Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Last Day in the Temples

I suspect from the lack of comments that you're all bored with my vacation slides now, so I'll wrap this up and go back to aviation posts. Thanks for putting up with my debriefing for so long. I'm almost done.

On the last day in Siem Riep I'm going out to the tuktuks at the agreed upon time and a driver I don't know approaches me. He tells me that Chan, the driver we've had for the other days can't come today, that he had to work at the soldier hospital. That's unfortunate, because while I'm sure the replacement that Chan has arranged is a competent driver who knows the temples, his English is not good enough for what I had planned. I was going to do a half day in the temples, then find a quiet café somewhere and take advantage of Cham's good English skills to work on my Khmer. I figured he'd agree: he gets the same rate as for driving and I buy him a meal, and he doesn't have to burn any gasoline. And it's nice to work with the same person. We go back to the temples.

Some of the temples are elaborately carved and some have quite rough decorations. Almost all of the temples are not quite finished, if you consider finished to mean that all the surfaces are evenly covered with a symmetrical, or at least logical density of decorations to a certain standard. One of the differences is that sandstone-faced temples can have very fine decorations, but that temple faces that are made of the red laterite stone pictured above cannot, because the laterite is coarse in texture and quickly eroded. It's easier to cut and work with for construction however. One compromise is to build with laterite and face with sandstone. I took this picture of an old staircase, because it shows the sandstone shipped away from a stair, revealing the underlying laterite construction.

At this same temple, a little quiet one, there was grass growing between the surprisingly complete outer walls and the inner structure with all the stairs and doorways. I was walking around trying to see if there was a way to get into what appeared to be a gallery between some of the walls, or if it was just a construction space, now accidentally visible because of the decay. I noticed some movement in the grass by my foot. It could have been an insect, but the plant there looked familiar. When I was a kid, someone showed me a mimosa plant that folded up when you touched the leaves. It looks a little like a fern, with delicate little leaves in pairs along the side of a stem, and now there's a plant like that by my foot. I poke it with my finger, and sure enough it folds up. I've probably poked hundreds of ferns that looked like that, but this is the first time that I've found one in the wild. It's the first time I've been in the right place to find one. The link says that it's native to Brazil but is now a "pantropical weed." I guess that means there weren't any here in the 10th century.

On the topic of things underfoot, I've been looking at the paving stones on the walkways around the temples. This one had writing on it, perhaps the signature of a builder. I forgot to ask any Khmer speaker what, if anything, it said. It would seem odd for someone to sign a paving stone. I imagine that stones that were partly broken or otherwise not appropriate for building might be repurposed for paving.

This one, with the feet, was in the walkway over the moat to Angkor Wat. Is it the 11th century equivalent of some junior stone cutter photocopying his foot? It's not like no one was going to notice that there were some feet in the stone, but it's not part of anything. It was a lot of work to make. Why did they do it? I don't know. I saw another stone that had a spiral shaped fossil in it.

The tall temple below was the most stereotypical temple. It was a simple pyramid and at the pinnacle was an open area with a Buddha and an altar for offerings. It was straightforward: you climb up the steep stairs, you pray, you leave your offering and you can go down another staircase. The tall temple was near the elephant terrace. I believe its restoration was sponsored by the Czech government. It was kind of cool how many countries had a little hand in research, preservation and restoration at the temple. Some had obvious connections of history and religion, but others seemed to be just helping to preserve something that is of interest to the world. National karma, as it were.

When I get back to the tuktuk, the driver is eating leaves from a tree. I try one. It tastes like a leaf. I hope it doesn't have some strange narcotic property that will be a problem for me. He's happily eating lots. I guess it's an acquired taste.

I'll skip now to my very favourite temple in the whole park, called East Mebor. I was there early in the morning, it was still cool, maybe only twenty-five degrees out, and it was so quiet that I could hear the whirring of the camera of the only other person there, perhaps seventy-five metres away from me. The main feature of this temple is the animal sculptures. You can see lions flanking the staircases up to this doorway, kind of different from the way western art traditionally portrays lions, sitting more upright with a more vertical mane, and with the tail more prominent, although most of the tails were broken off and gone.

There were also elephants on all the corners facing out, on the different levels, almost life-sized. It's hard to take a picture of oneself with an elephant, as I discovered last night. When you're on top of the elephant or right next to it, it's too big to get in frame, and get far enough away from it and then it's hard to get yourself in the picture and in focus. Elephants are big. You'd think I would have learned that in kindergarten, but there are lots of things one learns in school that you still need actual experience with to learn learn.

I had the driver park near Srah Srang, a water reservoir built in the 10th century. It is mostly just an artificial lake, with a viewing platform at one end, steps going down to the water and flanked by statues. I tell the driver I am going to walk around the lake. He is surprised, and I have to persuade him that this is not a problem for me. It's a good walk and I meet two kids searching for something in the water. I ask "dtrei?", which means fish and they tell me in English "frogs." I suspect that if they catch any they will end up as cornfrogs or other comestibles. There is a group of people in two old boats, wearing the uniforms of the park maintenance crew beached on the shore further down. They are resting on the shore eating lunch. I search my vocabulary for words that might help me to ask what they might be doing, and before I come up with something one of the men asks me, "Parlez vous français?" I respond in the affirmative, but that seems to startle him and I don't think he knows more than that phrase. Someone else asks if I speak English and I give him an affirmative answer, too, but neither French or English is enough for us to communicate what they are doing. I think they are gathering up loose lily pads and other floating debris, while leaving the groomed groups of lilies growing in designated places in the reservoir. I say goodbye and keep walking all the way around. The tuk tuk driver is asleep when I find him. I'm considering if there's something else I might do here rather than wake him up, when one of the other driver laughs and wakes him up for me.

We saw this scarecrow on the way home. That's what the driver called it when I asked him about it, but it's for scaring ghosts, not birds. It is a sentry to defend the house from evil spirits.

I have the driver take me downtown and then pay him for the day. Walking down the street, I often hear the word kromaa in my wake. It's the word for the red and white checked headscarf I'm wearing, a gift from the Tabitha people and a very useful garment to protect from sun, cold, dust, and bugs. I've used it to tie my hat on, too. Everyone got one, but most of the group don't wear theirs. Someone told me it made me look like a terrorist, I guess because it's a bit like the keffiyeh scarf that Arab men wear, but he was just teasing me, and it's an extremely convenient item. I imagine people are saying, "Check out that silly European in the kromaa." I would be concerned that it was associated with the Khmer Rouge, as they wore a kromaa like this as part of their uniforms, but the Tabitha project people gave us these: they wouldn't give us an oppressive political symbol and a lot of locals, male and female, wear them.

There's a street stall set up with a tank full of fish they call Doctor Fish. I've heard about this. You put your feet in the tank and the fish nibble on any dead skin, giving you a pedicure. I adore fish and I like foot massages, so I pay my three dollars and sit on the padded side to put my feet in. The price of admission allows you to stay as long as you like, and includes a cold local beer. The nibbling fish are awesome. It's like being poked gently with the tip of a chopstick. The only problem is that now I'm a sitting target for street vendors. I politely decline most of them, but then a one-legged landmine victim (he has a sign in English giving his story) holds up an English language cookbook. It's small enough to go in my luggage easily, has colour pictures and I love the food here. Sold. The fish nibble on my feet while I read about various ways to prepare their brethren.

I find cornfrogs pictured in the cookbook, called Kang-kep baob. Kang-kep means frog, I know from the pictionary session with the kids, so we should have called it a frog-kabob. According to the recipe, the frog is stuffed with chicken or pork. Now that I know it's not stuffed with frog guts, it seems much more appetizing. I set out to find one.

The first market I come to doesn't have food, but I get into a conversation with a vendor there. She speaks good English and tells me she is married with one two-month-old son. She proudly tells me that he has light skin and a "good nose." A good nose, according to her gestures is one that sticks out like mine, not one that is flat, like hers. How did my genotype get to be the definition of beauty in a land where almost everyone is light brown and flat-nosed? I have to admit to having paid no attention at all to skin colour variations here. When I arrived I did notice that people are of a darker hue than what I used to consider "Asian," but I haven't subsequently compared them to one another. Have the French, Russian and American elite redefined beauty over the last hundred and fifty years? Crazy. She directs me to another market that may have frog kebabs.

I don't find them, so lunch was a chicken coconut curry with sliced super hot peppers served on the side. I've learned how to use these now. You put a few slices in the dish, and you don't ever eat them, but their just being there heats up the flavour and leaves my lips tingling. There's French bread and good butter with the meal. I'll get my cornfrog in Phnom Penh.

Supper is a fancy affair at the hotel, apparently a freebee arranged by the travel agent in return for our business. The tables and chairs are set up outside on the lawn, where we are swarmed with insects and eat okay Khmer food. No frog-kebabs, though.


Wayne Conrad said...

Not bored. Just listening, but I forgot to nod and say "uh huh" now and then. My mistake. I've enjoyed your trip. Thanks!

nec Timide said...

Same here. Captivated. There is so little in my experience that intersects with your experience on this trip that it is difficult to comment, other than saying thank you for sharing.

So thank you.

Devil In The Drain said...

Also me. Not bored, just fascinated and jealous.

Anoynmous said...

I've stopped myself several times from making comments that would have been mostly recollections of my own travels that were sparked by something you said. This is your blog, not mine.

Louise said...

Ditto. Fascinated and loving it. Take as long as you like.

Aviatrix said...

I've already wrapped up the trip in postdated posts, but I'll use your interest as licence to return and mention other recollections that occur to me in future.

townmouse said...

hehe - regarding the size of elephants, that reminded me of a friend's daughter who we took to the zoo. She was all excited about seeing the giraffes which were her favourite animal - well, up to the point where she actually saw the giraffe at which point she burst into tears because nobody had explained to her that giraffes were that BIG. She was playing with toy ones in her bath...

Frank Van Haste said...

Dear Grid:

I'm another in the "raptly fascinated" group. Please go on for as long as you wish.



Sarah said...

Exactly as others, I was reading raptly. We were just holding our comments / applause for the end of the extended piece.

I especially enjoyed the visit it Angkor Wat and the post "apsaras".

John said...

I've stopped comments in mid-type several times, simply because there is so much content; overwhelming, in a pleasant way. Your commentary has been enrapturing ("captivated" and "raptly fascinated" have already been used...and I'm not even sure enrapturing is a word, but what they heck).

Thank you, and yes, feel free to bring any stray recollections into the narrative as the spirit moves you.

Sarah said...

John: I've deleted comments too! Same reason.

Aviatrix: I forgot to mention how great the photos are. Thanks for posting them.

Aviatrix said...

You guys are great. Thanks for explaining. Now that you have, I feel honoured by the absence of comments.

DeAnn said...

Cornfrog and comestibles sent me to the dictionary tab ... I have really enjoyed the trek, within this journey, through the cuisine.
I appreciate the opportunity to "see" this through your eyes and heart and mind.
Where will you go next? Seems you left a piece of yourself there...