Sunday, December 23, 2012

Ta Prohm: the lost temple that nature took back

Our guide, who calls himself Robin Hood, leads us off the main road through dirt paths until we find ourselves hiking through the jungle, ducking beautiful poisonous spiders as big as your hand, carefully weaving huge spiderwebs that stretch across the path exactly at mouth level. This forces me to develop a newfound fear of getting a poisonous spider in the mouth.

Robin Hood warns us to watch where we step in the jungle. "There are snakes here," he says.

"What kind?" I ask.

"Mostly pythons." I'm not sure if he's joking.

There are so many ancient temples still bured deep in these jungles; not all of them have been carefully cleared and preserved like Angkor Wat. It must have been startling for the explorers who weren't aware of the temples' existence, to walk and walk through the wilderness of the jungle, only to stumble upon a giant stone Buddha's face gazing back at you.

"Twenty years ago, my grandfather predicted that soon these stones will turn into gold," Robin Hood told us. "Nobody understood what he meant. Now, with $20 entrance fee into the park, the stones have turned to gold."

Tourism has really changed this place. Ten years ago, my friend Jesse visited Siem Reap and he tells me at the time there was only one paved road and the only place he could find beer was the Khmer KTV lounge. Now, with tourists coming in (often from Korea), the town has all sorts of bars, and restaurants, a lot of Korean restaurants actually, but also restaurants serving yummy Cambodian dishes like amok fish. There are also fish spas where you stick your feet in tanks as small fish eat away at your dead skin, and there's a shooting range nearby where the drinks are free, as long as you keep paying for the ammunition. But the main attraction, of course, are the temples.

We make our way from Ta Keo to Angkhor Thom to Victory Gate, where we climb up the steps carved into the side of the enormous wall to look down at the view that all the trees in the jungles must have. The temple steps are often quite steep, intended for you to crawl up on your knees in a respectful grovelling manner.

My favourite temple, however, was Ta Prohm.

This is the temple where scenes from the movie Tomb Raider was shot. It's a crazy sight: the trees have moved in and taken over the temple. The jungle is literally part of the temple.

This was an amazing trip to Cambodia. I have wanted to visit Cambodia for years. When I was a law student, I took on a side job in the Netherlands assisting some law professors at the Universiteit van Amsterdam. They were writing a book about international criminal law, and as part of the process, they interviewed a number of lawyers at various international criminal court systems around the world, including the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia. In particular, my professors interviewed a criminal defence lawyer for one of the accused facing charges related to the Cambodian genocide. They ask him why he decided to defend the accused.

The lawyer explained that, like everyone else, he had lost many family members during the genocide, including aunts, uncles, nephews and nieces.  He was baffled at the atrocities that he saw committed, and decided that he had to find out for himself the truth of why it had all happened, and became involved by defending the very people accused to engineering the massacres.  I found this response to be surprising but at the same time profound; normally many of us don't see defence lawyers as truth-seekers, but in their own way, they are part of the guardians leading the way to justice.  I found myself intrigued and wanting to learn more about Cambodian culture, because their people did, in fact, have a rich history before any of these tragedies occurred, a rich history that still remains in form of the temple ruins.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

The temples of Angor Wat

There are these two tiny kittens that like to approach us while we're eating breakfast on the hotel patio in the morning. They always seem to be really hungry, but they refuse to eat anything you feed them except meat - not any of the delicious pho or congee that our hotel serves, the sweet milk, or the fresh dragon fruit and papaya, just meat. They seem to particularly like fried chicken, which Cambodia does not seem to have a shortage of. Feeding the kittens is a great way to start the day. We'd arrived in Siem Reap, the night before, exhausted after 31 hours of traveling with no REM cycle since Tuesday night. It was now Friday. We were excited to start our honeymoon in Cambodia.

Our guide was an animated guy who called himself Robin Hood (I think the actual spelling was Huot), and often abruptly oscillated with no warning between goofily cracking jokes ("Say what? Ankghor Waaaat?") and soberly recounting brutal tales from the Khmer Rouge's regime ("My uncle and aunt were killed during the civil war. I know the man who killed them. I see him every day when I crossed the street from my home. That's why I moved here to Siem Reap, so I wouldn't have to see him all the time.")

 This is Cambodia. The horrors of the genocide are still fresh in everybody's memories. Everyone has family that was killed. All of our tour guides have been former guerilla soldiers, who, after the conflict, put down their guns and took up new foreign languages so they could resourcefully guide tourists through the sites of the killing fields and the Buddhist temples that make up Cambodia's emerging tourism industry.

Unlike its comparably more prosperous neighbour Thailand, Cambodia is still a poor country that is trying to put the pieces of itself back together. Nobody, including Cambodians, trusts the local Cambodian currency, and instead American dollars are used. Gas stations sell gasoline smuggled from thailand, packaged in pop bottles. Everywhere you turn, there are child vendors, who should be in school but have no such access, carefully looking out for foreigners to try to sell trinkets to. It's a sight that we're not used to.

Siem Reap is a city of one million people in Cambodia, with a name that translates roughly to "Death to the Thai people!!!" (my liberal translation). Thai people are not happy about this name. Most of the tourists in Siem Reap are Korean, and most are here to see the countless temples, particularly Angor Wat, the largest religious complex in the world. These temples are breathtaking, and are the main reason for our visit to Cambodia. They are about a thousand years old from the Angkor period, deep in the Cambodian jungles, built in the Buddhist/Hindu traditional styles.

On our way to the temples, we took in the sights of the Cambodian countryside. Pickup trucks full of buddhist monks in the back drove down the dirt roads, carefully avoiding the skinny cows and roosters hanging out on the shoulders. We stopped at a roadside stand to taste freshly made palm sugar. I bought some lotus tea.

sampling palm sugar

really cool (and scary) tree ladder

water buffalo

poisonous spider!!!

Angkor Wat was, of course, magnificent, the size of 500 football fields, with maze-like structures, and intricate bas-relief telling important religious stories in photos. It's hard to describe this ancient structure with my words.

note that my husband and I are following the Korean honeymoon tradition of "coupling" our outfits

We spent the day exploring the other temples nearby as well. They say you can spend a whole week here, just hiking from temple to temple.  It's unbelievable how many of them lay in ruins for centuries, deep in the jungle, mostly undiscovered until this century.

my tall husband

do you see that stegosaurus? how did a dinosaur get carved on the temple walls???? 

It was amazing to see, on one hand, how much of the temples of had been preserved after all these years, and, on the other hand, how much awful destruction the temples had endured. When the Hindus took over, they smashed all the statues of buddha they could find, thousands of them. I saw one ancient altar that was once used for holding water; then during the war, soldiers used the stone altar as knife sharpeners; now, insensitive tourists use it as a garbage can. The temple walls are lined with bullet holes from during the Cambodia conflict.

Even now, it's curious to see how the temple ruins are treated. They are still viewed as holy sites; Buddhist monks offer their prayers there, and tourists are expected to dress modestly. But much of the temples still lie in ruins, with walls caved in, and bricks lying in chaos, while Cambodia tries to find the funding for more restoration. Tombs by the monastery are now used as motorcycle parking lots. Small children play all over the thousand year old ruins as a playground.

like puzzle pieces, waiting to be put back together

a thousand broken buddhas


the temples still serve as places of worship

For lunch we pulled over to a restaurant stop called Angkor Reach. We ordered stir-fried tofu, flat rice noodles and beef in bean sace, as well as cold Cambodian beer, which was a huge relief from the humid Cambodian jungle heat.

monkeys at the temple looking to steal food from tourists

Friday, December 7, 2012

my band's new album!

My band Scary Bear Soundtrack released our new album yesterday. Have a listen!

You can also buy the EP here for only $4. Support your local independent artists (in this case, me)!

Monday, December 3, 2012

an accidental trip to China

"No, you don't understand," we insisted to the immigration officer at the airport handing us an entrance visa application form to fill out. "We don't want to enter China. We're just trying to find the international transfer area."

"Just fill this out," snapped the officer, who didn't speak much more English. The next thing we knew, we had entered the People's Republic of China, somewhat accidentally and against our will. It was 5AM. We had twelve hours to kill.

Chinese Pizza Hut

What was I doing in Beijing? I am Canadian, and China is kind of the opposite of Canada - not only on the other side of the world, but full of lots and lots of people in smaller spaces (like, a billion of them), which is quite overwhelming for Canadians who like to have at least fifteen metres of open personal space around them.  Yet here we were, in the beautiful Beijing Capital International Airport, the busiest airport in Asia, recently renovated for the Olympics, suddenly surrounded by a bustling crowd elbowing and spitting and rushing past us. Not having expected to be in this country, we had no idea how much the local currency was worth compared to Canadian dollars, nor were we aware of special laws particular to the country.  Was it illegal to bring anything we had in our carry-on baggage into the country? Can I access Facebook here? What happens if I say the word "communism"?

everything is poetry in China, even public signs

We had not slept last night on the plane. The sleep deprivation was, oddly enough, the most urgent matter to deal with in our new country, so we fell asleep on the first bench that we could find in the airport.  This ended up being right before passengers entered the security gate, and is actually an interesting place to people watch. It's the opposite of the Love Actually moment: you can watch people tearfully say good-bye to their loved ones, over and over and over again.  I did not. I slept.  When I came to, there was a flock of Korean ajumas standing right over my head, engaging in an intense discussion in their outdoor voices about getting new white hairs, not seeming to notice the groggy traveler trying to sleep three feet below them.  There were also a lot of guys standing around "talking" into their cell phone. I have this theory that cell phones in Asia are set at a much lower volume, forcing everyone to have to yell loudly into them, especially in public.  I closed my eyes and once again thought about how much I missed Canadian-sized personal space.

Having sort of slept, we decided to try to go outside.  On the streets, we were met with the cacophony of noise and exhaust fume that was early morning Beijing traffic. The sun had just started to come up, or at least I thought it did; you couldn't actually see it in the sky because the sky was either incredibly foggy or smoggy. Taking a deep breath of rush hour traffic in our lungs, it might have been the latter. We decided it would be best not to linger outside on the streets.

Luckily, we discovered the wonders of the hourly motel. Up to now, I have always had a certain negative perception of what Koreans refer to as "love motels" that you could book by the hour for a "rest".  Being neither a politician or a lady of the night, I never thought I'd have use for one. However, in the context of our situation at the moment, in the middle of a forty hour travel back from Bangkok to Ottawa, everything about renting a room at these places came together to make sense.  I mean, I was with my husband and we really, really, really needed to sleep. More importantly, we really could use a shower. And it seemed unlikely that a chattering gaggle of Korean ajumas would pop up in our motel room.  So we rented it.  Who cares if the whole place seemed sketchy and weird? I had what felt like the best nap and shower IN THE WORLD.

The best shower in the world, solely on the basis of its existence

Afterwards we were feeling a bit more refreshed, so we went off in each of Chinese food.

Luckily, Chinese food is not all that hard to find in China.  We opted not to eat at the Kenny Rogers Roasters restaurant at the airport, and instead went into a Celestial Restaurant, chosen more or less because it was there.  It featured an interesting menu with a lot of dishes, including more unusual ones like donkey meat, bullfrogs, and sea cucumbers.  Incidentally, it also featured "American-style fried rice" which is what we have come to perceive as Chinese food in North America (you are not included in the "we" if you are Chinese-Canadian).  I think it's interesting how we've developed a different style of Chinese food in North America, featuring dishes invented in North America like "American" fried rice, General Tao's chicken, and fortune cookies. It's particularly interesting to see those Chinese-American dishes make their way back to Asia, and featured on the menus as somewhat foreign dishes. Kind of like, say, L.A.-style Korean barbecue galbi. In the end though, we went for the chicken dish with walnuts, sauteed beef with chili, non-American fried rice and an bottomless pot of jasmine tea.

Chinese food in China!

Afterwards, we still had some time to kill, so we found a bar and nursed a bottle of Tsingtao beer. This allowed me to sing my own version of one of Canada's greatest songs:

"I say, what the hell am I doing drinking in Beijing, at 26?"

(I am actually 27, but artistic license allows me to knock off a year.)

You know, I'd like to come back to China some day and properly explore it. But you know, maybe as a planned trip next time, on purpose.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Restaurants in Koh Samui: The Page at the Library

My husband has developed a certain love affair for wagyu beef, which in my head basically translates to "really expensive beef", and when he saw it on the menu at the Page, he knew we had to go.

The Page is a high end beachside restaurant located at the Library, which is not actually a library, as you might have thought, but a trendy hotel in Ko Samui's Chaweng Beach. It's one of those contemporary places built with a specific thematic design - that of a sleek, peaceful library - that leaves luxury hotels like the Hilton seeming kind of boring. I'm not sure how the conceptual designer presented the idea to the financial backers ("You know what tourists would really like to sleep in? A big giant book.") and I was skeptical at first, but the concept really does work in distinguishing the hotel as a quite unique experience. Each hotel room is referred to as a page number, and has this overall clean white look to it, with the path down the middle of the "pages" serving as a lovely place to sit under a tree and read a book.

You can't quite tell in the photo, but the pool is covered with a neat shade of red tiles, which in the daylight kind of makes it seem like you're swimming in blood. Again, I'm not sure how the designer pitched the idea, but it's actually pretty cool.

The Page restaurant further reflected the careful thought that had been put into designing every small detail of the place. Everything from the beachside bar where you'd wait with your drink to be seated, to the bathroom interior which featured TWO WAY MIRRORS (endless fun!) to the dining tables which had drawers to contain an arsenal of cutlery to the lights - you could tell that everything served a purpose.


waiting at the beachside bar with our fancy cocktails, watching the waves

seriously...two way mirrors are so cool. the outside of the bathroom stall door looks like a mirror, while occupants inside the stall can look out the door like a window. obviously having it the other way around would be a problem. can you see me in this photo? I CAN SEE YOU.

The menu featured an "East" side and a "West" side, both quite detailed. We ordered the massaman curry of the Eastern menu, featuring beef cheeks, as well as the roast duck (which curiously appeared several times throughout the menu).

Before our meal, we were served some tasty appetizers along with our bread, as well as raspberry sorbet to cleanse the palette. I love dessert before dinner!

The main courses were full of rich flavour, almost overwhelmingly so. The beef cheek meat in the massaman curry was so soft that I barely needed to touch them with my fork before it came apart. I'd tasted massman curry before, a popular Thai Muslim dish, but now I was suddenly in love and couldn't get enough of the peanut sauce.  The roast duck was also perfectly cooked, juicy and tender, and went well with the Chinese brandy that it came in.  And of course, there was the wagyu beef, which really will kill it for you, every time you ever try to enjoy non-wagyu beef.  Even the mashed potato that came with the beef was like nothing I'd ever tasted before.  I would never have thought to describe good old mashed potato as "divine", but here we are now, at the Page.  We were getting full fast, and yet couldn't let a single bite go to waste.  We really need to start bringing other people along on our dates to help us finish our food.

Massaman curry with beef cheeks

roast duck with mushroom and Chinese greens with Chinese brandy

wagyu frickin beef

What I appreciated about our meal was that the courses were executed well; we were encouraged to dine at a leisurely place, to savour each plate slowly while also taking in the gorgeous landscape.  It was a lovely dining experience. The restaurant's seaside location allowed us to dine while listening to the sounds of the waves lapping the seashore, with the constellation Orion hanging over the sky at a downward angle like he was getting ready to dive into the Gulf of Thailand, swim up to the share and ask us for a bite of our wagyu beef.