Eating lotus

It must have been lotus season in Cambodia because people were selling them everywhere as snacks. These women were hawking them outside our bus at the Cambodia-Vietnam border.

To eat them, you have to rip open the fibrous flower head.

Then you peel off the seed’s little green jacket. You’re left with a pure-white rounded cylinder that looks like a little pill or maybe an earplug. They have a slightly foam-like texture, like a mushroom but crunchier, and a mild planty taste like cucumber.

It wasn’t my favorite snack ever (I think that would still be the glorious curry puff), but it was fun to try, given the importance of the lotus to Asian culture and religion — and the number of lotus statues, bas-reliefs and paintings we’ve seen over the last few weeks.

The Killing Fields

Warning: disturbing images!

Going to from the ancient splendor of Angkor Wat to the modern horrors of the Khmer Rouge in two days is a dizzying experience. I’m not sure I’d recommend doing it that fast. But I definitely recommend the Killing Fields memorial site, which does an admirably unflinching job of telling a terrible story.

The trail points out the areas where trucks stopped to unload frightened, blindfolded prisoners. It takes you to the mass graves where their bodies lie. It describes the awful ways in which people died.

The matter-of-fact tone encourages you to put yourself in the place of those terrified prisoners … and also in the place of the murderous guards, who after all were human too. Some probably needed only the slightest encouragement to become executioners, while others were persuaded to kill after being threatened with death themselves. What would I do in their shoes?

The image you may already know from the Killing Fields is the skulls. They’re housed in a clear-sided memorial stupa where visitors can see them up close. They’re alike, of course, but each a little different, and they say more than a thousand pages in a thousand books.

From the Killing Fields we went to S21, the prison where people were held and tortured before being transferred for execution. Here it was the photographs of the victims that spoke loudest.

 Who were these people? Who would they have become?

Less is more: The Siem Reap-Phnom Penh bus

The ticket from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh was a great deal even by Southeast Asian bus standards: $4.50 for a 6-hour ride. But it followed that unwritten bus rule of less-is-more: pay less money, get more noise.

First were the music videos, which were pretty fun. Some guys in the back started playing their radio at the same time, but our hero, the bus captain, strode down the aisle and told them to knock it off. After that came a Jet Li action movie, overdubbed into Khmer by two men with husky voices. About an hour into the show, the picture froze. Then the movie commenced again from the beginning, but with the soundtrack turned off and pop music blaring instead. After a few minutes, all attempts at movie-watching were abandoned and there was a period of blessed silence.

We stopped at a roadside stand and had some delicious anise-dominated beef curry with noodles. (I think of anise as Chinese-y, but I’ve been surprised to find it in force in Northern Thai and Cambodian food too.)

After dinner we were treated to a stunning sunset.

We optimistically put our headphones on and started listening to a podcast. But it was not to be. As darkness gathered, 90 minutes away from Phnom Penh, the bus driver put the radio on over the loudspeakers. I got all caught up on my Cambodian news, but I’m sad to say I didn’t understand a word of it.

Bayon: Tower of faces

One thing I didn’t know before I went there: Angkor Wat refers only to the central temple of the whole temple complex. As far as anyone knows, Angkor Wat itself has been in continuous use since it was built in the 12th century. Surrounding it are numerous other temples which were abandoned and later restored.

While Angkor Wat was built as a Hindu temple, Bayon temple has Buddhist origins. It rises up as a wall of 216 eerily serene faces. On every tower, a face looks out in each of the four directions.

Peek around any corner and you’ll be confronted by that wispy all-knowing smile. Some say the face is modeled after the bodhisattva Lokesvara; some say it is the face of the king who built the temple, Jayavarman VII. Others say it’s both.

The inner chambers are like a maze, having been built and rebuilt over the centuries to suit different kings. Little altars are scattered inside and out, where you can light a joss stick and make a small donation.

All around the outskirts of the building are little extra bits of temple, some of which make a nice dog-sized shelter on a blazing hot day.

Angkor Wat!

Angkor Wat presents a challenge to the blogger: How to describe the indescribable?

How to even begin? There are the soaring towers, of course.

I also loved the long, graceful terraces flanked with columns.

A series of bas reliefs stretches the whole length of the terraces, bringing to life, among other tales, the battle between Hanuman’s monkey army and that of the demon king Ravana.

When monkeys attack – with long knives!

On a more spiritual plane are the apsaras, celestial nymphs who smile from corners and columns in nearly every chamber.

My favorite, though – and I guess it’s no big surprise, cat lover that I am – was the lions. They may be corroded, with crumbling faces, but they still have powerful haunches that look coiled and ready to spring.

Next I’ll blog about some of the other temples in the complex. But I repeat, you just can’t capture Angkor Wat in a few words or photos. It is steeped in history and radiant with a dozen different kinds of magic. If you can find a way to get there, go. I don’t see how you could regret it.