Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Cambodia Day One: Buddhist Monks and Bumpy Rides

Our most recent adventure began at 4 am, when Bryan and I dragged ourselves out of bed and out into the darkness to meet our taxi to the airport. By 7 am, we were touching down in another world- Siem Reap, Cambodia. Even the airport was exotic- a charming wooden building that looked like a temple itself, with a scenic little garden in the courtyard. Inside was a panel of officials, waiting to issue us visas (it literally took 10 intimidating, uniformed officials, all sitting in a row behind a huge wooden desk). We made our way outside and got a taxi into Siem Reap, where we planned to catch a boat to Battambang. It turned out that we were too late for the boat (the departure times are pretty fluid, apparently), so our super helpful driver took us to the bus station, where (surprise!) we had just missed the day's last bus to Battambang. Our driver called up another driver, and asked him to take us to Battambang. We wanted our driver to take us, but he said that his company would charge us too much, and that it would be cheaper if we went through another company. He sat with us by the river, and waited until our next driver arrived, and then wished us well. So far, I was liking the people of Cambodia.

We got into our car for the ride to Battambang, which was supposed to be anywhere from one and a half to three hours (it depended on who you asked). And what a bottom bang it was!! The car's shocks were pretty bad, so we bounced all the way there. Along the way, we got a chance to check out the scenery. The roads themselves were a trip- motorbikes, cars, trucks, bicycles, pedestrians, horse-drawn carts and tuk-tuks all squeezed together and around each other, honking all the while. Beyond the road was even more- cows, chickens, pigs, and children. There was a lot of farming going on, as agriculture and tourism are the two main sources of employment in Siem Reap. Looking out over the fields made Bryan and me reminisce about Ohio and Minnesota, but of course the tall palm trees in the distance always brought us back to reality. We started to see ornately detailed wats (temple-monasteries) set a ways back from the road. The elaborate wats stood in stark contrast to the huts and makeshift homes closer to the street. We stopped along the way at a little restaurant with cows and chickens roaming the yard. The coffee was heavenly, the food was mediocre, and the bathroom was an experience all its own (In Cambodia, some of the bathrooms are squatters with a big, square reservoir full of dirty water off to the side. There's a little bucket that you fill with the reservoir water and dump it down the toilet). When we finally pulled into Battambang and found our resort (after stopping a few times to get directions from the ever-friendly locals), we were grateful to see our lovely bungalow at the Rottanak Resort (aka the Battambang Boutique Resort, the Scoop Resort, the Scoop Rottanak Resort, etc.- the place has so many names).After a little rest, we headed out to check out the town, which is centered around the river. We stopped to get a closer look at Wat Kandal, and were awed by our first up-close look of one of these places. The wats are typically large compounds that include several buildings, including living quarters for the monks, temples, other religious structures, and a graveyard/monument area. Everything is exquisitely detailed and eye-catching. This first wat wasn't particularly celebrated as anything unique or different, but we spent a lot of time soaking it in- it was certainly new and different to us! And for that reason, I will share many pictures:Bryan and I thought that this cracked man was strangely symbolic of the Cambodian experience- their majestic past as the seat of the Khmer empire, the downfall of the empire to the Thai, and later the horrific bloody regime of the Khmer Rogue, and their present situation as a nation coming to terms with their past.OK, enough metaphor. Food! Bryan and I found some after we wandered away from Wat Kandal and into town. White Rose had a good mix of Cambodians and Caucasians eating there, so we decided to give it a try. It was DELICIOUS. We munched and praised the food until it was almost gone. And then I found a stir-fried fly in my food. And suddenly it wasn't so delicious anymore. I wasn't upset or anything- you can't expect immaculate health standards at a restaurant where they wash the dishes in the alley out back, and there are fish swimming in the dirty reservoir water in the bathroom. So it goes.

We walked around on the busier side of the river for awhile, checking out a couple more wats, a school, and the awesome sculpture in the photo below, which really reminded me of Haw Par Villa in S'pore.Back on the other side of the river, we stopped by another wat called Wat Por-Knong and roamed the grounds for awhile, taking in more breathtaking scenery.Eventually we stopped at a small manmade pond with a large, peaceful Buddha sculpture. We had seen something jumping in the water, so we sat down on the side to see what animals we could see. After awhile, a monk came out and handed me a packet of ramen noodles to feed the fish. His English was pretty good, and he sat with us by the water to talk. We talked about nature and animals, Buddhism, travel, Cambodia, education, and more. He saw my eyes light up when I spotted a puppy nearby, and he told us that a dog that lived at the wat had recently had six puppies and then died, and that he and the other monks were caring for the puppies. Bryan and I took up his offer to hold a couple of the sweet little guys.Hoerum (the monk) said that he would be teaching an English class to some local kids later in the afternoon, and that it would be great for the kids to hear a couple of native English speakers. He wanted them to hear how we pronounced our words, which was markedly different from his pronunciation. We agreed to go along to his class, and to kill some time, he invited us into this room of the place where he lived, where there were sculptures depicting key scenes from Buddhism. Again, it reminded me an awful lot of Haw Par Villa. We had fun trying to communicate about the scenes- Hoerum didn't have English equivalents for a lot of the things he was trying to say, and I was trying my best to recall everything I learned in my Eastern Religions class. I love the pictures below- Bryan and Hoerum standing comfortably together like old buddies, and Hoerum and me looking awkward and mildly uncomfortable- I mean, what do you do, as a woman, when you take a picture with a monk? It's not like you can toss an arm around his shoulders, and I didn't want to stand too close for fear that I would end up doing something hopelessly embarrassing, like brushing up against him with my boob.Eventually we made our way to the English class. We were in a part of Battambang where I imagine tourists rarely go, so we were drawing a little attention. One monk that we walked by was clutching a pen and scribbling furiously on his hand. He hurried up to us a minute later, extended his hand and said, "How do you say?" On his hand was "striped," which seemed appropriately random. We repeated it for him a few times, and he thanked us and went off on his way. When we got into the schoolyard, a group of kids were playing soccer with a battered wicker ball that looked like a basket, and reminded me of the super innovative balls that the kids in Kenya use to play soccer- plastic bags tied together and into knots over and over again until they had a fairly durable ball. Anyway, we walked through their game and into the modest schoolroom.

Hoerum introduced us to his students, and they all ogled us about as much as I expected. We wrote our names on the board and they all did their best to repeat them properly- "Bryyyyy-an" and "Creeeeesta". They were working on introductions, which took me back to my days of learning German and Spanish ("Hola! Como esta?"), so we talked to a lot of the kids individually, asking routine questions like "How are you? How old are you? What is your name?" and others. Despite the fact that some of the kids had pretty decent English skills and we were asking simple questions, they had some trouble understanding us because our accents are so different from what they're used to. When they asked us questions, I had trouble speaking slowly enough and especially struggled with not using contractions (can't, won't, didn't, wouldn't, isn't). After working through the English stuff for awhile and talking to a lot of the kids, Hoerum said he would translate for everyone, and said the kids could ask us questions or us them. They started, and BOY did they ask some tough questions! One girl wanted to know how the U.S. was different from Cambodia, and it was difficult to answer without being depressing- the U.S. has less poverty, fewer homeless people, more opportunities, better sanitation and healthcare, etc., etc. Instead, we talked about how the traffic in Cambodia is way crazier than in the U.S.- kind of trivial, but true. And then they asked if we were married. No? Why not? Did we live together? Yes? Do we sleep in the same bed? Keep in mind that all of this is being translated through a Buddhist monk. Awkward. We asked them if any of them had ever left Cambodia, and none of them had. They asked us how many countries we'd been to, and gaped at us as we listed them off. We asked them how many of them had TVs and were surprised to see most of them raise their hands, then start talking about what shows they like (wrestling and something called Superstar). We asked them about sports, and soccer was the hands-down favorite. The hour passed in no time, and class was over! We did get photos before it ended though- you can spot me and Bryan in one of them, sitting in with the class.After the class, Bryan and I headed back to our hotel for awhile. I was happy to hop into the pool, and enjoyed watching the sun fade away while I sipped the local beer- Angkor, of course. As night set in, bats came out and swooped down low by the pool. I was enjoying the evening, and it got even better when I spotted something SWEET up in the corner- a GIANT GECKO!!I'm used to the little geckos that Bryan and I see around our flat. They're really skinny and just a few inches long (like Roland). This monster was fat and over a foot long, with bright red dots on his back. He was on a wall on the patio near the pool, so Bryan and I spent a while watching him, even though he wasn't doing much. When I got home, I did a little research and found out that he's called a Tokay gecko, so named because they make a unique mating call that sounds like "to-KAY." Apparently Cambodians consider it good luck if the gecko makes the call seven or more times in succession.

Bryan and I retreated to our cozy, secluded little porch to finish our Angkor, and we saw a little bit more wildlife- a couple of cute little toads hopping around in front of our bungalow. I have no idea what kind they are- I always seem to have trouble identifying frogs and toads. I need an amphibian expert to start reading the blog and helping me out.When we first headed back to our room, we'd had every intention of leaving for dinner, but after swimming and relaxing, the fact that I'd been awake since 4 am was starting to hit me. We ordered food from the hotel. It was good though- Bryan got to try a local dish called lok lak, a beef dish with a heavy sauce. Vegetarian options at the hotel were slim and I was too tired to be very hungry, so I just ate some french fries and called it a night. We were both ready for a good night's sleep, since we had another early morning ahead of us!

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