Monday, July 23, 2007

Angkor Wat - Cambodia

Angkor is an ancient city in Cambodia. Angkor Wat means "The city that is a Temple" or something like that. The kings of this day had a great deal going. They were gods (of course) and they told their subjects that anyone who helped build the temple, or supplied materials, or supplied food for the people building were assured of going to heaven upon leaving this life. Well, like all pyramid schemes (pun intended) that worked for awhile but eventually everyone who was interested in gaining their spot in heaven had been pretty much worked out. So the free labor scheme turned into true multi-level marketing when the king proclaimed that there are 36 levels to heaven, and only those who gave their all would gain the highest levels. One king used this tactic to build a new temple every 5 years.

These ruins are 800 - 1100 years old. If you do a web search on the 7 wonders of the ancient world, you will see that Angkor Wat usually comes in at number 9 or 10, just out of the money. Not bad though considering that of the original 7 only 1 survives until now and Angkor is still going strong.

Some of these temples took only 5 years or less to build but the grand dame of the region took over 35 years to erect. It is still in the best shape of all the ruins despite being the oldest. Over the years, France, Japan and other countries have undertaken both restoration and humanitarian projects in this war ravaged region. We saw numerous water wells spotting the country-side, each with a sign giving credit to the country or Non-profit agency that drilled it. The ones we saw were heavily utilized too, with activities from simply drawing water to taking a bath from a bucket right at the well. Bullet holes are also evident in the structures as Cambodia has generally been in a civil war for the last 1000 years only emerging from it around 1979 with the demise of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge.

As we drove through the North part of town, our guide told us that the people here in the North end of town are the business people and are generally in much better financial position than the farmers in the South. Hmmmm.... The homes we saw there on the “right side of the tracks” were predominantly grass huts varying in size from 8x10 to around 10x20. I figured that our guide, clearly one of the well off folks in this town has the potential to bring in about $5000 per year if he works 200 days a year.

Speaking of money, you don't need to exchange your money in Cambodia. Everyone eagerly accepts the good old American Greenback and can even make change in US$ as long as it doesn't require coinage. They price things for the American tourist too. Our guide says that the attitude when they see a tourist is "Hey, the Millionaires are here." And yes that is a quote. Most of the stuff you see is not worth half of what they ask, so they have signs everywhere claiming that all the items are made locally by orphans and land mine victims. Never mind the labels on the back that say made in Malaysia.

This was a good trip. It was hot, too hot but it was the slow season (did I mention that it was hot) so it wasn’t too crowded. In the busy season I can imagine not being able to get a picture at all without another tourist in the frame.

Before we left Bankok on this trip, we had asked the Thai people that we know if they had ever been to Cambodia. We were a little surprised when no one had ever been, but once we got there and learned the origin of the town that we stayed in we lost our surprise. Angkor is the ancient town, but Siam Reap is the modern town nearby. Siam means Thailand. Reap means Defeated. So the Cambodians named this little town for the point in time when the Khmer warriors defeated the Thai army and gained their independence from Siam. The Khmer speak glowingly of their fierce army and how they struck fear into the weaker Thai army. The Thais on the other hand giggle at our reports of the dirt roads and primitive living conditions of their neighbors. I’m not sure anyone has won any significant battles in this struggle.


Sunday, July 01, 2007

SCUBA Diving - First Dive Jitters

I took my first "fun dive" yesterday; a dive that involved no certification or mandatory skills to demonstrate. I was surprised when I got to the sea floor on my first dive of the day and became "uneasy." It was a strange feeling, but exactly like the first dive on my certification trip. I just felt the urgent need to "surface, surface, surface." I wasn't afraid, or worried that something bad would happen, just anxious for some reason.

I think I have it figured out now. I think it takes 30 seconds, or maybe a minute or two to descend to ten meters or so. During that time, I am thinking about equalizing my ears and trying to remain or attain some sort of controlled posture while slowly falling to the bottom. Then, as soon as I get down and settled my body starts sending these messages that sort of say "HEY!!! WE CAN'T BREATHE DOWN HERE! LET'S GO!!!" It's a strange feeling since I obviously can breathe down there with the help of a little equipment. But my body thinks it knows better than I do and it just almost insists that we surface, and do so as fast as possible. Very strange.

I have to take a few deep breaths which is exactly what you want to avoid in order to conserve air, and after a few minutes I calm down a bit. Within 15 minutes or so, my body has given up talking to me and we swim happily around the sea without a care in the world. Then on the subsequent dives of the day my primal instincts are apparently suppressed. I consider this phase sort of like my body giving me the silent treatment. You know, "Since I am not going to listen anyway." Can't you just hear it pitching a little hissy fit inside? But the result is that my second dive is nice and relaxed. Not a worry in the world. It is a strange sensation, those "first dive jitters." But at least I have a working theory about what is going on down there.

Got another dive planned for July 14 and then a big 2 day/2 night "live aboard" trip to Koh Tao (Turtle Island) on August 3 - 5. Stay tuned.