On to Siem Reap

January 31. Phenom Penh is an appealing city. It seems very real, has some character. I’d gladly have spent another day or two here. After another fabulous eggs Benedict breakfast, Carol and I go down by the river to photograph ladies with flowers, kids, people praying, small birds being sold. Quite a scene.

We then board our bus for transport to Siem Reap. Along the way we witness local Cambodian life, rice fields and stop at Skun, a place where tarantulas and other disgusting things are sold and, more importantly, where they have fine urinals.

We stop for lunch and again to photograph bicycles crossing an old Khmer dirt bridge.

Once we reach Siem Reap, we visit the famous Angkor Wat for orientation and a sunset photo shoot. We are able to see the Victory Gate, walk through the forest along the wall to the Death Gate, all alone, and then drive to a spot where worshiping is being done, associated with a holiday for the new moon. This is all spectacular, clearly the highlight of our trip. So we now have a first taste of why Angkor Wat is on everyone’s bucket list.

From the Angkor Wat site, we take a tuk-tuk straight to dinner at a restaurant that features Mexican food, and margaritas. Quite exhausted, we head back to the hotel to sleep.

Here is a long, but I think, very interesting description of Angkor Wat (stolen from something called sacredsites.com). Since this is, by far, the single best known place we’re visiting, I’m giving you the full treatment, including a few snide, skeptical comments that I could not resist making.

There are two great complexes of ancient temples in Southeast Asia, one at Bagan in Burma [which Carol and I saw five years ago, and loved], the other at Angkor in Cambodia. The temples of Angkor, built by the Khmer civilization between 802 and 1220 AD, represent one of humankind’s most astonishing and enduring architectural achievements. From Angkor the Khmer kings ruled over a vast domain that reached from Vietnam to China to the Bay of Bengal. The structures one sees at Angkor today, more than 100 stone temples in all, are the surviving remains of a grand religious, social and administrative metropolis whose other buildings – palaces, public buildings, and houses – were built of wood and have long since decayed and disappeared.

Conventional theories presume the lands where Angkor stands were chosen as a settlement site because of their strategic military position and agricultural potential. Alternative scholars, however, believe the geographical location of the Angkor complex and the arrangement of its temples was based on a planet-spanning sacred geography from archaic times. Using computer simulations, it has been shown that the ground plan of the Angkor complex – the terrestrial placement of its principal temples – mirrors the stars in the constellation of Draco at the time of spring equinox in 10,500 BC. While the date of this astronomical alignment is far earlier than any known construction at Angkor, it appears that its purpose was to architecturally mirror the heavens in order to assist in the harmonization of the earth and the stars. [NOTE: aw c’mon, REALLY?] Both the layout of the Angkor temples and the iconographic nature of much its sculpture, particularly the asuras(‘demons’) and devas (‘deities’) are also intended to indicate the celestial phenomenon of the precession of the equinoxes and the slow transition from one astrological age to another.

At the temple of Phnom Bakheng there are 108 surrounding towers. The number 108, considered sacred in both Hindu and Buddhist cosmologies, is the sum of 72 plus 36 (36 being ½ of 72). The number 72 is a primary number in the sequence of numbers linked to the earth’s axial precession, which causes the apparent alteration in the position of the constellations over the period of 25,920 years, or one degree every 72 years. Another mysterious fact about the Angkor complex is its location 72 degrees of longitude east of the Pyramids of Giza. [NOTE: I repeat, REALLY?] The temples of Bakong, Prah Ko and Prei Monli at Roluos, south of the main Angkor complex, are situated in relation to each other in such a way that they mirror the three stars in the Corona Borealis as they appeared at dawn on the spring equinox in 10,500 BC. [well, THAT’S certainly quite somethin, and lots of folks would have totally missed that]. It is interesting to note that the Corona Borealis would not have been visible from these temples during the 10th and 11th centuries when they were constructed.

Angkor Wat, built during the early years of the 12th century by Suryavaram II, honors the Hindu god Vishnu and is a symbolic representation of Hindu cosmology. Consisting of an enormous temple symbolizing the mythic Mt. Meru, its five inter-nested rectangular walls and moats represent chains of mountains and the cosmic ocean. The short dimensions of the vast compound are precisely aligned along a north-south axis, while the east-west axis has been deliberately diverted 0.75 degrees south of east and north of west, seemingly in order to give observers a three day anticipation of the spring equinox.

Unlike other temples at Angkor, Ta Prohm has been left as it was found, preserved as an example of what a tropical forest will do to an architectural monument when the protective hands of humans are withdrawn. Ta Prohm’s walls, roofs, chambers and courtyards have been sufficiently repaired to stop further deterioration, and the inner sanctuary has been cleared of bushes and thick undergrowth, but the temple has been left in the stranglehold of trees. Having planted themselves centuries ago, the tree’s serpentine roots pry apart the ancient stones and their immense trunks straddle the once bustling Buddhist temple. Built in the later part of the 12th century by Jayavarman VII, Ta Prohm is the terrestrial counterpart of the star Eta Draconis the Draco constellation.

During half-millennia of Khmer occupation, the city of Angkor became a pilgrimage destination of importance throughout Southeastern Asia. Sacked by the Thais in 1431 and abandoned in 1432, Angkor was forgotten for a few centuries. Wandering Buddhist monks, passing through the dense jungles, occasionally came upon the awesome ruins. Recognizing the sacred nature of the temples but ignorant of their origins, they invented fables about the mysterious sanctuaries, saying they had been built by the gods in a far ancient time. Centuries passed, these fables became legends, and pilgrims from the distant reaches of Asia sought out the mystic city of the gods. A few adventurous European travelers knew of the ruins and stories circulated in antiquarian circles of a strange city lost in the jungles. Most people believed the stories to be nothing more than legend, however, until the French explorer Henri Mouhot brought Angkor to the world’s attention in 1860. The French people were enchanted with the ancient city and beginning in 1908 funded and superbly managed an extensive restoration project. The restoration has continued to the present day, excepting periods in the 70’s and 80’s when military fighting prevented archaeologists from living near the ruins.

Orthodox archaeologists sometimes interpret the temples of the Angkor complex as tombs of megalomaniacal kings yet in reality those kings designed and constructed the temples as a form of service to both god and their own subjects. The temples were places not for the worship of the kings but rather for the worship of god. Precisely aligned with the stars, constructed as vast three dimensional yantras and adorned with stunningly beautiful religious art, the Angkor temples were instruments for assisting humans in their realization of the divine.

Jayavaram VII, spoke of his intentions in erecting temples as being:

“full of deep sympathy for the good of the world, so as to bestow on men the ambrosia of remedies to win them immortality….By virtue of these good works would that I might rescue all those who are struggling in the ocean of existence.”

Markets, Killing Fields and a Walk by the Mekong

January 30. Fabulous eggs Benedict at FCC hotel restaurant (bar pictured below).

Off to two markets, the first the central market, an ornate yellow%domed covered market that sells many jewels. Supposedly arty shot of windows reflected in jewelry case not very successful. Oh, well.

Second is a great local market, which is photographically interesting, despite all the markets I’ve seen around the world.

From there, we visit grim Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, also called S21, the former School converted to a jail and place of torture for prisoners who were later transported to the Killing Fields to be murdered. We have an excellent guide, who speaks very good English and has traveled to the US to visit the Holocaust museum in DC, Alabama (to learn about civil rights) and Stanford University. We see the prison and torture cells, see photographs of all the prisoners and learn more about the horrid details. And are even spoken to by one of two survivors of the prison.

From there we drive to the Killing Fields (All driving is done in tuk-tuks today) and see the memorial there and walk around in high heat and humidity and listen to a tape of what we are seeing, which includes a tree against which babies were killed. Not fun, but important to witness.

We drive back to the hotel, and Carol and I go to the National Museum, which houses a wonderful collection of old sculpture. We are too tired and had inadequate time and exposure fully to appreciate it, but we were still glad to have seen it.

We run into Robert there, and walk to have cold drinks at a café across from the Mekong River. Carol (the whimp) goes back to the hotel to rest, but I walk by the river photographing monks, people selling flowers and cute kids, a great antidote to a rather dreary day. I’ve included too many photos here.

Rather than go straight to dinner, as I’d attended, I have mercy on my dinner companions and run up to the hotel to shower and change. We all the tuk-tuk to a very top Phenom Penh Restaurant, Bistro Langka, for an excellent dinner (the highlight, for me, being a slow-cooked egg appetizer with a delicious sauce). I don’t expect to have trouble sleeping after finishing this damn blog.

On to Cambodia,

January 29

Travel day, so not too much to report. Up early for more monk shooting. Still don’t know what I’m doing.

Drive to airport for flight to Bangkok, three hour layover, then on to Phnom Penh. A long day of travel. For the first time since our accident, I’m able to walk without difficulty.

We are staying at the FCC, the Foreign Correspondents Club, a historical building where journalists covering the Vietnam War and other as pets of Cambodia history and politics. It reeks of character and tradition. I’ll take some photos tomorrow. We have dinner on the second floor of the Club, with an overhead fan making the temperature comfortable. A very cool setting. Retire st a reasonable hour to prepare for a full day of markets and Cambodian history tomorrow.

Our friend and neighbor, Ed Bachrach, has been very actively engaged in charitable activities on Cambodia for over fifteen years.  He kindly met with us to give us some background on Cambodia and made some suggestions that our tour guide, Karl Grobl, is incorporating into our itinerary.

If you are curious about what it means to really engage with a country, take a look at Ed’s website, www.buildcambodia.org. The historical information below is taken from reports Ed wrote on trips between 2002-04, so they are not current. Still, they provide a personal approach and style missing from other sources.

Ed described Cambodia back in 2002, when he first started going there, as a small nation of just over 10 million unfortunate souls situated between a prosperous Thailand of 61 million and a powerful Vietnam of 79 million.  He says that back in 1968 Cambodia was a peaceful little kingdom trying hard to maintain her neutrality.  She wanted to become the Switzerland of Southeast Asia.

The fabric of the Cambodian society caught its first snag when the United States began secret bombings in 1969 to destroy Vietnamese supply routes from North Vietnam supporting the assault on Saigon in the south. The king’s failure to respond to these bombings demonstrated his ineffectiveness and undermined his policy of neutrality. In 1970 the Cambodian military took over the country, ousted the king, and ruled corruptly and ineffectually for five years. The military regime of Lon Nol fought the communist Khmer Rouge movement, banishing them to the countryside where they gained sympathy from the peasantry and grew from a small band of rebels to a major insurgency. The relief that Cambodians anticipated when the popular Khmer Rouge liberated the people from the military regime quickly turned into the darkest hell imaginable. In three years from 1975 to 1979, two million Cambodians, a fourth of the population, perished from execution, torture, starvation and disease.

[Here is a bit more about the Khmer Rouge, from another source. In 1975 a horrific and tragic era of Cambodian history began in the reign of the Khmer Rouge. They were led by Pol Pot (or Saloth Sar) also known as ‘Brother Number One’. How many people were killed by Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge is not known for certain but it was probably at least 1.5 million and it may have been as many as 3 million. Pol Pot declared that history would begin again in Cambodia. The first year of revolution was now the first year of history.

In 1975 Cambodia was a mainly agricultural country. Pol Pot decided it should be completely agricultural. This meant all the people from the towns and cities were forced to move to the countryside. Pol Pot also decided that agricultural output should double in 4 years (a totally unrealistic target). Private property was banned and collective farms were formed. They were supposed to grow 3 tonnes of rice per hectare (again a completely unrealistic target). People were made to work very long hours to try and grow the extra rice. They were given insufficient food and many fell ill and died from a combination of exhaustion and malnutrition.

That was not all. Religion was banned in Cambodia (people caught practicing Buddhism were executed). Family relationships were banned (on the grounds that parents exploited their children). Furthermore the smallest infringement of the rules resulted in execution. Although they were half starved people caught foraging for food were executed. People were also executed for being lazy. Needless to say anyone who complained was executed.

Furthermore the Khmer Rouge murdered intellectuals. Soon people who could speak a foreign language or who wore glasses were executed. This nightmarish situation was only ended by a war with Vietnam. The Vietnamese invaded Cambodia in December 1978 and quickly prevailed. Unfortunately Pol Pot escaped and he did not die until 1998.]

Cambodia was “liberated” again in 1978 when the Vietnamese invaded and drove the Khmers into the wilderness. The puppet regime installed by the Vietnamese fought a civil war with the Khmer Rouge for 14 years. In 1993 the United Nations attempted to conduct elections and resolve the conflict but the U. N.’s farce of an effort sowed more social disintegration and continued warfare.

Finally in 1998 those remaining in the Khmer Rouge were exhausted and began defecting to the government as credible elections were held. The fighting was over. Most Cambodians alive in 1998 had never known peace and so the slow process of reforming a society got its tentative beginning.

Next to sympathy for Cambodians, tourism is the country’s largest export commodity and this industry has just begun to gain momentum in the last two years. The crown jewels of the tourist industry are the spectacular ruins around the northern city of Siem Reap, including the famous Angkor Wat. It is a great irony that the miserable modern day Cambodia contains the majestic monument to one of the most powerful and prosperous empires in human history.

The Vietnamese have certainly known their share of hardship and their 30 year struggle for independence cost millions of lives. But the enemy was always a foreigner and the fighting ended in 1975. The fabric of Vietnamese society was left relatively intact. The Vietnam we experienced was filled with lush fields, robust irrigation canals, industrious people and cities booming with growth and energy.

Cambodia, by contrast, was exhausted. Pale, dried rice stalks sparsely covered the bleached, chalky soil. Small irregular fields were separated by neglected little berms. An occasional bony cow grazed on scrub in the fallow fields. Rivers and canals were dried up and children played and bathed in the muddy stagnant pools filled with trash.

The people of Cambodia are exhausted too. One out of every 300 Cambodians is missing an arm or leg from the million and a half land mines deployed in the civil war. Millions of mines remain in the countryside and injure hundreds of people each year. Everywhere we went we were rarely out of sight of an amputee. People moved slowly in the oppressive heat and filled their days with idle survival going long distances for a little food, a little water, or health care.

The following comes from Brittanica:

Cambodia since 2000

Cambodia continued to face enormous problems: a runaway birth rate, a serious AIDS epidemic, a stagnant economy, widespread deforestation, a climate of violence exacerbated by the ruling party’s unwillingness to abide by the rule of law, impatience among donors at the government’s slowness in introducing reforms, and human rights abuses often traceable to members of the ruling party. By the start of the 21st century, however, the country had begun to stabilize. Cambodia was officially admitted into ASEAN in 1999, which meant that it was constructively linked, perhaps for the first time in its history, to the rest of Southeast Asia.

In 2004 Cambodia joined the WTO, signaling greater integration into the international community. The country also began to bring its AIDS epidemic under control and reined in its birth rate to approach the world average. Cambodia also began to reduce its dependence on logging and to realize the economic benefits of strong garment-manufacturing and tourist sectors. In so doing, it regained the confidence of foreign investors and aid organizations.

The CPP again prevailed in parliamentary elections held in July 2003, gaining more seats in the National Assembly than it had in 1998 but still needing to form a coalition. Negotiations between the CCP and Funcinpec—as well as with the Sam Rainsy Party (SRP), another opposition party that had won nearly as many seats as Funcinpec in the elections—dragged into 2004, however, and were resolved only by midyear. In October 2004 Sihanouk resigned as king, and his youngest son, Norodom Sihamoni, succeeded him. Sihanouk continued to be an influential national figure until his death in October 2012.

The SRP had been a rising player in Cambodian politics since its founding in the 1990s by former Funcinpec member Sam Rainsy. The party experienced a setback in 2005 when Rainsy fled the country before being convicted of criminal defamation against Hun Sen and Prince Ranariddh. Rainsy returned to Cambodia the following year after receiving a royal pardon. Meanwhile, the electoral law was changed in 2006 so that a party needed to win only a simple majority of seats in the National Assembly to form a government. The CPP subsequently ended its coalition with Funcinpec, and the latter party, which was also beset by internal dissension, ceased to be a player in national politics.

The CPP had a strong showing in the 2008 National Assembly elections, winning three-fourths of the seats, while the SRP accounted for one-fifth of the total. In 2010, however, Rainsy had to flee the country for a second time, faced with convictions on what he called politically motivated charges. Meanwhile, in 2012 the SRP joined forces with another party to form the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) in advance of the 2013 legislative elections. Rainsy was again pardoned and returned to Cambodia to vigorously campaign just before polling took place. The CPP was able to secure only a basic majority of seats, and although the remainder were won by the CNRP, that party rejected the results of the election and boycotted the convening of the legislature. Mass antigovernment demonstrations and labour disputes ensued in Phomn Penh for the remainder of the year. The protests were broken up forcefully in early January 2014 when police fired on demonstrators, killing several and wounding dozens. The political deadlock was finally broken in mid-2014, when all legislators took their seats.

On July 10, 2016, Kem Ley, an activist and political analyst critical of the government of Prime Minister Hun Sen, was shot dead while stopping for coffee at a gas station in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. A suspect was arrested near the scene, and within hours a leaked video showed him confessing to police, saying that the reason for the murder was a dispute over money.

Opposition leaders dismissed the video, saying that the killing fit a pattern of violence against critics of the government. Just days before his death, Kem Ley had given an interview in which he called for greater transparency concerning the business interests of members of Hun Sen’s family.

In 2009, after years of delay, the first trial of the Khmer Rouge Tribunal (officially the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia) got under way in Phnom Penh. The first defendant, Kaing Guek Eav (better known as Duch), who had been in custody for some 10 years, had been in charge of the notorious S-21 prison during the Khmer Rouge regime. He was convicted in 2010 and sentenced to an additional 19 years of imprisonment. Two more former high-ranking Khmer Rough officials, Khieu Samphan and Nuon Chea, were convicted in 2014 and received life sentences. Another defendant, Ieng Sary, died in 2013 before a verdict could be reached.

Free Day

January 27

Free day and I decide to take it very easy.

Arose early again and was picked up by a taxi at 6AM and driven the short distance to see th monks again. A very different scene than yesterday; no rain and many more people lining the curbs to give alms as the monks pass. I still don’t really know what the hell I’m doing, but have at least a few salvageable shots.

Back to the hotel for breakfast. Carol goes off with four others in the group for a cooking lesson at The Sofitel, including shopping for the food at the local market. They report that it was great fun.

I spent my time farting around with various technical issues, some of which were solved Ann not. Karl spent a lot of time with me on the iPad issues and also looking at and commenting on photos, and showing me some new apps that should help me. He set me up on Google Photos, which should improve access to photos and organization, and downloaded Snapseed a great app for modifying photos.

We meet the group at seven in the lobby and go to dinner. Afterwards, we walk through the night market, buying a few little things and taking photos.

Manage to get lost walking home, take a tuk-tuk driver who doesn’t know where the hell he’s going, so we make him take us back to where we started and find another driver who knows the way to the hotel.

Alms and More

January 27. Forgot to give you this information about Laos. If you’re not interested, scroll down to the first photo below.

Laos was one of two “dominoes” that fell after the Vietnam War. Cambodia, where we will be going next is the second.

The domino theory was a Cold War policy that suggested a communist government in one nation would quickly lead to communist takeovers in neighboring states, each falling like a perfectly aligned row of dominos. In Southeast Asia, the U.S. government used the now-discredited domino theory to justify its involvement in the Vietnam War and its support for a non-communist dictator in South Vietnam. In fact, the American failure to prevent a communist victory in Vietnam had much less of an impact than had been assumed by proponents of the domino theory. With the exception of Laos and Cambodia, communism failed to spread throughout Southeast Asia.

The human history of Laos stretches back more than 10,000 years as stone tools and skulls unearthed in Huaphan and Luang Prabang provinces can confirm. The famous giant jars in Xieng Khouang province and stone columns in Huaphan province date from the neolithic period. Over centuries, rural settlements grew slowly to ‘muang’ (townships) along the Mekong River.

The charismatic King Fa Ngoum (1349-1357) began grouping the muang into a unified Lan Xang Kingdom, basing the capital at Xiengdong Xiengthong, now known as Luang Prabang. Fa Ngoum was also a warrior, and between 1353 and 1371 he invaded and conquered territories that include all of present-day Laos and much of what makes up northern and eastern Thailand. Under his fierce and dynamic rule, construction, development and national defense were organized.

The capital was moved to Vientiane in 1560 during the reign of King Setthathirath, who erected the That Luang Stupa, a venerated religious shrine which is a well known symbol of the Laos nation. The warring Burmese occupied the capital for seven years from 1575, reflecting their dominance over Southeast Asia at that time.

In 1591 the two Laotian kingdoms in Luang Prabang and Vieng Chan were reunited under King Nokeo Koumane. In the 17th century, under the region of King Souliyavongsa, the Kingdom entered its ‘golden age’ and gained increasing attention from Europe. Reports written by Dutch merchants from the East Indian Company describe a land of magnificent palaces, temples, and awe-inspiring religious ceremonies. Vientiene was then considered to be one of the most beautiful cities in Southeast Asia.

At the end of the reign of King Souliyavongsa, feudal lords challenged the throne, which in 1713, led to the division of the country into three Kingdoms: Luang Prabang, Vientiane, and Champassack. This rift and disunity created excellent opportunities for invasion, in particular, from Siam. By the end of the 18th century, most of Laos was under Siamese (Thai) domination, leading to a costly war with Siam in the 1820s that ended in all three Kingdoms being ceded to the Thais.

However, with the expansion of French Indochina in the late 19th century, the Thais eventually relinquished Laos to the French and in 1893, Laos became a French colony. The French organized this territory as a protectorate, with its administrative center at Vientiane, and granted it autonomy in local matters.

The catalyst for change was the WW2 Japanese occupation of Indochina, when a Lao resistance group named Lai Issara was formed to prevent the return of the French. Independence was granted in 1953, but internal feuding between nationalist and communist factions was to continue for several years.

When the USA bombed North Vietnamese troops on the Ho Chi Minh Trail in eastern Laos in 1964, it fomented the conflict between the royalist Vientiane government and the communist Pathet Lao who supported the North Vietnamese. A coalition government was formed, but with the fall of Saigon in 1975, most of the royalists fled to France. The Pathet Lao took control of the country and the Laos People’s Democratic Republic was established in December 1975.

Throughout the 1980s Laos maintained friendly relations with the Vietnamese Communists. Since 1989, there has been a move towards a market economy, and a general relaxation of restrictions, including the emergence of a fledgling tourism industry. In a landmark event, Laos joined hands with its neighbors and became a member of Asean in July 1997.

The country has remained overwhelmingly rural, with the bulk of the population living in villages ranging from just a few to several hundred households. Laos has the lowest population density of any country of Southeast Asia, and its population is also one of the most youthful. A high birth rate is offset by a high rate of infant mortality, as well as by a life expectancy that is significantly below the world average.

There has been a considerable out-migration of people from Laos since the mid-1970s, including not only survivors of the Hmong “secret army” from the Vietnam War (1954–75) but also many of the country’s educated and professional elite. Large communities of Lao and Hmong now live in the United States, Australia, and France.

Laos has considerable mineral reserves. Tin has been mined commercially since colonial times and has remained a major resource; gypsum has become important since the last decades of the 20th century. Gold mining expanded significantly in the early 21st century, with substantial foreign investment. Foreign companies have also worked the country’s granite and limestone deposits.

Laos’s chief exports are garments, electric power, timber and other forest products, coffee, and various metals and minerals. Major imports include foodstuffs, construction and electrical equipment, materials for the garment industry, machinery, and mineral fuels. The country’s main trading partners are Thailand, China, and Vietnam. To a lesser extent, Laos engages in trade with Japan, South Korea, and India. Imports have consistently exceeded exports in value, leaving a significant trade deficit; the gap typically has been filled by foreign aid.

This morning we wake up early to photograph the daily early morning ritual of saffron-clad monks with their black Alms-giving bowls being given offerings from the local people, including the ubiquitous sticky rice. Unfortunately, it’s raining so conditions for Photography are very bad and the results reflect that.

We return to our hotel and after breakfast, we enjoy a short-guided walking tour visiting the city’s oldest and most beautiful temples. We walked through a small market behind one of the temples.

Today we also visited a local Hmong Village.

We drove on to the spectacular Khouangsi Waterfall and walked up to the top of the falls.

We return to Luang Prabang and after another great dinner at the Blue Lagoon, we explore the street night market.