Cambodia, Day Five (Aug. 2, 2007)

Woke up early and sat on our balcony writing, listening to the roosters crow. Had breakfast of hot tea, potato omelette and a baguette.

We made arrangements for Mr. Vanna and Su to drive us to the Tonle Sap Lake. We thought we would be going through the Prek Toal Bird Sanctuary, but it turns out we only chartered a boat to the floating village of Chong Kneas. The village was scenic, when you weren't overwhelmed by the smell of fish and rotting garbage,* but it wasn't quite what we expected. Oh well, no point in being a spoiled, whining tourist. They truly need the $15, and we learned about fishing and about life in the rural village from our young captain who spoke excellent English. The village has a primary and secondary school,** but the older students take a bus into Siem Reap every morning to attend high school. The children were adorable, and one 5-year-old girl stole my heart when she blew a kiss to us as our boat pulled away from the dock.

We had another great meal at an ex-pat restaurant called The Red Piano. (I can't believe how much weight I've put on in less than a week.***) I had Mekong fish in lime-cream sauce, and Brad had a chicken amok sandwich on a toasted baguette.

We had no plans after lunch, so I asked Mr. Vanna to drive us to Artisans d'Angkor and Chantiers-Ecoles silk farm. The school works with teachers all over the country to bring poor, rural students with artistic ability to Siem Reap for a one-year training program. The deaf-mute students learn to paint silk, and other students learn stone and wood working and silk weaving. The school is self-sufficient, running off profits from the store.****

After visiting the school in town, we drove 30 minutes out in the country to the silk farm. We saw the cultivation of mulberry trees, silkworm feeding (they eat for three days and rest for one), spinning of the cocoons (you can tell a worm is ready to spin when it turns yellow), separating of the thread, and dyeing and weaving of the silk. The outer silk on the cocoon makes coarser, raw silk, and the soft thread the worm weaves while it's inside the cocoon for two weeks makes fine silk.*****

Back at the hotel, we said goodbye to Mr. Vanna and Su, thanking them for their good advice.****** We learned a great deal from Mr. Vanna -- especially sitting in the courtyard at Artisans d'Angkor. He's a father of six who used to be a farmer, but he had to give up farming when he could no longer support his family. He knew no English when he began driving tuktuks three years ago, but he started reading English workbooks. He talked of how frightening it used to be, approaching foreigners when he couldn't communicate. He's been seriously studying English with a friend every night for the last four months, and it's incredible how much he's learned. I know very few people in the U.S. who would work so hard for so little money.

I'm constantly reminded of how spoiled and lucky I am, and if I don't take full advantage of the opportunities I've been given -- which I've certainly done nothing to deserve -- then I'm not worth a damn.*******

Brad's footnotes
* Not in that order.

** And a floating basketball court!

*** Not as much as you might believe from reading these journal entries, bookended with lush descriptions of meals.
**** If you visit, save room in the suitcase to bring something back. It's not cheap, but the cause is wonderful. That said, you won't believe the cost to ship stuff directly home, and buying online from home, the prices are much higher.
***** She's trying to spare you the story about how the locals convinced me to eat a boiled silkworm by saying they taste like coconut. They don't. They taste like gooey worm.

****** Actually we bought them a couple of beers and hung out with them. It was Phil's idea. They seemed to really enjoy it.

******* Hear, hear.

Cambodia, Day Four (Aug. 1, 2007)

It's 4 a.m., and I'm wide awake. Silly me, I didn't think Melatonin was necessary last night; now I'm up listening to a symphony of bullfrogs, birds and insects. The frogs sound like a single note on a cello played over and over again for hours.

Had breakfast at Star Rise again, but this time I had banana pancakes and a pineapple shake. Then our tuktuk drivers* took us to Banteay Srei, a gorgeous pink temple that has the most intricate carvings at Angkor. It was beautiful but claustrophobic. It's an unusual small-scale structure with tiny doorways, and most of it has been roped off to protect the carvings; so we were trapped on the exterior path with what felt like thousands of Japanese tourists.** Big score of the trip -- huge temple rubbing for $8.***

On the way back to town, we stopped at the Land Mine Museum. There were still active land mines on site, and it was a frightening reminder of what the Cambodians live with every day. Aki Ra, who started the museum, has deactivated over 50,000 mines and is responsible for disabling more than half of the mines in the Siem Reap area. He's done this with a plumber's wrench, a vice, and a steam pot.**** The museum takes in land-mine victims -- mostly children -- and gives them an education. They're trying to break the beggar culture; until now, it was the only option for the maimed and disfigured.

We ate lunch at a shack across the street from East Mebon. I had fried noodles with eggs and veggies. Afterward, we walked to the temple, on the corners of which stood giant elephant statues. This place used to be a reservoir for the city, and the temple itself was an island. The setting was beautiful, overlooking the jungle and rice fields, and the design of the steps allowed us to climb all over the structure. I enjoyed visiting one of the lesser-known, distant temples because we practically had the place to ourselves.

Our last temple in Angkor was Neak Pean. It was made up of one large square pond surrounded by four smaller square ponds (one on each side). Each side pond represented one of the elements -- earth, air, fire and water -- which appeared as a stone fountain in an interior altar. The fountains took the form of man (earth), lion (fire), elephant (water),***** and horse (air). We ended the day with a fabulous meal of massaman curry at the Khmer Kitchen.

Brad's footnotes
* That's right. We got back in the tuktuks after the events of the day before.
** She's not being figurative. There were at least a thousand Japanese tourists, and the place was so small that we did feel many of them.
*** Temple rubbing. Not some weird frottage fantasy. It's a big sheet of rice paper with a charcoal imprint of one of the carvings. It's awesome.
**** Full disclosure: Aki Ra was forced as a child to join the Khmer Rouge and plant many, many land mines. That's why he's made it his mission to remove as many as he can now and to help their victims.
***** Yeah, I don't get elephant=water either. Not when there's, you know, fish around.

Cambodian salesmanship

The beggar children get all passive aggressive when they realize you're not going to buy their water, postcards, photocopied "books," or bracelets. After lunch on Day Three, a girl approaches Phil and says, "You buy bracelet for your girlfriend." Not a question, mind you. And keep in mind Phil's a big fella. (He's the one holding the dragonfruit two posts down.) When he didn't buy one for Maya, the girl wanders off, but not before saying, "You buy bracelet for your boyfriend."

Next day, I told a girl I wouldn't buy her pack of 10 postcards.

"Why?" she says.

"I don't need one."

"You don't need one, you need 10," she says.

I laughed. "I don't need 10 either."

"You don't need 10. You need 20," she says. Cute kid.


Later that day, at a public bathroom, a boy asks Jenn to buy a Chinese lover's lock toy. "No thank you," she says. But he thinks she said, "Nothing."

"Nothing!" he shouts. "I sell you nothing! Nothing is $1."

Death by tuktuk

About almost dying in the tuktuk: Yeah, that sucked. Su, our driver, was struggling to keep his motorbike running. Kept pulling half off the paved road to try and restart it.

It's pouring rain, and muddy as hell where we are, partially on the shoulder. Meg and Eric are facing forward, and I'm facing back, watching other tuktuks and cars fly past. Then I see a bus coming, and the bus isn't veering too far away from us.

Meg and Eric are oblivious, until I say, "This is going to be unpleasant." Eric looks back long enough to see the bus, grimaces and looks forward intently. Meg judges from our expressions not to look back. At the same moment, Su gets our tuktuk kick-started and swings out into the road without looking back. The bus, which is practically upon us, honks and Su swerves back off the road, overcorrects back, and send our carriage teetering back and forth.

The bus, by the way, missed us by about 8 inches.

Like I said, no fun.

Cambodia, Day Three (July 31, 2007)

I had a wonderful breakfast of baguette and fruit salad (apple, banana, dragonfruit, papaya and pineapple). I am enamored with dragonfruit and will be sad when I can't eat it every day. It's oblong, pinkish-purple on the outside, and white with black seeds on the inside.* It has the consistency of kiwi but is slightly less sweet. It's refreshing on a hot morning.

Only had a few minutes to check for my daily e-mail about Dad before catching our tuktuk to the temples. First stop of the day -- Phnom Bakheng. We hiked a shaded trail through the woods for about a quarter mile before reaching the top of the mountain. The temple had five small towers along each side of the stairway. We hiked the elephant trail back down, but alas, no elephant sightings. Unless the giant poo counts as a sighting.

Then we hit Baksei Chamkrong. It's a relatively small, pinkish pyramid, and we only spent a few minutes there before heading back to Angkor Wat to ascend the uppermost level of the temple. The climb is 33 feet high up stairs that are tall, narrow, rounded and slant downward - you're meant to feel as if you're climbing Mt. Meru. Having panicked the first two times I tried to climb, I grew more and more disgusted with myself because I did not fly 4,000 miles to chicken out at the most important spot in all of Asian archaeology. So I finally raced up the side at breakneck speed and never looked back.** I'm so glad I did. The view from the windows was astounding, and the walls were covered with a hundred beautiful, dancing apsaras. However, getting down those stairs was, uh, interesting. Glad I did it. Never doing it again. Ever.***

We took one final look at the galley with the monkey soldiers -- for some reason,**** we all love the pictures of monkeys biting off the faces of their human counterparts -- before going to lunch. I had fried shrimp with cashews and a (pine)apple shake, and Brad had a sweet-and-sour shrimp and squid.

We spent the rest of the afternoon at Ta Prohm. Even with all the tourists here, you're struck by a feeling of peace and solitude. The jungle has run rampant through the temple, and the huge root buttresses are interwoven with the structure. There are places where the roof has completely caved in and you have to step over rubble.*****

The first rain of the week fell as we were driving back to the hotel. Mr. Vanna tried to pull over to tie down the rain tarp, but we said, "Bah. We don't need them." Mr. Vanna laughed at the foolish, foolish tourists. The rain was hard, fast and cold and I instantly went from hot and sweaty to wet and shivering. (I discovered later that Brad, Meg and Eric were nearly killed by a bus when their tuktuk stalled. They decided Meg's gravestone would have read, "She tumped over.")******

That reminds me -- I should describe our weird little bathroom. It's the nicest Third World bathroom I've ever had, but it's odd nonetheless. The walls and floors are marble with a drain off the back corner. There's nothing in there but a marble sink and a toilet; the shower is a wall attachment -- it's as if the entire bathroom is one large shower stall. Trying to use a soaking wet toilet is not one of the more pleasant experiences of my life.

Dinner was at a Thai restaurant. I had fried rice with pineapple and tofu. Brad had pork with coconut milk curry in a coconut. We crawled back to our room at 9:00 to go to sleep to the sound of hundreds of bullfrogs outside our window (thanks to the afternoon rain, no doubt). I don't think it's ever quiet in Cambodia; there are always frogs croaking, birds chirping, or monks playing prayer music. It's quite peaceful actually.

I will say, though, as much as I love the temples, I'm glad tomorrow is the last day.******* My knees are falling apart, I've got two mangled blisters on my feet, and I've lost half a toenail. (The other half is still toying with me.) A few days at the beach is sounding pretty good. As Eric put it, we've hit the TSP -- Temple Saturation Point.

Brad's footnotes
* Best of all, they have almost obscene, curvy little leaves all over them that make them look like props from the original "Star Trek" series.

** After initially encouraging her to climb, I'm ashamed to admit I gave up on her and went to explore the carvings, enjoy the view and chase a real, live monkey around. I did climb down with her, though.
*** Down
did suck. It involved holding onto a wobbly safety bar and climbing down steps that were slightly less steep, but just as slanty and barely wide enough for two feet.
**** The reason is pretty clear in the very definition of what we were seeing. Monkey soldiers. Biting people. On the head.

***** Gah! I can't believe she didn't mention that this is where part of "Tomb Raider" was filmed.

****** More about this in the next post. Meg's a good Southern girl and has a fascination with some of the colloquialisms of her people. For a while, the verb "tump" was paramount to this fascination.

******* This proved to be a horrible miscalculation. See the forthcoming entries on Phnom Penh.