Now I’m not the world’s most spiritual guy, but I get by. I confess that when I stepped through the intricately carved corner gatehouse at Angkor Wat I was …moved. I don’t think what’s left of my hair has lain down yet. As a statement of national pride and honor this is to Modern Cambodia as the Eiffel Tower is to Paris, except that the Angkor site is substantially larger than all of modern Paris. One could go on and on but that’s not what you Dear Escapees came for is it? Today’s installment features a short story due to the fact that we’d noticed a path that led off into the forest and after some due diligence and prodigious research on Google Earth M. found several very old but smallish temples scattered in the woods.
We told Mr Man to have his tuktuk warmed up by 8:30 and we were going to the temples in the forest. Why, he asked? No one goes there. Marce showed him her red yarn blessing thingie around her wrist and he showed us his, which happened to also be red. I am Buddhist too, she said. He smiled and stepped down for first gear.
After Mr Man dropped us off in the forest we soon came upon a fairly modern small pagoda with a very large Buddha.
M stopped for a backup blessing but felt the man in orange was just phoning it in. No mention of a long life.
This guy was getting a serious blessing.
The Khmer architects actually didn’t know how to build an arch so they laid each stone with just a little overhang until they met at the middle. Gravity and close tolerances did the rest……..
…until it didn’t.
Turns out several centuries seems tolerable enough.
I’m staring at a drop down movie screen as a new slide appears, a stone bas relief of two bare-breasted women.
“And here’s another pair of lovelies,” chirps the professor. I glance over at my friend Gordon and we do a tandem eye roll as we take notes. We’re sitting in a large theatre classroom in a survey course called Eastern Art, not something we’re really interested in, but in our strict liberal arts university curriculum it ticks several boxes of required credits, and most importantly, fits into the increasingly tight upperclass schedule of our major in filmmaking.
Week after week I dutifully memorize the faded and scratched slides and filter out the tired jokes and sexist comments of the tenured professor, who often seems as bored as we are. One day a slide appears that gets my full attention. It’s a monumental stone structure being devoured by the surrounding jungle. Subsequent slides show closeups of intricate carvings and I’m transfixed. It’s spooky and beautiful and I learn that this is Angkor Wat, a 12th century temple complex. I know I’d heard about it, perhaps in a National Geographic magazine, but still, even these worn slides are enough to spark a lifelong interest in ancient architecture.
It’s forty years later and we’re on our way to see the extraordinary ruins of Angkor, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Jack shares my interest in these archaeological wonders and we plan three full days to explore the park, which covers 100 square kilometers. Part of me worries we’ll tire of temples and carvings after one day.
We opted out of joining the inevitable crowds on the day we arrived in Siem Reap and instead booked a tuktuk driver for the following day to take us to Angkor Wat in time for sunrise. That involved a 4:45am departure from the hotel and a long queue at the main ticket office where we bought our three-day passes complete with photo, and don’t we look cheerful and law abiding at 5am before coffee! With ticket lanyards around our necks we were dropped off at the main gate and only then realized that a flashlight might have been a good idea. We hobbled gingerly over the uneven ground in pitch darkness until we could just make out a small group of people perched on a stone wall, obviously camped out for dawn. We couldn’t see at all where we were in relation to the temples but we found an empty spot and settled in to wait for daylight.
When the sky turned pink we saw that we were outside the city walls, not exactly where we would have liked. We grabbed our packs and hightailed it onto the wobbly floating causeway over the moat and through the nearest outer gate as the sky got brighter and brighter.
We didn’t realize until we were inside the outer walls how massive the space is and it took nearly half an hour to make our way through the inner gate and along the main boulevard to the distinctive three pagodas of the temple itself. All the while tears were streaming down my face in disbelief that I’m finally here, and at the sheer magnificence of it all.
For the first time since Bali I feel at home and in my element. Angkor, and Cambodia in general, is largely Buddhist, although much of the temple iconography combines elements of Hinduism in a confusing mixture. I think most westerners assume the two are interchangeable, and in history and geography they are related, but Hinduism is polytheistic and Buddhism is atheistic, so seeing images of both in the same place is confounding. If you’re interested, there’s a quickie comparison here.
We spent several hours exploring the narrow passageways and open courtyards of Angkor Wat, occasionally eavesdropping on a tour guide. We decided against a guide for ourselves because we like to move at our own pace and find that more time at fewer stops works best for us. Those first few hours saw us pretty much mouths agape as each corner or doorway revealed a breathtaking view or stunning art. It was our on location survey course and we made little attempt to sort out the fine points of what we were seeing and just surrendered to the beauty and wonder.
In the middle of the temple a Buddhist monk offered blessings in exchange for a donation towards the upkeep of the many statues of Buddha throughout the grounds. I eagerly joined the short queue. The monk tied a braided yarn around my wrist and chanted a prayer while dousing me with water and flower petals. At the end he said, in English, “Long life for yü!”
From Angkor Wat our tuktuk driver took us through the South Gate of Angkor Thom to Bayon, then on to two more temple compounds before dropping us off mid-afternoon at the French bakery near our hotel where we decompressed over coffee and pastries. It’s obvious we’ll need to pace ourselves in the next two days and we made an effort to prioritize the sites we want to see most.
A few interesting conversations: A guide overheard us talking and asked where we’re from. He told us few Americans visit Angkor, and that the greatest number of tourists come from China and France. I heard quite a few Australians, some Russians and the occasional German group, too. Our driver told us later the German-speaking guides cost extra.
As I walked through a long corridor I overheard an Indian woman ask a guard when the temple changed from Hindu to Buddhist. He didn’t understand her question but I stopped to say I was also puzzled about the two religions sharing the space and we chatted for a few minutes but didn’t come up with an answer. That mystery will have to wait for another day.
Malaysia, and for that matter most of Southeast Asia, is famous for bureaucratic, mind numbing visa regulations and wouldn’t you know it, ours are winding down to a precious few days. To reset our 90-day Malaysian visas we have to leave the country and because we are close to the end of our stay we have to get lost for at least seven days before re-entering.
Marce started the campaign with Vietnam as the goal. We soon found ourselves overwhelmed with possibilities and expanding projected budgets, worrisome with a refit of Escape Velocity staring us in the face. Turns out, Cambodia is just the ticket, specifically the temples of ancient, mysterious Angkor Wat.
Now, since leaving Cairns, Australia, I’ve been challenged with difficult money math as we made our way across Indonesia where 11,000 point something rupiah equals one USD. I found this impossible to deal with but, Marce said, If you move the decimal four places to the left you have an Aussie dollar and, feeling fat and sassy, 25 percent more buying power with the godalmighty USD! We could actually afford to live in this place.
Malaysian ringgits are a four to one proposition which I find within my comfort level, but now I need to come to grips with the Cambodian riel which exchanges at 4100 something riel to one USD. The advantage here is that Cambodia really is based on the USD so just for fun you’ve got dual simultaneous currencies. It’s messy and it inflates prices but Cambodians smile and just make it work.
First roadblock is an overnight stay at the Kuala Lumpur airport which is quite expensive and based on only a six hour stay! I was rather hoping for eight hours of sleep. Marce found a workaround but KL’s airport is so large that they feel the need to charge you for a train ride to the terminal where your hotel is located. They don’t even call it a hotel, but rather a “private resting place.”
After the shiny pants KL airport, the dusty cab ride through the Cambodian countryside served notice that this is primarily an agricultural society, but as we approached Siem Reap which is as close to Angkor Wat as you can stay, the tuktuks, motos, and taxis started to stack up into serious stop-and -go traffic. Our driver found our hotel down a dusty alley and we hopped out and entered the serene environs of The Moon Residence and Spa.
By late afternoon we were carefully picking our way around dusty broken sidewalks and dodging tuktuks and motos, while trying to bear in mind that Cambodia was once French and they drive on the right…well if they feel like it. After a bit of careful walking we found ourselves in the middle of a thriving town with the beautiful Siem Reap River running through it.
Marce had marked a list of top shelf vegetarian restaurants on the map and our search for a likely candidate led us down a colorful alleyway filled with little shops and eateries representing most of the cuisines of the world.
We ate amazing food while breathlessly excited by the prospect of tomorrow’s sunrise over Angkor Wat.
The other night at dinner I served the last dollop of spiced mango chutney made by our friend Diana in Sydney. I’d stretched it this long because we never considered it just another condiment but rather served it only as a featured player in a meal that deserved it and we ate it consciously and with reverence, usually accompanied by storytelling and reminiscences of our times together.
I’m still enjoying a jar of my sister’s blueberry jam a full two years after she hand delivered it to Australia. Jack was forbidden to waste it on a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, and while I’m not a regular jam eater, there are times when two pieces of buttered toast with homemade jam comfort the soul, and my sister’s blueberry warms my heart and hits the spot when that spot needs attention.
I’ve been thinking a lot about gifts today as I read holiday greetings on social media and see the photos of gifts given and received.
When I use a certain long-handled silicone spoon to scrape the last bit of peanut butter from the bottom of the jar I’m thinking of my friend Di who gave it to me when we sailed away from Sydney. When I tidy up the device chargers and cords into an orange tortilla basket I’m thinking of our daughter-in-law Ericka who chose it in my favorite color. A fancy cheese knife, a set of carved chopsticks, each pair in its own beaded slipcase, the tiny bowl from Turkey I drop my earrings in when I go to bed, a luminous green Buddha. These totemic objects fill my days with thoughts of the people who shared something of themselves with me, and I treasure not just the memories they invoke, but the continued connection I feel whenever I see or use them.
I reach for the crocheted potholders my mother made many times a day, and even as they start to fray and fall apart I can’t imagine replacing them with anything new. Those old fashioned potholders represent the era my mother lived in, the time she spent making them and the love she had for me when she gave them to me.
The patchwork batik runner my sister made lives on our saloon table when we’re not underway and not a day goes by that I don’t admire it and appreciate the colors, the workmanship, and most of all the thought and care that went into making it.
All of these gifts are special because the people who gave them understand me, listen to me, know what makes me happy. But objects aren’t the only special gifts. What we do for each other is even better. I wrote before about Jack’s medical emergency in Labuan Bajo and how the nearby cruisers took care of him (and me), coming together in minutes to get him to the hospital and then monitor his progress. We are all mostly without close family out here and so we become each other’s kin and caregivers.
Our favorite gifts are time spent with the people we love, and the visits by our family rank at the top of that list. We are none of us flush enough for frequent long-distant airfare so the visits we get are few and far between and the time together is always precious.
One of the greatest gifts I ever received wasn’t meant to be a gift at all. About a year and a half ago I lost the carved manta ray necklace I bought in Tonga. I was crushed and spent days frantically searching the boat before coming to the conclusion that I must have left it in a marina shower. I knew that our friends Ken and Julie were in Tonga near the carver I’d bought it from, and I asked if they would pick up another one. They happily agreed and even got the carvers to make two especially for us. Our friends planned to arrive in Australia at the end of the cruising season and we looked forward to a reunion. Less than a month later they lost their boat on a reef in Fiji, and we learned that while their boat was sinking and they were salvaging what they could before abandoning ship, they took the time to find and include with their barebones possessions our new manta ray necklaces. It was a selfless and perhaps, in hindsight, foolish act, given that everything they owned was headed for the bottom of the sea and our necklaces meant nothing compared to what they lost. But the fact that in their most dire moment they thought of us makes those necklaces all the more precious. We received them many months later when they mailed them to our son so he and our daughter-in-law could bring them to Australia. I wear that necklace every day, and each morning when I fasten it I’m reminded of how fortunate I am to belong to this remarkable community of people who voyage on boats, of how capricious the sea is, of how everything we know and treasure can be lost in an instant through no fault of our own.
We realize how lucky we are that we survived our own disaster at sea relatively unscathed and were able to continue our journey. We know too many who could not. The manta ray necklace around my throat that Julie and Ken salvaged from their sinking boat and that I touch a hundred times a day reminds me that every moment of life is a gift. And if my chosen path should change suddenly for any reason I will try to remember that every day will still be a journey and the journey will still be home.
“The moon and sun are eternal travelers.
Even the years wander on.
A lifetime adrift in a boat, or in old age leading a tired horse into the years,
Every day is a journey, and the journey itself is home.”
Jack and I started the day with a modest breakfast in anticipation of the big brunch at noon, then, in a repeat of our solitary New Zealand Christmas Day three years ago, we walked a nature trail across the island on legs still wobbly from not nearly enough exercise these past months. Once we were clear of the boatyard we came across hornbills too quick to photograph and young long tailed macaques who didn’t mind posing until some elders determined we were too close and warned us off loudly.
Further up the road a gang of delinquents asserted their dominance and blocked the road until we took a side path to avoid them. That path lead to a shaky crossing over a stream so we turned back and waited patiently for the Sharks and the Jets to swagger past.
The path ended on the far side of the resort island at an isolated and beautiful gazebo, a spot we may take advantage of some evening with a bottle of wine and a nibble.
The Christmas brunch offered up by the resort was — please excuse the word choice — awesome. Many meters of long buffets featured seafood and sushi; salads from basic greens to tomatoes with buffalo mozzarella to Waldorf salad to hummus and other Turkish and Syrian dips; cheeses and fresh fruit; a turkey carving station; grilled, roasted and stewed meats of all kinds; a tandoori station; a pasta station; a vast array of Malaysian, European and Indian dishes; baskets of breads and spreads; and of course desserts. I’d met with the chef a few days before to be sure there’d be enough vegetarian dishes to justify the cost for me and when we arrived he kindly walked me through the whole presentation pointing out what was and wasn’t veg friendly. There were more options for me than I’m used to and I shared the intel with another vegetarian I know.
We dug in again and again, plate after plate, washed down with glasses of free-flowing bubbly, wishing we had more capacity or more time and suggesting to the staff that they do this once a week. It was worth every precious ringgit!
Santa made an appearance and passed out candies, and after a few hours of eating and visiting table to table, we waddled back to Escape Velocity to put our feet up and recover from our gluttony.
We finished the day with a refreshing dip in the pool, and later some streaming Netflix thanks to my sister and the marina wifi. All in all, it was a pretty good day. We hope yours was too.
It’s an hour before dawn on Christmas Day and Escape Velocity floats perfectly still at a dock at Rebak Marina in Langkawi, Malaysia. The marina is part of a resort, and even this early the whine of an electric cart and the rumble of luggage wheels on the dock ramp tells me there are guests boarding the little private ferry to the big island for an early flight. In a few minutes the ferry will motor past D-dock into the channel and all will be peaceful again.
We came into the marina because we needed to be in a more social environment for the holidays. A downside to our chosen life is that certain times of the year remind us of what we miss of “home.” Thanksgiving is a big one for me because it always involved a wintry road trip to reconnect with family we hadn’t seen since the last Thanksgiving. And since we’ve been cruising the extended holiday season of December often leaves me feeling more empty than joyful as I think of what we’re missing. I miss the general atmosphere of anticipation as we prepared for entertaining; I miss the aromas of roasting vegetables, spicy samosa filling, sweet cinnamon buns. I miss the last-minute run to the Strip District and taking a number at the cheese counter at Penn Mac and seeing that I’m at least 100 numbers away from being served but not stressing because that gives me time to wriggle my basket through the press of spirited shoppers and find the other exotic items on my list. I miss our traditional Cassidy Christmas Eve curry dinner, where everyone is relaxed except our hostess Mary, and getting her to sit down, enjoy the amazing meal she presents and take her kudos is a yearly challenge.
Mostly I miss the time to be with the people I love, to share their troubles and celebrate their joys. I’m so grateful to be cruising in this era of global communications and particularly social media because I feel connected to most of my friends and family in a way that was unimaginable when we first started to plan for this life. I love every photo of new babies, grandkids, cats and dogs, every rant and praise, every sad joke, every plate of food. These small moments are the things we miss when we’re no longer living next door or across town. I think that the people who pooh-pooh social media because it can be mundane and inane are missing the point. Yes, we would prefer to meet for breakfast in person. But when that’s impossible we sure love seeing a friend’s post of our favorite breakfast place and some yummy-looking pancakes. We love the views from the back porch of the latest snowfall, the hike you took this morning, what you’re cooking at home.
The idea for Escape Velocity’s “view from the back porch” emerged many years ago when Jack was a cameraman on a small cruise ship in the Caribbean for a couple of weeks and cell phones (for us) were new. Every morning he sent a photo of where he was to share the trip with me. Since we both traveled often for work it became a thing from then on and it’s the same now with our friends and family on social media. Those shares — however mundane — allow us to continue to be a part of your lives even while we’re far away. Keep ’em coming, folks!
The sky is beginning to lighten. Resort staff are chattering noisily as they arrive on the tiny ferry. Unlike other years I have no early morning cooking or baking to do because the resort is hosting a massive Christmas brunch and all our boater friends will be there. This is our family now, the ever-evolving community of long-distance sailors who are also missing their loved ones and who share their troubles and joys with each other.
We’re lucky to be in Malaysia this holiday season because, as one of our Grab Car (think Uber) drivers said, when I asked why there were so many Christmas decorations in a Muslim country, “We celebrate everything!” And they do. We have rarely seen such over-the-top excess as we did in Kuala Lumpur a few weeks ago. It’s funny to see holiday displays featuring snow scenes in a climate where we’ll be spending our afternoon taking refuge from the oppressive heat in a refrigerated pool.
Even though the largest percentage of Malaysians are Muslim, this is a truly multicultural and tolerant country and we’re enjoying being part of it.
The sun is up. Jack has lit a mosquito coil to keep the nasties at bay, and I think a cup of coffee is in my future. We both wish you all peace in your mind, joy in your soul, and love in your heart every day of your life.
For the first time in many months we’re anchored in a deserted bay and as the sun comes up I’m awakened by the sound of the teakettle whistling. Jack is sleeping beside me and I go up to the kitchen to turn off the kettle but find the sound is coming from ashore and is apparently cicada-like insects greeting the day. As the sky lightens the sound fades and birds begin their morning songs. The water laps against the hulls as we rock to the breeze coming through the gap in the mountains we’ve anchored behind for shelter.
We came in late last night after a tiring three-day plod from Pangkor to Langkawi, mostly motoring in the fluky up and down wind that, when it did materialize, was on the nose. Jack spent the days at the helm, as he likes to do, and called me out for assistance whenever he spotted a flag or buoy that may be marking a fishing net. I take the binoculars and sit on the bow pulpit seat spotting which way the net is oriented and relay with hand signals how to avoid it. This has been our routine as we make our way up the Malacca Strait. It’s the least fun you can have while traveling by boat, but the destinations are mostly worth it.
A new bird has begun a cheerful welcome and two sea eagles are carving lazy circles overhead. The wind is gusting, williwaws coming down the steep mountain slopes, and Escape Velocity swings sharply for a moment, then gently drifts back with a final dip of the stern steps.
Our water tank is full and the weight of 100 gallons of water coupled with the dinghy and its outboard motor hanging off the back makes EV a little sternheavy and dips our bottom steps in the sea as we rock in the slight swell. We could stand to offload a ton or so of excess weight if I could convince my packrat husband to part with anything. We notice this with other cruisers. Those who still have a land based home have far less excess weight onboard than those of us who carry everything we own. A catamaran is much less forgiving of excess weight than a heavy displacement monohull and we really should address it. But that’s a chore for another time.
Jack is up, still sniffling from his recent cold. He brings coffee to the cockpit and in a few minutes we’ll look at the weather reports and plan our day. It’s probably going to remain overcast and we will have rain later, maybe a thunderstorm. It’s about ten miles to the main anchorage where we know people and where there are shops and cafes and a new town to explore. But for now we’ll enjoy this peaceful place and the solitude we realize we’ve missed all these months.