Friday, March 9, 2012

Touring Angkor with Multicultural Gang of Miscreants

Last month, I finally visited a destination that has been on my to-do list for almost 13 years - the famous ruins of Angkor in Siem Reap, Cambodia.

Our trip was everything I had hoped for and more in terms of spectacular scenery, history, and photo opportunities. But one of the best things about the trip was the pleasure of being with a truly interesting and agreeable group of people. Before I go into the details of the sights and our experiences, each member of this diverse hodgepodge of hearty travelers deserves a special introduction.

Jongshil is a favorite friend of ours who has already made appearances in such memorable blog posts as Gukka Daepyo and Daeboreum Feast. She is a hearty world traveler who has been to Cambodia many times in the past and knows all the tips, tricks, and special secret places of Siem Reap. With her brash and confident manner, child-like sense of mischief, and disregard for the rules, she is a bad influence on children and adults alike. She is also a face-splashing menace in the swimming pool, a dietary disciplinarian at restaurants, and a healthy living guru. If I were to choose one word to describe her it would be "irrepressible."

Jongshil's husband, whom we refer to by his job title Kijangnim ("Mr. Pilot"), is an Asiana pilot whose connections allowed us to stay at the poshest hotel in town for a reasonable price. He is also an accomplished master of Korean traditional style landscape painting. He once had the job of flying the official executive jet of former president Park Chun Hee, which gives you an idea of how freakishly well-preserved he is for his age.

Kanjangnim ("Mr. Gallery Owner"), as we called him, runs a small eclectic art gallery near Unni's studio which has displayed exhibitions of both Unni's and Kijangnim's work. Although 100% Korean, he lived in Japan for many years and married a Japanese woman, and I hope he doesn't mind my saying that there is something ineffably Japanese about him. I can't put my finger on it, but something in his physical appearance, voice and mannerisms just strikes me that way. He also speaks the language beautifully. Kanjangnim is a beer afficionado of the first order, and he took full advantage of the cheap and delicious beer that is abundant in Siem Reap. He was also our group's most active shutterbug.

Kanjangnim's Japanese wife, Yumiko, at first glance appears to be a fairly typical Japanese lady with a gentle, unassuming manner, but she has an adventurous spirit which gave her the courage to move to Korea and start a family there. She also has a snazzy fashion sense and can put together striking ensembles from the most unlikely combination of materials and colors. Willing to try anything, she brought along her own sketch pad and tried her hand at some freehand drawing right alongside the esteemed artists in our group.
Yumiko and Kanjangnim's daughter Miriae proved to be the most elusive photographic target on this trip. Whenever a camera veered in her direction she was quick to duck or turn her head. I was nevertheless able to capture a few good shots of her. She is going through a shy phase and it is somewhat difficult to engage her in conversation, but she tagged along gamely wherever the group went and quietly observed all the wacky antics of her elders with keen, attentive eyes. Someday she will probably write a fantastic novel in which we are all sideshow characters.

Hiromi is Yumiko's best friend and also married to a Korean, although I have never met her husband. For some reason I have trouble remembering her name and always have to think "Ito Hirobumi - Hirobumi - Hiromi" to remember it. Raising her daughter and son in South Korea, she has done a great job of ensuring that both of them speak Japanese fluently by using it regularly in conversation. She brought both kids along on this trip and sheperded them patiently through each of the sights. I like this picture because it shows off her sunny, winning personality.
I sort of expected that half-Japanese children growing up in Korea would have a lot of emotional baggage, but Hiromi's daughter Charyong, also known by her Japanese name Jirei, is possibly one of the most positive and self-possessed teenagers I have ever met. She has a very poised yet playful personality, and I was immediately impressed by the way that she neither covers her mouth nor sucks in air while laughing, two annoying habits endemic among other Korean and Japanese girls her age. She enjoyed talking with me and would engage me in conversation on all manner of subjects, from my travels in Japan to the issue of Korean unification.
Hiromi's son Changbum was the youngest member of our group and a tireless gopher willing to shoulder any odd chore we assigned to him. With his ever-present baseball cap and his gung-ho attitude he reminded me a little of "Short Round" from the second Indiana Jones movie. He immediately accepted me as part of the group, and enjoyed sneaking up on me and playfully trading jabs as if we were old friends. He and his sister seemed to get along well, and I never once saw them fight or complain about one another.
Professor Lee Chungshin, also known by his nom de plume "Gokcheon," is a famous artist whose specialty is traditional Korean ink painting with a modern twist. His work has been exhibited in many places including NYC, and he has been described by one reviewer as "a man of sturdiness and thoroughness with delicate and pliable disposition ... the last classical scholar of our period." He is good friends with Kijangnim, his former student, and sort of invited himself along when he heard about the trip. Unni was initially worried that he might disrupt the group dynamic since he hadn't known most of us before, but he turned out to be an excellent traveling companion and enjoyable conversationalist, an amiable grandfatherly figure that everyone felt comfortable around. His presence brought a touch of class and sophistication to our motley group.

These two characters, of course, require no introduction. The only thing I will add is that Unni and I have been talking about going to Cambodia for a long time. We almost booked a trip once two years ago, but when the tour company found out who I was, they said "no foreigners." The nerve! It worked out best in the end though, because going with this group of friends was far more entertaining, relaxing, and enjoyable than any boring old group tour could ever be.

Here's the whole gang together, sitting outside our hotel waiting for our ride:

From left: Professor Lee, Yumiko, Kanjangnim, Miriae, me, Hiromi, Unni,
Changbum, Jongshil, Charyong, and Kijangnim
I had a lot of fun on this trip watching the locals and other tourists do double-takes as I walked along with my little group of Asians chattering in Korean. I often felt like I was inside one of those cute pictures you sometimes see on the internet of a puppy or baby bunny stuck in with a group of kittens or vice versa, you know, the ones with captions like "I think I might be adopted."

Our hotel was the Le Meridien, "the best hotel in Siem Reap" as Jongshil repeatedly reminded us (by which she meant the most expensive). I didn't get to see inside any of the other hotels, but I can say that ours certainly was very nice. We were able to stay at this palace for a quite modest rate thanks to Kijangnim's Asiana connections, and in return we showered the hotel manager and Asiana representative with gifts, including a calligraphy fan made by Professor Lee and some ceramics painted by Unni.

One of my favorite things about the Le Meridien was the breakfast buffet, which included a fantastic selection of fruits and juices, along with a noodle bar where a guy would mix you a nice soup of Cambodia-style pho noodles with other ingredients at your discretion.

There were also the standard Western-style buffet fixtures of toast, pancakes, an omelette bar, etc., and some Asian crowd-pleasers like fried rice and wide noodles. The only major drawback was the lack of any kind of kimchi. By day 5, Unni and our other Korean companions were going through major kimchi withdrawal (I did spot a Korean restaurant nearby which was clearly profiting from this oversight).

In organizing Unni's photos after our trip, I noticed that she had taken dozens of photos of the buffet food, mostly the fruit. She claimed she wanted to capture the colors and textures for use in her artwork.

We spent quite a bit of time in the hotel pool. Nearly everyone in our group was an enthusiastic practitioner of hotel pool fun and hijinks. Every afternoon after a sweaty day of hiking around the temples, we would hurry to change out of our dusty clothes and head down to the pool. While the other tourists lounged in their pool chairs like big white water buffalo, our gang waded right in and gleefully engaged in splash-battles, relay races, and konga lines. I taught them how to play Marco Polo (although I never could convince them that it was "Marco" and not "Michael").

Jongshil and Hiromi, with telltale signs of a recent splash battle
I knew that Unni couldn't swim, so I was pleased to find that the pool was no more than four feet deep at any point. Even so, she seemed content to stay out of the water and only walked around the sides snapping pictures of us splashing about, resisting our attempts to draw her in even though I repeatedly assured her that no swimming ability was necessary. Finally she confessed that she simply hated getting in the water, since she had grown up near a big river and seen "a lot of people" drown.

I didn't know how to respond to this bombshell and decided to enlist the aid of a higher power. It took Jongshil about a day to wear Unni down with talk of "facing your fears" and clever use of the children as manipulative pawns. By the second day Unni was splashing around with the rest of us.

For the most part, we got around town in tuk-tuks. We had a group of three tuk-tuk drivers who would pick us up at the hotel each morning, take us wherever we wanted to go, and then wait for us until we were ready to move to the next place. We settled the bill at the end of each day.

Unni was our money manager throughout the trip and kept all our cash in a big envelope, which made me nervous but worked out pretty well. We each contributed $100 in American money at the beginning and that, along with another $20 infusion later on, was enough to pay for all of our transportation, meals, entry fees, and massages for the duration of the trip.

I would have liked to pay the tuk-tuk drivers more, but some members of a certain gender in our group felt it a measure of their personal toughness and negotiating skills to whittle the price down as much as possible every time any kind of bargaining took place. Personally I found it a bit tacky for a group of wealthy foreigners staying at the most expensive hotel in town to quibble over a few dollars with some local drivers who just spent their whole day at our beck and call, but that's probably my feminine softness getting in the way again.

Professor Lee brought along his art supplies in a big leather case that one of the kids would haul around all day for a few bucks' reward. As we toured the various temples, he would periodically find a view he liked and settle down with his inks and paper to paint it. This gave the rest of us a nice chance to rest our legs and drink in the surroundings at leisure, without any pressure to move on to the next thing. It also attracted a lot of interest from the other tourists. One American guy actually asked if he could buy the painting, and another guy came over and struck up a long conversation with Kijangnim in English.

Professor Lee painting, Changbum helping prepare ink

There were no bathroom facilities at any of the ruins. This was never a problem for me since I am an alien cyborg from outer space who never has to pee, but Jongshil did not hesitate to stalk off into the surrounding jungle when she needed a place to squat, and the others followed her lead. I would always thoughtfully remind Unni to watch out for landmines and snakes as she followed Jongshil into the jungle.

There were also generally no real dining options near the ruins, so we got in the habit every morning of preparing sack lunches by purloining a quantity of food from the breakfast buffet, which we surreptitiously stuffed into plastic baggies and stowed in our packs. Unni was hilariously inept about this bit of petty larceny; she would cast guilty glances about to try to evade the eyes of the wait staff before preparing her lunch bag, and after noticing the security cameras she became obsessed with them, certain that they were trained on our table and that security guards would descend on us with shackles as soon as we tried to leave with our ill-gotten spoils.

Every evening, after a full day of sightseeing followed by a couple of hours of swimming, we headed over to "Pub Street" for dinner, shopping, and massages. Jongshil took charge of ordering all of our meals, and under her vigilant watch all of us ate strictly what was permitted for our respective body types according to the laws of Korean medicine. She blithely reassured us that we were free to order something else if we wished, but the one time I took her up on this offer I ended up ordering something with ginger in it, which is one of the worst possible things for a Lesser Yang to eat, and then this happened:

In conclusion, here are some other assorted moments from our trip:

Changbum greeting a monkey outside of Angkor Wat

Professor Lee sketching a lady as she massages his feet

With Jongshil's encouragement, the children are climbing a stairway
that has clearly been marked "Closed for cleaning."

Jongshil posing on a kid's bike at a roadside village on the way to Tonle Sap

Hilarious picture of Changbum and me. He reminds me of the
creepy kid from "Juon."

Monkey dreaming of changing the world

Coolin' our heels at Ta Prohm while Professor Lee produces another masterpiece.
A butterfly kept landing repeatedly on Unni's hand, and here Charyong is trying
to get a photo of it.

One temple wouldn't allow visitors to enter with shorts above the knee, so we
left the kids waiting at this pile of rocks.
On Tonle Sap, the world's second-biggest lake. This was a very happy moment for me -
I had just learned that I was accepted to the graduate program I wanted, I was on vacation
with my friends, and I had a couple of beers in me. When Jongshil suggested that we each
 sing a song, I immediately burst into an exuberant, slightly off-tune, rendition of
"Nangman Koyangi."
While we were waiting for Professor Lee to finish painting, we sat and watched a large tour
group of middle-aged Korean couples pass by, and literally every couple had the same picture taken
of themselves standing inside this tree. Personally I like this shot taken from behind of Changbum
gazing up at it, because I think it lends a sense of the scale and wonder of the place.

1 comment:

  1. 우와 정말 재미있게 잘 만들었네 또 가고싶다 2편도 부탁해 ^^*