Friday, March 28, 2014

19: The Angkor Temples of Cambodia

A lone monk at Angkor Wat.
Once again, Gary served as the faculty liaison for one of the Field Programs we had signed up for: Temples of Angkor. After the good experience we had in China, he took the responsibility in stride. His big concern, however, was that I not fall behind the group (and embarrass him…) or worse, get lost and left behind in my quest for “just one more” photograph.

Our group of 28 included the Academic Dean, the ship’s doctor and a nice mix of faculty, students and a family of four who were life long learners. Because our preparation for Ho Chi Minh City did not encompass Cambodia, the only words I had been able to hurriedly take write down (from a Cambodian interport student's brief talk) were: Sus dai (hello!) and A kun (thank you!). That would do, I thought, and more to the point, that was about all I'd be able to remember, anyway.

The airport in Ho Chi Minh City was quick and easy to get to, and in just an hour and half, we landed in Siem Reap, Cambodia. It was hot and dry, but the skies were blue. As we climbed on the bus to head to our first temple visit, we were handed a sort of bento box made of soft bamboo strips which contained our lunch. It had a sampling of Cambodian dishes and was delicious.

Gary is happy to be in Siem Reap, Cambodia, once again in the countryside
and out of the congestion of Ho Chi Minh City.
With the exception of Angkor Wat, most of the structures we visited on our trip were all built during the reign of King Jayavarman VII, a one time Khmer prince who came to power in 1181 CE. In the period before his ascendency, the neighboring Cham had taken advantage of in-fighting among the Khmer to attack, sacking the Khmer capital of Yasodharapura and killing the reigning monarch. Jayavarman VII was able to gather his troops to defeat the Cham and reassert the Khmer rule. Fueled by his conversion to Buddhism, Jayavarman VII undertook a massive campaign to build hundreds of temples and hospitals. His new city was Angkor Thom (“Great City”), and in the Bayon, his state temple, his image is replicated, typically facing every cardinal point with a slightly different expression, on each of the 37 towers that are still standing today.

Guardians on the Bridge, on the way to Bayon.
Subtle details at Bayon.
Monumental representations of King Jayavarman VII loom over ordinary men and women at Bayon.
Every image of Jayavarman VII has a slightly different expression.
Hardly any inch of stone is left uncarved.
Intricate bas-relief throughout Bayon tells the story of King Jayavarman VII's battles and ultimate defeat of the Cham.
Bayon from a distance - the monumentality of the whole complex is difficult to capture.
The Khmer civilization flourished in what is now Cambodia between the 8th and 13th centuries. Their trade with India brought with it the spread of Hinduism and Buddhism (at roughly the same time), and the temples of Siem Reap we see today were constructed by a succession of Hindu and Buddhist kings. Temples could very well start out as Hindu, be transformed to Buddhist, and then go back and forth. Some temples, like Ta Keo (late 10th – early 11th centuries) would be started but never completed, while others, like the Bayon, because of its location within the well-fortified Angkor Thom, would continue to be modified.

Though we hear so much about Angkor Wat, perhaps because it is the largest and most well preserved, my favorite site is actually Ta Prohm (also built by Jayavarman VII), which sits in Eastern Angkor and served as the exotic setting for the movie Tomb Raider (Lara Croft). This is the only site that has been purposely preserved in its partially collapsed state, the land reclaimed by silk cotton trees and strangler figs growing sinuously on and through the slowly eroding stone structures. Visiting it today, it is difficult to imagine it as a fully inhabited city with over 79,000 people living within its outer walls and over 12,500 within the inner walls.

Silk Cotton Trees gaining a foothold amid the hard stone and surviving - even thriving - as Ta Prohm collapses.
An outer section of enclosing wall at Ta Prohm.
By preserving Ta Prohm in its collapsed state, a story of how fleeting civilization's triumph over nature really is, unfolds.
Next on my list would be Preah Khan, because we visited it near sunset and we had it almost all to ourselves to explore.  One of Jayavarman VII’s largest projects (and subsequently altered by Jayavarman VIII), Preah Khan is in Northeastern Angkor as a temple and Buddhist university and it once had over one thousand teachers. Still in the midst of reconstruction, I enjoyed its maze-like ruins that I could hop in and out of, while still keeping in earshot of our tour group.

The main axis of approach in Preah Khan.
Off the main axis at Preah Khan, to both the left and right, are courtyards, and more "rooms".
Another view off the main circulation axis, in Preah Khan.

Despite the crowds – in addition to European and American, there were many Korean and Japanese tour groups – which rose to an unbearable level on our last visit to Angkor Wat at sunset, our three days amid the temples of Siem Reap were for me, full of transcendent moments of pure delight. Sure, I could have hoped for that solitary walk through time where I could soak in the history and free my imagination (and I could almost do that in many locations), but all in all, I was, and am, content (though I would come back in a heartbeat!).

Tourists stream through the outer doors of Angkor Wat in as sunset approaches.
View looking the left, as we move between the outer and inner enclosure of Angkor Wat. In the foreground is the representation of a seven-headed Naga (serpent diety).
One of the many colonnaded corridors of Angkor Wat. The much loved Hindu epic, the Mahabharata, unfolds through the bas-relief on the left of this corridor, as it stretches on and on.Other corridors tell the story of another Hindu epic, the Ramayana.
Detail at the uppermost section of Angkor Wat.
The open doorway much more of Angkor to explore!

18: Xin chao (Hello) Vietnam!

City Hall serves as a backdrop to the statue of Ho Chi Minh.
Our shipboard preparation and introduction to Vietnam was actually quite good, as we were fortunate to have not only Ambassador Hoang Thuy on board between Hong Kong and Vietnam, but also Robert Brigham on board as faculty. Bob, a professor of International Relations at Vassar University, was instrumental in the push for normalization of relations with Vietnam and co-wrote the book Argument Without End: In Search of Answers to the Vietnam Tragedy, with former Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara and James Blight. The events portrayed in this book and photographed by artist Monica Church (Bob’s wife) became the basis of the Academy Award winning documentary Fog of War.

Gracious old hotels exist among the new tall buildings.
Woman selling fruit from her bicycle.
For the younger voyagers, Vietnam was a treat. Students were looking forward to spending money on great meals, some nice silk and maybe a custom tailored suit or dress, as this was the first port we had come to where our money seemed to go further than it did in the US. The $1 = 21,000 VND (Dong) exchange rate meant we could all enjoy being millionaires for a few hours.

For the older American voyagers with a memory of the Vietnam War, and United State’s role, there were more difficult feelings, especially when strolling through the War Museum, where the forecourt displayed scavenged old US tanks and missiles, and the inside graphically documented the many horrors of war.

Old American tanks and other tools of war in the forecourt of the War Museum.
But it was obvious that the Vietnamese were very resilient and had moved on. Those we encountered were friendly and pleasant, more interested in making a sale than anything else. As one Vietnamese said to a professor, “I have no problem working with Americans, after all, we won the war…” Indeed the country is doing well. According to Ambassador Thuy, literacy is 93%, they have a very comfortable trade surplus (petroleum, rice, coffee and cashew nuts), and great plans to continue striving for more and becoming an “industrialized” nation by 2020.

Workers taking a lunch break in front of the Opera House.

Gary and I had scheduled a trip up to Cambodia for three days, so we only had two days in Vietnam, one day before our trip and one after. The traffic took some getting used to, but we thoroughly enjoyed walking the leafy neighborhoods of Ho Chi Minh City, stopping for a good latte and mocha and experiencing the hustle and bustle of the markets.

Scooter and motorcyclists are required to wear helmets....however, it does not seem to apply to the three passengers.
School children make a visit to the Temple.
Happy to have his picture taken, he waves as the school bus leaves the temple.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

17: Approach to Ho Chi Minh City

As we sailed closer to Ho Chi Minh City, instead of the large ocean-going cargo vessels and tankers that we saw in abundance on our approach to Shanghai, we came across small fishing boats, manned by only one or two individuals. These boats were often in groups, but unlike the larger ships that asserted their dominion over the rivers they traversed by their sheer size and man-made materials, these fishing boats of wood moved lightly in the water, a melody within the symphony of the river’s ecosystem.

16: Just One Day in Hong Kong...

View through the Lunar New Year decorations to Hong Kong Island, with our ship to the right.
After spending several days in the countryside of Guilin and Yangshuo, our arrival to Hong Kong, just an hour and a half away, felt a bit surreal. While we had been away, the ship had traveled for two days from Shanghai to Hong Kong, and was docked adjacent to a multi-level, up-market shopping mall with gleaming marble floors, designer products and restaurants to suite the most discerning of palates (with prices to match...).

We only had one day in Hong Kong, and because Gary had a Field Lab for one of his classes scheduled, I was going to be on my own. I had found a one-day itinerary in one of the guidebooks on the ship, and set out to follow it, as time would allow. This was my day:

Walk along the Tsim Sha Tsui Promenade

Dim Sum at the Serenade Chinese Restaurant next to the Star Ferry

Star Ferry to Hong Kong Island

2 hours at the Apple Store (not on the guidebook itinerary, but when I realized I could get fast free internet there, I stayed for a while...)

Open Air Shuttle Bus #15c to Peak Tram Station

Tram ride up to Victoria Peak

Victoria Peak Observation Platform (up and up and up...but just as I started taking some photos, I realized my camera battery was going to die, and I had forgotten to bring a spare...)

Regular Shuttle Bus #15c back to Star Ferry

Star Ferry back, with plenty of time to spare before "on ship time" of 6pm.

Not nearly enough time that Hong Kong deserves...but it was what I had, and no doubt we will pass this way again...

Semester At Sea students get a Tai Chi lesson on the Museum of Art's terrace with a view of Hong Kong Island beyond.
Still a great deal of construction in progress, right at the water's edge.
View of Apple Store (that straddles the roadway) from the #15c Shuttle Bus to the Peak Tram Station.
Apple Store - I sat on the base of spiral stair, dead center of the facade, as I worked for two hours.
Another city view from the #15c Shuttle Bus, with Norman Foster's Hong Kong Shanghai Bank at center.
View from Victoria Peak Observatory Platform. The day was overcast (and extremely cold), but the view can still take your breath away.
The laser show was just finishing as we sailed off...

Monday, March 10, 2014

15: Guilin and Yangshuo: Around Town

One of the many retail areas in Guilin at night.
At the Left Bank Restaurant, several people in our group (including Gary) tasted “Snake Wine” after dinner.
The city of Guilin, which gets its name from the fragrant Osmanthus tree that is native to the area, is located in the Guangxi Autonomous Region of China. Guangxi is in the southwest, shares a border with Vietnam, and is home to several of China’s minority ethnic groups, including the Hui, Zhuang and Yao.

The Chinese refer to Guilin as a small city, but the tourism industry there is booming, as is the population, which is close to 5 million.

Yangshuo, where we ended up after the Li River trip, is smaller and more rural than Guilin, and has been referred to in one guidebook, as a backpacker’s haven. All of us all agreed that we would have preferred to spend more time in Yangshuo. It was easy to navigate on foot, and the market, reputed to have a 1,400 year history, was right outside our hotel, teeming with all manner of exotic foods, crafts, clothing (bargaining is essential) and excellent coffee.  From the hotel’s dining room and roof terrace, we could get distant views of the karst landscape (though the gold arches incongruously lit up the foreground).

Perhaps the most memorable part of the non-karst viewing excursions was our hike up through the Longji Terraces in Longsheng County (a long bus ride from Guilin). Unfortunately it was not rice growing season yet, but we were able to see and interact with two of the tribes indigenous to the area, who were selling food and other wares along the way. Lunch at a small family restaurant, after climbing in the cold, damp air for almost two hours, was simply delicious.

Reed Flute Cave is a karst cavern, impressive in both size and richness of stalactites and stalagmites (not to mention the jarring excess of dramatic lighting…). According to our guide, this cave has been a tourist attraction for over 1200 years, as cave walls hold inscriptions and poems dating from the Tang Dynasty (618 – 907 CE).
Chinese tourists like to be photographed in ethnic tribal costumes that can be rented at Elephant Trunk Hill Park. These are extremely simplified versions of Miao clothing, which is characterized by intricate embroidery
and heavy silver headdresses.
The beginning of our long climb…up to the Longji Mountain Village
Buffalo horns for sale along our path.

What a great smile, in a face that speaks volumes.
A Yao woman, immediately recognizable by her hair and earrings. Yao women never cut their hair and have distinct ways of wrapping it to communicate their status as “married with children.”

Bamboo has many uses – here, it is a container for corn and rice which is cooked over a flame
And here, it is the all purpose building / scaffolding / buttressing material.

West Street, the old bustling market street, in Yangshuo.
A sample of West Street delicacies...

The view from our hotel's dining terrace in Yangshuo.

Simple elegant bamboo rafts on the riverbank in Yangshuo.