Sunday, December 28, 2008

Big Trouble in Big China

            China: a potentially magnificent country whose splendor is clouded by too thick air, asphyxiating air which colors even the most resplendent hotels, temples and skyscrapers grey. Of course, many people consider China to be tenacious in its allure, breathtakingly beautiful as opposed to just breath-taking, but after three days of suffocating, I have reasoned that China is simply not for me, that my lungs will surely collapse if my escape weren't as soon as it is. And it is clear that I am not the only sufferer, as a number of other tragedies have befallen our tightly knit American clan since our arrival, adding to the leadenness of the grim air, and this slow decay brings us to Beijing's Temple of Heaven.

            Awaiting our departure for the temple on a bus, we receive the devastating news of our lost comrade, Kurt Leswing, and our inert wake-up-at-six-am-every-day lethargy quickly pours out of us in violent tears, streaming from hotel to Xuanwu. As the mourners hobble off the bus, heads bowed, arms find their ways into the arms of others, wrapping themselves up in another's seeking warmth, seeking solace, seeking peace. We arrange ourselves in a circle—which, as it happens, coincides with the Chinese representation of Heaven as a circle—and have a moment of silence for Kurt, during which we hear the playful chirps of Chinese men and women capering over the temple gates.

Not knowing the extent to which it is necessary to pay my respects to a deceased friend, I resolve to remain doleful throughout, at least, the day, to demonstrate how deeply his death has affected me, but it's difficult here. I have been told that Taoism, in addition to other eastern religions, focuses heavily on familial piety, especially after death. It has been emphasized, more specifically, that the practice of mourning is incredibly important; if not genuine in heart, it should at least be believable in semblance. But in either case, great attention is paid to lamentation, be it sharp memory, an expensive funeral, or keening wildly at the committal. But I don't know what to do—haven't learned the rules of mourning in America—so I allow myself to cry, silently and behind sunglasses, good for nothing in this sunless country except to hide behind.

As we file through the temple's gates, I sense that the air hanging over Temple of Heaven land is vastly different from that outside; it carries music, dancing, singing, laughing—absolute vitality. It grows increasingly tiring to retain my cynical attitude as I watch small and sprightly men chasing after badminton birdies, couples gamboling about in a choreographed social waltz, chain smokers snickering on each side of a mah-jong or chess board as crowds watch over their shoulders, and music everywhere, emanating throughout the area without ever giving away its origin. This energy urges me to drop my stubborn will, to give up everything and let life run its natural course without propelling myself into despair, or angst, or otherwise not-quite-authentic responses. Cry if pressure builds behind the eyes; laugh if enlivened bubbles rise at the base of the throat; smile when instinct naturally lifts the corners of the mouth; don't force anything. How appropriate, for this Taoist temple; I am being pulled into that natural harmony known as wu wei, the effortless one-step-will-follow-the-other mindset that reigns in any passive yet receptive mind.

As we continue on through the temple, it seems that the same adjustments are occurring within my classmates; those whose eyes had drained themselves of fluid are now being wiped dry, and some are even smiling, taking pictures, jumping into hackeysack circles with strangers. It is clear that our natures, as humans, are prone toward happiness, or are, at least, desiring happiness, and even a great disaster can be subdued when a person wholly sheds his will and gives himself over to the spontaneous external world. And Taoism seems to be designed for such dispositions, especially in contrast with Buddhism, the religion with a marketing scheme appealing to anyone who believes that the world revolves around suffering. Taoism may incorporate some similar concepts—such as emptiness and detachment—but it does not carry the same severity on which Buddhism seems to pride itself; rather, there seems to be more trust in the positive, natural flow of organic energy that will minister to everyone willing to open himself to it. While both "religions" may be working to cure the same illness, the two work from opposite sides of the attitudinal outlook line.

Though Taoism as a religion is somewhat hidden amid the busy crowd, it is obvious that there is something much deeper going on: first, I have to remember that Taoism is as much a cultural tradition as it is a religious one, incorporating philosophy and ethics which ordain "the way" life should be lived. As such, this temple feels unexpectedly inviting and lacks the strictness inherent in many religious institutions I've visited, particularly Western Christian influenced churches, but also Buddhist temples in the countries before China. And Taoist emphasis on health is particularly obvious here, with circles of fluent dancers and squares devoted to tai chi—every participant balanced and natural in his movements. It is remarkable to see Taoist votaries gathering in masses for this productive custom, all braving the cold to meet and exercise together; I can't say that I have ever seen any religious practice so easily applied and integrated into ordinary life.

After passing through the first surge of tai chi-ers, we see a few more groups scattered throughout the area, but the focus is now shifting to the buildings themselves. Unfortunately, given the nature of Semester at Sea excursions—to check as many sights off the tourist list as possible in the least amount of time—the Temple of Heaven is subject to strict time restrictions; thus, only one building of the three fit into our itinerary, this one being the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests.

Sitting atop an expansive, raised square—the Chinese representation of earth—with thirty some stairs leading up to the platform, the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests is splayed out like a Victorian ball gown, delicately embroidered and king-sized. Though I never see the other buildings, it is difficult to believe that they could outshine this three-tiered colossus, tastefully dressed with classic golds and blues and pinks over a coat of heavenly blue at the top and red toward the base. Under each tier are whipped cream-textured ridges, lifting up the skirts like tulle under a dress which give the circular—Heaven—hall a very full appearance. This arrangement symbolizes the relationship between Heaven and Earth—the round building positioned augustly atop the square—and the building itself is capped with a golden ball atop a rod as if to attract lightning or penetrate the heavens.

After having visited the Disney influenced temples in Malaysia, it is almost confusing to see such a simply ornamented edifice. The bareness of color—a coat of blue and red to cover the whole structure—is perplexing, and the uniformity of the accents is unexpected. It is clear that the designer knew his palette well, knew which details fit where; he hid the more complicated carvings in the shadows of the tiers, veiled the detailed paintings beneath those. The spareness is striking, and the size of the building does most of the bragging.

What I don't entirely understand, however, is why such a tremendous building was built for the purpose of praying specifically for good harvest—wouldn't a less imposing, more natural looking tower have been more fitting? I do suppose, though, that the three-gabled circle design is relevant, as it encompasses the Chinese depiction of Heaven. First, as I have already mentioned, by the circle shape, and also by the three tiers that, as I learned from Professor Groner himself, are symbolic given their likeness to the Chinese character for king: () three horizontal lines (Heaven, humans and earth) intersected by one longer vertical line (the emperor, who maintains the harmony between the three). So beyond the architects constructing a beautiful building, they were also smart in considering Chinese language and culture in its design.

At this juncture, it seems that everyone has found this temple to be a suitable distraction from the news; students stand, arms akimbo, mouths and eyes wide, staring up at the sublime structure before them; others poke each other on the shoulder urging them to take a closer look at this carving or that stroke of paint; everyone is smiling, amazed, and happy, at least temporarily.

After a few photos, I start back down the stairs and see my classmates gazing up at the Temple of Heaven, as if they are considering heaven now that it feels oddly within reach. Or at least this is what I am thinking as I leave, whether I should have vetoed the photography session for a more useful prayer service and appeal to whatever god is responsible for me. But I wouldn't even begin to know what to ask for, because anything regarding Heaven assumes that I will, someday, be removed from the earth and deposited elsewhere, which is a thought I wholeheartedly dread and would prefer to ignore until any time that cannot be called "now." I suppose I could wish for immortality, sought for by religious Taoists, but the thought of eternal aging has never appealed to me. I have often been told—by friends and professionals alike—that I think about death more often than the average my-ager, which has probably accounted for some peculiar facets of my personality and overall perspective, but this is the first time anyone close to me—in age, in life path, in physical proximity—has passed. It's not that I want to think about death now—I have to.

Wu wei has diverged down another road, and I am on the trail of tenacity, vulnerable to bad weather, ill omen, and an agitated mind.

            The sky, which has been mostly eclipsed by the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests, is now visibly grey and murky again as I walk back through crowds of lively Chinese exercisers. It's as if they are in Heaven here, gods playing checkers and smoking cigarettes and tossing balls around, so far from death that playing games seems a good way to spend a life. But I know that they are all subject to the same rules, that they are just trying to follow the Tao and let life come at them without swimming against the natural flow. I am reminded of an essay by Chinese poet Li Young Lee who explained the difference between Eastern and Western perspectives: Americans always talk about walking forward into the future and leaving the past behind; the Chinese see and know the past which lies ahead of them as they walk backwards into the future. Perhaps this fundamental belief is what allows them to give themselves up to the unknowable future, as using one's will to fight it is futile. They are not stifled by the air like I am; granted, they were born into it, but I still feel as if it may be because of my outlook, a persistent anxiety about what will happen in my future that was there even before Kurt.

I re-board the mega bus, thus returning to the tragedies let loose within its doors. I am thankful for its air filtration system which aids me in regaining a clear mind, then notice the number of friends hugging each other in the rows before my seat in the back of the bus. Despite having spent months living among these people, I have never seen such compassion, moderation and humility—the three jewels of the Tao—shared between them, and I am so moved by the sight that I realize I want a hug, too, even though I am not the kind of person who generally seeks physical consolation. I think that, maybe, I need to reconsider my way of living—open up, stop dwelling on the future, hug people more. And re-read the Tao of Pooh.

[The above is an essay written for Zen, which was featured (along with the Dakshina Chitra essay) in Semester at Sea's "Academic Gallery" that nobody went to! Hurray!]

[The photo was found on the internet, and I presume that it was heavily photoshopped, possible alterations including the color of the sky (brightened) and clouds (superimposed, of course)].


I think that about sums up my entire China experience. A few overlooked but important details include:

A brief stop at Tiananmen Square where the phrase "boo-yao" often escaped from my mouth; five-star hotels; being feverish and sore throat-ed the whole time while Kristin selflessly took it upon herself to follow my "but I'm sick…" demands; Peking duck which was tasty enough the first time but not so much the fourth and fifth; delicious hot pot; reserving the whole back seat of the bus for Kristin and myself, and sometimes Per (a curious, rich New York boy who drank much too much); spicy noodles; soy bean popsicles; Mao's face on every wall, t-shirt and deck of cards; climbing the great wall with Drew and skipping all the way down; riding in a dragon boat at the Emperor's summer palace; seeing the Bird's Nest from our a foggy bus window as we sped down the highway; our (me, Scott, and Drew's) leisurely walk back to the ship from town, during which we watched rubber pigs and rats being thrown against the ground so hard they spread a foot around, dolls manipulated by hidden remote controls, calligraphy, and an Asian Woody Allen who effortlessly cut Scott's profile out of a piece of paper and unknowingly inspired my computer's taking on the identity of Scott Rollins.

I liked China just fine but was very ready to leave when I did, as was everyone else, I think.


Plus, Japan is next! Oh, goody.

Good Bye, Vietnam

Oh, Vietnam. So close to Thailand, yet so far away. Cambodia was closer, to be sure, but no one thinks about Thailand when they're in Cambodia—Cambodia is enough. But Vietnam, Saigon, with your unruly Ben Thanh market and Pho 2000, Pho 24, All Pho All Pho-king Day, why couldn't you have been Pad Thai and Chatuchak on the river?

But no matter, you were Vietnam, a good place for pearls, for tailored suits and gowns, for Frogger: 4D, for water puppets, for avocado smoothies, noodles and raw eggs. You were fun, Vietnam, but that's all you were. And for only two days, that's okay.

Given my lack of ability to collect memories in anything resembling a linear narrative, I am left with no choice but to summarize—and sloppily, I anticipate—my stay in Vietnam.

I do recall a day at the market with a good group of us, though I can't say exactly who or how many; I can't accept all the blame for having forgotten as it was impossible to hold on to every member in a group from one place to the next, from one market alley to another, and I cannot be expected to remember who was missing, who had strayed, who had been stolen away, etc. And to take from (another) something I wrote for school:

"In Viet Nam, oh boy, you should see, it's just a mess of people, like an emptied can of creamed corn covering the whole city that pops and boils over into markets and alleyways. It snatches up squirming pedestrians, sinks leaden cars and butters the road for swerving motorbikes that will eventually meet and have no choice but to go and hope they don't become cream."

We had pho that day, that I remember, (though even if we didn't, it would be a pretty good guess to say we did), and Kristin and I got caught in the rain as we searched for a shopping strip we'd spotted from a bus the day before (or was it that day?). At a point, Kristin and I were Frogger-ing in the pouring rain under one umbrella from one flooded street to the next and we ended up under a lifted building where a Japanese man stood, possibly waiting for something, and he eventually let us in on a little place called "Zen" which sounded like a nice escape from the rain so we went and were very pleased, to say the least, with what we found there: shops galore! Unfortunately, the store was fashioned after Japan, meaning everything but the tag was the same (to borrow from a Vietnam-inspired proverb: "same same, but different"). That also means that the entire building could be judged as soon as the first floor has been covered, as everything from then on would have frills in the same places, of the same color, etc. So we left, back into the rain, and headed to a tailor shop where Kristin's custom dress was waiting. And in case you're curious, that thing is still floating around somewhere in Vietnam, orphaned and hideous.

As it was my first (and last) night in Vietnam, we all (Drew, Kristin, Chris and I) went out on the back of motor bikes to Volcano, (how I remember the name of that, I will never know) outside of which a (very drunk) set of Vietnamese Americans from Seattle happened to be loitering until they dragged us inside. The ground shook with the music, louder than music should ever be, so loud that the bartender couldn't hear my order, so loud that another bartender couldn't hear me complaining about my drink being served without alcohol, so loud that we left after fifteen minutes, frustrated, deaf, and ten dollars poorer. We took a cab to an American/SAS-friendly bar called Apocalypse Now which was apparently emptier than the night before, (according to Kristin) meaning the SAS kids had found a better place to hang out. But we headed upstairs and danced for a good hour, met Edward Scissorhands' doppelganger, then went home and fell happily asleep.

Next morning was for Saigon Water Puppets under Cheri Vasek, Semester at Sea's theatre aficionado.

The following is a rather inane essay I wrote about the show for a theatre class, (again, the cheesiness factor is inflated "for class"):

Twirling metallic dragons and harlequin gentlemen stole the show at the Saigon Water Puppet Performance, a depiction of daily life and cultural rituals particular to ancient Vietnam. Capering through the water of a humble, flooded stage, these puppets displayed the country's buoyant spirit and tenacity, embodying elements of Vietnamese heritage still connecting modern Saigon to its primeval counterpart—farmers harvesting grain, a grazier rearing his cattle, a peasant boring for water. And of course, the sacred four—dragon, unicorn, phoenix and turtle—who shared the stage for an animated dance manifest four vital life forces: health, longevity, peace and happiness. Add a few fireworks, and here we have a real spectacle.
As my first introduction to the art of water puppets, I could not have imagined a more enlightening experience. The small scale of everything, from the compactness of the room to the modest box stage in the center below, made the entire event much more intimate. I could even make out faint shadows and muted splashes of the performers maneuvering behind the curtain, and though that may have appeared tacky to some, I appreciated the glance at the private goings-on, like the puppeteers were sharing the secrets of the technical operation with me, in a way, as opposed to me just watching puppets gliding autonomously on the water. Not that self-governing puppets wouldn't make a fantastically magical show on their own, but the point seemed to be, at least to me, the puppets' actions and their physical embodiment of traditions and history shared by the Vietnamese people controlling them. And this connection, in water puppetry, could be found not only in the stories, but in the sturdy metal scepter attaching puppeteer, the sovereign controller, to his puppet.
As for the puppets themselves, though my first instinct told me to say they were tawdry and altogether indistinguishable, I can see the advantage of this aesthetic. First, the basic appearance of each puppet can be ascribed to the form in which they were first made: of wood with an unavoidably shiny water-resistant varnish. The homogeneity corresponded to the unity of Vietnam and its people, dressing every puppet in red, green and gold to represent the country's vitality. Then, by demanding little attention to makeup and costume, the audience was forced to study the role of each person based on his physical movement and interactions with other puppets. After all, what separates puppetry from other conventional theater forms (by which I mean an actor on a stage) is the control and detail that must go into body language and gesticulation. It is much more impressive to find the personality in three identical puppets through their movement alone than to distinguish them only by their features. It is also important to note that, culturally, Eastern countries value family and group identity more than the individual; thus, it seems suitable for the puppets to appear synonymous with one another.
So far I have done nothing but praise the performance; not that it wasn't worthy of hearty applause, but I do recall being slightly irked by the distorted, pre-recorded music. As a vital component of any show, music is capable of securing a Tony or, in this case, disturbing the whole production like a clanking metal cloak weighing everything down. The wind instruments blew everything out of order like a steaming hurricane; the drums were so shocking and muddled that it was impossible to distinguish a beat on the snare from a scratch on the CD; and everything else was simply unidentifiable rumpus. If I had the power to change anything, I would have replaced that cacophonous clamor with a live orchestra, seated on both sides of the pool, and playing to enliven the audience rather than just fulfill the traditional aesthetic.
But besides the music, I found the performance wholly entertaining, a wonderful mix of history and theater. And of course, the highlight of the show occurred afterward, after the puppeteers took their bows and demonstrated how to flip and spin the sheeny unicorn, when Cheri V. took the stage and exhibited her natural agility for everyone to see. (Cheri V., I have trouble believing you had never twirled a unicorn puppet before). The puppeteer's post-performance interaction with us showed how invested they were, how skillful and passionate about this centuries-long tradition a person can be even in today's Saigon.

To be truthful, I nearly fell asleep during the performance and spent a good while resting on Kristin's shoulder, but I do really believe that I would have enjoyed it with at least a fair percentage of the enthusiasm displayed above had I not been so fatigued.

As usually happens, I felt revitalized right about the moment I exited the theater, felt comfortable erasing "nap" from my itinerary, and went out to explore the city on my own. (Kristin stuck to the schedule and slept on the ship).

Not knowing where anything was, I walked blocks in the wrong direction until I finally found the post office, and that was only after stopping in every store within a two block radius of the post office asking "where's the post office?" or "stamps?" or "Notre Dame?" (which was right next to the post office) or "cathedral?" or "church?" and even the English speakers didn't quite understand Notre Dame, though their name for it is the same. Baffling. I found it on my own, luckily, struggled to buy some stamps (I still don't know if the postage was correct), then drifted into a shopping mall where I simply looked around with no intention of buying anything (which I didn't, and boy, am I proud). After I left, I walked across the street to a popular chain café (though the name escapes me at the moment—was it Highlands? I don't know). I sat there for an hour or so watching everyone walk by, guessing who was visiting, who wasn't, what people were saying in their foreign tongue, what they were drinking, what the loners were thinking and so on. I can't say I was particularly appreciating the country and culture of Vietnam, but it was surely one of the best travel days. Reminded me of being in France after my Dad deserted me there, when I wandered aimlessly around, over bridges, around churches, lay in parks, drank coffee, watched people. That is how I like to travel.

It quickly became night and when it did I was walking along the main street, kind of lost, knowing Kristin would be trying out a new dress at a different tailor at 5, and though I had been there the day before, I couldn't quite place it in the strip with jewelry store after tailor after underwear stand, and repeat; it all looked the same to me. So I gave up looking and opted to head back to the ship for dinner, and wouldn't you know it, as soon as I had resolved to do so in my head, I passed Kristin, Scott and Eilis on the street. I stuck with them and had frozen yogurt at a place designed like Pink Berry in LA and Swirl (or Cultivé, if you're new to the trend) in Davis, enjoyed it immensely, then went back to the ship to write and send postcards.

All in all, well, I can't say I'll be heading back to Vietnam. It is for people who like big crowds, big, big crowds, and stuffy markets, and noodle soup. Or for those who want to relive their war days—though I can't see how anyone would—as U.S. Army paraphernalia is really a hit in Saigon's capital market these days. Robin Williams may not be there, but the Good Morning, Vietnam t-shirts can be found everywhere. Odd.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Angkor Wat?

Where to start.

For those of you who don't know—which is likely everyone not in my extended family, ship family, or frequent text messaging circle—Semester at Sea is over. OVER. So it would have been only logical for you strangers to assume the voyage is still going considering the blog hasn't been completed, but that is only because the blog was forgotten under the masses of goodbyes and a few new countries; in any case, my priorities shifted and it is only now, after Christmas, that I've found time to trek a month or so back in my memory to write about a some bygone ports—Cambodia, Vietnam, Hong Kong, China, Japan, Hawaii and Costa Rica.

Foreword: (No one to write this but myself, this being a mediocre and unknown blog, so here goes): Consciously or not, I think that the non-completion of this blog rests on a few factors. The first and most obvious of these is that the conclusion of this log denotes the conclusion of the action about which the writing is happening, and this situation is unfavorable no matter which way I look at it. Second—as more of an amendment to the first—regarding this blog as "finished" would thusly make every incident, event, exploit or affair first detach from my immediate self, then isolate itself among other departed memories resting in a large box tagged "SAS," and all of those will only grow more stale over time. This process allows the deaths incurred to die, the love to cease swelling, the excitement to be snuffed out. All of it is so final. (The next reason is still more of an amendment than a new point, but) with the end of the voyage comes the end of the blog, which has received its fair share of praise and lived a happy (but short) life. And I am somehow afraid that now, on this quiet, unwavering land, the writing that once flowed from my fingertips was lost with the sea, that because I'm no longer in the middle of some terribly exciting journey my mind will have noticed the downshift and grown dull and uninspired. Too dull to entertain, too dull to finish. I haven't picked up a pen with the intention of writing since the trip ended—not even to write a letter, which I do often—because I'm afraid of what will happen, afraid that my time (not that I have "a time" to mourn) has ended. With this senior year, college ending, new house, friends gone, thesis thing looming over my head as my constant companion, impending failure, sails in right behind it, any theory thwarting my writing ability will be wholly believable and ultimately deadly.

So now that I've given you my excuses, I can get started on Cambodia.

As people have asked about my favorite ports, without giving it much thought, I say India and Cambodia. Then they ask why and I go on and on about India, and they say, sure, ok, India, everyone loves India—what about Cambodia? But I find that one harder to explain as it's not altogether dazzling, or mystic, or… It was sad. It was simply sad, tragic, really, and I think that may have been its allure. Sure, it was beautiful, but even the beauty was shrouded by something fatal.

Before arriving in Cambodia, we first had to sail into Vietnam and board a plane from there to Phnom Penh ("The Pearl of Asia"; Cambodia's capital; I don't expect you to be familiar with the country yet). As my memory is hazy, I will have to assume we arrived late and immediately retired to our hotel rooms after arriving that night.

Just kidding. I was just informed by cousin Drew that, being Halloween, we went out that evening in search of a masquerade, or some sort of wingding to celebrate our most cherished holiday. We found an alehouse with a pink-wigged bartender and hip tunes and stayed there for a bit while our driver (of his own volition) waited outside. That same kind-hearted man later took us to a series of brothels and similarly questionable establishments, and once it was clear that prostitute hour was to last the rest of the evening, we headed home to get some much needed rest.

The following morning was an early one and we wasted no time immersing ourselves in the tragedy that is Cambodia—to the Killing Fields where Cambodia's own citizens were flogged, shot, hung, trampled, or killed any other way the Khmer Rouge (Cambodian government opposers) saw fit. There were fields for children, for women, for intellectual, threatening men—educators, doctors, writers—and in some, clothes were still embedded in the sodden ground. T-shirts hung limply over tree roots as if they had tried to escape, shoes whose toes jutted out from a patch of grass were still trying to run away. Hack marks in every tree trunk where a child's head was beaten to a board, ropes hanging like living vines from the trees, and a tower that would have been gorgeous had it not been for the hundreds of butchered skulls it held: all of it suddenly transformed the ground I walk on, the layer of earth separating myself from the millions massacred, the dead, into a blessing, but a thin one.

To carry on with the theme, we went to the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, a prison with a purpose similar to the Killing Fields. A Cambodian Auschwitz, if you will. Founded, ironically, out of a high school, the facility made cells of the classrooms and torture chambers of the corridors, then enclosed these all with electric fences, barbed wire and iron bars. Between a thousand and fifteen hundred people would be housed here at a time, each of them forced to utter the names of family members who would be summoned after the prisoner was swiftly exterminated. Given the fertile location, the Khmer Rouge had the means to execute more creatively—not just beating and shooting, but suffocation via plastic bag, (the recently disputed) waterboarding, electrocution, burning and mass starvation were widely popular forms of killing, too. Where thousands fell dead, pictures of their rotting corpses stood for tourists to see, and even the small, blurry photos were the most graphic and sickening images I had ever seen. For fear I would vomit on the recently mopped tile, I exited the room and went outside to the courtyard where, yes, still more had been killed, then I continued to the outside-outside, past the deactivated electric fence, where victims of neglected land mines crept through the alleys with half a leg, half a face. At that point, I could do nothing but get on the bus and sit and wait.

The Royal Palace was next, a stunning plane of silver and gold outside of which a clever many beggars without arm or foot wheeled or lurched before the entrance with postcards or water to sell, collecting Riel and looks of sympathy-stricken horror. I wandered inside the gates with Drew to whom I commented that the roofs looked like they were on fire, each one topped with spikes as would be found on a dragon's back, and he agreed. Beyond the obvious beauty of it, not much was to be found in this place besides puddles, Buddha relics, and a small wooden xylophone orchestra. And for all of you who venture to travel here, good luck finding the silver pagoda. (It's actually gold).

Following this stop and another run-in with incapacitated street crawlers (pardon the interruption, but I realize that I sound condescending and heartless in these descriptions; I'm finding it difficult to create a concise and polite image for such a troubling sight), we made a brief stop at the National Museum. Looking back, I wish I hadn't entered, as I would have been more impressed seeing only the façade, red, on fire, and complete with burly elephant. But inside, hundreds of sandstone antiquities from the Khmer period sat silently, heavily, bored. In the center was a very nice pool, though, with swaying lily pads and koi fish adding color to the place. And my favorite part of the centerpiece, something few of us sailors noticed, was a view from behind two pygmy sized lions with abnormally large testicles, beyond which sat a statue of Yama, the god of death, sitting proudly in front of his pond. A queer sight indeed.

Take the last few paragraphs and sprinkle them with fish, rice and noodles, and there we have Phnom Penh.

Now a plane to Siem Reap, and the saga continues.

Evening number one, the SAS clan discovered "Bar Street," a most delightful strip of bars and shops with heavy (drunk) foot traffic. Europeans, Canadians and Americans filled the streets and windows, each holding a bucket of hooch with a few straws for friend-making, and a merry time was had. That's about all you need to know there.

For the following days' activities, I have for you a short "essay" written for a class ("for class" should by now translate to "saccharine" or "hyperbolic" or "overdeveloped") about Angkor Wat which basically consumed the rest of our time in Cambodia.


As we near the end of our voyage, and particularly the close of our innumerable temple visits—with one paper left to write—it has come to my attention that I must now fish out one tour from the purée of religious site images in my memory, one that has evaded the mindless blending-together of the last three months. The prototypical temple appears in my mind, a somewhat hazy canvas of tans and browns foregrounded by some sort of very lush tropical tree and tourists swarming underneath. How do I find a standout in this muddle?

I then scour my memory for other things; forget what they looked like—what were the stories? I clear away the muted temple image and allow a story to form. I see a man, slightly older than myself, with tanned skin and powerful arms. In public, his face is honest and his smile heartfelt, but in his room, he wears the same brooding scowl as Hamlet's Claudius, steely and full of rage. This brute also shares Claudius' murderous agenda: kill the king, usurp the throne. And as Claudius' target was his own brother, so will this man turn against his own family. Now it starts to get interesting.

According to our Cambodian tour guide, in whom I have full trust, Angkor Wat came about when a twenty-five year-old man, Angkor, with most unsettling family ideals, murdered his uncle and proclaimed himself the new king of the Khmer Empire. He went quickly to work on a new project, Angkor Wat, while executing a great number of military campaigns in his free time, most of which were unsuccessful. Despite his failures, however, Angkor's ego never suffered; he thought so highly of himself that he proceeded to name himself after Vishnu, the Hindu god to whom he dedicated his temple. So the newly dubbed Paramavishnuloka enjoyed a fabulously busy life, posing for artists even though the tradition had by then been unheard of in Khmer, and he now lives on in Angkor Wat bas reliefs, portraits and standing sculptures.

After hearing this story, the otherwise forgettable building begins to take on vivid color, As a sidenote, I realize that I have been portraying myself as an overcritical commentator up to this point, so in my defense, I would like to clarify that I am not necessarily closed off when I sightsee; that's not the case at all. But I have found that even if I think I am being riveted by a certain sight or experience, the spectacle, no matter how spectacular it may be, will be promptly forgotten if no supplementary knowledge of the site is provided. Personal and somewhat dramatic tales such as that narrated by the tour guide give life to these mysterious buildings, make me want to study every door, wall and window rather than just skate around the periphery. In fact, I can still relate, in great detail, the pattern in the King's wallpaper in Versailles, as well as the exact hue and depth of the sheets, all because I was told the King used to urinate in the corner of the room. Those are the sorts of details I need to etch a place in my memory.

I can still picture some of Angkor Wat's bas reliefs, for example, as if I were watching the imperious Angkor himself, silently snickering as he carved ribald images of large-breasted, smiling women with stocky snakes peeking out of their skirts. Or the general labyrinth-inspired interior on which Angkor surely prided himself; I can imagine him crouching in a shrouded corner of the most perplexing corridor as he watched his laborers' curses echo off the walls, trying to find the way out. These intricate visions of Angkor Wat comprise one larger, much more interesting view I would have never seen had it not been for the brief historical sketch. And if I could, I would thank Angkor for his brilliant biography, as he is what made Angkor Wat extraordinary.

[Refer to top for image of Angkor]

Some Angkor Wat highlights not included in the essay were: being attacked by fire ants, the spots from which appeared suddenly after hiking around Japan; sinking into saturated soil in the middle of an open field; elephant riding (watching, not participating, as participating is ten less dollars in my pocket); always walking up to walk back down to walk back up again (in every structure), vendors with dollar t-shirts (many of which I now own or have gifted), five dollar paintings (of which I have one, now hanging in my Monterey bedroom), bracelets (which I now wear, a black, pink and blue woven thing with triangles and self-braided ties); adorable, endearing, persuasive children who use tourists for English lessons (with much success); tough, smoky snake cooked bacon-style, but with more pepper (yes, I ate it); sunset from the top of Angkor Thom with a view of the city, bright yellow hot air balloons and people scaling up the wall from below; and of course, the ever-extending profile of Angkor Wat over the river, proudly presenting every color worth having. Well, not really, but it is damn pretty.

So hopefully you can all infer from the above chronicle why Cambodia was my favorite country (with India). I will warn you now that my country-shock ends here, though the fun and excitement and all that jazz will continue on through Costa Rica. Now let's see if I ever get there!