Asian Adventure 2016 – Episode 1

Departure

Just landed in Qatar after a 12.5 hour flight from Washington. I should be really tired, but….  Qatar has too much money. I’ve never been on a flight that offered so much space and provided incredible food. They even gave us pjs to change into overnight, so this terrible sleeper on airplanes got almost five hours.

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So here we are in the business class lounge at Qatar Airport.  HUGE, but as the photo demonstrates, almost no one here.  They have five bars that are completely empty.  It looks like the whole airport has about 50 departure flights each day, but there are thirty restaurants, and they are way upscale.

It was quite philosophical to fly right over Iraq on the way here…To see the names of cities that cost so many lives in the fighting that has raged for so long…To recall the photos of bombed-out buildings that residents had to survive in without sticking their heads out too much or talking to the wrong people.

In contrast, I have two hours more in this cavern of luxury before we board for Singapore.

Singapore

We finally landed in Singapore after approximately 21 hours in the air. Time wise, we felt right at home…It was 9:30 in Central Pennsylvania and 9:30 in Singapore. Oh right !!! It’s 12 hours off. Night is now day, and vice versa. I guess that is what happens when you travel roughly halfway around the world. So, our tasks became one of checking into our hotel, coordinating plans for flying to Cambodia tomorrow, and staying up until this afternoon to adjust to our new – same time.

Singapore is a small island nation. It reminds me a little of Hong Kong, as it is really a city state. It tried to be part of Malaysia after WWII, but didn’t like it and separated. Our driver from the airport said that it is less than an hour’s drive to the north to cross into Malaysia. He likened it to Americans traveling to Tijuana from San Diego.

Singapore is a vertical island, much like New York. It is full of skyscrapers. Very urban, but very clean. Lela said that we would be hard pressed to find any trash littering the sidewalks of this island state, and in fact, I had trouble finding any obvious trash as we drove the 30 minutes into the city. This is understandable given Singapore’s strictness for rules. On our entry visa, it was printed that drug dealing is a capital offense in Singapore. This is also the place where a young, impulsive American teenager was “caned” for some sort of defamation some years ago, which inflamed the USA public. So, make sure you don’t drop any trash when you visit Singapore. Which is fine with me…

Perhaps a better illustration of this immaculateness was the Singapore Botanical Gardens. In particular, the Orchid Garden was absolutely spectacular. I have never seen so many varieties. They also had a hybrid garden where they have genetically fiddled with varieties to create new colors, which they then named after famous visitors.

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As our visit to the Botanical Gardens wound down, Lela wanted to go back to the hotel to wash off two nights of airplane grime and the perspiration of 90 degree heat and 90 percent humidity. But she also decided to stop at a park cafe for a cold drink before walking back. At that moment, the Singapore Botanical Gardens turned into the Disney Tiki Room. It went from crooning flowers to a sudden thunderstorm that would have ended California’s drought. We sat until the thunder was directly over us, and then made a fast walk for it. As Lela’s timing was perfect for stopping, it was also perfect for walking. At the end, it seemed that there were storms all around us, but not directly over us until we were safe on the eleventh floor of our hotel.

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We will say adios (or se la mat jalan) to Singapore tomorrow morning and fly to Cambodia at first light. Oh great, more airplanes !!!

Cambodia

Guest Entry by Lela W. Brink:

It is hot in Cambodia.  I thought I was done in after 2 plane rides (we flew through Phnom Phen to get visas etc and then local air to the coast).  The sites being renovated are amazing, beautiful, and dusty.  The destruction of the Khmer Rouge (1970s) sounds like ISIS: destruction of heritage, rule by death and terror, and ethnic cleansing.  Our world does not learn.

The Cambodian people are resilient.  Since 1997, they have built 120+ hotels in Siem Riep to feed the amazing growth in tourism.  Everything is welcoming – people speak excellent English, no electrical adapters needed, and the US dollar is more common than the Cambodian rial.

We got back to the hotel and I did some laundry while the Bear showered and turned on the masters (the important things)!  When I got out of my bath to tell him I did not want to do anything but rest, he was snoring and not rousable.  So, you all will have to wait for him to blog later.

My Take on Entering Cambodia:

Yesterday was a long and incredible day. It started at 4:00 AM when we got up to take a bus back to the airport to fly to Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capitol city. On the bus, our Singapore guide reminded us that we were in a city of laws and morality. He said that Singapore has almost no crime — the only unlawfulness is caused by people who come from other countries. He then made an interesting, indirect statement about our upcoming destination, saying that we were going somewhere totally different. He suggested we watch where we go and don’t go anywhere alone.

So we fly over the Gulf of Thailand and approach Phnom Penh. The land was very flat and, from the air, most of the countryside looked like it was used for agriculture. The city itself looked like it could have been built by a military of government –low-cost housing that looked drab and dreary, an opulent palace, then back to drab until we land. The scene made me thing of the Khmar Rouge and “the killing fields.” It seemed normal to be very weary and suspicious.

We get our visas and catch a second hopper to Siem Reap, the gateway to Angkor Wat. The people appeared to be very poor, living in block or wood dwellings that were open-air in 100 degree heat. Most homes had some sort of booth out front that sold a simple product: water, fruit, wood, clothing. Most people got around on small motor bikes, and it was not unusual to see three of four people hanging onto a scooter. More often, there was a sort-of rickshaw attached to allow transport of goods or people. We travel down a series of very busy, dusty streets and suddenly pull into the driveway that leads to our hotel. It was recently built and very elegant…A total reversal of the humanity just outside its gates

After checking in and resting a bit, we set off to tour our first temple. It’s name was translated to mean “The Citadel.” We learned that these temples, about 1000 in all, were built during the time of the Khmer Empire as places of worship to Hindu deities. I don’t know as much as I should about Hinduism and Buddhism, but it seems that the Hindus revere water and the temples were built near water sources. In some cases, as it was for the Temple of Women, artificial moats were built to surround the inner temple. The stone, primarily limestone, was cut from neighboring mountains, which could have been 50 or more miles away. Elephants were used for transport.

The Temple of Women

The Temple of Women was unbelievable. It was built around 900 A.D. and named as such because the building engineers were exclusively women.  Very small by their building standards, but incredibly detailed carvings in the blocks of figures and Sanskrit writings, including poems etched into the stone. There was even a library that house Sanskrit writings of stone tablets.  One of the main stone supports was damaged because this temple had the misfortune of being only 100 miles away from the Khmer Rouge army headquarters.  They fired a missile at it.


Lela said to tell you how I became the pied piper of Banteay Srei, the site of the Temple of Women. As is the case in many sightseeing tour stops, we were surrounded by a throng of young children who were peddling postcards, shawls, or tour books. They were usually between four and eight years old, and almost all girls. They were very persistent and spoke English pretty darn well. They all could count their cards to 20 and knew how to ask for money. Anyway, I had a weak, sympathetic moment and finally bought a series of cards from a strikingly pretty six-year old. The nest thing I knew, I was targeted as a mark and the rest of the kids followed me around until Lela raised her voice and told then she was the boss and no more cards were going to be bought. She also reminded me that an announcement had been made on the plane that they would appreciate us not giving money to children who beg because they are fighting a battle to get them into schools. I, of course, had done my usual zone-out and not heard this message. I was probably listening to something incredibly important on my I phone at the time.

Anyway, back to the people. They struggle, but they seemed content with their lives, and were overly kind to us. We passed a festival of sorts on our way back into town. They had the Cambodia version of carnival rides, bright lights, and 100s of small booths selling clothing. People waved to us as we drove past.

Finally, as Lela and I waited for our tour guide to finish his explanations at the Temple of Women, I got into a conversation with a Cambodian policeman. I initially thought he was military, with lots of impressive badges and insignias, but he explained that he was our version of park police. He offered me his version of a badge and explained that it was ‘Official.” I had noticed them before and thought to myself that these badges were really cool. I really wanted to say “yes,” but was suspicious…I also had nothing I could have given back except money, and I didn’t sense this was a sale offer. Anyway, we talked for 10 minutes and he was very cordial…He asked where we were from and if we had been here before, etc. I made a comment that maybe someday he will be able to visit the USA, and he politely looked at me like I was crazy. I think it was an economic statement more than political. Anyway, he changed some of my assumptions about the place and people we were visiting

The Temple of Trees

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The Temple of Trees is not the real name, but for someone who cherishes trees, having grown up in redwood country, this temple was pure ecstasy. It is actually quite new by Cambodian temple standards, as it was actually built around 1500 and was an original Buddhist shrine. The later rulers, however, embraced Hinduism, and ordered that all the etchings of Buddha be modified to resemble Hindu carvings. This was later changed back.

The pictures included with this post show the devastation (or art) of the trees encroachment on the temple walls. The trees are approximately 150 years old. In places, they have caved in walls. In other places, they have simply grown over the walls like ivy. When you approach, the first thing you see is a tree that has grown right through the ceiling of the outer temple gate. One tree looks like a giant anaconda about to smother its section of the wall. This temple is being renovated and restored, and it will be interesting to see what they will do to modify this development of nature.

 

Angkor Wat

IMG_4515Angkor Wat is the crown jewel of the Cambodian temples…It was named three hundred years after its initial completion when the temple was converted to Buddhism. Angkor means “city.” Wat means “religious enclosure.” It was built in the 13th century and took about 15 years to complete. This date of completion is rather old for the temples of the Khymer Dynasty, and we were told that this “latest and greatest” took the best ideas of all the temples built before it and combined them into this one major project.

Once inside the gated walls of the temple complex, you are greeted by the imposing site of five major spires. We climbed steep steps to higher levels of the temple. Only the royal family was allowed initially to climb to the highest level of the temple.

The detail of carvings and Sandskrit etched into the stone was amazing. And once again, the weight of the stones and the distance from the mountains where the stone was cut makes this a wonder of the world. The detail can be seen almost all the way to the top of the spires. I wondered if the carvings were done before they lifted the stones into place. I’d hate to think that they might have had to take a stone back down because of a chisel slip.

Angkor Thom

IMG_4563Angkor Thom was the last of the temples we visited…which means there are over a thousand more if we come back some day. Angkor Thom means “capitol city.” It is set in a huge complex of outer walls that once was the capitol for the Khmer Empire. This temple looks from the outside to have suffered much decay. But what struck me the most was the face etched into most of the center stones. I started calling him “Thom.” And we became quite intimate with each other, as is obvious from the photo.

IMG_4558Once again, the quality of the etchings was amazing, given their age and durability. Also, as we were saying goodbye to Thom, we were greeted by a sunset over the ruins. A great way to say goodbye to Siem Reap. We return to Singapore early tomorrow to set out to sea.

Final Thoughts on Cambodia

After spending a couple days here, I have decided that the tour guide in Singapore was way too harsh on the Gulf of Thailand neighbor to the north. During our stay, I never felt threatened or unsafe. More often, I was confronted by relentless sellers of cheap wares, usually in the form of eight year olds, than shadows of Khmer Rouge soldiers or gangs.


Cambodia is a country in recovery…Recovery from the short but brutal rule of a communist government…recovery from natural elements. Let’s take the Khmer Rouge first. Not only did they indiscriminately kill over 40% of their country’s population, they systematically taught their young children to become killers. This wart on Cambodia’s backside no longer exists, but the country continues to recover from their damages. For example, our local guide told us that every one of the 30 or more districts in the country had their own rail lines or airports in the 1950s. But the Khymer Rouge blew them all up to prevent locals from using this transportation to leave the country. Also, The country has been successful in locating and ridding itself of approximately 60% of the land mines that were laid during the civil war. Every now and then, farmers still are confronted by new discoveries while tilling their rice. Cambodia now has a royal family that acts as a figurehead with no actual authority. They have elections each five years, and all the names appear to embrace one man, one vote philosophies.

Second, the natural elements…Four years ago, the raining season was especially harsh. Over 60% of the people were flooded out and the government was forced to put out vast sums for reconstruction of infrastructure. Now, the people in the Mekong delta area build their homes on high stilts, and they build mounds for their livestock to stay on above the rains. But they have related that cattle and pigs that are fed nothing but hay for the raining months don’t taste very good. So they settle for the fresh water fish that the delta provides and they store their rice that is really hard to export anyway.

This has really hurt recent development of industry and tourism. Last year, over one million tourists visited Cambodia…Most were from other Southeast Asia countries. But more people like Lela and I are on their way…And they won’t be disappointed.

The people here know how to party. The local festivities we passed last night were a precursor to the celebration of the Asian New Year, the Year of the Monkey, which officially begins in two days. But they celebrate Christmas Holiday as well, and have stamina left over to celebrate the ends of the monsoons.

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So, what we have here is a developing nation…Much like some of the Caribbean islands we have visited. They seem committed to the tasks ahead of them.

 

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