30 July 2008

Angkor What??

Hello again folks,
Well I took a little side trip out of Thailand to visit neighboring Cambodia and see a little old temple known as Angkor Wat. Angkor What?? Yeah, it's one of the Seven Wonders of the World and the largest religious structure on the planet... who knew? I didn't know anything about Angkor Wat until I went-- thanks for the suggestion Mom!
Of course, to me a trip into another country should include more than just seeing its number one tourist attraction; I generally want to get involved in the culture somehow. However, with two full days of traveling, one coming and one going, I only had three full days in Cambodia-- barely enough time to explore the Angkor temples. Lucky for me I wouldn't have to go looking for cultural events; it just so happened there was an election on.

This is how I found out about the election. When I crossed over the border one of the first things I saw was a long parade of political supporters driving down the road. And it wasn't just campaining I'd be witnessing, the election was going to happen on my last day! I was happy for the timing, but also a bit nervous. Cambodia has only very recently achieved relative political stability, and past elections have been marred by violence. This time around, the current leader (formerly of the dreaded Khmer Rouge regime) was facing strong support from his opposition. And with a border dispute with Thailand flaming nationalistic furvor, there was a possibility for a bit more excitement than I really wanted to get into. So more about that little election later.

So while we take this tuk tuk ride to the temples, let me give you some quick history of Angkor. While Angkor Wat is the largest temple in the area (and in the world) there are many other very significant temples here, notably Bayon and Banteay Srei. Built by the Khmer civilization between the 9th and 13th centuries and still largely intact due to their stone construction, there are over fifty temples in this relatively small area surrounding the city Siem Reap. Since the Khmer rulers changed from Hindu to Buddhist, Buddhist to Hindu several times, these temples sometimes underwent multiple dedications. While today Cambodia is a Buddhist country, most of the bas relief carvings depict Hindu iconography.

During the Kmer Rouge's Communist "experiment" the temples of Angkor were significantly defaced, hence a lot of scaffolding and restoration work.

The temple of Ta Phrom, on the other hand, is intentionally left in its delapidated state. Huge roots grow out of and around walls and moss encroaches on the carvings as nature slowly reclaims the sandstone.

The temple of Pre Rup is a nice place to watch the sunset. I like to watch people watch the sunset.

Course I take pictures too.

This spider is ready to drop on your head! Trust me he was MASSIVE. I would not tangle with this guy.

Lotus and Dragonfly, in Color.

The temples could be quiet places, unless of course a busload of Japenese or Korean tourists showed up. Nothing against either nation, they're very just gregarious tourists.

This is Bantea Srei, probably the best preserved temple in the area. The bas reliefs here were carved deeper and out of a harder sandstone than others, hence their remarkable condition. Behold Indra riding his three headed elephant Airavata! After seeing hundreds of bas reliefs, these were by far the most detailed I came accross.

Maybe instead of carrying around ten kilos of camera gear I should just use a camera-phone. Hmmm. Maybe not.

OK, let's step out of Temple Land and have another brief history lesson. Cambodia was colonized by the French until the 1950's when, due to WWII, the French pulled out and Prince Sihanouk began ruling. Sihanouk was diposed by a coup the US military supported in order to gain military access to Cambodia. With the new government in place the US then dropped hundreds of thousands of bombs inside the Cambodian border to flush out the Vietnamese who were hiding there and also killed thousands of innocent Cambodians. It was in this period that the Khmer Rouge gathered considerable political support, and in 1975 the marched into the Cambodian capital of Phrom Phen and under the leadership of the despot Pol Pot. Over the next three years over TWO MILLION Cambodians would be either starved or murdered in what is recognized as one of the largest efforts of ethnic cleansing to occur ever. The Khmer Rouge, during their insurrection and subsequent rule, placed thousands of landmines all over Cambodia and made no record of where. Numerous unexploded bombs and rockets litter the war-wracked countryside. Thirty years later people are still killed and maimed from these devices.
Here at the Cambodian Land Mine Museum and Relief Fund, unexploded ordinance is on display with information about where it came from. Intrestingly enough, this little gem is from the USA, and it's manufacturer, surprise surprise, is outsourced. The museum has information on the landmine-banning Ottowa Treaty that has been signed by over 150 countries, but (surprise surprise) NOT the USA (or Russia, China, and India).
Sorry for the downer ya'll, but we can't ignore this stuff.

OK here it is, the Big One, Angkor Wat.

And it's busy busy busy!

Here's the main causeway leading over the moat into the temple complex. Once over the moat you walk through the gate of the first tower into temple grounds. Beyond the outter gate it's still about 200 yards to the central temple. Unlike much famous archetecture, Angkor Wat is bigger than you imagine.

A bas relief on the outter wall, a teaser to the famous "galleries" of the inner temple.

Sunset at Angkor Wat. Unfortunately, me and a handful of other rather serious looking photographers were getting chased out by the staff. The temple was closing and everyone else had left, but it was just as the colors began to get really good in the sky. I tried to bribe them to let me back inside but it didn't work, oh well.

One visit to Angkor Wat is not enough, so I went back the next morning for sunrise. Actually, I was up at 4:30 every day at Angkor to catch the morning light and avoid the heat. Two out of three days the sky was just grey, but this morning I got a little color.

The eight "galleries" of the main temple, each one approximately 100 meters long. When you look at repetitive scenes like this one they appear endless. This relief depicts a battle scene from the Mahabarata, one of the core Hindu texts.

Hi everybody!

This is an illustration of the 32 different sin-specific Hindu Hells. In this case, the emaciated sinners are being devoured by Yama's, or hell-hounds. Above, and not in the picture, are scenes from the 37 different Heavens. These depictions of the Heavens, however, are all sort of boring.

This relief shows the primary Hindu creation myth, The Churning of the Sea of Milk, where Vishnu, standing on Kurma (a giant turtle) pulls the naga (serpent) Vasuki thus turning the cosmic milk.

Steep stairs lead up to the top of the most center temple, but no climbing! Oh well, I can imagine if everyone that visited Angkor Wat could climb those stairs how quickly the sandstone would be worn to nothing. This is really just one little corner of the temple.

An elephant provides scale for the gateway to Angkor Thom, another really fascinating temple complex very close to Angkor Wat. Let's go!

These are the many faces of the Bayon, a very mysterious temple inside Angkor Thom. Scholars are still not sure if these heads are show the face of the Buddha, or of Shiva. The temple itself changed religions many times, but the faces, there throughout, have remained completely astounding. Massive, put together like jigsaw puzzled, and looking completely serene, these faces mesmarize. There are 37 still standing towers, each having one to four faces, that makes... a whole lot of big faces! It's really amazing, trust me. Just check them out:

So which is your favorite??

Oh yeah, and about that election. There was really never much doubt about who would win. The CPP, the party of the current prime minister, controls the media and voter registration process. Read for yourself at http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/asia-pacific/7531184.stm. In spite of this, being in the country for the election was interesting and I talked to many people about it. Although I couldn't photograph the polls or the tallying process (and you wouldn't be able to see anything overtly corrupt happining even if I could have), finding voters to talk to was easy. All you had to do was look at their index finger-- if it was covered with ink then you knew they'd been to the polls. By the end of the day, it was definately a majority of people with inky fingers. There is a lot of national pride in this country, and even though our country has a less than sparkling record here I always introduced myself as American and was recieved with friendliness and smiles.

Well, my month vacation from India is up. I fly into Delhi tomorrow, and head for the hills ASAP. Thailand was really good to me, and some day I would like to come for longer; I left so much unexplored.
Once again a big thanks to everyone reading and for all the supportive comments you give. It means a lot to me. Until next time, much love to all and all the best.

23 July 2008

Diving Down, Climbing Up, and What's In Between

Sawat de krahp everyone!
The last twelve days or so since my last post have been really great, so let me tell you about them.

I caught a bus from Bangkok to Krabi Province, described by Lonely Planet as "Thailand's most beautiful province", with the intention of doing some scuba diving and rock climbing. My first destination in Krabi was Ko Phi Phi Island. I didn't know what sort of scene Phi Phi would be, but the ferry ride out there prepared me: packed with tourists. Also note the looming monsoon clouds gathering strength overhead.

I landed on Ko Phi Phi and headed straight for a quiet end of the island with the cheapest bungalos. I was having mixed feelings about being around so many uniform tourists, but the blue green waters and high limestone cliffs were reassuring of my intentions for being here.

Ko Phi Phi is a beautiful island, and the sun sets right off the west beach leading to post card perfect pictures. It's not surprising this is a popular place.

Silhouettes of carste topography give the area considerable drama... especially if you're a climber.

Not feeling eager to take part in Phi Phi's alcoholic social scene, I signed up for a Master dive course the day I arrived. So, the very next day, I was out in the warm Andaman Sea checking out sharks, sea snakes, eels, and irredescent coral through the crystal clear water.

Already a busy place, it's hard to imagine the marine park just off Phi Phi in high season. But all those long tails sure are photogenic...

Taking a rest for lunch in between dives (and to let the nitrogen out of our systems) we have some fun on the boat. Serial divers are notoriously goofy. Everyone had plenty of time to practice backflipping off the boat's upper deck (that's me), an activity surely more dangerous than diving to 30 meters.

On day two of the course I did my first wreck dive. Diving a wreck is a pretty surreal experience, but similar to how you'd imagine it. Barnacles everywhere, ghostly light, and so many fish. Down here we saw many lion fish and a massive bat fish.

If you haven't done scuba diving, it's hard to describe the feeling you get surfacing after an incredible, mind blowing dive. You've just been underwater for almost an hour, looking at freek-show marine life-- sea cucumbers, anenomes, stone fish, sea horses, eels, a cuttle fish-- and everything has been so quiet. Underwater all you hear is breathing and bubbles with the snap crackle pop of coral munching fish, and you surface to a gentle lap-lapping of waves. The first moment of surfacing then is a moment of clarity when sound and vision return to normal; what everyone says is "Wow."

I'll be glib: there's more than one fish in the sea...

The last time I rented an underwater camera it was a bit of a disappointment, but this time, perhaps due to clearer water or better light, perhaps due to improved technique, I took some good clear shots like this moray eel.

Just hum to yourself Camille Saint Sains' "The Aquarium".

The iconic long tail boats make cliche but beautiful pictures.

I hiked up to the islands main view point (and tsunami evacuation route) to check out another beautiful sunset. I wasn't alone here, but it's a really nice vantage point of the island.

When the sun goes down and its beating heat dissapates into a somewhat cooler but still drenching humidity, a multitude of parties hosted by the numerous bars are fired up. On one night I went to one with a friend to observe the debauchery, and was at first reminded of college frat parties. They put on this drinking contest encouraging young women to drink buckets and shots of hard liquor; it's no surprise that right after finishing her turn in the contest this budding sorority sister ran over and yacked into the ocean. Observing people reveling in gross intoxication I remembered my past but felt only sadness for these people; I cannot celebrate that lifestyle any more.

Next came the fire show with professional fire dancers, and I had so much fun taking pictures. Letting the poi and firestaff be paintbrushes of light, I experimented with exposers and aperatures, panning and pulling the zoom, and really getting milage out of my image stabalized telephoto. Don't mind me while I dork out a bit =)

Going back to my cabana my last bit of Phi Phi night culture was a trio of painters up late creating paintings of pop culture. Scenes from Tarintino movies, portraits of Che Guerva, and other Western iconography hang all over the walls as they silently paint and humor my clicking camera.

After my dives were finished and I'd spent a day climbing Phi Phi's singular "Tonsai Tower", there was no reason for me to hang around the over priced and over run resort island. Since the water is too shallow to land a long tail on the beach, we had to hop out and walk to shore. Easy for me with my backpack, but not so much for prissy tourists with their rolling luggage. In this way the tourists are seperated from the travelers; here, at Railay, the tourists fill up the expensive resorts of Railay West, and the dirtbagging climbers (that's me folks!) hike on over to secluded Tonsai Beach and it's hundreds of bolted sport routes.

Being shown to my bungalow at Tonsai, I found this foot long centipede. It moved like a snake, really quickly. And the local man showing me to my room didn't want me to go anywhere near it or, as I am want to do, to poke it with a stick. While I wasn't about to pick it up, this "ferang" (Thai for "foreigner") has been closer to more dangerous bugs and wanted a good shot!

My first night on Tonsai beach is really beautiful. It's the night before my birthday and the moon is really bright, and it seems I've found my place in a warm community of rock climbers.

I got really excited when I spotlighted this silly frog. He's like a balloon. He fills himself up from the back, then thrusts it all forward into his throat to make his loud bullfrog croak. I was able to set my headlamp down right in front of the bugger, and remembered catching frogs in Michigan as a boy while I took pictures. I've always had a soft spot for amphibians.

The setup on Tonsai is pretty ideal for a relaxed climbing lifestyle. The limestone cliffs come right to the beach here, with unique stalagtite formations, big hand holds and steep overhangs, it makes for some really fun climbing. Not to mention the cave, with its insane ceiling routes, is next door to ever popular Freedom Bar.

Thailand jungle foliage.

See the water spider? After climbing hard for 4 days in a row I took a rest day. The timing was perfect because it rained more this day than any other day I was on Tonsai. I had lots of time for wandering around and seeing little things, like a spider on lilly pads.

And each night you could count on a pretty chill scene at the Casbah Bar, punctuated by a slacklining, fire twirling bartender.

Yes, it's more firedancing pictures. But this time the dancer isn't a profession (though she does harder tricks with better coordination), she's just another traveler who, for the time being, is part of the Tonsai climber community.

That's me stemming my way up a 6b (French for 10.b) climb. This was probably my favorite climb because of all the stalagtites.

And here's a friend of mine doing the same climb. I borrowed a trick lense from a fellow camera dork for this picture, so that's why everything but Chris, the climber, is blurred. This is jungle climbing!

This is my friend Georg (German for George). He and I climbed together at Ko Phi Phi, and met up again on Tonsai. He was my main climbing partner, and we had a lot of fun route after route.

Another friend from Tonsai, Juul from Holland, here takign on the 6c+ "Lion King". You can tell by the exhausted expression on her face that this is a tough climb-- really pumpy.

And here I am on the same climb, Lion King. Earlier in the day I tried to lead it, falling several times at the third bolt, so here I am again going at it on top rope. Even on top rope I couldn't make it farther than I did trying to lead it; I think my earlier attempts had left me too weak. But even though I never made it to the chains I felt great about going for it.

Carlos bouldering on the beach. Since it's monsoon, and most mornings it was raining, the limestone was dripping wet in many places. Even so, most of the best routes were still climbable.

Check out my buddy Borg throwing a strong heal hook on this 7b. He made this climb look easy; the dude's a real bad ass.

Another day in paradise...

I hope you agree that this is a really cool spider. As big as my hand.

After diving, climbing, and all that was in between in Krabi, I took an overnight bus back to Bangkok. Besides sky train, the chanels are my favorite way to get around in Bangkok. Sure, they are extremely polluted and smell awful, but you can ride all the way accross town, with no traffic, for 18 baht.

That was this morning, getting back to Bangkok. Laundry finished, emails sent, and blog updated, I'm heading out again early tomorrow morning for the final installment of my Thailand adventure. In a move reminiscant of my jaunt from Belize to the Mayan temple complex Tikal in Guatamala, I'm jumping accross the Thailand border into Cambodia to visit the ruins of Angkor Wat for a few days. It's a bit of a dangerous journey, what with the tension between Thailand and Cambodia, but I hear it's worth the trip. I actually don't know anything about it at the moment, but I'm about to look it up in Wikipedia.
I really appreciate anyone still reading. These days I'm really enjoying myself and I hope sharing these experiences is giving others some joy too. I'd love to hear your comments; leave them here, send me an email, or find me on FaceBook. Oh and thanks to everyone who wished me a happy birthday-- the wishing must have worked cause I had a great 26th.
Much love to everyone.