Saturday, October 14, 2006

JAPAN: An arrival

Welcome back dedicated readers! To those who are visiting for the first time, just Welcome!

Imagine, if you would be so kind gentle reader...Times Square in New York, on a busy day, but at night. Got it? Okay now imagine that you are 8 feet tall in Times Square, there is no honking and people are rigidly obeying Walk/Don't Walk signs...still with me in this crazy/fantasy/voodoo world? Now imagine that when a Walk sign finally does appear, roughly 3,000 people all cross the street at the same time, and even with this surging mass of humanity, not one person bumps into you, calls you a name or tells you to move. Fairy tale? No, it's Tokyo.

In Tokyo, light moves faster than OTHER LIGHT...hard to believe but you'll just have to take my word for it...

As a quick backtrack; I was leaving South-East Asia by way of Thailand. In a bizarre twist of fate, a friend of a friend from back home was staying in the same hotel as my long-time travel companions. A most propitious situation indeed (especially for me) since I'm cheap and didn't want to pay for a hotel room, I forced them to stay up all night with me until my 7AM departure. And Dawn, someday we'll be in the same country for more than 2 which point I SWEAR I will buy you that beer!

Do you have any idea how late it was?! (you will if you're actually reading these posts instead of just looking at the're so lazy!)

Thus did I arrive in that fabled, wondrous land of sushi, Noh theatre and the inimitable, the effervescent, the seriously strange Mr. Rich Shelala. By way of introduction, Rich is one of my closest friends, an inveterate nerd and has been living in Japan for the better part of two years, spending his time teaching obstinate Japanese children the blessings of English (or as I came to see it Eng-grish). Rich's instructions for the airport were nearly as concise and specific as those of Yeah Yeah (my erstwhile India-traveling-companion). "I will meet you at the baggage claim, just after customs. Don't try to go anywhere on your own because you will get hopelessly lost and be put into a Japaneses game show. You will be humiliated."

As such, I picked up my pack (dusty, grimy, covered in a thin film of....I really don't know what. I guess all that time on/under/next to busses in developing countries does not to baggage much good), I glanced around for my guide. He was nowhere to be seen. Having been through the Washington D.C. ninja-training academy, I knew very well that my friend may be hiding behind any number of large pillars, shadowy corners or giant statutes (the Japanese really have stuff set up for ninja-hiding...). Thus made paranoid, I backed up against a wall and kept an eagle eye watch out for anything that smacked of clandestine-ness.

And waited...

And waited....

I finally realized that Mr. Shelala would not be forthcoming, so I headed over to a bank of pay phones to try and call him. After fighting with the phones for a while, I just gave up and collapsed into a chair. It was at that point that I realized that in the past 36 hours I had:

1. Been to the worlds largest rave and not slept
2. Gone Scuba diving twice...and not slept
3. Sat uncomfortably on a plane for 8 hours where I...did not sleep.

Guess how I was feeling?

It was at about that time that I saw, peering through the crowd like some sort of creature that peers a phantom. It was a whisper and a rustle, yet somewhere out there, I knew that it lurked. The wily Raccoon (aka Rich, never quite sure about the nickname). He lurched through the crowd, enormous headphones encompassing strangely shaped ears...and then...WEIRD PICTURE TIME!

Much as with my reunion with a long lost friend in India, our reunion was joyous. Quite UNLIKE that reunion, I did not then immediately plop down into a beach chair, take a swig out of an enormous ice-cold beer and watch the sun set. No...Rich had other plans.

"Okay we're meeting about 10 people for dinner in (Unpronounceable japanese) word but first we're going to get tacos and then we're going to a club."

"Uh...okay, but I'm pretty tired, can we call it an early night?"

Rich had neglected to mention to me a number of things. First, he neglected to mention that he had planned a kind of "Welcome to Japan" celebration which included, among other things, eating four or five times with different groups of people. Next, he had neglected to mention that most of our evening would be passed at a club. The real kicker though, was the following:

Norm: So where can I drop my bags?

Rich: in this train locker!

Norm: (listens for crickets chirping...doesn't hear any, apparently they're a delicacy here) Excuse me? where are we staying tonight?

Rich: Ummm (shuffles feet)...we're not...

Norm: (seeing red...) I...haven't slept in like 3 days, and now we're going to be out all night, after I just got off of a 8 hour plane ride, haven't slept and won't be able to shower?

Rich: Yeah.

And so it went. Our first stop was to get me a new t-shirt, since the one I was wearing was now nearly completely invisible. Apparently if you wear something long enough without washing it, it just sort of fades into the ether. (p.s. if you are over 6 feet tall and have blue eyes, please do the kind people of Tokyo a favor and allow those two physical characteristics to be surprise enough. Don't do as I did, which was to remove my shirt in the middle of a crowded store, rip open the package of shirts I've just bought, and then put it on and walk out like nothing unusual had happened. Apparently in a land where giant roving lizards (godzilla is real...REALLY!) are nothing to get all worked up about, a white guy's hairy chest is a real problem. Who knew?

Freshly clothed, we set out to devour some tacos (yes my culinary adventurousness is to be marveled at), prior to going and having a slightly more traditional Japanese meal.

I have previously described the insanity that is India, specifically Mumbai in an earlier post(hyperlink), so I figured that I had seen everything that the masses of humanity could throw at me.

It turns out that I was wrong.

Arriving at Shibuya train station, I emerged into what can only be described as a fully functioning Times Square/Carnival complete with bright blinking lights, freaks of all nature and description, and a small brass bulldog that everything seemed to rotate around.

There are a LOT of people here...

A large, strangely feathered hat must be tipped to the young women who populate Tokyo. I don't personally know much about fashion, but what I do know is that these girls were either so far on the cutting edge of fashion that they were practically bleeding trendy, or they had been dressed by their kindly, senile, blind neighbor who had just retrieved a box of clothing left over from pre-1700 Japan. There is no inbetween. Bright pastels contrasted with alternating black and white striped shirt sleeves, and that was on their legs. Neon jewelry, spiky/swirly mohawks over high ruffled collar shirts and calf-length boots. You could devote an entire book just to describing one clique of kids.

"We represent...the lollipop guiiiiild"

"Wait...we're wearing the school girl stuff? Oh I thought we were doing all black goth gear...shoot!"

"I'll get you my pretty, and your little dog too!" (oh man, two Wizard of Oz jokes in one post...I can hear Judy Garland swimming in her booze soaked grave)

I have. No. Idea.

I've already kind of gone into what that square was like above, but it is hard to capture the essence of the moment accurately. Suffice it to say that seeing that many people assiduously avoiding even the THOUGHT of a jaywalk was a weird experience indeed.

Then, it was time for food.

I have now in my travels eaten bugs, larvae, snake, springbok, crocodile, and any other number of unidentifiable munchable, all of which I have attacked with gusto. Still, there is nothing quite like hearing the words "raw" and "horsemeat" used in conjunction to describe something that someone would like you to raise your eyebrow (get your gander up...whatever euphemism you choose to employ).

Now tell me that doesn't look delicious? "Wilburrrr...NOOO!!!"

Basashi, as it turns out, is not only a delicacy, it is absolutely delicious. It is basically extremely thin strips of raw horse, which you use chopsticks to swirl around in a mixture of horseradish, garlic and soy sauce. Even without the accoutrement's, this was a particularly tasty dish (My apologies to Mr. Ed, Seabiscuit and The Black Stallion).

The place that we ate at is known as an Izakaya, and rather than try to give a verbose and over-long explanation, I will let Rich-san sum it up for you. "This is the Japanese equivalent of a bar except that food plays a much larger role and specific foods are featured that either go specifically well with beer or sake." So there you have it. It's exactly as he said, except that instead of barstools, you sit on little mats on the floor, and instead of ordering from a printed menu of words, I ordered from a menu of enormous colorful pictures (thank god for that, or I would have ended up with octopus heads in a garbage bag with a side of Donkey hair or some other such nonsense...crazy Japanese bars)

After dinner, we ended up at a club...after first being rejected from a different club. We intially went to a club called Harlen (yes, a huge Hip-Hop club in the middle of Tokyo with a HILARIOUS website) where the entire group was massively inconvenienced by my attire: specifically, the fact that I was wearing sandals. Anyone who knows me knows that this was not merely a function of my being on the road, I NEVER wear shoes out. However with my ready-made excuse of "more than one pair of shoes means one more thing for a village kid to try and steal/bargain for, which is why I don't have any", the group moved on to "Atom", where we danced, and, as has been, and remained a continuing theme, local people stared at us while we did our groovy thing.

Stumbling out of the club at around dawn, I decided that sleep must be some weird concept that philosophers argued about but didn't really exist. I felt a decided need to eat brains (or maybe I just looked like a zombie).

I looked at Rich. Rich looked at me.

"Well, it's only 3 hours on a train to my house, and then we have to get a ride there..."

"I hate you."

The train that we rode was the much vaunted Shinkansen, which I believe is Japanese for both "make you go broke" and "screw you, American tourist." Ancient texts tell us that it could alternately be translated as "You honor us with your hard earned money, now please enjoy our whisper-quiet manner of conveyance. you're broke." It lived upto its billing as a "bullet-train" though, in that it was shaped like a bullet, and was a train. Good stuff.

This is a picture of myself, Rich and the great and powerful Devon who is now devoting his time to teaching our most frustrating of languages to children in China. He is truly a glutton for delicious punishment (and a hell of a writer as well).

Dear rich: Screw you

Dear Norm: Shut up

Dear Abby: so the other day this crush of mine...

Arriving in Nakano, the town NEAR where Rich lives, I availed myself yet again of the opportunity to horrify some Japanese people. As I had been in the habit of eating whatever, whenever I wanted to (oh sweet sweet pad Thai carts in Bangkok...sigh), finding myself short on cash (Tokyo = Bring someone elses credit card), and near starving, I practically dove through the front door of a donut shop (cleverly titled "Mr. Donut"...aparently the Japanese are also fans of the Simpsons) as soon as we stepped off of the train. I quickly scarfed several donuts, then, noticing that there was a garbage can behind the counter, I quickly leaned over the clerks counter and tossed the garbage into the can. It was at that point that Rich grabbed me by the shoulders and practically hauled me out of the store.

Why you ask?

Because the look on the clerks face was roughly what you would get if you crossed the look of being confronted with an 18 foot venomous snake, and a rampaging elephant with a shark on its back. That is, this poor girl was quite scared. Rich slowly explained outside:

Rich: You are dumb. You are 2 feet taller than everyone here, you haven't shaved in a month, you smell like the underside of a particularly dirty mattress and on top of all of that, people here just don't step around/over/through counters.

What can I say...he was 3 for 3, right on all counts. I gently reminded him that I may not have been quite such a horrifying sight if I had been allowed the opportunity to...oh I don't know...SHOWER or SHAVE or SLEEP at some point in the preceding 3 days. Rich dismissed this notion with a rather limp hand wave and a "Bah" which seemed to settle the issue.

Sufficiently rebuked, we rode to Richs house where I slept on a futon for roughly eleventy-billion hours.

(Disclaimer: due to my near-catatonic state, I did not have the wherewithal to take lots of pictures from this first night. Thus, many of the pictures here were not taken by me. I have taken PAINSTAKING measures however (i.e. sort of glanced at them) to ensure that everything you see represented above were sights that I actually was a witness to. Now quit yer griping).

Next: The cool north of Japan, a new teacher, and NINJAS!

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Beng Melea: The Lost Temple (sort of)

The approach is overgrown and thick, spotlights of sunshine creeping through narrow cracks and crevices of foliage so dense that ambient light is only a wish and a whisper. There is no sound save the crunching of dry, brittle leaves, the "road" has been left a long time ago. As we progress deeper into a jungle that seems untouched for centuries by any people, the power and grandeur of a once powerful empire rises up before you like a great dark wave, one which vanishes moments before it can come crashing down upon you.

The broken and flagged stones are toppled in every direction and the architecture is a figment to be guessed and imagined at, as opposed to some form that can be readily appreciated. Yet, perhaps more than any other temple that I encountered in Cambodia, this one held the most mystique, the most intrigue and provided the deepest sense of awareness that you were witnessing something greater than yourself.

Backtracking ever so slightly, we find myself, Aidan and Lorraine on day two of our Angkor visit. Though there are nearly 200 temples that could be visited, we chose to spend the entire day at just one. The reason? It takes nearly 3.5 hours, by tuk-tuk, along not-so-great roads, roads that even our driver had to stop and get directions on, to finally arrive at the site. It is then another 20 minutes of walking through the abovementioned hyperdense jungle to arrive at what first blush appears to be a massive heap of stones dropped from some celestial quarry and then allowed to be overrun by vegetation intent on hiding something.

3.5 Hours! Egads!

The ride out was not as bad as it could have been, I mean, we could have been riding on wheels that were square, that might have been slightly less comfortable. Regardless, we arrived, stretched limbs that didn't seem to want to respond to any amount of cajoling, then headed straight past the cobra's head statues that guard the entrance to the path.

"Abandon hope, ye who hisssssss..."

When we finally arrived at the temple proper, we were greeted by what has to be the worlds least busy guide. We never quite caught her name, but she indicated to us that we should follow her around the site. As we progressed, she would point to certain areas of rubble that she thought may not be stable, and would make a "no-no" sign with her hands to indicate that a dark, lonely, and most likely painful fate awaited anyone so foolish as to step there.

A point that I wish to make now, is that due to my somewhat impulsive and reckless nature, I dragged my companions all over this site. As it is one of the most unrestored, unvisited and generally ignored of the Angkor temples, there are no "rules" to follow, you can go anywhere. I exploited this ability to the fullest:

"Sitting in the mornin' sun, I'll be sittin' til the evenin' comes...sittin' on a...pile of rubble...wastin' tiiiiime"

It is believed that Beng Melea was built according to the same plans as Angkor Wat. As such, it is an enormous site to climb around. There were a number of times where I would be working my way up a pile of stones, only to look down and realize that I was nearly 50-70 feet off the stony ground.

I can see my house from heeeeeeeeeeere

We spent a long time simply hopping from ruined stone column to ruined stone column, the whole time feeling like explorers who had been out exploring and had come to the end of an exploration. Really.

Much of the restoration that has occured at the various Angkor temples has involved fighting back the jungle that constantly threatens to overtake the sites. If you've seen the movie "Tomb Raider", then you will be somewhat familiar with the temple in the jungle scene. The temple that they filmed at is called Ta Prohm, and we actually did visit there, however my camera died and so I don't have any pictures of it. This turned out to be a blessing in disguise, as one of the motivating factors to come all the way out to Beng Melea was to get some pictures of a temple that was REALLY being consumed by its surroundings, and at Beng Melea, nothing is being done about it. Ta Prohm is a heavily visited site, and there are a number of projects underway to save the temple before it is completely collapsed by the jungle.

"How could trees collapse a centuries old temple?" you may ask, and how clever of you to do so! Here is how:

The trees actually grow through the stones

Tell me this isn't kind of creepy...creepy-awesome!

Hard to know which one is providing the support here...

The roots of these jungle trees creep inbetween the stones of the building, crumbling the mortar and slowly, inevitably separating support elements. Thus, as time ticks slowly away, each temple is decimated a little bit more, subjected to the whims of an uncaring host. One of the reasons that Angkor Wat is the best preserved of the Angkor temples is because of the huge retaining wall and moat that surround it, and have effectively kept the forest at bay for hundreds of years.

I thought that they looked like blood vessels...crazy, chorophyllic blood vessels. Maybe this is why I can't get into Med school...hmmm

The silence that I had previously thought existed, now turned out to be as illusory as a clear path back to where we started. The overwhelming racket of cicadas, loud calling birds and some unidentified rodentish type things (R.U.S's?...for you Princess Bride fans out there) served as a comforting, if not noisy back drop to our wanderings.

Yes, thats right, in Part 1,342,455 of Norm doing stupid things I got myself up to a point on the ruins from which there did not seem to be a safe way down. I arrived in this predicament by wedging my back against a wall, my feet against a pillar and walking up. Cool as this seemed at the time...There was subsequently no way down...until I realized that I could use...

(And now...if you would be so kind...please start humming the "Indiana Jones" theme song to yourself. Here, I'll help...

"Dum da dum dum....dum da duuuuuum...dum da dum dummmmm...dum da DUM DUM DUM...")

My middle name is ADVENTURE...and also Henry

A conveniently placed vine! Thus did I work my way back down on the other side of the wall, much to the amusement of all...except our guide who gave me a look that indicated I should perhaps not do that again.

As does happen in Cambodia, we were soon presented with a sobering reminder of the dichotomy that these temples represented, that of the beauty that was possible, and the horror. This was highlighted sharply by the passing of this sign:

As it was indecipherable to us, we asked our guide about it. In very plain language, she explained that it announced the recent clearing of landmines from the area. The letter/number combination was for some official purposes. As we digested the fact that we had been traipsing all over ground that had only very recently been cleared of thousands of land mines, we were given our greatest surprise of perhaps my whole trip. Our guide, a very nice young lady of perhaps 28-30, bent down, and pulled up her right pant leg to about mid-thigh. There, instead of the normal tapers of the calf into the knee, there was a series of metal rods, dissapearing down into her shoe, a shoe that we could now see was filled with a hard black material. She explained that she had been part of a team of people who had helped to clear mines in this area after she had lost her leg to one of them.

I was speechless (a true rarity for me) for quite a while after that. Not only had this woman been leading us all over a ruined temple that had involved a great deal of exertion for me, who has both his legs, but she had been having to climb up to some of the more precarious places that I had gone in order to ensure that I didn't fall to my death. In the span of about 2 agonizingly guilty seconds, I distinctly recalled 4 or 5 times that she had hopped from one place to another using only one leg, and using the other for stability. It hadn't really registered at the time, but the behavior, given our recent revelation was so clearly that of someone keeping weight off of one side of their body that I felt as stupid for missing it as I felt awful for forcing her to do it.

After recovering from my grief attack, I began to wonder what kind of a person would first experience something as painful and life-changing as losing a limb to a landmine, only to come back to help get rid of those same mines, and then to stay on as a sort of guide to the place where all of that had happened. I think that most people would want to get as far away from memories of something like that as they possibly could, I know that I certainly would. And perhaps, it is just that she lived in the area and that work is scarce (because it is) in Cambodia. But then again, a person who is affected deeply by something in any way, one who sees something, or experiences something profoundly awesome or terrible can't help but be motivated by it. Be it motivation to start making choices that ultimately hurt you, drinking, drugs etc. as so often happens, or motivation to work to make a change, so that noone has to experience that again, it can be a factor that influences you for the rest of your life.

There is a certain sadness as well, to being the curator of something that is deteriorating, and about which you, nor anyone else, can do anything. Be it the director of the Louvre watching the Mona Lisa slowly crumble, or be it a lonely Cambodian guide, sitting at a table in the middle of a jungle, at a rarely visited temple, hearing the merciless trees taking root among the ancient stones, watching your charge fall cannot be easy.

I like to think of our guide as a person who chose the latter path. Something awful had happened to her, yet now she is able to point to an accomplishment, the clearing of the mines, as something that will make a difference, make a change. As few visitors as there are, people can walk safely through her small section of the world, one that she helped to make safe, and she can watch them enjoy what Cambodia was always meant to be. Beautiful.

A whirlwhind return to Thailand, SCUBA diving, and the worlds biggest rave on a beach

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

...and the word spreads kind of far and sort of wide...

So...the lovely and talented Ms. Julia Dimon, a travel writer of some renown (at least in her native Canada and among gonzo travelers everywhere) recently asked if she could post some of my work (subject to her editing) on her website. After much hemming, hawing, galumphing and flip-flopping, all of which lasted less than a second, I enthusiastically told her "of course!" She promised me a pony and a rainbow and unicorn for my efforts, all of which I have been assured are forthcoming.

Therefore, you may now find one of my articles in a brilliantly edited format at:

Julia is a fantastic writer and I both can and do recommend that you read the rest of her site. She, unlike many of us unfortunates, gets to do this kind of thing for a living, a fact that I am both obscenely jealous of, yet also very excited about as it allows me to continue living through her experiences.

I will soon have postings about the rest of my time in Cambodia, the world-famous Full Moon Party and of course, my zany month in Japan with only the finest of people...

Stay tuned...


Wednesday, July 05, 2006

The Temples of Angkor: Lepers, Giant Stone Faces, and the Largest Religious Building on the Planet

(ed. note: I realize that I've been posting slowly, however I'll be picking up the pace in the next few weeks, watch for more frequent updating!)

As our taxi pulled up to the immense stone causeway that leads into the worlds largest religious structure, the only sounds that we could hear were the yells from children:







If I had to bet on which countries children are the most adept at learning languages, I would have to put all of my money on Cambodia. The children, by virtue of necessity, can speak about a dozen languages with enough proficiency to get people from nearly any country to buy their postcards. Of course, English being the language of bartering the world over, more often than not I could make out what was going on, an unususal state of affairs for me.

Siem Reap, located 5.5 km South of Angkor Wat, is a city rebuilding itself at a lightning pace. Since Angkor was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1992, the main conduit of tourism, which is one of the country's biggest industries, has focused on that narrow path leading between town and temple. You wouldn't expect to find a first rate Mexican restaurant in the middle of Cambodia. Neither would you expect to find a European bakery or an enormous, Guiness-pouring Irish pub in the center of town. Since you wouldn't expect these things, like me, you'd be surprised when they were suggested to you by the swarming multitudes of street children.

This little girl was like a walking Fodor's guide for Siem Reap. She knew where to find the best aioli!

There is a thriving, nearly vibrant night life that goes on from about 7pm until bar close, which appears to be right around dawn, just long enough for people to stumble home and catch enough shut-eye to spend the rest of the day perusing some of the greatest architectural achievements on the planet.

Angkor Wat has been described so many times, by so many people that it is nearly useless to add to the lexicon of praise here. Nonetheless, to arrive on the site, and begin the nearly 1km walk that beings by crossing a moat 190 meters wide, which surrounds the entire site, through a massive archway, and finally into the temple grounds themselves is nothing short of super-awesome (I defy you to find any piece of literature, anywhere that refers to Angkor Wat as such. I'm breaking new ground here people).

The view...about to enter all that is superawesome!

From there, it is a mere jaunt of another half a kilometer until you are within the temple itself. The grounds leading up to the temple are dotted with ancient shrines and two immense libraries, each individually worthy of a day or so of exploration. However the siren song of five soaring, spired and shingled towers looms over you and implores you onward.

Getting closer...

....annnnd very slightly closer

Finally, you are under the main gate...

Nearly there...

...and as you pass through, you are witness to one of the most awesome, powerful, and lasting images that I have ever encountered. A simple camera could never capture the depth of the moment, as you enter a murky hallway, and see the towers rising above you through a narrow door.

Are you getting a sense of how long this took?

okay this is getting absurd...

Careful, you're about to learn something:

The temples of Angkor comprise over a thousand structures, ranging from the nearly perfect Angkor Wat, to barely a pile of stones, hardly identifiable as having once been anything. There are perhaps 20-30 temples that are still easy enough to identify to justify a visit as a tourist. The temples were built by the Khmers between the 9th and 15th centuries, and are considered to be the supreme architectural works of that culture. The big poppa of all the temples, Angkor Wat, was built by and for King Suryavarman II between 1112 and 1150. The layout is unique with respect to Buddhist and Hindu monuments, as it is oriented West, whereas most temples are oriented East. Scholars are still debating this oddity, however one of the theories posits that as this temple was dedicated to Vishnou, as opposed to Shiva, the Westward orientation makes sense as Vishnou's normal association is with the West. This is supported by the art of the bas-relief that scrolls all the way around the inside of the temple. This exquisite work of art (believed to be the longest work of carved art on Earth) is meant to be read while being kept on one's left, the opposite of the tradition at most other Angkorian monuments.

We're there! Here! Whatever!

The temple itself is modeled after Mount Meru, home of the Gods in Hindu mythology. It is a common misconception that Angkor Wat has only three towers, as when viewed head-on, that is all you can see, however, the temple structure is actually called a quincunx, which means an arrangement of five objects with four at the corners and one at the center, and which sounds like a method of leaping backward and forwards through time, or possibly a smelly Anthony Quinn. Either way, entering the grounds brings with it a sense of both timelessness and contrast. As you wander the grounds it is impossible not to hear the voices in the back of your mind, those of the Khmer Rouge, and their victims, trying to tear away all the civilization and beauty that was created by these people. Fortunately, the Khmer Rouge largely left the temples of Angkor alone, and due to the massive walls surrounding Angkor Wat, it has largely been preserved from the ravages of a jungle that has been all to eager to swallow its lesser neighbors.

Inside the walls. If you're wondering, the color of that sky is perfect. It's on the color spectrum between Indigo and Mauve

It took myself, Aidan and Lorraine (my friends of long standing at this point, there through thick and thin and kind of gross since way back in Laos) nearly an hour to simply find each other after splitting up at the site.

Have I mentioned the steps yet?

That boy on the steps is actually 3oo0 feet away. Neat optical illusion huh?

No description of Angkor Wat would be complete without a mention of one of the less illuminating aspects of a visit. In short: There are many, many steps to be climbed. These steps are very, extremely, umm...really steep. Like, scaling a vertical wall steep. After much huffing and puffing, one finds oneself at the uppermost level of the temple, and is greeted with scenes such as these:

"...oh soooola mia....."

"Hi, I'm the Buddha with the head. Aren't I nice?"

"........" (translation: Hi, I'm the Buddha without the head. Sucks huh?)

If you'll note the last two images, you'll see something about the Buddhas represented therein. One has a head, one does not. Three guesses as to which was the more common sight...

There is nothing funny about this picture. Beheaded deities are no laughing matter..which is why I got kicked out...

Well, since you are so clever, oh wise and gentle reader, you of course surmised that there are far more headless Buddhas than those who remain un-discombobulated. The simple reason for this is that every time that any group has ever decided to try and overtake Cambodia, it was decided that the best way to begin would be by beheading their most relevant deities. Makes sense if you think about it. Irony of ironies, the Khmer Rouge largely left the temple sites alone.

The arching, vaulted ceilings, vast sunken rooms, and multitudinous prayer areas and shrines could be explored for days in Angkor Wat, but our 50 dollar passes (and for the record, I cannot as of the time of this writing recall anything else on my entire trip that cost that much. Not even flights that I bought while in South Africa and India. This should actually be an entire other post, but here is unfortunately relegated to a parenthetical. As it turns out, only 28% of the revenue that comes into the Angkor temples goes towards their upkeep and refurbishing. The rest goes to a shady cabal of international companies who turn a massive profit on the whole endeavor. The filmy sheen that I had to scrub off of myself every night after temple-hopping wasn't sweat, it was corporate malevolence...and I can assure you, it clings), were only good for 3 days, and with so much to see, it was time to be on our way.

Temple, from a distance...duh.

Reverse view. The long walk home

The next stop on the normal first day temple tour is the site known as Bayon. Whether or not you are a professor of Khmer Studies at at a leading institution (which, perhaps you are), Bayon is fairly recognizable due to its unique architecture, spiritual importance and oh yeah...

"Arghhh!! I'm a huge stone head!"

(Chorus): Argh!! We're 200 huge stone heads!

...hundreds of enormous stone heads! One of the main reasons for visiting the temple is to see the painstakingly, meticulously rebuilt library that took dozens, perhaps hundreds of graduate students and archaeleogists years and years to finish. I, of course, didn't get a single picture of it. I was too busy with looking at things like:

If you hold the scepter of light at exactly the right time, at just the right get the location of the recipe of the perfect bowl of noodles....mmmm mysteriously delicious

Aidan thought he had discovered a doorway to Nirvana. Turns out it was a doorway to a record store that specialized in used Nirvana tapes. He got In Utero for 2 bucks!

It's a spiderweb, it looked nice in the light. What? Every picture has to be something you've never seen before?

As you peruse the exterior, it has hard not to feel like you are being watched. And this feeling becomes more prevalent, the more you look around. Fortunately, you are in good company with this uneasy feeling, as nearly everyone feels somewhat offput by the nearly 200 enormous carved stone faces that surround you everywhere you go. Bayon is unique for a few reasons in Angkor architecture: It is one of the only temples not surrounded by an outer wall, the prominence of the library indicates that it was significant both as a religious, and as an educational site, and it was constructed roughly 100 years after Angkor Wat, however there is evidence that points to it having been completed over a very long period of time, perhaps even longer than it took to complete Angkor Wat.

Wide angle view...big place

But really, you only want to know about the faces. (Sigh) poor, short attention-spanned readers.

Well, there is some dispute over exactly who or what the faces are depicting, but there is a general scholarly consensus (isn't it nice when nerds get along?) that the faces are either Jayavarman VII or Avalokitesvara. Although neither of those names probably mean much to you, the latter is extremely important in Buddhism. Without getting to in-depth here, the Avalokitesvara is the embodiment of all of the compassion of all of the Buddhas. As such, he is the most highly revered Bodhisattva (and to carry out the explanation one degree further the bodhisattva is the " being who is dedicated to assisting all sentient beings in achieving complete Buddhahood)(for further reading that won't help a whit in understanding what an Avalokitesvara or Bodisattva is, but will give you a look into the mind of a brilliant writer to whom those terms meant a lot, check out "The Dharma Bums" by Jack Kerouac).

Anywho, we spent quite a bit of time wandering around, taking goofy pictures with the heads. That was my trip to Bayon. I am quite the student of culture huh?

"...just the two of us..."

"...just the two of us..."

Joking aside (though never entirely aside) Bayon is a place where you begin to wonder at any ghost story, mystical happening or alien landing that you've ever heard about. At a place like this, anything seems possible. There are some places in the world that seem to hold magic and mystery, beyond rational comprehension, places that leave you with a sense of wonder. Bayon, as fully as anyplace else that I have been, evokes these feelings. There is a hushed, overpowering atmosphere (when not congested with tour groups) that seems to demand silence and obeisance to...something.

It is interesting to note the different characteristics of the many faces at Bayon. Each face is slightly different from its mates, a fact that is pointed out in any number of tour guides and plaques at the site. Some of the faces are clearly happy, some seem angry, others demure or amused and still others paternal and knowing. It would be easy to spend a whole day, just trying to catalogue the look on each face, and interestingly enough, there are as many different interpretations, even for the same face, as there are people to look at it. While standing and staring at a face that to me looked joyful, a young boy passed me and gave a shudder. I asked him what was wrong (helpful scruffy stranger that I am) and he said that it looked like the face was mad at him.

What do you see in the faces?

As we left the temple, walking away down a wide stone path with our backs turned on the faces, I couldn't help but again get the feeling that for good or evil, we were being watched over as we made our way onwards. To me, it was comforting, but it seems to weigh differently on each person who visits.

Casting call picture for the sequel to the Danny Devito/Arnold Schwarzenegger film "Twins" entitled "Unlikely Twins at Buddhist Temples"

After sweating profusely at Bayon, it was a 2km walk to another temple whose name I forget, largely because it was under renovation and I didn't get anywhere near it. Fortuantely, this brought us right to the part of the day that I was looking forward to the most...a visit to the Terrace of the Leper King.

What is the historical significance, factual background and scholarly opinion on the Terrace...well, I'll tell you...


You don't want to hear that. Neither did I. I just wanted to do this:

"Hey...hey look at me...I'm the LEPER KING. I've got LEPROSY...ew...I'm all leprous because I'm the KING OF THE LEPERS...WAHHHHHH"

We finished the day by gazing vacantly at the Terrace of the Elephants, about which I know nothing, but made for a nice picture which you may

Terrace of the Elephants. Neat.

Next: A trip way...way out, and some Indiana Jones style adventure...not to be missed!