15 April 2010

Siem Reap means "Thailand Defeated"

It's something like the north having a town, just across the Mason-Dixon Line, called "Suck it South!" Then again, since that Cambodian victory over Thailand, things haven't gone so well for Cambodia, so maybe everyone's over it.

In the past few weeks, summer plans, grad school plans, saying goodbye to friends, and the radio have invaded my life, staying low to the ground, quietly creeping toward me unnoticed, in the shadows, popping up and shocking me every so often with the number of things I have promised myself I will do.

One of which is to finish writing about the trip to Thailand and Cambodia we took over the holidays. Hmm? What did you just say? It's April? A full FOUR months into the new year? Three months, in fact, since we got back from said trip?

Enough rhetorical questions, reader! Enough. To sate your unyielding appetite for word and image, I shall tell my tale now.

Here was the plan:
Fly to Siem Reap from Bangkok.
See Angkor Wat and the temples for three days.
Take a bus to Kratie (pronounced KRAH-chay)
Make our way to a tiny Cambodian village called Koh Pdao (still unclear on that pronunciation)
Do a homestay with the Cambodian Rural Development Team; help garden or dig wells or just learn about the rural development projects.
Get back to Kratie the next morning and take a bus to Phnom Penh.
Find Paul's place, and meet up with him.
Spend a few days in Phnom Penh.
Come home.

If you look at a map, you can see that this is fairly sensible route. In fact, we had no trouble with the route itself. We did have trouble, though, oh my, did we have trouble, with much else.

(Map from http://www.nationsonline.org)

Our first impressions of Cambodia were favourable. While Bangkok's standard style seemed to be gold leaf and shiny tiles, Cambodia is more earthy, all green and orangey-brown dust, and big blue sky. It's slower, too, and we were due for a change of pace. We loved Bangkok's high-energy life, but it's a beast, living, breathing down your throat, clawing at you. The waterways are trafficky, the roads are choked, the pollution is visible. Though we were excited and overwhelmed by Bangkok's gigantic loud frantic sprawl, Cambodia feels a lot more human-sized. That feels right.

Siem Reap has a small river through it, and you know I'm a sucker for cities with small rivers. Though to be fair, Siem Reap isn't much of a city. It's more of a "tourist-friendly area." The entire town seems to only exist because of its proximity to Angkor Wat; every single thing in Siem Reap is designed to serve tourist needs. The whole Angkor compound is a UNESCO World Heritage site, as is much of the land that once comprised the ancient city of Angkor; so Siem Reap is the nearest base from which to explore the temples. There are no ordinary houses in the town, just guesthouses. No grocery markets, just craft markets. A million NGOs have set up a billion shops, stores, workshops, and cafes, but you simply can't see what Khmer people do in this town other than work in the tourist industry.

We stayed at a lovely guesthouse on one of the main roads, and we spent our first day wandering around town.

The Psar Chaa markets were beautiful, but the vendors were pushy-- only the first taste of what would become a theme for the next few days. Lots of the vendors were NGO shops, too, so I felt better about purchasing from them. Cambodia's currency is so devalued, they only use it as change for the US dollar, making for a bizarre hybrid currency system I'm not sure I've ever seen. When I was in Cuba, they used American dollars, but there was no change. They just charged in whole dollars. But in Cambodia, they might charge you 3.50 for a meal, you hand over a $5 bill, and they'll give $1 and 2,000 riel back. Thailand uses its own currency (about 30 baht equals $1, and you could get a whole meal for 30 baht), and so somehow, a vastly poorer country like Cambodia is generally more expensive than Thailand (because generally a coffee in Cambodia would cost at least $1, making a whole meal at least $2). Odd, right?

We visited the Chantiers Ecol├ęs, which is a project of Artisans d'Angkor, an international social sustainability project designed to maintain and revive traditional Cambodian craft while also providing training and artistic vocation for unschooled rural youth. It's a pretty amazing project.

This piece is obviously unfinished, left in the vice to dry or for safekeeping. It's clearly not intentional, but the image of Buddha's head in a vice was poetic somehow and irresistible.

Then we got a tuk-tuk to the temples. Our driver Vichet was a wonderfully kind person.
Craig said, "He's great. He's really nice."
I agreed, "He is. I guess all the tuk-tuk drivers have to be nice, though, for tourists."
and he said, "Yeah, sure. I just really like his style of being nice."

At the temples, we took an elephant ride up to Phnom Bakeng, as it's a beautiful place to see the sunset.

It's a popular place, too, and it kind of felt like a circus. If you're open to the experience of scrambling up a treacherous wall of steps with loads of strangers, it's a fun thing to do. I had a great time.

And the sunset was beautiful.

The steps are incredibly narrow and steep because the Angkor temples are all in some way, meant to lead one closer to spiritual elevation. Angkor Wat is in fact, designed to represent Mt. Meru, home of the gods in Hinduism. Reaching the gods can't be too easy; you're going to have to work at it, hands, feet, fingernails, knees, toes, lungs and kidneys, and you might fall, and you'll have to try again if you live.

The next morning was cold and foggy, but we hadn't seen Angkor Wat yet. I had been told that the majesty of Angkor Wat would take my breath. My art history books and my research told me that my mind would be blown.

It was.

Angkor Wat is a giant temple, built for king Suryavarman II... sombre, musty and quiet. It faces west, which is the direction of death in Hindu mythology, so some have speculated that it might have been intended as a funereal temple. You hear huge colonies of cicadas from nearby trees, they sound like fire alarms, they're alarming until you realise they're just tropical cicadas. And you wander through the buildings, deciphering carvings.

Stone middens, for good luck. As beautiful and quiet as lit candles in a cathedral.

This portion of ceiling had been restored and repainted by the French centuries ago-- that's why it's the only part that still has paint on it.

These super-young kids were posing with tourists for money. It was funny, they were clearly so bored. But you had to wonder about school.

(a side note: everywhere you go at Angkor, little kids are selling water, bracelets, books, "Lady! Ladeeee! you wanna scarf, wanna cold drinks, lady!" You're supposed to say "no," because buying stuff from kids reinforces the need for these kids to be out here, not in school. Craig usually just started playing games with them, but they were often too savvy for that, too. "If I win," they'd say, "you buy bracelet, okay?" Luckily, Craig didn't agree to that, because this little girl kicked his butt at Tic-Tac-Toe.

And it's not just kids, adults are also out there, "You need tuk-tuk? You need cold drinks?" It was hard to deal with, but at first, you have patience. You smile and say "no," and they ask again, you laugh, you're friendly and again say "no," and they push. Then it gets annoying, because you feel "no" should work.

And that's when I realised that I should not be in this country.

"No" does not work here. "No" is not even a part of language spoken here. It's a transplant that has thrived only because of tourists like me who came before and brought their money and bought the water and taught them "yes" and "no." So who am I, really, to be annoyed by these people who live in this country that I am visiting and who need to sell me a bottle of water for $1 because they are poor? Who am I to not buy their bottles of water, because I could, I can afford their water, and I will need water, and really there is no sense picking between this bottle from this child or that one? Annoyance, surely, should not be among the suitable emotions in this circumstance.

Keep in mind that in some ways, these poor people are the lucky ones: they've actually seen Angkor. Entrance to Angkor is free for Cambodians, but even though it is one of the richest historical sites in Southeast Asia, though it is Cambodia's heritage and though over a million international tourists visit every year, few Cambodians can actually afford the travel to see it. Later in this trip, we would meet people who live only seven hours away by bus who will never be able to visit their own country's world-honored heritage site. Such circumstances call for sadness, anger, despair, hopelessness, yes. Annoyance... no. Still. It would not be the last time I felt annoyed. End side note.)

As we left Angkor Wat, a wedding party was taking photos. The stark white dresses were so out of place in this stone and dirt place. A beautiful contrast, admirable, except for the idle thought that floated through my mind...who would want to get married in a place with so many tourists?

By the way-- can I just get a w00t! for the killer candid photography on this post?! I mean, I should be getting paid for this shit, right?

Angkor Thom was the capital city, where ordinary Angkorian people lived.

The city is surrounded by 8 metre high walls and a moat; four bridges cross the moat at the four cardinal directions. The bridges have sculptures of a scene from the Ramayana, "The Churning of the Ocean of Milk," wherein the gods and the demons play tug-of-war on a giant snake to obtain the elixir of immortality that had been lost in the ocean. But the Khmer Rouge cut the heads off many of the sculptures, in their attempts to destroy the past.

One of the bridges still had many of the heads; this one is a demon. His anger enlaughens me.

The bridges lead to four gates, and at the centre of the city: Bayon.

The faces could be of the king Jayavarman VII, who built Bayon, and portrait statues of Jayavarman VII do look an awful lot like the faces on Bayon. Or the faces could be those of a bodhisattva. Or both. Many Hindu rulers believed themselves to be of the same essence as the deities, so it would make sense that later Buddhist rulers would identify themselves with the Buddha and the boddisattvas.

There are so many carvings, and indeed, there are so many buildings, it's astounding. There are so many ruins here that many of them have just been left to ruin. All of this is ancient, amazing stuff, but there just aren't the resources to preserve all of it, to document all of it. Even the surfeit is honored.

The city of Angkor Thom has several important temples and ruins, including the Terrace of the Elephants and the Terrace of the Leper King. The provenance of that name is unclear, and we heard several stories attempting to explain it. None really make that much sense, and the main reason people think he might have been a leper anyway is because the sculpture just has a smooth curve where a penis would ordinarily be.

Every temple at Angkor has murals and murals of carvings, some better than others, but a major recurring theme are the Apsara Dancers. They are everywhere, and still influence traditional Cambodian dance today.

A lovely segue, if I might, to the evening's entertainment. We had booked to see a performance of Cambodian shadow puppetry and dances. It was put on by an NGO that took in orphans or kids whose families were too poor to care for them. The kids performed the puppetry and voices and dance, and it was a great show. The shadow puppetry itself was fairly unintelligible, since we didn't understand Khmer, and the puppets were just sort of jostled around to the spoken words. The traditional dance was a whole lot like Indian classical dance: symmetrical, slow, lots of eye-moving and intricate hand positions. I enjoyed comparing it to what I know of Kathakali, Bharatnatyam, etc., but Craig lost interest pretty fast. But the folk dance was brilliant! The kids (really they were teens) did a rice-harvesting dance and a coconut-shell dance, and not only were the dances fun to watch, we also got to see the fundamental purpose for community dances: flirting. In Khmer culture, boys and girls don't tend to hang out with each other very much. They're either in separated groups of boys and girls or they're grown, married with children. But during the dances, they can be near each other and make flirty eyes and be cute.

Already this post is pretty long, so I'll do another post about Siem Reap soon--

One of the last things Craig and I did in Bangkok was to visit Jim Thompson's house. This was an American architect who moved to Bangkok in the 1950's because New York was too sleepy for him. While in Thailand, he helped revitalize Thai handwoven silk as a cottage industry and he set himself to work collecting and conserving Thai art. His methods (occasionally going out to old temples and just taking stuff or buying things off people who did) are decidedly questionable. But his house, wonder, oh, wonder at his house. It's surrounded by a beautiful garden, filled with bizarre plants that make you ask questions that Darwin asked.

Unless, of course, you're me, in which case you pretend the flowers are a false mustache and continue along your way.

Jim Thompson wanted to preserve Thai traditional houses, the wooden kind that are built on stilts; they were disappearing into the maw of modernity. The problem, though, was that Thai houses are traditionally only one-room structures. The "kitchen" is on a floor that's built underneath the house, but the kitchen has no walls. And there are no bathrooms, of course, because the house is over water anyway. It's actually surprising to think about how many things people actually do in their houses these days, considering that for a lot of ancient cultures, the home was a place to keep clean of these bodily things, like bathing or defecating.

Anyway, Jim Thompson clearly wanted to live in a Thai house, but the standard setup wasn't going to work for him. Get this: he bought six standard one-room Thai houses, and he sort of Frankensteined them into the most awesome house you've ever seen. Which makes sense, because Frankenstein is totally the most awesome person I've ever seen. Right?

This house is amazing. His personal Thai art collection is there, and it has a beautiful garden, two floors, a study, a bathroom, a kitchen. It's all beautiful old dark wood, up on stilts over a canal.

But his story doesn't end there-- it's all very mysterious, actually. He lived in his house from 1959-1967, and in 1967, he got a Thai horoscope done. Since he was born in 1906, he was a "horse" and his horoscope said that "horse" people should be careful when they are 61. In 1967, he was 61 and he went for walk in the Cameron Highlands in Malaysia... and just straight up disappeared.

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