With all that is going on in the world…

My little ramblings seem insignifcant and frivolous, and I’m not sure why I bother sharing them.  Still, I think it is important that ordinary people keep living their lives and not give in to hopelessness, despair, or disgust in the face of the acts of a few extremists who manage to wrest the attention of the world, either by shooting innocents or by shooting off their mouths – yes, I mean you Mr. Trump.

So, in this not very optomistic mood, I thought I would look back at our year in travel and see what good things I could find to focus on.  First, I do want to acknowledge that I do understand that we are deeply privileged to be able to do what we do and live how we live, and there are so many reasons we are grateful for that, no matter what else is going on.

In the spring, we traveled to Southeast Asia, stopping in one of our favorite places in the world – Singapore.  We happened to be there shortly after the death of Mr. Lee Kuan Yew, the founding father of modern Singapore, and in the eulogies and articles and memorials to him, we found many lessons for all the worlds’ government leaders and, indeed, for ordinary citizens, in how to govern well and how to be a good citizen.  Mostly it is about taking responsibility and taking the long view, and putting the good of the many above advantage for the few.

Then we had the opportunity to visit two emerging nations – Myanmar and Cambodia – both nations with troubled recent pasts, but where we saw great optimism and hope for the future.  In Myanmar, hopes were high during our visit for a victory for Aung San Suu Kyi – whom they call “The Lady” -and her NLD party.  In November, the NLD did indeed win a landslide election, and slowly, the leaders of the ruling military junta do seem to be moving towards democratization of the country, with the former ruler Than Shwe, having stated his support the the NLD leadership on Sunday.  Due to a constitutional provision that was intended to keep Ms. Suu Kyi from becoming the official ruler (she has children who have British passports – the constitution forbids anyone with ‘foreign ties’ through family members from becoming president) it is expected that a proxy ruler will fill the position.  Nonetheless, Ms. Suu Kyi clearly intends to wield the power and it would appear that reforms in Myanmar are likely to commence soon.  The people we met there have, in common with the Singaporeans, a long view, and a willingness to sacrifice in the short term in order to achieve a more prosperous and free future for their children and grandchildren.  One can only hope for the best for the citizens of this lovely but troubled land.

Cambodia is a bit further along in terms of integration into the wider world than is Myanmar, but seems to be sliding backward into a more totalitarian and less democratic state than has pertained for the last few years.  Under the same ruler for over 30 years, Cambodia had made some progress since the horror filled days of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge, and, economically, at the least, had become a player in the modern world.  However, recently, opposition leaders have been harassed, threatened with arrest, and gone into exile, and further crackdowns seem likely.  I would not likely have known any of this, though, if we had not visited there.  Now, with knowledge of the country and its history, and with some personal relationships that we developed during our stay, I take a lot more interest in what is going on there, for good or ill.  I fear that the cautious optomism we saw from people will erode with these new sanctions on dissent.

From the emerging world to the Old World, we spent our late summer in Germany and England, topped off with a cruise through the lands of the Vikings.  Where we were in Germany, people are now struggling to accommodate hundreds of thousands of refugees from the war-torn Middle East, and the very towns we were in in the Lake District are now quite literally under water after the worst storms in decades.  Vikings, on the other hand, are a hot commodity  in the popular media – everything from tv series to games feature Vikings.  Having seen their homelands, I can certainly understand why they became traders and travelers – it would have been really tough trying to wrest a subsistence from the arable land in Norway, and their colonized lands in Iceland and Greenland weren’t much better.  Here again, it is travel that has opened our eyes and minds to the concerns (and ways of life) of others.  In the absence of our travels, I would likely be the same as most Americans I know, not venturing beyond the available broadcasts on CNN for my international news.  Instead, now, I keep up with local news from all over the globe on the internet.

All of which is another way of saying that, like Rick Steves, we will ‘Keep on Travelin” for all the benefits and blessings it brings to us, in spite of the fears and difficulties that can crop up, and to assure that those who would have us cowering in our homes, or, worse yet, engaging in some kind of Holy War, do NOT get to win!

 

Reflections

Well, we’re back safe and sound in Singapore waiting for our next set of flights to take us home tomorrow – or- oh, well, I never get the date line stuff right and it makes my brain hurt. We depart on Monday at 6:15 AM and arrive in Honolulu on Monday at 6:55 AM after flying all day and night and having a 4 hour layover in Narita.  And, by the way – the airport in Siem Reap is uncannily similar to the Kona Airport!  Right up to no jetways and stairs at front and rear of the plane, so it was very deja vu all over again flying from there today.

We’ve been talking about the trip and have decided it is certainly up in the top two or three we have ever done, principally because everything was so unfamiliar to us, I think. Myanmar and Cambodia were certainly the highlights and they are similar in many ways, with extremely tragic recent history, deep and profound historical roots and past golden ages, and alike in the focus of the current working generation’s focus on making sure that their children and grandchildren have a better life in a more peaceful and democratic world than they and their parents have had.

Both countries also have something of a ‘missing’ generation – which felt particularly weird to us since it is our generation that is missing. It was less noticeable in Myanmar, but in Cambodia, due to the Pol Pot Khmer Rouge massacres, there are very few people in the 60 plus age group. I could easily count on my fingers the number of people we saw in our several days of touring, which included a couple of long drives through the country side and several passages back and forth across the city of Siem Reap, who had wrinkles or gray hair. It was very easy to note and keep track of the few we did see. Our guide had lost his mother, father, older brothers, grandparents and some aunts and uncles as well as more members of his extended family. Very few people had living grandparents, many also had lost parents, and all we spoke to talked of their hopes for the future, for their children and grandchildren, and about how important it was to them to work hard and assure that the next generations had more opportunities and happier lives.

That said, it isn’t that the people of Myanmar and Cambodia are melancholy – far from it! They are gracious, humorous, good natured, and friendly. In Myanmar, foreigners are such a novelty still that people stop you on the street to take your picture with them on their ubiquitous cell phones – they may not have electricity at home, or indoor plumbing, but everyone has a cell phone! Cambodians are more accustomed to visitors, albeit the bulk of their tourist trade comes from within Asia, with Koreans and Chinese predominating, so there were less requests for pictures.

But still, there is great curiosity about what life is like in the west and a surprising openness in discussing what is still amiss in their own country, as was also the case with the people of Myanmar. They are pinning many of their hopes for the future on the next election and on hopes that Aung San Suu Kyi will finally take her place as the head of government. I was so sad to see on the news yesterday that she is casting doubt on the validity of the upcoming election process and may not be participating, as it is going to be a great disappointment to her many supporters there who see The Lady as they call her, as a savior. Sadly, the political scene in Cambodia is so bleak that there doesn’t even seem to be anyone or any party that holds out hope for change in the near term and there is open discussion both in speech with individuals and in the press of the wide spread corruption in the government.

When I look around at what has been accomplished in the last several decades here in Singapore by, essentially, one man with a vision and a strong grip on the mechanics of governance, I can also be hopeful for my new friends in Myanmar and Cambodia. I certainly will be taking a lot more notice of political and other news from the region after having this amazing opportunity to experience these emerging nations and to meet and get to know, a little bit, some of their people, their history, and their aspirations – which, after all, is what travel is all about.

Cultural Show at Borei Angkor Resort

We decided to spend our last night in Cambodia attending the in-house cultural show, presented in concert with a set menu Khmer dinner. Both were well worth doing. The dances were timed with the courses and provided a nice glimpse into Cambodian music and traditional dance, beginning with a welcome dance, through a harvest dance and concluding with an Aspara dance, demonstrating some of the dance movements shown on the temple walls. The dancers were graceful, costumed beautifully, and the tempo of most of the dances is slow and deliberate, an almost yoga like movement from pose to pose. Sadly, my little camera doesn’t do all that well with low light situations, but the pictures at least give some idea how colorful the presentation was, and how lovely the dancers are.

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Tonle Sap

The Great Lake, or Tonle Sap, is the largest fresh-water lake in Southeast Asia, and a UNESCO designated biosphere, and also home to a collection of stilted and floating homes for Cambodians who could not afford to obtain farms or construct homes elsewhere and who manage to make their living fishing and ferrying the tourists through this unique environment. Flooded for roughly six months of the year, we visited at the dry season, which made for a long, rough, and dusty ride to the canal that remains deep enough for year round navigation. Prices are set by the government and there is a ticket station on the road where the $20 US per person for the boat ride – around an hour – is collected. The fee is split between the government and the boat owner/operators, with the government getting $30 of the $40 we paid.

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Residents of the floating villages essentially live all their lives on the lake, which contains schools, shops, and what appeared to be restaurants and we even saw a couple of guys playing pool – although that establishment was set up on land above the floating settlement.

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Birders will see numerous species of water birds, particularly in the wet season. Others will observe daily life in what is largely a subsistence settlement.  There are many small fish farms, principally raising catfish, and at least one crocodile farm. We passed on visiting this, however. Fish traps were pulled and some were being repaired, as this is the spawning season and fishing was not allowed in the larger lake area, although it was okay in the canals and right around the floating homes.

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Quality of the boats can vary pretty significantly, and our guide was able to get a larger vessel with a canopy and bench seats for the three of us, mostly because we were there quite early – right around 7:00 AM. On our way back, we passed the first large group of the day at around 8:00 and we saw several other buses headed down the one lane dirt road on our way out.

Banteay Srei

 

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The Ladies’ Temple, as it is also known, or the Temple of Beauty, is a small temple completed in 967, built of red and gold sandstone and very elaborately decorated. The temple was dedicated to Shiva, and built by a courtier of Rajendravaraman II named Yajinavaraha. The temple is a good distance from the other major Angkor complex temples, some 37 kilometers from Siem Reap. As with other temples, the best time to arrive is early – at 7:00 AM it was both reasonably cool and almost completely empty – there was one other car in the parking lot and the stalls and vendors were not even open.

The temple was in active use until the 14th century, and was gradually abandoned and lost to the jungle, and rediscovered by the French in 1914, and became a cause celebre due to an art theft in 1923 when one Andre Malraux removed four of the devata carvings. He was quickly apprehended and the statues were returned to the site, but the case stirred interest in the site and a major restoration effort, utilizing, to the maximum extent possible, the original architectural elements, was undertaken starting in 1930. Restoration work continues to the current day.IMG_7811

 

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The lintels and pediments are deeply and intricately carved with scenes from myths involving Shiva and with motifs such as the devatas, and various mythic beasts from the Hindu myths such as the kala, a many toothed monster representing time. Most of the statues within the three concentric enclosures are replicas, with originals having either been looted or removed for preservation to some of the Cambodian museums.

 

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As with some of the other great temples, Banteay Srei also played host to troops, in this case invading Vietnamese, and sustained some damage, particularly to the outer walls, during the various wars of the 20th century. Fortunately, the damage was not severe and this small jewel of a temple remains an outstanding example of temple construction and ornamentation from this period.

 

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