Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Temples of trunk and stone.

"Angkor Wat ahead and the ruined city's old Hindu faces and there was a dream about Eternity. What should I dream when I wake?" -"Understand That This is a Dream." by Allen Ginsberg. Let’s finish up with Cambodia and try to get a little closer to catching up. Of course, I did not go to Cambodia and skip over Siem Reap, certainly the most noteworthy and famous place in the country. I was certainly not the only tourist in that city. While the sites outside Siem reap are some of the most amazing I have seen, I’ll keep this short.

Siem Reap is a big tourist destination featuring the Temples of Angkor, the 8th wonder of the world. The temples were built by the great Khmer Kings, rulers of a once mighty kingdom. Dozens of temples sit gracefully hidden in trees. Many of the temples were built inside a once large and populous city that housed a million people when London was less than sixty thousand. The temples are like large palaces, but home only for the Gods. They are intricate and detailed, ancient and crumbling. Angkor Wat, the most famous, is the largest religious structure in the world. I spent a few days exploring temples, either by tuk-tuk or bicycle, watching sunrises and sunsets over fading and falling walls. One of the mornings I woke and left at 4:00 a.m. to bicycle to the temple and arrive before sunrise. I was plagued with hundreds of ant bites that swelled and pussed and itched across both feet, ankles, and legs, and some days afterward I had to walk barefoot everywhere because the rubbing of flip flops against the bites was too intense. I traveled inside and out of the sacred sites, resting on the scattered stones strewn about in the shade. Some temples were huge and mighty, mazes of corridors and hallways. Some were overgrown and over-run by trees whose massive trunks split in two, growing down both sides of thick walls, swallowing the stones in to their wooden bellies. It was all spectacular, a donder of the world indeed.

I returned home each night past dark exhausted from long days of exploring temples, walking every hallway, gazing at every tree that grew over the walls, noticing every fallen stone. It was a chaotic mesh of jungle and stone, trees and rocks battled in matrimony. Some were incredible, and I wish my pictures did any justice at all, but pictures rarely do. Certain temples there reminded me of the jagged and craggy peaks of the Grand Tetons, and what it must have taken to build such enormous structures, dozens, perhaps more than a hundred temples encased in a few square miles, each of thick stone, carved out faces of Gods or animals or symbols, and the empty holes once housing precious jewels looted by the Khmer Rouge, and some of the temples themselves torn down by soldiers to signify the death of religion in their new kingdom. I have seen many temples in my life, but few places really stand out, the Temples of Angkor are among those few places. How lucky am I to have seen such places in my life? I know that thousands upon thousands each year visit there, yet, how many people will I meet among those thousands and thousands? How many will I meet who will have experienced a fifth of what I have thus far, and a tenth of what I plan to? I know that many, many people have traveled far more than I, and there are so many amazing places I have not yet seen, maybe never will see, but let me enjoy all I have done, all I have seen. It is a worthy list in its own right with empty paper left still to write upon. I’ll be writing more soon.

angkor wat granny climbs top sanctuary to pray to buddha still stunning and waiting at angkor wat corridors heavenly nymphs crushing and holding angkor thom temple roots of trees john tiong chunghoo

Bamboo of Battambang

My last night in Phnom Pehn I did what I always do in a city; I walked and walked, both puzzling and disappointing the moto and tuk tuk drivers. I don’t like using them. While it can be fun, and it is very Southeast Asian, they can be shady and dishonest, and I oft prefer to walk a city in order to discover it. I visited several other areas in Cambodia, two of which I’ll write briefly about now. I took a long bus up to the far northeast to Ratanakari Province, considered some of the prettiest landscape in the country. It was definitely countryside and rural and not on the main tourist trail. I was the only non-Cambodian on the bus and one of the few foreigners I saw at all in the entire province.

My time there I spent swimming and lazing around in a crater lake, hunting for hidden waterfalls, and motorcycling country roads, gazing out at small villages. The lake was wonderful, a large crater lake hidden in a thick forest of trees, far in the countryside out past several villages that rose with the hills in a stretching horizon. The water was peacefully calm and amazingly cool. I dove and dove off the dock down into the deep water which I could never reach the bottom of. I lay on the benches in the sun as water coolly evaporated off my body. It was beautiful there, and relaxing, and the kind of vacation you sometimes really want, a day spent doing nothing, having to do nothing, and knowing you could stay as long as you wished, and so I stayed. I stayed for the nothingness of it all, the lake, the waterfalls, the beautiful countryside, the walks through the small town, the motorcycling out on endless roads that I drove and drove for hours through a country thousands of miles from what I knew. On hat days since leaving the province, I oft wished to be back in the lake, the cool deep waters carved from an ancient crater. It was hot there, in all of Southeast Asia, with temperatures over 100 degrees and high humidity. Sometimes I just wanted to hide in my room, but without AC, the rooms were also hot and sticky.

Cambodia is a poor country. Most homes were built on stilts to keep rain and critters out. Garbage was strewn everywhere, thrown about without care by the locals. Even the aisles of busses became carpeted in bottles, wrappers, bags, discarded egg shells, and more. It is sad to see the lack of care and pride for their land that is so prevalent throughout the whole of the continent. The province was nice though, with little to do, dusty from bumpy dirt roads and built around deep, red clay that sunk deep into skin and clothes and buildings and everything. My private room was $3 a night and I ate for about $2 a day from street vendors with frequent meals of sticky rice stuffed with beans or sweet jams, or layered inside a thin coating of fried banana batter. There were lots of goodies to try and I could make meals for 50 cents. The downside of living cheap was the occasional stomach cramps and bed bugs feasting on my skin. The itchy, red bumps pocking my body attested to that, but really, I’d have it no other way. I have to say, I loved it all, and I still try and travel that way when I can.

In addition the Ratanakari province, I also visited Batambang. I went with a German gal I met in Siem Reap. Oh, Batambang was hot, and we did our best to hide from the heat. We walked the city, finding spots to escape to the shade before making our retreat back to our room. One day we did brave the heat and hired a tuk tuk driver to take us to some of the sites outside the city. We went to the Bamboo Railway, an old railway looking overgrown and dodgy. The locals put small bed carts made of bamboo on to two separate axle wheels. A driver operated a small six horse power engine to move it all forward. When a cart came in the opposite direction, the passengers from one got off, and both drivers moved the cart, axles, and engine off the track to allow one “train” to pass and then reassembled the other back on the tracks. We stopped many times to help drivers reassemble their carts. It was a fun way to travel, a way the locals still travel to take goods to and from the market. We sped along at a slow, but decent speed through countryside and dry farms, the train was loud and at times felt like a roller coaster, creaking and cracking on bumpy, noisy tracks. I loved it. I wasn’t sure I wanted to go, but my German friend talked me in to it, and I am glad she did. I really have met a lot of awesome people traveling, and she was one of them. The bamboo railway was a definite must of Cambodia, especially for a man much in love with train tracks, the tracks themselves. Oh, how I often walked along train tracks growing up back home, or picnicked on top of empty box cars and watched speeding trains bullet past on the opposite tracks. I will always love the reminder, and now I have new memories of trains and tracks, memories of a foreign land, a pleasant “conductor” and me and a German gal sitting on sticks of bamboo strapped together that trolleyed us forward through rural countryside, dirt brown and red, trees and fields.

We also went to a very old temple there, predating Angkor Wat. The temple sits atop a hill of over 358 steps, which in heat and humidity was a drenching walk up to a small temple with plots of flowers around stones thousands of years old mounted together for prayer. It was a miniature Angkor, the three cone spires atop the mighty stones.

We also visited the killing caves, which are just as they sound, caves where victims of the Khmer Rouge were brought and murdered, their bodies discarded in the caves. It was similar to the Killing Fields, though not nearly of the same magnitude, but still with small shrines in memory, and the skulls of victims, their stains, still in the caves. The caves were also a hot and sweaty hike up a large hill, and a longer walk down the backside and through tiny villages out on clay roads where people stared at the wonder of two foreigners passing through their village. It seemed we took the wrong way and long way down and nearly got lost, but made our way back to where our driver was waiting. He was refreshingly honest for a tuk tuk driver, and spent many years as a Buddhist Monk, which is very common in Laos and Cambodia, even mandatory for all boys to spend at least one week taking the vows of a novice monk.

We left Batambang with a few small gifts from the guesthouse owner, and the owner of the restaurant next door we ate at several days, amazing and generous people, and my farewell to Cambodia was pleasant and delicious, with fresh homemade rolls and chocolate chip cookies. My last night, I went to “Seeing Hands Massage.” It is a massage business in several Asian cities where all the masseurs are blind. My Masseuse was very strong. He gave me an hour long, full body massage. I could feel the trembling in his fingers from pushing down so hard with pressure on my body. It was interesting how he felt around the bed and my body with his hands because he could not see. It did hurt a little at times, as a good massage should, and afterward I felt limp and drained and wanted to fall in to bed and float away to sleep and dreams. It was $6 well spent. That is one thing I miss about Southeast Asia, the extremely cheap and extremely wonderful massages I got all around. For as low as $4, I would get a full-hour massage. Oh goodness, I could use one now.

Singing through the forests, Rattling over ridges; Shooting under arches, Rumbling over bridges; Whizzing through the mountains, Buzzing o'er the vale,- Bless me! this is pleasant, Riding on the rail! "Rhyme of the Rail" - John Godfrey Saxe.

"The Killing Fields."

"I think how the world is still somehow beautiful even when I feel no joy at being alive within it. " — Loung Ung (First They Killed My Father)

The big sites in Phnom Pehn I wanted to see were the Killing Fields and S-21, a former school turned prison and torture ground by the Khmer Rouge during their bloody reign over Cambodia. The killing fields in pit upon pit of excavated mass graves with a 30 meter high shrine housing bones and tattered clothes dug from the graves. There was a silence and reverence to the place, as is befitting any place marking such atrocities too hard to put to words. Candles and paper swans, small wreaths and gifts were placed around the shrines, and people walked silently and slowly across the grounds almost too afraid to step for fear of showing dishonor to the tortured dead.

Trees upon which former guards would bash the heads of starved victims, or swing the innocent bodies of swaddled babies in order to kill without wasting precious bullets were marked with wooden plaques to grind the pits of stomachs upon reading. The Killing Fields were fields that could be like any other, save they were used for these purposes only, to torture, to mock, to kill, to bury, and to revelry in things so horrid.

S-21 was no more pleasant. It was strange to see a former girls’ school turned in to a prison of such infamy, a place of learning malformed in to a place depravity. Classrooms were turned to torture rooms or divided and then subdivided in to cells so small a man my height could not lay down straight without touching the walls. Barbwire still hung about as reminders of the futility of escape. Torture devices hung on walls downstairs, clubs, knives, electricity, stretching machines, anything to cause pain, to force someone to confess to a “crime” they did not commit, to force someone to turn on loved ones in hopes of a short respite. It was indeed a horrid place, and this is what humanity can do, has done, will likely do again.

Pictures of victims hung on walls to give the place a frightening sense of reality. Photos of children, mere children hung in hoards, all of them dead, all of them killed. Imagine your elementary school horribly transfigured in to a place as this, the school children themselves inmates and victims to a regime without mercy.

The Khmer Rouge was a vengeful and destructive regime. They took control after a civil war and devastated the country. All former military, government officials and employees, and intellectuals were executed. Wearing glasses was enough to have you killed, for glasses showed a sign of intelligence, and intelligence was a threat to the regime. This was a regime that strived to have a country of only uneducated and unskilled peasant laborers. Doctors, nurses, lawyers, teachers, engineers, everyone was killed. People were sent to labor camps, guarded over, starved to death, beaten, separated from families, tortured, denied care, denied religion, denied sleep, and denied humanity. Estimates put that between 1/4 and 1/3 of the entire country died as a result of the Khmer Rouge’s short reign. A country steep in honor and respect, rich in culture, rich in religion, valuing family, valuing community, valuing friendship, valuing life and sanctity was stripped down to a mere struggle for an aching survival, and a scanty hope. "His government has created a vengeful, bloodthirsty people. Pol Pot has turned me into someone who wants to kill." — Loung Ung (First They Killed My Father)