Angkor Wat and the Kingdom of Cambodia

Angkor Wat, reflected in the pool
Angkor Wat, reflected in the pool

January 28, 2015 Siem Reap, Cambodia

I am up early and breakfast at my hotel, the City River Hotel in Siem Reap, Kingdom of Cambodia. My guide, Sovann meets me at 8a as agreed. Yem is the name of my driver. He does not speak much, but seems to have a fair command of English. I can’t believe how much I’m getting for this trip. The cost is just over $800, but in addition to airfare, hotel and breakfast, I have a private guide and driver, with all admission fees paid.

We are off to see the ruins of the Khmer Empire. This great civilization lasted from 802 to 1431. They held Hindu religious beliefs up to the end of the 12th century and after than Buddhist religious practices, but there has been a strong mixing of these two religions throughout southeast Asia. The Capital of the Khmer Empire moved from the Siem Reap to Phnom Penn in 1341 and this grand empire went into a steady decline. The sites here in Siem Reap were mostly abandoned. Many were lost to the jungle for centuries.

We start at Angkor Wat, the best known. Sovann explains that it will be less crowded to start at the largest temple–the largest religious site in the world. Most guides bring their tours to Angkor Thom in the morning and continue to Angkor Wat in the afternoon. He is right. This is high season, but the crowds as we approach Angkor Wat are not too bad. This area seen 4 million tourists a year. Until recently, most were from South Korea. Last year, the majority of tourists were from Vietnam.

My guide, Sovann shows me the moat which surrounds Angkor Wat. This moat once held crocodiles!
My guide, Sovann shows me the moat which surrounds Angkor Wat. This moat once held crocodiles!
These woman are cleaning the moat
These woman are cleaning the moat
The outer gate of Angkor Wat
The outer gate of Angkor Wat
Sovann called them “tourist” monkeys and says they are very lazy, depending on handouts.
Sovann called them “tourist” monkeys and says they are very lazy, depending on handouts.

Sovann tells me that while a lot of money is made here at Angkor Wat, most of it does not go to the people, the Government or even for restoration. The temple sites are rented to a private company, with a lease for 90 years. He says this is an example of the corruption of the country and he is sad that the money is not better used. The private company is owned by a Vietnamese man and is just one of the many ties to that country and to communism. In 2005, Cambodia “gave” an island to Vietnam. While Cambodia is officially a democracy with a (relatively powerless) king, it has strong ties to communism through China and Vietnam. The current prime minister has been in power for 30 years. Single day tickets are $20 and three day tickets are $40. They have your photo on them and there are several checkpoints.

We pass the moat, dug by hand around temple complex. This has never gone dry, according to Sovann. It served to protect the temple and also to drain it during the rainy season.

After the moat is the high temple wall surrounding the entire complex, approximately 8 meters high. We approach Angkor Wat from the back side to avoid crowds. It is one of the few temples built facing west, toward the setting sun. The temple is built of sandstone, which came from a mountain 80km away (50 miles). The stone blocks were transported here by bamboo boat down the Siem Reap River (which runs in front of my hotel), then by elephant to the temple site. It’s good quality sandstone and harder than I would expect. The buildings and carvings are in better shape than you’d think. No mortar was used to keep the stones together. All are blocks, fitted closely and then finished with detailed carvings everywhere.

My first view of Angkor Wat
My first view of Angkor Wat
This is the Hindu story of the Churning of the Ocean into the Sea of Milk
This is the Hindu story of the Churning of the Ocean into the Sea of Milk. In the story, demons and  deities have a giant game of tug of war with the body of a snake.

Angkor Wat, Cambodia, Jan 2015, 37 Angkor Wat, Cambodia, Jan 2015, 38

It's even steeper than it looks. Trust me.
It’s even steeper than it looks. Trust me.

My guide walks with a bit of a limp and gives me frequent rest stops. I am grateful. With his slight handicap, he makes an excellent guide, good at finding the flattest approach. He reduces my climbing, often takes my hand on steep paths and helps me avoid walking hazards. I am lucky to have found him. If you want to see this wonderful site, don’t wait too long. You need good knees and strong legs.

For a price, you could get your photo taken with live dancing girls
For a price, you could get your photo taken with live dancing girls

The temple is built on three levels with 5 towers, a representation of heaven on earth. From our initial entrance we can see 3 tower–representing the Hindu trinity. From other views you can see all five, representing the peaks of the mythical Mount Meru.

At the center of Angkor Wat is the tallest tower on the highest level, with steep, new wooden steps to the top. These are less steep with a wider tread than the original steps, though. It must have been quite a hardship to climb those! No short-shorts or skirts are allowed, nor hats. A woman in front of me is removed from the line and told she cannot go up to the holy of holies (which I find odd when all the carvings are of bare naked women). Men are reminded to remove their hats.

Can you see the hot air balloon?
Can you see the hot air balloon?

Angkor Wat, Cambodia, Jan 2015, 67 Angkor Wat, Cambodia, Jan 2015, 71

My guide waits while I climb and explore. From this height you can see the moats, which partially protected the temple from being consumed by jungle. Though there is no evidence of them now, the bas-reliefs show crocodiles, which added an additional level of protection to the temple. There is a hot air balloon tethered ahead.

Don't you love translations? Just the possibility of a visit....
Don’t you love translations? Just the possibility of a visit….

It’s all too beautiful to describe and I’m overwhelmed by the history and the grandeur, but also heat and hardship. I have to sit and wipe my eyes and calm my breathing. I feel like an overstimulated child badly in need of a nap. I’m grateful that my tears of joy and exhaustion come when there is no one around that I know.

The Buddha, sheltered by the naga
The Buddha, sheltered by the naga

Angkor Wat, Cambodia, Jan 2015, 92

These were the original steps--steep and narrow. Yikes!
These were the original steps–steep and narrow. Yikes!

Angkor Wat, Cambodia, Jan 2015, 108 Angkor Wat, Cambodia, Jan 2015, 110

The stone on the floor is the "center of the universe." Angkor Wat is the representation of the world.
The stone on the floor is the “center of the universe.” Angkor Wat is the representation of the world.
Yeah, I was tired, too.
Yeah, I was tired, too.
The great causeway
The great causeway

I’m not a religious person, though I have a spiritual side. There is something powerful in a place where generations of people have brought their cares and worries and left them on the altar. I felt it in the Vatican, the Hagia Sophia (Istanbul) and in Egyptian temples. I feel it here, too. In fact, the more we walk the more I am reminded of the ruins of Egypt.

Here's something you don't see every day--a Buddhist monk on a cell phone.
Here’s something you don’t see every day–a Buddhist monk on a cell phone.
Angkor Thom
Angkor Thom

Angkor Thom is our next stop and the name means Big City. It is a a separate, complex from Angkor Wat. The thick walls are 8 meters high and 12km around (26 feet high and 7.5 miles). There is also a wide moat. There are five gates into the city. Three are Cardinal points, but two are for special purposes. The victory gate is just for the returning army. The ghost gate is for soldiers lets who die in battle.

The approach bridge to the South Gate has an excellent, those damaged, example of the forces of good and evil. One side of the bridge has gods while the other demons. Each is pulling on the body of a great snake, a king cobra, known as the naga. It is a scene from a Hindu story called The Churning of the Ocean into the Sea of Milk—a long and complicated story that Sovann tells me the next day. All the balustrades are the body of the naga–king of the water animals. You also see lions, king of the jungle animals (though there are no lions in SE Asia?).

The balustrade on this side of the bridge has demons. The other side are deities. This bridge spans the moat that surrounds Angkor Thom.
The balustrade on this side of the bridge has demons. The other side are deities. This bridge spans the moat that surrounds Angkor Thom.
Here, deities (the forces of good) pull on the body of a great snake, the Naga. On the other side are demons doing the same thing. This part of a Hindu/Buddhist story about the churning of the ocean into the sea of milk.
Here, deities (the forces of good) pull on the body of a great snake, the Naga. On the other side are demons doing the same thing. This part of a Hindu/Buddhist story about the churning of the ocean into the sea of milk.
Gate entrance to Angkor Thom, from the bridge
Gate entrance to Angkor Thom, from the bridge
One of the gates to Angkor Thom
One of the gates to Angkor Thom
This is how the stones were moved. first they are cut into blocks. Each has four hole. Pegs were tied into them to move them. Later the holes could be used with pegs to line up and stabilize the walls.
This is how the stones were moved. first they are cut into blocks. Each has four hole. Pegs were tied into them to move them. Later the holes could be used with pegs to line up and stabilize the walls.

The huge temple inside Angkor Thom is called the Bayon and each of the 54 towers has four faces. My guide says they are the faces of the Buddha. Only a few are smiling broadly. My guidebook calls the expressions “enigmatic.” Sovann takes my photo far more times than I’m likely to share, but one is with the face with the largest smile. He calls it “the face of Cambodia.” “Not only Cambodian people smile. Even the stones smile!” He clearly loves his country and it’s a beautiful thing to see in someone’s eyes.

The wall celebrates a great battle victory for the Khmer against the Champa
The wall celebrates a great battle victory for the Khmer against the Champa
scenes of everyday life in 13th century Cambodia
scenes of everyday life in 13th century Cambodia

Angkor Thom, Cambodia, Jan 2015, 33 Angkor Thom, Cambodia, Jan 2015, 36

It’s estimated that a million people once lived in and around this area. There is little that remains of their wooden structures, however. The area was abandoned when the capital was moved from Siem Reap to Phnom Penn in 1431. Many sites were lost to jungle for centuries. Only Angkor Wat remained in use, though barely.

All the walls of the temple are covered with elaborate bas-relief. Even after all the centuries, the detail is quite amazing. The most striking are the apsara–the celestial dancing girls, in seductive poses. These sensuous women line the walls and columns, wearing ornate jewelry, imaginative headgear…and little else! There are also devada, dancers who can be male or female (though I don’t see any male figures dancing). They are portrayed is slightly less alluring poses than the aspsara. Personally, I can’t tell the difference. I notice many of the breasts of the women are shinny from constant touching. LOL

In the entry courtyard walls of Angkor Thom is a bas-relief of everyday scenes: fishing, cock fighting, farming and even a market scene–real finds for archeology. In the Eastern Gallery is a detailed scene of the wars between the Khmer and the Cham (or Champas), a Muslim tribe which no longer exist.

Angkor Thom
Angkor Thom
You can't forget this is an active religious site
You can’t forget this is an active religious site
This is the smiling face of Cambodia--according to my guide, anyway
This is the smiling face of Cambodia–according to my guide, anyway
54 towers. 4 faces on each of them
54 towers. 4 faces on each of them
Just to prove I was there
Just to prove I was there

My favorite is the Terrace of the Elephants, with hundreds of almost life-sized elephants in poses of fighting or working along the 300m retaining wall. There are steps with elephant tusk balustrades and a raised platform for the king to mount his elephant. The terrace was used for royal review of military parades. It overlooks the marching grounds and both soldiers and elephant were trained here. The terrace adjoins the smaller Terrace of the Leper King. Both date from the 12th century.

Terrace of the Elephants
Terrace of the Elephants

We see the temple of Ta Prohm, site of the film Tomb Raider with Angelina Jolie. My guide got to meet her briefly and was quite proud that she adopted a child from Cambodia. He calls him the luckiest child of the country. This temple is known at Jungle Temple and was built by the Khmer King Jayavarman VII as a Mahayana Buddhist monastery and university, in honor of his mother. The trees growing out of the ruins are perhaps the most distinctive feature of Ta Prohm. Jungle trees have destroyed and covered many Khmer buildings, but here they seem to be protecting them and even holding them together.

Ta Prohm, site of the film Tomb Raider
Ta Prohm, site of the film Tomb Raider

On the way to lunch, at a Khmer style restaurant, we pass a very old temple that was never finished. Built in the 10th century, it has 5 towers, but no statues or carvings. According to legend, the central tower was hit by lightning, a bad omen. The king abandoned construction.

Khmer lunch--amok with fish, served in a coconut.
Khmer lunch–amok with fish, served in a coconut.

My guide and driver take a much needed rest in hammocks while I lunch alone. I take my guide’s recommendation of Amok with fish, a local Khmer dish. It is a thick soup served in young coconut. I also order a cooling pineapple shake. It all arrives quickly and is more than enough for two. The soup is in a coconut with a star shaped lid cut into it. It’s piping hot and redolent of lemongrass, ginger and coconut milk. I’m not sure how it is usually eaten, but I spoon it into my mound of rice and enjoy my fill.

Though the bathroom is marked for women, it has a urinal with slices of lime in it. Also a huge spider. As I am washing my hands outside, a woman approaches the toilets and quickly retreats from one saying “that must be the men’s.” I say that I don’t think it matters which is which, but she laughs. “There’s a man already inside that one.” She says and points to the open door. She rolls her eyes to let me know she saw more of him than she wanted to!

After lunch we see a final temple, a small, almost abandoned one. Little reconstruction or restoration is evident. Banteay Kdei is beautiful, but I have temple overload. They are all beginning to jumble in my mind. I’ve taken way too many photos which may or may not help me sort them. I’m ready to go back to my hotel and glad that the itinerary is over for the day. I need to rest and absorb all I’ve seen.

Evening reflections along the Siem Reap River, during a leisurely dinner
I find it interesting that my almost constant ill feelings in Bien Hoa are gone here. I’ve had a rough day–lots of walking and climbing in heat and high humidity. Yet, I’m quite well. A bit tired, perhaps. Certainly I will sleep well tonight. But my sinuses are not full. My stomach isn’t even slightly queasy. I don’t feel like I need to lie down, or run to the bathroom. Maybe I really am allergic to something in Vietnam? Bien Hoa is the site of the former US military base and Agent Orange does come to mind, along with other chemicals. Who knows what’s in the water supply or the air? Or the soil?

The Cambodian script reminds me of Thai–ornate, incredibly beautiful and completely indecipherable. It flows so that I’m not sure where one letter ends and another begins. They are not like Chinese characters, nor like our familiar alphabet.

Dinner along the Siem Reap River--"pumpkin with meats" at the menu said, Khmer cuisine.
Dinner along the Siem Reap River–“pumpkin with meats” as the menu said, Khmer cuisine.

I’m hungry, but want something light so that I sleep well. I order a dish simply translated as “pumpkin with meats.” I think it’s a soup but when it arrives it’s more like a semi-solid French onion soup. I taste a slight sweetness that might be pumpkin and a bit of ground meat. It’s perfect and I believe that is real cheese on top! Despite the heat, foods are served piping hot–probably safest!

Sovann and I got into quite a philosophic discussion today. He is quite a deep thinker and is concerned about his young son and new child on the way. He asked for advice on teaching them, particularly English. He says that if money weren’t a problem, he would like to be a teacher. He wanted my opinion on who would be the next president and had many questions on American politics. He says that “all the world” follows American politics. It’s quite a responsibility.

Flying to Cambodia

January 27, 2015
Up in darkness, a fast breakfast and a taxi to the Ho Chi Minh airport by 6:15a. (It cost me 450,000vnd, twice yesterday’s trip. Huh. But it was a metered taxi, so that’s the price. I guess.)

It's the first airport I've seen with live orchids.
It’s the first airport I’ve seen with live orchids.

Security is not strict at Ho Chi Minh Airport. Though the signs (all in English) say you must have your 100ml liquids in a plastic bag and take off your shoes, no one does. I don’t either. But I did go through 3 security scans on the way to the gate. This morning, there are almost all westerners at the gate–20 somethings in small groups or retired couples. And then there’s me.

Surprisingly, the prices at the airport are quite good! I bought a silk, reversible robe with embroidery for $25 and a silk scarf for $7. The robe is beautifully made in the Chinese style and one of the most sensuous pieces of clothing I’ve owned! My current robe does not fit well and I’ve wanted to replace it. All the prices in this section of the airport are in US dollars, though I would have expected Euros. Many of the passengers speak French and German.

We board on time. The bathroom on the plane is unbelievably tiny! Turning around to flush requires contortion skills. I bumped my elbow on the sink. Can’t imagine what a truly large American would do. Or someone tall. Suspect they would have to back into the space. Grateful for the few pounds I’ve lost in the last year. Need to drop a few more—particularly around my waist.

photo 3

We land in the Kingdom of Cambodia at Siem Reap (See-em Reep). The name means “Siam Defeated.” It commemorates a Khmer victory over the Siamese Kingdom of Ayutthaya (which I visited a couple years ago in Thailand). Siem Reap is located in NW Cambodia and is the capital of Siem Reap province. It sees millions of visitors a year as the gateway to Angkor Wat, 10 km (6 miles) away.

“Wat” means temple in Thai, Cambodian and a few other languages. Angkor Wat translates as “the City that is a Temple.” It was built during the 12th century and is the best known of a series of stone temples left behind by the Khmer Empire. Originally dedicated to the Hindu god Vishnu, Angkor Wat later became a Buddhist center. It is the main reason I’ve flown here–well, and also to renew my Vietnamese visa. This is a “border run” for me–or a “border FUN run” as some of the others call it.

On arrival to Siem Reap airport, I easily clear visa, customs and passport control. Good thing I got those 6 passport photos in HCMC. The ATM at the airport gives US dollars, something I’m running low on. Bonus! I’ll get more on the way back through.

My guide meets me at the airport. Sovann and a driver are my personal guides for the trip! Both speak quite fair English. My guide is one of 7 children. His family is from the Phnom Penh area. He’s been a guide for 8 years. Sovann asks me how the “traffic jam” is in Vietnam and laughs. He says that I will not have any trouble with traffic jams here. “In Cambodia, we drive on right. In Thailand they drive on left. And in Vietnam they drive everywhere!” He’s right!

My personal guide for 3 days in Cambodia. I have a driver, too.
My personal guide for 3 days in Cambodia, Sovann. I have a driver, too.

Sovann tells me that the Cambodian language is somewhat similar to Thai, but nothing like Vietnamese. “Nothing is like Vietnamese, he quips.” Again, he’s right. The script is individual letters, not characters as Mandarin, but they are nothing like the ones used in English.

Like Vietnam, this is the “cool” and dry season—90F, easily. I hate to think what summer is like.

I’m taken to an Artist school where young, local people are taught traditional crafts. They are given a place to live and a stipend during their 9 month training. The goods they produce at the school are sold to support them. Skills taught include:
• Carving wood and stone (sandstone and soapstone)
• Silver plated copper ornaments
• Silk making and weaving
• Painting on silk and wood
• Lacquer ware
The items are lovely, but there is nothing I need at the gift shop.

Artisan school, Cambodia, 2015, 1

Painting on compressed wood.
Painting on compressed wood.
Wood carving
Wood carving
Tin items, which are later plated in silver
Copper items, which are later plated in silver
Stone carving
Stone carving
Wood carving
Wood carving

The currency here is the Cambodian riel (REE al). The exchange rate is 4000 riel to 1 US dollar. But at the market, all the prices are in US dollars. Since most of the travelers are Asian (particularly Korean and Vietnamese) or European (I hear a fair amount of French and German) I can’t imagine why.

Next I’m taken on a ride in an ox cart. It is possibly the most uncomfortable ride I’ve ever taken in my life! You really are reminded what a fine invention shock absorbers are! I’ve ridden horses, elephants and even a camel, but the ox cart is the worst! (later that night, when I shower, I realize I have a small wound on my backside!) The road is dirt, actually hard packed, red clay. I can only imagine the sticky morass it becomes in the rainy season. When I asked Sovann about this, he just said “slick.”

I wasn't smiling so much after this ride was over. Bumpy does not even begin to cover it.
I wasn’t smiling so much after this ride was over. “Bumpy” does not even begin to cover it.
You can see oxen grazing, a rice paddy, lotus growing in a pond. Far in the distance, before the wood line, are stupas.
You can see an ox grazing, a rice paddy (the light green), and lotus growing in a pond (foreground). Far in the distance, at the wood line, are stupas. The ashes of ancestors are kept in stupas. Sovann tells me that “cows” here are not good for milk. They are used for work and meat.
This is the "main" road. Rough!
This is the “main” road. Rough, red clay!

We drive through a small community. Only some of the shacks have electricity, but my guide says all have television, using car batteries as power. There is a mishmash of housing styles. The oldest are on stilts–a precaution from wild animals like tigers, snakes and bear (I didn’t know about the bear, but Sovann assures me of this when I question it). The newer houses have foundations on the ground are brick with plaster over them. I see no cars, but a few motorcycles. The “main” dirt road has many trucks, though.

Ox cart ride, Cambodia, 2015, 24 Ox cart ride, Cambodia, 2015, 22

traditional house on stilts
traditional house on stilts
traditional house on stilts
traditional house on stilts
The ashes of ancesters are kept outside the home or office in a spirit house, on a platform raised to eye level. This one has a naga balustrade like Angkor Wat.
The ashes of ancestors are kept outside the home in a spirit house, on a platform raised to eye level. This one has a naga (snake) balustrade like Angkor Wat.

On the outskirts of the community are rice paddies and a shallow pond with fish and flowering lotus–both important food staples. One farmer has fenced off a narrow inlet and is raising ducks, too many and too close together for my taste. Chickens run wild everywhere. At the edge of the rice paddies, there are stupas, conical structures containing the ashes of family members. These ashes are held in the “spirit houses” outside the home–small altars on a high platform. If the family can afford it, all the ashes are interred in a stupa.

We pass a school where the uniformed children are outside playing. Primary and secondary school is free in Cambodia. Sovann was quite proud of this, and rightly so. He says that the Cambodian people know how important education is. In 1975, the Khmer Rouge took over the country, killing 2 million Cambodians before the Vietnamese government drove them out less than four years later. They focused their killing first on teachers and intellectuals. He says that Cambodia must have so many people educated that this cannot happen again. But the schools have few teachers or resources. Schools are mostly run in two shifts–morning and afternoon–of four hours, so everyone gets some education. He practically begs me to return to Cambodia and teach, particularly when he finds I am an engineer.

Ox cart ride, Cambodia, 2015, 27I ask Sovann how he became a tour guide. He said he had to finish high school then take an entrance test of general knowledge, which he said was very easy. Once passed, he studied 5 months about history and the sites of the area, along with English, before taking another test, which he says was very difficult. “But this is corrupt country. If you have money, you can pass test.” Money talks in many countries, I find. Including my own.

Sovann pays the ox-cart driver and I ask about the ruins all around us. It is a stone temple, perhaps 1000 years old, and there is evidence that the locals worship here still. Like many old temples of the area, it was originally Hindu. As fashions in religion changed, it was transformed into a Buddhist worship site. From what I’ve seen, Buddhism and Hinduism seem to have fully merged, in Southeast Asia. Both recognize the Hindu trinity–Shiva (the destroyer), Vishnu (the protector) and Brahma (the creator). Both recognize the mythical Mount Meru, home of the pantheon of gods. And Ganesha, the elephant god, is popular. This is a favorite of Sovann’s, though originally he did not care for this rotund god, child of Shiva. Sovann tells me that the fat stomach contains the book of knowledge and he thinks education very important.

Abandoned temple, near Siem Reap, Cambodia
Temple, near Siem Reap, Cambodia
My guide, Sovann.
My guide, Sovann. And I guess it’s not totally abandoned.
The temple is still active, though. There is a broken statue of Buddha, clothes in gold cloth, and evidence of many sticks of incense. This was originally a Hindu temple, but the religion of the area changed to Buddhism over time.
The temple is still somewhat active. There is a broken statue of Buddha, clothed in gold cloth, and evidence of many sticks of incense. This was originally a Hindu temple, but the religion of the area changed to Buddhism over time. I later find there are monks staying in the area to keep the temple.
There is some restoration work, mostly to keep things from falling down.
There is some restoration work, mostly to keep things from falling down.
The first of many apsara--celestial dancing girls--that cover all the Khmer temples. Notice how shinny she is? Lots of touching.....and always in the same places.
The first of many apsara–celestial dancing girls–that cover all the Khmer temples. Notice how shinny she is? Lots of touching…..and always in the same places.

Though the Buddhist and Hindu religions are quite strange to me, I find them fascinating and full of wonder. It may be sacrilege, but I find their stories of the creation and the tales of their gods and prophets entertaining and enlightening. Are they really so different than the Christian stories? IMHO, the most human thing we do is to try to understand the world around us and teach it to our children. Stories, myths and legends were our first forms of education and training, as well as entertainment. The stories, told huddled together against the terrors of the night, were the thing that made us a community. The telling of tales has made us human.

My guide takes me to my hotel to check in and I release him until the next day. I shower and explore first a temple near my hotel, then the city market. Prices are downright cheap and I replace a few pieces of clothing that have worn thin. My weakness is scarves and I buy a couple. I suddenly realize I’m both hungry and exhausted. I grab a couple snacks and water for tomorrow, suck down a cool avocado shake, and sink into my bed for a 2 hour nap against the heat of the day.
When I wake it is dusk. The city has come alive again. Twinkle lights are everywhere and there’s a night market. I need nothing, but browse for an hour. I grab some stir fried noodles with vegetables and an egg for protein from a street vendor. I’m asleep by 10p.

A day wandering Ho Chi Minh City

Ho Chi Minh City
Ho Chi Minh City

January 26, 2015

I had to be in HCMC early this morning, so I was up, out the door and on a bus before the sun rose. It was a very early start for me, but I find that Vietnamese get up very early to enjoy the cool morning temperatures, then nap in the middle of the day. Everyone else wore coats against the “cold” mid-70’s temperature. I enjoyed it!

The construction site was mostly blocked by metal fences. At points I could see over it to where I wanted to go, but since the streets aren't on a grid, it was difficult to figure out how to get around. Notice the sign--"weasel" coffee. No thanks. I've tried it.
The construction site was mostly blocked by metal fences. At points I could see over it to where I wanted to go, but since the streets aren’t on a grid, it was difficult to figure out how to get around. Notice the sign–“weasel” coffee. No thanks. I’ve tried it.

The trip was uneventful until I tried to get to the tourist agency that needed my passport to process a visa (both for my trip to Cambodia and a return visa for Vietnam). I had the address. I could even see the building. But there was a huge construction site between me and it. They are putting in a subway and the area that’s torn up is huge. Since the streets are not exactly on a grid pattern, it took me 20 minutes of walking just to find I was no closer! I finally just decided to walk right across the construction site! I found a wide spot in the fence and walked in. No one batted an eye. Some man even opened a section of the fencing to let me out. I guess everyone does it.

I finally gave up and walked across this construction site. No one cared.
I finally gave up and walked across this construction site. No one cared.

The stop at the tourist agency took 5 minutes, but I couldn’t come back for several hours while they prepared my documents. So I chose to walk around, jot down thoughts and enjoy the day in a leisurely way.

Detail from one of the hotels along the very expensive Saigon River.
Detail from one of the hotels along the very expensive Saigon River.

It wasn’t even 9am when I started walking the rabbit warren of streets of Ho Chi Minh City. I found the Saigon River, with a lovely riverside park, but the traffic was too dangerous to even contemplate crossing to reach it. There are, however some lovely and expensive looking hotels and restaurants along this street. All of them had westerners inside.

The shops are still decorated for Christmas, mostly. They’ve removed the Christmas trees and Santa Claus, but all the lights and tinsel are still up. Decorations for Tet are going up right on top. There are wrapped packages and Dragon dance costumes in the shops. I also saw my first kites for sale too, something I vaguely expected to see many of.

Tet, or the Vietnamese version of Lunar New Year, is right around the corner.
Tet, or the Vietnamese version of Lunar New Year, is right around the corner.

I think I may have been near the backpacker hotel area too–at least I’m pretty sure that was pot I smelled.

I walked to the French built post office, designed by Eiffel. I’d seen it before on an earlier trip, but had more time to enjoy it this time. I sent a card to my niece, Adia. She must not have gotten the last postcard I sent, but cards I sent to others from this office arrived, so I hope she will get this second one.

HCMC post office, designed by Eiffel.
HCMC post office, designed by Eiffel.
Inside the post office they have two gift shops.
Inside the post office they have two gift shops.

I also stopped in at the Notre Dame cathedral, across the street. Though not ornate, it is a lovely, cool oasis.

HCMC post office, designed by Eiffel.
HCMC post office, designed by Eiffel.
Inside the cathedral.
Inside the cathedral
Wedding photos outside Notre Dame and across the street from the post office
Wedding photos outside Notre Dame and across the street from the post office

Though I complain about being hot all the time, January is probably the coolest month. The other teachers come into school on Saturday mornings with coats and scarves because it’s 75F. I’ve not used air conditioning at night for a few weeks now. It still gets to the upper 80’s in mid-day, but not over 90F. And this is the dry season, so we’ve had almost no rain. Humidity is relatively low.
Recently told: the best things about HCMC are French architecture, Chinese food and Vietnamese women.

If I’ve forgotten to mention it, Vietnam has the best marked streets and addresses in the world. Streets may not be on a grid system and their names change every several blocks, but streets have names and are marked well. Every permanent building has an address and businesses have them printed right on top. Better than the USA.

I forgot to mention that I recently realized that the guards at my apartment building call me the “Xin Chao Girl.” I always say hello to them in Vietnamese, but it’s a very formal greeting of Xin Chao. Frankly, most Vietnamese say ‘ello to each other, in the French manor. Another holdover from the French, taxi drivers and shop keepers always call me “madam.”

I went back to the tour company, but my papers weren’t ready. No idea what the holdup was, but she decided that I’d waited 5 hours and that was long enough. She gave me back my passport and said she’d have the letter I needed emailed ahead. God, I hope so, because without it, I’m stuck. Then she made reservations for me at a 2 star hotel near the airport and gave me directions for what bus to take. I could have taken a taxi, but I saved money this way, since I have nothing but time. Besides, it’s always good to know the bus system.

They were cutting trees in HCMC. Barefoot.
They were cutting trees in HCMC. Barefoot.
You can't see him, but there's a barefoot man at the top of the tree, just at the base of the foliage. He's cutting down limbs. He has no rope or safety harness, though I notice the chainsaw does.
You can’t see him, but there’s a barefoot man at the top of the tree, just at the base of the foliage. He’s cutting down limbs. He has no rope or safety harness, though I notice the chainsaw does.

So I made my way around the construction site, successfully this time. Back to the Benh Thanh Market bus station in search of #152. While waiting I met a fun trio. An Australian, his Vietnamese girlfriend, and their single friend from Malta, Jorge. What a fascinating group! Jorge is a retired pastry chef and looks pretty good for a man of 70. He called me young, so of course I love him. Sounds like the men have traveled together for yearse. The girlfriend is serving as tour guide and gave me a lot of wonderful information too. This trip is 35 days. They were on their way to the airport to catch a flight to Bangkok and I was sorry I couldn’t have dinner with them and talk more.

I got out at the airport and took the short taxi ride to my hotel. I mentioned to the driver as he took off that he had not reset the meter. He looked at me sheepishly. “Ride short. Only 150, 000.” (That’s about $7.50). “Maybe you could pay to me, yes?” Maybe I could.

The two star hotel turned out to be the Thanh Binh #1. Clearly once a very nice hotel that’s fallen on hard times. There’s marble on the floors, but it’s cracked. The silk curtains are faded and worn. The wallpaper is barely hanging on in the halls. There’s an odd smell I’ve never sensed before coming to Vietnam. It’s oddly sweet, but also musty and not quite pleasant. It has a hint of over ripe jackfruit and perfectly ripe durian. I suspect it is a particular strain of mold only found in SE Asia. Maybe this is what I’m allergic to? This hotel has that smell. It will do for the night, but I wouldn’t want to live here. I killed two, small cockroaches, too. Ick.

After a shower, I went in search of dinner. For 30.000vnd I got water, Nouc Mia (sugar cane juice), a banh mi (baguette sandwich) and a side of sauteed corn, with spices, dried shrimp, a touch of sugar and hot sauce. Yum!

10

Adventures in staying legal and the Cu Chi tunnels

A common way to carry your portable restaurant.
A common way to carry your portable restaurant.

January 21, 2015
For reasons I don’t quite understand, the business manager at the school says she can’t quite complete my work visa before my current tourist visa expires. Hummmm. I’ve gone to a lot of trouble and expense to get documents then get an affidavit for them all. And now there’s “not enough time” to finish the paperwork? This seems suspicious as I was told “no problem” in mid December. This school, as many in Vietnam, simply prefer illegal teachers. It’s a bonus for them—no paperwork to do, the taxes they hold out never need to be paid to the government and illegal workers don’t have any legal standing,

so whatever was promised, even in writing, doesn’t matter. I had really hoped I wasn’t working for one of those schools, but it looks like I may be. To add insult to injury, my tourist visa runs out at the end of January. New visa rules went into affect January1. I’ve looked them over, and they don’t seem to apply to my situation, but the business manager says her contacts don’t want to handle a visa until they know more. “Maybe, next month?” they say. I don’t know the consequences of overstaying a visa, but I don’t want to find out.

In the end, I must have a visa to stay in Việt Nam. That’s the law and it is my responsibility. I don’t feel comfortable relying on the school to work the problem out–they have never been concerned with legalities. I must take care of myself.

So my plan is to see if I can get (at least) a one month tourist visa extension to stay through the end of February. I have Thursday off and will head to Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC). I also need additional passport pages, and have an appointment at the US Consulate Fri morning. If I had time, I’d get a new passport, but I don’t. (Turned out that I didn’t need to surrender my current passport to get a new one, so while it will take 10 days or so and I have to go back to HCMC to pick it up, I have a new 52 page passport ordered. It’s larger than the usual 28 page one, at no extra charge. It’s been a life long ambition to fill a passport and I’ve just about done it!)

If this doesn’t work and I can’t arrange a visa, I may go to Cambodia for a “border run” and see if that works. It’s something world travelers have done for years. You simply leave the country by the nearest border, then walk back across and get a new visa. There is some risk, of course, and I need more information than I have right now. If I have to go this route, maybe I can get more info in HCMC.

January 22, 2015

Didn’t sleep well last night, with so much on my mind. Up by 6:30a and out the door with clothes for overnight. Grabbed 2 banh mi and hoped a scooter taxi for the bus station, and the #5 Cho Lon-Bien Hoa xe buyt (bus).

As soon as I started on the first sandwich, I realized my first mistake. I’d brought 2 bottles of water from the fridge. I took a swig from the first to find I’d grabbed the rice vodka I bought in DaLat! What a surprise. Glad I had a second bottle that actually contained water! Gave the rice vodka to a grateful man on the bus.

Next I took the #1 bus to Ben Thanh, District 1. Just in case, I needed to get photos—for a possible visa and new passport. It wasn’t as difficult as I’d thought, and I got 6, though expect just to need 2.

The HCMC Notre Dame cathedral at night.
The HCMC Notre Dame cathedral at night.

After visiting the Immigration office, I found that there was much confusion about the new visa laws. Everyone agreed that there did not seem to be any changes with the visa I wanted, but they weren’t sure. So somehow this would take at least three times as much money($300-500 were the quotes I’d been given) and twice as long—possible 2 weeks. I don’t have 2 weeks and that’s an unreasonable price. I inquired at first TourViet and then Saigon Tourist offices before someone offered me a solution—a border run with a tour of Angkor Wat. Of course the total price was more expensive that the visa, but seemed like a sure thing, would only take 3 days and I’d get to see a new country and a place high on my life list of locations. I planned to do the tour while the school was closed during Tet (Lunar New Year), but it’s actually slightly less expensive now.

While I don’t suppose this solution was convenient for the school, it’s what I had to do to stay in the country longer. I texted the info to Khanh (business manager) and asked off for 4 days. (In the end they gave me 5, which will be easier on me).

And with that accomplished, I just had time to jump on a half day tour to Cu Chi Tunnels.

The guide was named Vin. His English was good, which he said he learned in high school. His family has lived in the area for many generations and he was a child during the American War (what we call the Vietnam War).

Vin, our Cu Chi Tunnel tour guide was a wealth of information for our small group.
Vin, our Cu Chi Tunnel tour guide was a wealth of information for our small group.

The tunnels are a vast network of underground passages that plagued the U.S. Military to no end. They are located about 70km (maybe 45 miles) outside downtown HCMC. On the way we pass bright green rice paddies with new growth as well straw colored ones that were recently harvested. Vin explained that most of the rice for the country is grown in the Mekong Delta of Southern Vietnam.

The bright green is young rice.
The bright green is young rice.

We also passed a site I’d seen but didn’t understand: Hammock cafes. These are simple, low cafes, strung with hammocks instead of chairs. They are for weary travelers to use during the heat of the day to nap. Then after a coffee they are back on the road. How civilized! BTW, I’m really getting used to getting up early and then sleeping after lunch. No wonder so many “undeveloped” countries take to this practice.

Hammock cafe!
Hammock cafe!

We also passed by rubber trees, something I’d not seen before.

The Cu Chi Tunnels are located close to Saigon, but were also strategically close to the end of HCMC trail (for easy transportation), the Cambodian border (for easy escape) and the U.S. Military bases near Saigon.

Vin showed us an old black and white propaganda video, made by the Communists. History is truly told by the victors, and America lost this one. The video portrays the young Việt Cong soldiers—both men and women–as heroes defending their homeland. Who can blame them? The Americans are the bad guys. This is not the view of the war I had growing up.

From the brochure for Cu Chi Tunnels. (Ignore the grammar):
“This is a unique architectural structure, a system of deeply underground tunnels having several floors and alleys and branches like spider web more than 250 km long, with places for dining, living, meeting and fighting. This tunnel system embodies the strong will, intelligence, and pride of Cu Chi people, a symbol of revolutionary heroism of Vietnamese people.”

Also, according to the brochure, the complex sees one million visitors a year. Though we did not see it, there is an elaborate temple, martyred soldiers memorial, restaurants and a hotel.

Vin, our guide, said that the tunnels were started under the French occupation, but we’re not in heavy use until the American War. These tunnels are unbelievingly small passages and too tiny for most Americans to pass through. Though some tried, I did not. I feared my hips would never pass!

Pull the wooden lid over you and throw a couple leave on top and no one would ever see this entrance.
Pull the wooden lid over you and throw a couple leave on top and no one would ever see this entrance.
If my hips got into one of these, they'd never come out again. You cannot believe how tiny and cramped these tunnels are. It takes a small, flexible person to get into them. Even in the greatly enlarged one, a person in my party hade a minor panic attack and we had to back out to get him back to the surface.
If my hips got into one of these, they’d never come out again. You cannot believe how tiny and cramped these tunnels are. It takes a small, flexible person to get into them. Even in the greatly enlarged one, a person in my party hade a minor panic attack and we had to back out to get him back to the surface.

Also the passages were heavily booby trapped with no lighting, so VC soldiers had to memorize the system. Only the high commander knew the entire system, from memory, as there were no maps. One tunnel led to a U.S. Base, but took half a day of crawling in darkness to get to. It took the U.S. months to find that the opening was inside the base!

At the time these tunnels were dug, they were in deeply forested jungle. They were dug completely by hand. They came up with an ingenious way to hide the dirt from the tunnels, too. It was dumped into bomb craters!

A simulated death trap opening. As the only American on the tour, Vin twice asked me "no hard feelings?"  But how could I have hard feelings to him?
A simulated death trap opening. As the only American on the tour, Vin twice asked me “no hard feelings?” But how could I have hard feelings to him?
Fall into this and get skewered. If the VC don't shoot you, you'll likely get eaten by large predators or die of infection.
Fall into this and get skewered. If the VC don’t shoot you, you’ll likely get eaten by large predators or die of infection.

The ingenuity and improvements from both sides was interesting. The VC made fake termite hills to hide the ventilation holes needed for the tunnels every 20 to 40 meters. Eventually, US soldiers recognized the shafts and brought in dogs to sniff out the VC. The VC then started using hot pepper powder to confuse the dogs, but it didn’t take long before the sight of a sneezing dog meant the enemy was near. The VC counteracted this by stuffing US uniforms into the ventilation holes, which often fooled the dogs.

 

Vin shows us a fake termite mound, used to hide a ventilation shaft.
Vin shows us a fake termite mound, used to hide a ventilation shaft.

Vin said that there was much secrecy during the war and you couldn’t be sure which side anyone was on. His family had 2 drivers. One for his mother to do shopping and the other for the children to go to school and back. Only after the war did they find that one worked for the CIA. He was sent to a labor camp for “retraining.” The other driver was secretly with the VC and immediately took an important post with the new Communist government. The family didn’t know the secret identities of these men and were quite surprised.

Yes, here's always a gift shop, even in a Communist country!  I got a cool drink and a rest while others shot AK47's and shopped.
Yes, here’s always a gift shop, even in a Communist country! I got a cool drink and a rest while others shot AK47’s and shopped.

There was a shooting range at the tunnels. You could use old AK47’s, but I opted for a cool drink in the shade while others shot their rounds of ammunition.

Ingenuous and terrifying--death traps in the jungle demonstrated. I wouldn't last 15 minutes in a war.
Ingenuous and terrifying–death traps in the jungle demonstrated. I wouldn’t last 15 minutes in a war.

On the way back, Vin shared some insights I hadn’t known:

  • Many of the schools in Vietnam have school uniforms, typically long blue pants with a white sailor shirt. I’d noticed that some students have a red scarf wrapped at the collar, but didn’t think much of it at he time. Vin says the red scarf denotes a future Communist party member.
  • With the crazy traffic, you can imagine there are many accidents involving scooters. Vin says the details of the accident must be solved before the police come. Otherwise the police with take the scooters involved for 4 weeks. The bikes are piled together in a warehouse and always get damaged in the process and the gasoline “mysteriously” disappears. The owners of the bikes have to pay a large fine and they only have one day that they can get the scooter back. If they miss they window, it is lost forever.
  • Vin explained a few additional Vietnamese words to me. I confessed that I’d never be able to wrap my brain around the different honorifics, which are based on relative age to the speaker. I told him I called everyone “ban” which is sort of like friend (it’s not really translatable in English. It means “you” but it’s closer to the Spanish word, amigo). Vin explained the reason for the honorifics. Originally (and still in the countryside) people named children horrible names to scare off Devils and ghosts. A baby might be named “shit” for instance! But once you grow up, you can’t call a grown man Mr Shit! Even now, when seeing a baby, you are supposed to hug and kiss it, but say, “you are so ugly!” To scare off evil.
The little girl waved at me!
The little girl waved at me!

Will my body ever adjust?

Remember the guard who wanted to help push me from behind onto the tall stool? This is him. He decided to keep me company while I had my drink.
Remember the guard who wanted to help push me from behind onto the tall stool? This is him. He decided to keep me company while I had my drink.

1/3/2015
“Naturally” the school schedule changed again—three schedules already for January! I had prepared two classes for Friday and Saturday (since I was traveling, I was trying to work ahead) and now that is a total waste. Sigh. Also notice that I have no more 25-45 minute classes. Only 15 minutes, like before.

The new teacher, Mike, is gone. I had no idea he was a short timer here. He is back in Ho Chi Minh City teaching at his old school. I take it this was the plan all along, but no one told me. Or at least it was HIS plan? And, naturally, Mike borrowed money from me, Bob and Marcus. Don’t suppose we will ever see any of that again. No good deed….

1/9/2015
The Grocery store downstairs at the apartment complex seems to have closed. It didn’t carry much, but I could get the occasional cold beer or ice cream after work. (Note: it was closed for a week then opened again, with irregular hours. I can’t figure out the schedule) It opened about the time I got here, so only three months. In October they sent around a survey asking what we’d like in the store. I said peanut butter, butter and wine, but those things didn’t come. No fresh foods. They only carried yogurt for the first month, It’s mostly high priced snack foods, candy, cookies, crackers and instant soup. It’s not much of a loss, but I did like it. On the positive side, it’s probably going to keep me eating healthy.

My milk tea.
My milk tea.

Outside as I write this, there is a training going on for our guards about fire safety. They are practicing using the fire extinguishers, which is good. Nice to see some training going on. In an emergency, it’s good to have practiced, even once!
Just back from the school (to copy my weekend lessons) and the store (Coop Mart) for a few items I can’t get in the neighborhood. I am now several jars of peanut butter, two loaves of bread, a stick of butter, and frozen bao ahead. None of these items are available within walking distance.

What concerns me is that I’m shaky and a little spacy this morning. Didn’t notice it until I left the apartment. Trust me: I’ve had my two cups of coffee, so it isn’t caffeine withdrawal. And a full breakfast with two eggs and lots of veggies with a little cheese, so it shouldn’t be low blood sugar. I swear I’m tired of being sick! And I sweat constantly—literally sweat dropping from my nose. It’s become a normal activity, but it is annoying and I look so awful. And this is the cool season.

While I was at Coop Mart, I went up to the top floor book store. I got a couple books, geared for children, which give words in English and Vietnamese. My learning level is very basic, so this should help. I lost my beloved Vietnamese vocabulary notebook and lost a lot of the words I was working on. Two women befriended me and introduced themselves as English teachers at a center nearby. Their English was quite basic—better than my Vietnamese, though—but not good enough that I would have thought they were teachers! They were NOT impressed with the books I bought. “Dat fur baby,” one said. “In Vietnamese, I am a baby.” Her response was one of surprise, asking why I learned just words and not sentences. “I need words,” I said, simply. And then, in what I suppose was English, I was told I should “NEVA” learn “juss wor” only senTEEN.” Obviously, she is entitled to her (mispronounced) opinion. I don’t agree. Sentences and grammar ARE important, but useless without vocabulary.

Last night I tried a new activity to start off class, one I learned by watching William’s class this week. It requires you to ask and answer a few written questions very fast, but you get to do it several times. My hope is that it gets a lot of speaking practice in a short time and the speed forces you to think in the second language (L2 See? I’m even learning the lingo!) The only problem is that it takes an even number of students, so if there is an odd number, I have to participate, which the kids seem to love. One of the questions was “what year were you born?” They all seemed SHOCKED when I gave my birth year. Every one of them had to ask the question a second time! Most of them were born in 2001. That was shocking to me! I’m sure I must seem ancient to them.

Last night I was so excited about my classes when I went into the first one. Thought I had two good lesson plans. The first went fine—lots to keep them busy, both physically and mentally. I felt good–like I’m finally beginning to understand how to teach. But in the second class, Firefly, it didn’t seem like they liked the class much. They didn’t get much from The Sword-fight (scene from The Princess Bride) and only a little from Interjections (music video from Schoolhouse Rock). And at the end of class, Billy, one of my favorite Firefly students, said that I didn’t look good, like I was sick. And I am, but no woman wants to hear she doesn’t look good! (Even if it is true and told by someone who is concerned for your health.) So I came home depressed and went to bed early. Good thing I don’t drink. And the store wasn’t open so I could buy chocolate ice cream. I didn’t sleep well. I could use a nap.

I finally had to ask what this was. It's a bicycle tire, wound with colorful tape. It's basically an advertisement--bicycles and scooters are fixed here.
I finally had to ask what this was. It’s a bicycle tire, wound with colorful tape. It’s basically an advertisement–bicycles and scooters are fixed here.

1/10/15
Oh Joy. Another new schedule for January. That’s 4, and it’s only the tenth of the month. Not likely this is the last one, either. My days off have changed again, so it’s not possible to plan ahead. But my “favorite” is a new teacher training. On SATURDAY nights from 7:30p-9:10p. All the Saturday nights. Of course, we aren’t paid for it and it’s mandatory. This place just keeps getting better.

No idea.....
No idea…..

1/14/15
Had a surprise class observation from Khanh (business manager and common-law-wife of the owner) last night. It was a good class and she conceded that my Teacher Talking Time (TTT) was good and generally said positive things, though in a tone that made me feel I was being chewed out. I’m so confused.

Though I think I am learning and getting better at teaching, my worst classes are WE Intro and WE1 (World English, adults with little to no English skills, the lowest levels). I’ve been asking for help with these classes since the beginning. I need better activities for adults. Specifically I’d like ideas of how to practice vocabulary and structures with this age group without doing kid’s activities. I have issues with getting them to talk at all. I would not be offended if the school would prefer I did not teach Liberty or any early WE classes (that won’t happen). I expect I’ll have another observation by Marcus this week too.

Saturday night, after working all day (first Saturday class is at 7:45a), we were required to sit through a teacher training class until 9:10p). Most of us had to teach the next morning, too. The activities that Marcus shared were fine, but I had trouble following his directions. I didn’t understand most of the exercises until he was through, which makes it hard to take notes. But, IMHO, many of the listening activities will not work here, since the speakers are blown in most classrooms. As a native English speaker, I had extreme trouble with the final listening exercise (the best one)–part of it was the speakers, as well as heavily accented English.  And the teachers were talking non-stop (I’m sure they didn’t want to be there either but they would NEVER want their students to talk so much!). I found the whole thing depressing. I barely got through the meeting without screaming at someone–simply kept my mouth shut and head down. Was glad just to make it to my bed without losing my mind. Went to sleep in a horrible mood and it wasn’t much improved the next morning. If it had not been a day off, I would have simply called in sick for fear of what bad behavior I might exhibit.

I hate working so many days in a row and ending them on such a negative note. I end up spending my days off recovering—physically and mentally. I’m trying to see this experience as “teacher training boot camp.” But it’s loosing it’s charm.

The honeymoon is clearly over. But the adjustment period isn’t.

A very basic public bathroom. You have to fill the red container (a Tide soap bottle) with water from the blue drum and dump it into the toilet because there's no running water in the stall. And most of the doors don't close either. And you get this luxury for 3,000VND (about 15 cents).
A very basic public bathroom. You have to fill the red container (a Tide soap bottle) with water from the blue drum and dump it into the toilet because there’s no running water in the stall. And most of the doors don’t close either. And you get this luxury for 3,000VND (about 15 cents).