Saturday, May 29, 2010

How to move furniture

On your bicycle taxi, in heavy traffic, while smoking a cigarette: That's Phnom Penh style.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Eating lotus

It must have been lotus season in Cambodia because people were selling them everywhere as snacks. These women were hawking them outside our bus at the Cambodia-Vietnam border.

To eat them, you have to rip open the fibrous flower head.

Then you peel off the seed's little green jacket. You're left with a pure-white rounded cylinder that looks like a little pill or maybe an earplug. They have a slightly foam-like texture, like a mushroom but crunchier, and a mild planty taste like cucumber.

It wasn't my favorite snack ever (I think that would still be the glorious curry puff), but it was fun to try, given the importance of the lotus to Asian culture and religion -- and the number of lotus statues, bas-reliefs and paintings we've seen over the last few weeks.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

The Killing Fields

Warning: disturbing images!

Going to from the ancient splendor of Angkor Wat to the modern horrors of the Khmer Rouge in two days is a dizzying experience. I'm not sure I'd recommend doing it that fast. But I definitely recommend the Killing Fields memorial site, which does an admirably unflinching job of telling a terrible story.

The trail points out the areas where trucks stopped to unload frightened, blindfolded prisoners. It takes you to the mass graves where their bodies lie. It describes the awful ways in which people died.

The matter-of-fact tone encourages you to put yourself in the place of those terrified prisoners ... and also in the place of the murderous guards, who after all were human too. Some probably needed only the slightest encouragement to become executioners, while others were persuaded to kill after being threatened with death themselves. What would I do in their shoes?

The image you may already know from the Killing Fields is the skulls. They're housed in a clear-sided memorial stupa where visitors can see them up close. They're alike, of course, but each a little different, and they say more than a thousand pages in a thousand books.

From the Killing Fields we went to S21, the prison where people were held and tortured before being transferred for execution. Here it was the photographs of the victims that spoke loudest.

 Who were these people? Who would they have become?

Less is more: The Siem Reap-Phnom Penh bus

The ticket from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh was a great deal even by Southeast Asian bus standards: $4.50 for a 6-hour ride. But it followed that unwritten bus rule of less-is-more: pay less money, get more noise.

First were the music videos, which were pretty fun. Some guys in the back started playing their radio at the same time, but our hero, the bus captain, strode down the aisle and told them to knock it off. After that came a Jet Li action movie, overdubbed into Khmer by two men with husky voices. About an hour into the show, the picture froze. Then the movie commenced again from the beginning, but with the soundtrack turned off and pop music blaring instead. After a few minutes, all attempts at movie-watching were abandoned and there was a period of blessed silence.

We stopped at a roadside stand and had some delicious anise-dominated beef curry with noodles. (I think of anise as Chinese-y, but I've been surprised to find it in force in Northern Thai and Cambodian food too.)

After dinner we were treated to a stunning sunset.

We optimistically put our headphones on and started listening to a podcast. But it was not to be. As darkness gathered, 90 minutes away from Phnom Penh, the bus driver put the radio on over the loudspeakers. I got all caught up on my Cambodian news, but I'm sad to say I didn't understand a word of it.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Ta Prohm: The rhythms of rubble

The last temple we visited at the Angkor Wat complex was Ta Prohm, which has been kept in a semi-natural state to show how the temples looked before they were rehabilitated.

The rhythms of rubble compete with, and sometimes seem to complete, the rhythms of order and beauty.

And roots add their own architecture to carved rock.

Bayon: Tower of faces

One thing I didn't know before I went there: Angkor Wat refers only to the central temple of the whole temple complex. As far as anyone knows, Angkor Wat itself has been in continuous use since it was built in the 12th century. Surrounding it are numerous other temples which were abandoned and later restored.

While Angkor Wat was built as a Hindu temple, Bayon temple has Buddhist origins. It rises up as a wall of 216 eerily serene faces. On every tower, a face looks out in each of the four directions.

Peek around any corner and you'll be confronted by that wispy all-knowing smile. Some say the face is modeled after the bodhisattva Lokesvara; some say it is the face of the king who built the temple, Jayavarman VII. Others say it's both.

The inner chambers are like a maze, having been built and rebuilt over the centuries to suit different kings. Little altars are scattered inside and out, where you can light a joss stick and make a small donation.

All around the outskirts of the building are little extra bits of temple, some of which make a nice dog-sized shelter on a blazing hot day.

Angkor Wat!

Angkor Wat presents a challenge to the blogger: How to describe the indescribable?

How to even begin? There are the soaring towers, of course.

I also loved the long, graceful terraces flanked with columns.

A series of bas reliefs stretches the whole length of the terraces, bringing to life, among other tales, the battle between Hanuman's monkey army and that of the demon king Ravana.

When monkeys attack - with long knives!

On a more spiritual plane are the apsaras, celestial nymphs who smile from corners and columns in nearly every chamber.

My favorite, though - and I guess it's no big surprise, cat lover that I am - was the lions. They may be corroded, with crumbling faces, but they still have powerful haunches that look coiled and ready to spring.

Next I'll blog about some of the other temples in the complex. But I repeat, you just can't capture Angkor Wat in a few words or photos. It is steeped in history and radiant with a dozen different kinds of magic. If you can find a way to get there, go. I don't see how you could regret it.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Junk food purveyor of the week: 7-11

When I was a kid in Northern Virginia, there were 7-11 convenience stores everywhere. Over time their numbers dwindled. Now I know where they all went: Thailand.

In Bangkok especially, you can hardly walk a block without passing a 7-11. While this may seem excessive, it's a sensible business strategy, because that's about how far you can walk in the 100-degree heat before you want another cold drink.

Among 7-11's many culinary offerings is the completely-unrefrigerated Shredded Pork Sandwich. I had my first SPS one day in Chiang Mai when I was really hungry, and I thought it was the greatest sandwich ever: pork salad sandwiched between cheap white bread with a couple of slices of pork sausage, and heavy slatherings of what seemed like some kind of yellow jam.

On closer inspection, the SPS proved to be made of pretty cheap and appalling materials. What I thought was pork salad was just floss, the highly-processed dried meat product that is also much-loved in Jakarta. The "jam" was margarine, but it must have sugar added to it because it's distinctly sweet.

Despite its obvious crappiness, I still have a certain love for the SPS. There's just something great about porky-sweet-salty flavors (think bacon and maple syrup), especially if you've been pork-deprived for four years.

Exhibit B is something I initially found horrifying: the Corn Pie. I think corn is okay, but I'm a little baffled by the Southeast Asian corn craze. I don't mind the cups of it sold as mall treats, and even the corn-and-ice-cream combo. But something about a pie full of corn disgusts me.

That being said, this was more tolerable than I expected. There isn't too much corn, and it's accompanied by a pleasantly distracting cream-cheese-like substance. I finished my half, so it must not have been too bad.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Karaoke on the go

Getting on the train? Need a quick round of karaoke first? No problem, if you're in Udon Thani. Just duck into the little booths in the night market right next to the station.

The ghosts of Ban Chiang

We didn't do a lot of touristy stuff in Udon Thani, but we did make it out to one remarkable place: the Ban Chiang archeological site, about an hour west of downtown.

The people of Ban Chiang produced distinctive red-patterned ceramics. In fact, it was the pots working their way to the surface, like flags of an underground nation, that alerted a grad student to the presence of an ancient settlement in the late 1960s.

The people of Ban Chiang scattered pots over the bodies as part of their burial ritual. The earliest graves are believed to date back to 2100 BC. They suggest that Southeast Asia, previously thought to be a bit sluggish at developing Bronze Age tools, actually reached that landmark at a pretty respectable pace.

Afterward we walked around the little town with our heads full of bones. Lots of Ban Chiang houses are on stilts, making them look a bit like Maine or North Carolina beach houses, which added to the pleasant jumble of continents and millennia in my brain.

All the manhole covers in town are painted with patterns from the ancient pottery, which is a nice touch.

Lunch was a bowl of vegetable soup with wide, fried noodles at the bottom. It wasn't spicy, but the accompanying jar of chopped chilis in vinegar certainly was!

Sunday, May 23, 2010

The invisible orphanage

My last stop on the Dad trail in Udorn was St. Mary's Church and School. He had visited there a few times and described the children in his letters home.

The kids mobbed me. They all wanted to be picked up. They are all toddlers from a few days old to 2 or 3 years. Many are adopted by Americans and taken to the States. A large number lost their mothers in childbirth. Sister said a lot of the mothers from the back country die in childbirth because of sanitation. It's easy to believe since even the water in the best hotels is not safe to drink. Sister said that quite a few of the kids had twin sisters or brothers who had died. - June 10, 1968

I picked up one little girl and the diaper pin came open as I did. Darn near jabbed her a good one. Sister gave me a new one and I pinned her back up. I hadn't forgotten how! - June 12

Chad and I got over just as school was letting out. We asked at the main office whether anyone there still remembered the orphanage, but a school employee said all the old nuns were gone. She directed us next door to the church, a very funky, Dr. Seussian sort of building.

We couldn't find anyone on the church grounds so I started snapping pictures through the windows, hoping to roust out a suspicious caretaker.

Finally we walked around some more and found a diocese office. Nobody there remembered the orphanage either, but they arranged for me to come back the next day and talk to the recently-retired bishop, who had served for over thirty years.

I can still see those kids' faces: Joseph, Francesca, Tony, Caroline, Buddha. Buddha got his name from being so pudgy. Caroline was a little mean. She would pinch the faces of the other kids, I think out of jealousy. She wanted to be picked up but wouldn't come close enough. The rest of the kids hung around my legs and crawled into my lap if I sat down. I hope the picture of Joseph comes out. He was perpetually smiling and always gay. If I could have walked off with him we would now have 6 children. 

One little girl just sobbed uncontrollably when I tried to tickle her and make her smile. I've often wondered if I somehow reminded her of her father. I guess I'll never know. - June 25

I met with the former bishop the next morning and gave him a printout of Dad's descriptions of the place for their records. The bishop was very kind, but he didn't remember the orphanage either, and he wasn't aware of any surviving photos or descriptions of it. Apparently it was run pretty independently by the nuns. He said nowadays the church has an orphanage up on the Laotian border for kids of HIV-positive parents.

He told me the church building was 50 years old, so it would have been there when Dad was there. It wasn't as much as I'd hoped for, but it was at least a tangible connection to those years.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Udorn Hotel

We are staying at the Udorn Hotel in town since the BOQ [Base Officers Quarters] isn't too adequate. The hotel is surprisingly nice in most respects although the bed is hard and lumpy. The room is large and air conditioned and we have a bathtub but the hot water is brown with sediment.

-Dad, Sept. 9, 1967

I wasn’t too sure about the Udon Hotel at first. It looked a bit too nice to be one of Dad’s old Air Force hotels, and parts of it seemed more recent in vintage. The woman at the desk told me it dated back only 30 years.

But the more I looked, the more clues I noticed. The chair and table sets next to the plate glass window overlooking the garden, for example, were kind of groovy. Were they copies of the originals, or merely chosen to match the period floor tiles and light fixtures? Who knows? Not me, that's for sure.

It was the sign on the front that convinced me, though: "Udorn Hotel," just like he spelled it. There were birds nesting behind the letters. Just as I was snapping photos of it, Chad walked up. The property manager had approached him in the parking lot after getting suspicious of the foreigners shooting pictures of his hotel. He told Chad the original building dated back 50 years. A new wing had been added 18 years ago.

I got up about 9 this morning and went downstairs for breakfast. Afterward we went across the street to a combined park and zoo which was pretty interesting. It is a primitive place but they had bears, llamas, wild boars, monkeys etc. in cages along the sides of the park. - November 5

I'm pretty sure this was the park he was talking about. The bears, llamas et al are gone, mercifully, since I'm sure they were kept in tiny, sad cages in the hot sun. The field is partially paved and used for festivals now. It seemed a bit lonely and deserted. While we were walking through it, a Coke truck came across and kicked up a whole lot of dust.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Margaritaville becomes Curfewville

Hi all! I had hoped to put in a solid couple of hours of blogging tonight on further Udorn stuff, but it will have to wait because we're in Bangkok and all the internet cafes are closing early to comply with a curfew in the wake of yesterday's unrest. Things seem very quiet here now and thousands of protesters were sent home today.

Early tomorrow we head off to Angkor Wat. Cambodia will be the first country on this trip that's new for both of us. This crummy hotel computer refuses to pull photos from my camera, so I'll post a stolen photo of Angkor:


The plus side of the curfew is that we can expect a nice quiet night even though we're staying on Khao San Road, Bangkok's famous backpacker street, which usually a riot of beer joints and street stalls at night. More soon!

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

The ghosts of Udorn

Living in the hotels at Udorn is a real unique experience. You start out well equipped – soap, towels, ice bucket, ice and ice tongs, and water glasses. The longer you stay, however, the more the stuff disappears. The housegirls take all the dirty stuff but don’t leave any clean. Last time I outfoxed them and brought a towel of my own. They took that one too.

I was not surprised to find Udorn full of ghosts. After all, it was a ghost who brought us here. My late father, who wrote the paragraph above, stayed here intermittently while flying C-130s during the Vietnam War. He died a few years ago, leaving behind a year's worth of letters he'd sent to my mom and us kids.

One of the places he stayed in Udorn (now more commonly known as Udon Thani) was the King Hotel.

Remember the picture I took of the building being constructed next to the Victory Hotel? It ended up being the King's Hotel which is where we are staying now. I have a small single room with air conditioning which is nice.

Luckily for us, the hotel is still standing, and appears to have changed little over the last 43 years. Take the groovy chair/endtable combo, for example.

I love the little rack of glasses nailed up next to the bathroom door.

The battered bottle-opener dangling on a chain looks about ready for the Museum of Pop Culture History too.

Even the renovations only seemed to shine a spotlight on the past, rather than cover it up. This light switch must have been next to the bed at one time. Now it's stranded just above the floor, with only a metal stool for company.

The bathrooms vent into the corridor so you can hear, in our case, the guy next door shower for hours on end while making terrible chest-clearing sounds as if trying to launch a lung into orbit.

It was all deeply evocative and a satisfying way to begin time-traveling. We plan to check out a few other places Dad talked about in his letters. More later.