Monday, March 21, 2011

There's No Place Like Home

We made it home!  We were sad to see our wonderful trip end but happy to be home.  There is one happy kitty here too.  The trip home was boring which was the best possible outcome.  We had a 6 hour flight to Korea, a 5 hour layover in Korea, and a 12.5 hour flight to Chicago.  The worst part was the chicken sandwiches we ordered at the KFC in Seoul.  I think they made them a few days prior to our ordering them.  We opted to go hungry. 

When we got home it was shower and bed.  We both had a few cat naps on our flights, but were dizzy tired from the whole journey.  There was a 4 hour period where I believe I may have been dead.  Then we dashed over to Lou Malnati's for pizza with Keegan, Tim, Lynn, Nick, and Katie.  It was so nice to have some cold beer, a salad, and deep dish pizza.  Also, it was good to understand everything people were saying and have them understand us.  What was best of all, though, was seeing our friends faces, joking around, and being in the great city of Chicago. 

Having had a good nights sleep (although not long enough) I'm ready to get dressed for work and let the next whirlwind begin. 

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Floating Pigs

We were pleased to sleep in a bit this morning.  Last night we took the Tuk Tuk to the Foreign Correspondents Club (FCC) for dinner.  We've been leaning more towards western food on this leg of the trip - I don't know if it's beacuse we are a little tired of Asian food (never thought I'd see it happen) or the options for Khmer cuisine just aren't as appealing to us.  Jim had roast chicken and I had rack of lamb.  Yum!  We also had some terrific calamari for a starter.  The FCC had a gallery of interesting photos of visiting dignitaries from the mid 60's (before the trouble began) such as General de Gaulle, Jackie Kennedy, and the Prime Minister of Ethopia - all having experiences similar to those we've had over the past few days. 

We had a very eager Tuk Tuk driver who waited for us to finish dinner to take us wherever we wanted next.  We had him zip us over to Blue Pumpkin for some yummy ice cream and then to the Night Market.  We watched more folks have their feet eaten by fish, bought some t-shirts, etc.  Jim was taking a lot of video with his little flip camera and got yelled at by an Indian woman who didn't want her picture tuk tuk. 

We met Suen and Ret this morning at 9:00.  Our first stop was about 30 minutes away and we enjoyed a bumpy ride and the countryside.  I was very surprised to see the Jay Pritzker Academy - a school funded by a very wealthy Chicago family.  After a while we pulled over at a dusty side road and boarded a wooden boat steered by a rope and pulley system.  We were headed to see a Tonle Sap Lake fishing village.  The young man driving the boat was about 15 years old.  Where we started off was where the village is in the rainy season.  Since it is the dry season, we needed to take the boat down a narrow, shallow canal about 3 - 4 miles down the way.  Along the ride we saw many men throwing nets into the canal to catch little fish to sell at the market.  When the canal opened up to the wider river/lake section we were able to see the houses and school (funded by the Mission of Mercy) floating by the side of the reservoir.  We saw whole farms - chickens, pigs, fish farms, crocodiles, a little zoo with pythons and crocs, etc. on the water.  At this time of year they also build a little bridge to the land where they can plant a little farm for the time being.  The people smiled and waved to us as we went by and we saw the school children rowing home from school - 2 - 3 in a boat.  Jim took some video that we're eager to show you if you are interested.

We made our way back to our driver waiting for us on a dusty riverside.  We gave fruit to the cutest three little ones you've ever seen.  One enterprising young lady (about 7 years old) took our photos when we first arrived and already had them printed out and for sale when we returned.  Where she keeps a computer and printer I have no idea.  She was adorable and reminded me a lot of Isabel when she was younger.  She was so interested in the fruit and granola bars we had for them that the photos completely left her mind.

We were another hour in the car - the paved roads here are bouncier than the unpaved ones - to Bantaey Srei.  This is a temple MUCH smaller than those we've seen over the past few days.  However, it was the most impressive.  It is about 200 years older than the others and constructed of rose sandstone which has held the hand carved bas reliefs best over the past 1200 years.  Bantaey Srei is commonly referred to as the woman's temple and has gorgeously detailed and meticuolously carved stories of Hindu culture.  It was too hot to spend too much time, but we saw it all and Jim got some good photos.

After this we had a 10 minute stop at the Land Mine Museum so Jim could have a look.  Suen and Ret sat at a table while I swung in a hammock with a group of Tuk Tuk drivers as we had no interest in going in - I was afraid it would make me cry.  Jim says it was quite impressive and run by a man who personally has cleared about 100,000 land mines, shelters orphans, and hopes to clear the country of 6 to 7 million land mines remaining in Cambodia.  Jim made some purchases in support of these efforts. 

We returned to the hotel and had a dip in the pool.  We are now cleaned up and packed.  We are headed out for dinner then to the airport to start our journey home.  I'll be very sorry to say good-bye to Suen - a very good man and the best guide of our trip.  We fly overnight to Seoul where we'll have about 5 hours before our flight home.  We arrive in Chicago 1.5 hours before we depart Seoul - Sunday morning at 10:00.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Sunrise over Angkor Wat

We had an early morning today - meeting up with Suen and Ret at 5:30 to watch the sunrise over Angkor Wat.  Quite a lot of people had the same idea, but we benefited from Suen's knowledge of how to beat the crowds.  He isn't a real big fan of the noisy Chinese tourist.  Angkor Wat is another temple built to honor the Hindu god, Shiva, and to be the mausoleum for the King's family.  It was started about 40 years prior to all the temples we saw yesterday but took about 30 years to build.  It is huge - the largest religious building in the world.  The entire temple complex is surrounded by a moat 1.5 kilometers on each side and 200 meters wide.  It took us a couple of hours to explore the whole place and all three levels.  It has five towers with the center tower on the top level.  The view from the top level is quite spectacular.  We had to climb up a rickety ladder to get to that level - lots of people weren't making it past the fashion police - knees and shoulders can not be showing - so I'm glad I did my homework on that one.  This temple is in the best shape because monks have remained here and maintained it throughout the centuries. 

We were already done with the main event by 8:30, so we came back to the hotel for some breakfast, a quick rest, and freshening up.  We headed back out at 9:30.  Suen and Ret took us on a brief tour of the countryside - local schools and country life.  We also saw the mountain that most of the stone for all these temples came from.  We were surprised to see that so much of the mountain was still there - it must have been at least double the size before all these temples were built. 

On our countryside tour we also saw bootleg gasoline in old Johnnie Walker bottles sold roadside - smuggled in from Thailand where it is cheaper.  We also saw the local staple being offered along the road - rice steamed with coconut milk in the holed out shell of bamboo stalks.  Suen also told us about his being stolen off the school yard, loaded into a bus, and sent out into the jungle with gun in hand (and no training) to fight in the civil war in 1986 - about the time we were graduating high school.  He had a brother who was rounded up by the other side, so he was fighting against his own brother!  He told us about how they planted land mines along the Thai border in northern Cambodia - not a very well thought out or coordinated/recorded effort - they estimate 3 million remain.  Again, he relayed these stories in a matter of fact manner.  When I asked him how he copes with the experiences of his life, he responded that nighttime is very hard - he doesn't sleep.  He is a very smart man - dedicated to making sure his children get a good education and to turning around the 80% illiteracy rate in Cambodia.  Every child we've come across he asks; "Did you go to school today?"

We returned to Siem Reap - sweaty and tired - but made one last stop at an artist school where a younger generation learns many of the ancient crafts used to build the temple complexes around this part of the country.  Many of those who would have handed down this knowledge to the next generation are gone.  There seemed to be a great sense of pride in the great skills being developed at this school and we spent some time and money in the gift shop.

Suen and Ret dropped us off on Pub Street for a late lunch of not so good pizza.  Then we got a tuk tuk back to the hotel for a swim, a rest, a clean up and now a post before dinner.

A couple of notes about dining in Cambodia.  So far, the Khmer food is not tempting.  A popular ingredient is Red Ants.  These are used in place of lemon as they are sour.  Mom, if you are in need of some lemon  you can just go out in the back yard and dig up a substitute!  Frog seems to also be quite popular here as is crocodile.  Suen does not have a birth certificate, but he knows that his father celebrated by cooking frog, so he suspects he was born in a rainy month and had chosen July 1968 - they are pretty sure about the year.

We will be dining at the Foreign Correspondents Club tonight.  Tomorrow is our last day!  We'll go see one more temple in the morning, a village on Tonle Sap Lake, and then rest and pack in the afternoon.  Our flight to Seoul, Korea is at 11:15 PM.  I don't really want to come home.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Monkey Like Banana

It is in no way an exaggeration to say that I was in awe today.  If I had a dollar for every time I said WOW today I'd be very rich. 

We met up with Suen at 8:00 and set out for the Angkor complex.  We got a quick peek at Angkor Wat driving past (this is where we go tomorrow) but proceeded on the Angkor Thom.  This was the Khmer Capital in the 12th and 13th century. The settlement is surrounded by a high wall and a wide moat - a square 3 kilometers long on each side.  Before we went inside the walls, we stopped and looked at the moat and wall from the outside.  The massive wall was built from stone cut from a mountain 60 kilometers away and dragged to this site.  Elephants did much of this work.  Speaking of elephants, there were some outside the Angkor Thom complex - I got up close and patted one of them.  That was thrill enough for the day, but we went on.

Inside Angkor Thom we looked at the terraces where the king and family would have held court in front of the 1 million people who lived inside Angkor Thom - the Terraces of the leper king and elephants.  These had giant carved walls with elephants, people, other symbolic figures carved into them.  Some of it was in alarmingly good shape for being 1,000 years old.  The homes of the royal family were made of wood and burned down by invaders a bazillion years ago, but the stone temples were still there.  There is a large temple to a snake woman - Phimeanakas - who would turn into a beautiful woman at night and the King had to sleep with her before the Queen or his Concubines or else they would all be killed by the snake god woman.  Sounds like a pretty convenient story for the King....  We were also able to see the Kings and Queens swimming pools.  The King's was about 5 times larger than the Queens.  Again, how convenient... 

We then went and took a look at The Bayon Temple - smack dab in the center of the square settlement inside the walls.  More than 54 towers make up this temple.  We took a bazillion photos, but there are four faces on each side of the towers.  The original King who built this temple was Buddhist, so these were faces of Buddah.  He built the temple to honor Buddah and the King's father.  A later King was Hindu, so he decided the faces were Hindu gods and also removed all other images of Buddah in the temple - this would have been a REALLY big job.  We did a lot of climbing up and down the three layers of this temple - it is so huge.  From way up high you are close to the Buddah faces and have a great view of all the surrounding areas.

We next took a short drive and suddenly hopped out of the van for a long walk through the jungle.  The jungle is thick and the cicada's (sp?) are as loud as the elevated train in Chicago.  We walked along a dirt path for about 10 minutes before we were standing in front of a lesser visited temple called Preah Khan.  This is a temple to the sacred sword  which is the sword held by the Khmer King that protects the Khmer Empire against all enemies.  It was built in 1191ish.  This was also very large and impressive - again realizing all the stones commuted here before they were assembled, carved, etc.  This showed how the trees overtook the temples after this area was abandoned.  In 1911, they started clearing the jungle from the temples, but when the cut down trees that had grown into the temple walls, it caused the entire temples to fall as well. 

After a little lunch we made our way over to another temple complex called Ta Prom.  This was built by the King to honor Buddah and the King's mother.  Again, all references to Buddah were wiped away a little later.  This is the temple where Tomb Raider was filmed - a movie with Angelina Jolie.  Folks are pretty excited about that around here.

On our way back to the hotel we stopped to see monkeys on the side of the road.  Jim bought some bananas from some young kids and fed the bananas to the monkeys.  It was pretty crazy.

We were dirty, hot, and tired after this.  Suen told us the story of his boyhood working under Khmer Rouge killing fields camp from the age of 8 to 11.  It was the most horrible thing I've heard told to me in a surprisingly matter of fact manner.  We got back to our room and I had a good cry.

We checked out the pool - it is 200 meters long and we swam the length of it twice.  I have a spa appointment in 20 minutes then we'll head back to town in a tuk tuk for dinner.  I think we're going to a restaurant called Meric that is supposed to be very fancy.   

Tomorrow we meet up with Suen and our driver at 5:30 AM so that we can see the sun rise over Angkor Wat - ANOTHER temple complex.  We love Siem Reap - it is a really lovely, breathtaking, heartbreaking, and awe inspiring place.