Archive for November 2006
Sadly my trip is winding down, but it will be nice to get home again despite the ridiculous weather in Vancouver. I’ve got one more night in Siem Reap, then tomorrow evening I fly to Bangkok. My flight to Vancouver leaves early the next morning, so I have to decide whether to just doze in the airport or head into Bangkok for a look around. It will be Friday night, after all, so things will be lively.
Cambodia continues to be interesting. Yesterday we made a trip to Tonle Sap, an enormous lake south of Siem Reap. We visited a pair of villages which are based on the seasonal growth and retreat of the lake. Some villages are floating and move around; others are built on stilts over the water. We strolled through one of the stilt houses. It was as poor as anything I’ve seen in India. The houses are small wood and thatch shacks, and people seem to eek out a pretty marginal existence, based largely on fishing. Many are Vietnamese who come up the Mekong to Tonle Sap, recognizable by their conical hats and different boats.
We’ve been back to Angkor several times as well. We’ve managed to visit several temples in quieter times, like the Bayon last night at sunset. This is the temple with the placid Buddha faces carved on the cardinal faces of the many towers. Angkor Wat itself never seems to be quiet.
The Photo Festival has been inspirational each night. Last night, the focus was on South Asia, with a series of slide shows by particular photographers or agencies. The previous night was Korea, and the highlight was a brilliant documentary called “The Game of Their Lives” about two North Korean girls participating in the mass games: thousands of gymnasts and dancers performing revolutionary spectaculars for the Generalissimo and the people. I’m going to try and get a copy when I get back to town.
Last night we saw an apsara dance performance. It was a touristy event – a buffet crammed full of Korean and European tourists, but the dancing itself was lovely. It’s derived from Indian classical dance and features slow, graceful movements and elegant symbolic hand gestures. The costumes are very beautiful too.
Today was a bit of slower day. We just did some shopping, ate, napped and emailed. Tonight’s festival program is very full – probably about 20 or more short slide presentations. There is also the final awards for a photo contest for an Angkor Photography Festival photo contest that was run over the last couple of months. Jeremy is actually one of the finalists, with an image in the top 100. His is a great image from Xian of a guard at the terracotta warriors site:
So, tonight in Siem Reap, tomorrow in Bangkok, and Saturday in Vancouver in the snow. The mind boggles.
Every day so far we’ve visited the temples of Angkor in the morning and attended presentations at the Angkor Photography Festival in the afternoon. We’ve hired a pair of moto drivers for $8 a day, and they taken us to stuff on and off the beaten track.
This part of Cambodia is definitely touristy – Angkor draws a phenomenal number of tourists from all over the world. The scale is overwhelming, and it’s hard to find a lot of peace in the monuments, but nonetheless, they are phenomenal. The entire Angkor complex covers around 2000 square kilometres, and there is temple after temple after palace, all built between the 9th and 13th century. Interestingly, there is not much else – anything organic is long gone, and in fact, no written records, other than inscriptions on rock, have survived.
The ruins are stunning. Angkor Wat itself is the crown jewel. It is absolutely vast, I think around 2kms on each side, and the central temple towers high above the plain. It is covered in reliefs of stories from the Indian epics, with massive armies fighting, monkeys, elephants, demons, and so on. Saffron-robed monks wandering the wat add splashes of colour.
The other temples, even the more minor ones, would be renowned even on their own terms. We’ve seen ones with massive trees growing through the rocks, ones covered with faces of the Buddha (the Bayon), one with the most ornate and elegant carvings, and ones that are islands floating in the water. Some are absolutely mobbed (Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom), and some are much more peaceful. The morning scenes of tour buses, tuk tuks, motos and bikes all streaming toward the ruins is something to behold. Army manoeuvres would pale in comparison.
I’m shooting an astounding amount of film. Jeremy’s already running low and I may adopt him as a charity case if I can spare some film.
The photography festival has been very inspiring too. Every night, we convene in an elegant hotel to view exhibitions, hear talks, and watch slideshows from the best photographers working in Asia. On the first night, Phillip Jones Griffiths of Magnum presented his brilliant work on the Vietnam War (Vietnam Inc.), post-war Vietnam, and the impacts of Agent Orange. On sunday, there was an exhibition of photographs of Khmer boxing and a presentation by Gary Knight of a retrospective of the work of his agency, VII: stunning images of 9/11, Afghanistan, Iraq and the US. Yesterday’s emphasis was on Japan, with presentations by contemporary and famous Japanese photographers, plus a very moving documentary about a young Japanese photographer – Taizo Ichinose – who spent a lot of time in Siem Reap during the war, and who disappeared – killed by the Khmer Rouge – when he tried to make it to Angkor Wat to be the first photographer to reach there during the war. There were also presentations by a dozen young Asian photographers of their work in Siem Reap as part of a workshop prior to the festival. We’ve been able to meet some very interesting folks and to brush shoulders with fame. Two nights ago, we sat at a table and chatted with Ian Berry, a famous photographer from Magnum who shot the Vietnam War as well as apartheid in South Africa. Now he’s working on a book about some of the major rivers of the world. He’s off to the Mekong Delta today.
Food here is good. Not quite as tasty as the stuff in Malaysia, but lots of basil, peanuts and crunchy things, kind of like Vietnamese food. Jeremy ate a cricket on a skewer. He said it tasted like sewer, which did not sound like a strong endorsement. Our moto drivers like them, but say they have to be had with beer.
Khmer massage is very good. We went for one yesterday and were subject to two hours of vigorous kneading by women who could crush bricks with their bare hands. We were squeezed, bent, stretched and walked on, all for $10 for two hours. We were slightly jelly-like afterwards.
Today is a rest day. I’ll stroll around the town, probably head to a market this morning, then I’m not sure what I’ll do this afternoon. This evening’s theme at the festival is Korea.
Me and my sweaty back can’t believe that I’ll soon be heading to snowy Vancouver soon!
We’ve arrived in Siem Reap, Cambodia. I had a pretty uneventful journey across Sabah and Sarawak to Kuala Lumpur, where I spent the night in a basic hotel by the airport. Jeremy and I met up in the airport this morning and flew to Siem Reap in 2 hours. Since arriving, we’ve strolled the town. It’s interesting to be in a place where we’re flat out ignored. Well, not completely – we’re offered tuk-tuk rides constantly and seen as possible sources of revenue, but we’re not novelty items (well, Jeremy wasn’t in Malaysia either). No more kids running after me to have their picture taken, or shouting “hello!”. They would quickly succumb to exhaustion if they did given the number of tourists here. The construction of new hotels is crazy, targeting tourist from all over the world. There seems to be a large Korean interest in the place as suggested by the number of Korean restaurants, signs and tour buses.
Early tomorrow morning we’ll head to Angkor, probably hiring a couple of motos and drivers to take us there. At $5 a day, it’s a reasonable investment. We’ll try to get a very early start to catch the sunrise, come back in the heat of the day, and maybe head out again for the sunset. The first event for the Angkor Photography Festival is tomorrow night, and we have our passes and are excited to go and see the presentations by world-class photographers.
I just finished a one hour journey from the island of Mabul to the mainland in a bathtub. Well, it might not have actually been a bathtub, but it really wasn’t much bigger. The engine was big (for the boat) and we went like a rocket. The sky was unbelievably vast and layered and colourful as the sun went down to our left.
So why was I in a bathtub? Well, I’ve spent the last two nights on the wonderful island of Mabul, and hour from Semporna by boat or bathtub. The island is small – maybe a kilometre across, but it does have a population of locals. It turns out they’re ethnically Filipino and speak Sulok or Suluk, and are almost all Muslim, at least in principle. They live in elevated wooden houses – some out over the water, and some elevated on land. They are very fruitful, like the Malays in their kampungs; there are kids everywhere! Lovely little black-haired and chocolate-skinned little tykes. They pass their days playing games like hide n’ seek or tossing coins, or swimming (who could resist jumping off one’s front porch?), or sometimes running errands or taking care of younger ones. They LOVE having their pictures taken and yell “looks! looks!” afterwards, but I have to disappoint them since I’m shooting film, not digital. They likely consider me a Luddite.
I stayed in great, simple guest house over the water. For Rm50 a day ($17), I got lodgings and three squares, which were quite tasty: rice and chicken or fish. Dinner usually had a veg, too – eggplant and green beans last night. I spent a lot of time just relaxing, watching life go by on the water, and reading, or grabbing my cameras for a stroll around the village. “Hello!” “Looks! Looks!”
Oh yes, back to the bathtub. So, I had made arrangements yesterday to be picked up at 9am on the dock for a day of snorkeling, but the boat never showed up. I like the island, though, so I didn’t cringe at the idea of spending another day there. Plus there was great snorkeling off the dock and I had all the gear with me. At the end of the day, I waited for the boat to swing by and pick me up, but it never came. I could see the island where it would sail from on my left, and Samporna was off to my right. But no boat came to the guest house to get me. Apparently this isn’t the first time it has happened. So the co-owner of the place went and got a motor and put it on his bathtub-sized boat. The other owner assured me that it was quite new and not to worry. The motor seemed to be missing its propeller, so that was located and off we went. The trip, as mentioned, was gorgeous. Flying fish leaped out of the water, birds dove to the water, giant frigate birds flew overhead, and the sky itself was wonderful to look at.
I’m here in Semporna for another day, then I head to Kuala Lumpur tomorrow evening. On friday morning I’ll meet Jeremy in the airport (he’s flying out from Kuching), and we’ll head to Siem Reap in Cambodia. I’ll be there for the next week for the Angkor Photography Festival, then I’ll fly back to Vancouver to impress everyone with my tan.
I just got in from three dives out on Palau Sipadan, a stunning little nub that sticks straight up form the deep, deep ocean. There are coral and sand plateaus, then walls full of the most amazing sea life. We saw many turtles, white-tipped sharks, nemos, a lion fish, a morey eel, a trigger fish that bit my fin, and many others. There were times that you’d look around and there would be literally thousands of gorgeous fish swimming in all directions around you. It seemed that there were more fish than water! And the coral is gorgeous – wonderful multi-coloured fans and mushrooms, hard and soft stuff. We also watched the turtles parked in cleaning stations, getting a good going-over by fish.
I got a bit panicked during my first dive – not used to the regulator, mask fogging up, etc. By the second and certainly by the third things were well in hand. I felt much more relaxed and just drifted along the wall, stopping to look when things got interesting. My last dive was 46 minutes, and I still had a lot of air in my tank.
Tomorrow we head out to Sipadan again, and I’ve decided to spend the next two nights on a tiny island called Mabul, not far from Sipadan. There is a local population there and two resorts, but not much to do, which is fine with me! I’ve got some good books. The place I’ll be staying, described as fine but basic, costs RM50 a day, or about $17, and that includes meals! The dive boat will swing by and pick me up in the morning.
Many folks here live in stilt houses over the water, some really far from land (shallow spots?). Kids love to swim here, so every evening the waterfront is full of young ‘uns leaping into the water. Great fish market here in Semporna, too. Lots to photograph!
After our morning with Ritchie the orangutan, we wandered around the centre of Kuching a bit, waiting for some very heavy rain to stop (it is the monsoon, after all), and then heading to the coast to visit a couple of kampungs (villages). The first (Santubong) was chock-a-block with kids – wonderful little Malay boys and girls who were playing baseball/cricket like games with sticks, balls, and running around. Several young girls followed me around, no doubt tickled by my proboscis-monkey like appearance. “Hello!” “Take my peektcha!” Jeremy says that the Some boys showed us their weelie skills riding up and down the street. Malays tend to be rather fruitful when it comes to having children, hence their substantial numbers.
We also stopped for coffee in a chinese coffee shop/dry goods store in the kampung. The clientele could best be describe as indolent, or simply asleep. Even a cat on a chair was fast asleep, upside down. Of course, I photographed the occasion. The store was a wonderful collection of many dusty objects and food items. There was a poster on the wall of a bed broken in half. According for Jeremy, it was for aphrodisiacs.
Down the road is kampung Buntal, which again has many young sprouts. Three boys followed us on a walk along the beach: “Hello!” “Today is Monday Tuesday Friday!” The kampung is known for its seafood restaurants and of course we had to partake. We sat on a large outdoor patio overlooking the water and watching white storks fly overhead in the dusk and assemble on some fishing weirs offshore. For dinner we ate young ferns cooked in wine sauce and ginger, steamed pomfret and curried razorback clams. Yum!
On the way home, we stopped for four durians which are now in the back of the car. Shortly we will drive to Jeremy’s aunt and uncle’s place to partake. Still not sure if I like durian. I guess I’ll find out.
Jeremy and I just got back from the Semenggoh Orangutan Rehabilitation centre, about 10kms outside of Kuching. It’s a place where they help rescued orangutans reintegrated into the wild. It’s a very large forest preserve with 22 orangutans living wild, 10 of whom have been born in the centre. We arrived before 9 and with a gaggle of other folks stood in a viewing area in the forest overlooking a feeding platform about 100m away where a warden was calling the orangutans by name to come and eat a bucket of fruit. We stood for 1/2 hour enjoying the beautiful empty forest before we heard that there was an orangutan out near the car park, so we all trooped out and watched this stunning fellow emerge from the trees. He was a male named Ritchie with huge cheeks (dominant males get them), long reddish orange hair, enormous hands, and feet like hands, with opposable toes. He was about 100kgs and lovely. He ambled across a small river and up onto a feeding platform where he devoured a pile of papayas and bananas, then climbed up a tree holding a coconut with his foot (!), which he crunched into and enjoyed.
His name is Ritchie.