formerly "The View From Up Here"

Formerly titled "The View From Up Here" this column began in the Liberty Gazette June 26, 2007.

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Tuesday, April 24, 2018

April 24, 2018 Coping (part XIV of a series)

The Liberty Gazette
April 24, 2018
Ely Air Lines
By Mike Ely and Linda Street-Ely

We had arrived in Luang Prabang on one of Lao Airlines’ turboprops, an ATR-72, and departed for the country’s administrative capital, Vientiane, on an Airbus A-320.

Vientiane has much to offer. We had too little time to take in everything. The city is busy as one would expect, with heavy traffic, but also great coffee shops, and a mix of old and new architecture. As we did in Cambodia, we stayed in a traditional wood house. We had asked around, what kind of wood is this? Mahogany? Rosewood? People replied, “Something like that,” but no one recalled the names of the rich native timber used for building houses that last over a hundred years. So we looked them up: sokrom, kokoh, koki, sroloas and beng. The trees are lovely. The landscape is stunning. It’s a beautiful place to have a war.

Here, recovery is still a current event. We are drawn to how healing comes. Throughout much of Cambodia we learned the vital role of art in helping generations deal with genocide. In Vientiane, we discovered the hope that comes from C.O.P.E.—Cooperative Orthotic and Prosthetic Enterprise, dedicated to helping people move on. This locally run non-profit works with partners to provide rehabilitation service for Unexploded Ordnance (UXO) survivors across Laos. They make prosthetic legs and custom-fit arms and hands.

UXOs still litter the countryside as a result of U.S. and Laotian bombing to rid the world of the evil Pathet Lao. This year, hundreds more Laotians will be killed or injured by UXOs left behind forty years ago. Most are farmers plowing and children playing. They live in rural areas without emergency care. Funding from countries and companies throughout the world, including the United States, covers the cost of travel, accommodation, and treatment for all patients who come to any of C.O.P.E.’s five rehab centers.

In the visitor center and museum we learned their perspective of the history of bombings and resulting disabilities. We walked through a mock-up of a typical family’s house, with pictures on the walls and all the comforts of home, except this mock-up also included all the dangers of a home in this area. We read the stories of survivors and the stories they told of those who didn’t survive. In a tape-recorded interview, a kindergarten teacher recounted losing one of her students who was playing in the dirt and dug out a UXO. She couldn’t stop him in time. A film documentary introduced us to one of the thousands of people born long after the war, caught in crossfire that lay dormant for decades—a young farmer now surviving without arms.

C.O.P.E. is one of the most highly rated attractions in Vientiane, with five stars on every travel site. Each star given speaks to the preciousness of life.

Ten to thirty percent of the two million tons of bombs dropped on Laos did not explode. Teams from several organizations are moving through the country, finding and detonating them. But for those innocent victims, there’s C.O.P.E.

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

April 17, 2018 Mount Phou Si (part XIII of a series)

The Liberty Gazette
April 17, 2018
Ely Air Lines
By Mike Ely and Linda Street-Ely

Last week we shared our amazement at the storytelling talent in quaint Luang Prabang, Laos. They told of myths, legends, and folktales of kings and monkeys; of fruit from trees with magical powers; of villains and heroes, threat and beauty, comic fantasy and triumphant goodness.

One of the best loved tales of Laos is about Mount Phou Si (“sacred mountain”), which we climbed. Twice. It’s only about 328 feet tall, topped with a temple, Wat Chom Si, and sits right in the middle of the city, facing the Royal Palace (now the National Museum).

Uneven, somewhat-crumbly stone stairways are on two sides of the mount. Around lunch time we scaled 328 zig-zagging steps originating on the northwest side for the famed panoramic view. One of us was satisfied with the rewarded exercise.

The second time we abused our quads (355 steep and uneven steps on the southeast side, by the Nam Khan River) was because one of us had this brilliant idea to go again in time for a photo opportunity at sunset. Great idea, but not original. It turned out that about 500 of our closest strangers shared that brilliance.

While space was crowded at the top, sharing the moments with people from all over the world was actually quite fun. We took pictures at 5:36 p.m., 5:37, 5:38… When that last little pop of brightness was sucked down behind the mountains, all those stranger-friends with whom we now had something magical in common let out one big collective “Awww…” of jesting disappointment, and then, applause! We looked around at the happiness on every face.

With our new friends we would make it back down to the busy night market just getting set up. The main street between Mount Phou Si and the National (Royal Palace) Museum hosted the nightly event. Streets closed to vehicular traffic filled with local craft makers and sellers of popular authentic souvenirs. We also found the vegan buffet an English couple had told us about in a riverside café the night before. Vegan buffets are rare in any country. This solo chef was tops. We piled our plates, picking from about 30 options. The chef then heated our choices in his wok and we savored our meals in the fresh night air.

One of the dishes was mushrooms, which takes us back to the tale of Mount Phou Si. According to lore, the queen woke one morning craving mushrooms and sent the monkey king to gather them. The problem was that she wanted one specific type of mushroom, but she expected him to read her mind. He made several trips up and down the mountain, and each time she scoffed because he brought the wrong fungi. Finally, Monkey King had enough. He ripped the top off the mountain, brought the whole thing to the queen and told her to pick her own mushrooms. This explains why the mountain sits in front of the palace.

We didn’t see any ‘shrooms up there, so maybe drama queen finally found them herself.

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

April 10, 2018 Folklore (part XII in a series)

The Liberty Gazette
April 10, 2018
Ely Air Lines
By Mike Ely and Linda Street-Ely

Linda: Hopping city-to-city around Southeast Asia on several different airlines gave us more time to experience that part of the world than had we opted for ground transportation.

In Laos (meaning “Land of the million elephants”), Luang Prabang, the provincial capital, is home to many ornate and colorful wats—Buddhist temples—built within the last hundred years. They’re decorated with mosaics and murals of the life of Buddha and topped with golden roofs. Lush green jungle and rugged mountains complement the view. Here in this city is the National Museum, formerly the royal palace.

It’s a typical royal palace museum—he slept here, she slept there, here’s where they dined, original furniture and all, and here’s their library holding books from centuries ago and gifts from world leaders…clothing, portraits, weapons, crowns—the usual stuff. What I adored more than the dazzling jeweled walls, however, was the ancient Lao folktale, “The King’s White Elephant.” Each framed page and sketch hung along the hallways so one could read the story a piece at a time while viewing the life of royalty. It was a regular tale about magic powers, evil and good, sin and forgiveness—a fun read.

Mike: Speaking of stories, we had a date night with Garavek, a Laotian company that performs traditional storytelling. The small, black-box theater seats about twenty. Comfortable chairs are arranged in a quarter-circle in stadium-style rows.

On the corner stage are two rattan chairs, a small table between them, and a large drum made from animal skin. Two men enter, wearing black robes, red scarves wrapped loosely around their necks. The storyteller sits as the elder plays an ancient instrument, a khene, a handmade bamboo mouth organ—eight pipes of varying length tied together.

He plays what must be root music, grown from Laotian spirit and soil. His eyes meet every visitor as he blows on the end of the khene. A call of natural beauty emanates. His musical introduction informs us of Laotian tradition.

His song finishes to rousing applause of forty or so hands energized by his show, every mind allowing a proud smile because we in this small theater are the privileged few—the wise few who chose this experience over any other.

The elder’s eyes are bright and his leathery smile is genuine. He bows, hugging his instrument, and takes a seat on the simple stage.

Behind them, a mural, maybe four-by-five feet, hangs in front of the black drape covering the walls. Rich and busy, the painting is filled with images from folktales we will hear: elephants, birds, monkeys, dragons, and giants; waterfalls, rafts, and lush gardens; rivers, mountains, and humble thatched houses; royalty, temples, and ordinary people.

Linda: The storyteller is young and handsome. Animated and enchanting, he draws us in as if magically powered. Garavek means magical bird.

His tales recount origins of landmarks such as Mount Phusi and the Mekong River, and exploits of legendary characters. Spellbound, the audience doesn’t want the show to end.

This was a most exquisite date night, with one of the world’s best storytellers.

April 3, 2018 The Best Bookseller (part XI in a series)

The Liberty Gazette
April 3, 2018
Ely Air Lines
By Mike Ely and Linda Street-Ely

Mike: His name is Douk. He’s a street peddler. He isn’t a beggar, and he doesn’t want to be. On our last full day in Cambodia, Douk approached us among the busy markets of Pub Street. On the bin of books strapped over his neck and shoulders was a sign that told his story in English. Severely injured when a long–buried landmine exploded, he is doing what he can to support his family. His entire body is scarred; his arms were blown off, his bronze skin a patchwork of pieces used to sew him back together.

Tragically, this is not uncommon. Many unexploded landmines are still quite prevalent in rural farming areas, posing great danger to farmers and children. About half of the country’s minefields have been cleared, but beautiful Cambodia remains one of the most landmine–impacted countries in the world.

Douk is an honorable man. In my small way, I wanted him to know he blessed me. I picked a book on Cambodian history. This book I hold dear because of its own history, carried to me by a man who will not allow horrific circumstances to stop him.

Linda: People who have suffered so much for so long yet persevere with kindness are the ones we wish the world would emulate. Not that pain is what we wish for others, yet those who suffer greatly often have a greater capacity to live and love. I’ve experienced this throughout much of Central Africa, and we witnessed it all over Southeast Asia. And the contrast is everywhere in our own country.

Mike: We’d say good-bye to our wonderful hosts in Siem Reap and board Alex’s tuk tuk for one more ride—to the airport where Vietnam Airlines would whisk us north in an Airbus A320 to the provincial capital of Laos, Luang Prabang.

Our friend Lance calls Luang Prabang “Shangri-La,” as it is the most beautiful place on earth to him, and a place he stayed for a time during the Vietnam War. The city has lots to offer. While we don’t recommend group tours, such as to the gorgeous waterfalls or ancient caves, it’s only because the tour buses seat sixteen, but the Chinese business owners crammed in eighteen. The unfriendly non-natives drove furiously over pitted roads, and never once smiled at customers. Private tours with native Laotians resulted in a much better experience.

On our first night in “Shangri-La” we strolled along clean cobble-stoned sidewalks in front of a mix of architecture in French Colonial, Chinese, and Vietnamese design. Impeccable landscaping incorporated the most beautiful flowers and greenery. Mod coffee shops, small restaurants with local cuisine, and other businesses filled one side of the main but winding road that followed the meandering Nam Khan River to where it meets the Mekong. We would call Villa Sayada our home for a few days full of wonderful sights, each day ending with an awe-inspiring sunset behind jungle mountains.

See you next week with more on amazing Laos.

March 27, 2018 Phare (part X in a series)

The Liberty Gazette
March 27, 2018
Ely Air Lines
By Mike Ely and Linda Street-Ely

Following our (fairly) fearless feat in Siem Reap, Cambodia, our feet freshly furbished by fish, we would have one more night at our hosts’ exquisite traditional Khmer wooden house. We had climbed through ancient temple ruins, watched the sun set behind Angkor Wat, the largest Buddhist temple, toured a silk farm, boated around the floating village on the Tonle Sap, experienced Pub Street, and gained a new friend, Alex, the hard-working young man with the entrepreneurial spirit who drove us all about town. The one other item high on our list was the Cambodian Circus.

This is no Barnum & Bailey–Ringling Bros. It’s an exhibition of life before the Khmer Rouge, through the genocide, and the restoration journey since. This “circus” will break your heart and make it leap in your chest as you cheer because the story is real and there is still so much healing needed—personal tragedy beyond comprehension. It is painful, powerful, and hopeful.

Phare” was organized with the intent to provide a way for children in poverty to learn a skill and earn a living, to rise from atrocities of genocide and foreign occupation and to keep Cambodian heritage alive.

In 1994, nine young Cambodians and their teacher, Veronique Decrop, returned from a refugee camp near the Thai border to create a school called Phare Ponleu Selpak (“brightness of the arts”). Many of the students had spent their childhood at the Site 2 camp in Battambang. Ms. Decrop and other French volunteers taught them to use art to cope with trauma, poverty, and abuse. She would help children overcome and rebuild their society. To this end, the organization grew to offer classes in visual and performing arts, with academic and social support.

We claimed our seats under the small tent. With few props and no nets, the troupe performed “Sokha,” a story about a child haunted by war. Her memories of the Khmer Rouge combine with surreal visions and nightmares to create a distorted and bleak reality. Scenes move from her happy days at school to the invasion of her town. As she tosses in her sleep, a live band carries the mood and supports the action: acrobats leap into the air only to fall violently to the bang of gunshots, one after another after another. An artist rolls out his easel and paints stunning portraits to fit the moments: beautiful homes and countryside replaced by the darkness of war, starvation, and fear; faces of evil; then a new sunrise as the small, scared refugee discovers her strength through art and finds the tools to heal herself and her community.

The acrobats flipped, danced, and balanced atop each other. Their muscles were upstaged only by their dedication to show the long term effects suffered by post–war victims and that art is still providing a powerful way to heal and rebuild their country.

Deep and purposeful, Phare provides a hope for tomorrow in Cambodia.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

March 20, 2018 Pub Street (part IX in a series)

The Liberty Gazette
March 20, 2018
Ely Air Lines
By Mike Ely and Linda Street-Ely

We didn’t travel thirteen time zones in tightly packed aluminum tubing to be shielded from our hosts’ culture. However, happy to be vegan, we passed on the opportunity to eat snake on a stick, crispy scorpion, seasoned tarantula, and assorted fried bugs in favor of a veggie pizza in the lively Pub Street section of Siem Reap, Cambodia.

This place defies the idea of a small dusty bit of a town in an under-developed country. One can explore Pub Street ‘round the clock. Amid the many ornate Buddhist temples are day markets and night markets. Luxury hotels and beautifully aged colonial buildings fill spaces between impeccably clean and well-lit streets. Cross the canal to the Art Market to find great deals on original native art. Many talented artists proudly display their renditions of elephants, monks, temples, jungle, and sunrises in brilliant oils.

 Pub Street only takes up two blocks in two directions but it’s buzzing with people. Excellent restaurants offer traditional Khmer and Thai food, or Chinese, or Indian. Tempting aromas of herbs and spices waft through the crowd. Street vendors sell goodies from their carts (besides those creepy crawly things for a dollar a skewer), like delicious bite-sized fried dessert nuggets made with coconut milk. Along the main drag and down the numerous lanes and alleys, live music and street entertainment fill the air with fun. Spas are popular here, and especially the kind where you can get a pedicure by fish.

We first experienced Pub Street at night. Having passed a few of the party-sized tanks filled with fish dining on dirty feet, we gave it some consideration. One of us had to get up the nerve though.

The next morning, our driver, Alex, took us back to Pub Street for the day markets. By then, we were feeling brave. Well, one of us was. We joined other tourists seated along the wide frame edges of the tank and dunked our feet into the water. Well, one of us did. One of us made several attempts, squealing, shivering, and pulling the feet back out. However, both sets of Ely feet eventually got the treatment. Alex was amused. Feeding the fish tickles terribly at first, but after a few minutes we didn’t feel more than a light sensation touching our tootsies. The bragging rights are worth it, and the result is amazing. These little black fish left our ped paws so much smoother than what any pedicurist pumicing them raw can do.

With freshened feet we stepped into a beautiful restaurant and filled our bellies with five-star veg meals before getting back in Alex’s tuk tuk to go on a boat tour of the floating village.

The houses are on stilts like the ones in Galveston, only built much higher for the wet season. For children growing up on the water there are no lawns to mow, but there’s plenty of fishing and vessel work to do. Catch you next week. There’s plenty more to this story.

March 13, 2018 More Siem Reap (part VIII in a series)

The Liberty Gazette
March 13, 2018
Ely Air Lines
By Mike Ely and Linda Street-Ely

Welcome back to Ely Air Lines. We’re in the middle of a series on our flights throughout Southeast Asia and all the adventures in between. If you missed any of the previous episodes, scroll through to catch up.

We left you last week in Siem Reap, Cambodia as we introduced our private driver, Alex. The bright, young businessman arrived promptly each morning to take us to explore the city. On our first full day we visited a silk farm where every step in the process is present, from mulberry tree groves feeding the worms, to the growing and harvesting of them, to dying, spinning, and weaving, and the final products. The tour is impressive and the entire farm and factory clean and modern, but also includes demonstration areas showing the older ways to spin and weave silk. No tourist attraction would be complete without a museum and gift shop, and this one even had a coffee bar. The colorful silk products are made with amazing talent—scarves, dresses, shirts, handbags, wall hangings, and many other kinds of gifts. We were fascinated watching some ladies work to spin the cocoons into fine threads and others who wove beautiful patterns for assorted items.

To make the most of our time, when we finished the tour we piled back in Alex’s tuk tuk, securing our silk purchases in a secret compartment and went on to see the small village he calls home. Beyond charming tourist places, we relish seeing the real life of a foreign country, and this next stop provided that in full. Away from the city, like living in Hull or Daisetta, we came upon the village entrance. We toured the welcome area with Buddhist temple and park, the village school and its garden, and then came to Alex’s home. Surrounded by gardens, his house is a typical style. The ground floor is open and airy for all those hot, humid days, and sleeping quarters are on the upper story. After meeting his lovely grandmother, we walked along dirt roads through the village and said hello to Alex’s aunt and several other relatives. At a neighbor’s house, coconut palm sugar boiled over a fire in the largest cast iron kettle we’ve ever seen. Our mouths watered from the sweet smell. Down the road in a common area, two teams of young men played a competitive game of volleyball, but stopped to say hello as we passed. Life always moves at a slower, friendlier pace in small towns.

We felt special as recipients of a private tour off the beaten path in rural Cambodia. Enriched, and grateful to Alex for sharing his part of the country, we boarded his tuk tuk and headed back to Siem Reap to explore the touristy Pub Street and markets. Happy to be vegan, we passed up the opportunity to eat snake on a stick, scorpion, seasoned tarantula, and assorted fried bugs in favor of pizza. See you next week for more adventure!

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

March 6, 2018 Owning a Business in a Communist Country (part VII in a series)

The Liberty Gazette
March 6, 2018
Ely Air Lines
By Mike Ely and Linda Street-Ely

After a great visit to Phnom Penh, we boarded Cambodian Angkor Air for a thirty minute domestic flight to Siem Reap. Such a short hop is most economically served by the popular ATR-72. There’s a training program in Houston for this airplane, a twin-engine turboprop.

We reserved a room in a traditional Khmer wooden house belonging to a local family, a young professional couple with two preschoolers. They arranged for private transportation from the airport so when we arrived we looked around for our sign. A young man who introduced himself as Alex (his American name) escorted us to his tuk tuk. We hopped aboard the romantic carriage and away we went through lovely Siem Reap.

We’ll have more to say about our experiences in Siem Reap, but one thing that got our attention was that despite a communist government, entrepreneurism is alive and well inside the Cambodian people. They have spirit and drive, and hospitality seems to come naturally. So while we can’t wait to tell you about sticking our feet in fish tanks to get a pedicure, exploring Pub Street, the markets and temples, the floating village, and the circus, we must start with Alex. He was, after all, with us for every adventure.

His real name is Sophal Chea. He’s twenty years old and lives in a small village outside Siem Reap with his brother and grandmother. Like most Cambodians, he has significant gardens, growing lemongrass, rice, as well as orange, banana, and coconut trees. And one cow, so far. His English is pretty good, and his people skills are excellent.

When we first met, Alex shook our hands and said, “Welcome. I’ll be your driver during your stay.” We had learned in Phnom Penh how competitive the tuk tuk business is. While Siem Reap is a smaller city, it’s heavily dependent on tourism, where the motorcycle chariots fit in well to serve visitors. By working with a homestay and claiming his clients upon introduction, Alex is ahead of his competitors, and he doesn’t have to park along a busy street asking passers-by if they need a ride. Nothing wrong with those who hustle for their business, but Alex is employing a more sophisticated approach advertising on travel sites and social media. So if you plan a trip to Siem Reap (and you should!), look for Tuk Tuk Okay. You’ll find Alex’s business in hot demand.

On our first full day, he took us to tour five wats (temples). Most of these are ruins, but the biggest, Angkor Wat, is in great shape for its age. Built in the twelfth century, it remains the largest religious monument in the world, the complex occupying about 400 acres. Wall carvings of traditional stories, kings, Hindu gods, and Buddha, are vivid. These humongous stone temples were built with the help of elephant labor to bring rocks from distant mountains.

After climbing through the ruins, Alex brought us back to our homestay to rest up for more escapades, which we’ll tell you about next week.

Thursday, March 1, 2018

February 27, 2018 Traditions Alive (part VII in a series)

The Liberty Gazette
February 27, 2018
Ely Air Lines
By Mike Ely and Linda Street-Ely

Linda: Many years ago, I was moved to pray for Cambodia. I did not know why. I had no personal connection and didn’t know where Cambodia was, but I prayed. In December, we visited that beautiful country.

Last week, we introduced you to Phnom Penh. Now it’s time to discover the strength of this city—its people.

What most of us know of Phnom Penh is the atrocities of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge. From 1974 to 1979, they tortured, starved, and murdered over two million fellow Cambodians. Victims were all ages, and the torture was as horrific as you can imagine—or more so. They turned a high school into a torture camp. Documentation of what happened there and the nearby killing fields is abundant. Next to the temples, these are probably the most visited “attractions.” I’ve been to several countries of genocide, Anne Frank’s hiding place in Amsterdam, and Houston’s Holocaust Museum. I did not want to see the killing fields. It’s important, but it’s also full of pain. We chose instead to support their future—through the arts.

The answer to “why the killing?” is hard to understand. Pol Pot claimed he wanted to make Cambodia an agrarian utopia, but the truth was he was consumed by evil. His vision of “improvement” was to kill those who could disagree—intellectuals, artists, and musicians.

Arn Chorn-Pond was a musician, and his family owned an opera company, making him a target. He escaped the massacre and came to New York a refugee.

When he returned home, 90 percent of his country’s artists were gone. Becoming reacquainted with his city, he happened upon one of his nation’s greatest opera singers begging on the street.

Determined to not let their culture disappear, he asked her to join him to search for other surviving artists. He brought them out of hiding and raised support, first to feed them and then for the arts, as a way to keep Cambodian history alive. Since 1998, when he founded Cambodian Living Arts, he has brought back traditional teachings to new generations, providing scholarships and support for cultural arts.

At a traditional dance show, we were treated to an Apsara dance. Wordlessly, they told a popular folk tale that dates back to the 7th century. In Hindu mythology, Apsaras were “celestial dancers”—beautiful female creatures that descended from heaven to entertain gods and kings, neither of which could resist their charms. In elaborate silk costumes, with complex, intricate movements, the dance troupe enacted the story of a kidnapped princess and the efforts of her prince and his helper monkeys to rescue her.

This endearing fable has lived in the hearts of generations of Cambodians. With unparalleled skill, the dancers bring their plight and hope for healing right to the soul. One cannot help but be absorbed in the beauty and the determination to survive, to live.

Arn declares his goal: “My hope is that someday people will come to Phnom Penh for its arts rather than its killing fields.”

Sunday, February 25, 2018

February 20, 2018 Phnom Penh (part VI in a series)

The Liberty Gazette
February 20, 2018
Ely Air Lines
By Mike Ely and Linda Street-Ely

Mike: I had come face to face with the building married to the impression formed in my youth, the scene of escape hours before Saigon fell to the communists. It was time to head back to the Tân Sơn Nhất airport to board Vietnam Air for a half-hour flight to Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital.

Linda: We picked our accommodations on Airbnb. Our hosts had a spacious, modern high-rise only a block from the lively riverfront of the Tonle Sap. Less congested than Chicago’s Magnificent Mile, the shopping, night life, and tourist district touts open-front restaurants where traditional Khmer and Thai herbs and spices arouse the senses: jungle cardamom, lemongrass, and kaffir lime; basil and lotus stem. Their “Asian spring onion” looks similar to flower chives but doesn’t smell like an onion—it smells like dinner! On podiums along the sidewalk the menus tempted us. I wanted to stop in every café.

Imagine Galveston’s Seawall Boulevard, except on each block the buildings are densely packed together. Across the busy four-lane road people jog and workout on public exercise equipment installed on the spacious pavement of Riverfront Park. Everywhere, tuk tuks (motorcycle-carriage vehicles) are for hire. One can barely walk three yards without an entrepreneur offering a ride in his tuk tuk.

Phnom Penh, translated as “Penh’s Hill,” was named for a widow who had a temple built there. Borrowed from Sanskrit, the word for temple is wat. In 1372, Lady Penh found a Koki tree floating down the Tonle Sap after a storm. Inside the tree were four bronze Buddha statues. She believed this was a divine blessing, and asked villagers to help her build a wat out of the Koki wood to house the statues. Wat Phnom still stands and is open to visitors. Inside are many more Buddha statues, much burning incense, and a place for worshippers to pray. We removed our shoes, as required, and entered to witness the sacred practice of their faith.

Cambodia’s modern wats, lavish and intricately carved, are many, but these are not the only buildings that capture attention. Over the years, Phnom Penh has become known for its architecture. In the 1920s, the “Pearl of Asia” was one of the loveliest French-built cities in Indochina, strong in tourism and trade. French colonial buildings can still be found along grand boulevards. Our stay was next to the Royal Palace and near the National Museum, both architecturally and historically significant. This is the Angkor region of the Kingdom of Cambodia.

From the ninth to the fifteenth centuries, Angkor was the seat of the Khmer Empire, the largest empire of Southeast Asia. Over 4,000 ruins, surviving ancient wats, including mammoth Angkor Wat, remain as evidence of the world’s largest pre-industrial urban center—greater than New York today.

The most important part of visiting this city was yet to come. Join us next week for a chat about survival and restoration after genocide.