Thursday, November 29, 2012

2012, Day 333 - Light at the end

Tonight I share an image from our tomb raiding at Beng Mealea.  At seventy seven kilometers from Siem Reap it may be one of the temples furthest from the heart of the Angkor complex but it is now well visited.  It is only second in size to Angkor Wat and combines Hindu and Buddhist iconography in the carvings.  The construction of this temple is a bit different from many of the others, the overbuilding that was so common is lacking here as was observed by Araceli, an engineer and one of my traveling companions.  The result is that the jungle's attack of this structure has been more devastating than at the other jungle temples.

Below you can see one of the few intact hallways.  We had to slither down through rubble and squeeze past an obstructed but intact doorway to get to this section.  A tree's roots have broken through at the corner of the hall but it hasn't yet demolished the structure.  In time it would no doubt reduce this area to match the rest of the grounds but with careful tending it will be allowed to thrive in harmony with what is left of the temple.

If you were able to look through the window on the left you would find a small courtyard.  Inside there are a couple of trees and surrounding those trees are large sandstone blocks that have been ripped from adjacent rooms and hallways.  A thin carpet of lush green moss covers the stones and small flowering plants have taken root in the meager accumulated soil.

Canon 1D X, Canon 16-35/f2.8L Mark II
16mm, f5.6, HDR layers of 1/8, 1/4, 1/2, 1, 2, and 4 sec @ 400 ISO

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

2012, Day 332 - Adieu Cambodia

Today was, sadly, our last day in Cambodia.  We arrived over three weeks ago and managed to make our way though a good part of the country.  The people have been amazing, kind and generous despite their turbulent past.  I am in awe of this country and while there are some issues remaining in the arena of human rights to be address they have made so much progress in a relatively short amount of time.

But more about today.  We awoke with no real plan and the only thing that I had on my list that we had not managed to check off was the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum.  Tuol Sleng was a high school but under the Khmer Rouge it was turned into a prison.  Barbed wire was strung along the walkways to keep the inmates from committing suicide and classrooms became cells housing dozens of people at a time.  Almost twenty thousand people were imprisoned at Tuol Sleng where they were tortured into making absurd confessions after which they were sent to Choeung Ek, the "killing fields," for extermination.

In the beginning Tuol Sleng was used to house those defeated by the Khmer Rouge during the civil war but soon they were arresting academics, teachers, students, doctors, monks, and intellectuals of all kinds.  Anyone capable of free thinking was a threat and had to be eliminated.  I suppose it is only fitting that they used a school to eradicate the educated from around the country.  Eventually the paranoia of the Khmer Rouge leadership reached new heights and they began to imprison, interrogate, and execute their own members.

Of course the confessions elicited were almost always fabrications but that didn't matter to the leaders of the Khmer Rouge, it suited their purposes and fueled their paranoia so they felt they were justified.  In the meantime the forced people out of the cities and into an agricultural existence. Many of them died in the fields and laboring on public works projects.  Despite this movement of the population from the cities to the county and the new focus of agriculture many Cambodians were starving and in the end the Khmer Rouge's legacy was the death of millions of Cambodians.

Only seven people are believed to have survived Tuol Sleng.  They were spared because they were believed to possess skills deemed valuable.  It was here that the phrase, the "banality of evil" as employed by Hannah Arendt when talking about the actions of the Holocaust, came to mind.  I was amazed that the irony of using a school as a prison didn't occur to the leaders of the Khmer Rouge.  Surprised that the Pol Pot, an educated man, learned nothing from the Nazis and instead employed the same kind of perverse and detailed record-keeping in what were essentially death camps separated only by time and geography.  It was systematic, almost like an assembly line of death.  Nothing was learned from the prisoners and, ultimately, the Khmer Rouge accomplished none of their goals.  Their grand ideas were so flawed that the only succeeded in killing the people best qualified to help them realized their vision for Cambodia.  It was sad, such a glaring waste of human life, energy, and potential.  Still, it reinforced my admiration for the Cambodian people, they have come so far and have managed to keep such beautiful souls despite their appalling history.

When we finished touring Tuol Sleng we returned to the apartment.  Francene ate some leftovers and labored over some work related issues.  Araceli, and I to a lesser extent, made some dressing for a green mango salad and for our own leftovers.  When we had eaten we decided to have a massage in preparation for our marathon travel days to come.  It was a Khmer massage which while invigorating was not especially good for working out the aches and pains accumulated in almost a month of travel.

When we finished our pampering Araceli and I sprang into action.  Francene had a call from Tim informing us he would be leaving work soon and we hoped to get most of our packing done before he got home.  Unfortunately we are such disasters that it didn't happen, we were only about half packed when Tim walked through the door and I think he was a little bummed to see us getting ready to leave.  We've all had a great time and really enjoyed each other's company.  It was still a while before we finished packing and by then we had worked up a real appetite.

Knowing we wouldn't be getting any decent food for a couple days I chose the type and Tim chose the restaurant.  Both Khmer and Indian food has been consistently good but I was ready for more of the latter before our trip, I didn't want any more fish for the time being.  Tim chose Shiva Shakti, a really great Indian eatery not far from the apartment.  I think my favorite part of the meal was the appetizer; chopped and spiced cashews sandwiched between paneer and fried.  It was amazing and the dipping sauces made it even better.

As dinner drew to a close I think we were all getting a little melancholy.  It is just hard to accept that such a great trip with wonderful people has to end.  The first blow came when Brian and Nicole went home and now the rest of the team is about to split up.  Oh well, real life beckons.  So we returned to the apartment to shower and to finalize all our packing.  Tim sneaked out to try to find the crackers we like so well but had no luck.  It would have been nice if he found them but the effort alone was so incredibly sweet.

Soon our drive arrived and we were packing our stuff into the back of the car.  With a final check of our preparations from Papa Tim and a hug from our third musketeer, Ms. Francene, we set out for the airport.  I type this now sitting at the terminal waiting for boarding to begin.  I am sure there will be a minor disruption to the regularity of my posting in the next couple of days but I should be able to get caught up quickly.

Canon 5D Mark III, Canon 16-35/f2.8L Mark II
16mm, f2.8, 1/500 sec @ 100 ISO

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

2012, Day 331 - Rendezvous

Today was a slightly unusual day.  We started the day with a walk to the Boeng Keng Kang Market to look for an extra bag for all of our Cambodian treasures.  Although it was still early the day was quickly getting warm so we rushed straight without any hesitation.  We hadn't had a lot of time to explore the market and didn't really know what is sold there other than food.  I found clothes, shoes, bedding, and fashion accessories in addition to all the normal food items.  Araceli and Francene were feeling adventurous and wanted to try a Khmer breakfast.  I know that it isn't vegetarian safe so I kept wandering through the stalls and bought some mangosteens and jack fruit.  When I checked back in they were picking at their breakfast but I don't think it was what they envisioned.  Instead of a well seasoned bowl of rice porridge they got plain rice porridge with an assortment of unidentifiable things to be added.  Unfortunately, because they didn't know what was what in the unlabeled containers, they picked politely and we left.

Once we got out of the market we found people selling bags so I went from stall to stall looking for something relatively well made but kept coming up empty handed.  When I found something decent the price was absurd and often the bag was ugly.  Well, I did gravitate toward ugly bags because they would be easily identifiable.  At this point we were hungry and the prospect for success on the bag hunt were bleak so we decided it was time to wander aimlessly until we found somewhere to eat.

In the end we stumbled into a local breakfast place.  There were no foreigners there but lots of Cambodians, mostly men, enjoying their breakfast.  I knew I would be eating some kind of meat, it was inevitable, and because the menus weren't in English and the staff spoke little English as well we ordered by pointing.  They served us a chicken soup with vermicelli noodles; the obvious chunks of chicken I split between Araceli and Francene but I ate the broth anyway.  It was pretty good, especially with some hot chili paste added, then it had a nice bite.

With the heat beating us down we walked back towards the apartment.  On the way we stopped at the same curio shop that we went to yesterday.  Something caught my eye and I don't like to travel with regrets. In the end all of us did some shopping and we left with our bank balances significantly lightened.  Success!

Finally we went back to the apartment to relax and clean up a little bit for lunch.  We had a date with Tim and the Director of Budget for the Kingdom of Cambodia.  He wanted to talk about real estate and since Francene is a lender and and I am a real estate broker.  So we met at an unusual but tasty German restaurant in the government district and had a really nice conversation about how real estate transaction work in the United State, or rather, in the State of Oregon.  I think he found it informative and I found his interests intriguing insofar as what it would take to professionalize the real estate system in the country.  It sounds like there are going to be some interesting business opportunities in Cambodia as it works to join its neighbor on the international markets.

With lunch over we resumed the search for a decent checked bag.  Our new playground was the Central Market.  There we found a few people selling decent looking bags, not the sort of thing that I would be tempted to use much in the future but sturdy enough to get home without falling apart at the seams.  Plus we got a good price on it so that made me happy.  Araceli then decided to resume her weeks long search for baby clothes.  There was some and I think she finally found what she was looking for, baby Taco is going to have some styling new threads!

Flush with success we returned to the apartment to prepare a surprise.  On the flight out I told my travel companions how I had a long, non-work related, conversation with a support agent who works for my mobile carrier.  We got to talking about the holidays and I told her about my favorite cookies.  She was intrigued and asked for the recipe so I pointed her to the website where my sister originally found it.  As I told the story on the plane another passenger asked for the recipe so I gave her the web address as well.  With so much interest we decided to make Tim (and ourselves) salted oatmeal cookies.  We gathered all the ingredients and made only a small mess in the kitchen but by the time Tim got home from work the apartment smelled like cookies!

That meant we needed to leave almost immediately if we weren't going to ruin our appetites by gorging on cookies.  A quick meeting and we opted to go to a Thai place nearby.  The food was delivered quickly and it was tasty.  Unfortunately we got chewed on by mosquitoes so when the meal was done we beat a hasty retreat.  When we arrived back at the apartment we ate cookies and are now ready for bed under the heavenly effect of a cookie-induced sugar coma.

Canon 1D X, Canon 50/f1.2L
50mm, f2, 1/125 sec @ 250 ISO

Monday, November 26, 2012

2012, Day 330 - Deco Phnom Penh

Today we we decided to try something different so Francene booked us on a tour of architecturally significant homes of the 1960s in Phnom Penh.  We met at the old post office near the waterfront at eight thirty and set out in a van.  It was an eclectic group of people from Australia, France, and the United States as well as some Khmer students of architecture.  From what our guide told us it sounds like there is only one notable modern Cambodian architect, Vann Molyvann.  Recently there has been a push to preserve his works although there is very little in the way of resources, especially those financial in nature, to accomplish such a task.  Instead many of Vann Molyvann's works are used as residences by people who do not understand his importance and as such have fallen into disrepair.

The first stop on our tour was at the "One hundred houses" project; a project undertaken by Vann Molyvann for the National Bank of Cambodia in the mid-60s to provide low cost housing to their employees.  This is a series of traditionally styled Khmer homes built with more modern materials intended to increase efficiency and durability while lowering the costs.  A traditional Khmer home is has one large living room, a small bedroom, and a kitchen that is built of stilts and is only a single finished level.  These homes enjoyed the addition of an attached bathroom and had a concrete structure with louvered shutters as opposed to a wooden structure with solid shutters.  These modifications allowed for increased air circulation while requiring less maintenance.  In the 70s house 54 was used as the Khmer Rouge headquarters and since by the Vietnamese army and later by the Cambodian Air Force.  Today many of the homes are either derelict or so drastically changed as to be unrecognizable and construction throughout the neighborhood seems to be on the rise.  What's more, development in neighboring areas has required a great deal of fill to turn swamps or lakes into buildable lots and the result is that many of the lots of the homes that still exist as built are permanently flooded.

Our next stop was at the former residence of Dr. Rath Kut.  Now a small medical facility it was built and scaled for film production but it seems that the doctor's dreams and reality didn't quite intersect.  It is an incredibly modern three story home with rooftop terrace designed by Vann Molyvann but the construction took place without his supervision.  Multiple wings branch off each level, on the main for the kitchen, on the second for the bedroom, and the third looks like it may have been for offices or staff quarters.  Grand cantilevers stairs take you gracefully to the top and the orientation of the windows, doors, and balconies allow for a really nice cross breeze.  Like the "one hundred houses" project the house has fallen into disrepair since being converted to a clinic.  Signs of moisture cover the ceilings on the upper floors, the paint is peeling, and the tile is faded by dirt that has been ground into it over the past forty years.  Even the grounds are now overgrown so while you might be able to imagine the former grandeur it is not at all apparent at first blush.

Finally we visited a house of unknown provenance.  It is a modern deco revival built in the late 60s or early 70s.  Unlike the previous two sites it is still almost completely original and while the owner doesn't live in the house it is rented to someone who obviously has great affection for the house and the era.  Entry to the house is through the formal living and dining room which flows nicely into the family room and informal dining area.  Two staircases lead to the second floor which is bedrooms and bathroom and the spiral staircase continues upward onto the rooftop terrace.  Beautiful tile is used throughout and there are massive windows on almost every wall.  Covered balconies and porches are available on the front and sides of the house while absent in the back due to proximity to the neighbors.  Almost every window has a decorative ironwork screen that continues the nouveau deco theme and the yard is heavily planted with fruit trees and infilled with ornamental plants.  The whole house is both beautiful and comfortable, it is just a shame that the architect was not more prolific as the design and execute is wonderful and even forty years on it still would meet the needs of any family.

Thus our tour ended and we learned a lot about the arts and architecture of the sixties and, looking around today, can see the enormously detrimental effect of the Khmer Rouge.  Their prosecution of artists and intellectuals has lead to a sort of design stagnation in Cambodia that is still evident today.  Fortunately there seems to be great interest in developing a new Cambodian aesthetic but I suspect that it will be some time in coming and in fifty years this will be considered the dark days of the arts in this country.

We were returned to the old post office and called Tim to see if he wanted to join us for lunch.  Plans weren't made then, we met with him back at the apartment and from there walked to a tasty Indian restaurant a few blocks away.  After lunch Tim suggested we go furniture shopping.  Well, as much as I would like to buy furniture at bargain prices in Cambodia the idea of having something shipped back just seems like too much work and expense.  Nevertheless I am always game so we stopped by one place that had really nice contemporary furniture made from sustainable tropical hardwoods.  Tim and Francene zeroed in on a nice long low entertainment cabinet that would make a nice replacement for the generic embassy-provided furniture in Tim's apartment.  But Tim is a cautious person by nature so he wanted to measure the cabinet before making a commitment; I might have taken the leap anyway, the price was great!

After the first furniture store we stopped by a gallery that happens to be right behind the apartment.  It is a three story house crammed with traditional Khmer arts from ceramic to textiles.  The prices here can be a little steep compared to what you might find that the markets but the quality is, for the most part, higher and their selection is really amazing.  In Cambodia it is illegal to take antiques out of the country unless it comes with paperwork showing a proper chain of custody.  The reality is that little leaves the country anymore but there are many skilled craftsmen who now have an incentive to hone their skills.  Apparently many experts have difficulty telling the difference between vintage pieces and modern reproductions, a scientific approach is almost always required.

Our last stop was at another furniture store where they sell either antique Indonesian furniture or contemporary furniture made from reclaimed tropical hardwoods from Indonesia.  It was an interesting place, the pieces I gravitated towards, for the most part, were new from salvaged woods.  Some of the carvings from around doorways were incredible but again, not practical.  I don't think Tim found anything worth measuring there but it was fun to explore.

Our window shopping done we returned to the refrigerator that is the apartment.  Tonight I had arranged to meet Yi for dinner.  I wanted him to know how much I appreciated his playing the part of our guide for a day when the Brian and Nicole were still around during the first part of the trip.  Plus I thought it wouldn't hurt for Tim to meet him as well because Yi seems like a great guy, he just graduated from college, and Tim is a well-connected person.  If nothing comes of it then it's no big deal but I thought Tim would like Yi and vice versa. It seems like they got along well although I will freely admit that I probably was a bit distracted by my food.

After saying goodbye to Yi when the table was picked clean we started walking back to the apartment.  Not unlike last night, we walked about a block and it started to rain.  Within two more blocks it was getting heavier and by the time we reached the apartment we were all a little wet.  So we tried off in the cool sanctuary and shortly thereafter we finished off our ice cream cake and I sat down to work on this blog.  Tomorrow we have lunch with the Cambodian Director of Finance so I better get my beauty sleep.

Canon 1D X, Canon 16-35/f2.8L Mark II
16mm, f4, merged layers of 1/1250, 1/640, 1/320, and 1/160 sec @ 100 ISO

Sunday, November 25, 2012

2012, Day 329 - Temptation

A few days ago, while sitting in a restaurant in Kep, we decided that when returned to Phnom Penh that we would take a second cooking class.  The first one was great, the instructor was excellent, and the food was incredible so, while waiting for our lunch, I called to see if we could attend the class today.  Francene missed the first one so it was definitely going to be the three of us and we thought maybe we could convince Tim to come with us.  While we were able to book the class Tim ended up with some last minute unexpected work obligations and felt that there wouldn't be enough time in the weekend to do everything and relax.  Sometimes I forget that we're not all here on vacation.

So when we finally got ourselves together the group of us stumbled out of the apartment and jumped in the tuk tuk with Sok at the helm.  First we dropped off Tim at work and then we were off to cooking class.  Our meeting point was the same as before, across the street from Phsar Som Nang Dap Pi.  That corner that we struggled to find before was blindingly obvious when you're looking for it and we found Linna waiting with a big smile.  The class took place much as before; we started with a tour of the market and plenty of tasting of local snacks, returned to the kitchen where Linna reviewed the recipes for the day, and instead of demonstrating and because there were only three of us, we jumped right into cooking under her supervision. I suspect that Francene got a little more attention from Linna than she wanted but because Linna recognize Araceli and me from a previous class she concentrated her efforts on the newcomer.  Plus she didn't have Brian to help along this time so she needed someone upon which to lavish her attention :)

Just like before we ended up with way too much food but unlike our previous class we brought storage containers to take our leftovers home.  So we plated our meals and put the rest into our not-so-little boxes and packed them away.  It was quite pleasant eating and chatting on the rooftop terrace of the cooking school.  There was a light breeze and Linna brought us cool scented towels to refresh ourselves with before eating.  When we finished eating we discovered that without the demonstration prior to instruction we were finished earlier than we thought so we called Sok for a pickup and when he arrived headed back to the apartment.

The next phase of our plan for the day was to do a little more shopping at the Russian Market, known locally as Psah Toul Tom Poung.  We all knew from experience how hot it can get inside with all the narrow walkways and low ceilings under the blazing sun so we all made our lists of what we were looking for before we arrived.  It was to be something of a planned market blitz, in and out quickly and efficiently, or as efficiently as one can be when you have to haggle.  First we did a little shopping in the stores that surrounded the market to give us time to acclimate to the heat and when we finished it was time to enter the belly of the beast.

The Russian Market has everything and I really mean that, everything!  Need a motorcycle tire?  No problem.  Paint or grout?  Got that too.  Farm fresh produce?  Easy.  A new outfit?  You can choose between casual or formal.  Hell, you can even get your hair and nails done while you wait for someone to alter the clothes you just bought.  When we entered we all agreed that we would meet outside in half an hour.  Araceli and I had a plan and when Tim and Francene got ahead of us we ducked down another row and were were off.  Our mission was to find a gift for Tim to thank him for his generosity.  In Siem Reap at one of the wood carving places we found a great crab that we wanted but the shop owner wouldn't bargain at all.  Not one little bit.  So we left it and now hoped to find it again in Phnom Penh.

Araceli and I made our way through the maze of shops.  We knew from previous experience where we could find the wood carvings and soon found a shop packed to the rafter, literally.  If you show any interest an overly attentive person will start asking you if you are looking for something in particular.  We were and inquired after large crabs.  Our luck was in, she had one in the shop was it was a bit old and abused but she assured us she had another at home that was in good condition and if we could agree on a price her sister would bring it over.  It was what we wanted so we started to haggle.  Araceli and I had agreed to a price previously so we already knew what we were willing to pay.  It took a few minutes and some stubborn determination, but in the end our goal price was met and her sister was on her way.

The two of us were prepared to renew our haggling if it wasn't as promised but in the end it proved unnecessary.  We had our crab!  Afterwards Araceli and I split up as well to do a little separate shopping as time was ticking away quickly.  I bought a few more odds and ends and as I was finishing up Araceli found me so we left together to find Tim and Francene.  As luck would have it they sent us a text message and we found them enjoying a cool drink on the shaded patio of a nearby restaurant.  It was there we planned the next phase of our market adventure.

Tim told us that the Boeung Keng Kang Market, right by the apartment, has a good reputation but he admitted that in his three years in Phnom Penh he has never been, only heard about it from his colleagues.  One of them used to shop for Cambodian made clothes from well-known designers that were not export quality at this market.  We weren't really looking for clothes though, we forgot to buy fresh fruit at the Russian Market and that was what we were really after.  So we wandered through and found a lively group of shops, wide walkways, nice produce, and good light.  I think a return trip is in order but we bought our mangosteens and walked the short distance back to Tim's apartment triumphant.

For dinner we decided to eat at a new restaurant a couple blocks from the apartment called Deco.  Not surprisingly it is in a converted Art Deco home and decorated in a new Art Deco style.  It was very nice and I was a bit worried that I didn't have anything appropriate to wear but fortunately there were other people already seated that were just as much a mess as I was and am.  Dinner was delicious; snapper fillet, grilled eggplant, mashed potatoes, spinach, and couscous salads.  It wasn't cheap for Cambodia but it was a bargain compared to what we would have paid in the United States.  None of us went hungry and we walked slowly back to the apartment afterwards.  We probably should have walked a little more to aid our digestion but I think our day of running around had taken its toll so we retreated to the air-conditioned haven that is Tim's apartment.

I suppose I should take a shower and head to bed but I am fighting the impending food coma to write about the day.  Now that it is done I suppose it is safe to submit :)

Canon 1D X, Canon 24-70/f2.8L Mark II
70mm, f4, 1/160 sec @ 8000 ISO

2012, Day 328 - Divine fortune

This morning we got up, skipped breakfast, and went with Tim into work.  After we dropped him off in what can only be described as the diplomatic district we went on to visit Wat Phnom.  Even though we've seen a lot of temples already this is an icon of Phnom Penh and it seemed worth a visit.  When we arrived I was surprised to see how small it is, I expect something a little more grand but from the outside it looked no more impressive than many of the temples we had already visited.  However the grandeur of this temple is found within.  Beautiful paintings cover the walls, gold leaf abounds, and the statute of the Buddha at the far end is massive.  It was nice that we arrived early enough that there were almost no tourists, just locals coming to pray.

We took the long way down from the temple's hilltop location and walked a circuit around the grounds.  On one side we found the bat tree which is, as the name suggests, home to colony of bats.  Further on we found a large naga made of rattan woven around a welded metal frame.  Araceli felt compelled to investigate it more closely, I suspect it is the engineer in her whose curiosity cannot be suppressed; so she poked and prodded while we took pictures.

Having skipped breakfast we found Sok and asked for a recommendation.  Unfortunately his first choice of dining establishment was closed so we decided to redirect him to a place we passed earlier.  It was one of those places along the waterfront that had a number of people seated so we took that as a good night.  As it turned out they had a pretty decent breakfast buffet for $2.75 so we ate our fill and the coffee drinkers quickly became sufficiently caffeinated.

Our rumbling stomachs left at the river we then moved on to the Royal Palace.  Sadly none of the palace could be viewed given the recent death of the king father so we were limited to the Silver Pagoda.  It is so named for the large solid silver tiles that covered the floor.  Each, we were told, weighs one kilogram and there are thousands in this temple.  Also housed within are icons of the Buddha wrought in precious metals and studded with gems.  There is one gold statue that weighs ninety kilograms and has almost one hundred carats of diamonds in three massive stones.  The temple is still used on holy days by the royal family and is of course closed to the public on such occasions.

The rest of the grounds were pretty with large animal-shaped topiary littering the courtyards and large pots filled with water lilies in bloom surrounding the many stupas.  The whole courtyard is surrounded by a massive walled gallery that is currently undergoing renovations to restore the painted murals to the original condition.  We also saw displays on the king's elephant stables and while the royal family no longer keeps elephants they have converted the building to a museum with all of the equipment and information about the capture and keeping of those magnificent animals.  After all their informational displays we wandered back onto the temple grounds but it wasn't long before they were shooing us out so that they could close for their extended lunch.  Oh well, we had seen pretty much everything we could so it wasn't a big loss.

I am sure we could have managed without the help if we had really tried but it was getting warm so we called Sok to pick us up and deliver us to the National Museum.  It is a beautiful building, based on traditional temple architecture but greatly enlarged, that opened in 1920 as Musee Albert Sarraut after the Governor-General of Indochina.  The museum features primarily stone sculptures and is divided into three parts; pre-Angkorian, Angkorian, and post-Angkorian.  Many of the pieces are the best examples of sculpture and art taken from the most significant temples throughout Cambodia.  We had a very sweet guide who answered many burning questions we had accumulated over our travels; the things we forgot to ask Mr. Mony when we had the chance.  It was fascinating to see the melding of Hindu and Buddhist themes in the statues and the evolution of art in Cambodia from over the last millennium.

After we finished at the National Museum Francene took us by the Royal University of Fine Art.  The students have something of a sculpture garden that includes traditional and contemporary sculptures in metal and ceramics.  It was interesting to see where art may be headed in Cambodia and the campus seemed pretty lively which I can only assume is a good thing.  It was getting hot so we decided to find Sok again and swing by the grocery store before going back to the apartment.

Pencil Supermarket was an interesting experience.  It is almost like a western supermarket but there are some odd difference.  First, if you want any fresh produce you have to take it to an attendant so they can price it out for the cashier.  Second, nothing is organized in any kind of logical order.  Toothpaste is in the same aisle as laundry detergent and cleaning supplies share an aisle with other personal care items.  Third, they had high end cosmetic counters each staffed by bored looking women with old faded boxes of products that have probably been sitting in the locked cases for years given the absurd prices.  But we bought snack foods, a case of water, and some other odds and ends to fill Tim's pantry.

The afternoon was one of relaxation in Tim's apartment where we could laze around and play on the internet.  I can't say that much of anything was accomplished but it seemed like in no time we were getting ready for dinner.  Tim suggested Fish, one of his favorite dinner places.  Francene and I shares a mixed Asian seafood platter and fish and chips because neither of us could resist such temptation.  Fortunately we were in good company because Tim and Araceli also ordered the fish and chips.  It was a large piece of flaky pacific dory covered in a nice batter served on a plate of spiced french fries.  The mixed Asian seafood platter included some nice seared tuna, a couple other types of fish that I didn't recognize but still enjoyed, calamari, and shrimp.  I still am not fond of water bugs despite enjoying the Kampot crab of a couple days ago so I left the shrimp for Fracene but everything else was really tasty.

When dinner was over I asked if we might go to the night market on the waterfront which was only half a block away.  Everyone graciously indulged me and we walked over but as soon as we stepped off the sidewalk it started to rain.  Well, we are mostly from Oregon and are highly optimistic about rain so we continued on to the market.  I think we barely made it through the gate and it started to rain in earnest.  Soon it was a deluge so we ran for cover at the information tent and waited there for about ten minutes until the rain lightened just long enough for us to seek shelter in Sok's tuk tuk.

Defeated by the weather we headed back to the apartment.  Fortunately we had purchased a surprise dessert earlier in the day.  We got it into our heads that a blizzard cake from Dairy Queen would be a funny surprise for Tim.  Our funny surprise turned into a tasty treat that I think everyone enjoyed.  I am coming down from my sugar high now so I will leave it there, until tomorrow!

A word about the photo below.  This was taken at Wat Phnom and I believe this man is a fortune teller.  You take the book and hold it atop your head and blindly select a page with a little bone bookmark attached.  He then reads you your fortune and in exchange for a small donation you will receive a blessing.  Often if you receive a bad fortune they will let you try up to three more times and if they are all bad, well, you better watch out...

Canon 1D X, Canon 24-70/f2.8L Mark II
70mm, f4, 1/60 sec @ 1250 ISO

Saturday, November 24, 2012

2012, Day 327 - Sneak attack

Happy Thanksgiving!  Well, it is Thanksgiving in Cambodia and it should be Thanksgiving in the United States when this gets posted.  I am sorry my posts are coming at such random intervals, I have been writing them almost daily but internet access has been terrible out in the Kampot countryside.  Today we headed back to Phnom Penh for a traditional Thanksgiving dinner, or as close as you can get in Cambodia, with Tim.  That meant getting up at our regular early hour and trying to get some basic packing done before ordering our breakfast.  We had been eating in the normal dining area but thought today we would eat in our family room because every time we set foot in the communal area we walk away with at least a dozen mosquito bites.  With breakfast ordered we tackled the last of our packing and by the time we had all of our belongings cleared out of the upper tower and brought down to our little family room.

When breakfast came we soon discovered a guest.  A lovely dog came trotting into the room and just lay down behind one of the chairs.  She napped while we ate and it was nice, reminiscent of home and it made me miss my boys again.  Our food was, as usual, excellent and after eating we paid our final bill and loaded our stuff into the SUV with Mr. Tech's assistance.  In no time we were bounding down the rough country road towards the highway and then we were blazing towards Phnom Penh.

As we entered the city our rapid progress came to a screeching halt.  With November being the height of wedding season there were all kinds of pavilions set up partially in the street obstructing traffic.  Then, to make matters worse, the Buddhist temples in Cambodia are hosting major events that will bring in the bulk of their donations for the year.  It is time for the elite to show off their vast financial resources by giving lavishly. All this added up to a lot of vehicles on the road coupled with a number of obstacles in our way so it probably added almost forty-five minutes to our trip.

Still, we arrived just before noon in Phnom Penh and unloaded our burdens.  After a few day without it was nice to experience air-conditioning again; the dehumidifying effect was quite refreshing.  With internet access restored we caught up with the world and whiled away the time until Tim got back from work.  Our Thanksgiving dinner was rapidly approaching so it was time to get cleaned up so that we were presentable.

Squeaky clean and feeling human again we went downstairs to find Sok waiting to take us to the Himawari, one of Phnom Penh's nicest hotels located right on the riverfront.  They weren't quite ready to seat us so we enjoyed the river view out back for about twenty minutes.  The clouds reflected pink as the sun set over the Mekong and a few boats went up and down the river as we sat watching.  Soon they were ready and we were invited to make the most of the buffet.  There were a few things the hotel did very well and some of the others were rather unexciting; basically it was typical hotel fare, safe, nourishing, but perhaps not totally exciting.  That lack of excitement didn't stop us from doing as all good Americans should on Thanksgiving, we ate until the idea of food made us sick.

Groaning around our table from eating too much we reached a consensus, we should go back to the apartment and get some sleep.  So here I sit, with everyone else having gone to bed, finishing the last installment of today's events.

Before I leave you I wanted to say a word about the photograph below.  This was taken outside our family room in Kampot this morning.  The butterflies in Cambodia are numerous and they always seem to be dancing through the air.  Having caught my eye, I grabbed my camera and started taking pictures.  It wasn't until this afternoon when I was reviewing them that I noticed a little white crab spider reaching out from under the flower to attack the butterfly.  Had I noticed I would have kept watching to see the outcome but this stealthy attack is typical of how these little ambush predators work.

Canon 1D X, Canon 70-200/f2.8L IS Mark II
20m, f2.8, 1/125 sec @ 100 ISO

Friday, November 23, 2012

2012, Day 326 - Vindication

If yesterday was a day that was fraught with failure today was a day of success!  We got up and ate a really tasty breakfast at our hotel, they use real cheese in the omelettes instead of the processed crap we have getting.  Then we grabbed our gear for the day and collected Mr. Tech to head into town.  We met our guide for the day, Sarat, in downtown Kampot and after introductions we told him about the failures of yesterday and what we were hoping to see.  Sarat was happy to show us where we went wrong and we set off.

Our first stop was at the salt fields.  These were much closer to town than the ones we went to yesterday.  As we walked through the fields and Sarat was explaining the process he espied a line of motorbikes outside one of the storage barns.  He dashed off and we followed him; inside there was a crew shoveling, bagging, weighing, sealing, and stacking bags of salt.  The foreman explained that today they had to fill one thousand bags of fifty kilograms each.  Off to the side there was a large stack of finished bags and we watched as three guys stood on the top of the salt shoveling it down to the bagging crew.  They in turn fill and weigh the bags, then the bags are passed to the guy wielding the hand-held sewing machine, finally two guys pick up these massive heavy bags and load them onto the smallest guy in the crew who stacks it against the wall.  Imagine doing that a thousand time in a single day in the heat of a small salty building.  I was sweating just watching them and all I was doing was taking pictures of the process.  Then Sarat asked if we wanted salt and of course we said we did and handed him a gallon sized plastic bag which he filled completely with the best quality salt from the top of the pile.

It would have been nice to see how the salt fields are worked but we were told that it would be a couple of months before that really starts.  With the rice harvest just beginning the farmers are otherwise occupied.  When the rice paddies are empty they will start preparing the fields by draining them of any residual mud from the wet season, packing down the earth so it is like concrete, and then allowing them to be flooded using a system of pumps and ditches with sea water.  Once filled the rising temperatures will quickly evaporate away the water leaving the salt behind.  The farmers turned salt workers will then move it into storage shed where it will continue to dry until packaged as we have already seen.  Eventually the salt will be shipped all over Asia where it still be on dinner tables and restaurants everywhere.

Salted and hot we were ready to move on to our next destination.  Sarat wanted us to see some of the caves, one he said was really nice but the roads are too muddy for cars and we decided that we didn't want to see it enough to wade through mud and slime so instead he took us to another temple cave at Wat Phnom Sorsie.  The monks and nuns were busy cleaning and preparing the temple for their annual fundraising festival where there will be music, food, and decorations while the local people vie to outdo each other with conspicuous displays of generosity.  We, on the other hand, were lead through the temple where the monks and nuns greeted us, and made our way up the hillside through the jungle and to a large cave.  Even before we arrived at the cave you could smell the bat, the guano and urine have a very distinctive aroma.

We steeled ourselves against the smell and descended into the darkness.  Inside the cave the temperature dropped and we could hear high-pitched screeching at the bats squabbled for the best spots.  A flashlight aimed upwards would incite a flurry of motion and caused the bats to rain down more liquid deterrent.  The longer we stayed the more upset the bats became and their activity intensified.  After being peed on in a small way I think we had enough of the company of our winged rodent friends so the three of us started back out of the darkness towards the sliver of light at the top.

Past the mouth of the cave we climbed to a spectacular viewpoint over the rice paddies below.  The patchwork of fields went on for miles in every direction broken only by homes and a small range of mountains.  Still green from all the recent rains, soon they will start to turn yellow and, when the rice is harvested, brown.  Our timing could not have been better to see Cambodia in her lush green regalia, it is just too bad that mosquitoes accompany the breathtaking landscape.

Next on our list was to visiting a pepper plantation to see where the famous Kampot pepper is grown.  We climbed into the mountains along a narrow paved road and turned into a driveway where we exited the car.  Sarat walked us through the pepper plantation showing us where delicate new plants were being started under a network of old palm fronds supported by the posts that would train the nascent plants upwards as they become established.  It will be years before these babies would be allowed to produce any peppercorns and over a decade before they would produce in any volume.

The pepper plantations flourished under the colonial rule of the French who quickly became the largest consumer of Kampot pepper.  Their demand was so great the even the prices of local pepper became too high for the locals who were and are still buying a cheaper imported pepper for their dinner tables.  Under the rule of the Khmer Rouge the plantations were abandoned and many of the plants died.  It has only been in the last couple decades that the pepper plants were salvaged and the plantations were reestablished.  The farm we visited was, perhaps not surprisingly, certified organic.  So after our tour and history lesson we all bought a little of this fabled spice and were ready to continue our adventure.

So we returned to Kep for a third and final time.  Having seen it briefly from the car when it was light we wanted to be dropped off on the beach from which we would walk back to the crab market where we gorged last night.  With all the recent rains it was nice to see that the ocean was a clear blue rather than churned up muddy waters of the rivers that we have visited so far.  There were fluffy clouds high in the sky and fishermen were working the waters.

There are countless small homes that dot the waterfront, most of which have been abandoned for decades.  Years ago, as the country stabilized and property prices were low, real estate speculators bought up many of these derelict homes.  Today they sit as ruins waiting for someone to reinvest in this really pretty waterfront town.  Kampot may be a bigger city but Kep has some very pretty if rather small beaches and remarkable views of the Gulf of Thailand.  Against Araceli's better judgment, Francene and I were determined to explore at least one of these houses.  As we wandered through with warnings of impending collapse ringing in our ears we found the structure to be remarkably sound with a nice, if rather cramped, floor plan.

When we finished exploring the ruins the three of us continued along the waterfront.  The scattered trees provided some relief from the scorching sun as we walked and with time we made it back to the crab market.  This time we ate at a restaurant that Sarat recommended and while the menu was less extensive that that of last night the food was still good.  Araceli was the only one who wanted more crab; Francene and I ordered tom yum soup with prawns and a fish curry.  The soup was more prawn than anything else so I left the bulk of it to Francene while I worked on the fish curry.  A few more vegetables would have been nice in the curry but it is hard to fault the flavor.

After lunch we wanted to run out to Bokor.  There seemed to be some confusion as to whether or not our guide could take us because of a misunderstanding with his boss but we got that ironed out pretty quickly.  So we got back in the car and drove through and then beyond Kampot to the mountain atop which Bokor Hill Station is perched.  Built in the 1920s by colonial French settlers as a cool mountain retreat from the blazing Cambodian heat, over nine hundred people died during the construction and before the road was replaced recently it was a three hour drive from the foot of the mountain to the peak.

In the 1940s Bokor was abandoned by the French and was eventually served as one of the last strongholds of the Khmer Rouge during the 1990s.  During the invasion by the Vietnamese the Khmer Rouge took refuge in the Bokor Palace Hotel while the invaders dug in at the old Catholic church.  The old hotel was heavily damaged during the Khmer Rouge occupation and until recently it sat as it was left, windows broken, roof leaving, and riddled with bullet holes.  Today the hotel is undergoing a complete renovation, the exterior has been patched and repaired and work on the interior is well underway.  According to a worker that Sarat spoke with the hotel is slated to become some kind of a museum but in its current state they apparently don't care about keeping people out.  Araceli, Francene, and I were able to run freely through the building to marvel at the amazing art deco architecture and the large guest rooms.  The rooftop terraces were totally accessible but the cloud cover spoiled most of the view and we retreated inside when the rain started.  Even empty the hotel is a bit of a maze and we played a sort of modified game of Marco Polo trying to find each other when we got separated.

I feel so fortunate to have been able to see the hotel in its current state.  In a few months they will be much further along in the restoration process and we would not have been able to run freely throughout.  Once completed much of the recent history of the site will be concealed and, hopefully, it will be a beautiful example of early 20th century architecture again.  But now it is probably the last time it will be seen as the shell it became during the occupation by the Khmer Rouge.

After leaving the Bokor Palace we stopped off at a small temple and monastery, Wat Sampao Pram.  The temple had an odd orange look and upon closer inspection the color was found to come from a kind of moss that was enveloping the old stone.  Behind there was another amazing view down to the ocean through clouds broken by spears of sunlight.  We stayed at the viewpoint for a little while enjoying the relative cool before walking down the hill to find Mr. Tech.  Fortunately he parked next to a pond surrounded by a low stone wall where a couple of macaques were lounging.

Who can resist monkeys?  We watched them rest, forage, and eventually wreak havoc on a pickup and then a motorbike as a small crowd gathered.  A monk tried to tempt them with part of a baguette but they were more interested in the roasted pumpkin seeds that Sarat was offering them.  Monks and tourists had them almost completely surrounded but rather than feel trapped the monkeys appeared nonplussed by the attention.  After a while they decided it was time to lounge again on their favorite wall so we took that as our queue to leave.

We dropped Sarat off back in town and then went in search of dinner.  I don't think we were too hungry or particularly picky so we ate a quick meal and headed back to the tower.  Tomorrow we're returning to Phnom Penh for Thanksgiving with Tim so we are going to need to get some sleep if we're going to pack and hit the road early.  I suspect we're going to have a really mellow day once we arrive in Phnom Penh and that can't be anything but a good idea.

Canon 1D X, Canon 24-70/f2.8L Mark II
50mm, f5.6, 1/640 sec @ 100 ISO

Thursday, November 22, 2012

2012, Day 325 - Getting crabby

Today was a day of misadventure.  Unfortunately Mr. Tech's English isn't too great and our Khmer is, even in the most generous terms, non-existent so we had a little difficulty explaining what we wanted to do.  Our plan was to try to see some of the salt fields, locate one of Kampot's famous pepper plantations, and have lunch on the waterfront in Kep.  So we sat down and showed the driver a maps and photos of the things we wanted to see.  He nodded and smiled broadly so we figured he understood us well enough to feel confident about our requests.

To be fair, we were understood in the most general terms but the order was lost.  First we drove through Kep, something which came in handy later.  Then we found some salt fields, it would be hard not to as there are so many in the region, but none of them were being actively worked.  Finally, we were told the pepper plantations had signage but we found none and ended up in a small village where the highway turned to a dirt road.  Mr. Tech asked people for directions and after following a small country track deeply rutted and filled with mud we were told there was a pepper plantation just down the road.  Perfect!

We had to walk to the plantation we were told because the roads were in such bad shape so we skirted the mud and wandered down the trail.  Less than half a kilometer was the reported distance.  So we walked, excited at the prospect.  The three of us chatted happily and soon came upon a farm.  There were no signs of pepper corns anywhere.  But we searched and found nothing.  Frustrated, we turned back the way we came on off to the our right Francene discovered a field of bell peppers!  Not quite the pepper we were looking for.  So we thanked everyone, took a couple pictures of the boy who shadowed us the whole way, and got back in the car feeling rather badly about the morning.

It was lunch time or past lunch time really and we were undecided as to what to do next.  What I suggested was returning to Kampot to eat in town and then make poor Mr. Tech take us back to Kep for dinner.  It would mean a little backtracking but we would get a great oceanfront sunset.  Despite being hungry both Francene and Araceli agreed so we found a little place for lunch in Kampot.  After we ate and before heading back to our tower retreat to rest for a little bit we stopped off to arrange for a guide to accompany us tomorrow.  That way there would be no confusion and we would have the opportunity to learn a little more; I think we were spoiled by having Mr. Mony for over a week!

Our guide set for tomorrow we returned to our hotel for a little rest and relaxation, mostly in the form of dangling in a hammock.  It seemed like in no time we had to set off if we wanted to catch the sunset.  In our time in Cambodia it seems that sunset comes early and sunrise even earlier.  When you factor in the long muddy unimproved road to get to the highway we had to leave well in advance of sunset if we wanted to catch it.  There were times when we thought we wouldn't make it, the sky took on a peach-colored tint and the minutes ticked away.  Right as the color hit its peak the buildings and trees disappeared and we were at the waterfront.

The location I had in mind was the giant crab statue that is currently undergoing renovation in the ocean.  It was only another couple of minutes and we had arrived.  All three of us leaped out of the car with cameras in hand and we began taking our pictures.  I set up my tripod and within a few minutes some of the locals were stopping to see what we were doing.  Some were peering over my shoulder to see the screen on my camera as each exposure completed and at one point we had a little crowd.  All of them seemed curious as to why we spent so much time by their crab statute but they appeared pleased that we were taking an interest.  Once I had finished my little photography session, I am always slowing down the group, we got back in the car and headed to the crab market.

The crab market is exactly what it sounds like, it is the oceanfront market where the crabbers bring this catch every day for sale.  Along the market there are maybe twenty small restaurants vying for your patronage.  Francene stopped in one to check it out and it took a couple attempts before we settled on the right one.  The menu is dominated by crab but there were also dishes with fish, squid, prawns, and even beef available. Kep is known for its crab so we ordered spiced fried crab, green pepper crab, crab tom yum, and crab noodles.  That's a lot of crab, especially for someone who doesn't have the greatest fondness for water bugs but when in Rome...

The crab was excellent and the sauces were amazing.  My preference was for the green pepper crab, it had a thick spicy peppery sauce that was just amazing.  The spiced fried crab was also good as was the tom yum even if there was too many tiny pieces of lemongrass hidden within.  I think the only dish that was disappointing was the noodle dish but primarily because of the poor quality of the noodles; we agreed that they looked and tasted like the instant variety.  I also tried a rather disgusting green Mirinda that was supposed to be "cream with a hint of lime" but tasted predominantly of sugar.  Oh well, the food was great and we all ate with gusto.  By the end Francene had constructed a carefully built tower of crab exoskeleton and hand tissues.

Stuffed, tired from a long day, and reeking of crab we headed back to Kampot and our country resort.  We all showered and I think now it is time for bed.  Tomorrow will be a busy day of trying to squeeze in everything that went awry today.  Funny how even when things don't work out that the still work out in the end, huh?

Canon 1D X, Canon 16-35/f2.8L Mark II
35mm, f4, 30 sec @ 100 ISO

2012, Day 324 - Friendship

This morning we had to get our collective acts together to get out of Phnom Penh before the President of the United States arrived.  Apparently the Cambodian government is very excited about his visit and will be closing down just about every street in the city because of his presence.  That would certainly make it difficult to leave town.  So we rushed across the street for a quick breakfast before finalizing our packing and meeting our driver, Mr. Tech.

Once our bags had been safely stowed in the SUV we made a mad dash out of the city.  Fortunately the road closures seemed not to have started yet and the traffic wasn't bad at all, probably because the prime minister had declared today and tomorrow national holidays in celebration of the ASEAN conference.  As we bumped along the sometimes rutted road out into the country buildings gave way to green and yellow fields of rice.  Those that had turned yellow were ready for harvest and we saw a number of people out beginning the harvest of the early crops.

It took less time that we thought to get to Kampot as we found ourselves just outside the main market about two and a half hours from our departure time.  We had expected somewhere closer to four hours but traffic was light and we made good time.  It took some doing but with the help of the hotel owners we were able to find the narrow dirt track that leads to our new accommodations.

As we navigated the winding path we passed homes on stilts, children playing in yards, and field after field of rice.  We even saw some water buffalo grazing idly in the fields.  There were times when the car could bare make it between trees and buildings but eventually we arrived at our hotel.  It is a collection of thatched and stone buildings along the Kampot River sandwiched between two small villages.  Because we always travel in style I hard reserved the three story tower.  The first floor is the living room, the second is the sleeping quarters with two large beds, and the third sports a seating area with table and chairs, four hammocks, and a three hundred and sixty degree view of the farms and jungles below.  Perhaps the finish is a little rustic and the plumbing works only with the assistance of gravity but it is really nice and totally peaceful.

Once we had settled in we decided to go for a walk around the countryside.  It had rained the night before and the dirt roads were made mostly of mud but the views were beautiful.  The rice is almost chest-high and there was a slight breeze that started the waves of green.  Children rode their bikes past us as we wandered shouting greetings the whole time and waving with enthusiasm.  The people we passed looked up and, when they saw who was making so much noise, smiled.  Homes out here might be a little humble but the people are so patient with all of us foreigners who invade their space and photograph their daily lives.

Along the way we discovered a small graveyard with tall thin markers.  They seemed impossibly close together but it was a nice little yard.  More water buffalo watched us as we wandered by and dragonflies flitted overhead marking the path in front of us.  There were a couple small villages that we walked through where more children waved and tried their basic English skills which far outstrip our ability to speak Khmer.  At the end of our walk the path became soft mud but we pressed on because we could see our tower in the distance.  I think Araceli didn't want to get muddy but Francene and I quickly gave in to the inevitable and just slogged through the soft thick warm muck.

When we arrived back at our tower we took turns trying to free the mud from our legs and shoes.  No one wants to smell the way we did for very long if they can possibly help it.  Cleanish and hungry we decided to eat at the little restaurant that is part of our hotel.  The food was decent, not exciting, but enough so that when we climbed back into the tower all three of us dozed in the hammocks on the third floor.

We hard to forcibly rouse ourselves when it was time for dinner.  Only feeling slightly rested and still groggy from fighting sleep we climbed into the SUV and headed into Kampot.  The busiest part of town is along the Kampot River and as we were about to turn down the road that runs parallel to it I asked the driver to stop and all three of us jumped out to photograph the sunset.  The sky hard stunning shades of pink, orange, and yellow surrounded by a sea of blue.  As the light began to fade we got back in the car and Mr. Tech took us to the center of all the action.

I don't think any of us was feeling particularly picky and the first restaurant, Riki Tiki Tavi, had a decent menu so we agreed to dine there.  It was a hot day and our hotel has no air-conditioning, just a couple of fans, so I think we were all ready for cold beverages and I cannot say I was disappointed; they were tall, cold, and plentiful.  The food was tasty, Francene and I split a curry and a sandwich, and I ordered a couple more drinks to capitalize on all the fresh fruit.

Full of fruit drinks and curry we headed back to our country tower.  I decided to sleep in a hammock on the third floor while the ladies wanted the comfort and safety of a normal bed with mosquito netting.  So I write this as I look at my swaying hammock anxious to get to bed.

Canon 1D X, Canon 70-200/f2.8L IS Mark II
200mm, f4, 1/400 sec @ 100 ISO

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

2012, Day 323 - Ancient bridges

Today was, alas, a travel day and as such it is hard to get excited about it.  We allowed ourselves to get up naturally; an odd experience after so many mornings as a slave to the alarm clock before the sun rises.  After puttering around the room we ate our last breakfast in Siem Reap and then returned our room to finish packing and when you spend a week in one place you start to settle in so it took a bit longer than expected.  Fortunately we had a bad movie on the television to keep us ever-so-slightly distracted and we even caught glimpses of Cambodia's amazing temples despite the fact that the movie wasn't supposed to have been set here.  I suspect that we will forever be pointing out Angkor's temples when we see them in movies and on TV.

At ten o'clock we took our burdens to the front desk, checked out, and found Mr. Mony waiting for us one last time.  He introduced us to the driver, gave him a few instructions while we loaded our bags, and then we were off for Phnom Penh.  It was a long drive and we stopped a few times; once to see an ancient bridge from the Angkor era, another to see the stone carving village, and finally to see the "spider village" where they raise and cook tarantulas.

The first two stops were interesting but the last seemed to be a tourist trap.  As soon as we got out of the car we were mobbed by children desperate to sell us fruit.  They were extremely persistent and Araceli quickly became uncomfortable.  Every time she tried to extract herself from the crowd another child would pop up in front of her, insistent that she buy what they were selling.  It didn't take long before we were frustrated, annoyed, and ready to leave.

After being harassed for a while it was nice to get into the car again where it was quiet and air-conditioned.  Exhausted by our admittedly minor ordeal both Araceli and I dozed off.  It seemed like we were in Phnom Penh in no time.  Traffic was light through the city and although the driver got a little turned around we were soon delivered safely to Francene and Tim's apartment.

We have been living in pretty close quarters recently and it is so nice to have a big room, almost twice the size of our last two hotel rooms!  There is room to spread out our belongings and even the facilities to do laundry.  Francene and Tim had to leave shortly after letting us in because they had a wedding to go to (hence all the shopping in Siem Reap).  That left Araceli and me with free run to do laundry, find dinner, repack for our short trip to Kampot, and get cleaned up.

For dinner we wandered aimlessly until we found a busy place (at five o'clock no less), the Boat Noodle Restaurant.  We didn't get boat noodles, we ordered fish amok and a fried fish with green mango salad.  The food was great and it was cheap which is probably why the whole place was packed with locals shortly after we were seated.  Araceli and I even managed to make room for dessert, a sundae with every flavor of ice cream they had, woohoo!  And the cost for our delicious repast?  Less than ten dollars for the two of us!

When Francene and Tim got home we heard all about the wedding.  Apparently there were a lot of guests and even more food.  Everyone was dressed in their best clothes and a good time was had by all.  We ended up chatting well into the night and only went to bed when someone finally noticed the time.  So I write this to you late for me but on time for you.  Tomorrow we will be in Kampot, more to come...

Canon 1D X, Canon 24-70/f2.8L Mark II
24mm, f4, HDR of 1/5000, 1/2500, 1/1250, 1/640, and 1/320 sec @ 200 ISO

Sunday, November 18, 2012

2012, Day 322 - Tomb raiding

Today is our last full day in Siem Reap.  It seems like we just got here even though we've had a marathon of tomb raiding Lara Croft style.  The Angkor complex is huge and there is so much to see that even a couple hours at a temple doesn't do it justice.  Each is so different that you don't want to limit yourself by seeing too few but it is tempting to spend a day or more at each.

This morning we got up and left at a decent hour for Beng Mealea.  On the way we stopped at an ancient stone quarry that is now the bed of a stream where large rectangular pieces were removed to build some of the magnificent temples we had already visited.  As we walked back to the car an ox cart approached and we stopped to take pictures.  I don't know if it was all the attention, the cameras, or our foreign appearance but they were a little shy about passing.  Still, I got some great pictures.

Beng Mealea was named for the fragrant flowering trees that encircle it and although smaller than Angkor Wat it is still one of the largest temples in the Angkor complex.  The history is unknown Beng Mealea the style suggests that it was built in the 12th century.  It is much as it was found; many walls have tumbled and countless trees are entwined through the remains.  Araceli commented that the engineering in the construction of this temple is not as sound as those of the other temples including those similarly consumed by the jungle.

When we entered there was a nice wooden walkway that had been erected but we were soon scrambling over piles of fallen stones ten or fifteen feet high.  The footing in areas was precarious because the moss growth is incredible thanks to the near-constant shade of the jungle canopy.  There were little rooms taken over by huge trees, some that had fallen and then adapted to their new less vertical stature by changing direction and growing upright again.

This was perhaps the most exciting temple we visited.  It might not have been as pretty as some, there might not have been the magnificent carvings or statuary, but we did feel like we were on an old school adventure. Granted we weren't wearing our good English colonial style gear, none of us carried a whip or a torch, we found no human remains, but it still felt like a jungle expedition out of Hollywood.

Parched from our near-death experiences and in need of refreshment we stopped at a riverside restaurant.  We ordered drinks and almost stayed for lunch but when we saw how slow the service was we decided better of it and left.  Though we still had plenty of time Francene was returning to Phnom Penh this afternoon so we could go to the wedding tomorrow.  Back to Francene's hotel we went to collect her luggage and embark on our next adventure.

Before our run to the airport we went to a local silk farm.  There we saw the silk from the birth of the tiny worms to their death in boiling water to extract the silk.  Artists were weaving the thread into beautiful patterns that shimmered in a rainbow of colors every time the light caught it.  The whole process is fascinating and, as Araceli asked, how do people think to take worm vomit and make it into beautiful fabric?

Unfortunately we had to get moving, it was time to get Francene to the airport.  It was a short drive and we said our brief goodbyes as we will see her again tomorrow night when we return to Phnom Penh and the wedding is over.

So it was back to our hotel to drop off our stuff and head out to dinner.  It was nothing special, just close, quick, and convenient.  I didn't want to waste too much time because not only was I starving but Mr. Mony was coming back at seven o'clock for the past installment of my Angkor adventure.

By the time we returned to the room I had about an hour to rest before meeting Mr. Mony again so I cleaned off a little of the day's dirt and put on a whole bunch of bug spray before gathering myself up again and heading out the door.  For this jaunt Araceli opted out but I was excited.  When I got into the van Mr. Mony informed me that we needed to stop and pick up a senior government official.  I will admit to being a little unnerved but said I understood.  We pulled into a residential area and he hopped off a motorbike which he passed to the guy riding tandem and he got in the van.

This gentleman was our ticket into Angkor Wat after hours.  He had called ahead and ensured that the roadblocks would be removed and that the guards were aware he was coming with guests.  The van made its way through the dark jungle, illuminating only the closest trees with its high beams.  They were like ghosts that quickly disappeared into the shadows.  We passed through one gate and then a guard post, waved through each time my a bored looking officer.  Finally we parked and as my night vision adjusted I could make out the silhouette of Angkor Wat.

First we walked down the main causeway to the temple and then we entered through the royal gate.  Insider we had free run of all levels but the third, the tower level.  I set up my tripod, fired off a few quick test shots, and started the long exposures.  It was rather cloudy tonight but some stars broke through the cover.  As we sat inside this icon of Cambodia I was struck by the peace that was lacking when we came yesterday.  With no other people we could hear the frogs, the crickets, the humming of what I am told are snails, the barking of geckos, the baying of dogs, and, in the distance, the sound of drums.

I asked Mr. Mony about the drums and he said that there was an apsara performance, the celestial dancers, being held on the Elephant Terrace for the delegates in town for the ASEAN conference and among those attending was the United States Secretary of Defense.  To say that I was struck dumb would be an understatement.  I couldn't believe we could get anywhere near the Angkor complex with the heads of state from so many nations less than a mile away.  No doubt they were enjoying the peace and tranquility of Angkor at night as much as I did.

We stayed for about an hour in total.  I didn't want to wear out my welcome and with the kind of security that must have been in place I was worried that even with our official host that we might get into trouble.  It was a magical way to see Angkor Wat for the last time, at least on this trip.

So we headed back into Siem Reap where we dropped off our official at bar.  Mr. Mony then took me back to the hotel where I tried not to gush about the experience because although Araceli didn't want to be consumed by insects I think that maybe she missed out just a little bit.

I'm beat, it's time for bed.  Tomorrow we return to Phnom Penh and then we go on to Kampot!

Canon 1D X, Canon 24-70/f2.8L Mark II
24mm, f2.8, 30 sec @ 3200 ISO

Saturday, November 17, 2012

2012, Day 321 - Sprinting

I know we've been getting up early but today way even earlier than usual because we were going to catch sunrise at Angkor Wat.  That meant that we had to get up at four o'clock and get our butts out the door faster than we would have liked.  Angkor Wat at sunrise can be a zoo because it is such an iconic image and today was no exception.  When we arrived there were a lot of people streaming across the bridge and into the temple complex.  Mr. Mony jumped out of the van and lit a fire under us to get moving.

We walked about as briskly as you can without breaking into a run and arrived at the reflecting pool early enough to get a spot.  It wasn't a great spot but it afforded a good view and a nice reflection in the water.  I got my gear set up and proceeded to wait.  And the wait went on while we fended off mosquitoes but soon you could clearly make out the temple against the clouds.  The sky changed from an inky blue to a shade lighter and soon you could hear cameras clicking away.  I don't know what you expect to get when you use the flash on your point-and-shoot but they were firing like mad too.

As the sky lightened we got a little color, a blush of peach right at the horizon but it lasted only a couple of minutes and we were left with a blue-on-blue cloudy sky.  It was a nice sunrise, not an epic experience but better than fog.  And so it went; as the sky got brighter people started to leave and after about half an hour most people were gone.  As the crowd thinner we moved closer and closer to the prime spots.  With the help of a neutral density filter I was able to prolong the appearance of sunrise for another ten minutes before we gave up.  At the same time as I was taking picture Francene, the kooky lady that she is, set up her portable gym to get a couple shots of her using it as promised to the manufacturer for free instructional information.  I could hear Francene and Araceli giggling the whole time :)

With the sunrise, both real and simulated, over we made our way into Angkor Wat.  Mr. Mony took us down immense hallways where the walls were carved with scene of battles and heroic triumphs.  Most were in exceptionally good condition and many were worn smooth and dark from years of being touched for luck.

Slowly we proceeded from the first to the second terrace where we could see the five monolithic towers.  We walked a circuit of the terrace, stopping to take pictures of the temple and the visiting monk, until access to the third level was opened.  Unfortunately Francene was indecently attired for the upper level but Araceli and I made the climb and walked quickly through.  It was getting crowded and there was a lot of scaffolding up that got in the way of some of the best lit views.

The sun was getting hot as we rejoined Francene and Mr. Mony and continued our tour.  Araceli and Francene had their fortunes told but I was too busy taking pictures to get in line and by the time they were done I wasn't in the mood to wait even longer, not with the day we had planned.  So we continued through the temple while Mr. Mony described what we were looking at and ultimately made our way through the thickening press of people to the entrance so we could move on.

Before we could go too far Mr. Mony suggested we stop for breakfast.  I can't tell you how many breakfasts we have missed and how hungry you get trekking all over Cambodia in ninety degree heat coupled with ninety percent humidity.  I had an omelet and toast with a banana shake and once we all had food in our bellies it was back in the van and off to Kbal Spean.

Kbal Spean is an archaeological area that flanks a river and is known as "The Valley of a Thousand Lingas," lingas being the phallic symbol of the Hindu god Shiva.  It was not a particularly long hike up to the river but it was steep and hot even in the shade.  We made our way slowly uphill and at times were descended upon by clouds of butterflies that would land on us.

When we finally made it to the top I think all of us were drenched in sweat but awestruck by all the carvings. Apsaras, celestial dances, could be found carved into rocks and the bumps that signify lingas made up the bottom of the riverbed in some areas.  Gods looked down on us as we followed the river downhill.  Eventually we made our way under a waterfall and in that water our sins were cleansed by Shiva's divine influence.

Fortunately the cleansing also cooled us down and made the hike back to the trail head a significantly more pleasant experience.  When we arrived back at the van it was decided that we needed to have some lunch.  And what better place to have lunch than at a high-end Cambodian furniture store?  Actually the food wasn't bad, it wasn't great but it hit the spot and they did have some beautiful solid teak and mahogany furniture.  I've always wanted a dining room table with a four inch thick slab of premium hardwood for a bargain price. Araceli and I did look for a guest gift for Francene's husband and we found something we liked but failed to reach an agreeable price with the store owner.

Two days ago I must have been confused because I thought we already went to Banteay Srei but we went to another temple with a similar name.  Today we went to Banteay Srei and it is considered one of the nicest temples in Angkor Wat because of the extensive detailed and superbly preserved carvings in pink sandstone.  It is a much smaller temple than most but it is stunning and as such it garners a remarkable amount of attention.  I had great difficulty taking photos here because people were constantly walking in and out of my frame.  Oh well, I can here to experience the country not just document it and how could you get annoyed in such a beautiful place?

It was getting late in the day and we were losing steam so we started on our way back into Siem Reap.  As we made our way down the winding and bumpy road Mr. Mony asked us if we would like to see how palm sugar is made.  None of us wanted to miss a learning opportunity so we pulled to the side of the road and found a family making palm sugar candies.  They take the flowers from the palm trees and squeeze the juice out with a large flat nutcracker-looking device.  That juice is them put over heat and reduced down into a syrup.  The syrup is in turn poured into little molds made of palm leaves and allowed to cool.  When it is done you have palm sugar candy!  Apparently it is harder to get the juice from female flowers but it is sweeter than the male counterpart.

With our teeth rotten from sampling palm juice and palm sugar candy (Araceli bought some), we went back to Siem Reap.  Lunch was kind of disappointing so Araceli and I decided to take Francene to the Khmer Kitchen where we had a very nice dinner earlier in the week.  We started with fresh spring rolls which were okay but tasted a little fishy.  After we a green curry with fish, a Cambodian soup, and garlic tofu.  All three were excellent and I think we all felt stuffed when the meal was over but in that good contented way.

Bellies full to bursting we then had to take Francene shopping for clothes to wear to a Cambodian wedding.  Apparently the clothes she brought for more formal occasions are inappropriate for a wedding so there was no alternative.  We started at the mall which was rather underwhelming but we did find a little boutique with more trendy Japanese clothes that had a few possibilities.  I can't believe that Francene is such as easy shopper because although we made her try on more than one it was the first she decided to buy.  With the dress taken care of we then had to find her some accessories and for those we went to the Night Market.

At the Night Market we found some jewelry that would be a nice compliment to Francene's new dress.  There were a couple good choices and rather than make a decision she opted for both pieces; I suspect that she is going to go for the more daring piece only because it is fun and I think it suits her personality better.  By the time we finished I don't think it took more than forty-five minutes to find everything for the wedding on Sunday.  That is some high speed shopping!

Our goal accomplished, Araceli and I walked Francene back to her hotel and then took our leave.  It was a long action-packed day and we were exhausted.  So it is now time for a shower and some sleep.

Canon 1D X, Canon 100/f2.8L IS
100mm, f4, 1/250 sec @ 500 ISO

Friday, November 16, 2012

2012, Day 320 - Reflecting

For such a relatively relaxed day I am sure feeling the time.  We awoke early yet again, this time to try to catch sunrise over Angkor Wat from above.  That's right, there is a balloon that climbs high into the sky and we booked our space for sunrise!

Sadly we awoke to a hazy morning with light fog.  "No problem," we thought, it will probably burn off quickly.  As the arrived at the balloon site the fog was denser and the folks there told us that you can barely see Angkor Wat.  Still we were hopeful but we knew that we could get great pictures of the countryside even without the iconic temple so we were still game.

Brian, Nicole, and I climbed into the large basket and soon we were off the ground.  The fog made the trees into silhouettes and the further they were from us the lighter their shape.  It was really rather exciting, you could feel the distance!  But as the minutes passed the fog became more dense and soon there was nothing to see.  The balloon began its lazy descent and that was the end of our little aerial adventure.

Yesterday, as we were leaving Pre Rup, I noticed a large pond filled with water lilies and this morning we asked Mr. Mony if we could stop there to take a few pictures.  The pond, previously used as a place to bathe horses, it almost completely covered in water lilies.  Their leaves blanket the surface which is dotted by large pink flowers.  We were not alone at the pond, there were three girls and a boy playing.  They waded in to pick a flower for Nicole and a few for themselves.  I got a bit wet trying to get a picture I wanted but it turned out great and because we had no other plans for the morning I knew we would be heading back to the hotel.

And that is just what we did, after taking pictures of the flowers we went back to the hotel.  Brian and Nicole had to finish packing and we all wanted to take advantage of the free breakfast.  That gave us quite a bit of time to relax so after eating Araceli and I walked down the street and stopped by the spa a few doors away.  We decided that a little massage would be nice and after forty-five minutes I think we were both ready for a nap.

I dozed on and off for a couple hours until Brian and Nicole came by to bid farewell.  It seems odd to think of them leaving already as my trip is only half over but I know they have obligations to meet, things like work and whatnot.  So we said goodbye and will keep up with each other through social media and emails.

On our own, Araceli and I decided to have lunch before picking up Francene at the airport with Mr. Mony.  With the upcoming ASEAN conference to be held here in Cambodia there was extra security at the airport but even with the armed guards they are more friendly than an ordinary interaction with TSA.

With Francene collected we headed off to visit one of the floating villages on the Tonle Sap lake.  As we bounced along over bumpy roads we passed through homes on stilts and came to a dock where we hired a boat to take us out on the lake.  Once aboard the boat it took about twenty minutes to navigate the high waters through submerged jungle to get to the village.

It is a series of houseboats and larger floating stores and even a school that makes up the village.  There is no electric service but some homes have their own generators or solar panels but they do have phone service thanks to a cell tower that was built in the middle of the lake.  It is remarkable that all the things a person could ever need are available in this community that migrates on the river.  They catch and gather much of their food and that which the lake does not provide some member of the community will happily sell to their neighbors.

Mr. Mony explained that their schools only go through middle school so if they want to attend high school they need to commute into town.  It isn't a long commute but given the rather large size of their community it would take multiple boats each day and I suspect that many of the children are required by their parents to help make ends meet.  The community did have an area with information for visitors beside the floating catfish enclosure and just before their large enclosure where they raise crocodiles!

Ultimately I found the community a little sad.  They're ethnic Vietnamese and while they aren't slums this isn't a very nice community either.  Most people make their living by fishing and selling what they catch or by running a shop to sell good to their friends and neighbors.  While it isn't particularly far from Siem Reap it seems a world away and I don't know that life there provides much in the way of opportunities to do better than your parents.  But the people get by, no one looked to be unhealthy, it is just a tough existence.

When we left the floating village and returned to the dock a woman was trying to sell us souvenir plates with pictures they took on the sly as we arrive.  Francene started to haggle with the woman but Araceli and I didn't pay a lot of attention because we weren't interested.  Finally, as we are getting into the van Francene strikes a deal and she buys to plates.  Two plates!  Which plates did she buy?  The ones of me and Araceli!  I look pissed in the picture and Araceli looks like a hot mess.  We couldn't stop laughing, even Mr. Mony started laughing at us!

Once we collected ourselves and made it back to Siem Reap Araceli and I helped Francene to check in to her hotel because we were going to go straight to dinner.  I think Francene literally threw her things into the room and we grabbed a tuk tuk for The Sugar Palm.  It is a really nice restaurant that serves Khmer food in a traditional raised Khmer-style house.  They sat us on the balcony and it was just perfect.  The three of us demolished some pomelo salad, a plate of spring rolls, a hefty serving of water spinach, Khmer crispy noodles, and a vegetable curry.  The Khmer noodles were great, they had a wonderful texture, just a little bit of crunch, and a nice sauce.

After dinner we stocked up on mosquito repellents and returned to our respective hotels.  It was a relatively low-key kind of day and we had a lot of fun.  Sometimes it is more about who you're with than what you're doing and today was kind of one of those days.

Canon 1D X, Canon 70-200/f2.8L IS Mark II
200mm, f4.5, 1/500 sec @ 100 ISO

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

2012, Day 319 - Shades of pink

This morning we got up for a six o'clock departure, it was almost like sleeping in as we have been getting up so consistently early.  Mr. Mony picked us up and we made our way back to the Angkor complex again in the dark.  Brian and Nicole wanted to see Preah Khan and since Araceli and I had been there yesterday they asked to be dropped off so the two of us could go on with Mr. Mony to see more of the sights.

We started at the Terrace of the Elephants and their dawn view of Prasats Suor Prat, the towers of the tightrope dancers.  It is said that the king would watch as acrobats moved back and forth from tower to tower on tightropes.  The walls of the terrace bear carvings that show a three headed elephant and multiple five headed horses.

From the terrace we walked toward Baphuon, the Tower of Bronze.  It is a deceptively large temple as it is set a long way down an isolated walkway and you cannot really appreciate the massive scale until your approach.  According to archiologists the central tower that no longer exists may be the reason for its' name, a tower clad in bronze.  Unfortunately some of Baphuon collapsed under its' own weight.  On the back there is the remains of what was a relief of a huge reclining Buddha now almost indiscernible if you don't know where to look.

We moved through a side gate and came upon a long spider web.  Initially we thought there was a spider eating another insect but as we moved closer we discovered what looked to be a kind of crab spider.  It had two large spiny projections coming off the back of its abdomen and Mr. Mony happily poked at it with a stick so we could watch it clamber quickly away from the source of harassment.

Into the jungle we wandered until we can upon the the royal pools.  Two, one for men and one for women, were placed in what appeared to be isolation.  Sadly they are just adjacent to the royal palace of which almost nothing remains.  The larger of the pools is said to be intended for women as the king had many concubines so it needed to be bigger to accommodate all those women.  At about a third the size, the pool designated for men is large when you consider that it had only a few people who might use it.

We ended on the Terrace of the Leper King.  Apparently named in honor of the statute of Yama, the god of death and judgment, that is featured on the center of the terrace the terrace features reliefs that depict the many levels of hell.

That marked the end of our tour of the terrace area of Angkor Thom so we returned to the van and left to pick up our wayward companions.  I think Brian may have had a rough night so we decided to return to the hotel for a relaxing morning and early afternoon.  We all ate, relaxed, worked on our photos and wasted time.  It seemed like we hadn't been back for too long before we were packing up again to meet Mr. Mony.

First Mr. Mony took us to Banteay Srey, a temple outside of Angkor that gets few visitors because of the relative distance.  We arrived while the sun was beating down on us and were sweating almost as soon as we got out of the van's artificial climate.  Banteay Srey is also known as the Citadel of Women and although small is in remarkably good condition.  Made primarily of pink sandstone it has a much different look than most of the other temples we have visited but that may be due to what scholars describe as a heavy Indian influence in architecture and design.  The reliefs were in very good shape although, as is so common, most of the carvings depicting the Buddha have been defaced under the reign of subsequent Hindu kings.

After exploring the halls of Banteay Srey we moved on to Pre Rup, a temple used primarily for cremation ceremonies.  The color of this temple was great and amplified by our arrival as the afternoon was waning.  Made primarily from red brick the warmth was amplified thanks to the late afternoon sun.  Here we waited as the sun sank in the west throwing the last of its light onto the cloudy sky.  The longer we watched the more people arrived and eventually it became quite busy.  But we waited and waited and eventually descended from the highest terrace.  While waiting for Nicole the sky changed suddenly and most people were streaming out to their buses, tuk tuks, and vans.  Never ones to go with the flow we fought the tide of people and dashed through the temple again to try to find the best light.  Eventually I found myself back at the top as the last visitor was packing up to leave.  I had it all to myself and it was magical.

With the light almost gone we returned to our hotel.  Tomorrow Brian and Nicole return to Phnom Penh and Francene rejoins us in Siem Reap.  We all went out to dinner together one last time (at least for a couple of weeks) and then returned to our respective rooms to get cleaned up before another early morning.

Canon 1D X, Canon 16-35/f2.8L Mark II
16mm, f8, merged and HDR of 1/4, 1/2, 1, 2, 4, 8, 15 sec @ 200 ISO