Weaving across the Mekong

When we first started to explore the idea of traveling to Cambodia we were focused on a river journey on the Mekong River from Siem Reap to Ho Chi Min City in Vietnam. We had so enjoyed our river trip in Borneo to see the orangutans and we wanted to experience the Mekong in the same way. Turns out that cruise wasn’t even close to fitting our travel budget and besides, the river runs out of water in the dry season and some years you have to be transported by bus to a port closer to the delta until the river is navigable. No thanks, even if we could afford it.

Alternatively we learned of a half day river excursion to the Silk Island that held some appeal, but there’s that aversion to being herded we spoke of before so joining a tour, even to traverse a little of the Mekong, put us right off.

Our driver Sambo solved our dilemma when he suggested he take us across the river to the Silk Island himself and we could have a private tour of the silk production. It was our last day, our last opportunity to get on the river, even if it was only a ferry. We gave Sambo the go-ahead and climbed aboard his now familiar tuktuk.

We enjoyed the long ride that led us out through the streets of Phnom Penh toward the river and a local ferry.

Jack and I walked aboard and climbed to the upper deck, but as the ferry prepared to pull away it looked like there wouldn’t be room for our tuktuk. At the last minute, Sambo drove onto the ramp and that’s how we traversed the river, with Sambo’s tuktuk barely hanging on at the edge of the ramp.

The river crossing was brief but satisfying and transported us back into our familiar water world.

On the other side we found lush fields and a glimpse of rural life. Sambo found it amusing that we asked him to stop so we could photograph the crops, but it’s been a long time since we were in an agricultural area.

The silk operation is a small enterprise I suspect was just created for the tourist trade, but our young volunteer guide enthusiastically practiced her English describing the process from the eggs to the moths to pupae to cocoons. Jack and I had a theoretical knowledge from school days but it was great to learn it all again first hand and to be able to see and touch each step of the process.

I love process, and following the steps from raw material to final product was what much of my work life in industrial video involved. I always thought of silk as a delicate frou-frou material but our guide emphasized how very strong it is, and we remembered that parachutes used to be made of silk.

The fabric woven at this site is sold only here and they weave beautiful complex patterns. It takes weeks to set up the loom and weeks to weave the length of fabric. The colors are mostly chemical dyes now.

After my experience attempting weaving in Buton, I was in awe of the concentration required for these complicated patterns. Most of the weavers learned their craft at the feet of their mothers and grandmothers, just like the weavers we met in Indonesia.

Our “tour” ended, as they always do, at the gift shop where I spent a long time deciding on what to buy. Everything was beautiful but we live on a boat and have limited space or use for fancy silk things. That doesn’t mean I didn’t want to admire and touch everything in the shop while Jack and our guide chatted in the shade outside.

The island is beautiful and quiet and our guide told us it’s a weekend destination for city dwellers needing a break from the urban dust and noise.

We woke Sambo from his nap and began the long trek back across the river to Phnom Penh. This quiet trip was one of our favorite excursions in Cambodia, and in the end satisfied our desire to experience something of the Mekong River.

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Putting the egg back together 

The thing about brutally murdering one out of every four of your country’s citizens, concentrating on judges, artists, musicians, dancers, and the most educated and productive in the land, is that the gap created in collective memory is severed and so profound that it’s almost impossible to reconstruct. The few survivors of Pol Pot labored long and hard to rebuild their tragically lost culture, in some cases going so far as having to explain to the citizens why the dance was so important to Khmer Culture.

We saw a banner advertising a traditional dance program at the theater in the National Museum complex and booked seats after a day of touring the Killing Fields. We’d seen a lot of Indonesian and Malaysian dance this season, usually as a welcome ceremony for us cruisers so we were curious to see Cambodian dance. The good news was that the center was just a block from our hotel.

The performance was preceded by a beautiful and inspiring film on the national effort to regain their cultural roots. Aging artists, musicians and dancers who had survived the genocide were identified and brought together with young aspiring performers to rebuild the generational links and pass on the traditional arts.

From the first movement of the newly minted dancers I was struck by how strangely familiar some of the poses were and then it hit me. We’d just just spent four days staring in awe at bas-relief warriors and dancers carved into the ancient sandstone walls of Angkor Wat doing much the same thing.

Most of the pieces featured the noble Khmer peasants harvesting rice, or planting rice, or eating rice.

These are the same peasants Pol Pot browbeat into becoming the fearsome heartless murderers of the Khmer Rouge. Hard to understand but there it is. These are the people that brought us the Killing Fields but after the Vietnamese overthrew the Khmer Rouge, other than a few leaders, there was very little revenge killing. Even Pol Pot was left to his own devises, dying of old age in a little town up in the mountains, kind of a “we’ll leave you alone if you leave us alone arrangement.”

Seeing the bright, enthusiastic faces of these young performers erased much of the horror we learned about earlier in the day and we joined them in celebrating the human spirit.

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Peace and war

I read before we left for Cambodia that a certain Buddhist temple in Phnom Penh held several open meditation hours during the week. Only one of those scheduled times coincided with our visit, and I entered it into our itinerary as a Marce must do. The website said it would be “in English” so I assumed a guided meditation, or a spiritual discourse by a monk. It turned out to be just an open quiet space with seat pads and I took a spot, made myself comfortable and settled in for the longest meditation session I’ve done in quite some time. My own practice is generally limited to ten minutes after my morning yoga, so an hour would be a challenge to my attention and my knees. As the beginning hour approached the room filled up with about 20 fellow meditators, most of whom seemed like regulars in their ritual entrance and eventual calm and steady posture.

As I practiced breathing in peace and exhaling love and lifted my internal gaze from the constant drone of my eternally busy brain, Jack explored the temple grounds and made friends with the resident cats and a few passing monks.

At the end of the hour a monk came in and chanted a blessing and I unfolded my cramped legs and joined Jack, refreshed, peaceful and proud that I didn’t fart or otherwise embarrass myself.

We took a tuktuk back to our neighborhood and had dinner at Friends, a wonderful tapas restaurant that’s part of a global alliance of training establishments whose students are former street youth or at-risk kids. The food was incredible, and though priced a little higher than other local restaurants, we were happy to support the cause, and the menu included many vegetarian and vegan options in addition to meat and fish, as well as creative cocktails. We loved it.

The lingering peaceful feeling from the meditation session helped the next morning when our tuktuk driver picked us up for the trip to the Choeung Ek Genocidal Center, one of many Killing Fields across Cambodia where a quarter of the population were slaughtered by the Khmer Rouge between 1975 and 1979.

The site is now a memorial and a beautifully written and produced audio tour guides visitors around the site and tells the horrific story of the Pol Pot regime.

We hadn’t planned much more for this day and took our time touring the quiet memorial. One of the optional tracks in the audio tour is an excerpt from an orchestral piece by a Cambodian composer and we sat on a bench by the river letting the music express the sadness we felt that a peaceful civilization with a rich cultural history could fall victim to a murderous tyrant determined to send the country back to the Bronze Age.

Bullets were expensive so the mass killings were accomplished using whatever weapons came to hand, mostly various farm implements, and these jagged dried palm leaves, used to slit the throats of the victims. The image still gives me nightmares. This is not ancient history but the methods were crude and barbaric.

Babies and their mothers were swung by their feet to bash their brains against this tree, then thrown into an adjacent pit. Hundreds of mourners have hung bracelets on the tree in remembrance of the victims, and I took off an ankle bracelet I’ve worn since the Caribbean to add to the collection. As I tied it on I thought of all the beautiful places it’s been and I made a wish for eternal peace for the lives that were brutally ended here. It’s impossible to conceive how any human being could do these things.

The centerpiece of the memorial is a Buddhist stupa filled with the skulls and bones of 5000 victims.

The condition of the skulls hints at the torture these people were subjected to, or the method of their murder.

Most travelers to Phnom Penh combine the Killing Fields with a tour of the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. After hearing firsthand reports from fellows cruisers we decided against more harrowing nightmare fodder and instead took refuge in our hotel for a few hours before countering the horrors of Pol Pot with a celebration of Khmer culture we booked for that evening. If you’re too young to remember Pol Pot or you need a refresher you can find a brief one here.

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Winging it in Phnom Penh

Mr Man tuktuked us to the airport in plenty of time to catch our flight to Phnom Penh. Two hours to check in for a 45 minute flight. Legend has it that a woman named Penh found four images of the Buddha on the shores of the Mekong River and built a temple on the tallest hill in the area in which to keep them. The city that grew up around the hill became known as Phnom Penh or ‘Penhs Hill.’ The city sits at the confluence of four rivers: the Upper Mekong, the Lower Mekong, the Sap, and the Bassac. The Khmers call it Chatomuk, or four faces.

We had only the sketchiest outline of a plan. It kind of read something like; get settled in, reconnoiter the colonial French quarter, check out a possible Mekong River cruise, meditation session for M, avoid the very graphic torture museum but find the Killing Fields memorial and hit the National Museum. We call it winging it. 

We found the Okay Boutique Hotel “with city view.”

It was okay but our view was not.

They eventually moved us to the ninth floor but couldn’t accommodate the extra two days we added just to make sure we were in compliance with the Malaysian “get lost” rules needed to renew our visas. 

We decided to hit the ground running this time so after a long exploratory walk we found ourselves in the French quarter at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Cambodia featuring large photojournalist pictures on the walls and unsurpassed views across the Sap and Mekong Rivers.

Here, and really everywhere, Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge, and the horrors of genocide were just below the surface. If it can happen here to these peaceful, kind people it can happen anywhere.

Marce had once again found several highly rated vegetarian restaurants all within walking distance of our hotel but, in a major miracle, she found a tiny hole in the wall eatery serving superb authentic Ethiopian cuisine, a particular favorite of ours. 

Now about that city view. A move up to the ninth floor solved the view problem and that’s the Mekong River off in the distance. The Royal Palace is on the right. Definitely better.

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Temple fugit

We spent our last day and a half in Angkor visiting some of the more outlying sites. This strategy served two purposes: we were able to explore temples in the company of far fewer of our fellow tourists, and the distances between the places we visited meant we had lovely long tuktuk rides allowing for a rest and a nice cooling breeze. I really enjoyed this form of travel, slow enough to appreciate the scenery along the way, fast enough that you don’t feel you’re wasting time, and open-air to see real life around us.

We fell into a comfortable routine. We’d arrive at a temple, get oriented and find a bit of shade to shelter in. Then using an Angkor guide app on my phone we read the historical overview about the site, then consulted our guide book for the original layout and the significant features we should look for.

Jack can never resist the urge to climb to the top of wherever we are so he made his way up steep steps to explore the upper bits, while I wandered the lower parts looking for the important carvings or other features.

I was often perfectly content to find a quiet corner taking in the peace, the majesty, the artistry, trying to imagine the place when it was first built and occupied. Often when we visit ruins we see them just as crumbling structures, beautiful in their current state of disarray, and it can be a challenge to paint a mental picture of newly finished monumental works in all their glorious perfection being used for their intended purpose.

Our penultimate stop was the temple of Phnom Bakeng, one of the taller structures, and a favorite for watching the sunset. The temple is so fragile that only 300 people are allowed at one time. We weren’t staying for sunset so our early afternoon visit found the place nearly empty. We both climbed to the top of this one, scary for me, routine for Jaco. The view was spectacular even in the afternoon heat haze.

We spent our last two hours back at the crown jewel, Angkor Wat, which by this time was packed with hot and tired tourists.

It was hard to tear ourselves away, and we both watched behind us as this magical thousand-year-old city disappeared into the forest and our tuktuk delivered us back to Siem Reap for our last evening before venturing on to Phnom Penh. We could easily have spent more time here but there are always more places to discover. Tick tock. Tempus fugit.

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Even more photos of Angkor

In trying to choose the photos for my last blog post on Angkor I realize it’s impossible to post them all, so here’s a link to our online Google photos album. Some will be repeats from the map (the ones that are geotagged by my phone) but the bulk of them aren’t from the phone but from our camera. Sorry, not edited or whittled down yet, just a complete dump of everything we shot.

https://photos.app.goo.gl/ZB3TudtREoxP3EvaA

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More Angkor photos if you dare

These are only from the phone camera because they get geotagged. Yes, I know you can manually geotag other photos, but really, enough already.

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Gravity and tolerance 

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.

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Then and Now

*whirrr, click, chonk*

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.

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Bone up on Angkor via this 1930 New York Times piece

I’m a subscriber so I apologize if this link is behind a paywall. If you can get to it, it’s a good read.

timesmachine.nytimes.com/timesmachine/1930/03/02/96061370.pdf

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