Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Home From Asia


March 11-12
I asked the desk about a wake-up call. Well, that wasn’t possible because there was no phone in the room. I had noticed that but had forgotten. Does the hotel supply alarm clocks? No.
You don’t offer any wake-up service for guests? The snotty guy behind the counter said, “We let the guests wake themselves up.”
Back in the room later I found that the burners could be set as alarms. Even more remarkable, I was able to get them to work.
We took dinner downstairs because there is no other reasonable place to go and turned in early. The alarm woke me at 3 a.m.
We made the 5 a.m. car with time to spare and checked in for the flight. The umbrellas were no trouble. A man wrapped them in plastic and sent them down the conveyor with our bags.
Then we went in search of coffee. Joanna doesn’t drink it, avoids caffeine in all forms. I need it to wake up. It fuels my enthusiasm. It can make me jumpy, true, but I get withdrawal symptoms—chills, headache, fatigue, and more than usual irritability—if I go too long without it.
I had a couple of cups with a quick bite to eat.
The plane left on time, a little after 7 a.m. When you leave Bangkok that early, you get back to the East Coast of the United States on the same calendar day. It was a 36-hour Saturday.
I skipped breakfast on the plane but had some more coffee. When they handed out ham and cheese sandwiches about an hour before landing, it was Joanna’s turn to pass up the food. I wolfed down my sandwich and hers. I was so hungry by then that they tasted good.
It’s about a six-hour trip from Bangkok to Tokyo, where we would get the plane to Newark. We had a layover of almost three hours, which we put to good use eating noodle soup, drinking beer (well, Joanna had a few sips), and walking.
The flight from Tokyo to Newark was scheduled for 13 hours, but apparently the jet stream was even more favorable than usual, because we made it in 12.
Still, it’s a long time to sit. We had a window and a center seat, so getting out wasn’t easy. There was a lady in the aisle seat who spent a lot of time sleeping. We got up a couple of times and walked back to the lavatory. That helped. Other times, I stood up in front of my seat and flexed my legs.
I tried to sleep. I was even able to recline the seat because there was no one sitting behind me. But I just couldn’t manage to drift off. Every time I tried, there was an ache somewhere. All in my overheated imagination, I’m sure. The mind can be a terrible thing to live with.
I forget how many movies I watched. I forget what I ate for dinner. I actually finished a Sudoku puzzle in the United Airlines magazine. I did, however, get the last can of Goose Island IPA on the drinks cart. So, all in all, it was a good flight.
We got to Joanna’s house before 5 p.m. After we cleaned up and threw a load of laundry into the washing machine, we went to Egan’s for dinner. I had raw oysters for the first time in two months. I skip raw bar anywhere but the States and Japan. I also had Dogfish Head 90 Minute IPA, an LBIPA from the New Jersey Beer Co., and a real Guinness with a hamburger. 
A perfect re-entry.
Many happy returns, everyone.
Harry



Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Back to Bangkok




Thursday, March 10.

This was a travel day. We had a 3:45 flight to Bangkok, so there was no rush.

There was, however, some question about the car. We were supposed to be picked up at 12:30. We went downstairs around noon and a car was waiting on the street.

We weren’t sure it was ours. Neither was the driver. We had already paid Kwak for the ride, so we didn’t want to take the wrong car.

Kwak showed up a few minutes later and confirmed that, yes, we were the right people and this was the right driver.

The trip to the airport from the center of the city, where we were staying, may be six or seven miles. Part of it was slow going because of traffic.

One of the large hotels on the highway was apparently hosting a bigwig convention. The access road in front of the hotel was closed to traffic.

There were policemen in the grounds and on the road. None of them seemed to be armed. They seemed fairly relaxed, so this kind of thing must be a routine security exercise.

There were some guys in black uniforms with nifty berets sitting in the back of a pickup truck. They were either musicians or were carrying machine guns in soft cases.

The route is lined with Asia. There are big, new hotels next to small guest houses, body shops in Quonset huts, food stalls open to the road with plastic tables in the dirt. Occasionally there is a wall surrounding a property, perhaps a wat or a school. There is construction everywhere.

We had time to kill because the registration desk didn’t open till two hours before flight time. We found a small restaurant, where we sampled a few dishes.

They were surprisingly good for airport food. One was rice with char siu, perhaps the best I’ve ever had. I usually avoid char siu because it is sweet, dry, and tough. This pork was moist and tender, and the sweetness was subdued, making it delicious.

I had lunch with a couple of Angkor beers.

Security gave us a hard time about one of Joanna’s umbrellas because it had a metal tip. But we told the officer that we were going to hand it to the crew for safekeeping. He got on the phone and cleared it with somebody else.

Our plane arrived and started to discharge passengers just before our flight was due to take off. But AirAsia turned it around pretty quickly. We were only 10 or 15 minutes late getting to Bangkok.

We handed the umbrellas to a stewardess, who later came by and put them in the overhead compartment above our seats.

We came in to Don Mueang and needed to get to Bangkok’s other international airport, Suvarnabhumi. The trip is almost 30 miles. It was rush hour, so I guess it took about an hour.

We are in a place called the Plai Garden in the middle of one of those commercial districts that surround airports. Indeed, as the cab took us past the airport and toward our hotel, the neighborhood was looking pretty seedy. I was getting nervous. What the hell did I get Joanna into this time?

We finally got to the place and it’s not bad. About equal to the Boonthavon in Chiang Mai. It is almost exclusively a stop for people who will fly out of Suvarnabhumi. The first thing the lady at the desk asked us is the time we would need our ride to the airport.


 The Plai Garden has an elevator, but for some reason, the elevator stops at a landing halfway between floors. Our bags are full—20 kg. Lugging them up even half a flight of stairs is a bitch, but that’s what we had to do. I grabbed one end and Joanna had the other. We made all the bags in two trips.

There’s a restaurant downstairs. So we told the desk that the body wash dispenser was empty and went to have dinner. There was baby corn still in the husk in the mixed vegetables. That added an unusual flavor. Joanna had a soup of vegetables and pork.



I ordered roast chicken and stir-fried noodles. The chicken was fantastic—savory and tender, with no tell-tale reheat taste. The noodles were the flat, gelatinous things that are sometimes too starchy, but they were perfect with this sauce, whatever it was.

We got back to the room and discovered the hotel had done nothing to fix the dispenser. So I went to the desk again. This time, the lady sent two men who wound up replacing the fixture. So far, so good.


March 11

It’s Friday morning, and we plan to take it easy all day. Joanna went out for a walk already and found a Thai massage spa. She’s there now.

We may go for a short walk later. We have to be out of here by 5 tomorrow to take a 7 a.m. flight. My only concern is that the desk will forget to give us our wakeup call.

Not many photo ops since we left Siem Reap. Today’s photo was taken last Tuesday on the top level of Wat Bayon at Angkor Thom.



Be well, all.


Harry

Monday, May 16, 2016

Great Sights (More Than Four)




Tuesday, March 8.

We were thinking about revisiting Angkor Wat, but decided to stop at a small temple we hadn’t seen and then go back to Wat Bayon in Angkor Thom.

The little temple is made of brick, and was built by subjects of the kingdom, and not under the direction of the king. It’s off by itself and made of brick. The royal temples are stone.



The Lonely Planet guide book, which exaggerates everything, said the temple, Prasat Kravan, has extraordinary wall carvings.

The wat is small, five towers rising from a base that may be five feet or six above ground. Three towers have had their lotus flower tops lopped off. The steps aren’t many, but they are steep and narrow.

The central tower has three reliefs of Vishnu. One looks like he’s dancing, but I read it refers to a story about how he reclaimed the world from the devil.

He took the appearance of a small monk and asked the devil for a plot of ground where he could meditate. Only as wide as three paces, he said.

When the devil agreed, Vishnu assumed such enormous size that he strode across the entire universe in three steps to claim it all.

The right hand tower has bas-reliefs of Vishnu’s consort, Lakshmi.

The carvings in the other three towers have been removed. Or lost.

The carvings were lovely, but I don’t think they are superior or even radically different from those at Bayon, which was built about 250 years later than the brick temple.

Of course, Lonely Planet also told us that Angkor Wat was going to make our spines tingle like no other sight could do. Turns out, it wasn’t a tingle at all, just sweat.

They say if you can only visit two temples, see Angkor Wat and Bayon. As far as I can see, you go to Angkor Wat to cross it off your to-do list. You go to Bayon, and Ta Prohm too, because they are fantastic.

The visit to Prasat Kravan brought us to the Angkor Thom about an hour later than we got there on Monday. At eight on Monday, it looked like Disney World with all the tourists. At nine on Tuesday, it looked like Disney World on a holiday weekend.

We climbed to the second and third levels, and even looked for the resident monkey, but it seems the crowds were so thick they intimidated even him. (We did see the monkey clan on the way over. They were out running along the Angkor Wat moat.)

video


I wanted to study the bas-reliefs carved into the outer walls of the temple. Many of them deal with battles between the Khmer and the Chams. We overheard a guide explaining to a tour group that the Khmer were identified by their long earlobes, like the Buddha’s. The Chams, who were a Chinese people, had small ears.

OK. Flat noses, long earlobes—we’re picking up a few points on classical Khmer art.

One of the scenes is a sea battle on Lake Tonle Sap that continues onshore until the Chams are defeated.

All along the bottom of the panels are people onshore doing common everyday things while the battle rages. Some are hunting, others farming. Some, the books said, are picking lice from each other’s heads, and there is a woman giving birth. Not sure how much license the writer took with those last two interpretations.

Other panels show the Chams winning and sacking a city. Angkor Thom, which means “Great Capital City,” was built as a new capital after the final defeat of the Chams. It was eventually abandoned because it was too close to the frontier with the Thais. The Khmer moved their capital from Angkor Thom to Phnom Penh.

There may have been an instance of Bowdlerism in one panel, which according to Lonely Planet, shows linga worship. The center of the panel has been replaced by modern, plain blocks. Could the linga being revered have been too graphic? Was it removed to protect public morals?

We were close to passing out in the heat. We were hungry and too hot to eat anything. So we said good day to Angkor Thom and took shelter back at the hotel, as usual in the afternoon. We did venture out for lunch. We went to a small place on Pub Street called Khmer Idea, where I had a curry made with pork, pineapple, and coconut milk.

The red chilis in the curry were uncut so the stew wasn’t overly spicy. I bit one, of course, and went through a lot of beer and white rice to ease the burn.

Joanna had a dish of stir-fried pumpkin that was originally supposed to include chicken, but she asked to have it without meat. No problem with that.

She asked to have it made without black pepper or chili. As often happens here, she was assured that too would be no problem. Apparently the kitchen didn’t get the message. We sent the dish back, and they tamed it the second time around.

We hid out in the hotel after that until almost seven. I wanted to look at the menu at a bar called the Red Piano—mainly because they advertise Belgian beers. Not on draft, but that’s OK, because Duvel and Chimay (I had one of each) are bottle conditioned.

Either I have totally forgotten how Chimay tastes or, like the Guinness, there is a wretched local version sold here. Chimay is a very strong ale, and it may include clove in the brewing. Either clove or a blend of hops that create a surprisingly clove-like hint of flavor.

In the Red Piano, though, Chimay was thick, syrupy, and sweet—the same as the export Guinness stout. Duvel, on the other hand, was the real thing. So that give you two brews to avoid if you’re over here.

Joanna and I shared a local steak—again, tough but tasty. We had it with French fries (what else in a Belgian-themed bar?) and a sauce made of mushroom, mustard, and onion. Absolutely delicious.

A man sitting at the next table asked me about the Duvel. Is it German? No, Belgian.

We started to chat, and his wife struck up a conversation with Joanna at the same time.

His name is Tom. He and Sharon are originally from the U.K. now living in Australia. They’re on a holiday in Cambodia and are about to go to Hong Kong for a couple of months, apparently on business.

I forget how it got started, but he tried to explain rugby to me. I had been watching a game on TV at the U.N. bar a few weeks ago. The ball carrier was knocked down, and players from his team and the rival team piled up on him.

That didn’t end the play. He was allowed to hand off the ball from under that heap of humanity to a teammate, who continued the run downfield. That guy went down, handed off the ball, and they were off and running yet again.

OK. So how does a play end? It’s simple in American rules football, a ball-carrier’s knee touches the ground and the whistle blows. Tom tried to explain, but I still didn’t get it.

Joanna and I walked around the block a few times, ate some gelato, and went home.



Wednesday, March 9.

We’re starting to get used to rising in the morning. We were out by 8 o’clock to walk before the day heated up.

We went to Kings Road for breakfast. The Blue Pumpkin was open, but that was the outfit with the disgusting food that ripped us off at the airport, so I was having none of that. We settled on a Cambodian restaurant called Rohatt.

Not bad. The coffee was OK. Joanna had a bowl that included fruit, yogurt, meusli, milk, and honey. I had ordered pancakes and fruit. when it came, I was surprised to find that it was served with maple syrup. I had expected honey, which is all right, but I prefer the maple flavor.

We passed the market stalls and stopped in one with fantastic wood carvings—almost life-size figures of Chinese sages, 6- and 8-foot-high polished tree trunks with bas-reliefs, and lots of other things you won’t fit into your luggage. So I guess there is a market for that here.

Joanna was curious about beads made of a scented wood called agarwood. She didn’t find anything she wanted, but maybe she will later.

We strolled along the Siem Reap River, not anywhere near as picturesque as the Riverfront in Phnom Penh. There were a few restaurants and other small businesses, which appeared to be run out of private homes. Many of the buildings were unpainted wood structures with corrugated metal roofs.


We found a bridge over a small dam that brought us back to our original side of the river. We followed the river on that side and came to a place whose name is beyond me: Preah Promreath Pagoda, which dates to the late 14th century.

It includes a cemetery full of spirit houses for the dead. It also showcases a life-size sculpture group illustrating Siddhartha Gautama’s initiation into the way of the world, or “The Four Great Sights.” 


He had lived a sheltered life, and wanted to see more to the world. He went out with his charioteer. The grouping shows him in front of a sick man, an old man, and a corpse being eaten by vultures.

It was his first glimpse of illness, old age, and death. He had never seen or heard of them before. He got a little rattled when his charioteer explained that anyone can get sick, and that everyone will grow old and die.

On his way home, he saw a sage who had found peace by renouncing the world. The experience inspired him to leave his home and family and seek enlightenment.

There was also a replica of a boat carrying a monk.

Inside the temple there is a gallery of vividly colored wall panels depicting episodes from the Buddha’s life, including another of the Four Great Sights, his farewell to his sleeping family (another frequently painted scene), his hair-cutting and renunciation, and enlightenment. One panel may show Makha Bucha Day, the Buddha sitting with crowds of disciples around him.

One panel may be a story borrowed from the Gospel of Luke. It shows a woman drying the Buddha’s feet with her hair. Or maybe the gospel writer had heard the story about the Buddha.


[Editor’s note: Harry learned later that the woman in this case is Yasodhara, Gautama’s wife, whose tears washed his feet when he returned as an enlightened being. In St. Luke, the woman is an unidentified “sinner,” who brings a ritual ointment and also washes Jesus’ feet with her tears.

We came across a sign that explained the boat replica out front.

More than 500 years ago, a monk from this wat used to travel by boat to beg at a distant village. Even though it was a long trip, when he returned the rice in his bowl was still fresh.

One day, sharks broke his boat in two on the lake. He was in the bow, which miraculously did not sink, but instead raced back up the Siem Reap River so fast that it couldn’t fill with water and so returned him safely home.

The monks used that half of the boat to build a reclining Buddha.


Joanna and I found the reclining Buddha in the temple. The figure from the shoulders to the ankles is covered by a shroud. I went down when no one was near and touched it. It could be the hull of boat under there, but I don’t know.

Joanna found a pole with baskets of fruit attached to each end. We’ve seen people using similar devices on the street. She hoisted it onto her shoulder for a photo.


It was still early when we stepped outside, but we were already sweating. I had taken only one cup of coffee and wanted more caffeine, so we headed toward the market area near Pub Street.

We stopped at a cafe where I discovered something new. The menu listed watermelon juice (always a good thirst quencher) and “Buddha fruit juice.” What’s that? So I ordered a glass of it in addition to a pot of black tea.

Buddha fruit juice has a strange flavor, and we asked the waiter about it. He brought a couple of examples to the table. One was whole. It looked like a kiwi, but was so light when I picked it up that it felt hollow. He also had pieces that showed the seeds.

The juice is actually an infusion. The skin and seeds of the Buddha fruit are steeped in water for an hour and a half to make it. One Buddha fruit will flavor two liters of water.

On our way to the hotel, we stumbled on the market stalls where we bought Joanna’s saffron umbrella. They had more, so I bought her another, which I managed not to bend out of shape.

I have no idea how to get them home. They don’t even fit into my monster suitcase. But hey, people check skis on airplanes. I’m sure we’ll work out something.

We’ll be going out for dinner soon. I wonder what kind of beer I’ll find.

I’m starting to have some small affection for Siem Reap that I do not feel for Phnom Penh.

In other words, so far, so good.

Be well, all.

Harry


Saturday, May 14, 2016

Revenge of the Apes




Sunday, March 6.

Went for a walk along the Siem Reap River. It has two footbridges and a traffic bridge all in easy walking distance of the hotel. They are lit up like carnival attractions at night and they connect the markets on either side of the water.

We saw what we thought at first was a Ferris wheel, but discovered was a water wheel placed to draw attention to an upscale mall called King’s Road.  There was also a large fake monkey at the entrance to the mall.


The mall has several restaurants, including one called Emperors of China. They offer Hong Kong style dim sum, but Joanna says most of the menu is Beijing. They do offer Peking duck.

We shared a couple of dishes of dim sum, crab meat dumplings and small cakes made of turnip, which I liked better than the dumplings. A pot of tea and bowls of steamed rice rounded things out nicely.

Joanna asked about the Peking duck. The Cambodian waiter’s English wasn’t up to the conversation. We asked if the chef spoke Chinese. He came out and Joanna asked him about Beijing duck, because he spoke Mandarin.

Indeed, it doesn’t need to be ordered 24 hours in advance, as in many places. We decided to come back for dinner.


After lunch, we strolled past the night market, which seems to be open in the daytime too. I had damaged Joanna’s saffron umbrella. It still works, but I wanted to get her another. We had no luck there.

Joanna remembered that the second footbridge was the last chance to cross the river for quite a while. So she saved us from getting lost.

We wandered a few of the side streets, and then retreated from the heat to the hotel.


We were back at the Emperors of China sometime after 6. They bring out the whole duck, head and all. Then a server cuts the meat off the carcass in bite-size pieces. To eat it, you wrap the meat, with a little sauce, in a mu shu pancake. We had bok choi and rice on the side.

A lot of families were out for Sunday dinner. At lunch, there was a trio of youngsters who were chasing each other around the dining room squealing.

There were several toddlers at dinnertime but they weren’t playing tag or hide-and-seek. A little boy was apparently in the early stages of weaning, so he was crying and hanging on to his mother. He was later distracted by grown-up food.

A little girl went from table to table to say hi to other kids. I can’t be sure, but maybe they all knew each other.

There was one baby, maybe two years old, being fed noodles from chopsticks. Then the kid took the chopsticks and picked up a mouthful of noodles unassisted. Later the same kid coordinated the chopsticks with a spoon.

We would be out to Angkor Thom in the morning, so we made it an early night. We strolled back to Pub Street, where I had a beer. We bought some yogurt at a convenience store and went home.


Monday, March 7.



Angkor Thom is the last capital city of the Angkor period. Jayavarman VII had it built in the late 12th century, about the time of St. Francis of Assisi and Richard the Lion-Heart.

Not far from the entrance to the Angkor Archeological Park there is a children’s hospital named for Jayavarman VII. So even after more than 800 years he is still a very popular guy around here.



At Angkor Thom, traffic crosses a restored bridge with an ancient balustrade that looks like the tug of war with the serpent. Then it enters through the original south gate and proceeds to the crown jewel of the place, Wat Bayon.

Most of the city has disappeared altogether. Or maybe it has sunk into the ground. Bayon, however, has been restored and you can walk through it.

video


The temple has towers covered with smiling Buddha faces, said to resemble Jayavarman. There are several active altars set up in it, including one where they ask you to remove your shoes.



I walked through a narrow alleyway and was crawling over the steps into a chamber when Joanna shouted “monkey.” It had climbed a support for a corrugated awning and was looking around.

Joanna was concerned because he animal was only few yards away and they are known to bite.

Several other people came running to look, and the monkey must have felt a little self-conscious, because it crawled back under the awning to hide. I could duck down and see it sitting on the stones that the awning covered.

We climbed some new wooden stairs and walked around on the upper level, face to face with Jayavarman, you might say. It is a wonderful view—the hazy forest, the guys trimming palm trees, the towers and faces, and lichen too. A little crowded, like Disney World, but just so surprisingly wonderful.

I walked past a guide speaking English to a couple of people. The faces, he said, have Cambodian features. He pointed out that the nose is a little flat. The Barang nose, on the other hand, sticks out, he said. Joanna wanted to offer me as an example.


We were making our way around the roof, when I saw the top of the corrugated awning. I jockeyed my way through busloads of Red Chinese tourists to see if the monkey had come out again.

It was out, all right, directly in front of me. It climbed lazily onto the roof with all the rest of us and picked up a small plastic bag, either forgotten or left on purpose.

video


The monkey opened the bag as if it had done this before and took out a slice of dragonfruit (unmistakable red rind, white meat, black seeds). Monkeys don’t eat the rind either.

Tourists were coming up to the monkey while it ate and posed for pictures that would look like they were petting it. That was probably foolish enough, but at least nobody was so foolhardy as to touch it.

Someone must have made at least one false move, because the monkey opened its mouth to hiss and show its teeth. People got the message and backed off.

It finished the fruit, and went back to its awning.

So here was a monkey in a temple, and from my observations so far, I’d judge that one monkey qualifies as filling a temple. After all, it treats the place as its own.

When we came out of the temple, we ran into more monkeys. There must have been eight or a dozen, running across the ground and up in the trees.

After Bayon, we stopped at the Terrace of the Elephants, one of the remaining bits of the Royal Enclosure. There is an Elephant Gate at Angkor Wat. It was built without steps because people rode up on elephants and dismounted directly only to the porch.

I don’t know if that was the purpose of the terrace, which is an earthen dike fronted by a stone wall carved with the figures of elephants.

We went a little farther and got out of the tuk-tuk to explore the Terrace of the Leper King. Who’s going to pass up something with a name like that? Apparently one of the kings of Angkor Thom, like one of the Crusader kings of Jerusalem, had leprosy.

We threaded our way through a narrow gallery open to the sky. Joanna had read that the carvings there represented the king and his concubines. Most of the figures are bare-breasted women. Like the original Starbucks mermaid, they have nipples.



We went back to the South Gate and watched a wedding party on the moat. The bride and groom, dressed in traditional satin clothes, were in a golden dragon gondola rowed by a single gondolier. A similar boat, not golden though, carried the photo crew.



We had seen a similarly dressed couple outside Angkor Wat. The bride’s dress is a kind of traditional sheath. The groom’s suit, in matching color, has Yul Brynner pants.

I was wondering out loud if they were the same couple—maybe hired to go out and look colorful. But Joanna said no. This couple was in lavender. The couple at Angkor Wat wore pale green.

We headed back to the hotel neighborhood for lunch and to collect the laundry.

But there was one surprise stop on the way. Kwak, the driver, saw them first and pulled the tuk-tuk over. There, across the road, was a clan of monkeys. They may have been interested in a nearby fruit stand. But something spooked them. There were dozens of them—mamas carrying babies, young ones running with the group, single adults. Monkeys looking for a temple, I guess.



I’m not sure how much detergent, if any, the laundry used for our clothes, but at least they came out a little cleaner than they went in.

Lunch was at a sidewalk place across the road. Joanna had fried morning glories and rice. I had the national dish, amok, which can come in various versions. I had one with coconut milk, possibly basil (although the leaves looked too big), and slices of fish.

What a day, gang. Going back for more tomorrow.

Love to all.

Harry