Siem Reap, Cambodia
Next we headed to Siem Reap, Cambodia. I know a lot of people were a bit apprehensive about my traveling to Cambodia - mostly because of the problems they have had (they only recently ended a civil war and with the death of Pol Pot came freedom) - basically from 1976 - 1997 Cambodia was under the Khmer Rouge rule - and an estimated 1.7 - 2.5 million people were killed.
The people are amazing here. Loving, smiling, and full of energy; working hard to re-capture their traditions. The first night in Cambodia, we went to dinner where a children's troupe performed first a shadow puppet show, then a series of traditional dance. The music is also performed by the children. I made a small video of one of the dances to show everyone what the traditional Khmer dance is like. The costumes were Thai in style, because traditional Khmer costumes would have been topless:
To get prepared for the visit to this country, I read When Broken Glass Floats and learned the story of one family and their struggle during this time. I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in the human struggle and real life story of those who lived the horrors. I finished the book while in Siem Reap, and felt quite connected to the culture.
This is the first place I have ever traveled that the people literally thanked us for visiting. They were genuinely grateful for our visit, our faith in their new freedoms and (let's be honest) our spending money there and investing in their economy. I was thanked from every tour guide, shop keeper, hotel attendant, driver... it made me feel really wonderful and welcomed to their country!
While in Siem Reap, we visited around 10 of the thousands of ancient temples - places built around a thousand years ago with no cement or reinforcement; simply stone on top of stone. These temples were by far the most amazing thing I have witnessed - their sheer size - the moats surrounding some of them... the carvings were beyond description. I included a link to a youtube video showcasing the history of one of the temples, and it notes a few of the others as well. The slideshow of the temples is not in any particular order (sorry) - but watching through all of them you might be able to discern one temple from another. The original Hindu temples are multi-level, while the Buddhist temples are one level. It was an honor to get to walk through these true wonders!
To see the rest of the segments of the above video featuring the temples of Cambodia, please visit this LINK. (it's very much worth the time!)
Cambodian Landmine Museum
One day we took a hour-long ride in a tuk-tuk to the Cambodian Landmine Museum. Created by Aki Ra, his mission has evolved from the de-mining of Cambodia to helping injured and orphaned youth with his school. We watched a video about how he responds to calls by villages to deactivate mines they discover, and saw through the exhibit the terrors of these devastating weapons. Thousands of deactivated mines are on display, and they even have some in a outdoor setting showing how hard it is to spot a mine. Honestly, if I hadn't known to look for mines, and stood for a while to scan the ground, I would have never noticed them and it was at that moment I realized how impossible the efforts to clean up the millions of remaining mines seems. I visited their gift shop and made a donation to the museum's relief fund.
On the road to the landmine museum (and a few of the temples), we saw stand after stand of villagers with these large metal pots boiling something; the steam billowing off and up into the sky. Upon closer inspection, we were educated on the process of creating my favorite Cambodian treat - palm sugar! Basically, village men climb up the palm tree and squeeze the cut buds to massage the nectar out. This drains into bamboo buckets that are then carefully carried down to be boiled in the metal pots. After a long time cooking, the melted sugar is poured into small rings made out of palm fronds and left to cool. The result is something similar to brown sugar, with caramel and butterscotch notes. We bought some of this and I have to say it was one of my favorite guilty pleasures in Cambodia! This sugar was unprocessed, chemical free, and seeing how it was made made it a real treat!
Tonle Sap Lake Floating Village
We took a boat adventure to Tonle Sap Lake's floating village. Chong Kneas is a village at the edge of the lake, and its location changes based on the migration of the lake itself. Around 20-30 minutes from Siem Reap, the trip took us past many houses on stilts, and white sheets that were hung out in the fields. I thought that perhaps they were bleaching the sheets, but a quick answer from the driver corrected my assumption. Crickets. The sheets are lit up at night, and the crickets jump to the white sheet, then fall to a trough full of water below and are trapped. These are a source of food for the villagers, or used as bait to catch fish.
As soon as you enter the village, you’ll see rows of tourist boats docked closely together. You’ll also start smelling that fishy smell that seems to be present with river villages. One look at the water and you realize that it’s muddy muddy muddy. But such is life. People in the village still use it for cooking, drinking, washing and bathing.
The floating village is rather small. After about 20 minutes of going slowly on the boat, you’ll reach the large Tonle Sap lake. On the way there, however, you’ll see many interesting sights. As we were being informed about the village and the residents, one of the many boats approached the side of our boat, and a small (maybe 3 year old) boy popped his head up over the edge of our craft. His mother begged for money while he smiled, then jumped back into his boat to get his pet. Wrapping it around his neck, he assumed his position at the edge of our boat again. All this time, my friend Chuck was sitting with his back to the experience - so I calmly told him...
"I don't want to alarm you but behind you is a baby with a snake!"
It was quite the surreal experience to say the least. The villagers are poor, but seem pretty happy. We saw a crocodile farm while there, and I got a few gifts for friends back in the states.
We were lucky enough to spend an afternoon at the Angkor Pottery Center, managed by Hann Paruth - I tried my hand (foot) at a Khmer kick wheel and (thanks to Melody Cooper, my Woodland Hills, CA ceramics instructor) made a respectable bowl. We heard her story and some of the history of the Khmer artists who were all but obliterated during the previous years. I'd provide a website for her but alas, there is no website.
I did take a lot of photos... what I didn't do was make any video during the visit to the pottery center. I found this wonderful youtube video from another visitor earlier in 2010 and wanted to share it... Hann Paruth was a wonderful host - she goes into some detail about where the clay is from and through this video you'll see some of the in process works she is doing. Pay attention to the Khmer kick wheel - it's not as difficult as you'd think.... If you ever find yourself in Siem Reap, it is imperative that you visit her pottery studio!
The silk farm was a wonderful educational experience that taught us the process of how silk is made. From the life cycle of the silk worm to the reeling of silk, to the dyeing, and weaving, the process is labor intensive. The most amazing style is ikat, where the weft (the fibers that go from right to left on the loom) are dyed in an intricate process. Here is a video from youtube (not from the place we visited; note it's in Thailand!) that explains ikat silk weaving. Spend the 5 minutes watching this video to have an idea of what the process is like:
OK, back to the silk farm! We took a short ride to this place, part of the Artisans d'Angkor NGO - they are working to preserve and restore the arts and crafts of the Khmer people. At the end of the tour, we were able to purchase items made by these artisans. HERE you can see some of the items for sale - they were quite reasonable and every item was beautifully crafted.
I didn't do any filming at the silk factory - I was too enamored with the process and so busy taking photos I forgot! Here's a video from youtube showing the actual farm we visited - witnesing the artistry and steps involves made me have a new appreciation for handwoven silk!!
The same NGO that trains the weavers also trains sculpters, metalsmiths and painters. The women who are taught silk painting are deaf and mute, and all the artist students come from villages where they would otherwise have no training (or future). They are brought to the school where they apprentice and learn their specific craft. After months of study, they eventually return to their village with materials to continue their work. These items are sold by the NGO and the artist makes money... it's a wonderful arrangement saving a culture that would have otherwise disappeared.
Koh Phi Phi, Thailand
Resort / Island Life
The island is a true paradise. There are only a handful of resorts in the area we stayed. There are NO roads (OK, there are pathways) and no cars - no trucks. The only real transportation is boat, tractor or golf cart. People smile here, the air is soft and light and salty, and it's one of the few places in the world where I don't see a huge pidgeon infestation!
We slept pretty well, although the beds at each hotel were pretty darn firm - and each day it was a wonderful feeling to think the only thing I had to do was get up, brush my teeth, put on my swim trunks and go sit by the pool. I have said before I loved this trip - but really - really - hear me when I say - I LOVED this trip!
OK. Truth be told, I was very excited about snorkling. The ocean was warm and clear, and despite my fear of stepping on glass or something else that would rip a crater in my foot, it was an adventure I was ready to experience. We went on our first snorkling adventure one day near bamboo island and mosquito island; about 20 minutes by longtail boat away from Koh Phi Phi. We climbed into the ocean carefully after putting on our snorkel goggles and fins. For a few moments I was OK - looking around at the ocean floor, and immediately I saw schools of yellow fish! Beautiful tropical fish that made me smile!
It only took 2 minutes or less before I saw a jellyfish. These things scare me because they sting (and some kinds can really injure a person, even kill them)! I panicked because I couldn't get turned around and to the boat - and I was afraid that I was going to swim into another one... After taking a few breaths and talking myself out of the nervous breakdown I was having, I found my way to the boat, climbed in and realized that the temple on the left side of my head was STINGING. I guess in my swim at some point, I had actually encountered a jellyfish - (the spot stung for a few days!)
John and Chuck spent a while snorkling and I watched from the boat. We ended up snorkling one more time during our trip - in a small cove where I could stand on the reef if I needed to, and where it didn't feel like I was going to float away from the boat. We spent an hour or so in this quiet little spot, feeding the fish, and marveling in the awesome beauty of the life in the water. It was a real treat to get to snorkel and not be terrified.
Who knows if I'l ever be over my small fear of the ocean and snorkeling - but the second snorkel adventure on this trip definately gave me some good memories of the sport, and might even be enough to talk me into trying it again sometime!
Christmas on Koh Phi Phi
There was a Christmas tree farm on Koh Phi Phi! (OK, it wasn't a tree farm - it was more like the landscape area for the resort we were staying in, but Chuck and I decided to make the best of it - and found a plant there and brought it to our room). We decorated the tree and surrounding area with shells and flowers, cut a paper snowflake for the top of the tree out of the coasters in the room, and wrapped up some small gifts we had gotten for each other using whatever we could find. It was a "figure it out" kind of holiday, and it made me think of those who get creative using what they have to be festive instead of buying all the decorations and other things that make the holiday commercial.
It was one of the best holidays I have ever had - spending time with my wonderful friends, and being allowed the opportunity to sit back and really spend time to think of how very very lucky I am to have amazing people in my life. I have been fortunate (even though sometimes it didn't feel like it) and never went a day without eating, have always had a soft place to sleep, and have been brought up in a country where for the most part I can be whatever I want...
Christmas was different than usual for me this year, for many reasons. It was a different season than I expect for the holiday, I was in Southeast Asia, and I had recently made some big changes in my life. The trip allowed me to reflect on what I had been doing and where I was going... and what I realized is that we are alive for a relatively short time - the days are numbered, and if you are interested in doing something, you should just dive in and do it. That being said, since our return, I have designed 3 hat patterns, I have completed a number of knit items, and I am working on a few writing projects as well. I have registered for classes at the local city college, discovered (and signed up for) a free tapestry class, and even been accepted into the HIV counselor training program by AIDS Health Project! Things are moving along these first few weeks of 2011 - and I am certain that the year will be full of good things!
To get off the island, we chartered a speedboat to take us the 45km to Phuket, where we were to take a taxi to the airport. John did the arrangements, and had us leave the island 30 minutes or so earlier than the hotel recommended, so that we would have plenty of time at the airport before our flight to Bangkok later that day. We boarded our boat 45 minutes or so before the hotel suggested time, and bid farewell to our island home.
Or so we thought.
The driver brought us to the other side of the island (the more commercial side that reminded me a lot of what it might be like if it were spring break) and parked the boat... they told us that they needed to get something and they'd only be a moment. About 20 minutes later we were trying to figure out what the captain of the boat needed (he had brought a jug from the boat with him) - and it turns out that he RAN OUT OF GAS! - lucky for us we weren't in the middle of the ocean, right?! About 30 minutes later the other escort who was accompanying us to our destination finally reached another boat and we changed from one boat to another and started our trip to Phuket. This should be the end of the frustrations, right?
As we are speeding along, we hear some sputtering and choking of the engine - we have been boating right along at a good pace - and we are within site of Phuket and the bay where we are to dock and get our taxi when the engine shuts off. The captain and the escort talk to each other, hop back and forth and fiddle with the engine - guess what?
We are out of gas. Again. (Seriously? twice in one day? On the way to the airport? Is this really how our amazing vacation is going to end?!) -
Anyway, the captain nurses the boat to a dock (not the right dock) and we do get to a taxi who tells us we are about 40 minutes away from the airport. We are also exactly 40 minutes from the cutoff time to check our bags for the flight to Bangkok! The driver does his best to get us to the airport (slowing down the 3 times he answers his cell phone while driving) - and in the end, we arrived at the ticket counter to find out our flight had been delayed. We made it just fine to Bangkok, where we stayed the night at an airport hotel. The next morning, we got up WAY too early, trodded through the security and found our way to our flight home to Tokyo then San Francisco. The flights were uneventful and long.
I am now happy to be home, settled into the start of my new life here in San Francisco, and looking forward to the adventures I will have here in this amazing city!
Thank you for taking time to read about the trip - I hope that it was as fun for you as it was for me to share!