Tuking into Cambodia

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A tuk tuk driver rests in his hammock at siesta time, chatting with another driver.

 

Tuk tuks, covered carts attached to a motorcycle, are a major and relatively inexpensive form of transportation in Cambodia. Variations of the tuk tuk can be found throughout most of southeast Asia and are equally popular. Finding ourselves with an unplanned day in Phnom Penh, our guide suggested an excursion to Mekong Island (Koh Dach) for some touring off the beaten path. Always up for an adventure, we eagerly put ourselves in the capable hands of Sam, our guide.

Our day began with a short cruise up the Mekong River (a childhood favorite of mine), passing river huts and “marinas” in the shadow of Phnom Penh’s booming tourist hotels.

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While we disembarked, Sam swiftly negotiated a half-day tuk tuk excursion, and in the three of us climbed. Koh Dach is one of several islands in the Mekong just north of Phnom Penh where silk production was once a major cottage industry. However, we experienced quite a bit of island life that day, way beyond our 1 hour visit to a silk “farm.”

First stop was a new temple complex. But what caught my eye was the house next to the temple. Most Cambodian abodes look similar to this:

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Most Cambodian village houses are simple structures on stilts. The raised abode has a dual purpose of keeping varmints out (think snakes & rats) as well as providing a shady place for livestock.

The house that caught my attention was this one:

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A monk sits in meditation surrounded by clever mobiles of…used cans and bottles. Repurposing as an at form — how clever!

Completely surrounding the porch perimeter, some clever artisan had turned soda cans and water bottles into decorative, hanging works of art. Take a closer look:

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I’d seen similar but smaller and less complex recycled art at home, but nothing quite as elaborate as these pieces.

Continuing on, our next stop was even more amazing. Sam, always on the look out for the unusual, called out “Stop!” to the tuk tuk driver and ordered him to turn back around.

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Female cow, on the right, is unenthusiastically awaiting her bull, the large humped bovine behind her. Assumedly, the third animal is her calf, but whether there just to help keep Mama calm or for instructional purposes wasn’t clear.

A gaggle of villagers, all men, were trying to “encourage” a bull to do his natural mission of impregnating the cow in front of him. She, being kept in place in a form of “stocks” by a nose ring and tether  was having none of it. She lowed and shook her head, the calf lowed and strained at his rope, and the bull — well, he looked completely and utterly clueless. After over five minutes of standing poised with camera in my face, I lowered the camera to give my arms a break and — FLASH!! — you guessed it — the bull had mounted and dismounted the cow in less time than it’s taken me to describe their mating. All of 3 seconds. Flat. I think some old fashioned “wham, bam, thank you, ma’am” encounters have lasted far longer.

Afterwards, the bull looked a little less clueless and perhaps just a bit smug. The cow, on the other hand, was still lowing miserably.

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Continuing on our way, we passed through a few hamlets, with the road gradually deteriorating from paved-with-potholes to a dirt road — a very dusty dirt road. Sam once more hollered for the driver to stop when he spied an on-going Buddhist wedding in one village. He urged us to join the party, saying the couple would be very pleased and honored to have Americans join them. I demurred as I thought our uninvited presence would be intrusive and distract from the ceremony. Besides, I didn’t really feel comfortable being a “wedding crasher.”  On we went.

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Wedding #1.

 

The next stop — a silk farm — was fascinating as their production was truly from soup to nuts — or worms to silk products. (Skip this first  picture if squeamish.)

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Silk worms — caterpillars — feeding on a basket of mulberry leaves.

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The silkworms are placed in  bunches of hanging branches where they spin their cocoons. Once the moths have emerged, the cocoons are collected for extraction of the raw silk fibers.

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Dyed silk thread against a nest of cocoon fibers or raw silk.

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Raw silk fibers after being unwound from the cocoon.

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After the silk fibers are cleaned and dyed, they are woven into cloth for various types of silk garments.

 

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Michael trying his hand at weaving.

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Some of the finished product: colorful silk scarves.

Always a cottage industry, the techniques for silk production, especially weaving, have been passed down from mother to daughter over the centuries. However, silk production, once a mainstay of Cambodian life and local economy, has faltered in recent years. The reasons are multiple and interactive: overuse of pesticides in farming have killed off huge numbers of moths and silk worms; these same agriculture practices have made small-hold farming more lucrative, drawing off silk weavers and others to support family farms; many silk workers have left for more lucrative pay in factories as Western markets have increasingly shifted production to the lower wage Asian markets. This siphoning off of skilled or potential weavers has, in turn, exacerbated declining silk production. Initially, dying off of the silk worm population resulted in importing cheaper and more available raw silk from other Asian countries. However, in recent years, the cost of these imports rose while simultaneously the cost of the finished silk goods declined.

Cambodia has struggled mightily to correct decades of both layered, institutional corruption as well as the murderous, decimating rule of the Khmer Rouge in the 1970’s and other repressive government since. Recently taxes on raw silk imports have been lowered, and some subsidies instituted for silk production, but model silk “farms” such as the one we visited have not been able to offset the steady decline of this craft. The allure of higher paying manufacturing jobs, as well as the more productive family farm, have siphoned off much of the next generation of silk growers and weavers. It remains to be seen whether silk production and weaving in Cambodia will survive the 21st century.

By the time we left the silk farm, we were getting used to Sam’s exhortations for the driver to stop immediately and perform a whiplash-inducing U-turn in the road to go back to whatever Sam had just spotted. This also meant that as we turned 180 degrees, we immediately were covered by a cloud of dust churned up by our tuk tuk just moments before. But it was always worth it.

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Home brewed palm wine. Who can resist?

One such road reversal took us back to a tiny one room house where an enterprising young couple sold home-brewed palm wine. People — mostly men — would enter the hut with doubled or tripled plastic bags and emerge with a bulging sack of palm wine. The couple welcomed us into their abode, and offered us a sample of their brew. Trying not to think of how many people had imbibed from the same cup, I told myself a little bacteria can only make my immune system stronger. I sipped, Michael guzzled. We declined to buy; I really wasn’t keen on palm wine, I discovered.

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Michael samples the palm wine. Sam looks at me saying, “Your turn!” I had to do it….

The lady of the house — who was drop dead gorgeous — could not have been more than 18 but already had several children under foot. Michael immediately fell in love. I think his ardor cooled somewhat when he sniffed out the other home brew she had going: teuk trei, or fish sauce. Very pungent, stomach-churning, fermented fish sauce. We declined this purchase as well.

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The hut was no more than 12 by 6 feet for a family of (what looked like) five. One corner was the cooking area. The upper left corner above shows the concrete pan fire place where the palm wine (and fermented fish sauce) were cooked. Two of the bowls contain small river fish waiting to be added to the pot.

We had a few more neck-wrenching U-turns, all of them interesting. We came upon a second wedding, and Sam almost persuaded us to join the matrimonial fun. Images of The Wedding Crashers kept kalaidoscoping in my head so we chickened out. But the last stop was the best of all.

“Stop!” hollered Sam, followed by a torrent of Cambodian, he was so excited. “Cow! Giving birth! Come!” he finally managed. So we scrambled out of the tuk tuk and ran to where a half-dozen men were playing midwives to a cow. By the time I was able to get my camera focused, the calf was halfway out. We watched through the entire process:

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Two men gently help pull the calf from the cow, who looks on impassively.

 

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At this point, the calf was not yet breathing and the umbilical cord is still attached.

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One man gently wipes mucous and placenta from the calf’s body.

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The calf’s face and nostrils were carefully cleared and it began to breathe on its own.

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The calf was placed before the mother who proceeded to first smell and bond with the calf, then lick it clean.

 

So that was our day: breeding cows, repurposed porch art, uncrashed-weddings, attempts to weave silk, palm wine sampling, and witnessing a calf’s birth. Certainly an off-road day, and one to always be remembered.

Thank you, Sam!

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New Year in Hanoi

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Hanoi street market on the eve of the Vietnamese New Year: people are bustling for last minute gifts, especially those in the good luck colors of red and gold.

Têt, the days-long New Year celebration, is by far the most important holiday in Vietnam. Based on the Chinese lunar calendar, Têt falls on a different day each year. Preparations begin weeks in advance. Homes are first scoured to remove any bad luck from the previous year, then lavishly decorated with “good luck” colors of red and gold, bedecked with colorful flowers, miniature kumquat trees, and families begin to welcome home far-flung relatives as the majority of Vietnamese return to their ancestral homes for the holidays.

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Hanoi’s streets were lit up for the holiday.

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Signs saying “Chuc Mung Nam Moi” swayed from buildings and street poles. wishing all a Happy New Year.

Têt can last for several days, beginning days or weeks ahead, with preparing traditional New Year foods, and ancestral altars are cleaned and refreshed with heaps of foods and gifts for the family’s ancestors. The emphasis on honoring one’s ancestors is an important ritual of Têt, especially for those who’ve passed away that year. The various offerings are meant for the departed to use on their journey to (hopefully) heaven.

We were honored by an invitation from our young guide, Quan, to join his family for a New Year Eve’s dinner at his apartment. “Happy,” as he liked to be called, was newly married with a 5 month old daughter. Like most young Vietnamese,  he lived with his parents, an uncle and his grandfather in a Hanoi apartment building.

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Quan, Hih, and their baby, An.

We brought a traditional gift of candies, as well as a large bottle of beer. (I’m still not sure if beer is a traditional Têt gift, but Happy said his grandfather liked beer at the holidays, so beer it was.) Happy introduced us to his wife, baby, and mother, who had been laboring in the kitchen preparing all the wonderful foods eaten at Têt.

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Happy’s family’s ancestral altar. Pictures on the left (partially obscured by flowers) are of honored ancestors, the picture on the right is of Buddha, and the white bust is of Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Minh. In addition to flowers and candles, the altar held five types of traditional fruit, dried fruits, nuts, and candies, as well as bottles of spirits, and several packets of  Banh Chung,  banana leaf-wrapped steamed rice cakes.

Happy proudly showed us the family’s magnificent ancestral altar, laden with various Têt foods as well as gifts. We then sat on a straw mat with his family to partake of the modest feast his mother had prepared.

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In addition to plain rice, we were served Vietnamese sausage, mung bean pudding, red sticky rice, Banh Chung, or steamed rice cake (shed of its banana leaf covering), and Western-style mini hot dogs (which although certainly not traditional, Happy specifically liked  and asked for).

About halfway through the meal, Happy’s grandfather arrived, bowing and smiling in greeting before joining us on the mat. Grandfather Ca, in his eighties, formally introduced himself with Happy as his translator. After the introduction, the first thing he said was, “I am so happy our countries are friends again. War is a terrible thing, especially among friends, but now our countries are at peace. This makes me glad.”

I knew from what Happy had told us that his grandfather, now in his late eighties, had been in the North Vietnamese Army, and admired Ho Chi Minh (whose bust was on the family altar) but Happy said Grandfather Ca had always wanted Vietnam and America to be on peaceful terms. And this despite an awful, bloody war which saw, among other deeds (on both sides) massive U.S. bombings of swathes of Hanoi and other sections of then North Vietnam. Grandfather Ca ended his speech by giving me (because I had lived in pre-war Vietnam) a specially printed Têt card inscribed with a poem he’d written, and good luck wishes for the coming year. Happy explained that Ca and his friends would write these special poems and greetings every year to exchange among themselves and to give to family members and close friends. We felt quite honored.

We left after dinner for a short nap before making our way to the central lake in Hanoi to watch the fireworks that would usher in the New Year at midnight.We were intrigued by many of the altars set up on the sidewalks or roadways in front of shops to honor the shopkeepers’ ancestors. All had similar foods and gifts as had Happy’s family altar, but with the addition of a whole boiled chicken — head, cockle, beak and all — a special offering to the ancestors.

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One shopkeeper’s ancestral altar. Of note in the foreground, from left, are a boiled whole chicken, red sticky rice, and the steamed rice cakes, Banh chung, with a display of five fruits and several paper presents in the rear.

Due to my dawdling over these fascinating altars, we never made it to Hoan Kiem Lake where the fireworks were held. Caught at midnight in the streets with dozens of others, we gazed from a couple of blocks away at the fireworks as they exploded over the rooftops. The Vietnamese love fireworks, but at Têt they have a special function, to ward off any evil spirits as the new year begins. Children ran about, setting off long tubes of small fireworks and whirling noisemakers, making as much noise and bangs as possible to scare off the evil spirits. It was quite a display.

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A woman lights up paper offerings to speed her New Year gifts to her ancestors.

Returning to our hotel, we saw many people carefully burning their paper offerings that had earlier sat on their altars. Symbolic gifts are made of paper, such as (fake) money, cars, miniature houses, floral bouquets and wrapped (empty) boxes, to be burned as the new year begins to speed these offerings to their ancestors.

I’m not sure what is done with the chicken.

But I can definitely say that this Têt celebration in Hanoi was one of the most memorable celebrations I can remember.

Têt in 2016 in Vietnam will begin February 8.

Chuc Mung Nam Moi!

Cao Dai Religion of Vietnam

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Worshipers inside the Cao Dai Holy See Temple, Tay Ninh, Vietnam.

 

Vietnam is the birthplace of the unique and unlikely religion of Cao Dai. A mixture primarily of Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism, Cao Dai also imports teachings of Muhammad, Jesus, and Laozi, among others, along with some Catholicism (they have a Pope and a Holy See) and a bit of spiritualism thrown in. The primary temple (Holy See) is in Tay Ninh, in the heart of the Mekong Delta in southwestern Vietnam.

Suppressed by the Communists in 1975, Cao Dai was reprieved by the government in 1997 and has flourished since in this corner of Vietnam. Government estimates indicate at least 4.4 million declared worshipers, whereas the religion itself claims upwards of 6 million believers. Given Cao Dai’s long-time criticism of Communism — they also opposed French colonial rule and USA-backed President Diem — I’d guess these official numbers are an under-representation.

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The Holy See Temple, Tay Ninh, 90 km northwest of Saigon.

Cao Dai believe in dual deities followed by a pantheon of saints and other holy figures. The ubiquitous, omnificent male Supreme Being, representing the yang, and the Holy Mother, representing the yin, create the balance of heaven and earth. Several historical persons are included in their panoply of revered souls, including, among others, Julius Caesar, Victor Hugo, Sun Yat-sen, and, inexplicably (in my opinion), Joan of Arc.

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The Divine, All-Seeing Eye of God.

Cao Dai is rife with symbolism, the most important being the All Seeing Eye, also known as the Divine Eye. Represented as the left eye of God, this symbol is a reminder that God is omnipresent and sees all.

The Holy See is a spectacularly gaudy display of color and opulence. The decorations of the columns and windows are so colorful and elaborate they reminded me of the rococo stylism of 18th century Europe. The three colors of Cao Dai — yellow, red and blue — represent the the three religions from which form the belief systems of Cao Dai. Respectively, Buddhism, Confucianism, and Taoism.

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Worshipers inside the Cao Dai Holy See Temple, Tay Ninh, Vietnam.

 

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Red represents Confucianism, and blue Taoism.

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The Holy See during a service. Lay worshipers are dressed in impeccable white, and the three priests in yellow, blue and red (just left of center).

Cao Dai beliefs and principles fundamentally stress the “oneness” of each individual with God and the universe. There is the focus on perfecting oneself, but also strong values placed, in this order, upon the family, society, and mankind. As in many religions, Cao Dai professes a form of the Golden Rule. However, they take this precept of acting well and empathetically to another level, urging adherents to do good deeds to earn merit and a better position in the next life. Another principle that I found interesting was the emphasis on wealth and materialism.

Additional precepts in Cao Dai are also somewhat universal: do not kill, do not perform adultery, do not steal, do not get drunk, and do not sin by word (i.e. do not slander or be verbally abusive to others).

Cao Dai followers participate in four services per day at a temple with a fifth conducted at home. We were lucky enough to observe the service above from the balcony at the rear of the temple. Also in the balcony were about two dozen worshipers seated or standing around a circle of musicians.

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The cloth-covered wire headdresses of the two women in the right foreground indicate that they were in mourning for a loved one. The four men are playing traditional Vietnamese instruments, and the women in the left top corner formed a chorus of sorts, sometimes singing softly, other times chanting. Our guide explained that this small group of worshipers were conducting a separate “mourning” ceremony preceding the main service on the main level of the temple.

IMG_4845_From left to right, Sun Yat Sen, as symbol for revolution; Victor Hugo, as symbol for compassion for downtrodden; Nguye Binh Khiem, 1st poet laureate for Vietnam. Inscription reads

The tablet above is inscribed in French, “God and humanity, love and justice.”

Each Cao Dai temple displays in its facility some rendition of the Divine Covenant of the Third Amnesty. The three figures represent three of the more important saints. From the left: revolutionary leader Sun Yat-sen, revered for rejecting oppressive rule in China; Victor Hugo, for his compassion and humanity; and Nguyen Binh Khiem, a 16th century Vietnamese leader, poet and teacher.

Visiting the Cao Dai Holy See was a bit of an overwhelming experience in that the gaudiness of the decor visually clashed with the plainness and simplicity of the worshipers. The theology, as well, struck me as overly complex and almost regulatory, yet the devotion of the Cao Dai worshipers was unquestionably yet quietly fervent. Certainly, the religion is complex in both belief systems and structure. This posting is but a small attempt to introduce a fascinating minor religion.

 

Some Interesting Facts:

  • Cao Dai is considred a monotheistic religion with a Supreme Being or God, yet professes the  male/female balance, or yin yang, by having dual male & female deities. Additionally, there is a pantheon of saints that are worshiped as well, among them:
    • Joan of Arc
    • Julius Caesar
    • Moses
    • Louis Pasteur
    • Lenin
    • William Shakespeare
    • The Bodhisattva Quan Am (Guan Yin in Chinese)
  • Kim Phuc, the 9 year old girl photographed running naked in terror and pain after surviving a napalm attack in 1972, was raised in the Cao Dai faith. Her village of Trang Bang, was mistakenly identified by the South Vietnamese Air Force as a Viet Cong stronghold, then hit with napalm bombs. Some members of her family were killed in that attack. As a young woman, Kim was used by the communists as a propaganda symbol. She later sought asylum in Canada, where she continues to live. Kim started a foundation to provide medical and psychological help to child victims of war. She is also a UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador for the United Nations.