The Perfect Pour

The Perfect Pour

To send a liquid or loose particles flowing or falling

From one container to another, or into, over, or on to something

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 My thoughts are loose and flowing while the airplane slowly circles down to the tarmac. Emotions bubble up and I fight tears. I’m headed to the home of ancestors who left Ireland under times of starvation and death, not able to practise faith, marry legally, buy land or vote.

In the United States, these rights are considered my birthright. But the way the world is going, I may have to stand and fight to retain these freedoms. Those before me chose to leave on ships facing the western sun with hope-filled hearts.  Four generations later, I return, a legacy fulfilled and a spine built of grit.

Left behind are tales and songs of beautiful grass and hills, high cliffs and roaring surf.

My families love for Ireland remained as they endured racial slurs and menial jobs in America. Their suffering will never be taken lightly—for they built a strong cornerstone upon which my life was allowed to soar. I am truly blessed.

Once on the ground, my feet will tread a venerable path—be it dirt or cobblestone– across the Aran Islands, Cliffs of Moher, down to Dingle as we walk the Kerry Camino pilrimage. We trek across beautiful ballinskelligs with amazing beaches and visit the hermitage at Skelling Michael on a perfect day. Come along and explore rich stone age sites to Trinity College library and the Book of Kells (where my ancestors wouldn’t have been allowed).

I’ll wrap my hands around a mug of a perfectly poured Guinness at the Brazen Head, the oldest pub in Dublin, dating back to 1198. Did those before me indulge in the feel of thick foam on the tongue? Sipping Irish whiskey, my feet tap to music. Singing creates a fairy enchantment not allowing a single wallflower as we dance with each other and strangers alike. No one is shy in Ireland. Life is too short and we must live with our glasses full.

My Celtic heart warms. Welcome back home! Come over here for a hug! Amid much laughter, invisible roots plunge deep into the green grass. And there is the greatest gift of all—those who remained and endured welcome me as long-lost kin. Those who return, fall into their arms, melting away generations of separation and leaving a wellspring of love.

Back in the U.S.A., I kneel graveside, and whisper to those who worked so hard to make my life easier, “I completed the circle, because you could not.” I ken they hear and approve. Peace bridges time, flowing across oceans and distant lands, filling one heart and connecting to others. The perfect pour.

WAT !

In early 1960, a seven-year-old girl with a bowl-shaped haircut sank into her grandmother’s overstuffed chair. Following ritual, she grabbed a National Geographic Magazine, drawing her bobby socked feet up under the skirt of her Catholic school uniform. Before the girl opened the first page, her grandma placed an afghan across her lap. She was now ready for transport to exotic lands and alluring cultures. The wing chairs and floral wallpaper disappeared as she saw herself entering Angkor Wat, in a far-away place named Cambodia.

 

 

 

I am that child. Flash forward to 2018. Filled with excitement to be seeing the deserted city for the first time, I arrived armed with childhood memories. When I was young, I thought the Khmer Empire complex might be as large as my three-storied elementary school. Later, I reassessed. Maybe it would be huge, like my high school. Nothing prepared me for the actual size–ninety-six square miles of many temples, royal cities, villages, and hydraulically engineered moats that grew two or three crops of rice per year to feed the large population.

As my feet traversed the path traveled by an ancient, mighty culture, I reflected on images in my mind and felt unprepared for the complexity of the portraits and buildings carved from stone. Monkeys played in the brush or sat on motorcycles parked at the entrance.IMG_9610 I closed my eyes and took a moment to transport back in time, imagining the sounds of monks chanting, horns blowing, drums banging and dancers performing rituals.

Angkor Wat is a UNESCO treasure, but not the only jewel discovered in the jungle by French archeologists in 1914. There are over seventy archeological monuments representing different Kings from the 10th-13th centuries. Looking into the woods, I saw remains awaiting excavation.

 

 

 

We visited Banteay Srei, Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom and Ta Prohm. Each fortress, city, or monastery is distinct from the other.

CITADEL OF WOMEN

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Libraries for advanced learning

 

 

 

 Banteay Srei (citadel of women), established in 967, wasn’t built by a Khmer king but by Yajnavaraha, a scholar and philanthropist who helped those who suffered from illness, injustice, or poverty. If I could time travel, we might have been friends. The name of this temple relates to numerous, beautiful red stone carvings.

 

 

 

 

Some of the effigies are of dancing women. Many carved panels tell moral stories or ancient battles. Treasures have been stolen over the years. Phallic stones are missing.

 

 

 

A fellow tourist told me that when he first came here, it wasn’t safe to wander around the site as many land mines remained from the Pol Pot years of terror (1975-1979). Our guide told us that over 2,000 mines were removed. Approaching the temple on foot, I watched a young monk dressed in orange sitting under a tree. He was checking his cell phone for messages. IMG_9477This would have been very different from the life of a monk from long ago living in bare simplicity. His brother from long ago would have endured similar teachings but the need to interact with modern technology seems a long way from balanced karma.

Angkor Wat

When I was younger, I didn’t know that the word wat meant a Buddhist temple or vata from Sanskrit meaning ‘enclosure’. The full name means temple city and is built in a pyramid form to represent the sacred mountain, Meru. The five towers represent the peaks. It’s a visual reminder of the spiritual universe built by King Juryavarman 11 from 1113-1150, and is set inside a 570’ moat on about 500 acres.

 

 

 

There’s so much acreage but even sunrise is filled with hordes of people. These places would have been busy centuries ago as well, but with merchants selling wares and pilgrims carrying expensive gifts for the King or priests. Redemption carries a big price, then and now.

Getting into the complex structure is a challenge. The original steps are very narrow and steep, requiring the climbers to bend forward in submission and humility. Today, equally steep wood stairs at least offer a handhold for the faint of heart.

 

 

 

The temple is a series of rectangular sections with dark corridors leading to bright sunlit courtyards. Light and dark. Ying and Yang. Balance.

The carvings in the long hallways depict battle stories, similar to Helen of Troy, but Cambodian style. Another hall shows 37 heavens and 32 hells with terrible punishment for sinners. There are depictions carved in stone of long ago battles. Rounding another corner, I was impressed with a creation story.

 

 

 

There are small, very dark temples to Buddha spread throughout the sanctuary and it’s believed that Angkor may have been dedicated for the King’s funeral. I didn’t have my usual peaceful feeling, but rather felt fear and decay.

 

 

 

Leaving the darkness, I walked to the outer wall, admiring life-sized voluptuous dancers, cut from unyielding stone with diaphanous movement shown in wispy clothing. Some of the dancer’s breasts were destroyed, shot off by Pol Pot soldiers who occupied the site in the 1970’s.Those men had no regard for their ancient heritage or respect for women.

Angkor Thom

 

 

 

 Angkor Thom means great city, of the late 12th century by the magnanimous King Jayavarman V11. To enter, one must cross a causeway over a moat bordered by 54 stone figures. Demons are on the right and guardians on the left in reverse ideology.

 

 

 

Being left-handed, I appreciate the opposite thought. The city gate remains, and is large enough for elephants to pass through, but a tight squeeze for modern tour buses.

What I enjoyed about this place and this particular king was his love for common people. The carvings on the outer walls are dedicated to his subjects and show everyday life. There are people cooking, selling things and dancers. There are carvings dedicated to a midwife and women in labor that I especially appreciate because I was an L+D nurse. There are images of soldiers marching with spears, others are packed into boats, and one section shows the enemy being eaten by alligators.

 

 

 

Inside the sanctuary are pyramid-shaped buildings connected by narrow walkways. Certainly there are many more people visiting today than would have been allowed in the ancient past.

 

 

 

It’s hard to get photos without many multi-cultural faces jostling into you. Regardless, the immense faces carved in stone are majestic.

 

 

 

Is this a guardian of the past or an image of the king who commissioned this city?

Ta Prohm

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Ta Prohm means monastery of the King and was constructed in the late 12th century to early 13th by the very same civic-minded Jayavarman V11 who built Angkor Thom. This was a Buddhist monastery and university built in a flat style rather than the earlier pyramid shape. Once upon a time, 18 high priests, 615 dancers and plenty of wealth flowed into this center and the surrounding village of 80,000 people. It would have been a bustling place for prayer, training, and study.

 

 

 

Archeologists decided this complex should retain the feeling of emergence from the jungle.This is the temple used in the Tomb Raider movies for the sense of discovery and adventure. Trees grow over sections of ancient walls. Stones have fallen down and are toppled about, looking like dice thrown by giants.

 

 

 

Everywhere there is a sense of being the first person to set eyes upon a place of great mystery. Being the most visited archeological site in Cambodia, I suggest going either early or late in the day when it may be possible to get a few photos without crowds.

We sat across the moat, looking at Angkor Wat while we ate (and enjoyed) jerky strips of water buffalo, frog legs, and snake meat washed down with local beer. Being open to immersion in another culture awakens the senses—touch, hearing, smell, taste and sight. The little girl who dreamed of travel and the adult I became united in a heartfelt moment at the golden hour. The sun slipped below the horizon and I realized that I must go back. Cambodia is a land of great history, amazing archeological sites and beautiful people.

City of Gold (Vientiane, Laos)

In this tumultuous land,  the oldest monastery in Laos, Wat Sisaket has survived numerous invasions. The architecture is more Siamese style than Laotian, with a five-tiered roof and a u-shaped terrace exhibiting 6,800 statues of Buddha in wood, bronze, and stone.

We were very fortunate to meet two monks willing to speak with us about a typical day. Prayer and lessons, chores and ceremonies, meditation and study. Their religion leads to insight and knowledge. The aura of the monastery is calm peace. To the left of the initiate monk in orange, there are two canopied beds decorated in gold and silver. Higher ranking monks sleep here with darling kittens. I loved this insight to men and their pets.

Nearby is the most important religious monument in Laos, called That Luang Stupa. In the first century, an older Hindu temple was on this spot. Later Buddhist missionaries brought the breastbone of Buddha and rebuilt the stupa. In the 13th century, it became a Khmer temple that fell into ruin. resurrected once again as a Buddhist temple, the Thai invasion of 1828 destroyed it for the fourth time. The French rebuilt it twice (1900 and 1930) before it was demolished in a bombing raid and rebuilt again after World War 11. If nothing else, this site shows human tenacity at its greatest.

Bring your sunglasses as the 147′ tall temple is covered in 1,102 pounds of real gold leaf. It’s built in three levels following Buddhist teachings. The bottom is a little over 226′ square and represents the underworld. The middle level is one step closer to heaven, if believers have followed the 30 Buddhist teachings of perfections. These are represented by 30 smaller narrow stupas surrounding this level.The upper level is enlightenment and Nirvana.

Almost hidden around a corner is a modern reclining Buddha in a garden setting. The bottom of Buddha’s feet have infinity wheels and many people want their earthly remains interned in stupas flanking the statue.

I’ve been gone from this site for awhile–traveling and having many new adventures that I plan on sharing with you! Next up–Amazing Angkor Vat. 

Mekong, Monks, and Market

What is the common thread of the Mekong River, monks and markets? Nourishment, the passionate joy of discovery, a shifting of the inner self to allow meditative balance.

The Mother of all rivers is the 2,700 mile long Mekong which begins in China, flows through the Tibetan Plateau and onwards to Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam to the China Sea (*note– SE Asia isn’t happy this sea is named for China!)

The river supports many diverse groups of people. Britannica states that 80% of protein (fish) is harvested from the Mekong River in Cambodia and 1/2 of all crops are irrigated with her waters in Viet Nam. Small hydroelectric dams have been in place since the 1950’s, but current large projects are highly controversial. I cannot imagine flooding of the Buddha cave and other ancient sites and this is only one component of the debate.

Early every morning, orange robed monks walk single file and barefoot down the streets seeking alms of rice. This ancient Buddhist tradition offers residents a way to attain good karma and peace as the sun rises. Monks are a visual reminder to be faithful, to walk with intention, to be mindful of all actions and words. Religion nourishes us from the inside out.

Daily markets are a microcosm of life worldwide. A young mother rests on a bench, feeding her baby before gathering the day’s sustenance for the rest of her family. Women from the countryside harvest fruit, vegetables, and even addictive Betel Nuts. People develop friendships with locales as well as strangers, and these interactions feed their souls.

Some venders cook meals, including grilled rat which is a local delicacy in Asia. (*It tastes like grilled pork)

Other booths carry flowers for spiritual and religious uses. Birds are captured and sold, some to release for good karma and others to grace our dinner table.

One of my favorite markets is the night market in Luang Prabang, Laos. It is certainly set up for tourists, but the items are varied and negotiations brisk. Hand-turned exotic wood bowls, handmade paper made into lanterns, beautiful paper greeting cards with intricate pop-ups (*note to buy in quantity, but keep in mind they are $1US a piece in Vietnam), fabric and embroidered goods.

Please refrain from buying the jewelry made from bomb casings. Do not encourage public collection of these dangerous materials unless they are from a certified and safe removal organization. IMG_0563

Traveling With a Tender Heart

Refugees from northern Thailand have lived for three generations under the highway in Bangkok, squatting on Port Authority land. They have nothing to go back to. IMG_8944The rice fields and their homes are long gone.IMG_8940

There’s a man named Thai who was a champion kick-boxer who runs an open air gym underneath the overhead thumping and growling traffic. He wants to keep kids away from drugs and other bad influences by training them to excel in a lucrative competition that offers a chance for success.

Young men sacrifice gallons of sweat, honing the sport on dreams filled with hope.

I walked with the mayor of this small village, down narrow paths hemmed in by ramschackle dwellings made from items found in garbage bins. Babies played or old men napped in the golden afternoon light.

There’s a small grocery in the front room of one home. The owner wheels a cart, piled high with goods for sale. Her voice echoes up and down the maze of passageways. Chickens are raised in one section, roosters saved for fights and gambling. There’s a meger pharmacy, sans a druggist, doctor or nurse. The community struggles to be self-sufficient.

 

I became a pied-piper, drawing in so many children who wanted stickers I brought to pass out in exchange for a smile. A few crafty ones returned with another shirt, hoping I wouldn’t recognize them, waiting in line for a second helping of goodies.

Why don’t these families move on, absorbing themselves into the open air and sunglight of Bangkok? When faced with the question, the mayor answered, “This is our home.”

 

Visiting the Hmong refugee village near Luang Prabang in Laos felt much the same. These northern people, in danger from unexploded United States cluster bombs, were moved by their government from hollowed craters where poppies grow, ripe with opium.

 

Life moves on in this village, where these strangers aren’t accepted by other Laotians. A woman pumps air into a forge where her husband squats at the flame and crafts knives. A retired man makes bird and fish cages out of reeds. Women thread looms, making scarves  with babies at their sides. Another group of women embroider fabrics to sell at market. Children play games with rocks, climb trees, and go to a one-room school. Everyone smiles and waves.

 

The best way to keep cultural identity and traditions alive is to remain in a group strengthing the community, even if living conditions aren’t ideal.  We were invited into the leader’s home and spent some time talking about the dispersed Hmong people and what a typical day is like.

 

He later dressed in a traditional outfit and played music for us. Plied with local moonshine, we were embolded to eat appetizers of fried crickets, silk worms, and cacoon of moth before a beautiful feast was prepared in our honor.

 

We were welcomed with such grace and open arms.  I wondered at the cost and time of hosting such an elaborate meal and felt guilty about using their resources.

‘HOME’ is a complicated word that cannot convey the depth of feeeling within a heart or an ethnic group. If I were a painter, I’d splash and swirl colors of the rainbow to try and give you the meaning. Musicians might compose a sound that would vibrate inside your soul. All of these arts cannot surpase the simple act of a well meant hug.

Royal Wat Xieng Thong

After a delicious lunch at Joma Bakery in Luang Prabang, we visited Wat Xieng Thong, built in 1559 as a royal temple where kings were coronated until 1975.

 

Wood doors covered in gold tell the life of Buddha. Enter the building to see carved Naga on the ceremonial cremation barge used for the kings remains. These snake figures are said to be a supernatural deity, and can be a protectress or demon, guardian and demigod. Evidently, some of them can turn themselves into human form, which might be kind of freaky.

 

Images of Buddha with various hand positions (called mudras) instruct us to follow peace, banish fear, quell demons or practise charity.

 

I was busy looking at sparkling glass tiles and painting on the wood beams of winged Pegasus and didn’t realize that the tour had moved to another building.

 

Three children were busy getting their fortunes. Delighted, they showed me how to pull a numbered stick out of a container and how to foretell my own future. Later, I learned doing this three times would have been better.IMG_9067

Across the courtyard is the temple where the Laotian Kings were coronated and where the sacred boat is kept.

 

Another favorite building is the Sim, or congregation hall, with the outer wall decorated in glass tiles in the shape of a tree of life that shimmer in the light.

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This golden guy is a cautionary tale about a peeping Tom and he got caught.  Of course, he had karma payback for his naughty actions.

 

In 1887, when rebels invaded and destroyed Luang Prabang, this complex was saved because the leader had once been a young monk who studied here.

 

Floating Market and Mangrove Forests

The famous  Damnoen Saduak floating market,  located sixty-two miles southwest of Bangkok, Thailand remains a blast from a past when river traffic was the only way to trade.

The main canal was built in 1866 by King Rama 1V to connect two rivers, but many  side canals were dug by hand. Today, these twisty mazes offer vistas of beautiful temples with gold dragons adorning steps down to the water to house boats where people live and work.

There used to be markets like these across Thailand, but as roads were developed, many of them closed. Damnoen Saduak retains its history, chaos and charm.

Very early in the morning, farmers sell vegetables and fruit before a quick turnaround to ply the tourist trade in an irresistible and colorful tourist trap offering t-shirts and low-cost indigenous clothing, Buddha figures, and carved wood items with a few hidden spice dealers or local artists amongst knock-off purses.

Other sellers cook noodle soup or hot bbq inside their boats and I wondered how they kept afloat. A kaleidoscope of vendors voices join the long tail boat’s smoking engines that whine in a strange orchestra of sound as crowds thicken and jostle for space.

I bought saffron. But you need to know what color it should be (bright orange and red, not brown). A large bag would selling for $40 at home, set me back $5 US. Old spices sold cheaper–be wary. Everything is negotiable, and I suggest aiming for 50% off asking price. Cute traditional cotton pants should cost $3-$5. Fix an amount in your head and stick to it. Competition is fierce and a seller won’t let you leave without announcing their bottom line.

Close by, there is a mangrove conservation area in Khlong Khon district of Samutsongkram province. These forests grow in salt water, providing a green wall of defense against coastal erosion. The health of an ecosystem is determined by the vigor ( or lack) of the mangroves that can grow up to forty feet tall.

When fishermen noticed a depletion of harvest, a serious effort began to replant and protect this sensitive ecosystem. There are hundreds of shrimp-eating monkeys who ran after our boats looking for bananas. Some of them are cute, while others reminded me of the Witch of Oz and her army. It was fun to watch them, but be sure to keep them off your lap and watch your fingers!

The sea-side communites farm-raise fish, mussels and oysters. Some residents make shrimp paste (which is really krill) used in Thai cooking.  I asked about sustainability of harvesting krill with the Arctic and Antarctic oceans warming, resulting in the reduction of the mighty protein required by all mammals, including the largest whales.

I got a confused look from the local vendor. Seems like a little education is in order for both of us. I’ve googled that there are eighty-nine known krill species and all of them should have harvesting limits.

Edible cricket farming is on the rise too, and I recently learned about a high protein cricket flour that is being exported around the world. Thai farmers make more money on this high protein commodity than in harvesting rice, sugar cane, palm sugar, or coconut sugar.