Thursday, January 11, 2007

Have a good day. Every day. Always... what a girl at Banteay Kdei, one of the numerous Angkor temples, said to me two days ago.

I arrived to Bangkok very late on the 5th, or very early on the 6th, depending how you look at it. Straight to Jaume's place, and it was perfect upon arrival. One of those moments where it was instantly a good connection, laughing and chatting away...and I was so so glad to see that my Spanish hadn't deteriorated completely during the past year.

On the 6th, Jaume and I spent hours in grocery stores (see why we get along? I LOVE supermarkets...), bought lots of Japanese products to complement the sushi rolling bamboo mat and the nori I brought him, and just hung out. It was great.

Bangkok is loud, crowded, and full of tourists. Just how I remembered it.

I headed out at 4.30am on the 7th, and very luckily made a 5am bus to Araya Pratha, on the Thai/Cambodian border, with just a few minutes to spare. Funny enough, there were only 3 foreigners (as far as I could tell) on the bus, and I was put next to a Japanese guy. Very humorous guy in his 50s living in Thailand for the past 8 years as a Muay Thai coach.

At the border, it was hot. After doing all the annoying paperwork, I was surprised (don't know why I was surprised, should have expected it) to see that the 20 dollar visa was somehow mysteriously 25 dollars...ohhh corruption. But, managed to shake it off, navigate my way through the border, and get on a pick up with about 10 other foreigners, and numerous Khmer stuffed in...bumpy, dusty ride to Siem Reap.

I got to Siem Reap and luckily found Tina quite easily. Had some sour soup - my intro to Khmer food - a concoction with pineapple, fish, veggies, in a sour broth...surprisingly palatable. That evening I met a moto driver and we arranged to meet at 4.30am the next day, the 8th, to go to the temples so it was an early night...I was exhausted, seeing as how in the past 72 hours I had flown from Tokyo to Seoul to Bangkok, then the overland journey from Bangkok to Siem Reap.

On the 8th, my driver, Khumtin, didn't show. I was very confused, waited half an hour, and was eventually grateful for this, and took a day to be very lazy and wander around town. Much needed. He tracked me down and we decided to try again the next day. I ventured into the Mexican restaurant in town and was so happy I could cry. After a year of overpriced Japanese-Mexican food, Viva! in Siem Reap was the closest thing to L.A. Mexican food I've had in a year and a half...sigh...

So. The 9th. 4.30am. Straight to Angkor Wat in the dark. Walked on the causeway to the basins where there is the very well-known sunrise viewpoint, set up chairs, and waited. It was magnificent. By the time the sun actually came above the horizon at the temple, it was nearly 6.45am, and there were tourists crawling everywhere already. Such is high season at the largest religious structure in the world - which also means that despite the huge number of people there, you could find yourself a quiet corner anyway.

I spent a few hours wandering around Angkor Wat, and it is truly amazing. Doorways everywhere, the bas-reliefs are stunning, the lichens, the mold, the crumbling structures, the smell of incense...for atmosphere, this place is tops.

Next stop was Prasat Kravan, a very small set of ruins but the brilliant red rocks were impressive. Then to Sra Srang, a huge pool of water...on the other side of it is Banteay Kdei. Banteay Kdei receives less visitors than some of its neighbors, but it is gorgeous. It is serene and feels very tranquil. A group of kids rushed at me as I entered the gates, and in their scheme of warming me up, gave me a free bracelet - so I decided to make the girl a paper crane - I had brought some origami with me. As I took out the sheet of paper, they all asked me for a sheet as well - they all knew how to make various things too! I was very impressed. So we had an origami session for nearly half an hour and at the end of it, one girl gave me a beautiful yuri, lily-of-the-valley, that she had made, and said Have a good day, everyday, always. I melted.

Ta Prohm was next; famous for Tomb Raider being filmed there - this temple has trees growing in it, around it, on top of it, and is quite a sight to behold. Unfortunately, it was really swarming in tourists so I don't think I enjoyed it as much as I could have otherwise, but it was still impressive.

After a quick lunch, to Preah Khan, Ta Keo, Bayon, and Phnom Bakheng for sunset. All lovely, but I was completely exhausted.

On the 10th, I booked a birdwatching tour with Osmose to go to Prek Toal on Tonle Sap lake, which is just north of Siem Reap. Osmose is a company that does eco-tours, providing jobs, education, support for the village of Prek Toal. It was a fantastic tour, where not only did we see a ridiculous amount of birdlife, both in quantity of birds as well as species diversity, but we also learned about the village, the fish, the reptiles, the industry, the problems, and the possible solutions.

Huge colonies of storks, egrets, cormorants, lots of pelicans, all made for some great photo ops. A very pleasant group of 8 tourists, and a wonderful guide, Noung. During the day, we came across an illegal net in the lake, and she proceeded to remove it, spending nearly an hour on this, releasing all the animals that were still alive (mostly snakes and a few fish); we also saw, though, that there were huge amounts of dead snakes and fish in the net, and many were badly decomposed already - a sign that whoever had placed the net there was neglecting it and not even spending the time to recover what they were catching; a true waste.

On the 11th, I went with Khumtin again, and first we went to Bayon - which is a temple that has enormous stone faces. Really impressive, as each tower has 4 faces on it, said to possibly represent how the gods were watching all the people in the country...there are also some beautiful bas-reliefs at Bayon.

We went next to Kbal Spean - about 40km from Siem Reap, and most of it on extremely bumpy, dusty road. It was a beautiful ride though, passing through rice fields, small villages, and Cambodian jungle. Kbal Spean, known as the river of a thousand lingas, was really magical and I instantly fell in love with it. An uphill hike through the jungle leads to a river where there are statues carved into the rocks where the water flows - lots of Vishnu - and the atmosphere is really special. The vegetation, the light, the sound of the wind...incredible.

Backtracking to Banteay Srei, for many people the prettiest temple because it is entirely covered in Bas-relief carvings. The red sandstone is also breathtaking in the sunlight. The detail and complexity of this temple will stay in my memory forever.

A quick stop at Pre Rup, which gives great views of the surrounding area, and then a visit to the Land Mine Museum. Aki Ra is a Cambodian who works with locals to de-mine Cambodia.

He has been training locals to de-mine in a safe manner for the past 10 years, and speaks English, Japanese, and French and has gotten the support of many international organizations and individuals for this cause. The victims of the land mines guided us around the small museum and it was truly inspirational. Definitely one of the things in the past week that has made me feel I want to come back and do something here.

On the 12th, another 5am start to Bakong for sunrise. The Roluos group, located about 13km east of Siem Reap, comprises of Bakong, Preah Ko, and Lolei. Bakong and Lolei have current monasteries with monks (yay!). Bakong was beautiful, a five-tiered temple with a large moat, full of palm trees. As I arrived in the dark, I could hear the energetic voices of many novice monks.

I stopped briefly at Preah Ko, nice red towers, and moved on to Lolei, where there are 33 monks in residence. A couple of them came over to me - both 14 years old. A young boy was climbing up a ridiculously tall fruit tree to knock down fruit, and they offered me the first piece. It was yummy but I think I was allergic to it. Anyway, we went through my Khmer phrase sheets, looked at their English books, and ate lots of fruit. My kind of morning.

After this, Khumtin took me to his home where I met his wife and children. They were lovely...and then, a quick stop at Western Baray and then I'm about to get on my bus to Phnom Penh.

Overall, my impressions of Cambodia: this is an incredible country. The people have suffered so much, beyond what I could put in words, or imagine; yet there is a simpleness, an appreciation for life, and a complete lack of bitterness. Over our morning meal together, Khumtin told me that he was held in prison from 1979 to 1983. Now that I spend quite some time in Hiroshima for work, I always marvel at the fact that anyone in the city that was born before 1945 is an atomic bomb survivor. In Cambodia, the wars, the torture, the hardship, is much more recent, and much more widespread. It just amazes me.

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