We Play a D

“We are now in The Echo Room,” an English tour guide said.  I was in the main temple in Angkor Wat, shamelessly mooching off of someone else’s paid tour by pretending to linger just a little bit longer by a shrine.  The guide was a smiley Cambodian guy leading an English couple.  He smiled at me, as if to acknowledge that, yes, I could learn, too.  In other words, he was onto me.  I prepared to slink away into the temple to find another guide to mooch off of.  

“The Echo Room?” the English couple, well, echoed.

The guide nodded. And then a small Cambodian woman gently pressed them against the wall and instructed them to thump their chests.   They exchanged glances, and so the Cambodian woman thumped her own chest.  The sound, deep and low like a drum resonated in the room, reverberating off of the walls.  

“Wow,” I said, forgetting to pretend that I was being stealthy.  The Cambodian woman encouraged the English couple to do the same, and when they pondered the ensuing echo, I decided to try, too.

There’s no point wondering how you look when you’re thumping your chest, because it just looks like you’re whacking yourself in the chest.  But when I did it, I felt as though I was of a different breed.  An instrument, rather than the player.  A drum equipped with its own mallet.  I thumped again.  

The couple and the guide moved on, and I stayed behind, thumping the right side of my chest and listening to the echo.  And for the rest of the morning, when I found myself alone in a corridor, I thumped again, beating out a rhythm I didn’t fully understand.

Until I did.

“Oh, it’s a “D!”” I said, relieved that my years as a violin player could still provide me with musical notes, pitches, whenever I needed them.  (It’s a fact that any and all string players are eternally equipped with an “A”–regardless of whether convenient or timely)  And then I toured happily, knowing that we humans, are capable of playing a D.

Yes, the key signature of our lives.  D.  

Just don’t tell Pachelbel.  


Jigsaw Tales

I came to Angkor Wat with little-to-no understanding of what was inside or what I was supposed to be paying attention to.  My friend told me that it was a City of the Gods (which led to a fascinating imagination-tangent of what Mt Olympus and Detroit might look like fused together).  She told me that the steps were so tall because of this.  Were they tall so that followers had to mimic the gods in their ascent to worship, or because the gods were expected to pay a visit to their metropolis and had specified in the blueprints that they needed big enough steps to match their strides?  I never found out.  Maybe it’s better that way.

Instead, my eyes were on the hidden faces, the ones that had been planted, transplanted, and moved around like a jigsaw puzzle as time beat down on the temple so old, it forgot to age.  Between all of the crumbling towers, all of the lichen and the cracks, there are stories still being told, still suspended in time.  And there it is.  This City of the Gods has achieved precisely what it meant to: it has become immortal.

Within this immortality, however, are tales being shifted, changed as the foundations shift with time.  I am not referring to the interpretations of symbolism, but instead the faces themselves.

I am talking about the women.

In every temple or structure in Angkor Wat, you’ll find them–the females etched in stone.  Some smiling as if they have a secret, some almost grimacing, some with a glint in their curved lips that suggests victory.  They stand upright, their arms out, sometimes as if dancing, or others linked with other women around them.  They have full curves, though some bend more than others.  What they all have in common is that they are immortal, too.  In the grandiose scope that is Angkor Wat, they, too have a place.  And within this place, they seem to have a voice.  

Angkor Wat has been ransacked, stripped of its jewels and now overrun by tourists like me who dazzle in its wake. The jewels were yanked from the stones because of war, greed, and desperation.  It’s a credit to the landmark that after (and in spite of) everything, it dazzles all the same.  But I am not writing to talk about the entire temple.  What struck me as I processed through Angkor Wat was how all of this history becomes achingly clear when one has eyes to the women.

Those stone women, the ones peppered all throughout Angkor Wat, are products of changing times.  The bodies are segmented by shifting blocks of stone.  Parts of their faces are blackened. Some lack entire limbs, faces, torsos.  I saw women whose arms were no longer there, women who had a pit where a face ought to have been, women who had an “X” scrawled into places where part of them wasn’t.  When the building blocks shifted, some had their entire bodies split in half, some a slice right across the mouth, some a division between head and heart.  In the places where the gems used to be, now are large pits, holes gouged into what was once smooth stone skin. I still cannot decide which is more evocative: the original placement of the gems (for some of the pits were in sensual places) or the mark of when they are no longer there.  

They are all there.  All of the marks and tales of time atop these seemingly silent figures.  But they are not silent, at least I don’t think so. Because within those smiles, within those curvaceous figures, are witnesses to history and to the hands that have wielded it, for better or for worse.  

All eyes are on the women, and for Angkor Wat, it’s just.  Because these Scheherazade’s are telling tales not in the thousands, but in a scale befitting the City of the Gods.

Surviving “Scambodia”

People: My friend and I have entered Cambodia via Poipet and we WERE NOT scammed!

Yes, it’s possible, though Poipet is apparently one of the worst scam centers in the world.  My friend looked it up and it was a glaring red “if you do not need to go there, then don’t” kind of place.  But we were en route to Siem Reap to see Angkor Wat, and well, you do what you have to do.

But you DO NOT need to get scammed!

Basically, we read up on possible scams before hitting the border.  We looked at forums, other blogs, and sure enough, it’s a real thing.  So here is some advice I will give to anyone crossing from Thailand into Cambodia via Poipet.

1) Buddy Up.  If you can insist on the rules in a group, it’s much more effective.  

2) Know the Rules.  For example: YOU CANNOT GET A CAMBODIAN VISA UNTIL YOU ARE STAMPED OUT OF THAILAND.  Your bus will try to take you to a fake border and tell you that they will get the visa for you. They may (and our driver did) try the scare tactic and say that there isn’t enough time for you to get through immigration before the bus leaves and insist that this is the best way.  But here’s the thing: THAT IS NOT A REAL VISA AND YOU WILL HAVE TO GO THROUGH IMMIGRATION ANYWAY!  My friend and I already knew about this one and insisted and insisted until they took us to the border for us to do the official route. Wouldn’t you know it?  We didn’t miss our bus.

3) REALLY Know the Rules. A Cambodian visa costs 20 USD.  NOT 20 USD plus 100 Baht, or plus some other bribe that officials have written on some tiny piece of paper at the desk.  There is a blue sign above the window that clearly says 20 USD, and you can use this to your advantage.  The guards at first tried to fight us (mind, it was a group of us insisting…see number one) and so he shooed us into the corner, then having us pay the real 20 USD while still trying to scam others trying to enter who didn’t know.

4) Stay Calm.  Even though this all sounds intense, it will be okay.  Don’t shout at the officials, don’t rail against the faults of humanity. Just take it in stride and stay focused.

5) Watch your Belongings.  This goes for most of SE Asia, but there are pickpockets aplenty, and if you’re focused on not getting scammed, you might not be thinking about things closer to home, closer to wallet.

6) Beware Tuk Tuks.  You might need to get a tuk tuk driver to take you on a blustery trip into town.  But be sure that you settle the price first.  If you need to get to the bus station from immigration, THERE IS A FREE SHUTTLE RIGHT AT THE EXIT AND IT IS NOT A SCAM!

7) Hum the Indiana Jones theme en route.  Okay, not necessary, but it makes the trip through immigration more exciting.

If we could do it, so can you. Good luck!

Slowly and Smiling…and elephants, too

As I said, our original draw to Sabai Tours was the possibility of riding elephants.  In the bargain, we got an excellent trek, gorgeous scenery, and on our final day the big she-bang: white-water rafting, bamboo rafting, and…


Yes.  The big, elephantine, she-bang.

There was another tour we could have taken that involved bathing, riding, and grooming elephants, but since there wasn’t as much…jungle! in it, we opted for the shorter elephant-jaunt.

They had a small sort of path that the elephants followed–one that took us far enough away from the parking lot, but also not so far as to lead a war rampage.  My friend climbed into the designated seat on the elephant’s back, and I turned to the guide and said “I really want to ride it’s neck!”  And so I slid onto the space behind the elephant’s ears as it chomped on some bamboo.  And its muscles and bones rode up and down with me as it stepped one foot in front of the other.

It was one-part primeval princess, one part Dumbo.  On the one hand, I liked physically touching the elephant (you know me, I like to poke things…) and feeling the very real flex of its muscles as the powerful animal processed.  The skin is dry, bristled with black hair and rough.  But I think I would be lying if I said it was my favorite part, because once the primeval princess wore off, I began to wonder how many circles this animal had to walk every day.  I mean, elephants are a huge draw in Thailand (including, apparently, elephants that can create paintings!) but if all the world’s a stage, I will maintain that it’s not a circus ring.

In the end, I was glad to have chosen the tour with less elephants, more…jungle! because I will then remember Thailand not for its parade of trunks, but for the untamed vines wrapped around tree trunks and the promise that, tours or no, there is a wild world out there.  There are eyes in the shadows, unclassified creatures, and the kind of places that require confident machetes.  They are still out there.  And hopefully, no one will ever see them.

Still Slowly and Smiling

As charmed as I was by the roosters, they were very insistent on the very first rays of sun, whether or not they actually saw them.  Which is to say that at 3 AM they were squawking up the day, and we, the weary travelers, had no choice but to accept.  

Enter day 2 of our jungle trek.  

As per instruction, we were to “take it easy” and accept our day “slowly and smiling.”  So it was that we set out on the trail–to find a waterfall that we were told was not suitable to slide down like the one we had the day before (which I of course did, cheering and splooshing in the water like a toddler) but was good for a swim or shower.

Of course, today was the day we had to go down, down, down.

“You want a walking stick?” our guide asked.  Before any of us had said yes (it was my friend and the Koreans now), he dashed off into a thicket of bamboo with his machete and lopped off some branches.  After a while, he came back brandishing our sticks, which were very sturdy, and as it so happened, very necessary.

We were walking sideways on day two.  Sideways because of steep slicks of dirt, rocks, vines, roots, and the occasional bamboo bridge to cross.  I stabbed my stick into the ground ahead of me to brace whatever steps I had to take next, while a Korean crossed a fallen tree trunk as though a tight-rope walker.  Whatever was in that whiskey, it must have turned them into gods.  

We rested against rocks, more tamarin-earth, and soon made it to a waterfall for lunch.  I thought it was THE waterfall and was wondering how one was supposed to swim in it.  Instead I watched make-shift waterwheels spinning with the waves and tried to see how well bamboo floats.  (Not very well, actually).

Our guide had machete’d us some chopsticks and we ate lunch.  And then, after more trekking, we found THE waterfall.  

We cut to the chase.  Swimsuits on, people in.  The water was bracing, and still I waded in with my friend over to a spout of water where our guide was shampooing.  

“Yahhhh!”  we said when the cold water splashed us.  

He handed us the shampoo and we washed.  And now we have the distinct pride of saying that we showered in a waterfall.

That night, as we settled into our jungle hut, the Koreans begged our guide to buy them some pig.  We thought they were joking, but for 1000 Baht, he went on motorbike to go get some.  And then, as strange as it was, we were having a Korean BBQ with pig in the middle of the jungle.

“Oh my Buddha!” our guide said.  Apparently, this is not the first time this has happened.

More whiskey, more singing, more firelight.

And when we woke the next day, it was time for elephants.

Slowly and Smiling

I wanted to get into the jungle, and I wanted to get far enough in that I wouldn’t be thinking of cars and computers, of metallic hulls bringing me rocketing around u-turns and the neon flash of need.  

But that’s not where it began.  Actually, it began with elephants, in my “let’s try to take every form of transportation as humanly possible” quest.  I’ve taken motorbike, truck, three-wheeled motorbike, train, plane, car, van, ship, slowboat, longtail boat, horse, bike…the list goes on.  So my friend and I looked for elephants, and in the pursuit of them, found a three-day jungle trek through Sabai Tours in Chiang Mai that vaguely included elephants, but mostly involved…the jungle!  

I ended up on an impromptu jungle trek when I went to a national park near Krabi, Thailand.  The sign said “nature walk” but what it failed to say was that it was the kind of walk that would take me up and over a terrifying combination of vines, deep forest, and loud crashing sounds that did nothing to assuage my pounding heart.  I was terrified.  Which, of course, meant that I wanted to go back.

“Today we will be walking, yeah?” said our guide when we met him.  He was a smiley Thai guy with a tiger on his shirt and a machete by his side.  (NOTE: in all the time that we trekked, he used said machete to cut walking sticks, chopsticks, and then a random hair accessory that he promptly chucked into the forest again.  When I asked him “Have you ever had to fend off an animal with that?” he said he’d seen an anaconda on the road once during the rainy season, but didn’t even try filleting it, rather saying “Okay, now we all RUN!”  Good man.)

The weather was fine, blue, and clear.  The walk was up, up, up, first along a dirt road with tamarin-brown earth, and then along some rocks and through tall grasses.  In my company: my friend, a French couple, a couple of mysterious background who sort of kept to themselves, and then 5 Korean guys who produced an endless supply of oranges, snacks, and these bottles of what looked to be milk.  We trooped through the forest, took turns shooting our guide’s slingshot at an empty bottle of water, and then after breaking several times, arrived at where we would be staying the night.  In a village, on the side of the hill overlooking palm trees and grasses, in a bamboo hut.  

I was charmed by all of the roosters (animals that you just don’t hear in urban China) and as the day died down, we all gathered for dinner and then a campfire under the stars. As it turned out, the milk cartons that the Koreans were carrying were all cartons of whiskey.  

“We sing Korean song!” they garbled after we had sung through some random English songs.  And while I was expecting some strange convoluted mess of notes, they all broke out into full-throated song, deep and resonating.  And then they danced around the fire, and I joined them, as though it was a natural thing to do.  Considering the jungle, though, I guess anything goes.

And then I retired for a moment to look up at the stars.

I think a lot of my friends in China agree that stars in the PRC are hard to come by.  I take them as they come, because when people say “there are no stars” I don’t believe them and always look up.  There are usually a handful that I can see between apartment towers, and this handful is something I cling to.  I look every time I’m outside at night, because if I’m lucky, I’ll see them.  My handful.

But imagine–the entire sky.  

The guitar behind me still thrummed and sang but I was enchanted by above and beyond.  And the more I stared, the more it looked like my interpretation of the skies, or of my expectation of it, I’m not sure.  All the same, it took my breath away.  It’s amazing the things you adjust to without realizing it. 

I stayed up late that night until the stars were occluded by the clouds, and then went to bed with the buzzing of wildlife, the distant flutes from the village, and then the growl-like rumbles of motorbikes putting through the village.  

And as our guide had instructed us to do all day, we took it “slowly and smiling.”

To be a monk

According to a Buddhist novice whose English name was “Boy,” the criteria for being a monk is not so bad.

“One: You must be 20 years old,” he said, watching with fascination as I wrote it down in my little notebook.  “Two: Your family will always support you.  Three:  You are a man.”

“Well, you have that one taken care of, I think,” I said.  

“Yes, yes.  Four: You must be human.”


“Yes, you must be a human.  Five…” he looked at his novice friend for translation help.  They muttered some things in Thai.  “You also must not be crazy…you understand?”

“Yes, I understand.”  (And secretly I thought that even if I was a human man, I may not fit the “not crazy” category).  “What else?”

“You must have the orange robes and a bowl.”


And he smiled, telling me more about Buddhism, and how he could choose when he turned 20 whether he would be a monk.  He said he might, or he might open a restaurant instead.  

“What about when you’re a monk?” I asked.  “How do you be a monk?”

And he said something about rules, and when I asked more, he said “As a novice, we have 10 rules to follow.  As a monk, there would be 227 rules.”

Yeah, I might go with the restaurant.