Tag Archives: Cambodia

Silk – Thread of Empire

silk scarves from Laos © Marc d’Entremont
silk scarves from Laos © Marc d’Entremont

“With time and patience the mulberry leaf becomes a silk gown.”  ancient Chinese proverb.

The allure of silk: its soft feel, its shimmer, its character to absorb vibrant colors, its legend of luxury, its power. No other fabric has caused the rise and fall of empires or led legions of adventurous merchants to risk life and fortune. For centuries the Silk Road linked the fabled kingdom’s of Asia with the Mediterranean and Western Europe. The expensive, arduous and dangerous journey fed into the mystique of an enigmatic Orient – a land of meditation and mass murder, tea and opium, the Buddha and Pol Pot.

Silk: (top left) Mulberry Trees, (bottom left) silk cacoons, (center) cacoons on bundles of sticks and (top right) circular basket, (bottom right) silk worms munching on Mulberry leaves
Silk: (top left) Mulberry Trees, (bottom left) silk cacoons, (center) cacoons on bundles of sticks and (top right) circular basket, (bottom right) silk worms munching on Mulberry leaves

Yet during 19th and 20th century domination by European empires over Asia’s economies, silk was overshadowed by more lucrative commodities – opium, tea, rubber. By the end of the Second World War, large scale manufacture of silk cloth in Southeast Asia had been reduced to a cottage industry, a victim of hard economic times, war and changing fashion – synthetics. It took an entrepreneurial visionary – a risk taker –  to revive Asian silk.

Jim Thompson

As an artist Jim Thompson was drawn to the rich colors and expressive designs of what was by the mid-1940’s a tiny cottage industry in the Muslim provinces of southern Thailand and northern Malaysian jungle villages.  These villagers were using centuries old silk worm farming techniques, natural dyes and ancient tools to produce stunning yards of intricately woven fabric – and selling them for a pittance.

Born into a Delaware clothing manufacturing family in 1906, educated at prestigious schools, a successful and well connected  architect and designer, Jim Thompson chucked it all after becoming disillusioned with life by the late 1930’s. Joining the army at the start of World War II, he was recruited into the OSS, forerunner of the CIA. Sent to Thailand late in the war to infiltrate the Japanese occupation, he was assigned to head American intelligence in Bangkok. The war ended shortly after parachutting into the country, but Thompson liked Bangkok and made the decision to stay. That’s when he discovered the Muslim silk weavers.

(from Top left) silk worm, eating Mulberry leaves, mature cocoons boiling, (from bottom left) strand of silk fiber being pulled from cocoon, fresh silk thread

Jim Thompson cultivated personal relationships with the village weavers assuring them of markets for their cloth which did not yet exist. He encouraged the weavers not to give up the old methods and tweaked traditional designs for western clientele. (He later established a Muslim weaving quarter next to his compound across the canal. Today, wandering the Thompson House grounds, you can clearly hear the daily calls to prayer). Ensconced in Bangkok’s legendary Oriental Hotel, he effortlessly, it’s said, schmoozed with wealthy ex-patriots and visitors personally marketing Thai silk cloth. Within a few years his Thai Silk Company attracted the patronage of Vogue magazine and Irene Sharaff, fashion designer for the musical The King and I. By the early 1950’s Thai silk was an international rage, silk weaving was once again a vibrant home industry and Jim Thompson was dubbed the Silk King.

Muslim weavers quarter across the canal from the Thompson “House on the Klong”

Thompson became a celebrity in Bangkok and a confidant to the rich and famous. His parties at the unique compound he created in the city were frequent with an eclectic mix of the business and art worlds. Using his considerable skills in architecture and design, he melded together six antique teak wood houses brought from various areas of Thailand into a compound including his home, workshops and retail space. It doesn’t hurt that he filled the grounds with gardens, pools and priceless Oriental antiques.

Jim Thompson’s House on the Klong, Bangkok, Thailand
living room at House on the Klong
Jim Thompson silks and designer gowns

Although Thai Silk Company products are legendary today and available in elegant shops, Jim Thompson himself is simply a legend – or an enigma. In 1967 while visiting friends at their country house in northern Malaysia, Thompson went for a walk and within minutes had disappeared. No word was ever heard, his body never found. Speculation/conspiracy theories run rampant even today – a truck hit him and the driver took the body, a large animal ate him, he was still working for the CIA and was either eliminated by them or Communist guerillas (although he questioned the wisdom of the Vietnam war), or perhaps he simply wanted to chuck it all again and went native. Oddly, only 6-months later his wealthy sister was mysteriously murdered at her Pennsylvania estate – no robbery, no alarm, even her dogs didn’t bark.

natural dyes for silk thread

 

Lao Textiles, Vientiane, Laos

Carol Cassidy, on the other hand, is hearty, alive and well in Vientiane, Laos. When I met her for the first time a couple of months ago, she took me back to the workshop with a very worried expression saying she’d ruined a run of silk. Not the first words I expected from one of the world’s most renowned women in the art. She showed me this beautiful skein of shimmering teal silk. That was a mistake?? It just wasn’t the exact shade she wanted for the project, and considering silk is made by a worm, it’s not like she can run down to the local 7/11. Traditional arts for a contemporary clientele are long, serious work.

one-of-a-kind Carol Cassidy shawl

The scion of a prominent Connecticut family, Carol was the first American allowed to establish a business in post-1975 Laos, Lao Textiles, in 1990. This was after a career with a variety of NGO’s world-wide as a textile expert. Although she’s frequently compared to Jim Thompson’s Thai Silk Co., their business model is the only similarity. Both use traditionally trained weavers, pay fair wages and build personal relationships with the craftspeople. Yet where Thai Silk’s designs are for a mainstream international market, Cassidy specializes in made-to-order art hangings and clothing utilizing traditional Lao patterns. This carries over to the very limited runs of products available in the atmospheric 19th century French Villa showroom/workshop. Most are one of a kind Carol Cassidy wearable art in Lao silk and a terrific memory of that beautiful country.

hand bag with silk balls, Phontong Handicraft Cooperative

Local non-profit organizations dedicated to the preservation of traditional arts exist in all Southeast Asian countries. In Vientiane, the capital of Laos, the Phontong Handicraft Cooperative has been organizing village craftspeople and marketing their work since 1976.

Artisans d’Angkor in Siem Reap, Cambodia, has a large vocational school complex for carving and graphic arts in town and a sizable silk farm and weaving operation just outside the city. The school particularly trains the disabled.

silk weaver at Artisans d’Angkor
monk and silk dresses

Whether it’s adventure, fortune, art or simply a way to make a living, silk has never ceased to fascinate:

“Upon them shall be garments of fine green silk and thick silk interwoven with gold, and they shall be adorned with bracelets of silver, and their Lord shall make them drink a pure drink.” ~the Quran 

“He who has little silver in his pouch must have the more silk on his tongue.”~ Edward Bulwer-Lytton   (1803 – 1873)

“Once a guy starts wearing silk pajamas it’s hard to get up early” ~ Eddie Arcaro (1916 – 1997)

“A good start…is to be a Buddhist.”

monks in Luang Prabang, Laos

That’s two-time Academy Award winning actor, Sir Michael Caine,* listening to a profound statement on the necessity of Western intellectuals to adopt an enlightened vision of the future…no. It’s the response on asking a resident of Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) the best way to cross the street. From recent personal experience, this is a profound – some might say life affirming Q & A.”

Although far more people walk than in any American city I know – pedestrian friendly is an alien concept in Asian consciousness. Sidewalks do exist but, even if they are wide, nearly every square meter is occupied by vendors or motor bikes using the space as parking lots. Congestion on these sidewalks frequently made me use the street sharing the often narrow space with cars, trucks, motor bikes and other forms of public transportation in a devil-may-care free-for-all.

Hanoi, Vietnam

To cross the street a pedestrian simply crosses the street into the traffic which on the many 2-way streets or 3-street intersections comes from all directions. Although daunting at first, this is exactly what the on-coming traffic expects as it, usually, avoids both pedestrians and other vehicles with deft agility. The gentleman’s response to Michael Caine’s question was not flippant. It takes a sturdy centeredness gained through Buddhism, or tenacity, to calmly sense the correct timing and enter the traffic. The worst action a pedestrian can take is to get spooked and hesitate halfway across several lanes of traffic – that’s when the cars and motor bikes get spooked and accidents occur.

 
crossing street in Chaing Mai, Thailand and forms of public transportation

I knew none of this when I arrived in Bangkok. Six weeks later, leaving Saigon, perhaps I’d become a Buddhist as I simply spent no more than a ½-second contemplating my move across the street.

Hanoi, Old City, Vietnam

My wife, on the other hand, followed  Michael Caine’s plan of action, “We looked for groups of Buddhist, inserted ourselves into the very center of them and crossed when they did. If I was going to be mowed down, at least I’d be in the right company.” * Except Jill looked for any vendor pulling (yes, pulling) a cart – frequently old women – and, using them as a human shield, crossed when they did.

Was it fun at first?  No. Did I react negatively? Yes. I “threw the finger” at one SUV in Hanoi, after a particularly disappointing meal. He was shocked. After all, he was only going 35/mph 10 feet from me, but I lost my cool and failed to realize he’d never want to splatter me across the street – not as long as the Lord Buddha was watching over us all.

bus in Bangkok - less than $.05/ride

 

* The Elephant to Hollywood,” by Sir Michael Caine

The Ta Prohm Strangler

copyright: www.travelpenandpalate.com

The ceiling fan stirs the languid air as mosquitoes flirt in the shadows of verdant ferns and orchids. Roosters compete with motor bikes to break the dawn. The gray/pink haze illuminates the dust laden street with its fading blue and red tin roofed houses. A young man in his 20’s, shirtless, in red shorts, barefoot, opens a creaking gate to drag the motor bike out of the night-time safety of his house. He pauses, takes in the day – a day just like yesterday – the sun will break through and life will steam.

I sit on the rattan chair at the small dining table, close to the window away from the fluorescent ceiling lights and their harsh pools of blue/white light. The coffee is black, thick and sweetened with condensed milk, just as everyone in this ancient kingdom likes it – except me.

Other guests filter down the wide wooden staircase during the morning. Given the heat, humidity and sugar high from the coffee, I easily imagine a veritable cornucopia of characters from any number of 20th century expat-in-the-tropics novels. The fit German couple in the corner table – early 50’s but have that trekkers’ older look – bussed it overnight from the capital, 12 hours, no air-conditioning. I’ve been warned the overnight busses are not wise – theft, bandits, drivers falling asleep, other accidents. Relaxed they were with their pineapple juice, coffee and toast; they’ve faced worst dangers (?). There’s the eager well-scrubbed English 20-something travel companions planning their one-day schedule to see 14 temples, naive to the toll the jungle will take by temple # 3. The sullen early middle-aged North American couple, skin already too red from the sun,  start the day badly due to the eggs (they were oddly undercooked in some sort of fat and sprinkled with ground cinnamon). Yet even though $20/night is nothing to spend on a hotel – ok, weak a/c, weaker WiFi and it’s the third world – it should include… Perhaps he needs to ask the Ta Prohm Strangler what life in the jungle should include.

Royal Residence of the King of Cambodia in Siem Reap

Siem Reap, Cambodia, is not far from the 19th century. Just outside the town are dusty small villages still in that time warp.   French annexation of the Angkor Wat region over a century ago assured its discovery as one of Earth’s great man-made sites, and Siem Reap developed a modest tourist industry. A few elegant hotels, such as the 1929 Grand Hotel d’Ankor, guest houses and a very modest Royal Residence were sprinkled on tree-lined streets in what was just a large village.

Grand Hotel d’Ankor (1929)

The survival of Angkor, and Siem Reap, through World War II, the French Indochina War, the Vietnam War, Pol Pot and the civil war (total war years: 1939 -1989) is miraculous although like all urban areas, the town and its population suffered greatly. Yet what is Siem Reap without Angkor, what is Angkor without the Khmer Empire, and what is empire without war?

Mother Elephant, sculpture, the Peace Art Project, made from decommissioned weapons

The meters of bas-relief carved on many walls of the over 200 temple complexes at Angkor Thom tell the story that this was the center of an empire – political, military, economic and religious – as well as the home to thousands of people for hundreds of years. Since 1989, stability under the restored monarchy has made tourism safe again at Angkor. Still, visiting the UNESCO site at night is neither allowed nor advisable. Driving, or even being driven, at night for any long distance in rural areas outside Siem Reap is not a good idea. Bus travel to the Lao border a couple hundred miles north can take a full day. It has been this way for hundreds of years, ever since the Khmer Empire moved its capital south and the Ta Prohm Strangler moved in.

the Bayon (early 13th century)

The expansionist Thais of Siam put an end to the westward growth of the Khmers in the 15th century by sacking and eventually occupying most of the Empire’s capital at Angkor Thom. Then the French took it from the Thais (1907) and gave it back to the new Khmer kingdom of Cambodia (under their “protection”). Except there’s still this issue over the 11th century Preah Vihear temple right on the border created after the French annexed the land so…

Monk did get cigarette lite

Siem Reap exploded during the last decade developing from a modest town into a chaotic jumble of village/tacky/new high-end without sufficient infrastructure. A new strip of luxury resort hotels, lining the road from the airport to town, seriously serving bus tours, seem incongruous interspersed with rice paddies and no beach. The old French Quarter’s charm is hidden behind questionable electrical lines and examples of exuberant marketing.

Dusty unpaved roads with small houses and even smaller tailor shops, fruit stands and tall narrow guest houses intersect with a boulevard and the ATM across the street. The night-time scene is classic: locals hawking cheap wares while children watch TV on someone’s laptop, “tuk-tuk? where are you going?” the smells of grilled meat and humid air, music thumping from dozens of open bar/restaurants, “2 dollars foot message?”  lights of all shapes and colors illuminating a kaleidoscope of swirling Australians, French and Japanese  dodging the motor bikes and tuk-tuks. The gods and demons of ancient  Angkor would prefer if Siem Reap was grander, but I’m confident they’d approve the activity – after all, it is once again Cambodia’s cash cow. Could the Strangler be failing?

reviving traditional crafts, training the disadvantaged: the non-profit Artisans d’Angkor

Creating a sustainable economy is difficult in a region both exhausted by strife and whose fame is based on ruins. Artisans d’Angkor operates both training facilities and retail outlets for high-end traditional Khmer silk, wood and stone arts and crafts. Training those with special physical needs is part of their mission as well. Touring both the craft shops and the silk farm is instructive and a pleasant break from tracking down the Ta Prohm Strangler.

(top left) palm fruit, (center) boiling palm fruit juice, (bottom left) palm brown and white sugar, (top right) Palm Juice Drink: sweetened palm syrup & water in bamboo cups

Southeast Asians eat all the time – a grilled banana, nibble fresh pineapple, sip some cane juice, a fresh baked fish in salt, a coke, a few dried strawberries. There’s always food, and no one’s fat. Yet KFC’s here and Australian beef burgers but so are frog’s legs and sautéed freshly picked morning glory greens from the river bank.

(Left) grilling fish and poultry on aromatic wood holders within Angkor UNESCO World Heritage Site
Siem Reap River: cafe, hand-made silk fashions and Temples (click to enlarge picture)

There’s a quiet side, the banks of the Siem Reap River. The town’s best restaurant and small hotel, Bopha, is located at 512 Acharsva Street facing the east bank. It’s a haven of calm with rooms and the restaurant surrounding and within several lush tropical garden courtyards. A private pool adds to the relaxation of spending less than $US60/double and US$20/couple for haute Khmer cuisine (US$10-20/wine).

Bopha: (top from left) baked fish, green papaya and chicken salad (bottom from left) steamed rice and grilled pork with crispy noodles

The lure is still the past – the Royal City of Angkor Thom, the vast complex of 243 temple cities once populated with over one million people ruling an empire covering much of present day Southeast Asia. Started by Khmer kings and Hindu priests in the 9th century, reaching its zenith in the 13th as the capital of a Buddhist empire, sacked by the Thais in the 15th century, it has been sustained and ultimately saved by monks from the strangulation of neglect, changing politics, wars and the jungle.

Banteay Srei, 12th century “women’s temple” built several miles from the Royal City of Angkor Thom

The Strangler Fig (strangler vine to the locals) sends dozens of roots deep into the ground around rocks and buildings for hundreds of feet. It encases and crushes whatever it encounters. To kill the vine, all roots must be severed. To restore a temple, the vines must be killed.

A metaphor for the restored Khmer Kingdom of Cambodia? Can all the destructive roots of the past 500 years be severed and the orderly, yet bloody, grandeur of nationhood be reborn? Or will Siem Reap be a new Khmer model: play it day-by-day, see what happens, hope, sweat and keep the Ta Prohm Strangler at bay.

Strangler Fig (Vine) at Wat Ta Prohm

Angkor Wat: A Millenium Symbol of Cambodian Resilience

 

Angkor Wat, constructed in the 12th century

Before French imperialism in the 19th and 20th centuries, before the uninvited American intervention during the Vietnam War, before “sainted” President Reagan’s support for the murderous Pol Pot, his reign of horror and the civil war he pursued for a decade after his overthrow in 1979 by Vietnamese forces, there was the glory of the Khmer Empire (9th – 15th century) and it’s capital the Royal City of Angkor Thom.

Hindu God Siva at Angkor Wat, artillery damage from recent wars

The greatest of the 292 temples that comprise Angkor Thom is the 12th century Angkor Wat constructed during the reign of King Suryavarman II (1112-1150) when the Khmer Empire was at its height dominating most of present day Southeast Asia. The temple complex covers over 200 acres making it the largest religious complex on Earth. It was built to impress. Its outer walls and outer temple are at the end of a 1,000 foot stone causeway over an equally wide 30 feet deep hand dug moat. The inner temple complex is reached by walking on another 1,000 foot raised stone causeway through the vast interior courtyard.

the three towers of the outer temple are on the national flag of Cambodia
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flag of the Kingdom of Cambodia

To attempt a detailed explanation of Angkor Wat, its architectural significance and the meanings of its intricate bas reliefs requires a text-book. Viewing any of the temples with out arranging for a private guide (US$45-55 for 8-hours, guide and driver) would be a waste of time. The bas reliefs of Angkor Wat are the largest in the world covering dozens of walls hundreds of feet in length and 12 – 15 feet in height. They are in stunning condition. Both carved into solid sandstone and covered from the elements over the centuries they tell the stories of Khmer glory and the religious texts of Hinduism in excruciating detail. Many are horizontal tryptics: royal life/battles top third, everyday life middle third and the ocean or hell on the bottom third.

(bottom center) punishment in hell, (bottom right) life in heaven

King Suryavarman II is depicted (picture below) riding in triumph on an elephant covered with the 15 umbrellas that signify his rank as god-king.

the God-King Suryavarman II

The Khmer Empire at its beginning was Hindu, but openly adopted Mahayana Buddhism in the 12th century. The Buddha, a Hindu prince himself, was not a religious monolith and therefore Mahayana Buddhism blends all of Hindu beliefs within Buddhist teachings – the divine trinity, heaven/hell (good and evil), the commandments. The result is a masterful melange of art and philosophy.

By the 14th century the Khmer Empire was under assault by its neighbors, especially the Kingdom of Thailand which succeeded in sacking Angkor Thom. The Royal Court moved south and the jungle slowly overtook 291 of the temples. Angkor Wat was, for the most part, spared that fate due to the diligence of the Buddhist monks who refused to abandon the complex even during the horrendous events of the recent Southeast Asian wars. Angkor Wat today is an active temple with two Buddhist monasteries –  it is “Mecca” for Mahayana Buddhist monks.  UNESCO World Heritage status and on-going restoration projects (currently being conducted with Japanese and German funding) once again are making the temple the focal point in Khmer culture it enjoyed in the 12th century.

Angkor Wat is a fitting symbol for both the Kingdom of Cambodia, which is enjoying its longest period of peace and stability (20 years) in centuries, and the resilience of the Khmer culture.

Buddhist monks and tourists at Angkor Wat

43 Days: The Things I’ll Carry

 “The things they carried…P-38 can openers, pocket knives, heat tabs, wristwatches, dog tags, mosquito repellent, chewing gum, candy, cigarettes, salt tablets, packets of Kool-Aid, lighters, matches, sewing kits…they carried diseases…malaria and dysentery…lice and ringworm and leeches…and the land itself…the endless march, village to village, without purpose, nothing won or lost. They carried all the emotional baggage of men who might die. Grief, terror, love, longing – these were intangibles…They carried their own lives.”

from The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien (Haughton Mifflin, 1990)

It’s been a quarter century since peace finally came to the  lands of Southeast Asia. For centuries it was part of the fabled “spice route” between the eastern and western worlds, yet in the 20th century more than twice the tonnage of bombs were dropped on Indochina than in all of World War II. I’ll be leaving Sunday to spend 43 days in Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam. I’ll have no worries or fears, unlike the brave but misled soldiers of that ill-fated war.

For me who narrowly escaped experiencing the horror of those past times, it feels odd that I’ll enjoy first class hotels, renowned cuisine, stunning scenery, cities and sites that have survived millennia of wars and legendary hospitality. From all my research of the past six months in preparation for this trip I expect to see, or even feel, little evidence (except in museums) of last century’s strife. As a chef, historian and travel writer I’m preparing myself for a flood of experiences that will test my ability to process this trip with all five senses – especially taste. Foods that few westerners ever have the opportunity to see, no less taste, await me, with fusion cuisine developed over centuries of east-west contact – durian cheesecake anyone?

Oddly, I’ll carry some of the same objects listed by Tim O’Brien – can opener (cork screw in my case), pocket knife, wristwatch, mosquito repellant, bottled water, sewing kit and malaria pills (one-a-day for 51 days). I’ll have to still be mindful of bed bugs – carrying bed bug repellant (fortunately I’m  already aware of what they look, and feel, like.) Lice, leeches, dysentery are all still present – this is the tropics – which means swimming in lakes and rivers is out. I’ll carry my ignorance of customs – no pointing either with fingers or, especially, with one’s foot. I’ll be ignorant of the languages. For the first time in my life as a traveller I’ll be hopelessly unaware of what anyone is saying (with the exception of tourism workers that speak English). Language will become music, much nicer than the karaoke sounds my research says is the favorite throughout all four countries.

The best thing I’ll carry? A sense of wonder.

My first blog, from Bangkok, will post Tuesday, 8 February.