Monday, November 01, 2004

Cambodia - November 2004

hello all,

many of you have been emailing wondering where i am. i was supposed to be job searching after the election, but i met someone who wanted to travel to laos while i was in africa and thought if not now, when? so here i am in southeast asia. i have been traveling for two weeks to hong kong, bangkok, thailand and now to see angkor wat in cambodia. i meet my friend tomorrow.

yes, i am on a tour of continents and savoring every moment. it is so satisfying to read travel magazines and know i have been to so many places they have written about all in one year!
i have become an adventurous traveler with very few fears. i wander the streets,look at the people and revel in the experience of seeing a world so very different from my own.

my first stop was hong kong. i visited friends there and got to see a REALLY big city. i thought i was prepared for high rises after living in new york. but we live in a little city in comparison. there are many many 50 story residential and commercial high rises jumping out of every free flat space.

in reality hong kong is a mountainous area that has preserved 48% of its land as parkland, so while there are many tall buildings there are also rolling mountain sides covered with forest. hiking is one of the "things" to do there, which seemed out of place for the commercial center of the world.

don't be fooled though. there is lots of commerce going on there. i saw some of the nicest malls i have ever seen, since they are the open the public spaces where people congregate in the scorching heat. there are also incredible markets. its china town in new york x 100. they have many special shopping markets.

my favorite was the bird market where every imaginable type of bird is available for sale and sitting in small cages that line the streets. i think if i lived there i would have many many little birds since they had a magical quality about them.

i also liked the goldfish market, where store after store was filled with fish of all types and colors.
there also is: a huge jade market, a big women's clothing market, an electronic market, a flower market and a computer center... that are all beside each other in the streets on one neighborhood.

from hong kong's mountains to the flat land of sprawling bangkok, thailand...

bangkok is another huge city. so huge that i only saw two small parts of it so far and don't even really know where the tall buildings are.

i did the tourist sites. in this area of the world that means buddhist temple after buddhist temple. there are temples in every nook at cranny of the city and small shrines set up outside shops and on sidewalks.

the temples i visited were absolutely stunning. they are very ornate with beautiful tiled patterns on the roofs and walls. inside the buildings there are buddhas of all shapes and sizes. there is a 120 ft reclining buddha, a 3 ft jade buddha, who may be the most famous of them all, and a 12 foot tall sold gold buddha.

i stayed in in the tourist ghetto of bangkok. its mostly one street called khao san road where all the guest houses are located and many of the backpackers stay.

its hard to explain what this place looked like. there are shops and stalls lining the street selling clothes and thai souvenirs. there are many carts that sell freshly made thai food. there are people braiding peoples hair in the middle of the street. there are places to email and places to set up your next trip. but best of all, there are bars with outdoor terraces so you can have a beer and watch the scene while listening to blasting american music.

although the street is not officially closed, the pedestrians make it almost impossible for cars to get by, so mostly the cars don't even try.

sitting and watching the people was fabulous. i'm not exactly the bohemian backpacker type, but i could definitely see that this is the kind of place that many people would like to drop out in and from the looks of it many of them do.

now it was time to leave the city and travel a bit more off the beaten path to siem reap, cambodia.

this is the home of angkor wat, one of the seven wonders of the world and i can tell you it is wonderful! surrounding this town are 16 km of khmer temples from the 9-12th centuries. the khmer empire ruled much of south east asia during that time.

words can't really describe these temples but once again i will try. the are big and bigger and sit right next to each other. different kings built them to reverve both the buddhist and hindu faiths depending on the years of the empire. in fact an interesting sight is where they changed the carvings of the god's to match the faith of the time.

after 1000 years of living in a lush jungle all of the temples were covered in trees and vines when the french discovered then in the 20's. since then there has been a major effort to reconstruct them. although some have been mostly put back up, i really liked the ones with the trees growing right through them. the trees, which started as little seedlings, have spent over 200 years growing into towering beings with root bases just as big. the roots have literally picked up big stones and tossed them to the side or just wrapped themselves around them.

i went to over 20 temples so i can't describe any one in particular but this is definitely something to see. its sheer size shows both the extreme power and wealth of an empire and how deeply rooted buddhism is in this region. one thing i did notice is that the biggest temples were built in the last years of the empire. once again an empire's head got bigger than its real strength.
since cambodia until recently was ruled by a very evil dictatorship, these temples have been closed to the west and tourism for 30 years. that means the tourist industry is just developing here.

the great adventure is that you can walk everywhere and see everything at these temples unlike many other places that i have been in the world. although i know that i shouldn't walk on them it is a great privilege to climb to the top of these stone mountains and experience them fully.

siem reap, which was a small town ten years ago is growing by leaps and bounds. huge hotels are being built all over the place. western restaurants are being opened, but still the tourists here in old town where i am staying have a distinctive end of the world feel. these are the people who like to be places first. we stay in hotels with few amenities and eat street food. (i say we, but i am still not feeling like one of them. they seem hipper than me.) this town is in a major state of change and its very exciting to be here in the beginning and see it first.

the streets here are full with motorcycles and bikes, everyone going in every which way. cars are beginning to arrive here but even with them the pace is slow and the driving rules are easy. most mopeds have a least two people on them and often three or four. they carry everything imaginable, firewood, jugs of water, vegetables for the market, full branches of coconuts...

my favorite place to sit was at an open restaurant across the street from the old market. all combined i spent hours there eating, drinking but mostly watching all the people go by. it was a perfect place to sit to try to observe the daily life there.

now i am off to northern thailand and then to laos, an even more untouched and untouristed world. i am really enjoying my adventure.


will write again soon!



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