Friday, December 30, 2011

Elephants, Monkeys, and Lost Cities

or walking in the footsteps of Angelina Jolie.

First, about the dogs. Yes, some people in Vietnam do eat dogs (they are considered to be very nutritious). From the road, once or twice I saw dogs in cages, looking as if they were intended for market. We also saw a lot more loose dogs in the countryside, though no where near the numbers in other places I've been.

When I got back to the room last night, dad had already gone to bed. I kept hitting the light switches, but nothing would come on. It turns out that dad had turned off the master switch by the bed. I woke him in order to fix the light situation, and then left the bathroom light on (with the doors closed) so I could find it in the middle of the night.

We slept well and this morning we discovered our room has a beautiful veranda overlooking the ponds and gardens. One other guest thought he saw monkeys this morning, but we didn't.

The breakfast was very nice (though the cereal bowls were extraordinarily small) and the room was very fancy. I asked dad if he preferred this buffet to the one in Tel-Aviv, and he instantly said "Tel-Aviv," though he couldn't explain why.

We had heard yesterday about a difficult person in the "yellow" group, so I finally found out who: it was the guy that dad had a long and energetic conversation with yesterday in the airport! They actually hit it off quite well as they debated various physics and math questions.

We gathered round for the morning briefing, and I felt something hitting my leg. It was Frau Fabissiner's purse. I chose not to move, so she walked around the group to find a place on the other side. Ah, the small victories of pettiness.

This morning we headed off to Angkor Thom. The road is quite dusty and lined with small shops and a lot of almost-finished construction. There were a fair number of tuk-tuks (motorcycle-driven carts), but nothing like the number of mopeds and scooters we saw in Vietnam. By the entrance to the temple complex, traffic jammed, but we still had to wait, get out, get our picture take (for our pass), and then get back on the bus. Frau Fabissiner's pass wouldn't fit in her badge holder, so we had a little drama, but they got her a new one.

Let me add here a description of this area of Cambodia. I had assumed that this would be mostly jungle. Instead, it's flat, hot, somewhat humid (like D.C. towards the end of June), and dusty. Most of the land is made up of rice paddies, with the occasional palm tree or isolated tree. It's quite different than I expected.

Today, I visited my second lost city (after Petra), and it was a fabulous and fantastic experience. Later, as we went through Ta Prohm, the guide kept referring to it as the Lara Croft: Tomb Raider temple (where the filmed part of the movie). I want to know why all these famous lost cities are now known by the crappy movies filmed there (Petra was the site of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade).

Waiting to enter Angkor Thom, we saw people riding elephants ($15 but I doubt we'll have time). Along the causeway, there were 54 figures: on one side gods, on the other side demons. 54 was a lucky number, since it adds up to 9, another lucky number. Bob then says to me "gematria" referring to Jewish games with numbers. The walls of the temples are decorated in a breathtakingly wide array of ornamentation, including depictions of wars (with elephants), apsaras (divine temptresses), lotus flowers, smiling buddhas, intricate patterns, etc.

Angkor Thom was overrun by tour groups, so it was somewhat chaotic moving along, trying to get a good shot of the various buddhas and carvings. The stairway to the second level was a modern wooden one, but it was quite steep. The staircase down was just a steep, but lacked a hand rail.

At one point, we walked through a tower and could make out a high-pitched squeaking sound: bats. The floor was dotted with dark guano and one (seemingly) dead bat. At one point, the guide pointed to one particularly well-preserved buddha, which is on the national currency. It was surrounded by what looked like a Japanese tour group posing for pictures. I just pushed my way through and got a great shot. See, living in Israel has provided me with skills that will last a life time.

From Angkor Thom we went on to Ta Prohm (aka "the Tomb Raider temple"). On the way, we had a bit of excitement when we got to see several small monkeys running on the ground. The guide strongly cautioned us against trying to approach or feed them, as they can jump on you and injure you.

The temple of Ta Prohm is some 900 years old, but it was abandoned in the 15th century. Since then, trees have grown out of and on top of the structures, their roots tearing apart the buildings. This was another one where we were constantly jostled by tour groups. At one point, the guide said, go look in the corner where you can see a dinosaur, and sure enough, one of the small wall carvings looked like a stegasaurus. In other case he would say, go stand by the room and look up. There was a great shot of a very tall tree rising out of a building. In some buildings, there were people burning incense before shrines to buddha, so the air was strongly perfumed with sandalwood. The walls were mostly red, and sometimes green, not from paint but from lichen. Eventually, we made our way back to the buses and then back to the hotel.

We had a 2-hour break for lunch, so dad and I sat on the restaurant veranda by the lagoon. He ordered the salad caprese and the "healthy pizza" (zucchini and carrot), while I had the tom yom goong soup (hot and sour with 6 giant prawns) and the roast duck curry with tomatoes and pineapple. The soup was fantastic! If I had known it was that big, I wouldn't have ordered the curry main course. Dad was much less pleased with his meal. The salad caprese consisted of a large mass of lettuce (which he won't eat) some sad, greenish tomatoes, and one strip of mozzarella. He sent it back and ordered the tom yom goong soup instead. It took a half an hour for his soup to arrive.

This afternoon we went to Banteay Srei, also known as "the citadel of women." My colleague who came here last year thought this was the best of all the temples in the Angkor complex. A Hindu-inspired temple, the walls and structures have delicate and intricate sandstone carvings that cover almost every inch of the structures. The figures of the Hamuran (sp?), the monkey gods who battled Rama and Vishnu (I think) were great, but turned out to be copies. The originals are in the Phnom Penh Museum.

I could have spent hours there (in fact, I could have spent hours in any of these locations), but we were only there for an hour. That didn't stop Frau Fabissiner from complaining "they said we would only be here for 30-45 minutes, but look, it's been an hour!"

From Banteay Srei we drove to a school supported by AMAWaterways (the cruise company). This gave us a great opportunity to see the rural countryside. Most of Cambodia is rural, and 60% is under the age of 25. Unlike Vietnam (or at least the parts of Vietnam that we saw), Cambodia is quite poor and undeveloped. The cows and water buffalo in the fields were very skinny (as were many of the dogs we saw). We saw many traditional Khmer houses, which are built on stilts. This is to 1) protect the children from cobras and tigers (not so many tigers these days); 2) protect everyone from mosquitoes; 3) provide a safe shelter under the house for coal and cooking during monsoon season; and provide a safe shelter for live stock during monsoon season.

The school visit was better than I expected. The kids liked posing for pictures and broke into big grins or giggles when I showed them the pictures I took of them. There was a really cute puppy who greeted us. Dad commented on how soft his fur was, so I reminded him that the puppy probably didn't have any shots, so he should use the hand sanitizer on the bus. We dropped off our school supplies and headed back to Siem Reap.

Tomorrow morning we visit Angkor Wat (we have to wear long pants as a sign of respect for the temple) and we have the afternoon free. I'm hoping to visit the market in Siem Reap. On Monday, we embark on the river cruise. Tonight we have a New Year's Eve dinner indoors in one of the hotel's restaurants.

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