Monday, January 16, 2012

Into Siem Reap

The morning of the 29th, we packed up, patted Tupaco (the half-tailed cat at homestay) farewell, thanked our homestay families, and departed after a breakfast involving another round of the strong, thick coffee and condensed milk (I got the bottom of the pitcher one day, and may have asked they group if anyone wanted my "coffee paste"). The drive back to town was pretty long, more window-staring, some soul-searching maybe, or just observation.

We arrived at the Mandalay Inn and dropped off our things, then got some lunch in town. Someone prophetically dubbed our lunch spot "clubhouse II," and we would return there more than once during the course of our Siem Reap stay.

On the roof of Mandalay
Since we'd been in the village the night before, and a wedding was in process that week, we'd again been woken very early by the loudspeakers, not to mention the ever-present animals (that goose...), who all seemed to awake simultaneously about 20 minutes before dawn (dawn was 6:30). The hotel was equipped with showers (!) and individual beds, and also a small rooftop gym for Kameron, so we all got a bit of relaxation before our sunset bike ride towards Tonle Sap Lake.

In the late afternoon, we rented mountain bikes and set off south for Phnom Krom, a temple atop a hill overlooking the lake.

As mentioned before, this year saw some intense flooding in Siem Reap, so whatever condition the roads are normally in, they were in worse shape this winter. I was glad to be on a real mountain bike and not China Downtown when negotiating the under-construction road, pitted and also dotted here and there with construction crews, complete with their mud layering and gravel. The tires slid and kicked up Georgia-red-clay-colored mud onto my legs and clothes, but I was happy to be moving, and under my own power too.

The road that leads to Phnom Krom also leads to the floating village; in the lake area, flooding is normal, and everything is either built up high, or else floatable. We didn't see the floating village, but if we'd had another day, it might have been the addition. We rode past rice fields and restaurants, and lots and lots of houses, delighting in the mud and breeze and slanting sun.

From partway up the steps to Phnom Krom
From further up the steps

Amongst the ruins

Our sermon on the mount.

We climbed up the steps to Phnom Krom and walked through the active temple area to the temple ruins. After looking around there a little bit, we took up a spot on the hillside facing the sun. Here we had our second "Way of the Day," wherein Yut explained another of the Eight Ways of Buddhism. I thought of them more as his way of telling us about the 'true meaning of Buddhism,' and this instance in particular as the sermon on the mount. Yut was a monk for ten years, so I consider him pretty well studied.

Sunset over Tonle Sap
We watched the sun on its way down, but we had already been told that we couldn't watch the whole sunset, because then the sun would be down, and we'd be biking home in the dark, and that was not the plan; also we had dinner plans with some people from PEPY. We lingered too long, though, and even though we hurried down the mountain and biked fast through the buggy evening past houses setting out their dinners in the fading light, night fell over us as on the road back. I was in the lead, being a speed demon and having been given the go-ahead, navigating the darkening road (it was a straight shot, so no one was worried).

I was soon using the light of passing cars to see the road and it's changes. I stopped caring whether I went into the roughened patches or stayed on the smooth part of the road. Up ahead I saw where the road changed to a stretch of gravel. I was nearly on top of it when I realized it wasn't a stretch of gravel, it was a my-height pile of gravel, but then it was too late and I rode headfirst into it. I imagine from the side it looked really comical, because from the side it was really obvious that I was biking almost full speed directly into a stationary object, but from my perspective the morph from flat road ahead to vertical pile was instantaneous and shocking. Kameron almost crashed into me. I was fine (it was a little exhilarating), but also willing to take a spot further back in the biking line as several group members passed me trying to extricate my bike from the gravel into which it had softly sunk.

We got back and cleaned up to meet the PEPY folk for dinner and discussions about development and foreign aid. Those after-dinner discussions were like being back in college: read this article, argue on this side of the issue, then switch. It looked to me like they were pleased with our academic exertions, and it reminded me personally of what I miss about being formally in school.

But then again, one need not be formally in school to do things like this, eh? So here's to always being in the process of learning something.

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