Monday, May 26, 2014

In the Sketchbook: Cambodia

Carvings on Ta Prohm Temple
Angkor Wat, Cambodia
5" x 7" Ink and Watercolor 

"Royal Palace"
Phnom Penh
7" x 5" Ink and Watercolor

One of our weekly rituals when home is to have breakfast on Saturday at our neighborhood bagel shop run by a Cambodian family. They were very interested to hear that we would be visiting the country. Our first discussion revealed that Jennifer would be visiting her homeland soon, but before we left, she told us she would not be going back now because of the political situation. She did not explain what prevented her return to her country under the Communist regime; she told us as tourists we would be just fine. And we were.

We spent four nights in the town of Siem Reap, the staging area for tourists visiting the magnificent temples of Angkor Wat and surrounding areas. Here we were to visit both Buddhist and Hindu complexes. My sketch of Ta Prohm cannot do justice to the ancient carvings of this 12th to early 13th century monastic complex.

Beautiful carvings enhance intact parts of the complex

This site is especially interesting because it remains in its natural state, with fig, banyan and kapok trees spreading their gigantic roots over, under and between the stones. This popular spot was used in the film Tomb Raiders, a film I have not seen, but I am not a movie buff.

A Banyan tree growing amidst the ruins
of Ta Prohm

We visited other ancient temples, including the magnificent Angkor Wat. This we did in temperatures above 100 degrees with matching humidity. We were a pretty wilted bunch by the end of each day. 

Bob and I suffered from turista there, so we were unable to do every activity, including visiting the Landmine Museum, a heritage of the war with Vietnam. I did a little volunteer project at Journeys Within Our Communities, which teaches English to children and young adults, and runs preschool and after school programs. I spent a half hour helping a young woman in a wheelchair practice her English. She was very bright and had quite a good command of our language. Collette Explorations, provider of our tour, is a nonprofit and gives back to the communities in which they travel, so JWOK is one of their supported projects.

In Siem Reap we had more opportunities to venture off on our own in the evening to eat in local restaurants. We used Tuk Tuks as our transportation for a few American dollars. I felt quite elegant and very exhilarated as we traveled through busy city streets and intersections where the only rule that applies is bully your way through.

Riding a Tuk Tuk to a restaurant
We would end the tour of Indochina in Phnom Penh, with some of our group leaving for home and 11 of our group of 21 flying on to Bangkok, Thailand. The bus ride to Phnom Penh was very lengthy because a March typhoon had removed much of the pavement, so 199 miles took us 7 hours. Essentially we arrived mid-afternoon, had a half hour to freshen up and then toured the Royal Palace and the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. I know this will sound strange, but I like when things are not simple. I didn't fly half way round the world to experience a US freeway.

The entire way I prayed I would not be sick again (I wasn't) and I was most grateful for good health when I found myself standing ankle deep in water using a squat toilet at a rest stop. The countryside was really worth seeing.

A typical country home

We shared the road with many different vehicle types

Phnom Penh was a busy city with many luxury cars owned by government officials who take graft. The guide explained that when foreign companies who invested there complained about corruption, a Corruption Bureau was set up right across from the Lexus and Mercedes dealers. In five years, exactly one person has been prosecuted. I was amused by the cars that had their brand painted across the side of the vehicle, announcing Lexus, BMW, Mercedes. The owners are obviously proud of their affluence.

We visited the Royal Complex and I chose to sketch just the top of one of the buildings. They are covered in gold and sparkle in the sun. We were told that Bangkok has a much larger and more impressive royal complex, but I found this one to be very beautiful even though of smaller scale.
Part of the Royal Complex
Phnom Penh

Interestingly, there is a King of Cambodia who lives at the complex. He was out of the country when we visited. The King is a classical dancer, in his 60s, and has never married. The government of Cambodia is described as  "vaguely communist free-market state with a relatively authoritarian coalition ruling over a superficial democracy." In other words, this is a one party government that allows capitalist ventures.

The country has a very bad human rights record, and those my age recall the atrocities of the "Killing Fields." We visited this part of their history at the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, the former jail that details the genocide by the Khmer Rouge perpetrated during the Pol Pot years. Our guide April told us that Collette will soon rearrange the tour and no longer have this sad piece of human history be the final site visited on the tour. I found the people of Cambodia to be very friendly and welcoming. They are hard working people and do an outstanding job of living in a challenging climate and providing for their families. Their temple complexes are amazing; their history is long and complex.

We ended our Indochina tour with a final dinner and prepared to leave for our optional tour of Thailand the following morning.


CrimsonLeaves said...

The totem carving piece is gorgeous, Mary! Love the colors in the palace piece too; you did a great job with it. What an amazing tour you've had. I must say that I do so detest our summer heat here in IL and the temps and humidity you mentioned rival our summers here. I don't think I'd ever willingly visit a place with that type of weather. I'd be confining myself to air conditioning (which I would guess would be in my hotel room). Love seeing the old temples too.

Peggy Stermer-Cox said...

Hi Mary, What a fascinating visit you had to Indochina. Thanks for sharing your adventure. Its interesting reading your observations and viewing paintings and photos. Its almost like I'm traveling with you!