Friday, September 27, 2013

Sisters, Silk, and S'more Ruins

Over a month ago (sorry I'm so late)… Sheila’s sister - Cindy, and a few of her sister’s friends, came to visit her for a few days since this is Sheila’s last year conducting research in Thailand. We had lots of fun while they were here, and the highlight was making a trip to some nearby Khmer ruins known as Phanom Rung. Before that trip though, we had a good time hanging out with them in Sakaerat. Cindy and Bass both work in neuroscience research at a lab in Portugal, which means Sheila doesn't get to see her very often… so this visit was a real treat for her. Gul is also a neuroscientist, but she is based out of a lab in San Francisco. Cindy and Gul worked together in a lab at M.I.T. while Cindy was doing post-doc work there. So, needless to say… they’re all very intelligent, as well as extremely pleasant people. 
Sheila and her sister at Sakaerat
Later that afternoon, we took a trip to the market in Pak Thong Chai as we normally do on Wednesdays to stock up on fresh veggies and other essentials. But first we stopped at a couple silk weaving factories, so that our guests could get some silky souvenirs. Pak Thong Chai (the nearest city to Sakaerat) is famous for being one of the places that produced a huge quantity of Thailand’s exported silk in the 20th century. This fame was mostly a result of ex-pat Jim Thompson buying silk here to sell to fashion houses in Milan, London, and Paris. Today there are still quite a few silk factories in action within the city area.
Silk worms on display at Jim Thompson's house
Mike and I actually got the chance to visit Jim Thompson’s house in Bangkok before the field season started. It was a really interesting place with lots of lush outdoor garden space, traditional style Thai architecture, and many ancient works of art that Thompson collected throughout the years.
One of the many buildings within Jim Thompson's compound
This place reminded me a bit of Hemingway’s home in Key West. Both houses are set in a tropical location with elegant gardens, each of their owner’s chose to settle somewhere out of the ordinary to accomplish extraordinary things, and both places continue to attract hordes of tourists every day. Hemingway and Thompson were also both very different from the average American, with a deep thirst for adventure and a rich history of exploring… the allure surrounding their exotic lifestyles is just as enthralling as their extravagant abodes.
A small part of Jim Thompson's garden
For those of you who don’t know anything about Thompson, here’s a brief synopsis. He was born in Delaware in 1906 and was stationed in Thailand during WWII when he discovered silk and decided to try his luck at starting a business based on this treasured textile. He was very successful, largely because he paid close attention to what styles were desired, and he made sure the product was consistent every time. Thanks to his work, the Thai Silk industry was saved from extinction, and by employing local women he lifted many people out of poverty. To celebrate his success he acquired a large variety of art artifacts throughout his time in Thailand. His home was unique because according to my Lonely Planet guidebook, he “collected parts of derelict Thai homes in central Thailand and had them reassembled in their current location in 1959… and each wall has its exterior side facing the house’s interior, thus exposing the wall’s bracing system.” Our guide at the house told us that Thompson had many pieces of art that no one else in Thailand would want, because they were slightly broken or otherwise asymmetrical, which is considered bad luck in Thai culture.
Our guide telling us about some of Jim Thompson's art collection
By far the most fascinating part about Thompson’s life is the ending. He was on a vacation in the highlands of Malaysia in 1967 when he went for a walk and then disappeared, never to be seen or heard from again. Many theories abound about what could have happened… perhaps he was taken down by a tiger or a communist spy, nobody knows. I found this information to be very intriguing, and it significantly increased my appreciation for the house. It gave the whole place a captivating ambiance, as if there were still clues here waiting to be discovered.
Come on in...
Anyhow, please pardon that minor detour… I needed a good excuse to share some of those pictures. Now back to our visit to the silk factories in Pak Thong Chai. One of the stores we visited, Matchada Silk, actually had a woman out front weaving silk in the customary fashion which was neat to see. 
A traditional functioning silk loom
Check out this video to see the silk loom in action....

After our visitors had gotten plenty of scarves and other silk stuff, we headed to the market and then to the grocery store to replenish our supply of bread, milk, etc. This time though, while at the grocery store… Bass and Gul were attempting to buy a bit of alcohol for their time here. The thing is, Thai alcohol purchasing laws are very strange and you can’t buy booze between 2-5pm. Sheila was going to stop them, but then the check-out guy informed them they could purchase beer & liquor if they bought at least 10 liters of alcohol in total. So they filled an entire shopping cart with beer, rum, and vodka… and left the store fully weighed down with bottles. Later that evening, they cooked dinner for us which was a real luxury.
Our super supper
Gul is originally from Turkey, so she made some fried zucchini cakes with garlic yogurt as an appetizer… along with fried mushrooms and cauliflower heads. Bass prepared a sturdy concoction of rum and crushed mint leaves for everyone to drink. The main course was shrimp prepared in a typical Portuguese-style garlic butter sauce. All of it was fantastic. After dinner we played a very entertaining form of Pictionary known as "Telephone Pictionary," where everyone writes a sentence on a piece of paper and then passes it to their right and that person then has to illustrate that sentence to the best of their ability. Then they fold down the written the part, and pass the picture to the next person who then has to write a sentence describing that picture. The cycle continues, folding, drawing, writing, folding, etc until the paper reaches the person it started out with, and the result is always hilariously different from the original sentence. Good times!
Telephone Pictionary at it's best!
The fun didn't end there; Sheila’s sister had come bearing gifts… delicious edible gifts. Not only did she bring lots of tasty cheese varieties (a rarity here) and fancy chocolates… but she also brought the makings for the ultimate outdoor dessert: S’mores!
Stuffing my face with gooey goodness
When you’re half-way across the world, nothing helps you feel right at home like roasting marshmallows. This was made possible by the fact that Sakaerat hosts a “bug party” for all the visiting children, typically on Wednesday nights, where they shine bright lights on a white sheet (visible in the background of the above picture) to attract many different varieties of insects. Part of the party includes roasting corn and other treats over beds of hot coals within a series of grills, and then afterwards they lie down on tarps and stargaze.
This guy made an appearance at the bug party
So we simply snuck up to the bug party before the kids got there, and socialized with the women tending the fires while we roasted the marshmallows and gorged ourselves. Everyone knows if you have one, you gotta have S’more! Meanwhile the women prepared a sort of dessert over the fire that is kind of like a sweet, crunchy tortilla. We tried our hand at making a few, and one time later we even brought Nutella to spread on them which was incredible. We shared the Nutella with the Thai ladies, and they were very impressed. I don’t think they’ll ever be the same. After all, Nutella is life-altering.
DIY! (Photo by Tan Ming Kai)
We got plenty of S’mores material from Cindy… which meant we would be frequenting the bug party for many weeks afterwards. Usually we got out of there before the kids showed up, but one time there was an overlap. This picture is from that time… and it illustrates perfectly how popular it is here to wear shirts that have English on them, regardless of what they say.

It's S'more time! You're killin me smalls...
That night I went to bed extremely satisfied. The next day, we had a fairly relaxed schedule. Sheila booked some Thai masseuses for our guests… and so we decided to get a Thai massage as well, we just had to wait until the women were done with Cindy and crew first. The massage was only 200 baht (less than $10) and since I’d never experienced a Thai massage before, I figured I should get one while I had the chance. This was not exactly the kind of massage that you might picture, where someone is firmly kneading your shoulders while you relax. Instead, it was a bit like “someone helping you do yoga while you’re lying down,”… to quote Sheila. Basically, they contorted your body parts into different positions, from your legs all the way up to your head… “stretching” them out in ways I didn't realize I could stretch. Most of the time it was slightly uncomfortable, and occasionally I almost hollered out in pain… but I held it in. After all this woman was easily in her mid-40s or 50s, I couldn't show any signs of weakness. It really wasn't that bad, but it definitely wasn't very relaxing. As part of the process she stood on my butt, and then afterwards she used her elbow to “massage” my upper back… which reminded me a lot of a move I used to use on people while wrestling in high school to put them in extreme pain. Next she used a technique with her fingers to work on my shoulders, which could be compared to a little kid trying to test out his knowledge of pressure points on you. Anyhow, I’m glad I can say that I have experienced a Thai massage, but I don’t think I’ll be getting another one anytime soon. 
Thai torture, err... massage
Later that evening, Taksin took us all out to a restaurant in Pak Thong Chai that specialized in serving all things shrimp. They even had these gigantic river prawns that they grilled up which were pretty good. (Sadly, I've given up vegetarianism while here to experience more of the culture and to remain flexible… there are many times where meatless options aren't available or very few and I can’t afford to go hungry here.) They would also refill your beer glass when it was getting low without even being asked which was fantastic.
Jumbo Shrimp!
The next morning, we woke up early and all piled in a van around 10 am to head east for about 2 hours towards some Khmer Ruins. The plan was to visit Phanom Rung, as well as Prasat Muang Tam, both ancient monuments constructed between the 10th-13th centuries. This was one of the locations that Lonely Planet listed within the top 20 things to do in Thailand, so I was very excited to check it out. Phanom Rung is situated on top of an extinct volcano, and is advertised as the largest and best preserved Khmer Temple in Thailand. Prasat Muang Tam is a smaller temple located at the base of the volcano, only a few kilometers from Phanom Rung. We visited Prasat Muang Tam first.
Sara approaching the entrance to Muang Tam
This was an especially awesome experience that wasn’t RUINed by large crowds. In fact, we were almost the only people there – save for maybe one other couple. According to the sign out front, “Mueang Tam” (it is not uncommon to see the same word spelled 2 or 3 different ways in the same place – as there are no formal rules for translating Thai into English) actually means “the lower city” and was not the original name of this place. It was called this due to its relation to Phanom Rung, which was on top of the hill. The sign didn’t say what the original name was, but it did tell us that the entire complex was believed to be a shrine to the Hindu god, Shiva. The entire complex was surrounded by walls, and at each corner within the center there were four L-shaped pools – which were quite beautiful.
One of the many lily pad filled pools 
Guarding each corner of these serene ponds are miniature five-headed naga statues. A naga is a mythical serpent-like being with magical powers within the Hindu religion. We found very many varieties of naga depictions inside the different Khmer temples we visited, and most of them were pretty impressive. 
One example of a naga statue
At the center of the temple are five prang (a Khmer-style tower) designed to represent the five peaks of Mt Meru – the fabled home of the Hindu gods. This format is apparently also seen at Angkor Wat in Cambodia, the mothership of all Khmer temples. Unfortunately, the chief central prang could not be re-built, but nonetheless the scene was still remarkable. The other lasting towers were constructed of brick, and inside they were very dark and cool – a stark contrast from the hot and sunny lawn surrounding them.
The four remaining central towers
On the above the doorways opening towards the center of the ruins, there were very meticulously sculpted depictions of presumably Hindu deities and other figures among ornate flora. The close attention to detail in such a large structure was very impressive.
A lovely lintel
Of course we snapped tons of pictures of each other, photo-bombed each other’s photos, and just generally had a great time. It’s impossible to take too many pictures in a place like this!
Good times!
Soon enough it was time to mosey on, so we piled back in the van to head over to Phanom Rung, the main course for the day. The drive between the two temples was less than 10 minutes. Before exploring further, we stopped for lunch at a small roadside café just across the street from the ruins that clearly relied on starving sight-seers to stay afloat. They seemed to be doing quite well though, as most of the tables were filled with touring Thais. After a satisfying lunch of pad Thai, Cindy treated us all to magnificent Magnum ice cream bars. In the sweltering heat, they truly hit the spot. Then we crossed the road towards the temple, and headed down the long cobbled path towards the temple. Bass and Gul stopped for a smoke break for a bit, so Sala (how ‘Sara’ is pronounced in Thai), Rooney (another of Tesco’s nick-names) and I went on ahead. As we were approaching the temple, we passed a large group of school kids that were obviously on a field trip. We walked by them as they were getting a lecture from one of their teachers on a set of stairs leading towards the temple. Suddenly, the rocks began rattling and the lizards ran to hide. We turned around to see a screaming bunch of pink munchkins charging for us like the wildebeests stampeding towards Simba. 
Leading the charge (Photo by Sheila Poo)
We stepped out of the way to let the wave of pink pass by, and then continued peacefully on down the walkway towards the temple. The promenade leading to the main gate of the temple is the best surviving example of this type of typical Khmer architecture in Thailand. The laterite block paved corridor, flanked by sandstone columns with lotus bud tops, led us to a series of earthen terraces. Just like Muang Tam, this monument was dedicated to Shiva. The ancient hill and accompanying sanctuary here are seen as representations of the mountain Kailasa with Shiva’s pantheon, and it symbolizes the center of the universe. While approaching, it was easy to imagine ancient kings and priests parading down the passageway to pay their respects to Hindu deities in this holy shrine amongst the clouds.
The pathway to Phanom Rung
Before ascending up the terraces, we first passed through the primary “naga bridge.” This bridge didn't actually cross over any water; instead it was built to represent the connection between heaven and earth. Of course, the bridge featured more examples of naga statues constructed in the traditional 12th century Khmer style. Even the rails of the bridge were intended to be serpent-shaped. These numerous sculptures (16 to be exact) were facing in four different directions and appeared much fiercer than those at Muang Tam. Clearly they took their job of guarding the entrance to the temple seriously.
A fearsome figure
At the top of the stairs, just before entering the temple walls, we could look out over the rice patty fields far below. The view was truly spectacular. According to my guide book, the top of this retired volcano is approximately 200 m (660 ft) above the surrounding farms. In fact, the name “Phanom Rung” is derived from the ancient Khmer words, “Vnam Rung” which means ‘vast mountain’… an accurate description. The mountains seen in the background are part of the Dangrek Mountain range on the Cambodian border.
"Everything the light touches is our kingdom"
The main entry to the monument was surrounded by a wide grassy terrace with little rocky pools, surrounded by sandstone walkways. There was another Naga bridge here leading to the temple opening built in the same style as the first bridge, only slightly smaller. The central area of the ‘bridge’ was engraved with the eight-petal lotus motif.
The entrance to Phanom Rung
Above the doorway leading to the inner galleries of the temple is another detailed carving, depicting a Hindu hermit. Supposedly, the man is assumed to be an avatar of Shiva as the healer. It has also been referred to as the creator of Phanom Rung – Narendraditya, a descendant of the Mahidharapura dynasty and a possible relative to King Suryavarman II, the creator of almighty Angkor Wat.
A revered recluse
We passed through the doorway into the inner gallery, which was a series of celled-rooms that served as a wall to protect the main tower. A cell wall, if you will. On the inside of this wall, we came to another naga bridge which connected us to the main tower. Similar in design to the previous two naga bridges, these statues were even meaner looking than the first set.
A wolf-like naga head
The bridge led us directly to the main tower, the center of this ancient shrine. It was constructed with pink sandstone in the 12th century. Above the eastern facing door was a Nataraja, which is a depiction of the dancing Shiva. East is the primary direction associated with Shiva, which is why the temple was oriented in this way. The dancing Shiva is believed to represent both the creation and the destruction of the universe, the outcome depended on whether he was in a good mood or a bad mood while he danced. 
A dancing Shiva above the hall to the main tower
Inside the temple we found many more carvings celebrating figures of the Hindu religion, including a small kneeling bull figure designed to represent Shiva’s bull mount, Nandi. This figure was actually a replica of the original, which currently resides at the Phimai Museum.
Shiva's steed 
While inside the hallway leading us towards the main tower, the sunlight shone through the open windows and doors, creating an alluring atmosphere. Supposedly the temple was designed so that at four different times of the year, the sun will shine through all 15 sanctuary doorways at once. Unfortunately our timing was about a month off from this event, but the effect was still stunning. I can imagine the perfect solar alignment would be something truly spectacular to witness.
Rad rays
 On the northeast side of the main tower were a couple brick sanctuaries, well... the remains of them at least. These are the oldest structures in Phanom Rung, built in the 10th century. So please, don't climb on them! :)
Remains of an ancient brick sanctuary
On the left side of the main tower, was a small sandstone sanctuary... built in the 11th century AD. It is known as Prang Noi, or the "Minor Sanctuary."
The "Minor Sanctuary"
While wandering around, we encountered this guy standing stonily still. I stopped to chill with him for a bit. 
Rock on, man!
By far the most impressive part of these ruins was the main tower standing out beautifully against the baby blue sky and fluffy clouds. The blocks that formed the various depictions of Shiva and Vishnu reminded me of one of those puzzles where you have to slide the squares around in order to form an image. The result was striking. 
The main tower at Phanom Rung
To escape the heat for a bit, we wandered over to a laterite builiding that looked a bit like a large brick oven. This structure was known as the "Bannalai" which was a sort of ancient library that was used to store holy scriptures. Currently the only thing it was housing was cool shade and some bats that were also hanging out (haha) here to escape the sun's rays. For being built in the 13th century during the final period of Phanom  Rung's construction... it was in pretty good shape. 
An ancient library building
Soon enough it was time to head home, so we snapped a few final pictures and piled back in the van to go back to Sakaerat. T'was an excellent day ruined! Until next time, Peace Out! 

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