Monday, February 14, 2005

Angkor Wat

tucked away in Cambodia is one of the man-made Wonders of the World. although out of loyalty i like the Taj Mahal better, Angkor Wat was incredible. adjectives fail me here- it is immense. it is intricate. it is really, really neato. i don't know how to write about this...

but i can try.

Angkor Wat is actually one of dozens of temples\wats\shrines that were commissioned by 24 different kings from the 9th to the 14th century. Angkor Wat is the most famous one. it was built in the 12th century by a king named Suryavarman II, and it is the size of Manhattan. it really is. this includes the oceanic moat, the never-ending causeway, the second never-ending causeway, the gardens and the fields etc. it is a city within itself. and it is fabulous.

all of the temples of Angkor, or many of them rather, have a long entrance that has statues of 50 or so demons on the right side, and gods on the left- these statues are involved in a tug of war using a serpent. it is a rendition of the Churning of the Ocean of Milk, which is a Hindu myth. look it up, it is interesting.

we saw many different temples, like the Bayon, which has 54 towers, each of which has a gigantic carving of the face of the king it was created for. the faces are huge. much larger than a person. we saw things with funny names, like the Terrace of Elephants or even better, the Terrace of the Leper King. We got out of bed at 4 a.m. to catch the sunrise at one of the temples and trudged out after a long day to catch sunset at another. My favorite temple, apart from Angkor Wat itself, was Banteay Srei.

Carved from pinkish stone, the detail at this place was astounding. at times i even liked it better than - gasp! - Angkor Wat. it was just astonishingly intricate.

anyway, though, Angkor Wat itself is built to impress. you walk over this long causeway, over a huge moat that seems more like a lake, and through a very carve-a-licious gateway and around several bas-reliefs showing several different stories from Hindu mythology, and then along another causeway and through another gate and finally you are there. the temple itself. it is one central tower with four smaller towers around it in a square, and the inside of all of this is a maze of turns and twists and windows with amazing views.

all very grandiose. to reach the top you must climb the steepest flight of stairs i have ever encountered. it took three times longer to climb down them than it did to climb up, and the whole time i was sure one of us was going to end up falling on our head. but you see, Angkor Wat is modelled after the universe. the central tower is heaven. the grounds are continents. the moat is the ocean. and to reach the gods you must put in at least some effort. hence the rather dangerous stairs.

i immersed myself in this place and found a lot of details that were worth exclaiming over. i took a lot of pictures that will never do the place justice. but i saw it and digested it and have come away in awe of a masterpiece. i might not be able to make something like that, but i can stare at it with the best of them.

Saturday, February 12, 2005


it's been only three nights, but already taher and i really like siem reap- this little city in cambodia where we are.

i have to say, it's the people that make all the difference. sure, head out near Angkor Wat and there is no end of people waiting to pounce like vultures upon any tourist in their path, but that is to be expected. we have just found that there are smiles upon everyone's faces. they seem happy to have us here (for reasons other than the money we bring in)- they are just pleasant, in general. most of the people we have interacted with have been sweet or grinning or incredibly polite.

it's such a change from the dour faces on everyone pulled in ho chi minh. there, it was as though the War was still hanging in the air for everyone to capitalise on- the tourists wanted to see the War sites and the vendors were able to take them there. at times it felt like the culture of the place took a back seat to the tourism. and that was extremely frustrating for us.

the thing is, cambodia hasn't had the prettiest history ever- everyone has heard the term "the killing fields" even if they don't exactly know what it means. but unlike in ho chi minh, i don't feel like i am unwanted here. it's more of a "come, come, see Angkor Wat, sure, spend a few bucks, but also let's be nice to one another and grin a lot and show all our teeth" kind of aura around here. it's all so lighthearted. right now, outside the internet cafe, some guy is sitting on the sidewalk and playing a flute, and i keep hearing people clapping along as they walk by- like it's a block party. and just now, as i wrote that, i heard one guy honk his horn in tune with the beat! it's true.

we went to see the sunrise at one of the farther temples, and on the way we passed out of the touristy section of siem reap and actually got into the residential areas. it was not what i was expecting. although money is slowly pouring in and the economy is beginning to change, the lifestyle seems a bit more static. the houses are all lined up along the road, one next to the other, but if you look at each individual house, it is a village scene. siem reap is a city, not a village. and yet here are these neighborhoods where people don't seem to really have noticed that they live in a city. chickens and naked children are running about amidst yellowed, faded clothing hung up to dry, and the smell of a pet shop is thick in the air. people are sitting around stirring things in pots in their front yards. some men are beating the grass with sticks and chatting. it is all that a village should be.

who knows, in ten years the chickens may be fenced in, the children may be clothed, the pots may be moved to the kitchens. but for now, siem reap seems all right to me.

(i haven't even mentioned our days wandering around Angkor- that will require a separate post, though, so please stay tuned. we leave for bangkok in the morning and i will blog once we get there. i miss bangkok!)

Wednesday, February 09, 2005

Vietnam II

well, after almost a week here, taher and i are looking very forward to going to Cambodia. for some reason, neither of us is very enchanted with ho chi minh city. we have done some interesting things, of course, but now that we have sort of gotten around the city and seen the sights, we are discovering that there is very little variety here. the entire city feels like one big neighborhood. there isn't any real distinction between one area and another. and besides the cu chi tunnels and the mekong and the few pagodas, there is nothing to delve into. HCM is unkempt and the people are not friendly. i can't tune in to the spirit of the place. it all gives me the impression that things are falling apart and that any street that is not well-lit is to be avoided.

the place is giving me a gray feeling. i miss bangkok!

it is definitely a new experience for me; i have been many places and only rarely do i actually dislike a foreign city. and of the 10 or 11 countries taher and i have been to together, this is the first we have both been eager to leave.

i am very glad we came here, and experienced what we have, but i'm more than ready to move on. i cannot wait to get to cambodia and see Angkor. stay tuned :)

Tuesday, February 08, 2005


taher and i are on a little holiday. we're in Vietnam right now, and in a few days we will be off to Cambodia. here in Vietnam, we are mostly staying around Ho Chi Minh city (aka Saigon).

so far, the impression i am left with is how very un-informed i am about the vietnam war. it is mentioned so many times and yet my visit here is the first time i have tried to learn more about it. i suppose that when it comes to history that is, unfortunately, the case with me. it takes me actually having to be surrounded by history before i think to sort through it...

anyway. our first full day, we went to the Cu Chi Tunnels. this was an amazing experience- the Tunnels are a very extensive and intricate system of underground tunnels, rooms, kitchens, etc, in which the vietnamese people lived when there was warfare going on up above. there is a LOT of information online about these tunnels, including maps and detailed descriptions- i don't want to overload this post with info.... but for us, the experience was incredible. and very sobering. the tactics, the traps the vietnamese thought up were so detailed and ingenious. and frightening. there were traps into which a soldier could fall, and end up with long, glinting, steel spikes through his body. there were all sorts of ways to be impaled if you didn't know the area. and besides these traps, there were covered entrances to the Tunnels, from which a vietnamese soldier could pop out and attack you without any noise or any warning.

it was a very intense look into war. bomb shelters, traps, tunnels, grenade triggers, all neatly blended into the forest-scape. i was intrigued but also very alarmed. not often have i ventured into former battlegrounds. or crawled through hot, winding, dusty, rough tunnels, knowing all the while that this tunnel through which i was crawling was specially widened and cleaned up and aired out for tourists. it was miserable down there, and i knew that the real thing, the genuine, untouched tunnels, were far worse.

so. we also visited the Mekong Delta, which is a large area near Ho Chi Minh that encompasses the Mekong River as well as endless rice fields- the stereotypical images of people working the rice paddies, triangular hats upon their heads, were probably born of this region. our visit was just a day long but it was long enough to get a feeling for the kind of peaceful life this must be- quiet forests, lots of winding streams, and only one method of transportation: canoes.

speaking of transportation, our main one while in the city has been a bicycle taxi; a guy on a high bicycle, pushing an attached buggy in front of him. you sit in this buggy and watch the world whiz by you as you chug chug slowly along the street. this ambling pace is fun for us, since we are able to take everything in and just kind of enjoy the scene.

right now, in preparation for Chinese New Year, everything is in an uproar. the city is decorated in red lights, making it seem a bit seedy on smaller streets. but in the center of town, it's all dragons and roosters (this year will be the year of the rooster) and lanterns and lights and people- there is a huge traffic circle in the middle of town, around which all of these people and cars and motorcycles zip- combined with the multitude of lights, the effect is very swirly and dizzying.

anyway. our one trip to the history museum here in HCM hasn't exactly saturated me with knowledge, so i will keep reading and trying to inform myself of the history of this place. in my next post, i'll let you know how far i've gotten ;)