Thursday, January 28, 2016

On to Cambodia

On to Cambodia

We'll start with one more gorgeous sunset picture.

The night before we arrived in Phnom Penh, we watched "The Killing Fields."  Though I was familiar with the story and THOUGHT I had seen the movie, it seemed less familiar than I expected. Certainly a very provocative film to see before arriving.  The terrible genocide of 1975 to 1979 was in some ways an aftermath of the Vietnam War, but certainly not something planned by the U.S., nor for which the U.S. was responsible.

Vietnam's role in the series of events is perhaps even more complex:  Cambodia was a complete wreck in part because of its essential loss of sovereignty during the U.S.-Vietnam conflict, for which both sides bore some blame, though I think that the North Vietnamese (Vietcong) were probably more responsible.  That doesn't, in any case, really matter much at this point.  Following the conclusion of the U.S. Vietnam conflict, things got completely out of hand in Cambodia.  Both the Vietnamese and the Chinese sought to affect things.

Ultimately, the Cambodian people were saved from their own murderous Khmer Rouge regime by the Vietnamese.  One might think that the Cambodians would in some way appreciate that fact, but such is not the case.  The Cambodians really resent the Vietnamese (and, seemingly most of their neighbors).  When I asked our Vietnamese friends about this, they said honestly that the Vietnamese government had sought to gain control of Cambodia for their own purpose, and this defeated any possible gratitude on behalf of the Cambodians.  Still, I had to wonder what it feels like to be Vietnamese and be so resented by the very neighbors whose country and people you essentially saved -- while your own soldiers were at risk.

I had hoped to move straight up to Siem Reap -- the site of Angkor Wat -- without spending any time in Phnom Penh.  But we ended up spending a half-day there before taking a van to Siem Reap.

As it turned out, I was glad to have had the opportunity -- to see some of the buildings, places and people who had been at the heart of such a tragedy not so many years ago.
Travel by pedaled tuk-tuk is not my idea of a liberating or just way to go ANYWHERE.
But it was the standard for the tour and is involved in some of the opportunity and
rehabilitation efforts in Cambodia.

The Colonel, who, you have probably noticed, has been making something of an advertising comeback in the USA,
is HUGELY popular in Asia.  There had to be at least 15 KFCs in Vietnam.  And here's one in Phnom Penh.
And we have one here in Jaipur, too.
Interestingly, some of those US fast food chains are better around the world than at home:
We found some pretty surprising things on the Pizza Hut menu in Hanoi (Asian style stuff),
and I noticed last week that KFC has a vegetarian product here in India.
(In fact, there are a HUGE number of vegetarian options available here, which has made things
a little easier from a kashrut perspective.)
We visited the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh, a place that was naturally in disrepair from the Khmer Rouge years, but has been restored beautifully in recent years.

During Khmer Rouge times, truly horrific things happened throughout the country.  Families were completely shattered.  Children were encouraged -- forced, really -- to denounce their parents.  It was really like a (social) science fiction tale -- except that it really happened.

The city of Phnom Penh was almost completely emptied during the "cleansing."  Its 1970 population of 457,000 was reduced to 370,000 because of the war -- but in 1978 to 32,000.  That's more than 9/10 of the population removed -- forcibly, violently in terrifying and inhumane ways.  One of our guides said that her family was among the "first 20 families" to begin to repopulate the city after the defeat of the Khmer Rouge.  Today the city is over 2 million people.

Each of the guides that we met --- whether in Phnom Penh or in Angkor Wat/Siem Reap -- was profoundly and adversely affected by the terror of the 1970s.

In retrospect, some of the sights of the palace were modern harbingers of the ancient past (if you can follow THAT locution). . . . Consider the appearance of the picture above or below with the ancient stones of Angkor Wat that you know from so many people's pictures (including our own) that we would see one day later.

The "road" from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap. . . . To say that the road from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap was under construction would be unreasonably generous.  It would be more accurate to say that in 5 or 10 years there might be a serviceable road between the two -- but in the meantime, it was a jarring dirty bumpy pretty miserable trip taking 6 to 8 hours.

The "promising" part of the journey -- where you can at least SEE that they are BUILDING the road!
After arriving in Siem Reap, we checked into our lovely hotel, went out to check out the local city and cuisine, and prepared for an EARLY morning trip to Angkor Wat.  Like thousands of others (each day), we got up around 4 in the morning to be in place to see the sun rise at this ancient temple complex. . .

It wasn't just humans who gathered in big numbers to enjoy the sunrise --
as I discovered when it got a little lighter and I looked around the
lake where we had gathered!

There's a lot to see.  Here we were at the top of one part of the Temple complex,
looking out the window (duh) -- a perch that we got to enjoy ahead of many
others thanks to our guide's understanding of how everything worked
in the most popular part of the Angkor Wat complex.

There are many places around Siem Reap and the Angkor complex with faces like these --
one side is gods, the other, demons.  The new faces are pieces that have been returned
from museums around the world.  This is one of those delicate balance issues:
It's nice for the rest of the world to be able to see Angkor's treasures -- except that
it has generally meant that those haven't been visible in the very place they originated.

The workmanship and style of the various places is pretty mind-boggling.
It also reflects different periods of time (by several centuries), with different prevailing artistic and cultural ideas --
and a pendulum between Buddhist and Hindu and variations within.

One traditional spot/perspective enables you to snap a shot
so that you are "nose to nose" with Buddha --
without getting so close that you're being disrespectful.
(The guide made us do this.)

This isn't the first time that people have put these stones back together.
Do you see what happened above?
They took some of the fallen stones from a "Hindu period" and re-purposed them
to make an enormous lying down Buddha.
This may be more obvious in the shot below -- taken from farther away:

Not too many green spaces to be seen.
I enjoyed this view.

Another real challenge in terms of "how do you preserve?"
Trees and rocks competing.  There are a few places where they have tried to maintain the delicate balance
between the two.  Otherwise, you can imagine how the work of the trees would simple tumble all the temple complexes.

I said that this spot constituted an O-H-I-O with just one person necessary.
Susan wasn't as enthusiastic about this interpretation.
There's a picture of me doing this, too -- but SHE'S the one who's a Buckeye grad.
(Law School)
So I'm using her shot.
What do you think?
Is this an O-H-I-O shot. . . . or not?

On Day 2, we started at another complex called the "Women's Temple" Banteay Srei -- some centuries later
and much more delicate and colorful in nature.
Very cool until. . . 

until my brother-in-law Steve was SO captivated by a shot that he fell over a rock
and sustained a NASTY and pretttttty big cut on his left shin.
Here he is finishing the paperwork at the First Aid Station.
Maybe we shoulda gotten some stitches that day. . .
but he didn't go to the doctor until we all got back to Vietnam.

Now THAT's an O-H-I-O. . . . although the H and I are long-time Minnesotans.

In the last posting ("Up the Mekong"), I referred to Susan taking a turn in some of the candy cookery
at the place we visited early in that trip,  She was the first volunteer from our group to do one of these things --
and she really did a nice job.

Our Angkor Wat (Day 1) guide had a special musical instrument he played.
This was totally charming when we had a 40 minute wait before one of the special buildings opened.
A little less charming when we came out of a later structure and he played a tune and said
"one more?". . . . and after that "one more?"

The whole day with him was one of those experiences (and I'm sure MANY of you have had them)
where you guide thinks he is speaking English to you, but you're not so sure,
because you can only understand a little bit of what he's saying!

We ended up buying the gorgeous color guide to Angkor Wat --
It was a beautiful little book -- which the little boys circulating the area would be happy to sell you for $15-$25,
but if you wait them out, you can eventually get for $7 or $8.
I see it on Amazon for $2.99 and up. . . but it was certainly worth the $7.
We just wish we got it at the BEGINNING of the first day instead of the END!

Our hotel was quite lovely and relaxing.
And after a LONGGGG day of Temple exploring, we cooled it by the pool for a couple of hours.
It's no accident that our Vietnam tour book included a special chapter on Angkor Wat -- which is in Cambodia.  It would be a shame to have missed it.

As noted, having the opportunity to "start" in Phnom Penh and motor our way from there to Siem Reap (the city near which Angkor Wat is located) added a lot to the experience -- a lot to think about.

It's wonderful that a place that was so terrible not so long ago (Cambodia during the Khmer Rouge catastrophe) is a place that is growing, safe, and may have a promising future.

At the same time, though, it was hard not to feel that it is a very confusing place -- a place where the past continues to cast a shadow over the present in a way not so in Vietnam.  Cambodia ranks very low in many quality of life "calculations." (You can look it up to see what I mean.)  So I would recommend doing what we did: make a long trip to Vietnam and a short trip to Cambodia.

I will say also that getting in and out of the airport in Siem Reap was pretty easy.  It's a nice little airport and they handle their international traffic pretty well.

That does it for this segment.  There's still a lot of Vietnam left to write about -- even as I sit here typing after a full week in India.

Thanks for reading (this far if you did).  And I welcome your comments and thoughts.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Up the Mekong Toward Cambodia

Up the Mekong Toward Cambodia

After our short stay in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), we embarked on a several day trip toward Angkor Wat -- an opportunity to spend some time cruising up the Mekong, ending the cruise in Phnom Penh, with a land trip from there to Siem Riep, the site of one of the world's great marvels, Angkor Wat.

Just as our guide to the Cu Chi Tunnels in Saigon had his own complicated and difficult personal history, our guide for the Vietnam part of the Mekong Cruise had his:  He was a former "boat person," who had been unsuccessful in getting to a safe place that would take him in as a teenager, and spent several years interned along with thousands of other people.

In recent years, he was able to lift himself up and get an education and become a tour guide.  This gentle man had to endure a great deal in an earlier part of his life.

A rice field between Ho Chi Minh City and the launching point for our boat  In this part of the country, people make beautiful graves for loved ones in the rice fields.  Venerating one's elders/ancestors helps to bring blessing on one's crops.
Our guide explained that because of the rainfall differences and number and length of growing seasons, the burial customs are different between north and south.  (If I remember correctly,) the weather in the south allows them the opportunity to bury and maintain these graves more auspiciously.  The graves in the north are more temporary (in the rice fields) and then reburied elsewhere in more permanent locations.
Our boat for this trip was called the Pandow.

The first evening on the boat included a concert by local musicians demonstrating their musical culture.

We weren't aiming at a fabulous luxury cruise -- just an effective and safe way to get up the river.
But the Pandaw was quite lovely.  Pretty new, well maintained, and its staff and crew
were proud and anxious to please and provide.

Certainly a nice break form our dorm-style living in Hanoi.
My sister Carol and her husband Steve are also on a sabbatical trip.  But CAROL's sabbatical is a YEAR!
Steve recently retired from his work with the Minneapolis School System.  They are traveling the world for
7 months -- many different places.  And it was great that they were able to connect with us in Vietnam
and for our trip to Cambodia/Angkor Wat!

The first morning after boarding the Pandow, we visited a candy business along the river.  They make those little
square sugary candies that we discovered on our last trip to Vietnam.  And. . . 

In addition to demonstrations of how they make some of the products, we got to try our hand.
I've got a nice photo and video of Susan doing what this lady's doing.  But it's not currently in the photos I've uploaded
to the blog. . . It WAS on Facebook, I think.  I'll try to add it later.

The picture of Carol and Steve with a big boa constrictor?  THAT one I've got handy. . . 

They showed us how they make puffy rice. . . 

and then I got to take a turn.

Featured on the boat was a movie called "The Lover," important to the locals because it tells a story about some local people -- the illicit love story between a Chinese man and a European woman, based on a real story from 1929. 

The 1992 French film was actually the first movie filmed in Vietnam by the west after the Vietnam War.  

Interesting because we were passing through some of the places where the film took place.  A little less so because the story was of incredible importance to its author (Marguerite Duras), a Frenchwoman who recast what in my view was a rape/seduction experience into a lush romantic tale about how what passed between her and her older Chinese man lover was something significant and enduring.  

After a year or so of philandering with her, his family compelled him to marry another wealthy young Chinese woman.

The movie was considerably more graphic than any of us expected.  In retrospect, the idea was for us to see the PLACES.  We kept waiting for the story to get better, be touching, etc. -- but it all just kind of felt creepier and creepier.

At the site of the home which is (at least theoretically) featured
in the movie is this photo of The Lover and his actual wife.
She was "but a child of 20" -- while the French girl with whom he
had his dalliance was less than 16.

This photo shows the author (right).  She was a successful novelist.
If I'm not mistaken, this story was one of the last things she wrote --
as a memoire in her 60s.

Perhaps most eerie was that, after seeing the unsettling movie the night before. . .
we saw this young teenager at the house the next day -- and she bore more than a
slight resemblance to the teenager in the movie.

It certainly WAS at one time a beautiful home. 

We also visited a fishing village and a community that is a minority ethnic group....
One of comparatively few Muslim communities in Vietnam.
It's mosque was donated by foreigners....from Qatar, if I recall correctly.
A pretty shot from the mosque's perimeter.
Heading back to the boat.
We had beautiful sunssts pretty much every evening.
This colorful dude (right) (I should say colourful, he was from Australia) seemed to be anxious to amuse. When you've got someone like this traveling with your group, you can relax about how much you stick out. His wife was explaining to us at the mosque about the differences and similarities between Jews and Moslems. Though she was neither. sigh..
Like I said....
Lots of nice sunsets!

After the fishing village, a walk through the town markets. You could get frogs skinned....
Or not.
Many nice spices, rices and foodstuffs.

And more pretty sunsets!

The boat trip ended for us in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, where we will pick up in our next blog post.