Tourist First

Travel notes and advice from around the world. Above, the daily flight from Managua at the San Carlos, Nicaragua, airstrip.

Thursday, January 31, 2013

Cambodia: Surprisingly Pleasant Phnom Penh

    Here are some snapshots from Phnom Penh, the surprisingly pleasant (especially given its horrific history) capital of Cambodia.  It's home to almost two million people.
Left: The promenade along the Tonle Sap River, which connects Tonle Sap Lake (see posting on Siem Reap) and the Mekong River.  In fact, it joins the Mekong River a few hundred yards south of here. Flags of dozens of nations, including the United States, are displayed along the riverside. This is a river whose flow reverses -- sometimes draining the lake into the river, sometimes going the other way.

Right: The city's famous Silver Pagoda, named for the silver squares used as flooring. It's home to what's known as the Emerald Buddha, which examination determined is carved of jade.  There's also a solid-gold Buddha.  All over Cambodia, very poor people in very poor villages pour as many resources as they can into elaborate temples. I guess that's a national trait.

Left: The grounds of the Silver Pagoda. It's adjacent to the Royal Palace, which is usually open to the public but was closed in January 2013 when we were there as the nation mourned the death of former King Sihanouk. One of his sons became king in 2004 when he abdicated.

Right: OunaLom Pagoda, one of the city's handful of other major temples.

Below: A sign pleading for children to be calm during their visits to OunaLom.

Right: A typical street scene.  Notice how there's no real sidewalk.  Even in places that have sidewalks, they're taken oven by vendors and by parked motorcycles and motor scooters. Pedestrians inevitably end up walking in the streets.

Right:   President Obama, after his strong re-election victory, went in November 2012 to Southeast Asia.  Specifically, he attended the East Asia Summit in Phnom Penh. Two months later, signs welcoming him were still displayed there.  We saw no signs celebrating the visit of the premier of China, who was also there.

Below: A tuk-tuk.  Elsewhere in Southeast Asia, tuk-tuks are three-wheeled motorcycles with, usually, one seat for two passengers.  In Cambodia, they're motorcycles with trailers that can carry four passengers. Most tuk-tuk rides are $2 or $3 -- and they are indeed priced in U.S. currency, which is used throughout Cambodia alongside its own riel.

Above: The sprawling Russian Market.  This is where the locals shop for clothes, food, auto parts, plumbing supplies, you name it.   Not much for tourists here, but it's where you can see how the people live.  Below, a fabric seller at the market. 

Below: We saw these displays of drying meat (raw pork, I think) near street food vendors in Phnom Penh, the one city where we did not want to try street food.  I apologize that the many flies aren't visible in the photo. 

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Cambodia: Elephant Valley

      The singular experience of our trip to Southeast Asia was a three-night visit to the Elephant Valley Project (click HERE for its website), a project of the Elephants Livelihood Initiative Environment.  Basically, Elephant Valley provides rehabilitation (or re-elephantization) for elephants that have worked, often for decades, as Cambodia's "living tractors."    The project's founder, a Brit named Jack Highwood, has rented several adjacent farms to create this sanctuary, which during our visit in January 2013 was home to 12 elephants.  These elephants all showed signs of past abuse -- depressed rib cages from carrying loads on their backs, missing tufts from their tails, a missing or half-missing tusk, sunken spaces above their eyes due to malnutrition, and so on.
    At Elephant Valley, these elephants roam more or less freely, eat as much as they want, and receive medical care.  Visitors to Elephant Valley, whose fees help finance the operation, get to see the elephants up close, to help wash them (elephants need to be washed daily; after a bath they immediately cover themselves with fresh dirt that helps protect their skin), and to help with various chores.  This is a pay-to-be-a-volunteer place.  We and two other couples were there as individual travelers.  Everyone else there was part of an organized group: Australians with Reach Out Volunteers (click HERE), and Swiss, Irish and British people with Globalteer (click HERE).  Some people were there for weeks.
     Whether you're there as a day visitor (probably staying in Sen Monorom, the nearest real town) or staying one or more nights, your visit is sure to include a lot of walking on steep, rocky trails.  You're likely to have to wade through streams or try to step from rock to rock. Or cross a stream on the trunk of a fallen tree. In short, this is a place for able-bodied and sure-footed visitors.  You can spend each morning and afternoon in groups with the elephants, or spend time helping out in other ways.  I spent most of one morning cutting away dead leaves from banana trees and tearing them up to use as mulch.

Some elephants are brought to a washing station, above, for their daily baths.  Others, below, have relearned how to wash themselves in a river.

Sometimes we simply followed as elephants foraged in the jungle (below).  This is in Mondulkiri, a largely undeveloped jungle area in eastern Cambodia, not far from the border with Vietnam. It's a five-hour car trip from Phnom Penh.

Below, we had a hut (with a cold-water shower) to ourselves.   There are four such huts; most visitors stay in hostel-like accommodations.

Below, the open-air lounge area in the main lodge has a wonderful view of the valley.  Electricity was available from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. for people to recharge their cameras, laptops, etc.  Meals, in a dining room adjacent to the lounge, were basic Khmer food -- stir-fries, rice, steamed fish, chicken, fresh fruit, etc.

I'll end this post with more elephant photos.  Each elephant has a mahout, a person who stays with the elephant all day and is responsible for it.  Only one elephant, Bob, the only male there, is ridden, and that's because Bob is otherwise very difficult to control.  That's Bob with the one partial tusk.

It looks as if Darling, above, is doing a little happy dance.  She was one of the elephants we helped bathe at the washing station.  Since our visit, her owner has reclaimed her to put her to work, though she'll be back at this paradise when monsoon season returns.  Look for Elephant Valley Project on Facebook for updates on what's happening with these wonderful creatures.

Cambodia: Visiting Angkor Means Staying in Siem Reap

    The Cambodian city of Siem Reap, population about 500,000, is the gateway to the amazing ruins of the Angkor region.  Siem Reap is reached by a day-long bus trip from Phnom Penh or by direct flights from Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City, Bangkok or Phnom Penh.  We flew in from Phnom Penh on Cambodia Angkor Air, a quick and pleasant flight.
    Siem Reap can easily be thought of as the Orlando of Cambodia.  In Orlando, most visitors leave the city during the day to visit the theme parks.  In Siem Reap, they leave to visit the Angkor areas or the attractions of Tonle Sap, a huge lake where tourists can visit floating villages.  Unlike tourists in Orlando, who return each night only to sleep, tourists in Siem Reap return mid-afternoon when the stone temples turn into ovens.
    Like Orlando, the road between the airport and downtown is lined with hotels, many of them gigantic complexes catering to tour groups.  We were told that Chinese tourists make up the lion's share of Siem Reap visitors, followed by South Koreans and the Japanese.  From our own experiences, I'd say that Australians must be next, but we were there in January, the month when most Australians are on vacation.  We did not encounter any other Americans in Siem Reap, though of course there must have been a good many.
    Prior to our trip, I'd read that Siem Reap is becoming a destination in its own right.  If you're intent on drinking a lot, you'll find plenty of company on Pub Street.  If you want to shop, there's a Night Market (vendors selling souvenirs as well as clothing), several high-end crafts shops, and a Night Art Market (less crowded than the Night Market and with expensive jewelry added to the usual mix of T-shirts and souvenirs).  We picked up an elephant mobile for an infant great-nephew at the Night Art Market. There are also a lot of restaurants at all price points, including a branch of Phnom Penh's popular Foreign Correspondents Club, better known as FCC.  There's even a wine bar, The Station, with a gay "lady boy" show a couple of times a week, which we somehow missed.
     Once you're in Siem Reap, you need to plot your outings.  An independent travel office (whose card I've lost) arranged a boat outing for us to a "floating forest" on Tonle Sap.  It's what we Americans would call a swamp, mostly an unremarkable mangrove swamp.  On the way to it, we passed through an amazing riverside (canal side?) community of homes atop very tall stilts, below.

Your other outings will be, of course, to the temples.  Almost all visitors take what's called the small circuit, which includes Angkor Thom and Angkor Wat -- it's called the "small" circuit because its temples are close together and involve less driving.  A tuk-tuk is adequate for this outing.  We did not try to be at Angkor Wat for either sunrise or sunset, generally considered the best times to photograph its towers.  The small circuit takes the better part of a day, and after it you'll be ready to return to your hotel's pool to cool off.
     The "grand circuit" is grand because it covers a larger area.  Banteay Srei (see the next posting) is not always included in the grand circuit, which covers Pre Rup, East Mebon and other temples.  We hired a car for this -- a slower tuk-tuk would have made this a much-longer day.

For either circuit, you're best advised to hire your own transportation and guide to get the most out of your temple visits.  A guide is roughly $22 to $30 a day; the driver and vehicle are a bit less.  Your guide and driver will be in cellphone communication so that the tuk-tuk or car is waiting for you no matter where you exit Angkor Wat or Angkor Thom or any of the other big temple complexes.

You shouldn't be totally dependent on your guide, however.  Read about the temples to identify features that you don't want to miss.  We might have missed the Churning of the Sea of Milk at Angkor Wat had Jane not asked our guide about it.  We were advised to arrange guides through tour companies rather than through our hotel.  We tried to do that but the tour company that arranged our Tonle Sap outing couldn't get us an English-speaking guide on one day's notice. So we had our hotel set us up.  We had a different guide for each of our two days in the Angkor temples, and each day we felt that the guide could have gone into much more depth about what we were seeing. That said, we've probably already forgotten 90 percent of what the guides did tell us.

Our three full days (four nights) in Siem Reap were (1) Tonle Sap  (2) small circuit, and (3) grand circuit.  Each day's outing ended early enough to give us plenty of time to wander the markets and try the restaurants and bars of Siem Reap.  Some, but probably not many, spend a third day at the temples. Guidebooks and tour guides can tell your what a third day would allow you to see.

  Below are some snapshots of the Siem Reap.

Above, the FCC in Siem Reap, an elegant complex with a restaurant, bar and several high-end shops near the royal residence on the river.  Below, a drinks stand on one of the shopping streets.

Above, a presumably thirsty tourist wades into the chaos of Siem Reap's Pub Street.  Below, a sidewalk restaurant gets ready for dinner.

Cambodia: Banteay Srei

Unlike the other temples of the Angkor region, Banteay Srei was not built by a king.  Two local dignitaries began constructing it in the 10th century.  A Hindu temple, it was specifically consecrated to Shiva.  It's also unusual in that it has only one level -- there are no steep steps to be climbed here -- and it's considerably smaller than the other famous temples.
What fascinates visitors are the elaborate carvings that cover almost every surface here, most telling stories from Hindu mythology.   Click HERE for more information about Banteay Srei.

Above and right, two of the temple's many elaborate carvings.

Below: During our visit in January 2013, restoration work was in progress at Banteay Srei.  A photographer was documenting a craftsman's work.

Below, fallen stones removed from the site are laid out as experts try to figure out where they should go as bthe temple is restored.

Below, views from within and outside the temple's enclosing walls. 

Friday, January 25, 2013

Cambodia: Angkor Wat

I first became aware of Angkor Wat in the 1960s when the widowed Jackie Kennedy visited there with, as I recall, a Life or Look magazine photographer in tow.  At that time, the ruins were even more ruined than they are today.  Many stone structures that had fallen in the seven centuries since they were built have  since been partially reassembled.  At almost every temple in the Angkor region there are hundreds of stones laid out, waiting to be fitted into the giant three-dimensional jigsaw puzzles.

Angkor Wat is only one of dozens of temples and other ancient Khmer structures in the internationally protected region known as Angkor, but it's the largest and the most fully restored.  It is taller than Notre Dame in Paris.  It has more interior space than St. Peter's Basilica in Rome.  It is, visitors are told, the largest religious building in the world.  It was, however, not built to accommodate worshipers.  It was built, literally, as a home for Hindu gods.  Its huge central tower and the four other main towers mimic the mountain in India where the gods are thought to live.  The highest level in the central tower was the sanctum sanctorum -- heaven occupied by Vishnu, Brahman or Shiva (or all three) and was never visited by regular people. Now backpackers in shorts and T-shirts ramble through taking photos, though there are still faithfully tended shrines.  Built as a Hindu temple, Angkor Wat was soon converted into a Buddhist monastery, with some Hindu images -- especially the Vishnu  linga carvings -- replaced with images of the Buddha. Visitors today see both lingas and Buddhas.  It recalls the Pantheon in Rome, a temple to all the Roman gods that the Catholic Church converted for Christian worship, or the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, a Byzantine church that was converted into a mosque and now is a museum displaying artifacts of both faiths. 

Click HERE for more information on Angkor Wat. 

Above, the causeway leading to Angkor Wat.  The towers seen here are merely the gates to the temple, 

Below, the five main towers are visible in this photo from across the moat. At the water's edge is one of the temple's enclosing walls.

Below, one of the Buddhist shrines within the temple. 

Below, a small section of a gigantic mural carving depicting the Churning of the Sea of Milk, the main Hindu creation story. 

Below, the view from Heaven, the sanctum sanctorum level of the central tower. The building in the center was one of the temple's libraries, where sacred texts were written on dried palm leaves. Not surprisingly, none of those have survived. When the temple was built, the ground level here would have been filled with water to duplicate lakes near the sacred mountain in India. What looks like a string of buildings on the other side of the library is actually the innermost enclosing wall.  There are galleries with murals (like the one above) on the other side. 

Despite all the evocative images of it, Angkor Wat is impossible to photograph in a way that helps the viewer understand the building.  It's too complex, too layered and too large to be captured in one photo. 

Cambodia: Angkor Thom

Angkor Thom was the capital city of Jayavaman VII, founded in the 12th century, and one of the world's premier historical sites.  The empire of Jayavaman (a wonderful statue of him is in the National Museum in Phnom Penh) was larger than today's Cambodia.  It traded extensively with India and with China, both of which influenced Khmer culture, religion and architecture.  Angkor Thom was a square, about three kilometers on each side, with an outer wall, elaborate terraces, and a huge temple known as Bayon in its center. The king's residence and most other structures were made of wood and of course have not survived.  Fortunately, during its heyday it was visited by Chou Ta-Kuan, a Chinese envoy, whose diaries detail life in the Khmer capital. Most of what's known about life during the Angkor period is due to Chou Ta-Kuan's very detailed writings.

Click HERE for more information on Angkor Thom.

Below, the wall below the Terrace of Elephants.  From a structure on the terrace above this wall, the king and his guests watched elephants fight each other -- training them for battle against the empire's enemies, mainly the Cham people of what is now Vietnam.  

Below, heavily decorated walls below what is called the Terrace of the Leper King, supposedly because the effects of erosion on a royal statue resemble leprosy.  The figures are the heavenly dancers known as Apsara.

Below,  the causeway to the south gate at Angkor Thom.  Notice the face in the tower above the gate's arched opening. The figures on the causeway (they're also on the other side of the causeway) represent good and evil, demons and gods, engaged in a tug of war that's at the heart of the Hindu creation myth.  Using a five-headed naga serpent as the rope, they pull and pull for 1,000 years, during which their battle churns the primordial Sea of Milk, creating among other things the Apsara.   

You'll see the Churning of the Sea of Milk depicted all over southeast Asia.  There's even what appears to be a fiberglass version, quite large and brightly painted, in the Bangkok airport's international terminal. 

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Cambodia: Faces of Time

At Bayon (BAH-yon), the temple at the heart of the ancient Khmer capital Angkor Thom, images of the Buddha populate the walls and towers of what is otherwise a Hindu temple.  Bayon, second in size and grandeur only to Angkor Wat, was built in the late 12th century by Jayavarman VII, the great Khmer king who embraced both of Cambodia's religions.  These timeworn faces have seen centuries of pelting rain, torrid heat and total neglect.

Like Angkor Wat, Bayon is designed as a Hindu temple: a tall central tower and four other towers representing the five peaks that are home to the Hindu gods, and a moat representing the Sea of Milk in Hindu mythology.  Below, columns support a 100-meter-long causeway that crossed the now-dry moat at Bayon.

The central tower at Bayon is in the middle of the photograph below. 

Cambodia: Letting Nature Win at Ta Prohm

Despite the fame of Angkor Wat, perhaps the most striking photos of Cambodia's ancient temples are those of Ta Prohm, evocative images of nature conquering the works of man.  This Buddhist temple, built around 1186, once had 39 towers. Giant banyon and other trees have consumed the complex's stone structures over the centuries.  Although other temples were similarly overtaken by nature, a decision was made to leave the trees in place here while at other temples the trees were removed and the stones reassembled.  Read more about Ta Prohm by clicking HERE.