Angkor Wat & Siem Reap

Remembering in December

My wandering field life passed the ten-year mark earlier this year. That’s ten years of finding my way into a new work environment and getting to know new colleagues once a year or so. In a more mundane way, it’s ten years worth of photo files to keep up-to-date and to try to remember to share on my blog. A cousin (thanks, Juliette!) noticed that the entries from my earliest days had lost their photos: mine was a rather early blog, and the ways of uploading photos have changed since then.  (Many of those earliest posts appear frankly so embarrassingly shallow to me now that I’m tempted to simply wave my editorial wand and have done with them…but thus far my sense for historical accuracy is controlling that temptation…) If my continued research succeeds, many of those photos will be directly restored onto the blog as I find their originals in backup hard drives and other obscure locations: ah, new year’s resolutions before the old year has even wrapped up!

In the meantime, I’m uncovering little treasures that never made it up here, while fondly remembering where I’ve been and what I’ve done. I was recently saddened to learn that Nancy Schrom Dye, former president of Oberlin College, had passed this year. During my years of active alumni-association work I greatly appreciated her contributions to my alma mater – so I was proud to join some other colleagues in taking her for an end-of-year meal which, the digital date stamp tells me, occurred in Beijing on December 31, in 2005. Up above are also a few rediscovered December 2005 Beijing-area shots which somehow didn’t get posted at the time. (Posting photos was more challenging in those early days…)

Just below are some previously-unposted 2015 shots: early-morning moonset at my home here in Haiti; me with my brother and a colleague when I gave a talk at Carnegie Mellon University earlier this year; and some shots from the lovely Frick House & museum in Pittsburgh, from the same visit. And since this put me in the mood, I’ve wandered through the many countries & continents, family meals & trips & assignments on four continents that have filled the years between these two sets of photos so very fully. Assembling them’s been fun for me so I hope viewing them is fun for you too :-).

This time last year? In December 2014, I returned from Sierra Leone & later went with great friends to enjoy the Ai WeiWei exhibit on Alcatraz Island (more photos from that one in the original post….though that particular set of great friends – you know who you are! – are remarkably camera-resistant):

Where’d I spend 2013? Living in PNG, participating in meetings in Amsterdam & dive trips in Australia, then celebrating the holidays with Steve & Mom in New Zealand:

I began 2012 in the US (where I visited Washington, DC in cherry-blossom season), turned 50 in the company of Howard & Gene at Kakadu National Park in Australia, and finished the year in PNG:

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2011 was mostly Mweso, a little Lamu, a little London and a year-end back home seeing Frank Lloyd Wright homes of Pennsylvania with family:

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2010…wow, what a year. Just seeing all the continents and countries where I spent time (actually meaningful time, with friends and family and work) makes my head spin even now. The photos evoked so much for me that I just couldn’t narrow it down to three or four…so I’m giving you a lot from 2010, a mix of Manipur (start of year) and Mweso (end of year), with a sprinkling of Sweden, Berlin, Paris & California in between:

House, Valley, Hills on Hike - Pre-Monsoon Season

I entered 2009 in Tahiti, yes it’s true: during the year I took off from work to help Mom with her house, I dedicated two months to exploring Australia (and watching the Australian Open!) and New Zealand, flying in via Tahiti with a few nights in Papeete, just because I could. The year ended, of course, in Manipur and included a great trip to see excellent sites of Rajasthan with Howard & Gene:

Ngauruhoe Summit View of Lakes & Clouds

2008 started in Nigeria, and ended in Tahiti…with a lot of good work in Nigeria, a short assignment for the earthquake in China, visits in Germany with my exchange family friends there….and a good deal of time in and around NYC (Mom, aunt Judy & I enjoyed a harbor trip past Ellis Island where our own immigrant ancestors entered the country, and also a trip to our favorite sculpture park up th Husdon)…with a side trip for some hiking in Sequoia and other California adventures:
Rivers-Abia Border Boats & River

2007…I began the year based in Colombo but spend the new year’s period with Mom & Steve at  Angkor Wat, returned to Colombo to finish out an assignment, headed on for training in Paris where I also got celebrate Mom’s 71st birthday…back to the US to reorganize my life after my first two years in the field, and then off for a new assignment in Nigeria. At the time it felt big. Now it’s all fond memories:

…which will bring us back to year two of this current phase of life’s great adventure, the lovely year 2006. From Beijing & Yunnan in China, to Polonnaruwa & Sigiriya in Sri Lanka (where I was based at year’s end), with family time on Cumberland Island (Mom’s 70th birthday dinner!) and in Germany in between. With a special souvenir from Seoul, where I had the opportunity to work a bit with the young ladies pictured with their daffodils. In a small-world twist, I had dinner with one of those two young ladies just a few nights ago in Port au Prince, which she visits sometimes in her current work with the CDC. So much small world, so little time for it all. Happy end of 2015, and many good hopes for a 2016 of more peace and health to everyone, everywhere.KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERA


Sunrise at Angkor Wat

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(Dear readers, in my ongoing sporadic effort to update some of my older posts so as to take advantage larger-sized photos and more interesting layouts…and to eliminate all the dozens of individual posts that were necessary a decade ago when I had to post photos by sending them in small-size batches by email to flickr which then sent them on to my old blog site…I’ve decided, here in Feburary 2017, to update something I first posted in February 2007. For old times’ sake, I’ve kept all the text intact, but like me you’re probably here for the photos, eh?)angkor-side-temples-in-lily-pond

I begin with an apology, and a story. First: despite my best efforts, I’m still posting far more photos than I’d ordinarily think reasonable. But I hope you’ll agree that what I’ve seen is awe-inspiring enough to make it worth your perusal. Second: slice of life from Colombo, as I went for my lunchtime swim at the Otter Swim Club the other day (mostly Sinhalese, lots of families; we are NOT talking 24 Hour Fitness WeHo here, people) , what should my wondering eyes hear over the speakers but that early 1980s gay classic, Bronski Beat’s “Tell Me Why.” Wow. I’m sure I was the only one in the whole club who had any clue what I was listening to.

Goodness me, it seems three months have passed since I last took time to post anything to the blog. Perhaps this is just as well, since the last entry was chock full and friends are still writing to tell me they’ve only now looked at my pix from Polonnaruwa and Sigiriya. Lest you think I fell down on the job, fear not: you’ve noticed I’m loathe to post unillustrated entries (even as it is, I’ve been criticized for being a mite text heavy), and sadly enough, I didn’t leave Colombo – no, not one single day trip let alone overnights – between returning from Kandy in early November and heading off for a much-needed two-week vacation outside Sri Lanka on December 30. Gosh, when you put it that way I understand why I was getting a bit depressed and frayed around the edges by late December.

A lot of you who read this also get sporadic email updates from me about the status of our work in Sri Lanka and how I’m doing, so I won’t go into much here. Through patience and diligent efforts, we were able to relaunch our surgery & emergency medicine project in Point Pedro, on the Jaffna Peninsula, at the end of December (we treated our first patient on December 23, the day after the team got to Point Pedro). The other two MSF sections that are working in Sri Lanka have since then also been able to begin the projects they’d been planning for. It’s great that we’re able to work. It’s balanced by a great deal of sadness about the ongoing conflict in the country, and concern about what the future will hold; but we do what we can.

All around the innermost building of Angkor the four walls are decorated with exquisitely detailed bas relief scultpures depicting stories from the Ramayana, achievements of the kings of Angkor, and so on. Among the favorites are The Churning of the Ocean Milk, in which demons and gods battle it out to extract the elixir of eternity from the ocean by playing tug of war with a big serpent, and the capture of Sita (consort of Vishnu…I think…they all have many identities and avatars and so on, it’s most complex), is captured by an evil demon and taken to his island kingdom of – wait for it – Lanka, whence she is then rescued by Hanuman and his monkey army. Enjoy the highlights I’ve captured here: Howard, let me know if you enjoy the turtle. Naturally, I thought of you. 🙂

angkor-in-lily-pond-2As the tons and tons of photos you’re about to see will tell you, I got special dispensation to leave Sri Lanka (normally we’re supposed to stay in country for the duration of an assignment, even on rest or vacation periods) for two weeks of vacation. I met my mother and brother in Thailand and guided them to Siem Reap and Phnom Penh in Cambodia, then back to Thailand for several days of beachy relaxation on Phuket Island before they headed back to the USA. I returned to Sri Lanka shortly thereafter (thanks again to Tony for hosting a couple very enjoyable days in Bangkok), and it’s wonderful to have an active project to support and work with. After so many months of uncertainty, it feels great to finally be part of something active and vital, and likely growing (possibility of opening another project has been discussed, if there is need and agreement among those involved).

My time in Sri Lanka is winding rapidly down, and I have to admit I’m not terribly sad about that: I’ll miss lots about this country and my work here, but I’m tired. I came down with (probably) Dengue Fever in mid-December, which knocked me flat on my back for five full days, and compromised my energy severely for the two weeks or so thereafter; in the month of January I’ve twice had some sort of nasal or sinus infection complete with sore throat and popping ears. Bottom line: I think I’m getting a bit run down and need a long rest period back on home soil. Which is in the cards: I’ll leave Sri Lanka in late March; train and do some tourism in France for parts of April, then land back in the states from late April through, very likely, most of July. As you can imagine, I’m quite looking forward to an extended home leave and the chance to do things like eat lots of Mexican food, take intensive Chinese lessons again, and…oh, yeah, see all of my friends and family again! :p)

Some factoids: Cambodia’s mostly flat, with some mountains around a couple edges of the modern-day borders. A big feature is a lake which appears massive on the map, called Tonle Sap. It connects, via a 120-km or so long river (the lake itself is that long or longer, end to end), to the Mekong in Phnom Penh. Get this: the Mekong and Tonle Sap meet in Phnom Penh, and the main Phnom Penh riverfront is on the Tonle Sap (I always imagined it was the Mekong). Better yet: during the rainy season, the Mekong gets so full that it backs up (runs upsteam!) into the Tonle Sap river, which backs up all the way to the Tonle Sap lake, which grows into an enormous mud puddle. I know it’s a mud puddle, because we’re only talking about 10 meters or so of height: the embankments in Phnom Penh, in early January partway into the dry season, only showed about 10 or maybe 20 meters’ worth of open height, so I figure the elevation difference between PP and the lake can’t be more’n about 20 meters if that – meaning, when the lake grows, it’s mighty big and mighty shallow. And mighty productive of freshwater fish.

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angkor-side-door-sweeper steve-w-angkor-bas-reliefsBut let’s get to the stuff that makes the Khmer really proud. We know it as Angkor Wat – and think of it, most of us I suspect, as “a temple.” We know it’s magnificent, we suspect “it” is one of the most remarkable things we may ever see. But it’s not an it. It’s the largest and most compelling complex of temples I’ve ever seen or heard of anywhere. Angkor Wat itself – Lonely Planet tells me – is the largest religious structure ever built in the world. t is also, on its own, one of the most beautiful creations of human imagination and faith I have ever seen. But it is one small part of the overwhelming splendor of Angkor. There are more than 20 major temples and buildings, many dozen less important ones spread across an area maybe 100km by 50km or more in size, approximately.

But in the meantime: let’s talk about Cambodia, modern-day home to the magnificent ruins of the once proud Khmer Empire. Angkor Wat: a name that’s held mystery and allure for me as long as I can remember – literally. I’m quite sure I knew about Angkor Wat before I was ten, and as long-time readers know, landlocked little Paulie Brockmann was obsessed with the world beyond Lake Erie and the Ohio River when he was still in Bugs Bunny PJ’s. I discovered – somewhat to my amazement – that many well-versed citizens of the world have never heard of Angkor Wat. So…how did you guess!? Time for a brief history. I promise to keep it short, since I’m even farther from any kind of Cambodia expert than from being any kind of Sri Lanka expert.

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Capturing the purrrrrfect image of the sun rising behind the central towers of Angkor Wat, as you see, is something of a pursuit for most tourists. Mom and Steve stayed outside the compound, by the moat, until after the sun rose; at which point the hundreds, maybe thousands, of people perched at on high grounds for the exact right moment flowed back out the doors, rather like bath water once the plug is pulled. The place was remarkably peaceful and even more beautiful, to my eye, in the peace that ensued before the first hordes arrived in their tour buses.

Details: Steve with bas-relief figures in background (shows scale), a roof detail that shows some of this was once painted (reminds me of things I saw in Polonnaruwa and Sigiriya in Sri Lanka), and carved stone window posts that look for all the world like wood.angkor-w-sunriseThe Khmer empire rose out of the flat but probably fertile – and flood-prone – lands at the northeastern edge of the Tonle Sap lake. There aren’t any obvious sources of wealth and power, other than the lake and the presumably productive terrain. Mom, Steve and I decided that a big part of what drove the Khmer Empire was pure leadership: some strong, visionary leaders in the right place at the right time, who took it to the heights. And they did scale the heights: from the late 800s (CE) to about 1200, they controlled much of modern-day Thailand, Vietnam, and Laos, and even a touch of what’s now China, Burma and Malaysia, if I read the maps correctly. Compare that to their status in the mid-1800s, when they might have been partitioned between Vietnam and Thailand, had they not invited the French in. Little wonder that Siem Reap, the more recently-named town that grew up south of the main temple areas, has a special meaning in Khmer: “Siam Defeated.” That’s all I’m going to say. May the pictures speak for themselves, and please pardon me for putting so many up. You read the blog, you know I’ve seen a lot of magnificence and beauty, both human-made and utterly without our intervention. The temples and structures around Siem Reap fully awoke my sense of awe, beauty and wonder. Go. Before it’s utterly overrun by tourists and ground to dust or broken up piece by piece and sold on illegal antique markets around the world. This is a glory of world culture, and will not disappoint.

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angkor-framed-by-side-temple-door-sunrise

I have to admit: this is one of my favorite shots, so I chose it to end my – first – presentation of images from Angkor Wat. Hope you’re not too overwhelmed.


Kbal Spean

40 or 50 km north of Siem Reap are some small hills from which the Siem Reap river, source of water for the ancient capital, flowed. Up in these hills, close to the source of the river, artists and priests went to carve religious sculptures and symbols of fertility into the rock in the bed of the river, to help bless the civilization. The carving was no doubt made easier by the fact that, basically, there’s a six month rainy season followed by a six month dry season. I’ve never seen anything quite like this. It was a lovely hike up through the jungly woods, and Mom was rightly proud to be clearly the oldest person to make the trek. We all felt it was well worth it!




Hills, Butterflies & Waterfalls @ Kbal Spean

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If you look closely in the image at right, you’ll see – down there at the bottom of the 10-meter-high waterfall – yet another fertility sculpture of some sort that seems almost to have fallen down the wtaerfall. This is about 200 or 300 meters downstream from the main river sculptures I’ve been showing you – these are not a mere sculpture or two, but a pretty impressive collection of art.

Banteay Srei


Banteay Srei’s pinkish stone is rather unusual among the many temples around Siem Reap, and looks especially beautiful at sunset, when we saw it after a full morning hiking up to and back from Kbal Spean. The lavish detail and decorations on this temple, the ornate and flowing lines of the architecture truly captivated me even after the magnificence of Angkor Wat.






A reminder to be humble and prepared for the unexpected at all times: though we had reservations for a dinner theater shadow puppetry performance (to support a local street children support organization – shows the progressive leanings of Siem Reap’s tourist crowd), we had to wait a bit for the lcoal motorbike cop to bring by a recharger battery, after our car’s battery dropped out.





Daily Life In & Around Siem Reap

Like a break after a long day trekking up and down the steps and along the hot dusty paths of the temple complexes, I thought your eyes might delight in some scenes of everyday life in and around Angkor Wat. Some of these are from my morning run in Siem Reap town (about 5 km south of the entrance to the temple complex, itself about 2 km south of the moat around Angkor Wat), while others were shot from the car coming back down from our day trip to Kbal Spean and Banteay Srei.

People who were there only four years ago tell me Siem Reap was a sleepy and underdeveloped little town; Steve’s guidebook still had him worried about pirates on the river and/or bandits on the road if we took the bus from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh. Summary: things are developing rapidly in Cambodia, especially Siem Reap, which probably funds something like half of the country’s economy. I enjoyed my run and the road trips, since I’m used to living closer to the real economy in countries like this – being a pure tourist and traveling past villages in a hired car, without a chance to interact more directly and get a sense of the people and economy was an odd feeling for me at this point.