As a follow up to my “10 for 10,000” post, I thought I’d make a list of things I’ve paid about $10 for here. One dollar is around 14,000 Rupiah, so $10 is about 140,000 Rupiah. And without further ado:
Fabric and a shirt. Around $10 gets me 2 meters of batik fabric (60k Rupiah) and a custom-tailored shirt (80k Rupiah).
Tickets to Borobudur Temple. If you’re buying domestic tickets to explore this beautiful Buddhist temple, you can get tickets for a family with 4 adults and 1 child (30k apiece for adults and 15k apiece for kids under 6). If you’re buying tickets at the foreigner price, you can get half of 1 adult ticket (280k).
Lots of photocopies. At 150 Rupiah per copy, I can get 933 black and white copies. And I’ve definitely made more than that over the course of my 9 months here.
A bike as good as new. When I noticed my handlebar grips kept sliding off my bike, I let it go without a second thought. When I realized my brakes weren’t super great anymore, I reasoned that they still stopped me so there was no need to panic. When my kickstand ripped off, I said no big deal, a kickstand is hardly a necessity when you’ve got plenty of walls and fences and motorbikes to lean your bike against. But when my back tire went flat beyond repair I knew it was finally time to figure out how the hell to fix my bike. With the help of Bu Mul, we brought it to a bengkel, a mechanic. For a little over $10, I got a whole new back tire, plus new handlebar grips, plus new breaks, PLUS AN AWESOME NEW KICKSTAND!
My bike in all its glory
Only one left in the teacher’s parking lot
Early morning fog accents its curves
Lots and lots of friends!
To Kill A Mockingbird. A few weeks ago, the school’s librarian approached my desk and in the mafia-est way ever smiled and suggested I give the library books. Though slightly unsettled, I loved the idea and looked for either classic American/English books translated into Bahasa Indonesia or English versions of classics. The selection wasn’t too great. I decided against Indonesian editions of Great Expectations and The Scarlet Letter because there’s a lot of cultural stuff wrapped up in both. Instead, I went with English versions of The Little Prince (which I know is actually French, but it’s a classic and it’s not Dickens or Hawthorne so that’s a plus), How To Train Your Dragon (great book and there’s a movie to watch to help you get the story), and To Kill A Mockingbird (it seemed right).
Postcards to the United States. It takes four 3,000 Rupiah stamps to mail a postcard to the US. Postcards range from 3,000-5,000 Rupiah. So for $10, I can buy/send about 8 postcards.
I love going to the post office. Unlike the immigration office, the post office is a true joy. It’s efficient, quick, and the people are friendly and helpful.
Bills bills bills. My combined monthly water (a flat fee of 46,500 Rupiah [though it used to be 37,500 Rupiah] and electric (around 120,000 Rupiah [though this fluctuates based on how much time I spend in my room with the AC on]) bill is about $10. I pay separately for drinkable water (17,000 Rupiah for a large water cooler gallon drum thing) and gas for my stovetop (I’ve only had to change this once and Bu Mul took care of it).
My motorcycle helmet. An excellent investment because I wear it all the time.
Wayang kulit and 10 eggs. A traditional wayang kulit shadow puppet made of painted buffalo hide for 120,000 Rupiah. There are over 400 characters and, even if they’re not all used in the story you’re watching (which will run about 8 hours, from around 8pm-4am), many are on stage flanking the playing space. One puppeteer (called a dalang) does his thing the whole time with a gamelan (a type Indonesian orchestra made up of lots of different traditional instruments) and a gaggle of sinden (female singers). It’s pretty spectacular! Eggs from Indomaret are 1,500 Rupiah apiece and you can get them in packs of 10 (not a dozen for some reason).
This awesome batik map of Indonesia and 5 bottles of Coke. I found the map in the Jakarta airport for 118k Rupiah, and Coke is 4k a bottle (unless you buy it from this random store near me which charges an extra 1k for refrigeration).
The Indonesia English Teaching Assistant cohort has a blog called Indonesiaful that two of our awesome ETAs edit and all of us contribute to. I hadn’t written anything for it but really wanted to before I finished the grant, so I set to writing. I wasn’t sure what I could contribute, and then decided on talking about what it’s been like being left-handed (or kidal [pronounced “key-dahl”]) in a country where left-handedness is impolite. They published my article today and I wanted to just post it here as well. If you’ve got the time, I highly recommend visiting Indonesiaful, it’s got articles from many different voices on topics ranging from personal stories to cultural insight to discussion of current events and politics in Indonesia. Check it out!
And now, here’s my article:
“Dua belas ribu,” he says.
I reach for my wallet in my left pocket—it’s always in my left pocket and if it’s ever not there I feel naked and scared and like the world is ending and I’ve been robbed.
I open it and count out the notes, flipping through the jumble of bills nimbly with my fingers.
I’ve found the right ones and pull them out.
I extend my left hand towards him, gingerly offering up the cash.
And then I jerk and spazz out. I swing my right hand around and clutch the wad of bills with it too because OH NO OH NO OH NO I just almost paid him using my left hand and that’s really bad and OH GOD WHAT HAVE I DONE but maybe it’s okay because last minute I plopped my right hand on top of the bills too and giving money with two hands is polite, so I’m totally okay, right?
He takes the money, counts out my change. I accept it—carefully and with my right hand—and dash out the door as fast as I can.
This situation is characteristic of the confusion and awkwardness I often feel here regarding my left hand.
I am left-handed.
I am proud of my left-handedness.
But here using your left hand for just about anything but cleaning yourself after using the kamar kecil [restroom] is taboo.
Give money with your right hand.
Eat with your right hand.
Write with your right hand.
I thought I would be able to let this slide, to just coolly slip my left-handedness past everyone.
But everyone notices.
In fact, being left-handed is so weird and uncool that there’s a single word just for left-handers, kidal. Like “lefty” and “southpaw” the word doesn’t have negative connotations, but still, there’s no Indonesian word for right-handers.
So, I have learned to eat, and give and accept things with my right hand.
But I cannot write with my right hand.
Then again, maybe it’s more I will not write with my right hand.
The first week of school when I wrote my name on the board for all of my students (with my left hand) I had to preface my writing by explaining that in America it’s polite to write with either hand. And every day they see me write on that board with my left hand. And that’s a small bit of cultural exchange, right? With that small, repeated action I’m communicating that in some places it’s okay and normal to be left-handed?
I don’t have any left-handed students, but I wonder what it’s like to be left-handed and Indonesian. I know they exist because one of my fellow teachers at school excitedly sent a creepy covert (albeit sweet and considerate) picture of a student using their left hand at her second school. Is this kid made fun of? Is he bullied? Is he shamed into picking up a hatchet and hacking away at his kidal-ness?
I know I’ve been tempted.
Eating is often confusing. As such, I hone my right-handed eating skills at home.
The go-to utensil is the spoon. Easy. Spoon in right hand. Eat.
Sometimes you also have a fork. In these instances, the fork is in the left hand and acts as a blunt object to shovel food onto the spoon which will in turn shovel into your mouth. Fork stays down, spoon goes up. A little trickier, but got it.
Other times, you eat with just your hands. Or, rather, hand. Rice is easy. Chicken is easy. Fish is trickier. This is when I start panicking. It’s impolite to use your left hand. BUT SOMETIMES YOU NEED ONE HAND TO HOLD THE FISH BECAUSE IT’S ALWAYS A WHOLE ENTIRE FISH AND THE OTHER HAND MUST TEAR. WHICH HAND DOES WHAT?! I never know and so I fumble and paw numbly at the dead fish in front of me and pray for the meat to magically fall off the thousands of miniscule bones that are impossible to pick apart from the meat with just one hand.
When someone hands me chopsticks I give up.
Sometimes I rest my face on my hand. On my left hand. I think this is in poor taste.
I once had a very detailed conversation with a fellow teacher about why using your left hand is so gross. I won’t get into it, but basically everything I learned during potty training was a dirty lie. Thanks, mom and dad.
I often look at things a while before acting because I’m trying to determine which hand should do what.
Can I open that door with my left hand?
Can I turn on that light switch with my left hand?
Can I pick up that soccer ball and toss it to that 8-year-old with my left hand?
Before leaving for Indonesia, we had a pre-departure orientation where we talked about our roles as both English teachers and cultural ambassadors. Since being here I’ve learned that cultural exchange doesn’t just mean teaching about your culture and learning about another. Rather, it means absorbing and living in a new culture with different rules and expectations. Then, once you understand the customs better, pushing the boundaries just enough to allow people to understand your culture and your life, but not so much so that they’re alienated and scared.
Heads up: This is a rather long post that’s some of my musings on religion after living in Indonesia, an exceptionally religious country. Feel free to skip it and know that I mean no offense to anyone.
For the past nine month I have been blessed with the opportunity to live in a majority Muslim community and work in a madrasah, an Islamic public high school. Which is different from school in the US where only private schools are affiliated with religion (and predominantly Catholicism). Before coming to Indonesia I knew absolutely nothing about Islam. I’m far from an expert, but I understand much more now. I am proud to work in a madrasah alongside brilliant, kind, loving people. I am proud to work in a madrasah and teach brilliant, kind, loving students. I am grateful I get to learn about another faith, a beautiful faith, that many in America know little about and associate only with terrorism.
When people ask me, “Agama Anda apa” (what’s your religions)—and they do quite frequently here—I respond “Kristen, Protestan” (Christian, Protestant). But that’s not entirely true because when I provide an answer to that question I also provide a set of images that whomever asked draws upon to understand what my worship looks like. They see me attending church every Sunday in my Sunday best with my family. And that’s not really what my faith looks like.
I’m not a particularly religious person. I can count on my fingers the number of times I’ve been to a church service. When I first came here, the ibu who owns the home I live in made sure I knew where the church was and asked if I wanted to go. I laughed awkwardly and said maybe.
I’m not particularly religious, but I’m not an atheist. I tell myself I’m Undecided. I’m still searching for what to believe in. Testing the waters. I believe in God and I like spirituality, but I’m still waffling a bit and I’m not ready to commit.
That doesn’t really fly in Indonesia. So I’m Protestant.
You have to list your religion on your identity card here and the first principle of the five-item philosophical foundation of Indonesia, the Pancasila (pahn-cha-see-la), is Ketuhanan Yang Maha Esa (“belief in the one and only God”). It sounds harsh, but the meaning is more like “belief in one God,” and Indonesia acknowledges six official religions. In order of most practiced to least practiced these state recognized versions of God are Islam, Protestantism, Catholicism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Confucianism.
Noticeably missing from the list is Judaism. Yet Indonesia still boasts the largest menorah in the world.
As much as batik, smiling, and nasi goreng, faith is part of the fabric of Indonesia.
My relationship with church and Christianity is long distance to say the least.
I read most of the Old and New Testaments for a Bible as Literature course in college. I love it. The book is beautiful and fascinating and at times riveting.
I went to church with my aunt and uncle and cousin in Lincoln and sang a lot.
I’ve been to a handful of weddings and funerals.
I saw the Pope once and took an illegal picture of the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.
I stumbled across the stations of the cross happening my junior year of college and was amazed and terrified because I didn’t know what was happening but there were a whole lot of giant crucifixes.
But that’s pretty much it. The only time I’ve been to a church on or around Easter was when I was in China with my mom and we stopped by for some of our tour group to pray. I walked in but didn’t go much further than the threshold. So it was odd then that the need to go to church for Easter this year gripped me. I didn’t go for Christmas. I’ve hardly gone at all in my entire life up to now. But right here right now in Indonesia I knew I needed to go.
Here’s what I think my subconscious was thinking:
First, I’d been telling people for the past seven months that I’m Christian and they all assume I go to church and I kind of wanted to indulge that image and make what I’ve been saying true.
Second, I can’t leave Indonesia without knowing what an Indonesian church service looks like.
Third, I miss my family and I miss my home and I miss my grandparents and I won’t be having any egg hunts or eating any lamb with mint jelly this year, but maybe going into a church will act as a kind of portal and let me glimpse the people I love for a few seconds.
So I set off for church on my bicycle at 4:38pm on Good Friday (Jumat Agung). I parked in the nearby bank’s parking lot and then, in the midst of a sea of Christiandonesians realized how big a family thing church is. I was awfully alone. And extremely noticeable. I nervously walked up, took a weathered blue metal seat in the semi-outdoor overflow area in the back, and fidgeted nervously. And then I saw they restocked the programs so I went and picked one up and then there were people where I had been sitting but that was okay there was still an empty seat so I got in and it was really really hot and I was really really alone and nervous. Also, there was so much hair and women were wearing skirts and dresses above the knee WHAT?!
I smiled to the people around me and then feigned interest—so much interest—in the program. After five minutes or so I had the courage to talk with the ibu on my left. I said “Hari ini pertama kali ke gereja disini. Memaafkan saya jika saya salah” which wasn’t exactly correct, but translates to “today is my first time in church here. Forgive me if I’m wrong.” And then we talked a little. Then I mentioned I teach in a madrasah and that sent murmurs through the people around me. Not bad murmurs, but amazed murmurs. Like “woahhhh he works in an Islamic school but he’s not Islamic, WHAT?!” I am proud to represent a madrasah. Yeah, I can be Christian and work in a Muslim school. No big deal.
And then the service began. I forgot there was singing in church and I love singing. I had the words in my program so I was able to sing along pretty easily. It felt good to sing. And to be singing in a place other than a loud karaoke club or awkwardly in front of an entire crowd of Indonesians.
I struggled to understand the prayers, though I could pick out words here and there.
Then there was a drama. There was gamelan music and a narrator narrating everything, and then a bunch of teenagers coming on in long potato sack dress-robe-things. Some wore black sacks and their faces were painted black. These people were apparently evil. Some wore white sacks and their faces were painted white. I didn’t ask about them, but I assumed they were good. There was also one girl with a red sack and a white face? There was also one dude with what I think was a wool hat covering his face and big headphones over his ears. I’m not really sure what was happening but it was definitely some sort of morality play and they mentioned cellphones at one time so I don’t think it was taken from the Gospels.
After that was the main sermon. It was pretty good, though again, I struggled immensely with understanding it. I tried to concentrate on the words, but also let my mind wander and ponder religion in general.
What does it mean to be religious?
What does it mean to believe in God?
What does my faith look like now and what do I want it to look like?
I couldn’t really answer any of these questions, though I did go through a wide range of emotions and thoughts. I love religion. It has quite literally built empires. It is responsible for some of the most beautiful art, architecture, and music in the world. It keeps people safe. It keeps people moral. It gives people something to believe in. It gives people hope.
It also of course causes wars. The Crusades. The Spanish Inquisition. The War on Terror.
But mostly I think it’s good.
What I do not think is good is when religion – any religion – tells people who they are is wrong or evil or dirty. Our differences are what make this world awesome. God created each and every one of us and so we must all be good, otherwise you’re saying He’s wrong. Of course people do horrible things and murder and steal and hurt others and that’s not okay. But religion’s got forgiveness cemented in its foundations. And in general, if a person is just living their life not hurting anyone, they’re okay in my book.
A conversation I had freshman year with a member of a religious organization on UNL’s campus flashed through my mind. He told me his entire family is Buddhist. And then he said, quite calmly and reasonably, that they will all go to hell unless they convert and believe in Jesus.
That for me is not okay.
God takes many forms. Your God is not the same as my God. Even if we practice the same religion, your God is not the same as my God. How can He be? My relationship with God is personal. There’s a collective experience when you enter a house of worship and pray together, and that’s comforting and beautiful. But you also have your own relationship with God and you’re the only one who knows what that’s like. And your relationship and your worship being different does not make your God less significant or less correct.
Another conversation flashes through my mind. I’m in 4th grade and just explained to my best friends that I wasn’t baptized and didn’t really know what that meant. They promptly and matter-of-factly told me I was headed straight for hell.
That for me is not okay.
Worship takes many forms. But it’s all about the same thing. Regardless of how you pray, you’re praying. You’re putting faith in something greater than yourself. You’re working towards being a good human. Who cares what that worship looks like? Who cares if you were thrust into a tub of water when you were little?
I’m probably betraying my religious ignorance and committing blasphemy right now. Please forgive me.
But I believe anyone who puts down the beliefs of others is wrong.
Anyone who hates and looks down upon and scoffs at and mocks and despises and ignores and hurts is wrong.
Just a quick list of 10 things I’ve bought for about 10,000 Rupiah to give you an idea of general prices. One dollar is about 14,000 Rupiah, so 10,000 is roughly $0.71. So imagine buying all of this for three quarters. All of this is the same price as that too-tiny pack of chocolate-covered pretzels in your high school vending machine.
Two packs of Good Time cookies. These cookies are about half the size of normal cookies and twice as good. Which makes eating all 12 in one sitting way too easy. Pro-tip: the best flavor is Rainbow Chocochips, though Double Choc Chocochips comes in a close second.
A large liquid hand soap refill. Stick with the Camomile Extracts scent because the strawberry one is overwhelming.
An iced coffee and 3 hours of WiFi. Shout-out to Kedai Nara, my go-to internet spot after school hours because I don’t have WiFi at home.
A haircut, a shave, and a wash. My barber is the best and after my electric trimmer died he saved me from looking like a disgruntled caveman.
Lunch. My favorite lunch options are lotek (like salad but with a peanut sauce) [pictured with a traditional Javanese drink, dawet] and mie ayam (noodles and chicken) with es jeruk (like lemonade but from fresh oranges).
My lotek ladies
Lotek and dawet dibungkus (to go)
Mie ayam and es jeruk
Dinner. Go-to favorites are sate ayam (chicken satay) and nasi goreng (fried rice).
My nasi goreng guys
Nasi goreng dibungkus (to go) with cabe (chilies) and acar (lightly pickled pickles)
Sate ayam and lonton
Bus fare to the big city. The trip from Wonosari to Jogja takes anywhere from 1-2 hours depending on how often the driver stops, for how long, and whether he prefers to smoke while driving or stopped. Sometimes it’s boiling and packed with people. But 3 quarters to go 38 kilometers (23.6 miles) ain’t so bad.
The buses are all pimped out
This one is my favorite
Ojek fare from the bus stop to home. The bus back from Jogja drops me off about 3 kilometers from my house at a bit of a transportation hub (I use that phrase lightly). The only way to get back is to take a motorcycle taxi, and I typically pay 10,000. It should be actually cheaper because it’s not far, but they’re charging me the bule price.
This large bag of chips.
About 3kg of laundry. This is a pretty standard sized load to bring to one of the laundry places near me. I only bring shirts and pants because Bu Mul told me when I first got here not to drop off my underwear and socks. They’re really not that scandalous, but I handwash them anyway. Packets of liquid Rinso detergent are Rupiah 1,000 each, so 10k gets me 10 loads of clean undergarments!
When my parents chose my name, they went the less traditional route. They thought “Bryan” sounded nicer than “Brian,” and I have to say that I agree. It’s also (in my humble, completely biased opinion) aestically more pleasing. Y actually thynk we should try replacyng every “I” wyth a “Y.” Yt’s cool and hyp and just better. Let’s make yt happen, people!
But I digress. The pryce I pay for being Bryan instead of Brian is a lifetime of mispellings. After 23 years of seeing my name misspelled though, it doesn’t really bother me anymore.
That being said, I (and the entire Indonesian population) was wildly unprepared for my name’s arrival in this country.
B-R-Y-A-N just does not work well with Indonesian pronunciation.
Quick note on pronunciation in Bahasa Indonesia :
1. All letters are pronounced. Except sometimes “k” which becomes a glottal stop (think the break in your voice between “uh-oh”) at the end of words (like “Pak“).
2. Vowel sounds are always like this:
“A” = “ah”
“E” = “uh” or “eh”
“I” = “ee”
“O” = “au” like in “caught”
“U” = “oo”
In the 22 years and 8 months I’d lived in the U.S. my name was spelled 3 different ways (Brian, Brain, and Bran).
In the 8 months I’ve lived in Indonesia, it’s been spelled 17 different ways.
Y’m seriously considering switching to one of the many alternative spellings. Don’t be surprised if I return with a different name–I promise it will still sound the same and I’ll still be the same me were I not “Bryan” called!
I have less than a month left in Wonosari and in Indonesia. As such, I’m going to try and post as frequently as possible. Lists, impressions, pictures, lots of stuff. I may fail at this. Hopefully not!
How do you measure a year? The characters of Rent give various methods including daylights, sunsets, midnights, and cups of coffee. This past year for me, however, has been measured in trips to Indomaret.
Take this trip, for example:
Sheepishly I approach the counter and slide the box across the shiny gleaming steel to the cashier. It feels weird. The cashier’s blue eye shadow, which does such a nice job of accenting the blazing blue uniform, pierces my soul. Here I am in Indomaret, this convenience-store-plus-more, buying this. The cashier nonchalantly rings it up. I squirm a little and blush.
“Ini ‘M,’ ya?” she says.
“dghjm,” I mumble back, unintelligible garble that is neither Bahasa nor English. Mercifully, she understands that I meant “Yes, M, that is correct that is the size I wanted I am M yes.”
And then, unexpectedly, she swerves from the usual cashier-customer script I’ve become so accustomed to. She asks, “Panas atau dingin.”
I tilt my head and furrow my brow.
I have visited Indomaret well over a hundred times—sometimes as often as thrice per day—but this question is new. “Hot or cold?” I am not sure what to make of it.
She whips out a black plastic take-out container and slaps it down on the counter. Inside is a rather large portion of fried chicken and rice.
“Panas atau dingin,” she repeats.
I sputter out dingin, she gingerly places the meal into my plastic bag, and I walk out into the cool night air with a free chicken dinner.
Where else can you go to buy underwear (because you haven’t done laundry in far too long and really really need clean clothes for school tomorrow) and walk out with a free chicken and rice dinner. Only Indomaret.
Like the secret menu at Starbucks, deals like “buy some underwear, get some chicken” are never advertised. So every purchase is like playing the lottery. Except instead of winning money you win random things you never knew you wanted. Buy some ice cream, get some sprinkles; buy some paper towels, get some more paper towels. FREE.
This convenience-store-plus-more is a beautiful magical AIR CONDITIONED haven. I began frequenting Indomaret to buy groceries and toiletries: eggs, juice, bread, soap, toothpaste. As time has gone on, however, I have found myself stopping by more and more often.
Call it silly, call it absurd, call it an unnecessary luxury that feeds consumerism, but I have fallen in love with Indomaret.
Friendly smiles and fluorescent lights; sugary drinks and salty snacks. The stock changes but the staff never does. I have filled my life with familiar faces from these convenience stores. There are four that I frequent. Each has its own personality. The one with the ATM is nice because it has an ATM, but it’s a bit far. The one closest to me is good, but it’s smaller and also a knock-off Indomaret? The one up the hill has a bakery and a soft serve ice cream machine that can give you a vanilla/corn swirl! Once the one in front of the bus station had Froot Loops and you bet I impulse bought that box.
I have also impulse bought: ice cream, a broom, the Minions movie.
I have tried to buy but could not find: nail clippers and honey. The first they don’t sell. The second was merely hiding.
It’s strange how much my buying habits have changed since being here. There are no grocery stores in Wonosari, so I do all of my shopping at convenience stores like Indomaret. There is a traditional market in town, but it’s a bit far and it smells strange and I’m a little frightened of the produce, which often features cockroaches and enormous spiders. So I stick with Indomaret.
And I’m kind of okay with that. Living here for the past 9 months has meant changing a lot about myself and the way I do things. So maybe I can’t find real yogurt or cheese or granola or baking powder or quinoa. That’s okay. There are other ways to make it work, and I’ve learned to go with the flow.
And now here’s a comprehensive list of why I go to Indomaret:
To get out of the house and interact with humans
To buy plane tickets
To buy train tickets
To buy pulsa (minutes)
To make new friends
To take shelter from the rain (on the way home from another Indomaret)
To fend off boredom
To break big bills
To use the ATM
To find sanctuary in the air conditioning
To buy emergency rainjackets (I have done this twice)
To wait to be picked up
To practice Bahasa Indonesia
To get material to write funny/weird blog posts about
Until next time (which will hopefully be sooner than three months),
The fourth and final installment of December Travels is about my trip to Thailand, Cambodia, and Singapore. As a heads up, this post gets heavy and I talk about war and genocide in Cambodia. If you’d rather skip it (though I recommend you don’t), feel free to do so.
I joined fellow ETA Sam in Bangkok, Thailand on the 23rd. Stayed there for one night (in which I did the only thing any sensible theatre lover would do and listened to Chess’s “One Night in Bangkok”) and explored the next day. Our first stop was the Thai Grand Palace. It’s an explosion of rhinestones, glass, glitter, and gold that would make any bedazzler happy, but unlike most bedazzled jeans, it looks remarkable and very classy.
We also visited Wat Pho, which houses the Reclining Buddha. While this Buddha may be lazy, the artisans who built him certainly were not—it’s covered in gold leaf and measures a whopping 46 meters (150 feet) long.
Afterwards we scoured the city for the perfect pairs of green and red elephant pants (the unspoken uniform of tourists across Thailand) in order to create a spectacular Christmas outfit. We stumbled upon some Christmas sweater-esque scarves as well, so threw those into the fray.
I also drank three large cups of Thai iced tea. Which is delicious. And one contains enough sugar to last me 3 years.
We spent six days in Cambodia, 4 in Siem Reap and 2 in Phnom Penh. This leg of the journey was filled with an awe-inspiring and soul-crushing mix of Khmer history. Over three days we visited the many gorgeous and ancient Angkor temples as well as the Cambodia Landmine Museum. In Phnom Penh we visited Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, and Choeung Ek Killing Field. I’ll speak to the temples first, then on the other sites.
TEMPLE RUN (or, rather, sprint)
The Angkor era lasted from 802-1431 and began when a king declared a parcel of land (about the size of Cambodia) his. He was crowned chakravartin (universal monarch) and renamed Jayavaran II. The Angkor Archaeological Park consists of the ruins of many Angkor capital cities and temple complexes. Angkor Wat, featured on the Cambodian flag, is the largest and most famous ruin, but far from the only one. I will now attempt a sprint through all of the ruins that Sam and I visited (note that we still did not see all of them).
1. Angkor Thom – built in the late 12th century, this “big city” was surrounded by a moat 8 miles in circumference. The next 6 ruins are all part of the Angkor Thom complex.
2. Bayon – this was the state temple of Angkor Thom and the first dedicated to the Buddha. The temple’s most distinguishing feature is its 37 stunning face towers (there were originally 49).
3. Baphuon – this temple pyramid was built before Angkor Thom. It may have once risen 140 feet, but collapsed in on itself from its massive weight.
4. Phimeanakas – a temple with two ponds nearby that may have once house a golden linga (fertility symbol).
5. Terrace of the Elephants – a 1,000-foot-long, spacious walkway that features bas-reliefs of elephants.
6. Terrace of the Leper King – a much smaller terrace that has two 20-foot-high walls with bas-reliefs of devatas (female deities), apsaras (dancers), figures with clubs and swords, and multi-headed nagas (dragon/snake creatures). The lower level is a strange but beautiful maze.
7. Tep Pranam Pagoda
8. Chau Say Tevoda – pictured is a relief of an apsara
9. Thommanon – a small but mighty temple.
10. Ta Keo – built in 1000, it stands 72 feet tall and features five towers, though was supposedly struck by lightning and so never finished.
11. Ta Prohm – the jungle is encroaching upon this 1186 temple and enormous trees grow through crumbling and moss-covered walls. Fun fact, Angelina Jolie encroached upon this 1186 temple in 2000 to film Lara Croft: Tomb Raider.
12. Banteay Kdei – this is the temple where Sam and I decided to speak in only Bahasa Indonesia to confuse all of the tourists and vendors around us.
13. Srah Srang – a large and beautiful man-made lake.
14. East Mebon – this pyramidal temple was once surrounded by water that was 10 feet deep. At each cardinal direction is has stairways that were once submerged leading to platforms that were once boat landings.
15. Pre Rup – consecrated in 961, Pre Rup was a state temple and is a step pyramid, temple mountain.
16. Angkor Wat – the largest religious monument in the world, it covers 500 acres and was completed in the middle of the 12th The five towers rising about Angkor Wat are known as Bakan, were once only open to the king and high priests, and were incredible to explore.
17. Preah Khan – a temple that may have once been a Buddhist university. It has a unique two-story structure built on pillars that may have once held the sacred sword of Cambodia (“Preah Khan”).
18. Neak Pean – a water temple with a lotus-shaped central sanctuary that rises from a pond and is surrounded by four smaller ponds. We had to cross a reservoir to get here.
19. Ta Som – a great temple with quite a few collapsed walls and walkways.
20. Banteay Srei – its name means “citadel of women” and, though far from the main Angkor temples, it is a popular site because it is built of pink sandstone and features elaborate and well-preserved bas-reliefs.
21. Banteay Samre – a citadel built in the early 12th century surrounded by 20-foot-high walls.
22. Ta Nei – a temple hidden in the jungle that we had to walk to. Our tuk-tuk driver tried to convince us not to go, but I’m glad we did. It was practically empty and the least restored temple we saw.
23. Wat Bo – a contemporary temple in Siem Reap itself built in the 18th century.
24. Wat Preah An Kau Sai – another contemporary temple in the city of Siem Reap that features a 20th-century monastery and the remains of two Angkor-era towers. These guys are 21 and 22 and had a great sense of humor.
The darker side of Cambodia’s past
When one of your soldier dies, you bury them. When one of your soldiers is maimed, you must care for them—fix them, feed them. Caring for the wounded costs more money, more time, more people, more resources. Landmines that maim rather than kill are a more effective war strategy. So rival factions within Cambodia covered the country in landmines. Landmines do not click when you step on them. They explode immediately. Landmines do not target soldiers alone, they target everyone. Cambodia is the most heavily mined area in the world and there are an estimated 4-6 million landmines still in the ground. Large cities have already been cleared of mines, but many rural areas are still riddled with explosives. Which means that the land is rendered useless. You cannot farm in it you cannot play in it and if you do you quite literally risk life and limb.
The Cambodia Landmine Museum and Relief Center seeks to educate anyone willing to stop about landmines and their place in Cambodian past and present. The museum was founded by ex-child soldier Aki Ra, who was forced to lay landmines as a child and has since dedicated his life to removing as many as he can—around 50,000 to date. Though he no longer demines, his NGO, Cambodian Self-Help Demining, continues removing mines from Cambodia every day. Around 63,000 people have been in accidents involving land mines and other explosive weapons, and 1 in 290 Cambodians is an amputee. I suggest you now take six minutes to watch this video about Aki Ra (also below).
Led by Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge sought to realize a deranged, utopian fantasy, to destroy art, religion, and culture and begin a new, Communist agrarian society at Year Zero. On April 17, 1975, the Khmer Rouge evicted everyone from the cities and forced them to live in rural areas and begin new lives as farmers. They demanded an absurdly high output from these new communities, many of which were composed of people who had never farmed in their lives. The Khmer Rouge leaders also began an assault on “New People,” on anyone deemed an intellectual with Western influence. Doctors, lawyers, professors, monks, artists, politicians, city-dwellers, foreigners. All were labeled “New People,” and deemed dangerous. As were many who had glasses, for they were seen as a symbol of intelligence. These people were rounded up and sent to detention centers throughout the country. Because their families could potentially seek revenge, they were rounded up too.
In Phnom Penh, one such detention center, S-21 or Tuol Sleng, has been converted into a museum. This high school-turned prison has been kept in a state similar to how it was found after the war. Today it is peaceful and green, but the exhibits depict the atrocities that occurred. The walls are covered in headshots that were taken to document each prisoner. Everyone in the photos—from young children to old men and women—died. S-21 processed over 17,000 people; only seven men, who possessed skills deemed valuable by the Khmer Rouge for the upkeep of the prison, survived. Prisoners were kept in horrible conditions. They were tortured. They were innocent. But the Khmer Rouge insisted they were spies for the CIA or KGB (organizations most of the prisoners had never heard of). They were forced to give false confessions and name others in their spy network (family, friends, neighbors). After they confessed, they were taken to the killing field.
The Choeung Ek Killing Field, one of around 300 across the country, is outside the city of Phnom Penh. Prisoners were brought here in the middle of the night to be murdered. Loud revolutionary music blared and generators roared, powering fluorescent lights and muffling screams for help. This gave any nearby citizens the illusion that the Khmer Rouge were holding meetings. Prisoners were not shot because a gunshot would be too loud. Instead, the Khmer Rouge bludgeoned every individual to death, or slit their throats. Weapons were expensive, so they used whatever they could find. Death was neither fast nor ensured. The bodies were thrown in mass graves and covered in DDT to mask the smell. Those who weren’t already dead were poisoned and buried alive. Though the graves have since been excavated, skeletons classified, and the bones placed into an enormous memorial stupa, bits of bone and clothing still wash up when it rains.
Between 1975 and 1979, approximately 2,000,000-3,000,000 people, a quarter of the entire Cambodian population, died. The population today is young. Anyone over the age of 40 lived through horrors I cannot imagine.
Click here for more information on the genocide and here for an amazing theatre project aimed at educating Cambodian high school and university students about their history.
After a very sobering trip to Cambodia, we went to Singapore and joined a group of other ETAs to celebrate the New Year. We went to a large beach party and there were hordes of people and fireworks and lots of dancing and a foam pit and I lost my shoes at one point and freaked out a bit but it’s okay because I found them. This was the closest to Times Square I will ever get (which in some ways is funny because it was also the furthest from Times Square I’ll ever be). It was fun and I learned to twerk for it. I did miss a quieter evening with a small group of close friends and family. I missed saying resolutions. Or struggling to come up with some sort of resolution. And reflecting on the year. But it was a nice cap to a beautiful and enlightening trip. I was grateful that I could be on a beach surrounded by people, dancing and watching fireworks explode in the sky, carefree. That’s a luxury. The world at times seems more peaceful than ever today. Yet at others it does not.
New Year’s foam pit
Siloso Beach Party
New Year’s fireworks
So to end, I urge you to be unafraid to explore. Explore new places. Explore new people. Explore new ideas. It’s okay if you don’t like or agree with what you find, but opening your eyes to something new, being willing to see that which is outside yourself and your world, is important. Distrust and dislike are never the answer. Neither is destroying—whether physically or verbally—that which scares or upsets you. If you have to hurt others to alleviate something you see as a problem, then you need to ask yourself to find a better solution. Because anything borne from pain will lead only to ruin.