Sunday, February 21, 2010

Bali, Cambodia, and Thailand: September 18, 2009

All material including photographs are ©2009 Ronald Dunlap / Doglight Studios

My alarm went off at 6, and by 7 a.m. I was ready to rock. Ann's bungalow was next to mine, so I knocked to see if she was ready. Then I found out that I needed to adjust my watch back an hour. Sorry, and back in an hour. The need to take advantage of the early morning light lured me out of the hotel compound and down the lane looking for "targets of opportunity" to photograph. After a block, I noticed that the hotel manager was shadowing me, making sure that I didn't get into any trouble. You get the feeling that there is a dark side here, but that no one in the tourism business wants you to find it or it to find you.

Farther on I spied a lovely stand of elephant ear up against a corrugated fence. This was a great photographic composition and also a pretty good indication of how lush this part of the world is. Nothing else seemed of interest so I headed back. I didn't want to freak out the manager, he didn't speak English and I didn't want to push it.

At the correct 7 a.m., Ann and I walked over to the dining area. We ordered pancakes and honey, which was the only thing on the menu that met my culinary standards. It was a giant pancake that filled the entire plate. I had to ask for extra honey plus two cups of Lipton tea to wash it down, but it did hit the spot. Just before 8 a.m., Mr. Poy Pines, our Cambodian Certified Guide, and the driver arrived on schedule. They were all smiles and raring to go. Like certified guides around the world, they've gone to school and have a set agenda and procedures that they follow. This can get on some clients' nerves, but I am pretty ambivalent. Mr. Pines is smart and knowledgeable, and I have no problem with anyone I can learn from. Today's agenda was the major temples of Angkor Thom, which included my favorite, Ta Prohm.

We drove over to the admissions entrance of the Angkor Archaeological Park. It's 20 bucks a day and you have the run of the place, but the heat and humidity make it very hard to see more than a few of the temples per day. We purchased a three-day pass on nonconsecutive days for 60 dollars. I had to take my hat off and line up so they could take a digital photo and include it on my printed pass. For another buck we bought lanyards and plastic pass holders so we wouldn't have to keep digging them out of our pockets every time some guard wanted to see them. The holder also protected the pass from sweat disintegration.

The morning time is very busy. There is a line of tour buses taking groups (mostly Korean and Japanese groups) to the world's largest religious complex. Since I'd been here last year, I had a better idea of how to avoid the crowds and have a more personal experience.

We drove past Angkor Wat and into Angkor Thom, parking just inside the South Gate. Backtracking through the gate and over the Naga bridge, we were looking to get away from the crowds. A block back and to the west is Baksei Chamkrong ("The Bird Who Shelters Under Its Wings") Temple. It is one of the first temples, if not the first temple, to be built of substantial material (brick or stone) in this area. Baksei Chamkrong and Prasat Bei were completely deserted, and they were ours for a full 20 minutes, with not another soul to interrupt our creative process. From there we walked back to the Naga Bridge and the South Gate, where there was a constant flow of buses and vans through the area, so we grabbed a couple of shots and headed to Bayon.

When most people think of Angkor Wat, they think of "Jungle Book"-type images, a giant face surrounded by jungle. Bayon is the temple with all the large faces carved on it. It's really beautiful. The only problem is that it's the first stop on most tour providers' agendas, so it's always crowded. The tour groups tend to move en masse, so if you station yourself in a strategic position, you can snap a clear shot between the ebb and flow. But that means you spend a lot of time waiting. Since I'd been here last year I had the advantage of knowing this and some of the places to hide and when to pop out to snap unpopulated photographs. 60 minutes later as fresh hordes were arriving we made our exit.

Walking north, there was an active Buddhist temple where we encountered a fortune teller, and since we were there we had him prognosticate. He handed me a large stack of paper cards that I had to placed over my head and jab a stick into. He then took possession of the stack, opened to where the stick was, and read my fortune. Mr. Pines translated that I was to have an auspicious future, but I said since I was so old, it couldn't be too auspicious. Ann was next, raising the stack over her head. She inserted the stick, then handed the stack back to the teller. He examined the cards, looking perplexed. Poy asked him what was going on and he said that she had chosen the very same card as I had. It had never happened to him before.

At the far side of the temple was a woman shaving her mother's head. The mother had been sick and had prayed to get well. She'd promised God that if he spared her, she would become a nun and serve him the rest of her days. Today she was here to fulfill that promise and her family was there to lend their support. It was quite moving, but not wanting to interrupt we made a donation to the temple in her name and took our leave.

We continued walking around Baphunon, then Phimeanakas, and down to the Terrace of the Leper Kings. It was nearing noon and blazing hot with at least 90% humidity. I function pretty well in the heat, but even I knew it was time for a cold drink. There was a refreshment stand at the west side of Baphunon, so we found chairs in the shade and bought some drinks. Taking a break can be a bit hazardous because of all the young kids trying to make a buck by selling you stuff, over and over again. All the young vendors are so beautiful and so needy that it's very hard to turn them down, but after hours of being harangued it becomes easier.

Once we reached the Leper Kings terrace, Poy called the driver to pick us up and take us to lunch. We walked past the Terrace of the Elephants, which is a treat in itself, and out to the road. Most of the small tourist groups are always taken to the same place for lunch. It's safe, conveniently located (you don't have to drive back to town), fan-cooled, and caters to western tastes. I'm guessing that the guides get a free meal when we eat there. I might be wrong but I don't think so. I had yellow flat noodles with vegetables, a large bottle of water, a Diet Coke, and a rest after the meal while we waited for the check.

Next was the temple that is the most Jungle Book-esque of all the places here. Ta Prohm is a magical experience. Until this year the place had been left pretty much as it was when rediscovered in 1860. Last year, on a wet and rainy day, I had a mystical experience here and was hoping to renew that connection, but that wasn't to happen. In just one year the temple had changed a lot. They've been doing a lot of restoration and preventative maintenance. So they have some areas roped off and they've installed lots of reinforcement to windows and other strategic stress points to keep the place from falling down. They are also cutting down trees, which I know helps prevent more damage, but it also destroys the romantic image that has brought millions of people here for the last century. The temple is a collection of walls and rooms, and most visitors tend to walk straight through, but if you hunt out the back places you can find a serene moment. Angkor Thom was one of the trip's highlights for Ann, she was floating on air. We spent a good two hours just walking around, shooting pictures and admiring the Khmer's ability to turn stone into dramatic statements and nature's ability to change the context.

It was mid-afternoon and the sun was in a great place so we made one more stop before calling it a day. The driver dropped us off and we made our way into Banteay Kadi, a small temple that has some nice features. We spent 45 minutes making our way through and another 15 getting back to the entrance. The van was parked across the street in one of the many makeshift shopping / refreshment areas, very much like an American strip-mall made out of canvas. Poy took us over to a stand he was familiar with, and we sat down in the shade and bought drinks. While there, the wife of the owner showed us the wares they had to offer. Ann ended up buying a nice top and I got a few postcards (in exchange for the shade and conversation).

Travel Tip: When traveling in areas where the heat and humidity are extreme, it is important to take regular breaks and hydrate. Otherwise you will be too tired to appreciate the beauty of your surroundings and you will pass up some incredible visuals. Some travelers think that they will get ripped off if they stop, but it's just a social bargain you make traveling. You're sharing a little of your wealth and they share a little of their existence.

We got back to La Villa Mona around 5:30. I turned on the air conditioning full blast and stripped off my clothes. Everything was soaked through with sweat and I needed to dry off. One of the things that La Villa Mona lacks is a little refrigerator in each room; an ice cold drink would be great right now. Since they didn't, I had to get into the shower to bring my body temperature back into a normal range. I dried off and made a laundry bundle and lay down for a few minutes. Mr. Pines and the driver shopped.

We ate at the Soup Dragon (again), on the second floor over looking Bar Street. The usual order of spaghetti, water, and a diet coke. Travel Info: They make great spaghetti all over Asia, as they have been cooking noodles for a couple of thousand years so they are good at it. I always like being up high, it gives you a great point of view. We ate and people-watched for an hour, then decided to have dessert, a scoop of chocolate ice cream each, which was extremely tasty. Outside the restaurant there was still an hour before we had to meet Poy, so we made a fast run to the market and looked at the souvenirs. Last year I passed on a two-foot-high Ganesh and regretted it, and I wanted to see if I could find it again. Cambodia has great stuff, and if the airlines weren't so bad about luggage, I'd load up. We spent the hour making mental notes about what we wanted and went back to the top of Bar Street to meet Poy.

By 9:30 I was under the covers and ready for tomorrow.

Bali, Cambodia, and Thailand: September 17, 2009

All material including photographs are ©2009 Ronald Dunlap / Doglight Studios

The power came back on at 2 a.m., and naturally I hadn't bothered to turn off the lights last night after the power went off, so I just lay there staring up at the open-beam ceiling, going over what I had to get through today. I just hate airport security and what it says about us. It's like we're all cowards. Now that passengers know the stakes, I don't think that anyone will be able to highjack a plane without their fellow passengers beating the crap out of them.

I kicked the covers off at 3 a.m., showered, waxed my mustache, and knocked on Ann's door to make sure she was up. The skies were still dark as I carried my bags over to the office. It had rained really hard last night, and the garden was wet and slick.

I'd purchased our tickets through E-tickets are always a little iffy in my mind, so I like getting to the airport early to check in and make sure that there aren't any problems and that I can get an aisle seat, which is imperative for someone of my size. We got to the airport at 6:15. There hadn't been much traffic, so we didn't need the full two hours of travel time the hotel suggested. The place was just waking up as I unloaded the van and piled the bags onto a baggage cart. Ann said her goodbyes to Dewa, they'd shared a real affinity for the Balinese world view, and I could tell she was a bit sad to be leaving. I, being ever practical, handed him envelopes for the staff and himself, as a token of our appreciation for the wonderful time they had shown us.

We waved as the van pulled out, then made our way through airport screening. Once inside we headed to the Singapore Air counter to check in. Being that it was still early we had to wait 15 minutes while the representatives set up their station. Our tickets called for us to fly Singapore Air to Singapore then change to Vietnam Air for the last two segments of our journey to Cambodia. We had a real fast change at Ho Chi Minh City of less than an hour so I was hoping the airlines would be able to check our bags all the way through to Siem Reap. Luckily they did, so we didn't have to worry about doing the luggage cha-cha in old Saigon. The boarding passes were another matter. Singapore Air could only issue boarding cards for their own flights, so we'd have to visit the transit desk in Singapore to get the Vietnam Air boarding cards. We paid our $30 exit fee (they get you coming and going), went through another customs inspection, then had to wait around in a hall-type area. The gates are scheduled really tightly and there is little time between flights, so we couldn't get into the gate until just before the flight was leaving.

Two and a half hours later we were touching down in Singapore's Changi International Airport. As I mentioned earlier, Changi International is one of the great airports of the world, and this visit was enjoyable. We arrived at Terminal 3 and had to make our way to Terminal 1. Once we had checked in at the transit desk and gotten our two farther-on boarding passes we had a good two hours to enjoy the airport. While Ann went to use the ladies' convenience, I browsed the Timberland store. I spoke with the assistant manager, Mr. Angelo Ong, and he pointed out that I was wearing the Timberland Black 6 Inch Premium Boot. He smiled and said that if the store had the stock, he could sell a pair of those boots every five minutes the store was open. He noticed that my boots were a little muddy. I said that I'd been trudging through the rice paddies in Bali. He laughed and motioned me to put my boot up on a shoe stand, and then he cleaned them for me. This kind of service is what makes a franchise. I asked for his card because I meant to write the Timberland Corporation to let them know what an exceptional person they had working for them in Singapore.

When Ann got back, we took the sky train over to Terminal 1. There was a lounge area across from our gate. I found an empty chaise lounge and lay down. No sleep was catching up with me. Ann went to look for food and came back with Cokes and Whopper Juniors. Delicious. We went through another security check at the gate, then we were winging our way to Ho Chi Minh City. (The politics of a place might change but their call letters stay the same, SGN, which was the call sign for Saigon.)

Transit at Tan Son Nhat International Airport was a breeze. Security was even a little lax. The X-ray machine guard was watching a portable television and didn't even spare us a glance. We walked right to the gate and 15 minutes later we boarded Flight 829 heading to Cambodia. A real smooth flight, landing at Siem Reap just a little over an hour later. Again we bought our entry visas, picked up our bags, and went through customs and out into the humidity of Cambodia. (Travel Tip: I always carry at least a dozen passport pictures in my passport cover. You can never predict when some official will demand a photo to get into or out of a country.) Travel Impression: The passenger services on both Singapore Air and Vietnam Air were at least two levels above any U.S. carrier I had been on in the past few years.

Outside, Mr. Poy Pines was waiting, his smiling face beaming at us. He had been my guide when I was here last year, so I was happy he'd been able to work me into his schedule. I'd used the internet to arrange a return stay at La Villa Mona Guest House, reserving two guest bungalows at 30 bucks each per night. As we drove through it, Siem Reap seemed a little less crowded than it had been last year. Siem Reap went from about 10,000 people ten years ago to over a million today, and its whole economy is based on tourism, so any downturn has a severe effect. I asked Poy about it and he mentioned that tourism was a little down. It also seemed that he wasn't as sure about the future as he had been last year, but as it is with all Buddhists, he takes adversity in stride.

When we arrived at La Villa Mona, they only had one bungalow prepared (they'd misunderstood my reservation) so it took a while to get another room ready for me, just a misunderstanding. While they worked, Ann and I sat on the veranda watching the clouds collide into one another. When my room was ready I went in, used the bathroom, and got ready to eat something. At 7 p.m., Mr. Pines drove us down to Bar Street in downtown Siem Reap where we could grab a bite of dinner. We ate spaghetti at the Soup Dragon, getting back to hotel at about 8 and going straight to bed. We needed to be ready for a long day tomorrow.