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Siem Reap is the name of the large modern town that sits next to the ancient ruins known as Angkor. Angkor Wat is just one of the many hundreds of temple complexes, schools, royal homes and administrative buildings that formed the capital of the (900-1400 AD) fairly violent Khmer empire. The ancient city (the definition of “Angkor” is “city”) was three times larger than any other city in the world during its occupation and supported over one million people to supply the “God King” with his power.
Originally Hindu in origin, most structures were converted or built with Buddhist art, style and design. Some of the temples have been in continuous use for 1000 years by monks in search of the mysteries of the external space via the internal space. Because some of the buildings have been used/maintained for so long, it is not accurate to call all of them ruins, many are just massive stone buildings….that happen to be 900+ years old.
Unlike Inca stone structures, Khmer building has a focus on relief work depicting wars, conquests, religious and military events. The most elaborate carvings, some stretching thousands of feet, show the adventures of Hindu gods. If you have read/seen much of Hindu gods….they are less gods than super heroes/villains from a very old comic book. Vishnu (the blue guy) is shown on an adventure with his friend that soon betrays him then they rejoin forces to fight this or that guy. Ganesh (the elephant guy) and Hanuman (the monkey guy) head out on a journey to do this or that using the super powers that each seem to have. The art is amazing and the amount of work staggers the mind.
The area that the “ruins” occupy is tens of miles square and would be imposible to navigate between highlights by foot. The solution is to hire a tuk-tuk (small three seat, three wheeled motocycle cart thing) to take us around to the different areas for the three days. Having such mobility, we often found ourselves at the lesser known smaller ruins, wandering around, scrambling up steps (so steep that they required you to crawl up), ducking into bat filled tunnels and walking past monstrous trees that seemed to be intent on consuming buildings.
At the main larger structures, tourists of every nationality (although mostly Asian) stumbled like drunks as they gawked and snapped photos of any one of a million amazing vistas. We tried to get to the popular places (Angkor Wat being one of them) very early (7AM) and would find them mostly empty or with a few chanting monks or drugged out tie-dye wearing hippies sitting crossed legged and looking intently for something behind their eyelids….new iphone sitting next to them of course.
The structures themselves are usually made from massive stones, polished and fitted together similar to Inca or Egyptian stone fitting. Large moats surround most of the larger structures with some moats miles long and 400 feet wide.
As the morning evaporated the heat and humidity would eventually chase us back to the pool at our villa hotel. The budget of our rooming seems to have increased as we have moved further away from civilization. After a nap, we would go back and explore some more and avoid the creepy looking monkeys that watched for anyone foolish enough to feed them. As we were leaving one afternoon, I overheard a tour group of older British women dogmatically discuss how the aliens must have helped built the temple in question. It interests me that those with the least education on a subject seem to have the strongest opinions.
One of our last mornings we got up very early and took a hot air balloon over a few villages and one of the ruins. A car dropped us in a field that was filled with 30-40 locals chewing on their morning fruits, staring wide eyed at the slowly inflating yellow balloon. The dark aviator glasses identified our extremely confident Chinese pilot and he motioned us to get in the basket. A timid Japanese couple joined the basket and soon we lifted off to the cheers of the now 40+ children jumping up and down below us. Staying close to the ground we surfed over/around palm trees, passing small homes, modern temples and mothers bathing children or washing clothes.
With a blast of the fire blower (?), we made our presence known to the small village below and out exploded dozens of children from their homes. Some struggling to put on shirts, some pants and one naked little boy fought off his mother valantly escaping to join the mob….she yelled something at him and he seemed to yell back “no time for clothes mom…..NO TIME!”, all the while his leg pumping to catch up.
The pilot explained that he needed to go south a bit and so moved us up 250 meters to catch a cross wind that moved us over one of the smaller ancient ruins. The sounds of the morning melted into nothingness as we watched the sun start to warm the air around us…causing the balloon to struggle to find lift. (likely not the best time to mention the serious crash this balloon had last year)
Eventually, we found ourselves passing through backyards and over small homes, not more than 50 feet high. Our pilot would pick mangos and attempted to get a coconut from the trees we would pass through as a growing crowd of children followed us waiting for something. It was when the pilot pulled out a bag of candy did the fun really start. We tossed handfuls of candy down to the kids causing them to follow the balloon through fields, farms, homes and even a temple filled with orange wrapped monks. The balloon was so quiet that the first indication that the monks knew something was happening was when 50 half clothed kids swarmed the temple, causing some of the monks to freeze in place at the possible nightmare that charged them. It was only when the pilot used the burner that the monks noticed us, relaxed and waved at the strange celebrities in the sky.
I noticed that the pilot was getting quiet and he mentioned something in some language to us that no one understood. It turns out he was aiming for the top of a large palm tree to get rid of the 5-7 MPH velocity the balloon had. I told Tamara to get down and hold on while I dropped to the bottom of the basket in a mentally well rehearsed crash position. Tamara, thinking the crash would be a great thing to get on film, neglected to brace and landed on me when we hit the palm tree. The tree seemed to struggle with the basket for 5-6 seconds, shaking us back and forth like a damp salt shaker, before releasing us with a sudden nothingness. Pulling ourselves up we notice that somehow we now have no lateral velocity. With a tug, our very proud pilot pulls a rope and we dropped into a field with a mob of blood thirsty children cresting the distant irrigation canal.
Soon our balloon is surrounded by an entire village and a van pulls up with jump suited balloon tenders to pack up the balloon. We passengers are bundled into the van and we try to come to terms with the amazing experience we just had. I wish we could do it again even though it did cost ($125 each).
While Cambodia was an amazing place, we were happy to leave it behind and end our 1600 mile land journey (Hanoi to Angkor Wat). From this point on, we will fly. It would have been fun to take the 26 hour bus to Laos but I am not sure we would survive it.
Phnom Penh sits uncomfortably on the wide Mekong river. Three wheeled tuk-tuks filled with sugar cane, tiny mattresses or unwashed hippie tourists (usually male) meander from one area to another, dodging uniformed school children on their way to classes. Next to a government owned Mercedes G-class, an extended family wakes up on cardboard mats. With the millions of remaining landmines, it is common to see human jigsaw puzzles trying to survive off of determination and hard work. Elegant estates and vast professional sweat-shops the size of airport terminals (20% of our cloths are made here) are counter points to a country that lacks a postal system. Quickly you get the feel that you are in a damaged country, inhabited by a damaged culture made up of damaged people.
The people are soft spoken, kind and interested in those that come to visit. Family is critical to the makeup of the culture and it is not uncommon to see a Mother taking time to play with her children during whatever job she is working at. One local told me that there are only four types of people in Cambodia, those few that have, those that do not have, those that come to help and those that come to exploit. That explains why on the side of most tuk-tuks (and our hotel) is a sticker that ask the reader to report child prostitution.
After a few days, we headed south to the coast for a half marathon that Tamara had planned. The race went well and it was during this side trip that we made a very poor choice. Sitting on the beach, enjoying the warm sand and a cold beer, one of us decided to order a chocolate shake. Did we both know that the restaurant (shack) it would come from had no toilet paper or soap in the employee bathroom? Yes we did. Did we know that the water was not safe to drink? Yes we did. Why did we do this…..we don’t know.
72 hours later we recovered enough to be fairly confident that we would not die in that horrible place and made plans to hire a driver and car to take us back to the capital to a nice hotel where we could heal up. It took a week or so to start to feel better but likely we have relearned a good lesson about sanitation. (only eat what locals eat unless it is milk, ice or lettuce)
Visiting the Bethel was a highlight of our time in Phnom Penh. The 16 volunteer bethelites focus on translation, organization and education. It was only in 1990 that the work was able to start fully and by 2008 the language received the complete Greek scriptures. Now the 20 hardworking congregations enjoy a freedom that is not to be taken for granted in this area of the world.
I have had some friends ask why Tamara and I visit refugee camps, concentration camps and genocide memorials when we travel and the reason is simple but hard to explain. It boils down to we hate bullies and refuse to pretend bad things don’t happen. This was a driving force behind both of us wanting to visit the genocide museum at one of the “killing fields” around the area.
It always seemed to me that genocide/mass murder was a disaster caused by chaos and fear but Pol Pot (the leader of the bad guys) was well educated in France, expertly planned out his actions and meticulously documented every single name and photographed all 2+ million (25% of the population) killed (by hand) during his attempt to create a playground for himself. Emptying the cities (where the people had fled to escape the 4 year American carpet bombing) he killed all teachers, artists, anyone that could speak a second language and even those that wore glasses or had a skill other than farming. He forbad commerce, religion, education and family.
The open air museum had a audio guide that related survivors’ stories of the camps and the reign of terror. Each section seemed to be more horrible than the next ending in a tree used to kill babies. The museum tries to gather up the bones after each rain yet even still we had to step over pieces of fabric or bone as we walk around.
It was only when Vietnam could not deal with Pol Pot anymore did they enter the country, kick him out, setup a simple communist government in 1979 and went home. Shockingly, until 1982 the UN, US, Britain and China would only recognize Pol Pot as the legitimate ruler of Cambodia….even providing him with money and a seat at the UN. These things seem to happen in slow motion and anyone looking to the UN for peace and security has no knowledge of history.
There is many wonderful things about Cambodia and it is a shame that mostly the bad stuff seemed to surface in my writing. Writing for me is less like a camera taking photos of neat things but more stained clothing that you earn by navigating a path.
Our next stop is the crown jewel of Cambodia, Angkor Wat and the many square miles of ruins in the central part of the country.
So for accuracy’s sake… I have to confess that the journey from Saigon to Phnom Penh is a simple 7 hour bus ride west ($6) over roads that are described on the internet as “reliable yet spleen destroying”. Now that you know the easy way, let me tell you the way we chose to get to Cambodia, via the Mekong Delta. For context….the Delta is huge…as in the size of some countries big.
With visions of a whole new area of the world to explore, we caught a tourist bus that took us 4 hours south to one of the 5 mouths of the Mekong. This area is known for the tough stout residents cultural adaptations to life on the river. One of these adaptations is the uses of coconuts. They seem to only grow coconuts and use every part of them for anything possible. Fabrics, food, walls and mats, hats, drinks. Life revolves around the river and coconuts.
We got a ride on a small boat that traveled an hour or so up one of the natural canals, stopping off for lunch at a small restaurant (grass hut home). While the young ones did the cooking and tried to sell coconut related products, the older family members organized a music “thing”, that sounded like nothing I had ever heard before.
Then (from what I remember) we took the back of a tractor-motorcycle contraption across the island to the other side, then another boat to another island, then a bus to the nearest town (not sure the name) where we recovered from the oppressive humidity and heat in a decent hotel. As the sun set, large spectral birds cast threatening shadows as they hovered outside our window. It was only when we saw the smiling children holding strings, did it dawn on us that they were kites being flown in the dusk breezes.
Next morning, we took a power boat up the river to one of the largest floating markets in the world where families were selling cabbages, potatoes, meats of various sources and even live animals. As we wondered (via boat) around the market, the locals hurried with their work, stocking the boats that would pull up, negotiating prices and teaching their children lessons of some sort between sales. Some families rarely leave the boats or the massive delta. I wonder where they think we come from?
Later in the afternoon, we took yet another bus to a frontier town near the border of Cambodia. Frontier towns are always nasty and usually sketchy locations at best. This town (Cho Du, I think) was one of the worse places we have ever visited. The narrow three story city is dirty, worn and smelled as bad as they come. Some areas we would walk, we found our eyes burning with smells of indescribable filth. The air of distrust and fear was directed at some source that I could never quite figure out or saw. (likely gangs or smugglers I guess)
Braving the heat, humidity and what felt like “warning looks” from mothers holding tight to their toddlers, we made our way down to the river. There sitting in her boat, as if she was waiting for us was a toothless ancient old woman, smoking a pipe and pointing and laughing at us like we had clown wigs on. We smiled back and she waved to us to get on the boat and made a motion that she would take us around on her boat. She held up a unreasonable number of fingers (the price) and we paid it as she continued to laugh at us like the fools we were. She would look at our shoes or our camera and just bust up laughing at how preposterous we were and personally, I didn’t disagree with her. I found her worn face so captivating that I ended up taking more photos of her than the river life around us. Eventually, she got very quiet, all the while wrestling the large gas motor with her large baked forearms.
Dusk caught us by surprise and we quickly made it back to our horrible hotel to hide in the florescent light from what, I don’t know but do not doubt was there. The morning came with us dressed, packed and ready to catch the first boat north. The six hour speed boat trip was broken up by two border crossings (one to exit Vietnam and one to enter Cambodia), but ended with us finally reaching Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia.
I can’t say that I recommended the path we took and I would not do it again but it did help us to see and understand more about a huge group of people and their lives on the river.
We can already tell that this country of Cambodia is far different than anywhere we have been. More soon.
Hanoi is the political capital of Vietnam. All the “Good Communists” (those with documented multi-generational support of the “Party”) come from here and are shipped out to be mayors and governors for the other areas of Vietnam. Being so far North, we are greeted by the typical winter weather of 55 degree drizzle. We often like to travel during these slower times as the domestic and foreign tourists are fewer and people are more relaxed as they deal with the normal day to day activities.
The old center of Hanoi is watched over by 100 year old French colonial buildings that push in over the narrow streets. Ornate rusty metal railings seem to melt back into the buildings that grew them and colorful plaster attempts to create new and exciting textures as they dissolve. Amazing ancient banyan trees, on the corner of most streets, add an extra obstacle for the fast paced traffic of mo-peds, bicycles and a sprinkling of tiny taxis occupied by wide-eyed Europeans.
The city seems to consist of two types of people; modest young men and women rushing to work on straining mopeds and tiny women on bicycles selling some form of food or clothing to those that that live in their area.
Our wanderings around the city takes us pass an promenade Lenin statue that, unlike most countries we visit, is polished and well cared for. It was not surprising to find the National War Museum near our “Comrade Lenin”. The museum documents the countless invaders (Thai, Khmer, Chinese, Japanese, French, American and many more nations that always seemed to have one reason or another to be in Vietnam. Of course the Vietnam War is here called the “The American war”. The people (alive now) have absolutely no ill feelings against Americans, they are seen as just another group of people that failed to impose their will on the still young and hopeful country. Having said that, the propaganda at the Museum (and the history that is taught in schools) does the term “propaganda” proud. I saw one artillery piece that “while operated by the proud Mothers of Vietnam, sank 5 American ships during the battle of……”.
We had a young university student (Thao) who volunteered (she would not even take a tip) to show us around Hanoi for a few hours . She mentioned at the War Museum, that American men were forced by the American government to fight. She was surprised to hear that some of my family and friends went to prison (18 months or so) because they refused the military draft. Even my Father had to face the draft board and explain why he would not join any military action, regardless of the consequences. I know it was many years ago but it made me so proud that some decided to obey their Bible trained consciences even if it meant prison. One of my good friends who did two tours of duty as a helicopter gunner during the War, said he wished he had the chance go back and join those that stood fast.
One of the best part of travel is learning surprising things about yourself. We had the opportunity to do so when Thao asked us about the concept of “Personal Space”. She had been told that Americans (and Brits) become very uncomfortable if you move within a specific distance to them. “Is this caused by childhood experiences or where does this come from?”, she asked. Most Asian people literally do not understand the concept of personal space. I have yet to grasp how I (we) have developed this special requirement and why it is so important to our social interaction. I bet I could find a book on it but it will likely remain a mystery for me.
The Food in Vietnam is amazing and one of our favorite foods to eat. Heaping piles of spicy fresh vegetables, flavorful curries and complex broths that can require days and dozens of ingredients to prepare. To get a better understanding of this side of the country, we joined a cooking class that had us preparing 4-5 of the more common dishes the locals enjoy. We learned to make Prawn cakes, Pho (a wonderful soup eaten for breakfast), green PawPaw salad (crunchy veggie salad), spring rolls and a dipping sauce made from vinegar, garlic and spices. It was an enjoyable experience that had our teacher helping us find and taste the many different foods available in this area of the world. Yes they eat goat, dog and cat but they call cat “Little Tigers”, so I think it is ok.
The Brothers in Vietnam are under a government ban. While they MAY not be thrown into prison, they are picked up by the police, interrogated, searched, questioned and detained if caught preaching or with Bible Literature. It is not Christianity that the government dislikes, it is Jehovah Witnesses, because they refuse to join the “Party” or the military. A friend told us that they have to hold conventions (in the 100+ summer and 40 degree winter weather) under tents in a parking lot because they are unable to rent a venue. Preaching is very difficult as you have to be sure that they or their friends are not informers or part of the police. The friends here are truly ones we should pray for.
A Oregonian friend of ours has lived in Vietnam for many years. He assists the friends here as an elder (Coordinator, School and Secretary) and has spoken Vietnamese for over 20 years. He and another local friend (no need to for names) picked us up with their motorcycles for a day out visiting their friends. One of our stops was a small food cart that is owned by a extremely poor, widowed friend. She spoke as much English as we did Vietnamese but her kindness was truly expressed through her food. It was obvious that she found much joy in serving us, heaping our plates to bursting with noodles, grilled meet (beef or goat?) and fresh and pickled vegetables. It would have been so great to learn more about her from her own mouth. Just one more thing to look forward to in the future.
The people of Hanoi have an eggshell thin veneer of seriousness that is cracked with just a smile or a “Sin Chow” (hello). After that they are almost universally kind, modest, friendly and a type of mild that is my new goal in life.
After just a few days, Tamara and my feet were itching to see more of this unknown area of the world and so started our long travel South via train. More updates as they come!
I remember thinking on our first trip to Hong Kong (one of our first trips anywhere) in 1999, that it felt like the ominous cityscape in Bladerunner. Dark looming buildings counterweighted by oversized neon signs, offering the oblivious fast-paced pedestrians all manner of objects and services. Now, 15 years later it feels even more so as the predominantly young Hong Kongesse (don’t call them Chinese please) are permanently hunched over their iphones or tablets. Even the most traditionally dressed grandma has bright colored audio cables snaking into each ear. The impressive skyline is now even more impressive yet curtained off by a soupy smog.
The new airport is built far outside the city on a new island that took billions of dollars and years to reclaim from the sea. The old airport had you flying into a narrow valley of buildings inside the main city. Your first exposure to Hong Kong would be the bedrooms of sleepy families just above your airplane window. As it is now, you take a modern high speed rail over artificial islands and even under ground until you reach the heart of the City. Our Hostel is a typical low range artsy fartsy affair with a foosball table, balcony and a in-room bathroom that is encased in transparent glass. The complete lack of privacy was mitigated by a thin curtain that encouraged the other to bury their head in a book when nature called the other.
No visit to a new area of the world is complete (for us) without searching out our fellow Brothers and Sisters. The Bethel (administrative/translation center) has grown since our last visit. In 1999, there were only 35-40 in the office but now has increased to 200. Most of the work is assisting the Brothers in China, who are banned by the government for being “extremist”. Another focus of the Hong Kong Bethel is medical education of the local doctors in the many new methods of blood-less surgery. It has been such a success that many doctors in this area have become leaders in advanced medical (blood-less) care.
One great surprise was meeting Diane Leung again, who we met 15 years ago at the old Bethel. She remembered us and asked how we had used our youth since we last met. We were shown the new literature carts and even a few prototypes that are being sent to many large cities. It made me remember the sandwich boards that our Grandparents used to bring attention to the Bible message.
Until recently, we were unaware that Hong Kong has a Disneyland and this knowledge required Tamara to make “the pilgrimage”. Our jet-lag brought us to the magic kingdom far too early and we walked around for hours in a nearly empty park riding one ride after another. The park was surprisingly cleaner, newer and slightly smaller than the California park. The Asian flavor was muffled yet found ways to escape the homogeneous messaging.
Much of the preaching work in Hong Kong is done in public spaces because of the difficulty entering the compact secured mega-structures. Being the most densely populated place on earth, the “mansions” as they are called, are concrete cubes that provide less living space per person than a berth in a US Prison.
The Brothers and Sisters setup stands at various public places, (we assisted on the water front one day with our friend Katie) , and await the endless tourist buses of mainland Chinese (42 million last year) that arrive for a taste of “clean” air and goods from around the world. One 3 hour span resulted in over 500 brochures placed with many providing email addresses for return visits once they return home inside China.
Our wanderings around the city was enjoyable with us never feeling spooked or in danger. The well dressed residents walk quickly from one unknown location to another, never looking away from their screens but somehow missing taxis and belching transport busses with inches to spare. The language is harsh, quick and aspergerish in its cadence but we found them nice if you could break them away from their electronic trance. One trek we took was to the “Peak” and is a highlight of Hong Kong. The hike up the small mountain ended with us shivering at the top, waiting for the large buildings below to turn on their colorful lights. One of my favorite memories is of us at this spot 15 years ago.
Our Hong Kong adventured ended with us attending a meeting at the Kowloon Central English hall that is made up of 200 Filipino sisters and 5 local Brothers. The sisters are “imported servants” for the rich Hong Kong parents of overweight Hong Kong children. The Sisters leave their home and families to work in (according to a Amnesty International report I read recently) substandard and often exploitative conditions. The Sisters only get one day off a week and so this required that the meetings are all conducted on their day off. I found their comments during the Watchtower (simplified edition) encouraging and almost universally starting with “what I learned….” Or “ I want to use this to improve my relationship with God by….”.
Sitting next to and visiting with these wonderfully kind, meek and materially poor Sisters caused both Tamara and I to feel something similar to shame or guilt at the freedom that we two possess. Coming to terms with inequity is something easier pushed aside than examined too closely if given the choice…those that travel are often not given that choice.