Sunday, June 30, 2013

Home again

Well, I'm back.  Tucked safely away in my little apartment in Arlington, VA, enjoying powerful air conditioning and Mexican food.  It feels about as far from Cambodia as possibe.  Except for the humidity.  That is exactly the same.  Maybe even worse.  Way to go, Founding Fathers, way to build the nation's capitol in a semi-tropical swamp that doesn't even have awesome ruined temple complexes.

In the airport at Siem Reap, Cambodia.
As with the outbound trip, the flights were uneventful.  Unless you count the sighting of beadazzled men's Birkenstocks as an event (which I do), in which case that totally happened.  It's too bad that I'm feel so inhibited about taking pictures of people while they're sitting across the aisle from me in the airport looking at me, because then I could insert a photo here of the outfit.  Instead, you'll just have to imagine a polka-dotted button-down shirt, billowy hippie pants in an outrageous elephant pattern, and Birkenstocks covered in jewels.  All of which was in an understated navy-blue-and-white color scheme, because obviously when you have that much going on, something has to stay under control.

It's an outfit that would never fly in the United States (at least, not unless the guy wearing it was okay with everyone assuming that he was flamboyantly gay).  But on a slim, wealthy-looking, twentysomething Korean man, it actually worked.  That's one of the things I like about traveling -- you get to see what men can wear in societies that don't have such rigidly defined notions of masculinity that dudes get judged for wearing something other than flipflops, cargo shorts and a t-shirt.

In fact, it was interesting to see the difference between what the Koreans (men and women) wore on the flight from Cambodia to Korea, and on the flight from Korea to the US.  On the first flight (where, presumably, you had more Koreans who were planning to stay in Korea), people were wearing lots of really bright colors, with funky patterns and cuts and everything from sequins and pearls with high heels to what I can only assume were body suits that were meant for bobsledders.  On the second flight (which was equally full of people who looked Korean, but which probably had way more Americans than the other flight, and where, in any event, everyone was going to the US), the styles and colors were far more subdued, conservative and boring.  Makes me want to get out of the airport and see what people wear in the streets in Korea.

Another observation about the Koreans?  They're astonishingly good at standing in line and being orderly when it comes to boarding the airplane.  I mean, when put in large groups inside a ruined temple, they're a complete nightmare almost as bad as the Chinese for being pushy and obnoxious.  But give them an airport terminal and a boarding time and they'll line up like straight-A students.  Which actually worked to Vanessa's and my advantage.  Vanessa took one look at the long line of Koreans snaking down the terminal from our boarding gate door and said something to the effect of, "I'm sorry, but I am French today; I am not waiting in line."  Part of me wanted to point out that this was how society breaks down (just try getting through any of the Paris airports and you'll know what I mean); but the other part of me was all, "Ouais, c'est clair. On y va!"  For better or for worse, that second part won out, so we both cut right to the front of the line and were on board and seated in no time. 

The next fourteen hours or so are a blur of reading snarky memoirs and watching sappy romantic comedies and surprisingly boring thriller movies, with periods of sleeping interspersed throughout.  At one point I woke up enough to think, "Shouldn't I do something more useful with these 14 hours than just sit here judging the man in front of me for watching the GI Joe movie, like, 87 times in a row?"  So I tried to be all introspective and thoughtful, hopeful that I'd reach some new insight about myself and/or make a few important Life Decisions.  But the problem with making Life Decisions while in a jetlagged stupor in the middle of a trans-world flight is that you are not Paul Rudd in a romantic comedy with Tina Fey, and so "adopt an orphan boy from Africa and teach animal husbandry at a private liberal arts high school in New England" is just never going to be the right answer.

What I should have been doing instead of making Life Decisions was monitoring the blood circulation to my lower extremities.  Because sometime around the 12th hour I looked down at my feet and was horrified to see nothing but CANKLES AND SAUSAGE TOES at the end of my legs.  Which, btw, I don't normally have.  I'm not sure if it was the effect of gravity or prolonged seated inactivity, or just karmic reward for cutting in line to get on the plane, but basically all of the blood in my body was down in my ankles and toes making me look like an eldery woman who needs compression hose.  I considered turning around in my seat so that my feet were sticking straight up into the air and my back was on the seat, but I didn't want to get yelled at by the flight attendants (not that there's anything in the opening presentation that says we can't sit like that).  Plus, it was probably too late anyway.  So instead of deplaning into the DC airport with the alluring air of a well-tanned, ruggedly handsome scruffy traveler, I had to resign myself to deplaning with the air of a well-tanned,  scruffy traveler with cankles and sausage toes sticking out of his Birkenstocks.  But since my Birkenstocks didn't have any jewels on them, maybe people wouldn't be looking down there anyway.

And on that note, I'm off to bed.  I'm kind of dreading going back to work tomorrow and digging out of emails and backlogged projects, but overall it will be nice to get back in the routine.  I guess that's what vacations are for.  I'm hoping that things won't be too busy right off the bat so I can go back and fill in some gaps in the blog for portions that I didn't have time to write about during the trip.


Friday, June 28, 2013

Temples of Angkor

Like Machu Picchu, the Ayah Sofia, and Tikal, the temples of Angkor more than live up to their reputation.  It's one of those places where you get there and look around and have a hard time believing it's real. 

The temple complex, which is the largest in the world (way bigger than Tikal), was built by the Khmer kings between the 10th and 12th Centuries.  The temples were part of a much larger city -- population around 1 million, while London was somewhere around 55,000 -- but the mostly wooden city has since vanished, leaving only the stone temples. 

We visited three of the largest and most popular temples today: Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom (which includes Bayon, the one with all the faces), and Ta Prohm (the temple famously featured in Tomb Raider). I'm not going to do a full write-up tonight -- we're getting up at 4:00am so we can watch the sun rise over Angkor Wat (the largest temple in the group) -- but here are a few of the highlights from today.

Eastern facade of Angkor Wat

There are 54 towers in the temple of Bayon, each one with four smiling Buddha faces.
Part of the Terrace of the Elephants.
Note how the elephants hold clumps of lotus flowers in their trunks.
This is part of the temple where Tomb Raider was filmed.  It was, by far, the most crowded
of all the temples we visited today.

We fought long and hard with the Chinese tourists to get this shot.
Seriously.  They're like herds of kindergartners with ADD who
don't have any sense of personal space and who never got the memo
about how to wait in line.  They made me want to die (until I ate a
granola bar and regained perspective; then I just wanted them to die
(which, now that I think about it isn't really much of an improvement,
but it felt like progress at the time)).

Vanessa and our guide inside one of the corridors in Angkor Wat
One of the libraries in Angkor Wat

Detail of the pillars that served as blinds in the windows.
Central building of Angkor Wat
P.S.  Depending on how things go over the next 48 hours, this may be the last post from abroad.  We'll spend all the day tomorrow back at Angkor visiting more temples, and then we'll go straight to the airport.  We fly separately to Seoul around midnight and then continue separately to Chicago and DC.  With any luck, I'll be back home around noon on Sunday.  I'm hoping there will be good WiFi connections in the airports, but if not, I'll see you back in the States!

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Siem Reap - Silk farm of Les Chantiers Ecoles and Artisans d'Angkor

On the afternoon of our first day in Siem Reap Vanessa and I went to visit Les Chantiers Ecoles, an establishment that teaches traditional Khmer artisanship to local youth.  The goal is to help them develop skills that will help them support themselves in the region, thereby reducing both poverty and the flight of young people to the big cities.  While the school teaches everything from lacquer-making to stone-carving, the heart of the operation seems to be their silk farm.  We arrived in time to take a free tour of the silk farm and see, first hand, the silk-making process.  Here's what we learned:

Silk worms only eat the leaves of mulberry trees.  Accordingly, the farm has mulberry orchards dedicated to feeing the little worms.  Given the risk that birds and other predators might eat the valuable silk worms, the leaves are stripped from the trees and fed to the worms indoors.
Mulberry trees
To prevent ants from getting inside the buildings, they're built on small stilts with mini-moats full of water surrounding each ground touchpoint.

Ant protection
The worms are tiny white creatures that have a very short life span.  We learned all the details of their stages of life -- and of course by now I've forgotten pretty much everything.  I think the life cycle is about a month long.  About half-way through, the worms spin themselves into fuzzy cocoons made of a single strand of silk.  At this point there's no risk of the worms' wandering away.  They're literally left on these giant flat baskets in the middle of the open room. 


Some of the worms will be allowed to hatch from their cocoons, as moths, and mate to produce new worms.  The majority of the worms, however, will be killed before they hatch.  This is necessary, you see, because the success of the silk farm depends on harvesting all those strands of silk intact -- and the moth's exit from the cocoon inevitably breaks the strands into unusably small pieces.  To kill the worms, the cocoons are placed on racks in the blazing sun. 

Once the worm has died, the cocoons are collected and taken to be spun into thread.  Each cocoon has about forty yards of silk, all in a single strand.  But that strand is too fine to be woven by itself, so it must be spun into thread.  The cocoons are placed into pots of boiling water to loosen the strands.  A barbed stick is used to stir the pot until the strands catch on the barb.  The strands are then fed into a spinning wheel device and spun into thread.

Raw silk spinner



There are actually two stages in the initial spinning process.  See how the cocoons and thread in the pictures above are yellowish?  That's the raw silk.  Once you get past the raw silk, the strand becomes finer and turns white.  This is the fine silk.  Given the different qualities, raw silk and fine silk are spun separately.  So once all of the raw silk has been spun off of a cocoon, the strand is cut and the cocoons are moved to a different cauldren for the spinning of the fine silk.  The process is essentially the same, but the machinery is, not surprisingly, finer.

Fine silk spinner
If you look closely, you can see the super-fine white strands of the fine silk
going up from the cocoons into the spinner.
Here's a photo of the different types of silk hung side by side, so you can see the difference between fine silk and raw silk.


The initial spinning creates the threads, but those threads are often gummed up with worm feces and other cocoon matter that must be removed.  Women sit and work through skeins of thread pulling out all the gunk by hand.


Once the silk has been cleaned, it must be bleached and then dyed.  Most of the colors can be obtained using natural dyes.  The baskets below contain some of the plants and minerals used to dye the silk.




Once dyed, the silk is spooled using this machine.

Once spooled, some of the silk is spun again into heavier warp threads.  Warp threads are the threads that run the length of the cloth.  The finer weft threads are woven over/under the warp threads.
The original spools are in the frame on the right-hand side of the photo.  The threads run from
the spools and are fed into the spinner between the man and woman.  The threads are then
combined into a heavier thread and wrapped around the wooden circular frame (all the red
stuff you can see is the finished warp thread).

The threads are then sent to the looms, where the weavers work their magic.  I've included photographs and video clips to give you a sense of how they work.

See the stick-spools of thread on the bench?  She's weaving an ikat.  More on that below.

Needless to say, I found all of this fascinating.  Not only were the silkworms impressive, with their miraculously strong cocoon fibers, but the skill and labor that goes into turning those fibers into gorgeous silk cloth was astonishing.  I became convinced that I needed more silk in my life -- a conviction that the school was more than ready to help with.  They have a beautiful showroom retail store called Artisans d'Angkor on-site at the farm, and another in town.  After the tour, Vanessa and I spent quite a while going through the shop thinking through how we'd like to redo our respective bedrooms and livingrooms back home... 

I instantly fell in love with the rich yellows, reds and pinks and decided to focus on pillow covers for my bed.  Narrowing my options down to just one set turned out to be impossible, so I bought a few different sets.

This gorgeous raw silk pillow cover shimmers between bright yellow and a deep reddish gold.
I bought two standard pillow cases in this fabric to serve as a backdrop of color on the bed.
Two throw pillows to go with the yellow pillows:  A large pink square with floral motif,
and a smaller rectangular pillow in multicolored stripes and red tassles.
I also got a large square pillow cover in this "jasmine" floral motif.  I went with a slightly
toned down red and gold pattern, instead of the pinks and purples and yellows that I loved
in the other set, because I realized that I have no pinks, etc., in any of my other decor at home.
I also bought some ikat, which is not only beautiful but also really cool once you know how it's made.  Remember how I flagged the photos/video of the girl weaving the ikat?  Well, here's how it works.  Instead of creating a pattern by weaving threads of different colors (see the jasmine pattern above -- that pattern was woven with gold-colored threads against a background of crimson threads), the patterns in ikat are created using a single thread that has been tie-dyed into multiple colors.  As you weave the thread through the warp, using it up and laying it against itself over time, the pattern emerges.  What's amazing to me is that they've figured out how to tie-dye the threads at such precise intervals that they can create beautiful and complicated patterns this way. 

Girls spooling the tie-dyed ikat threads

The threads are wrapped around narrow dowels.

The ikat threads don't look like much when they're just sitting there.  But feed them into the loom and, voila!, a stunning pattern emerges.

This pattern goes marvelously well set against the yellow of my other pillows.
So I bought a large square ikat pillow and a smaller
throw pillow in burgundy raw silk to complete the look.

Of course, I have all these lovely silk pillow covers but nowhere to use them.  My bed currently is done up Moroccan style after my trip to Morocco last year, and I'm not quite ready to switch out that bedding yet.  And my living room is basically built around the sofa pillows I brought back from Istanbul a few years ago.  I guess this just means I need to move into an apartment with another bedroom that I can design around these silks . . . .

(And for any of you who might want some silks of your own, Artisans d'Angkor does operate online and will ship internationally.  Just sayin'.)

Siem Reap

This isn't really a post.  I mean, it's a post because it shows up in the blog, but I'm not really going to do proper justice to anything that I write about.  I'll mention some things that I don't have photos for (yet), and other things that I have tons of photos for but which merit their own separate posts.  Also, I'm tired and need to get my beauty sleep before tackling the temples tomorrow morning. 

The big news of the day?  We're in Cambodia! 

On the tarmac in Siem Reap; prop plane that brought us from Saigon in the background
We got up at 4:00am this morning to catch the first flight from Saigon to Siem Reap.  The flight went super smoothly (which I'm starting to think might have just as much to do with lower standards as with organizational skills -- when I ran a full water bottle through security, the guy pulled it out, looked worried, and told me to "try to drink it" before I got on the plane, which surely cannot be the right answer) and we landed a little after 8:00am.  Our driver met us on the other side of customs and drove us to our hotel in a tuk tuk.


We had the entire day ahead of us, but we decided to give ourselves a quasi down day before heading out into the heat and sun of the temple ruins.  Instead, we explored the city. 

The first impression you get of Siem Reap is flat, muddy jungle.  The landscape is green and muddy brown.  There are puddles and rivers everywhere, and they're the same color as all of the unpaved roads.


Given the views from the airplane and Cambodia's reputation for being significantly behind Vietnam and other countries in the region in terms of economic development, I expected to find a seedy third-world town similar to what I've seen in Central and South America.  But it's actually a pretty little town with a surprising amount of charm and personality.  The chocolatey river that runs through town between the two paved streets is lined with large shady trees and graceful street lamps (most of which don't work, but hey, they look good).


We also found a couple of pagodas, which are totally different from the pagodas we saw in Vietnam.  Still Buddhist, but a very different aesthetic. 


But there are plenty of peculiarities, too.  For example, the city (and the country, I think) uses almost exclusively US dollars and is oddly expensive.  Also, most addresses we've seen simply say what road the establishment is on -- and, of course, there are basically zero street signs to tell you which street you're on.  More numerous (and much less helpful) than streetsigns are the photos of someone I assume is the queen or some other perfectly coiffed political grandmother (I admit I haven't finished reading up on Cambodian politics) posted around town.


And then there are numerous loudspeakers blaring what may or may not be political messages and/or hot tunes for a city-wide dance party.  They're super loud (unpleasantly so) and we haven't been able to figure out what the point is. 

As we walked, we shopped.  In contrast to Vietnam, where I wasn't inclined to buy much of anything that I saw, there's a lot here that I would love to bring home.  There's kind of an artsy vibe here -- probably a combination of the indigenous culture and the enhancements that come from the tourist economy -- and let's just say that I did a little stimulating of that economy. 

Right off the bat, I bought art.  Real art!  From an art gallery and everything.  A friend of mine had recommended the McDermott Gallery, which is a fine art photography gallery featuring images of the Angkor temples.  I thought they were gorgeous and was about to buy a handful of reproductions when I thought I might as well ask about some of the originals.  Turns out they were less expensive than I'd feared and easier to ship than I'd hoped (the gallery essentially takes care of everything, and the cost is built into the price of the photo).  I didn't buy one of the gorgeous hand-developed, limited-run photographs, but I did purchase an original photograph from a fine art gallery.  (Which I'm delighted to say is my very first foray into buying "real" art.  I've always wanted to buy real art from a gallery, but I've always been intimidated or lacking in funds, so this was a fun step for me.)

Here's the photo I bought.  You can't actually see it, so you'll have
to wait until it's delivered to my US address.
I also still bought a few of the smaller prints.  Because when am I ever going to be back here?

I also bought silk.  Oh, silk!  Can I just say that the silk here is AMAZING?  There's a complex of artisanal workshops here that focuses on training and employing local people (many with handicaps) in the traditional crafts of woodworking, stone carving, silk making, etc.  Vanessa and I walked over to the compound to see the workshops and take a tour of the silk farm. 

While waiting for the silk farm tour to begin, we wandered through the shop and I about died when I saw all the gorgeous silk textiles.  Such beautiful colors and patterns!  Theen we went and saw the silk being made -- from worm to finished product, right before our eyes.  It's a fascinating process, and I'll write more about it later; suffice to say that seeing how silk was produced (and seeing the people and the dyes and the looms that produced the textiles that I saw in the shop) only convinced me more that I needed more silk in my life.  I may or may not have spent more than I ought to have spent on pillow covers that I may or may not have any use for back home . . .

Luxurious skeins of died raw silk
Of course I didn't take any photos of the silks I actually
bought (they're all vivid pinks, yellows and oranges). 
But here's a photo of the green and blue collection
(a.k.a. the Amanda W. collection).
After making our purchases (yes, I'm not the only one who got silk fever), we walked over to a restaurant called Le Tigre de Papier and took a cooking class that had been recommended to us by the Chilean couple that we'd met on the Tour of Incompetence and Irritation in the Mekong Delta.  We each selected two traditional Cambodian dishes that we wanted to prepare, and then our instructor walked us through each step of the preparation, from market to cutting and dicing to final plating and presentation.  This is another thing that I want to write more about later, but for now I'll say that it was great fun to see how the recipes worked, and all of our efforts turned out really well. 

Look how official we are!
I'm mashing a mixture of vegetables and chilis to make a
dipping sauce for spring rolls

After dinner, we returned to the hotel and got massages. That's right, 60 minutes of full-body massages complete with scented oils (I had the "invigorating" scent with lemongrass and eucalyptus). Parts of it were heavenly (like when she massaged my neck and shoulders and put a hot towel at the nape of my neck. But I'm not gonna lie, other parts were kind of stressful! I'm not the most relaxed of souls, and I'm also kind of ticklish, so it was all I could do to stay calm and not start cracking up and giggling and/or kicking uncontrollably when the masseuse did the deep flesh massage on my thighs and rear end. Still, now that it's over, I feel great -- very relaxed and ready for bed.

Speaking of bed, that's where I need to be right now. We got very little sleep last night, and we've got a big day ahead of us clambering about among the ruins.  More to come!