Thursday, 10 January 2008

This morning we got up early and headed to the airport for our flight to Cambodia. On the plane I met a British guy who’s lived in Cambodia for three years. It was really interesting talking to him, he told me all sorts of stuff I wouldn’t have known from a guidebook. His job here is working with the conservation of elephants, and he said in the three years he’s worked in Cambodia, he’s never seen one in the wild! I was amazed, after thinking about all the elephants we saw in Africa. He said in Africa there are half a million, in Asia there are only 30,000, and they are spread from India to China to Indonesia, so they’re much rarer.

He said he’s learned Khmer, the language of Cambodia, and told me some common questions he is constantly asked by perfect strangers. “How old are you? How much money do you make? How much do you weigh? Why aren’t you married?” He’s tried to explain to them that these are taboo questions to Westerners, especially that weight one! I asked him what would be rude to a Cambodian, and he said getting angry is really frowned upon. If you lose your temper, you lose their respect and it does you no good.

I never even asked this guy’s name, but I was so glad I sat down next to him on that plane. Our arrival went without a hitch, and we were dropped off at our hotel to rest until later in the afternoon, when we’d visit our first temples in the Angkor Park region. That’s the main thing we’ll be seeing while in Cambodia, we’ll only be here for three nights. The temples are mostly Hindu, though a few are Buddhist, and were built from about 800 to 1400AD. Then they were abandoned, and forgotten. The capital city was moved to Phnom Phen, the jungle gradually took over.  They became overgrown, and weren’t discovered again until the mid-1800’s. Maybe that’s part of what makes them so interesting, the idea that they were lost for so long.

There are seventy of them spaced over a large, green, jungle. I am fascinated by the pictures we’ve seen, and was a little disappointed we didn’t head straight to the temples, but our guide was right. It was pretty dang hot, and it would be nice to wait until the heat subsided a little later in the afternoon.

Our hotel is beautiful, rooms surrounded a peaceful pool rimmed with tropical palm trees. The rooms themselves are so cool, with sliding bamboo screens that separate the bathroom from the bedroom. We found out later these are transparent bamboo screens, so when Alayna showers the boys have to wait it out in our room. The food, the food was fantastic. Maybe it’s all the white rice I ate in Singapore, but I totally devoured the food on my plate at lunch.

We were picked up at 2 and drove to Angkor Thom, an ancient city that once had more than 100,00 people and contains several temples, one of which we’d see. As we approached we saw little naked boys swimming in the moat of Angkor Wat, and from the backseat Benji said, “I see something inappropriate!” The kids looked like they were having a blast, totally uninhibited.

The first temple we saw was the Bayon Temple. We passed under a gate that had a Buddha head carved on each of the four sides of a tower, giant Buddha heads. This was different, we’ve seen Anglican, Protestantism, Catholicism, Islam, lots of religious places, but nothing Buddhist or Hindu. The temples here are a mix of both. We got out of the car and walked through the sticky heat to the temple, Benji’s head began to sweat until he had little rivers pouring down his cheeks and his hair was totally wet. We were all sweating. This is definitely the hottest place we’ve been.

The temple has intricate carvings on them, and Tak, our guide, explained to us some of the Hindu mythology. It was at least as bizarre as some of those Egyptian tales we heard. In one story, gods and demons use a seven-headed cobra to stir the ocean, mixing it into a milk that gives eternal life. We learned that the Khmer people had long ear lobes, you could tell which ones they were in the bas reliefs carved on the walls by looking at their lobes. Tak pointed out his own dangling lobes, and they were certainly larger than any of ours.

We noticed the stones were not the same as the ones that made the temples in Egypt. In Egypt, the stones were all cut very precisely, fitted in straight rows, but here, the stones were cut in odd shapes, creating a patchwork effect as they fit together to make the wall. They were still cut, and they fit with no gaps, but why didn’t they lay them in straight lines? I felt like it told us a little about the people, making things work in a harsh environment. Perhaps being creative, making a tedious task a little more interesting as they laid stone upon stone.

As we left, kids and women ran up to us, trying to sell us scarves, guide books, or cold water. They had a distinctive, high-pitched nasally voice, but nobody seemed too upset when we said “no thanks”, they just moved to the next tourist. We got back in the car, and noticed some teenage boys kicking a large badminton birdie to each other, all standing in a circle with bare feet. They were really good, I know Nate would have loved to hop out of the car and give it a try. He’s in serious need of a ball game, in our hotel he discovered a bare wall and he bounced Benji’s tennis ball on the wall, to the wood floor, and back again.

We continued on to the Elephant Terrace, a gigantic pavilion made of stone with elephants carved onto the corners. Most of their trunks had been broken off but they were still recognizable. This was where the king would gather his people to have official ceremonies or give addresses. The common people were not allowed to get too close to the terrace, they had to stand a ways off, near some big stone towers. They called these the Tightrope Towers, because they would stretch ropes from one tower to the next and acrobats would walk along the tightrope.

A group of Asian women passed by, and they fawned all over Benji. One woman pinched his cheeks and his nose, really manhandling him, but Benji took it just fine. They all wanted to get a picture with him, and Benji just stood there, smiling gamely, sweat still streaming down his face. When we were done at the Elephant Terrace, we hopped back in the car and headed for a much anticipated balloon ride. We passed a lone dog herding some cows, no human in sight. We also passed macaque monkeys and a giant pig as we drove down the road. There were tour bus drivers swinging lazily in hammocks while their tour groups sweated through the temples. Probably laughing to themselves at these crazy tourists working up a sweat.  I guess they keep their hammocks with them, to string out whenever an opportunity arises.

We passed many, many motorcycles and tuk tuks. Tuk tuks are little carriages pulled by motorcycles, they can sit up to five or six adults, three facing the other three. While we have a nice, air-conditioned car for the time we’re here (and a man to drive it, there’s no way I’d drive a car here, I’d definitely run over somebody), we plan to ride in one of those tuk tuks before we’re through. The motorcycles had anywhere from one to five passengers, sometimes little children stood on the seat while their mother held onto them from behind. We saw women with tiny babies held in their arms. Nobody wore helmets. Their hair blew wild and carefree, the breeze cooled their sweaty heads, but oh my. Tragic scenes filled my head and I couldn’t look as we passed just inches away in our big van, hurtling down the road.

The balloon ride was just a fifteen minute ride into the sky to get some great pictures of Angkor Wat and the surrounding countryside, and then down again. It stayed tethered the whole time, but it was still pretty amazing. The “basket” was shaped like a donut, we could walk all the way around and see fields and temples and feel the cool breeze that lingered up high. While waiting for our turn on the balloon, the kids each had an ice cream cone, getting their faces significantly sticky. Especially Benji. Clay showed him some ice cream eating techniques, we’re hoping that boy stops plunging his lips into the center of his cones before this trip is through. He certainly doesn’t mind practicing, he’ll work on it as long as it takes. As many cones as it takes. As much ice cream as it takes. Wait a second, maybe that lip plunging is premeditated.

As we headed back to the hotel, I tried unsuccessfully to get a picture of the setting sun, a giant red ball on the horizon. Palm trees and houses on stilts kept blocking my way, and I had to settle on a memory and inadequate words to try and remember it. Sitting on the seat next to me were a set of ten post cards we had bought from a little girl at one of our stops. I wondered about her, these cards had been in her little hands all day, and now they were in mine. A little piece of Cambodia for “one dollar mister”.


Friday, 11 January 2008

Today we explored Angkor Wat, the most famous of the temples. It is huge, and has been restored more than some of the other temples. It is Hindu. As we stepped over doorways and through shadowy corridors, we passed some people worshipping. Even today, this is a place of worship for Hindus, who also mix Buddhism and other things in their religion, as Tak explained. In front of statues of Vishnu, there were incense sticks burning, some of them anchored in open soda cans. The girls knelt before the statue, their shoes removed, bowing their heads and saying prayers in hushed whispers. The Buddha statues we’ve seen have orange cloth draped across them, and similar soda cans and incense sticks surrounding them.

We walked all around Angkor Wat, admiring the many bas reliefs that pictured battle scenes and dancing Apsara girls with naked chests and bowed legs. The Apsara dance is a traditional dance of Cambodia, the carvings we’ve seen show girls looking like they’re having a lot of fun, smiling and leaping, but sometimes doing strange things like sticking their finger in their bellybutton or pinching their nipple. Ouch. The third level of the temple was closed, but Tak explained that when the king would ascend to the top, he walked up stairs that were tilted at a 70 degree angle. This led to explanations for Benji and Nate about angles, it’s always great when you can squeeze a little math lesson into a day, without the kids knowing it! We walked for over an hour, the temple and grounds are extensive, then put our sweaty selves back in the car.

We took a little break, heading back to the hotel for lunch, then headed back out. This time we started with the oldest temple in the Angkor Park, Preah Khan. Some people were playing strange instruments as we approached, sitting in the shade of giant trees. Some had missing limbs, others were blind, victims of land mines. The music set the mood, I felt like we were traveling back in time to the days of kings riding on elephants, carving a city out of the jungle. Preah Khan was made of brick instead of stone, and was more crumbly, less preserved, than the ones we had seen previously. It was also less crowded, it was nice to ramble around on the ruins and take pictures without waiting for someone to get out of the way. The kids loved the freedom of stepping on fallen rocks, and finding different paths to take.

After the oldest temple, we headed to the elephants, who would take us up a hill to see Phnom Bakheng. When we talked to the kids about Cambodia, before we arrived, we told them about the balloon ride and the elephant ride, they were really excited about both and kept asking us, “When do we do the elephants?” The time had come. Alayna and I boarded one, Clay and the boys boarded one behind us. To get on the elephants, we climbed up some stairs to a platform, the elephant walked up alongside it, and we clambered into the little bench seat perched on his back. The driver sat in front of us, barefoot, he seemed to steer the elephant with his feet. On the back of his shirt there was a pocket, and the word “tips” stitched on it with a few dollar bills stuffed inside. I thought that was very enterprising of them.

The path up the hill wound back and forth, the ride was much smoother than a camel ride, we lumbered under the dappled shade of huge trees. One of the drivers in front of us blew on a leaf, producing a squeaky song. Alayna immediately began reaching for leaves, hoping to snag one and figure out how to blow her own squeaky song. When we got to the top of the hill, we dismounted on a similar platform and began our exploration of this new temple. This one had very steep steps, and they were so thin you had to turn your foot sideways to fit on them. We used our hands to help us climb, and by the time we got to the top we were sweaty and dirty. The kids loved it.

This temple was set way up high, it was fun to see the scenery stretching out all around us, and we got some great pictures. Tak had stayed behind down below, so we were on our own to poke around and explore. After finishing, we sat on a rock wall, waiting for the elephants to return for our downhill descent. We watched some boys, elephant owners, kidding around with each other, squirting some sort of spray at each other, and chasing each other. Boys don’t change, no matter what country you’re in.

For dinner, we headed outside our hotel and walked to a nearby restaurant. Not that our hotel doesn’t have great food, but it’s always nice to get out in a country on your own for a little while. The food was delicious, and cheap. A girl came by and shoved incense burners under our table to ward off the mosquitoes, candles flickered on the tables, it was nice. A little hot, but nice. When we got back to the hotel, we slathered some cream on Benji’s bumps and Alayna doctored her wart wounds, they seem to be healing nicely. As we put the kids to bed, we broke the news that we’d be waking up at 5am so we could watch the sunrise over Angkor Wat. The kids were less than thrilled and to tell the truth, we weren’t very excited about getting up so early, either. But how often to you go to Cambodia? We had to do it.


Saturday, 12 January 2008

Five o’clock came very early. Sometimes I really hate our alarm clock, which is actually Clay’s precious Blackberry which he programs to give us different wake-up call “rings”. It used to be The Entertainer by Joplin, now it’s Fur Elise. We stumbled around and pulled on our clothes and dragged the kids from their toasty beds, and we set off to see the sunrise. It is a quintessential Cambodian experience, if you go to Angkor Wat, you have to watch the sunrise. As we approached the temple, we were joined by hundreds and hundreds of other bleary-eyed tourists. Some had flashlights, it was still very dark outside. We trouped across the stone bridge that spanned the ancient moat, the same moat those naked boys were swimming in. We followed Tak to his “spot”, near a pool full of water lilies that shows a great reflection of the famous towers. Tak’s spot was also the spot for hundreds of others, and while I tend to be disgusted when grouped together with so many others, like a bunch of cattle, I had to admit we had no more right to this sunrise view than any other soul.

It took almost an hour for the sun to finally appear over the palm trees. While we waited, the kids amused themselves in the red sand. Alayna made an impressive ant hotel, and Nate began excavating a rock that was poking out of the ground. Benji supervised both operations. When the sun rose, a collective gasp rose from the crowd, everyone scurried to the spot where it could be seen best, and cameras began snapping. Clay was in the thick of it, next to some Australians where a man was sitting on his friend’s shoulders to get a good shot.

There were Asians, Americans, Canadians, British, Germans, French, probably lots of other nationalities, and here we all were, gathered to witness something that is universally amazing. The rising sun. That great fiery ball rising up from the other side of the earth. All of a sudden, I didn’t feel so irritated. I felt a sort of kinship. God made that sun for all of us to admire, from the little boy hawking coffee and tea to us early-risers, to the richest tourist on the lot. Okay, so I got all of that from Clay, who felt these sentiments while shooting pictures, but he was right.

After getting all the pictures we left the sun behind and headed back to the hotel for some breakfast. As we crossed the bridge back over the moat, we passed a small group of little boys, aged maybe five to seven, chattering happily. Kids here are given a lot of freedom, there was no adult in sight and this bridge, with at least a fifteen foot drop to the shallow water below, had no handrails. These boys were surrounded by strangers, there were ant mounds lurking in the fields we had just crossed and stray dogs and who knows what other dangers, and yet they had been let loose. Set free, to wander and play. So different from back home.

After a short break, we all piled back in the car for a long ride to some more temples. “More temples?” Nate groaned. “They all look alike.” So I challenged him, find five things different about this next temple. We made the kids put their books down and look out the window on the way there, playing the alphabet game with things we saw out the window. There was so much to see. Many kids were going to school, all the kids in Cambodia wear the same uniform, blue pants or skirt and a white shirt. We passed markets where anything imaginable was being sold, from bicycle tires to bananas, bottles to beer. Houses were built on stilts, with wooden ramps or ladders to get inside. Tak said building on stilts helps keep things cooler, gives some room for storage under the house, and obviously helps during floods.

Most of these “storage” places were filled with junk, in stark contrast to Rwanda, where we saw some trash, but very little “junk”. By junk I mean old tires, wood, old toys, plastic tubs, motorcycle parts, so many things all jumbled together. Almost every house was the same, it is the way they live. Their stuff hanging out for the world to see. Their lives hanging out for the world to see. Many houses had hammocks hanging beneath them, and as the day wore on and the heat mounted, these hammocks were filled with swinging children or adults, taking a siesta in the middle of the day. Doors were wide open, if there were doors, and we saw life carrying on inside. People eating lunch, sewing, cooking, just living.

We passed buildings on stilts draped in bright fabric, music blaring from speakers. Tak explained these are for weddings, they would be open and busy all day and the next day as well. We had passed a bride the previous day, she was wearing a bright pink dress and bright makeup on her pretty face. Her bridesmaids wore white, long dresses, much more like our traditional wedding dresses than the short, bright pink one the bride wore. Many of the people we passed wore surgical masks, I had noticed this in the city as well. This is to keep the pollution and dust at bay. There was plenty of dust, especially on the dirt roads we took today. We passed a mother giving her naked baby a bath in the front yard. Women on the sides of houses doused themselves with buckets of water, spilling over the cloth they had tied around them. Outdoor showers.

We saw three temples that afternoon. The first, Beng Mealia, was large and overgrown, mostly a crumbled mess. It was damaged by the war and by the vegetation, and the kids had fun exploring, ducking around enormous tree roots and climbing over crumbled walls. The destruction was incredible, ceilings had crumbled into corridors, and from the windows you could see the piles of rubble. Wooden walkways had been constructed so you could walk over and around the mess, but we still found places to climb down and around, shuffling along the backside of the temple on a narrow ledge. Tak said he first came to this temple by helicopter many years ago, when it was just being opened to the public. I wonder what it would have been like, to be the first one to discover it after all those years.

The second temple we saw, Banteay Srei, was like a mini-temple. Much smaller than the others. Clay had to duck to enter the doorways of this temple. The carvings were so intricate and detailed, it was a kid-sized temple, almost like a big doll house. I think it might have been my favorite.

The last one we visited was Ta Prohm, which was used to film Tomb Raider. We haven’t seen the movie, but we can see why it would make a great set. Giant trees have taken over here, enveloping the temple in massive roots. Huge trunks shoot through ceilings and gnarled roots cascade down walls like waterfalls, or grip the crumbling rocks like snakes, coiling around themselves. It was an amazing place, full of tourists, full of photo opportunities.

We came home with plenty of time to rest and relax. I took a run, a cool experience to run in a foreign city. Just another way to get to know it a little better. Clay worked out with weights (my backpack stuffed with heavy stuff), and then we took a dip in the pool to cool off. Everyone took a shower before dinner to wash off the current layer of sweat, and Nate did something very, very stupid. He was taking a bath, and when Clay went in to tell him it was time to get out, he had his lips sucked down the drain. That’s right, his lips were sucked inside the drain of a tub in Cambodia. He said it was really cool, that there was this suction that pulled his lips down (down how far? To where? What exactly did his lips come in contact with?), and then there was this tube thing that he could breath into. Ewww. Clay explained to him all the things that have likely flowed down the drain. When Benji asked if Nate was going to be punished, we said that Nate’s consequences were surely coming. We now have a new name for diarrhea, it’s called “drain attack”.

We all piled into a tuk tuk to go to dinner, it was fun to go zipping down the road with all the motorcycles around us. Our meal was great, and at $2.50 per person, the price was right. The kids went to bed, grateful that they could “sleep in”, no 5am wakeup call tomorrow. We finished up packing, hoping the rest of our clothes would dry before morning. Cambodia is the kind of place where you only wear clothes once. It’s just too sweaty for multiple wears. Tomorrow we head to Vietnam, after one last adventure in Cambodia. We’re going to visit Lake Tonle Sap, take a boat ride, visit a floating village. I’m glad we’ll be able to squeeze in one more thing before leaving, our time here has been good. The people are friendly, the food is great, and the temples were amazing.


Sunday, 13 January 2008

This morning we loaded up the suitcases and drove out to Lake Tonle Sap, where we got on a boat and take a short ride, visiting the floating village. As we drove down a thin dirt road, behind a giant tour bus, we began to notice stilt house after stilt house, and water on both sides of the road. Further on, the houses were boats. We even passed a school, with a fenced in gym on the second floor for recess, and classrooms underneath. There were scads of kids running around, life carried on all around our car, as if we were in an aquarium looking out. Many people were fishing from boats, or unloading their catches. Women washed clothes, laundry lines hung along the road and it made me sad. The road we drove on was red dirt, the bushes we passed were covered in it, and the clothes that hung to dry would be covered in it, too. Those clothes would never get really good and clean. How frustrating!

Humans are so adaptable. I couldn’t imagine living in this place, of utter poverty. The stilts that held up the houses were thin and rickety looking, the floors a layer of plywood. They didn’t look sturdy at all, and inside I could see there was nothing but hammocks and a few essentials. It was a dirty place, trash congregated in the hollows and the bushes. I saw no outlet for a bathroom, I’m sure they used the muddy river around them. Women pumped water from pumps outside their house, heaving the handle up and down to fill their buckets so they could bathe themselves and perform the many functions that require water. And the clothes would never be clean.

But the people I saw, most of them, especially the kids, did not look sad. This is their way of life. They live on the water, they are here when the tour busses are all gone, when it is just them and the quiet moon over the still water, the sound of lapping under them as they drift off to sleep. As we boarded our boat we saw more of the people, this floating village stretched all along the shoreline. As the water recedes during the dry months, the boats are moved with the water. We passed families in small canoes, the father fishing, the mother cleaning fish in the front, the children helping paddle in between. So many children. Many of them were out on the water by themselves, paddling around with fishing nets, some of them with cold drinks boarded our boat and others, trying to sell a few sodas to the tourists.

What a strange life, to live in the tourist’s eye all the time. To always be watched. To have strangers passing by your front door every day. And yet they mostly ignored us, hanging in their hammocks. A few stared back at us. There were some who tried to take advantage, some that begged. One woman pulled up with two kids in her canoe, trying to sell us “banana, one dollar, mister”. Clay didn’t really want a one dollar banana, but she was very persistent, hanging on to the side of our boat and pleading. Behind her was a little girl, maybe five years old, her head shaved except on the top where a ponytail pointed to the sky. Around her neck was a long python. It was really creepy, she just stared at us, as if she was a prop to gain attention. Which is exactly what she was. Clay dug a dollar out of his wallet, it was all too creepy and we wanted this woman to go away. She snatched at the dollar, and then told the boy in the back of the boat, “go, go”, and then she left. We didn’t even get our one dollar banana. We felt really crummy about that whole thing, it makes us really mad to see parents exploiting their kids like that. I can’t get that little girl’s face out of my head, what a strange, horrible life.

But then we passed a different group of kids, happy as clams, paddling their canoes. One little girl was in a round boat that looked like a bucket, and she dipped her paddle in the water, trying to catch her friends. She must have been eight or nine years old. So young, to have so much freedom.  We passed another young boy, maybe two, that was squatting in the dirt outside his house on stilts, drawing in the red dirt with his finger. Give a kid sand, water, a hammock to sleep in and a bucket to row, and they are happy. Alayna’s already decided she wants to sleep in a hammock when she gets home. Humans are so adaptable.

After leaving the floating village we were driven to the airport, where we said goodbye to the driver and guide and settled in to do some homework before our flight. Nate had a few drain attacks throughout the day, but no serious consequences from his drain encounter so far. We had two flights, the first to Saigon, and the second to Danang. In the Saigon airport we found a quiet spot for the kids to spread out, and while sitting there we met a couple from Georgia. They looked very American, and had a little boy with them who looked very Vietnamese. We started talking, and it turned out they had just adopted the little boy, he was almost two. How amazing, to come to Vietnam a couple, and leave as a family, with a brand new little person in your care. To become a mother and father overnight. And yet I guess that’s how it is for everyone, whether you leave from a hospital or from Vietnam, there is always that moment when you cross from one life into the other.

It made me think of our neighbors back home, trying to adopt from China. We pray they will have the same success as this couple, they looked so joyful, and tired, and excited. I didn’t even get their names, I wish I had.

We arrived in Vietnam after dark, and couldn’t see much from the car as we drove from Danang to our final destination (for a few days), Hoi An. Our guide met us at the airport, he seems very nice. His name is Truk (sounds like toohk with a very soft r), and our guide’s name in Cambodia was Tak, so we may have trouble with the name! He told us how to say “hello”, “goodbye”, “thank you”, and “too expensive”. I’m sure we’ll make use of all these important phrases . . .