Penh, which we had driven through a few days earlier. Phnom Penh is a big city, which is reminiscent of Hanoi, but with far fewer people. Food stalls are everywhere. Restaurants open onto the street. Lots of motor bikes zip by. Basically, a big city, Asian-style.

    As a group, we visited the Royal Palace, which was built about 200 years ago. Surprisingly, the palace was neither destroyed, nor looted during the civil war. Actually, the lack of looting is astonishing when you learned that the floor of the Silver Pagoda, which is on the Palace grounds, contains 5 TONS of silver. The palace is lovely, and reflects the more modern Khmer style of architecture — lots of serpents on peaked roofs, etc.

    Afterwards, we visited the National Museum, which is filed with beautiful artifacts that were taken from Khmer sites throughout the country. Given that the Royal Palace was not looted during the war, I was surprised to learn that the museum was trashed, and many artifacts were destroyed. So sad.

    As we walked through both the Royal Palace and the National Museum, we saw lots and lots of monks. Many of the monks are actually young boys, in the range of 10-14 years. Becoming a monk is considered to be an honor, and families encourage their children to do so. Given the poverty in the country, and the lack of educational opportunities, joining a monastery is a decent option, as you are well-fed and educated both religiously and secularly. And, since joining a monastery is not considered to be a life-long commitment, it is a realistic short-term option. Of course, joining a monastery at the age of 9 also requires that you move away from your family, live a life that is filled with very stringent requirements (like only 2 meals a day, and nothing to eat after noon), and no “play.” Yet, despite these strictures, it is obviously a very popular alternative in Cambodia.

    In the evening, we had the option of skipping dinner on board the boat, and going into town. We decided that a little excursion would be fun, and found someplace to eat. Our cruise director and local guide repeatedly tried to dissuade us from leaving, due to concerns that they seemed to have about our safety. When we announced that we were going to walk to the restaurant (which was about a mile away), rather than take a tuk tuk, their concerns seemed to grow. But, we were bound and determined, and repeatedly assured them that we’d be fine, and would return to the dock long before 11, when the gates closed. So, off we went.

    We started with a stroll through the night market. Nothing of interest to buy, but it was fun to do some people watching, as we were pretty much the only westerners in sight We then walked through the streets, peering at the food stalls and taking in the sights and sounds of the city. As we passed a barber shop — which was really just a store front with a mirror and a barber chair — Arie decided that it was time for a haircut and shave. So, for $6 (which was probably too much), he got a haircut and a beard trim.

    We ate at a restaurant called Sugar Palm, where we had some delicious food. And then walked back to the boat. Along the way we passed a Cambodian gas station. Why do I mention the gas station? Because it is not really a gas station, at least as we think of it. Since most transportation is by motor bike, gas stations are simply stands where there are large bottles (often bottles that were originally used for alcohol or soda) that are filled with gasoline, and a funnel to fill the gas tank of the motor bike. It would never pass EPA standards, but it obviously does the trick.
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  • Day50

    Countryside Around Tonle Sap

    April 6, 2018 in Cambodia ⋅ ⛅ 31 °C

    Our first excursion off the boat was to the village of Kampong Tralach, which is on the banks of the Tonle Sap lake. Some of the houses actually float on the lake, while others are on stilts, which shelter them from flooding. Beyond the banks of the lake are small villages. According to Sophea, approximately 70% of the population of Cambodia lives in small, rural villages like this one, where farming is the sole source of income. These villages are incredibly poor. Most of these villages do not have running water, and electricity was only installed in most of these villages in the last 2-3 years. Refrigeration is non-existent. Air-conditioning is literally unheard of. Yet, many of the young people seem to have some type of mobile phone, and presumably there is some access to cellular data.

    We were met at the river bank by a local residents with ox-carts that we were to ride to another village. Although the notion of riding an ox-cart seemed ridiculously touristy, Sophea suggested that the rides provided a source of income for carts that otherwise were underutilized. Hard to know whether this is true, but anything that brings money into these communities — including money spent by tour companies for these rides — is probably a good thing. So, we hoped in, and enjoyed a bumpy ride through the countryside.

    Our next stop was the village of Kampong Luong, in which the primary trade is silversmithing. While silversmithing must be a more lucrative profession than farming, the village did not seem any more prosperous than the first village. Again, everyone lives in small huts, with huge amphorae outside the houses to collect rainwater that is used for cooking, and bathing.

    And, as is true throughout Cambodia, as there is no garbage collection services, litter is everywhere. (We actually saw one woman burning garbage, and learned that she does this twice each week. I noticed that her property was considerably cleaner than the neighboring lots.). Sophea told us that two developments have really contributed to problems of trash throughout the country — plastic bags and plastic water bottles. Until about 10 years ago, when people bought foods at the market, they were unwrapped, or were wrapped in large leaves (typically banana leaves). But, it is incredibly cheap to buy plastic bags from China, and it is less work than going outside and cutting down leaves. Moreover, most shopkeepers refuse to put multiple items into a single bag, so if you buy mangos, pineapples and guava, you are given three bags. Once people get home, they don’t reuse them, and the bags pile up everywhere. Single use water bottles are also everywhere.

    Sophea told us that before he began as tour guide, he worked for an NGO that was working on environmental issues. His organization advertised an event to talk about recycling. They invited almost 200 people, and expected that between 50 and 100 people would attend the event. But, only a handful of people came. The next time, they sent invitations with $5 bills, and many people came, but no one was the least bit interested in learning about recycling. The problem is expected to become acute over the next ten years, but the government has no interest in addressing the problem and there is no awareness of environmental issues. It is sad, as the countryside is quite beautiful, but the trash mares the vistas.
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  • Day49

    Cruising the Mekong

    April 5, 2018 in Cambodia ⋅ ☀️ 30 °C

    After having read too many books about river adventures, not to mention having agreed to 6-1/2 weeks of constantly moving and traveling, Arie wanted a room and bed that he could call his own for a solid week. His solution was a river cruise on the Mekong. To say that I was skeptical would be putting it mildly. I like big adventure — new cities, tracking down interesting restaurants, walking down alleyways, etc. But, he was not only adamant, but had been a good sport about coming to Southeast Asia, which was my choice of locales, so I agreed.

    We choose a 7 day cruise from Siem Reap to Ho Chi Minh City, that traveled down the Tonle Sap Lake and the Mekong River. It is a relatively small ship — just 18 cabins. Since we are in the dry season, Tonle Sap is too low to allow cruising, so we had to fly to Phenom Pehn and then cruise back up into the lake. We met the rest of the guests at a hotel in Siem Reap, and quickly learned that the other 26 guests (so 28 in total) had toured Siem Reap as a group, so we were the last to come to the party! We boarded a bus to the airport. Even the bus was an experience, with the windows decorated with richly embroidered curtains that has tassels, and the seats decorated with matching embroidered covers.

    After flying to Phenom Phen, we took another bus to the dock and boarded the Avalon Siem Reap. The vessel, which was first used in 2015, is in mint condition. The rooms are just lovely, and are larger than some hotel rooms that I’ve stayed in. The food is quite tasty, and there is plenty to drink.

    As we met the passengers, we learned that we are the only Americans. Apparently, this is pretty unusual, as the cruise line (Avalon), primarily sells cruises to customers in the US. The majority of our fellow travelers are from Canada, although there are 2 couples from the UK, 2 from New Zealand and 2 from Australia. I also discovered that we are not actually the youngest couple on board, although the youngest couple were only a few years younger than us. There are 4 couples in their 50s, and the rest are in their mid-60s to early 70s. Our cruise director told me that this is an extremely young group, as most cruises are filled with people in their 70s and 80s, and our oldest guest is about to turn 79.

    There are 28 members of the crew, about 60% of whom are from Vietnam and the remaining 40% are from Cambodia. Everyone on the ship speaks some English, and the crew with whom we interact all speak English and are eager to improve their language skills. The company is a joint venture between a Swiss family and a Vietnamese family, as all foreign companies operating in Vietnam have to be operated as a joint venture with the majority ownership (51%) held by the Vietnamese investor.

    Our cruise director is a Vietnamese man named Phiem. He is a super interesting guy. He was born and raised in Ho Chi Minh city, and is the second youngest of 9 children. His family all survived the “American War,” but both of his parents died young, leaving him an orphan at 21. He attended University and earned a law degree. He had great difficulty finding a job when he graduated in 2000, as there were only 3 law firms in Ho Chi Minh. He says that he left the practice of law because his English language skills were not up to the task. Frankly, I find this hard to believe, as his English is fantastic, and I suspect that the reasons for his leaving were far more complicated. After leaving the law, he moved into tourism, and he has been working for Avalon for 4 years. Phiem is both gracious in answering all of our questions about life in Vietnam, and, more generally, about Southeast Asia. He is also extremely curious about life in the countries of the passengers. And, he has been extremely open about the challenges faced by Vietnam, including the incursion of Chinese money, the two child policy which is necessitated by economic difficulties, and changing social mores.

    We also have local guides, who provides information about the sites that we see during land ventures.

    For the first half of the cruise we are in Cambodia, and our guide is Sophea. He is in his late 30s, married, with a 7 month old daughter that he refers to as the “little princess.” Like Phiem, he is happy to share information about his life, family and views on life in Cambodia. He told me that his father’s family made it through the Khmer Rouge “genocide” due to actions of his paternal grandfather who worked for the government before the war. His grandfather astutely realized that the government was failing and that the Khmer Rouge were going to repress anyone who was an intellectual or aligned with the government. So, his grandfather took the family and move hundreds of kilometers away, so that they could hide their identities. Along the way, his grandfather went to the monastery in which his father was studying, and insisted that he leave and join the family in the countryside. There is no doubt that these actions saved the entire family.

    Sophea, who has 5 sisters and 1 brother, was raised quite traditionally. He told me that his mother essentially ran the family. I gather that matriarchal families are the norm in Cambodia, in large part because girls remain with their families after marriage, and inheritance is passed through the girls. Sophea went to university to study electrical engineering. Early in his university career, his mother arranged a marriage for him with a woman from the neighborhood. Sophea refused to enter into the arrange marriage, causing his mother to deem him a bad son and stop speaking to him for quite some time. Sophea told her that he wanted to complete his education, and that he would make sure that his sisters received an education. Years later, after Sophea made sure that all of his sisters could go to school, his mother finally forgave him for refusing the wife that she had chosen for him!
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    Looks lovely. Enjoy

  • Day48

    Food Tour in Siem Reap

    April 4, 2018 in Cambodia ⋅ ⛅ 26 °C

    Any visit by the Vinick-Grossmans to a new country must include a food tour, if at all possible. I hadn’t really planned ahead and made reservations for any food tour in Cambodia. Fortunately, Siem Reap is a huge tourist destination, and there were three choices of food tours. So, we choose one, made a last minute reservation with Angkor Eats, skipped lunch and got ready for another foodie adventure.

    We were picked up at the hotel by a tuk tuk driver. We were told that he’d be our driver for the evening, which meant that we’d be traveling from place to place. Awesome — this is how our food tour adventure started in Bangkok, and that was a terrific evening. As it turns out, the tuk tuk ride was a good omen.

    Our tuk tuk drove us through a totally non-touristy part of town, which was very interesting. We saw all kinds of houses, both large and small, as well as shops selling everything that you could think of. After about 20 minutes, we arrived at a restaurant, where we were the only guests, as it was only 4:30. We meet our guide, Phat, who told us that we were the only guests on the tour. From my perspective, this was perfect, as it gave me a chance to ask him a million questions about life in Cambodia. (The guide that we had originally booked for Angkor Wat cancelled at the last minute, and gave us a substitute guide whose English was quite poor. As a result, he was virtually unable to answer any questions that were outside the “script” that he knew about the temples that we visited. Since I am extraordinarily curious about people, and view hiring tour guides as one of the best ways to ask questions about life in a country that I’m visiting, my inability to communicate with our tour guide was extremely frustrating.).

    Phat was a wonderful guide — both with respect to Cambodian cuisine, and his life as a Cambodian. Honestly, hearing about his life was as good as tasting a huge variety of interesting Cambodian dishes.

    First, the food — Angkor Eats has an interesting philosophy about food tours. They design their tours so that you get to taste between 35 and 40 different dishes in the course of an evening. Since it is impossible for the tour to go to 35-40 different restaurants or food carts, they pick 4 places and arrange to have dishes from different restaurants delivered to these central spots. I’ve never been on a food tour conducted such a way, but it certainly maximizes the number of dishes that you can taste. Moreover, the company is very careful to vary the type of restaurant that you visit, so you have four very different experiences. And, with the use of a tuk tuk, traveling between locations is simple.

    Our first stop was a little neighborhood restaurants, far off the beaten path. We had five different dishes, all of which were essentially appetizers — a roasted corn dish, a fried round that had sticky rice and mung bean (fantastic), a wonton type of item, and fried tofu stuffed with vegetables. It was all delicious.

    Our second stop was a restaurant which merely had a grill in front, and no kitchen in the back — exactly like some of the shops that we’d eaten at in Vietnam. There must have been a dozen dishes on the table — barbecued meats, fish cakes, papaya salad, and on and on. Some was fantastic and some was simply pretty good. But the variety was astonishing. In order to give us a chance to let the food digest, we stopped at a local wat. While the site was not particularly interesting, I was fascinated to hear our guide, Phat, talk about the willingness of Cambodians to make contributions to build temples, but the refusal to give money for building schools, and his dim view on the benefits conferred by the continuing support of religious institutions.

    Our third stop was a table with stools, which was located on a sidewalk behind some food carts. Again, more than a dozen dishes. A number of sweets made with sticky rice, none of which were particularly tasty. But, there were two dishes that were outstanding — a mango, passion fruit smoothly, and a fried leek cake. We took a break from our feasting to take a tuk tuk ride through a night market that caters exclusively to locals. The market, which lined both sides of a single street, is an outdoor mall stocked with clothing and shoes. Nothing is really displayed, but is simply gathered into huge piles. People drive up and down the street on scooters, pulling up to stalls that look interesting. And, there are literally thousands of people milling around. Sharp contrast to a mall in America.

    Our last stop was a brew pub. Although we were stuffed, we ate our way through some fish amok, a variety of tropical fruits, and some more sticky rice dessert. But, the real piece de resistance was a big plate of fried bugs — meal worms, crickets, water bugs, scorpions and tarantulas. My initial reaction was a flat out — are you kidding me? But, as I rather pride myself on believing that I’ll eat anything, I decided to give it all a try, and I mean all of it. I ate my way through tasting each and every thing on the plate. Once I got over the gross factor, it all tasted pretty much the same — oily and salty. I can’t say that I particularly liked anything, but it was certainly an experience.

    During the course of the evening, Phat graciously shared his life story with us, as well as his views on life in modern Cambodia. Phat was born in 1969. His father was a doctor, and his mother was well-educated. When the Khmer Rouge took over Cambodia in 1975, Phat was 6 years old. His father was killed immediately and two of his younger sisters died of starvation. Phat was separated from him mother and older brother for most of the war. Over the next four years, Phat, like many young Cambodians, lived in a labor camp and slowly starved. In 1979, when the Vietnamese managed to overcome the Khmer Rouge, Phat was reunited with his mother. He lived with his mother for a few years, and then moved into a Buddhist temple with the monks, so that he could get an education and be fed. After finishing high school, Phat went to college to study engineering. However, the civil war was ongoing, and his mother couldn’t help him pay for the cost of his schooling, so he had to drop out of school. He became a tour guide quite by accident — in 1994, a young missionary whom he met asked him to drive to Angkor Wat, and then gave him a $20 bill as a tip, even though Phat didn’t speak any English. Phat decided to learn English, and then study to be a tour guide. Later, he married and had two boys. When his boys were 7 and 11, his wife died. So, now he is a single parent, working incredibly hard to send his boys to private school, provide them with English lessons, and nurture the dreams of his younger son to become a doctor.

    Phat is a remarkable person. Despite the tremendous loss that he has experienced through his life, he talked about forgiveness and responsibility towards others (Phat does volunteer work, helping build schools in communities outside of Siem Reap). He was extremely open about his life experiences, but did not seem bitter about the adversities that he had suffered. He spoke about corruption in government (including his experiences of failing the tourism exam because he refused to bribe the examiners), but express a sense of hopefulness about the progress in his country. By the end of the evening, I felt that I had a better understanding of life in Cambodia over the last 40 years.
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    Speechless. All of it. Phat and his family! And scorpions, Wow

  • Day47

    Bayon Temple and Banteay Srei

    April 3, 2018 in Cambodia ⋅ ⛅ 29 °C

    One of my favorite temples is in a complex known as Angkor Tom, and it is called the Bayon Temple. (The entire Angkor Tom complex is actually bigger than Angkor Wat, but it is not built as a single, unified complex, but is instead made up of a series of separate, unreleased structures, all of which are enclosed by a wall.)

    The Bayon temple itself is not particularly large in size, but it has dozens of towers which are each topped by four enormous carved faces of Buddha, arranged as if around the sides of a cube. So, any way that you look at the towers, you gaze upon a beatific face of Buddha. Originally, there were 49 towers, and a total of almost 200 faces. Today only 37 towers remain. But, The total effect is both relaxing and mesmerizing.

    The last temple that we visited is called Banteay Srei, and is known as the “Lady Temple.” The books say that the name comes from the numerous carvings of Asmara — dancing women. But, as all of the guides are quick to point out, the temple is carved from pink sandstone. I am convinced that the color of the sandstone is the reason that the name “Lady Temple” stuck! The carvings on the temple are simply extraordinary — very detailed and intricate. Walking around and gazing at them was great fun . . . And I could probably have done it for quite some time, but it was blistering hot. So, off we go.
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  • Day46

    Ta Phrom

    April 2, 2018 in Cambodia ⋅ ⛅ 29 °C

    In and around Siem Reap are dozens of other temple complexes, built by different kings over a period of a few hundred years. None of the other complexes are as well preserved as Angkor Wat, nor are any nearly as big as Angkor Wat. In fact, we saw about 10 different temples over the course of two days — so many that the temples started to blend together (Which one had the 200 faces of buddha? Which one had the ladies?). However, each complex is beautiful, well worth a look. But, I’ll just pick a few to talk about ...

    So, the first stop after leaving Angkor Wat, was Ta Phrom, which everyone refers to as the Tomb Raider Temple. Why? Because this is where the movie Tomb Raider was filmed. (I’ve never seen the movie, but every guide tells people exactly where it was filmed, and suggests that you take pictures in X or Y spot. It is actually a bit annoying, as it creates huge lines in one place and “people jams.”).

    The temple itself was undoubtedly beautiful in its time, albeit much smaller than Angkor Wat. However, the remarkable part about the temple is that it has been taken over (destroyed?) by the incursion of the jungle. In this part of Cambodia, one of the primary trees in the forest is called a “spoon tree.” Apparently, this is a very soft wood, and the “softness” of the wood somehow allows the tree to grow in such a way that the small branches insinuate themselves between they blocks of the temple. Over time, the branches grow and expand, pushing the stones apart. Now, almost 1000 years later, there are actual trees growing in, on, and around the temple. Not only has this destroyed parts of the temple, but it is now impossible to cut the branches out without damaging the structural integrity of remaining parts of the temple. So, the branches and trees must stay, while those parts of the temple which have not been affected by the growth remains.

    The juxtaposition of nature’s structures and man’s creations is fantastical.
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    Hope Ratner

    So interesting! And beautiful.

  • Day46

    Angkor Wat

    April 2, 2018 in Cambodia ⋅ ⛅ 28 °C

    I don’t really believe in the idea of having a bucket list. But, if I had one, visiting Angkor Wat — which is considered to be one of the seven wonders of the world — would have been near the tip top of the list. And, as much as I had read about the complex, and thought that I understood the size and scope, I was still completely unprepared for the actual majesty of the site.

    Angkor Wat was built between 1113 and 1151, during the reign of King Suryavarman II. It is estimated that between 500,000 and a million people worked on the structure, with the assistance of 3000 elephants and 6000 horses. It was originally built as a Hindu temple, honoring both the God Vishnu, as well as to the greater glory of the King. It is the largest religious monument in the world — covering approximately 500 acres. The complex consists of an enormous, man made moat with a length of approximately one-half mile on each side. To enter the complex, you must cross the moat on a bridge that is almost 1000 feet long. Once you cross the moat, you enter into a set of buildings/corridors that form the outer wall of the complex. Every surface that you see is covered with carvings. As you pass out of the buildings, you cross an enormous “square” or “plaza,” which has both open spaces and buildings. It is believed that the buildings were libraries that held sacred texts, and that the open spaces were for pilgrims. You then come to the main part of the temple, which is comprised of enormous galleries, enclosing courtyards and five towers. The central tower is 65 meters tall. Adorning the outside of every tower were hundreds of statutes, most of which have been eroded by time. But, inside the buildings are elaborate carvings, many of which tell Hindu stories, such as the Ramayana. (There are four enormous galleries which have long friezes running the length of each gallery.). The carvings are comparable to the Elgin Marbles in terms of complexity, but are far, far larger.

    Over its vast history, the temple complex has served many, many purposes. Originally, the complex was built to honor Vishnu. Approximately 300 years later, it was later turned into a Buddhist temple, and 1000 statutes of Buddha were erected — either as carvings, or as separate statutes. Sometime thereafter, the complex was transformed back into a Hindu temple, and the statutes of Buddha were either entirely destroyed, or the heads were knocked off. For many years the site fell into disrepair, and the forest began to overgrow the site. However, it was always used by pilgrims and worshipers. During the years of the Khmer Rouge, the complex was used as a hospital, and a battleground. Today you can actually see bullet holes in many of the outer walls. Fortunately, the site was never bombed, so it is remarkably well preserved.

    I found the site to be unbelievably beautiful . . .so much so, that we actually went three times over the course of three days, including early one morning so that we could watch the sunrise. (Maya opted out of getting up at dawn to see the sunrise, as a friend had told her that there were 1000 people who were there at sunrise. Maya’s friend was wrong — there must have been 10,000 people there at sunrise!). On each of our three visits, I was able to appreciate a different aspect of Angkor Wat. The first time, I was impressed by the size and splendor of the entire complex, and completely intrigued by the history. When we want for sunrise, I was amazing by the beautiful buildings, and the contrast between the forest beyond the site and the complex that was built almost a thousand years ago. On our last visit, I marveled at the carvings that adorned every surfaced, and wondered at the number of workers that it took to build and decorate the structure.

    Although I could have spent many more days exploring the complex, it was time to visit the other temples. But, this was definitely a site that surpassed all expectations.
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  • Day44

    Beautiful Koh Kood

    March 31, 2018 in Thailand ⋅ ☁️ 24 °C

    A few days on a lovely beach is always a nice part of a vacation. So, after the hectic pace of Bangkok, we headed for Koh Kood, a small island off the western coast of Thailand (into the Gulf of Thailand). Getting to the island involves quite a bit of traveling — a 4-1/2 hour car drive, followed by a 1-1/2 hour ride on a ferry. At the end of almost an entire day’s journey, we finally approached the island of Koh Kood. As we pulled into the port, we saw an enormous golden buddha on the hill, as well as a temple.

    We were met at the pier by a bus/taxi from the resort where we were staying — High Season. We piled into the taxi with another family, and rode about 30 minutes to our resort. After being escorted to our rooms, we quickly changed into swimsuits, and headed for the pool. Ah . . . Paradise. A gorgeous pool, the beautiful beach and a cold cocktail. What more could we ask for?

    We have spent the last four days at High Seasons. Arie and I slept and read, and laid on the beach. The kids also did some diving. I can’t say that the visit has been perfect — it has rained every single day, and two of the days it rained so much that it made being outside impossible. However, the setting is beautiful, the people are very kind, the buffet breakfast has been delicious and we’ve enjoyed the time that we’ve been able to sit on the beach and relax.

    Tomorrow we return to Bangkok, and on to Cambodia.
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  • Day39

    Wat Pho and Wat Arun

    March 26, 2018 in Thailand ⋅ ⛅ 33 °C

    Bangkok, like Chiang Mai, is filled with temples. So, after lunch with our guide Nok, we headed out to see more temples.

    Our first stop after lunch was Wat Pho, which is the temple that houses the Reclining Buddha. I had read that the Buddha was 46 meters long, and 15 meters high, and that it was so large that the temple had to be built around the Buddha. But hearing the dimensions didn’t prepare me for the actual size — it is immense. Sadly, the way in which the temple was constructed makes it extraordinarily hard to get a view of the entire Buddha. In fact, there are only two spots in the temple where you can see the Buddha in its entirety, and there were incredibly long lines to be able to stand in those two spots. (I actually saw someone inadvertently step towards one of these two spots, unaware that there was a long line. A couple of the women standing on line threw a fit, raising their voices and telling the interloper to get to the back of the line . . .not too Buddhist in their approach.). Since it was sweltering inside the temple, we decided not to stand in line, but to admire the buddha piece by piece. We particularly enjoyed looking at his feet, which have intricate decorations of inlaid mother of pearl.

    We then went on a boat tour on one of the canals that runs through Bangkok. Not too surprisingly, we passed many temples. In front of one of the temples, we stopped to buy bread which we fed to huge catfish that live in the water right outside the temple. We were told that feeding the catfish was good luck. What I found most interesting about the boat ride was the differences in the structures that lined the canal. In addition to the temples, there were many houses, most of which were quite rundown. Yet, here and there were big, beautiful houses. Seeing the variation in the structures made it clear that in Thailand, like in Vietnam, there are vast inequalities in income. Although they overall standard of living in Thailand is obviously higher than in Vietnam, the disparities are still there.

    After crushing the canals, we went to Wat Arun, which is also known as the temple of the dawn. This temple is relatively new, having been built in the mid 1800s. The central portion of the temple is a huge spire, which is decorated with the ceramics from the ship that arrived with damages cargo. At one time you could climb the spire, but access was eliminated following the renovations that were completed a few years ago.

    We ended the day with a cold drink with our guide, Nok. As usual, I found talking to our guide as interesting as seeing the sites. Nok was raised outside of Bangkok, in a small town called Ayutthaya (known for ancient temples similar to those in Seam Reap in Cambodia and My Son in Vietnam). Her parents died when she was relatively young, and she as raised by her two older sisters (who are more than 20 years older than Nok). Her oldest sister is illiterate, but made sure that Nok attended college. After completing college, Nok visited the US and worked in Maryland for 5 months. She said that moving to the US was transformative for her — turning her from a shy, quiet, studious girl, to a young woman who had her own opinions and wanted to live a different life in which she had been raised. She returned to Thailand, and began teaching English. Eventually, she married a fellow teacher, who is from Great Britain. When they married, they traveled to England for the wedding. Her sister who raised her, flew with them for the wedding; everyone thought that it was super brave because her sister had never been on a plane and didn’t speak any English. As we sat and chatted with Nok, she told us about her friends, and their love of going on photo shoots (which is kind of like casual modeling, for fun). She also told us that her group is very diverse in terms of sexuality, and openness to more progressive life choices. Talking to her was just fascinating, and was a great end to another good day.
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