Tuesday, November 25, 2014

I May Be Old ...

On Friday, November 7th, we headed out to Tonle Sap Lake for our homestay portion of our visit to Cambodia.

The first segment out to the lake involved traveling out on Cambodian National Highway No. 6 from Siem Reap out to a section of the lake where we would continue on by boat.  When we travel, we typically have a plan as well as a schedule to guide our travels.  However we do not plan and schedule so tightly that we are forced to become oblivious to all the opportunities for photography and special experiences along the route.  Ironically it takes discipline to "stop and smell the roses" when traveling.  It is often too easy to develop tunnel vision and to become excessively focused on either a timetable or destination.  Often it is those serendipitous encounters along the route that define a vacation and provide the memories for a lifetime.

We passed through many small towns on our way to Southeast Asia's largest freshwater lake.  In one town we stopped at a local morning market that was situated on the side of the highway.  It was a great place to photograph local life and culture.

Since this was the fourth day with our wonderful photography guide, he had a great understanding of the types and subjects of the photographs that I enjoy taking.  He knew that I wanted to take a photograph of an ox cart ... well not really an ox cart but the Cambodian version which is pulled by skinny cattle.

At one point, our guide called out to me that an ox cart was headed up the main highway moving towards us.  I saw the cart about two hundred meters (200 yards) moving towards us.  I crouched down alongside of the road to obtain a better perspective for photography.  As I raised my head after squatting and getting comfortable for the anticipated shots, the cart had disappeared!  Simultaneously I heard my guide calling out that the cart had turned.

After ensuring that I was securely holding on to my camera, I took off in pursuit of the ox cart.  Running past some vegetable vendors along with their customers, past a few food carts with standing customers, past a couple food booths with seated diners, I accelerated along Highway 6 creating looks of confusion, concern and finally amusement as I passed.

I came upon the narrow dirt road where the ox cart laden with straw was lumbering along.  Just like that tiny steam engine in the children's story where he kept repeating "I think I can, I think I can", my mind started racing as I lumbered down the dirt road "I think I can, I think I can, I think I can catch up and pass these cattle to get my shots"

Despite having at least a 200 meter head start on me, I did catch up and pass the ox cart - much to the surprise of the cattle and confusion of the cart's driver.

Ox Cart On Side Road In Cambodia

A little past the cart, I squatted down on the side of the road for the perspective that I wanted.  I snapped a few shots and then a strange event occurred.  Understanding that I wanted to take photographs, the cart driver, completely on his own initiative, stopped the cart!

This was an act of kindness by a complete stranger that makes travelling here in Southeast Asia so interesting, satisfying and memorable.

After a few more shots and thanking him, the driver and I went our separate ways.

I returned to the market much slower and much more composed than when I had left - much to the relief of our guide and my wife along with the amusement of many market goers.  I stopped and showed some of the people the photographs on the camera's LCD that I had gotten.  We all enjoyed a laugh.

I am 65 years old now so ... I may be old.  I am definitely over-weight ... but I still can out run an ox-cart!

Monday, November 24, 2014

Another Harvest Here In Isaan

Isaan Gold, Sticky Rice, Flows Into A Sack

During our recent trip to neighboring Cambodia, we encountered many fields with rice stalks bowing their heads under the bright sun.  The fields were bright green but quickly turning golden as the rice matured and dried out as the time approached for harvesting.

We missed the start of the rice harvest in Cambodia by about one week.  However during our visit from November 3rd to November 9th, we did have the opportunity to witness portions of the soybean harvest.

Upon our return to our home in Udonthani, sometimes also spelled "Udon Thani", we found ourselves in the midst of the rice harvest.  On Wednesday November 12 we drove out to Tahsang Village for family business.  One of Duang's many relatives had died earlier in the morning.  The man played an important roll in the family funeral rituals and in many of the rituals at the local Wat.  He died from the complications of diabetes at the age of 66.  I am surprised at the number of people in Isaan suffering from diabetes.  The people do not eat anywhere near either an American or European diet so the incidence can not be explained by diet unless somehow rice is a factor.  It may be heredity or perhaps some type of bacteria or virus.  It was not until fairly recently that science discovered that stomach ulcers were caused by a bacteria rather spicy food, or a nervous personality.
We sat in the main room of the man's home, the floor covered with woven mats (sahts) with the refrigerated coffin set up against a far wall of the room.  Arrangements were in the process of being made for the following four days of the funeral ritual.  A pavilion had been erected and some plastic chairs along with tables had been delivered to the home.  Members of the family had gone into the local town, Kumphawapi, to arrange for cookware, vegetables, meats, fish, bottled water, soft drinks, beer, whiskey, plates, glasses, etc. to be used over the next few days.
We paid our respects and Duang settled into gambling with her relatives in the room containing the coffin.  Gambling is not allowed in Thailand except for the National Lottery.  In the past, exceptions were made for the three days of a funeral ritual - somehow it is considered good luck to gamble during the funeral ritual.. Typically the gambling was conducted outside of the home.  At other times, "arrangements" could be made regarding gambling.  Since the recent coupe, there has been a crackdown on many vices, including gambling.  However old habits can be hard to break especially involving religion and if they are not openly flaunted.  It seems that small gatherings for games of "High-Low" - a sort of roulette type betting using the outcome of three dice are tolerated if for a funeral and out of sight.
After a while I informed my wife that I was going to take-off with my camera and wander about the countryside in search of rice harvesting activities.
I headed out along narrow country roads, paved as well as unpaved, towards Tambon Nongwa.  As I drove I saw some signs of rice harvesting - blue tarps covered with golden rice kernels laid out in yards, parking lots, Wat grounds and in some places alongside of the road.  The rice is laid on the tarps to dry out prior to being bagged and stored.  The stored grain is either saved for seed for next year's crop to be planted next June, brought to a miller to have the husk removed for feeding the family, or a small amount of the harvest is cooked with husk on make a sort of "pop-rice" used in specialty local dishes.

Occasionally I came upon small groups of people cutting rice in fields at a fairly far distance from the road, people gathering up stalks of rice cut a couple days earlier and bundling them into sheaves, or people gathering up rice sheaves throughout a field and relocating sheaves to a central location where a threshing machine would process the rice - separating the rice kernels from the stalk, dumping the kernels into 50 Kg sacks and ejecting the straw into a large mound.

I did not see anything that I considered particularly motivating, inspiring or even interesting.  I continued along the road to a point where I determined that I should turn around.  I turned around and after a short while of retracing my route, I found myself behind one of the threshing trucks.  I followed slowly behind him for a while.  I knew that he was going out to some location where there would be plenty of opportunity to photograph rice harvesting activities.

After a while, the thresher truck pulled over to the side of the road.  The driver motioned for me to pass him.  I pulled up beside the truck, rolled down my window and told and pantomimed to the driver that I was following him to take photographs.  He smiled and laughed.

The threshing truck pulled forward ahead of me and took an immediate left down a narrow path that lead into the rice paddies.  I followed him and parked my truck alongside of the paved road.  After grabbing my camera bag and locking up the truck, I quickly caught up with the threshing truck - he had literally and figuratively ran into a problem.

The rice paddies of Isaan are dotted with various structures.  The structures are typically raced platforms with a thatched roof.  This is where the farmers and their hired hands eat their meals and take their breaks.  In other fields the structures are larger and serve as homes to a family as they work the fields during the busy seasons of planting and harvesting.  For some fields there are small storage sheds.

The threshing truck was unable to pass under the roof of one of these storage sheds.  How did he know that he could not pass under the corrugated metal roof of the shed?  He determined it the old fashioned way - he ran into it!  The best solution was determined to be for him to back up and drive around it across the adjacent harvested field.  This involved getting stuck once and frantic efforts to level the parched field - filling ruts and knocking down mounds. In short order, the shed was bypassed and the threshing truck set up next to the large mounds of rice sheaves placed on large fine meshed plastic nets.  The threshing truck parked and workers placed more netting in vertical orientation to contain rice kernel dislodged in the threshing process and to keep out the straw that flies about during the threshing operation.

Threshing Rice In Tambon Nongwa
Several people comprised the crew involved in threshing the rice.  One man sat on a seat cantilevered off the side of the threshing machine.

Several workers were involved in feeding rice sheaves into the rice thresher - grabbing sheaves from the mound and tossing them up onto a shelve in front of the operator on the side of the machine. They were also responsible for offloading a nearby farm wagon that was filled with more sheaves of rice.

One man was off to the side of the main area of activity - he was in the area where filled bags of rice kernels were gathered.  His responsibility was to secure the tops of the filled bags with thin flexible strips of bamboo.

Tying Off The Filled Bags Using Bamboo Strips

Two people manned the tail end of the threshing machine.  They were responsible for filling recycled fertilizer or sugar bags with the golden stream of rice kernels that were ejected out the end of the machine's screw auger.

Bags Being Filled With Golden Rice
Two workers were occupied in hauling the filled bags of rice from the threshing machine to the area where they were being stored.

When they needed to refresh themselves, crew members took a quick break at the communal water bucket.  There were not many water breaks during my time with the crew.  The workers worked quickly and diligently.  The owner of the rice was also part of the crew ... supervising as well as handling the rake to control the mound of sheaves and pile up the loose grains of rice that fell naturally from the heads of the stalks through being handled to feed the threshing machine.  The fine blue nets prevented the loose kernels from being lost.

Feeding the Threshing Machine Sheaves of Rice
Rice Bag Bursting  - A Price For Using Recycled Bags
As the work at this location was winding up, I photographed the farmer and young children who had just arrived from school.  I then headed back to Tahsang Village where Duang was waiting for me.  I headed back but did not drive directly back to the village.  I stopped at another field where a family was cutting rice on their farm.

Isaan Family Harvesting Their Rice Crop
I am very fortunate to be able to photograph people with so little difficulty here in Southeast Asia.  Thailand is known as the "Land of Smiles".  I have found many smiles here as well as in Lao, and Cambodia.  The people are genuinely friendly and happy to be photographed.

Sharing their life with others is a nice way for me to occupy myself and fill my retirement days.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Dancing Nymphs - The Apsaras

Apsara of Angkor Wat

Earlier this month, we returned to Cambodia, more specifically, Siem Reap after seven years.

Seven years ago, Duang and I had visited Siem Reap and Tonle Sap for four days.  In the ensuing years I acquired a new more sophisticated camera and acquired some more advanced photographic skills.

This year we decided to spend 6 days in the Angkor Wat area to revist Angkor Wat and associated Khmer ruins as well as to attempt to document the fisheries of  Southeast Asia's largest freshwater lake - Tonle Sap.

We arrived in Siem Reap late morning, Monday 3 November.  After checking into our hotel, we headed out to Angkor Wat early afternoon to tour the ruins and be there to photograph the sunset on the temple.  Waiting for sunset is not that great of a wait ... the sun sets around 5:30 PM, 5:35 PM exactly on November 3.

Many things have changed in the seven years since our last visit.  Some changes are not so good and some changes are for the better but greater details of the changes will be addressed in future blogs.  One change, for the better, is the ruins, specifically the towers, are no longer obnoxiously covered in scaffolding and obtrusive tarps.  Some parts of the ruins are under renovation but the tarps are much less visible - a forest green that almost seems to blend into the stones.

Another change, not so good, is the great increase in the number of tourists - specifically bus tours of mainly three groups - Chinese, South Koreans, and Russians.  The ruins are much more crowded than before ... unless you have hired a professional photography guide who knows when and where to go to avoid the tourist hordes.

We had hired a guide service prior to arriving in Cambodia - money very well spent.  We were never overwhelmed by crowds and were shown hidden gems off of the organized tour track.

For many years I was conscious of the "Ugly American" stereotype - you know - the American tourist - ill mannered, loud mouthed, and obnoxious.  Well things have changed - we are no longer the scourges of tourism.  Americans are no higher than 4th on the list, at least in Cambodia - having been surpassed by the Chinese, followed by the Russians and then the South Koreans.  It was nice to no longer be number 1 in that regard.

No matter, we managed through the skill, knowledge, and experience of our guide to minimize our exposure to the tour groups.

Leading up to the sunset on Angkor Wat, we toured the side galleries of the ruins and the upper terraces of the temple.

Devatas of Angkor Wat

Angkor Wat has many stone carvings - many large and grand battle scenes and mythological scenes connected to either Hinduism and Buddhism.  However for this trip, I was more focused on the carvings of Apsaras.

Apsaras are celestial maidens - nymphs.  They are beautiful, graceful, young females - who dance to entertain, and sometimes seduce the gods as well as mortal men.  They are somewhat like angels in the Hindu religion.  Apsaras, besides being known for their dance are also known to rule over luck in gambling and gaming.  Apsaras also are involved in fertility rites.

Through the influences of trade and Hinduism from India as well as the spread of the Khmer Empire from 800 AD to 1400 AD, the concept and mythology of apsaras is part of Indian, Thai, Lao, Burmese, Cambodian, Indonesian, and Vietnamese culture today.

During the reign of Khmer King Jayavarman VII in the 12th century, there were an estimated 3,000 apsara dancers in his court.

In the ruins of Angkor Wat there are many depictions of apsaras dancing or waiting to dance.  Other females who typically are larger and appear to be guarding the temple are known as devatas.

Apsara Dancing - Wall Panel at Angkor Wat

Apsara Sandstone Carving

Devatas Decorate a Column of Angkor Wat
Apsara Dance in Cambodia was taught almost exclusively in the Royal Court.  During the reign of terror by the Khmer Rouge (i.e. "The Killing Fields") and their leader Pol Pot, the art of Apsara dance was just about eliminated.  After the fall of the Khmer Rouge, the King of Cambodia's daughter, who had been a principal dancer with the royal dance troupe before the reign of the Khmer Rouge, worked to reestablish the art form.

Sixteen years after removal of Pol Pot regime, the Apsara dance returned to public performances in Cambodia.

Apsara Dance has 1,500 intricate gestures and positions for performing the dance with most of them having significant symbolism.  Dancers at the Royal University of Fine Arts commence their training around seven years old. After 9 to 12 years of training they are ready to perform.

People can experience Apsara Dance at many restaurants in Siem Reap and also at the Cambodian Cultural Center.  I am certain that the skill level and authenticity of the restaurants is far less than the performances by the Royal University of Fine Arts.  However, the cultural shows give a good introduction to the art form.

We attended a restaurant show during our last visit in 2007 and returned to the same restaurant, albeit at a different location, during this month's trip.

We thoroughly enjoyed our visit once again to Cambodia.  Attending the performance of the Apsara Dance was one of many highlights.


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