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The (real) music of Vietnam

I admit I’m something of a music snob. American pop music (most of it, anyway) has long struck me as gimmicky, predictable, and empty of genuine feeling. Whatever version of pop it is — straight-up ballad, hip hop, R&B, emo/rock, or country — it generally leaves me cold and critical. In the past my musical taste prejudices have put strains on relationships with some of the people I’m closest to. It’s not my most endearing quality. So to anyone I may have offended or grated upon in the past, I extend my sincerest apologies. Until I got to Vietnam, I didn’t realize how good pop music is in the States.

Vietnamese pop basically consists of the following: a backing track of canned drums and synthesized accompaniment; a they’ll-have-to-pry-this-karaoke-mic-from-my-hands singer, dripping with bathos, who churns again and again through the chorus’s five-note melody and lyrical refrain (which I cannot understand, but probably means something like, “I’m trying to drill this into your head, though you might prefer an actual dri-i-ill”); a break for an incongruous and off-key ‘80s hair-metal guitar solo; and finally the coda, which typically signals that the end of the song is near, but in Vietnam it means that the chorus will be repeated and repeated until the singer collapses under the weight of his or her own melodrama. There follows a quiet interlude when the fallen singer is dragged away from the microphone, whence a new one shuffles into place and begins the same song from the top.

I wouldn’t be so tough on Vietnam’s pop if its traditional music weren’t so rich and texturally interesting, with unique, native instruments and beguiling vocal techniques. Unfortunately (for anyone stuck in the back of a Vietnamese taxi during a traffic jam), there is an un-bridged chasm between the complexity and creativity of Vietnam’s traditional music and the enervating drone of its pappy pop. But let’s focus on the positive and take a look at some examples of traditional music…

Here’s a sampling of some music you’ll hear on a visit to the Temple of Literature in Hanoi, kicked off by a quicksilvery dàn bâu line:

Next, here’s a musical performance from the Thang Long Water Puppet Theater in Hanoi. The music begins at 0:33. Sorry for the poor quality of the video; I have to practice shaking the camera violently in case I ever get the chance to film Bigfoot.

And a bit more from the water puppet show, with beautiful vocals (and puppets!):

Finally, here’s a bit of video from a traditional dance show we caught in Mai Chau, Vietnam. The bamboo poles — more than merely crushing the bare feet of any misguided tourist who later dared to attempt this dance, cough, cough — provide percussion behind the accordion and mandolin.

Thanks for reading (and watching and listening)!

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Phuket, Thailand

Ah, Phuket, I had such high hopes for thee. Hearing the word Phuket — at least since I learned it was a place name, pronounced “poo-ket”, and not an expression of frustration with a different pronunciation — has always brought to mind calm, teal waters, crispy sunbathers strewn across bone-colored beaches, and palm crowns shimmying in the salty breeze. And on these fronts Phuket did not disappoint. Unfortunately, on most other fronts it did.

There are three major qualifiers I should mention before I proceed. One, I am not a spread-a-towel-on-the-sand-and-sunbathe kind of guy — in fact, I’m nearly translucent — so I’m looking for more than the kind of experience that can be had in any given desert. Two, my trip to Phuket fell squarely during the low season, so surely I wasn’t catching it in peak form. And three, I spent just two and a half days there, and perhaps with a bit more time my esteem of the island would have improved. It’s telling, though, that after only two and a half days I was ready to kiss the carpet of the plane that carried me off.

Phuket suffers from a mild case of Cruise Ship Syndrome, in that once you’re there, you’re forced to pay inflated prices for things simply because you have no alternative: food, lodging, transport, internet access, and so on. This is a common phenomenon on islands. Easter Island, for instance, is similarly expensive, except that it bears the excuse of being separated from its nearest neighbor by 2,000 kilometers of ocean, and just about everything consumable has to be shipped or flown in. The distance between mainland Thailand and Phuket, on the other hand, is all of 600 meters, and it’s spanned by a four-lane highway. Hmmm.

Then there’s the omnipresent prostitution. Clearly it wouldn’t be so prevalent if tourists didn’t avail themselves of it, but I rather prefer to be able to walk down the street without having to politely decline the catcalls — if not the groping hands — of batteries of sex workers. It’s tragic that, even with so much tourist money pumping into other sectors of the island’s economy, so many young women are funneled into the sex trade. Again, this was the middle of the low season, but the prostitutes seemed to outnumber the tourists. That’s a bad ratio for everyone.

I’d been forewarned about Patong, the rowdy heart of Phuket’s tourist scene that’s chock-full of western restaurants, bars, and nightclubs heralded by neon signs and pulsating speakers — it hosts three Starbucks franchises grouped so closely that, if you neglect to trim your nails for a few weeks, you can almost touch them all simultaneously — so I steered clear. I pre-booked a room in Karon, just a few kilometers and decibels south of Patong.

I generally like to explore new places by bicycle, but Phuket’s size and hilly terrain don’t lend themselves to cycling. And tuk-tuk drivers wanted outlandish amounts to ferry people around — 250 Baht just to make the short trip from Karon to Patong — so I opted for another mode of transportation: a rented motorbike. I think it’s the ideal way to get around Phuket. Renting one for the day costs just 200 Baht, plus whatever fuel you consume, and of course allows you to go wherever you please. The roads are sinuous, the views stunning.

Atop my little, burgundy Honda Dream, I weaved through the mobs in Patong and headed up the west coast, stopping at beach after beach to take in the scenery. Faded red flags were posted all along the backshore to warn visitors about the low season’s dangerously strong currents. The beaches are undoubtedly beautiful, but it was strange to see almost no one in the water.

I rode an arc through northern Phuket and came back down the east coast, stopping for a couple hours at the Bang Pae waterfall (not much to see) and the adjacent Gibbon Rehabilitation Project (200 Baht entrance fee), a non-profit rescue and breeding facility for the adorable and highly intelligent apes. Because gibbons can fetch a lot of money — tourists buy them as pets or pay to have pictures taken with them — poachers seek them in the wild, slaughtering gibbon mothers to capture their young and exploit them on the streets. The project rescues such gibbons and, if possible, rehabilitates and returns them to the protection of a wilderness sanctuary. A very worthy cause.

Next, I checked out the very well organized and informative Butterfly Garden and Insect World near Phuket town (300 Baht, a bit pricey, but worth it if you’re a nerd like me). I was the only visitor there, having arrived near the end of the day, and I got the distinct impression that the employees wanted to shut down a bit early. “There are more butterflies to see this way, sir,” one would urge, motioning me coyly into the next room. As I wandered dumbly into it, another unseen employee would slam and lock the door behind me. In this way, as if by peristalsis, I was cajoled through several exhibits and out the front door in under 30 minutes. These people were good.

The following day I decided to book an all-day, all-inclusive snorkeling trip to Ko Phi Phi, a picturesque island 40 kilometers east of Phuket, about which I’d read nothing but raves prior to the trip. According to Lonely Planet, “Ko Phi Phi is so beautiful it will evoke tears.” All the photos I’d seen of Phi Phi, and I’ll add to them the above two that I took, corroborate that statement. The picture you don’t see, however, is the one below at left, depicting what I was standing in when I took the other two. The island seems to have dived headfirst into tourism’s flush pockets, with a ravenous appetite for its economic benefits but little concern for its environmental consequences. Everywhere I walked on the island, I had to step around discarded building materials, old shoes and clothes, plastic bottles, and other detritus of development. Phi Phi, incidentally, is pronounced “pee-pee”, but it’s turning into number two.

The “all-day” snorkeling trip was similarly deceptive, breaking down like this: two hours of shuttling back and forth to the Phuket harbor in a minivan, seven hours of transit and waiting around on two different boats, one hour exploring Phi Phi on foot, a thirty-minute lunch, and ten minutes of snorkeling. The snorkeling was amazing, if criminally brief, but I was put in a sour mood when the tour operator doled out our masks and snorkels but tried to extort another 100 Baht out of us for the use of flippers.

My flight the next morning was scheduled to depart at eight a.m., which meant that I’d have to leave for the airport around six. No minibus shuttles operate that early, and the cheapest taxi I could find would cost 700 Baht — more than twice the amount I’d paid to go the same distance in Bangkok — which seemed a fitting, wallet-cleansing way to end my stay in Phuket.

I don’t know to what extent prices have inflated since the devastating tsunami struck in December 2004 — and I am more than happy to subsidize the rebuilding effort by paying a premium for food, lodging, etc. — but I can’t help feeling that, given plenty of other gorgeous, affordable, and less trafficked beach destinations sprinkled through Thailand and Malaysia, Phuket’s just not worth it.

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Angkor Wat Week! Final day…

After three straight days of being roused from sleep when only bats and meth addicts remain awake, it felt indulgent to wake up Thursday to my cell phone’s jingle at 7:30 a.m. I showered merrily, prepared a daypack, and found Cico waiting in his tuk-tuk outside my guesthouse at 8 a.m. as planned.

We were headed to Kompong Phhluk, a floating village about 90 minutes from the town of Siem Reap, at the northern end of Tonlé Sap, the largest freshwater lake in Southeast Asia. To get there, we’d take a tuk-tuk as far as the boggy dirt road would allow, then hop on a longboat to make the rest of the way by canal.

Our boat captain couldn’t have been much older than sixteen, but he wore the look of ease and experience, as if he’d been born in the boat and never crawled out. He nonchalantly steered us down the canal, turning the wheel with his left forearm, maneuvering the stickshift right-handed without glancing down, and controlling the throttle with his bare left foot on the pedal below. Every now and then he would switch feet, letting the unoccupied one rest on the steering panel so the wind could tickle his toes.

For most of the year, the waters of Tonlé Sap Lake funnel down and join the Mekong River in eastern Cambodia before spilling into the South China Sea in southern Vietnam. During the dry season the lake covers an area of about 2,700 square kilometers and is just one meter deep. But during the rainy season, from June to September, the water level of the Mekong rises so dramatically that the flow of water actually reverses back into Tonlé Sap. Its area nearly sextuples, to 16,000 square kilometers, and it reaches depths of eight or nine meters. Outlying villages whose abodes spend the dry season towering above the ground on seven-meter stilts are brought within a toe-dip of the water at the lake’s midsummer peak.

These unique seasonal flows drag sediments up from the Mekong and enrich the floodplain with nutrients, so that during the rainy season the fish stock goes bonkers, making Tonlé Sap one of the most fertile lakes in the world. More than 3 million Cambodians live in countless tiny fishing villages like Kompong Phhluk and are sustained by their catch. And the nation as a whole gets 60% of its protein intake from Tonlé Sap. If the lake weren’t there, Cambodians would all be two-and-a-half feet tall and Angkor Wat would be in miniature. Tonlé Sap’s important, is what I’m saying.

Twenty minutes after our longboat hove into the narrow canal, the dense mangroves lining either side of the waterway finally receded, opening up into the heart of Kompong Phhluk. We were suddenly loomed over by stilt houses, where whole families sat on their front porches, weaving baskets, their infant children clinging to the railing and staring out at us as we passed. One or two boats were tethered to the ladder of each house and filled with reels of fishing line and stacks of handmade, bamboo fish traps.

To our left a woman crouched to slide a tray of rotten vegetables into a floating pen, stirring the lolling pigs inside it to attention. To our right a fence of vertical, tightly bound bamboo rose two meters out of the water, inside which the villagers raised their own fish.

A woman and her child rowed out in a flat boat with a cooler full of cold water and soft drinks for sale. Kompong Phhluk, because of its relative inaccessibility and distance from Siem Reap, is less frequented by tourists than Chong Kneas, but tourism is still an important source of income for the villagers. Although I was the lone tourist in our boat, I got plenty of attention from paddling peddlers. Several boats zoomed alongside ours, the women and children laying down their oars to latch onto our rails, offering me refreshments, colorful children’s books, and even pencils and pens.

The village itself is fairly small, perhaps thirty stilt houses altogether, and in a couple minutes we passed beyond it and into the flooded forest. The forest was too dense for the longboat to pass through, so Cico and I climbed onto a smaller flatboat piloted by a local mother and her son. She sat at the bow, pulling us deftly between gaps in the trees only an arm’s length across with strokes of her thin oar, while her little boy manned the rudder in the back of the boat, dragging his oar on either side during particularly tricky maneuvers.

The only sounds in the forest were the burble of the long, thin oars agitating the water, the chirping of birds and crickets, and the plopping of frogs into the lake. Fist-sized tree frogs leapt constantly from positions of concealment on limbs, alarmed by our passing. The little boy pointed out several camouflaged ones that crouched in wait only a short distance from our boat, but I was hopeless at spotting them unless they jumped. Luckily I was equally hopeless at spying snakes. The mother said that there were plenty of them in the area, and that it wasn’t uncommon to pass beneath one coiled on a branch or to have one swim right up to the boat. It’s better not to think about what might have happened had we been approached by a snake, though it probably would have involved my “accidentally” falling into the water later on to hide the wet spot.

We piled back into the longboat and reversed back down the route we’d come, through Kompong Phhluk and down the tight canal to the waiting tuk-tuk.

Cico dropped me off at the guesthouse in mid-afternoon, and I spent that evening walking around Siem Reap. After a fantastic dinner of amok fish at Khmer Kitchen, I got an iced coffee from Joe-to-Go — 100% of whose profits go to the Global Child, an organization that sets up schools and safe houses for Cambodian street children — and buzzedly perused the night market and a few nearby handicraft shops before retiring to my room to pack. I was sad to be leaving Siem Reap after an unforgettable week, but the next day Whitney and I would reunite in Malaysia to begin a new adventure together.

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Angkor Wat Week! Day four…

I had a long Wednesday ahead of me, and I wanted to get the earliest possible start, so I left the guesthouse at 5 a.m. to find a tuk-tuk driver. Still smarting from nine hours spent on a bike seat the day before, I was really looking forward to the sweet, forgiving padding of a tuk-tuk carriage. I hadn’t walked thirty feet when a driver zoomed up to me. I told him all the places I’d plotted to go, most of which were quite a distance from Siem Reap. There was no way a tuk-tuk could navigate some of the roads we’d have to travel to fit them all in, he told me, so I’d have to go by motorbike or scratch some of the stops. Against the protest of my hind end, I opted for the motorbike. We agreed on a price ($32), borrowed a second helmet from another driver, and tore off into the darkness, leaving the tuk-tuk trailer and its oh-so-sweet, oh-so-soft seat to languish at the side of the road.

[One point of interest: Lonely Planet sorely understates the price of a hiring a driver. You can expect to pay $10-15 for a day’s worth of shuttling around in the vicinity of Angkor Wat by motorbike, $20-25 by tuk-tuk, depending on the distance. As is the way, when gas prices increase, so will these.]

Our first destination was Beng Mealea, an Angkor Wat-era palace more than 70 kilometers from Siem Reap. The first 40 km of the ride saw us speeding down the well-paved and relatively boring National Road 6, until we broke off to the north shortly after sunrise, heading down a cratered, mixed-surface road that connects several tiny villages, where the residents were just beginning to stir. Cico, my driver, had spent his entire life in Siem Reap but had never seen Beng Mealea, and he seemed as eager as I did to tromp around the ruins. Amazingly, on arriving we found we had the place completely to ourselves.

Abandoned for centuries to the closing maw of the forest, Beng Mealea is one of the most ruined of the ruins. Most of the former construction has been reduced to an enormous pile of rubble within the decaying palace walls. What remains standing is grown over with groping tree roots and a brilliant layer of moss. The early morning sunlight slicing through the foliage gave the scene a romantic quality; were there not a long, wooden walkway coursing around the grounds (or a man selling $5 admission tickets at the entrance), it would be easy to trick yourself into believing you had discovered this marvel for yourself. Due to its distance from the main circuit around Angkor Wat, it’s probably the least visited of the ancient sites, but one that’s definitely worth a stop if you have time.

Next we rumbled down rough and muddy roads between Beng Mealea and our second stop, the enchanting river carvings at Kbal Spean. A night of heavy rains had left the last half of the way in awful shape, but Cico managed somehow to keep the tires churning on the four-inch tendons of dry dirt and rock between prodigious pools of sludge. After 90 minutes of repetitive trauma to my hind end, the mile-long hike required to reach the carvings was therapeutic.

The river rocks are engraved with wonderful images of Hindu deities and animals, and Sanskrit inscriptions. Somehow they remain well defined and vivid despite being run over by wind, rain, and river water, not to mention the sediment it carries with it, for hundreds of years. The area isn’t very well marked, and I would have missed most of the carvings had not a guard volunteered to show a few of us around, offering what information he could in broken English. Thanks to him, Kbal Spean was one of the highlights of my trip.

Nearing midday now, the air was as humid as a cloud and the sun oppressively hot, even beneath the forest canopy, so before heading back I stopped for a few minutes at the riverside for some swigs from my water bottle and to shake the crumby remnants of an addled bag of sugar crackers into my mouth. Lunched and refreshed, I rejoined Cico at the trailhead and we motored onward.

Banteay Srei is simply incredible, but I don’t recommend going there in the late morning or early afternoon. It features the most ornate and beautiful relief work of any of the temples I visited, but provides little in the way of shade, and its character gets washed out by the potent midday sun. It’s certainly the calmest time to visit, as most of the tourist groups disappear to Siem Reap during the lunch hours, but there is a reason they do so.

Finally, after failing to make it through the gate the prior day, I rounded this day out with a stop at Ta Prohm. Just in case I ran out of time before I got a chance to go back and see it, I had belittled Ta Prohm in my head as “nothing special, just more crumbling stone blocks and some gnarly trees.” And I was right, except for the “nothing special” part. The place is instantly memorable. The trees are not merely gnarly, but the gnarliest – their gargantuan roots cascade like dam-bursts over the sides of meter-thick sandstone walls, which buckle and crack beneath their weight. If these trees could spring to life and do battle like J.R.R. Tolkein’s Ents, we’d all be doomed.

As Wednesday afternoon expired into darkness, likewise did my visitor’s pass pass, so to speak. I was OK with it, though. After three days and more than a dozen temples, I was finally ruined for ruins. Thursday morning would see me to the floating village and flooded forest of Kompong Phhluk. This was feeling more like Lord of the Rings all the time.

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Angkor Wat Week! Day three…

Sorry for the infrequent posting. Angkor Wat Week is turning into Angkor Wat Fortnight due a lack of internet access. Without further ado…

Finding myself to be pretty worthless after a thorough sun-soaking and a stomach full of lunch on my first full day in Siem Reap, I planned an ambitious itinerary for day two, fittingly called Tuesday. I was going to bike what’s known as the Big Circuit, a 26-km loop that starts at the south end of Angkor Wat and connects a dozen or so other major places of interest before returning to the same spot. The last stop on the circuit, and the one I was most excited to see, would be Ta Prohm, a setting so remarkable it was featured prominently in the movie Tomb Raider. Alas, neither the brilliant set location nor Angelina Jolie could redeem the film, which offered less mental nourishment than your average coma.

I won’t bore you by describing all the temples I visited. Seeing temples, even those as astonishing and varied as those around Siem Reap, illustrates a classic Econ-101 concept: diminishing marginal utility. The first temple you see (particularly if, like most people, you begin at Angkor Wat) is revelatory. You are wowed by its vastness, its detail, and the fact that it predates John McCain. You want to spend hours examining every nook and cranny, appreciating its miles of carvings, photographing it from every angle and in every possible light. (These temples give amateur photographers, myself included, a false sense of confidence in their abilities.) But after absorbing the first one, each additional temple you visit, though impressive for all the aforementioned reasons, drops your jaw a little less. Your utility gradually slopes downward, until you’ve reached temple number eight or fifteen or twenty-three and you’re content to give a perfunctory “Wow, that’s really old… and quite ruined,” and simply snap an off-kilter and blurry photo from the seat of your tuk-tuk as you rumble by.

Reading about them one after another, I would imagine, descends a much steeper slope.

[But if you’re going to be in the area, check out Preah Khan (pictured above: look for carved images changed from Buddhist to Hindu when a Hindu devotee became king, and the inscription carved by North Vietnamese soldiers, who hid out here in the early 1970’s), Neak Khan (left: formerly pools where purification rites were performed, check out the ornamental spouts in the shape of an elephant, lion, human, and rhino(?)), Tam So (below left: the tree enveloping the eastern entrance is amazing), and Pre Rup (below right: fabulous complex of stupas that looks stunning in the late afternoon).]

I’d nearly managed to complete the circuit by 2 pm, leaving only the famous Ta Prohm left to see. That’s when I made the regrettable decision to save Ta Prohm for sunset and instead head over to Bakong, a ninth-century temple that’s one of the earliest Khmer constructions, which lay a full twenty kilometers away. It was a decision at which only a drunk or a sunstroke victim would have arrived. I won’t say which I was, but off I went.

Halfway to Bakong a noncommittal shower blew over the area, and I took the meager sprinkle as a sign to stop to fuel up. I hadn’t eaten all day and was dead tired. I bought a pack of imitation-Oreos and a Fanta Orange from a pharmacy – easily the best part of traveling by bicycle is the guiltless justification to eat like a loosed three-year old during the ride and for a few meals afterward – and downed them both in a flash, expecting a reaction in my stomach that would send out a fizzy cataract whence they came in. Disappointingly, one never came.

The rain ceased and I started again toward Bakong, which the pharmacy cashier had told me was a mere five kilometers to the east. In fact it was probably twice that distance. The energy spike from the carbonated-drink-and-cookie porridge didn’t last very long, as it turned out. The kilometers piled up grudgingly on my churning legs, and I began to entertain those thoughts that sprout in your brain when you’re exhausted and not at all sure where you are. Had I missed a sign somewhere? Surely I’ve gone more than five kilometers by now, right? These people don’t even look Cambodian anymore. I must look ready to collapse; these ribby stray dogs keep licking their lips as I pass. Why do these dogs have lips?

At last I saw a sign for Bakong and turned down a narrow, paved road that soon gave way to a smooth, dirt path. I rounded a bend and the tiered figure of Bakong mercifully came into view. In a few moments I was staggering up its steps like Rocky Balboa gone to seed. Unfortunately there was little time for a victory dance upon reaching the top; ominous, charcoal-hued clouds were collecting to the east, and they looked ready to spill their contents as they drifted westward.

After a bit of exploring I abridged my visit to Bakong and got back on the bike, but I was beginning to dread the 20-km ride back to Ta Prohm, especially with a succession of lightning bolts slashing the sky in the distance, when I had the good fortune to meet a couple backpackers willing to let me hop in their tuk-tuk to hitch a ride back to Siem Reap. We made it back to town at about 4:45 p.m.

It appeared that the rain would hold off after all, so, ignoring the discomfort in my haunches, I mounted my metal steed to pedal to Ta Prohm for sunset. Again the rain came; though not sufficiently strong to make me turn back, it was dampening enough to make me doubt my judgment. I should have doubted harder.

I pulled up to Ta Prohm’s gate shortly after 5:30 p.m., which left me about 45 minutes to wander the ruins until sunset. Or so I thought.

Lonely Planet neglects to mention the rather important fact that visitors are not admitted entry into Ta Prohm (et al) after 5:30 p.m., which I found, after unsuccessfully lobbying the security guard to please bend the rule for someone who’d cycled 14 km only to arrive a few minutes late, to be non-negotiable. I had no choice but to climb back on the bike and ride, dispirited and suddenly doubly exhausted, back to town.

On a positive note, being rebuffed at Ta Prohm meant that I was passing by the southern end of Angkor Wat’s lovely moat as the sun sank into the horizon. I stopped for a few moments to take let the scene replenish my spirits – it was nearly as remarkable as the previous day’s sunrise had been – before returning to the road.

Arriving at the guesthouse at dark, I went upstairs and sprawled across the bed, taking stock of the day. My body was completely drained and aching from 80 km of pedaling in Cambodian heat, the last 28 of which were maddeningly for naught. I decided that wherever I was headed the next day, I’d be traveling on a well-padded seat.

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Angkor Wat Week! Day two…

I arrived in Siem Reap, Cambodia, on Sunday afternoon, and after consulting the maps and advice of my Lonely Planet guidebook, I opted to rent a mountain bike for the next couple days to motor myself around the sights. In retrospect I won’t say it’s the optimal way to make the rounds in Cambodian August, but I really enjoyed the freedom to explore areas inaccessible to tuk-tuks and cars, not to mention the exercise. And there is something undeniably magical in approaching one of the vast, crumbling relics with little but your thoughts, the breeze, and the whirring of bike wheels scoring the scene.

Everyone who’s seen it says the sunrise at Angkor Wat is something to behold, a must during a visit to Siem Reap. That’s why, subduing the pull of my sluggish brain to fall back asleep, I tugged myself upright on Monday morning at 4:30, showered and tossed a couple bottles of water and some cookies into my backpack, and cycled across the river bridge and down the linear temple road, its chewed pavement lit only occasionally by the headlights of a passing car or tuk-tuk. Six-plus kilometers (and a $40 three-day pass) later, I pulled up to the entrance as first sunlight began to dissolve the predawn darkness. Across the moat, the looming towers and eight-meter high stone wall were silhouetted black against the sky, offering no glimpse of the immense temple behind them.

It wasn’t until I got beyond the wall that I saw it. At a distance of a few hundred meters, I could make out three jagged bullets rising up from the horizon. The sun was still submerged, but it shone a warm, orange light on the swirling clouds above the towers. I felt my way down the long, uneven, cobbled path, only looking down every few steps when I’d stumble over a proud stone. I paused for a few moments at the lotus pond on the north side of the walkway, where a couple dozen other gawkers were already camped out, some of them staring out from plastic chairs that lined the bank at the water’s edge. The view was mesmerizing: the striking figure of Angkor Wat, still in shadow and bathing in fluorescent sky, married to its perfect, inverted reflection on the serene surface of the pond. It’s one of those rare visions that, even as you experience it, you’re aware of its being indelibly etched into your memory.

As I traced my way around the halls at the perimeter, the accumulating sunlight began to wash over the epic works in bas-relief on the walls. Starting at the eastern entrance and walking clockwise around the palace, the elegant carvings relate the story of the gods creating heaven and earth by churning a sea of milk and follow with depictions of Khmer history, featuring frenetic scenes of war with the rival Chams and of a later civil war among themselves. Most of the carvings, now well into their ninth century in the open air, are remarkably well preserved.

At the interior of the palace, the five conical towers make a quincunx pattern – four towers form a square with the fifth tower, the tallest, at the center of the square. The size and complexity of their design and the intricacy of their detail are even more impressive viewed from up close. Each of the corner towers is accessible by a couple of narrow, worn staircases, but all the entry points were roped off on this particular day. Also, renovations were being undertaken on the middle tower, evidenced by scaffolding left in place on its south side.

After more than three hours at Angkor Wat, and with the sun now beginning to assert itself, I decided to push on toward Bayon, the spectacular and decaying ruins at the southern end of Angkor Thom, just a few kilometers up the road. Bayon is one of the more photogenic sites you’ll ever visit. Everywhere you stand inside its walls, sanguine-looking stone faces peer out at you from contoured towers. Each of the 59 towers features four Buddha images (said to resemble Jayavarman VII, the Khmer king who ordered Bayon’s construction) facing north, south, east, and west. The stonework of has been for centuries completely exposed to the elements, and the erosion of the towers and reliefs has given them a kind of grotesque charm. Gaudí would have loved Bayon, pictured below.

A couple hundred meters north lies Baphuon, an enormous temple that will be extremely impressive when it’s put back together, but which is currently scurried over by men in hard hats and overseen by a crane. Whether it will be rebuilt to its former glory is another issue altogether. A restoration project undertaken decades ago saw Baphuon deconstructed and its building blocks carefully catalogued for later re-assemblage, but then the Khmer Rouge came to power and laid waste to the plans. Of course, during the reign of the Khmer Rouge, the Cambodian people had bigger fish to fry than reworking some ruins. Among the items on the their to-do lists were avoiding starvation, escaping the arbitrary terror of the ruling party, and burying the millions of their countrymen who hadn’t been able to accomplish the first two.

You could spend an entire day visiting the various temples, terraces, and walkways within the walls of Angkor Thom – it’s nine square kilometers of fascinating history –- but it was nearing lunchtime, and I wanted to make just one last stop before

heading back to Siem Reap for some vittles. I was looking for Preah Palilay, a stupa at the northwest corner of Angkor Thom whose base has been shot through by the growth of several immense trees. On the way I met a wheelchair-bound painter who beckoned me to browse his work.

His name was Kim Leung, he said, and he sells his hand-painted canvases and postcards to support himself and his family. Besides having a personal story that makes you want to fork over your cash, his paintings were quite good, and I left with a sleeve full of postcards.

[Slightly off subject, there are an appalling number of people in Siem Reap – and the rest of Cambodia, I’m sure – whose missing limbs and appendages attest to the existence of leftover landmines in the Cambodian countryside. To learn more about it, visit the Cambodian Landmine Museum or its website.]

Over at Preah Palilay, I tromped up and down the ruins for a few minutes – one of the wonderful things about the Angkor Wat experience is the ability to interact with history, to climb over and run your fingers along it, rather than just stand before it and squint at a placard from ten paces – until my empty stomach gave a loud growl, signaling the end of the morning’s activities. Riding back by Kim Leung again, my front wheel caught on a stubborn tree root and I was flung awkwardly over the handlebars. I got up, mystified and mildly embarrassed, and began to brush myself off. His reaction was polite, even concerned, unlike that of a nearby worker, who’d fallen to his knees, weak with heaving laughter. I pulled the bike upright, climbed on, and hurried off, giggling to myself. It seemed like a good time for a lunch break.

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Luang Prabang, Laos — part two

(…continued from previous post)

Back at the guesthouse on Monday afternoon, I awoke just before 5 p.m. from a heat-induced nap, my battery recharged and my wallet $70 lighter (which seemed too hefty a price for the run-of-the-mill, single speed guesthouse bike I’d been relieved of at the wat, though I was in no position to haggle). Unfortunately, pretty much everything in Luang Prabang besides restaurants and bars closes by 5:30 p.m., so I had little to do but find some dinner and plot out the next day, my last in this history-rich town. I resolved to make the most of it, and this time I would do so on foot.

My first stop the next morning (after coffee at JoMa, of course, and a street-stall baguette for breakfast) was the Traditional Arts and Ethnology Center, a newly opened museum aimed at giving tourists an appreciation for Laos’s vast cultural diversity. Featuring English- and Lao-language exhibits — like the one pictured above, on the Hmong people — depicting the traditional clothing, tools, and handicrafts of various ethnic groups, of which there are 49 in Laos, it’s a well-organized and informative little museum.

Looming over the Ethnology Center is Phu Si, a 100-meter tall hill topped with a stupa that offers the best views in town, so that’s where I headed next. On the back side of the hill, there is a series of Buddha statues, including the Reclining Buddha pictured above, and a ‘Buddha footprint,’ also pictured above. It’s hard to tell from the photo, but the ‘footprint’ measures more than a meter across: sasquatch enthusiasts, take heart.

The climbing left me hungry and in a lather, so I wandered over to Tamarind for a cool drink and a bite of lunch. One of the few restaurants in town that eschews the pervasive Thai influence, focusing instead on traditional Lao cuisine, Tamarind was a definite highlight of this trip. I opted for an iced drink made from jujube fruit and a splash of coconut milk, which was bittersweet and delicious. Since this would be my only meal here, I ordered a sampling platter consisting of a few different tastes: lettuce wraps filled with crab meat, rice noodles, and cardamom; sautéed bamboo shoots and pumpkin vines; homemade pork sausage; and strips of buffalo meat dried like jerky, then brushed with a slightly sweet marinade and smoked. The platter came with a generous portion of a Lao staple, sticky rice. To eat it, you’re supposed to roll a wad of sticky rice into a tight ball with your hands and pair it with a bite of something else. I savored every morsel; the buffalo meat and lettuce wraps were especially tasty. I had wats to see, though, so off I went.

Sixty percent of Lao people are Theravada Buddhists, and most Lao males will spend some time, usually a few months during their adolescence, away from their families, living in a wat and studying Buddhist texts (and nowadays, Marxist-Leninist thought as well) as novice monks. Ordination into monkhood requires a vow to adhere to some 227 precepts, which govern all facets of behavior. These include prohibitions on sexual relations, consumption of alcohol, and even “tickling with the fingers.”

One of the precepts holds that monks can only eat that which has been given to them. Therefore, each morning at sunrise the monks process through town performing an alms-round, where townspeople and tourists alike line up to press sticky rice into the monks’ alms bowls. Buddhist devotees believe that good deeds like this earn them merit, which accumulates over the course of a lifetime and can be carried over into the next, inching them closer and closer to liberation.

Luang Prabang is home to nearly three dozen wats, and though each of them is uniquely beautiful and ornate, it’s easy to get burned out on them. So I’ll only mention a few of the most notable here. The oldest extant structure in Luang Prabang, the Lotus Stupa at Wat Wisunarat (above at left), celebrated its 500th birthday in 2004. It’s showing signs of age, of course, but it’s a pretty awe-inspiring sight.

Perhaps the most famous of Lao wats, Xieng Thong (below, middle and right) is nearly as old as the Lotus Stupa and just as impressive. Built in 1560, Wat Xieng Thong sits a stone’s throw from the junction of the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers and is home to about 30 monks. Finally, in a program sponsored by UNESCO, monks studying at Wat Xieng Muan are trained in skills like woodcarving (above at right), gold stenciling, and bronze casting to ensure that the magnificence of Luang Prabang’s temples is preserved for future generations.

That night I took a stroll through the famous night market, whose stalls line up each evening to span several blocks of Luang Prabang’s main street. Tourists weave through the narrow lanes between them, browsing and bargaining for handmade jewelry, silk scarves and tapestries, wood carvings, handbags, and of course, the ubiquitous “Same Same But Different” T-shirts and hats peddled all over Laos and Thailand. After an excellent dinner at Tum Tum Bamboo Restaurant — a perfect tomato salad followed by catfish stewed in coconut milk, a dish formerly prepared for the Lao royal family — I headed back to my guesthouse for a good night’s sleep. Tomorrow I was bound for Vang Vieng.

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Luang Prabang, Laos — part one

Ten hours after my bus left Vientiane, and with Luang Prabang mercifully near, there was an explosion in the undercarriage directly beneath my seat. “Was that a sniper?” begged the girl in the row ahead of me. Unless we’re all unwitting extras in a forthcoming Tomb Raider movie, it was probably just a tire blowout, I thought.

Having braked the bus to a stop on the right-hand shoulder, the driver and his two attendants climbed down to inspect the damage, and were followed out by a stream of curious passengers. Sure enough, one of the rear, interior tires had blown. Long strips of tread lay like discarded fruit peels in the distance behind us. The attendants got to work loosening the outer wheel’s fist-sized lug nuts as we, the road-weary audience, looked on. Just fifteen minutes later we were back en route. We pulled into Luang Prabang’s bus station about an hour before dark.

On a map Laos resembles a palm tree leaning left, and Luang Prabang sits right in the middle of the crown, at the meeting of the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers. Home for centuries to Laos’s ruling monarchs, Luang Prabang fell under French protection in the late 19th century, though the royal family remained nominally in power. The French made Vientiane the new capital but maintained a presence in Luang Prabang until the 1950′s, leaving their footprint on the town in the form of countless colonial villas that intermingle with its grandest attractions — more than two dozen majestic Buddhist wats. Oh, and they still make a mean baguette here, too.

After a short tuk-tuk ride from the bus station, I set off on foot with my guidebook in hand to find a room for the night. The first three places I tried were full, and as the last traces of daylight disappeared, the rain started to fall. In another minute it was coming down with vigor. Getting doused and desperate, I ducked under the arch of the next guesthouse I found, sprinted up its open-air stairs, and put my name on its only available room, a triple that would cost me $30 for the night. More than I wanted to pay, yes, but worth it to escape the monsoon.

I fell onto the smaller of the room’s two beds, tuned the TV to the BBC, and let the cold a/c dry me off. After an hour’s vegetation I saw that the rain had moved on, so I shuffled over to Nisha Indian Restaurant, where only the atmosphere was flavorless. I polished off a delicious chicken tikka masala, garlic naan, a garden salad, and two Beerlao Darks for less than $8. Recommended.

The next morning I packed up and found a new place to stay, the Ammata Guesthouse, where I dropped off my stuff and rented a bike for the day. [I should mention that my room that night would cost $25, not the $15 quoted by my guidebook, which was printed less than a year ago. And in the low season to boot? Inflation seems to be the rule in Luang Prabang these days.] I’d have two full days to see the sights, and the bike would allow me to cover most of the town on the first day.

I found and crossed the gapped pedestrian bridge that straddles the mud-colored Nam Khan river, then pedaled out to a tiny village past the airport. The paved road gave way to a dirt path cratered with puddles and serrated with rocks. Fearing another tire puncture and a long walk back, I got down and pushed the bike on foot. A half dozen incredibly cute kids followed me down the road for a few meters, shouting “Sabaidee!” and giggling amongst themselves when I tried to reply in kind. I kept walking until the path narrowed and became thick with growth on both sides, when tomorrow’s newspaper headline flashed through my head: “Disoriented tourist, inexplicably pushing perfectly sound bike, gobbled up by jungle cat previously thought extinct. Town celebrates jungle cat.” So I turned back.

As I approached the Nam Khan again, I caught sight of a gleaming, golden-spired pagoda up in the hills and decided to pay it a visit. The sign spanning the entrance read ‘Wat Pa Phon Phao’. I rode up the driveway, parked and locked my bike, and removed my shoes before entering the wat’s Peace Pagoda. Inside I met a few Buddhist nuns who invited me to have a look around. The octagonal pagoda has four levels, each one smaller than the last as you climb, with walls covered 360° with vibrantly painted panels

that depict “Buddhist stories and moral admonitions,” according to Lonely Planet. Apparently none of the admonitions addresses bike theft, because when I walked outside again, mine had disappeared.
I combed the area around the pagoda, finding nothing but a groundskeeper at work and a few pumpkin-robed monks lazing in their bunks. Quite annoyed, but fearing the karmic implications of casting accusing eyes upon monks and nuns, I started the long walk back to my guest house under a baking sun, hoping it might turn my vexation into muffins. (to be continued….)

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The beige-ing of Beijing

Today the 2008 Olympic Games will finally get underway. Much has been written about the Chinese government’s attempt to remake Beijing in preparation for the Games, from campaigns to scrub clean the streets and clear the air to the razing of crumbling tenements in favor of boldly designed skyscrapers and steel-clad arenas. Even Beijingers themselves are being relocated and refined before the world descends on their city.

The government has peppered walls and billboards around Beijing with posters instructing residents on civility. There are eight subjects that the Chinese should avoid in conversations with foreigners. Taboo subjects include the usual suspects — sex, politics, and religion — and to them they add age, income/salary, health, and personal experiences.

Additionally, Beijing’s Capital Spiritual Civilisation Construction Commission has distributed more than four million pamphlets throughout the city to deliver a crash course in etiquette and style. Here’s a sampling of the dos and don’ts:

“Feet should be slightly apart or in the shape of a V or Y when standing.” Apparently there are enough tripodal Chinese people to merit adding the ‘Y’ into that sentence. Incidentally, this should make them the favorite in judo.

Don’t shake hands with a visitor for more than three seconds. Greeting is not an endurance event.

Spectate, don’t expectorate. Even with violators threatened with fines if caught, this one might be a toughie in a country so collectively hell-bent on clearing its

throat. Just in case the urge is overwhelming, the government has handed out paper spit bags.

Women with thick legs should wear darker stockings to look slimmer. I get the fashion theory here, but I’m just not sure I’d tell that to a power lifter.

More decrees from the fashion police: Don’t couple black shoes with white socks, don’t sport pajamas in public, and don’t wear more than three color groups at the same time. Hugh Hefner might as well go into a fortnight’s hibernation. He’s already dressed for it anyway.

To these I’ll add a couple guidelines of my own:

Don’t talk on your cell phone at such a volume that the phone is rendered useless. To the guy in the fourth row on the eight-hour bus ride to Shanghai: Yes, I can hear you now…. Six weeks later.

It’s OK to get caught up in Olympic excitement, but queuing for a metro pass, preparing to cross a street, boarding a train, etc., needn’t be a Greco-Roman wrestling match.

Hope that helps, but the Chinese may not be able to read this after all. Oh well.

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Fun in Norway: more ways than one

(continued from last post…)

In researching yesterday’s post, I came across several excellent sites offering adventure trips in Norway. These were a couple of my favorites: Arctic Pathfinder and Sami Adventure (here’s the English version).

Arctic Pathfinder arranges a wide variety of trips — this is the full list — and judging from the website alone, they seem to be the better organized of the two. Here is a sampling of the trips they organize:

  • On August 1, 2008, there will be total solar eclipse visible in nearby northern Greenland. A few days before the event they’ll fly you to Greenland, where you’ll camp out in the wilderness and take an arctic survival course before heading to the eclipse-viewing camp at Cape Morris Jessup. Here you’ll share camp duties with other participants, including a shift on night-watch to guard against prowling polar bears! If you’re not that into the possibility of being devoured — and where’s your sense of adventure?! — they offer some less perilous trips for your consideration, such as…
  • Ever dreamt of spending a handful of subzero Norwegian nights pushing thousands of reindeer across a blank, icy landscape, taking part in a millennia-old tradition with indigenous Laplanders, the Sami people? Of course you have, and you can arrange exactly that here.
  • A stay at a Sami summer camp. Spend a few nights in a lavvu (also lavvo) and learn the ropes (literally) of reindeer herding, followed by a three-day trekking expedition through the national park. Don’t forget your liggeunderlag.

All of these trips are on the expensive side — the cheapest of them costs about $2,500 per person — but hey, for Americans the whole world is heading to the expensive side.

If you’d prefer to tailor a trip for yourself, check out Sami Adventure, which offers reindeer herding, snowmobiling, hunting in the autumn, fishing in the summer, a wintertime three-night stay in a lavvo to see the Northern Lights, whatever you want to do. You can even take part in the World Championships of reindeer roping. The original Norwegian-language website is only partially translated into English, so I had my friend Google work on it: “This is the tours that provide memories for life and hair on the chest for real karfolk.” So there you go.

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