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."
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.
|From left: Professor Lee, Yumiko, Kanjangnim, Miriae, me, Hiromi, Unni, |
Changbum, Jongshil, Charyong, and Kijangnim
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 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.