These Weather Systems are all Drunks….


Wx

“Our old friend Halola is still churning away in the Western Pacific.  She’s been partying hard out there for quite a while now.  Last weekend she made the mistake of hitting a bottle of wind shear, which is like tequila for typhoons.  A little wind shear, and before you know it they’re falling apart, puking moisture in all directions, losing their strength, and collapsing into a soggy mess.  She spent most of the past weekend as a mere tropical depression, trying to remember where she’d left her wallet and her car keys.  But now, she’s piecing herself back together again.  Today she was sober enough to act like a proper tropical storm, and by Wednesday she’s expected to be back up to typhoon strength.  But, she’ll probably never exceed Category 1 storm strength again.  Too much hard partying will do that to you.  Halola won’t be visiting Okinawa either.  Apparently she heard how much we like to party on this island, and just the thought of it so soon after her awful tequila experience made her turn green.  Seriously.  Just look at that satellite photo.  Look at how green she is.  She might be sunburned in a couple of places too.  Meanwhile, here in Okinawa we’re getting plenty of rain without Halola’s help.  It’s not a typhoon though.  It’s just a weak low pressure area bringing us a lot of moisture and stealing our sunshine.  It’s going to rain through the night, so it’s stealing our moonshine as well.  You see?  These weather systems are all drunks.”

~From the Facebook Community Group Okinawa Typhoon Pics & Info.

 

As You Like: Okonomiyaki in Hiroshima


 

Okonomiyaki are really more like really thin pancakes….

“Nagata-ya,” said the tiny female valet as she tapped a map she was marking for us. We were checking into the ANA Crowne Plaza in Hiroshima and were asking about where to get the savory Japanese pancake for which that prefecture is so famous. This woman, all 5’2” high and 42 kilos strong, then proceeded to drag all four of our bags to our room…without using a luggage cart. We could barely handle two of our overstuffed, overweight and oversized American suitcases.

Hiroshima 2015, Okonomiyaki, delicious concoction! WM

Hiroshima 2015, Okonomiyaki, uses for related utensilsOur appetites, however, were no match for the oversized okonomiyaki (お好み焼き, pronounced “Oh-kono-me-ya-key”) served through Hiroshima. Often called a Japanese pancake, they are really more a crepe. In any case, the thinness of the dough simply serves as the foundation for oh so much more. “Okonomi” in Japanese means “as you like,” referring to the many permutations of ingredients from which a diner can choose to pile onto their grilled (“yaki”) goodness. The delicacy is most popular in Kansai (Osaka, Kyoto) or Hiroshima areas of Japan, but can be found throughout, including in Okinawa. The biggest regional differences are in the toppings and batter used, along with how they are arranged during cooking.

Hiroshima 2015, Okonomiyaki, Nagata-Ya Hiroshima Style WM

Hiroshima 2015, Okonomiyaki, ideas on how to eatWe had passed Nagata-ya the day before happily by accident, and decided to stop by on Saturday after enjoying Hiroshima’s peace park and museum. There was no line late Friday afternoon, but when we returned on Saturday about 3pm, there was a line stretching down the street in front of the store. We decided to stick it out, and ended up waiting probably about 20 minutes. The staff however, like in most of Japan, were amazingly and happily efficient, taking orders outside on electronic keypads, which were then transmitted wirelessly directly back to the kitchen. By the time we sat down at the grill-side counter, our okonomiyaki creation had already been started.

Hiroshima 2015, Okonomiyaki, menu WM

Okonomiyaki became very popular during WWII when rice was in very short supply. Due to the lack of other ingredients, a simpler version was made with more readily available fixings. Suffering harsh wartime conditions, the freshly grilled and hot wheat pancake was nutritious, filling, and inexpensive, all at the same time.

The Line at Nagata-ya's

The Line at Nagata-ya’s

Hiroshima 2015, Peace Memorial Park, Jody night portrait with the A-DomeOsaka-style okonomiyaki mixes all the constituent ingredients, including shredded cabbage, egg, green onion and usually some type of protein, into the batter before grilling. The okonomiyaki in Hiroshima uses very similar elements, the biggest differences being that they are layered on top of the grilled batter rather than mixed within, and include a layer of noodles (soba or udon), and are often topped with a fried egg.

Hiroshima 2015, Okonomiyaki, grilled deliciousness WM

I am a huge fan of udon (my favorite soup in the whole wide world), so we elected for this starchy layer over soba. Looking up and down the grill, however, showed that we seemed to have made a faux pas of sorts: our order was the only one involving the pasta-like noodles. Seriously though, I think okonomiyaki would be better with soba. Nagata-ya offers a “jumbo” coke, and for once, Japan finally served an American-worthy sized soda!

Yes, ours is the only one with udon....

Yes, ours is the only one with udon….

What results is a meal about the size of a dinner plate, and the thickness of the deepest dish pizza you can imagine. It was impossible for me and Jody to imagine eating one each, so we ordered one to share, a move that seemed to surprise our waitress to some extent.

Hiroshima 2015, Okonomiyaki, busy line chefs 2 WM

Part of the rather unique flavor of this Japanese culinary specialty comes from okonomi sauce that is brushed on during grilling. This glaze is best described as one part steak sauce, two parts BBQ, and one part tonkatsu sauce. Eating the okonomiyaki I was unsure that I really liked the sauce, and now weeks later, I still remain undecided. Although peculiar, it certainly didn’t stop me from devouring my portion of the savory pancake!

Hiroshima 2015, Okonomiyaki, cooked to order WM

In Okinawa, okonomiyaki is called hirayachi (ヒラヤーチー) and is much simpler, using less components than those described above from other areas of Japan. However, Okinawans enjoy this dish mostly at home and cooked at home, so there are very few okonomiyaki restaurants in Okinawa. We have found one (and only one) since our trip to Hiroshima, but haven’t found a way or place to partake of the Ryukyuan version.

Hiroshima 2015, Okonomiyaki, hungry Jody WM

Yes, Japan is known for sushi, sashimi and even Kobe beef. But Okonomiyaki too is a uniquely, if much less known distinctive Japanese dish, and should be included as part of any culinary adventure to this corner of the Far East. Seek it out, whether you find yourself in Tokyo, Osaka, or Kyoto. But in Hiroshima, seek out Nagata-ya’s. You and your oversized American appetite will not be disappointed.  But more importantly, you won’t be afraid to admit how much you really love these really thin pancakes!

Cutting into our very own fresh Hiroshima-style Okonomiyaki

Cutting into our very own fresh Hiroshima-style Okonomiyaki

 

For More Information:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Okonomiyaki

http://japanesefood.about.com/od/holidaytraditionalfood/r/hirookonomiyaki.htm

http://nagataya-okonomi.com/en/shop.html

A Blessing from Buddha: Banteay Kdei at Angkor


 Whether one believes in a religion or not,
and whether one believes in rebirth or not,
there isn’t anyone who doesn’t appreciate kindness and compassion.
~ Dalai Lama

The Temple's Inner Sanctum

The Temple’s Inner Sanctum

“Come here Lady,” the Buddhist nun said to Jody with an almost toothless smile. Like all nuns of that faith in Cambodia, her head was shaved, just as the male monks do. She was well into her 60s, thin and somewhat feeble, but seemed perfectly and happily suited to be the keeper of her faith at the central Buddhist altar in the Banteay Kdei temple.

Our Buddhist Nun Friend with our Guide

Our Buddhist Nun Friend with our Guide

She reached out her hand to Jody without getting up from the rug-covered stone floor at the base of the statue, and held out two loops of thread, one red and one gold. “Blessing from Buddha,” said more as a statement than a question. How can anyone turn such an offer away?

Blessing Bracelet from Buddha and His Nun

Blessing Bracelet from Buddha and His Nun

Cambodia 2015, Banteay Kdei, carved Khmer face WMIt was our third and final day in the Angkor Archeological Park, and the morning had been consumed with exploring the famous, massive and crowded Angkor Wat, a truly moving and spiritual experience for even hardcore atheists. Our Khmer guide had done well in the previous two days, moving from one temple complex to the next in a loose chronological order, approaching each site to both minimize crowds and position light to the best advantage of our cameras. And it appeared that she had saved the iconic tourist site of Cambodia as the climax of our visit to Angkor.

Idyllic Ruins

Idyllic Ruins

But she held back one final surprise. After cooling off and refreshing ourselves at lunch back in the nearby city of Siem Reap, we headed yet again back into the park, to a much lesser known and visited temple called Banteay Kdei.

Like the More Famous Ta Prohm, only BETTER!

Like the More Famous Ta Prohm, only BETTER!

Cambodia 2015, Banteay Kdei, doorways WMBanteay Kdei (Khmer: ប្រាសាទបន្ទាយក្តី; “Prasat Banteay Kdei”), means “Citadel of Chambers” (or “Cells”), but is more commonly known as the “Citadel of the Monks.” Built in 12th-13th centuries CE during the reign of Jayavarman VII, the temples’ mixed architectural features are contained within two successive enclosure walls. Within each, visitors will find concentric galleries from which emerge towers. It is believed that the site had been occupied by monks almost constantly since construction through the 1960s.

Still an Active Buddhist Temple

Still an Active Buddhist Temple

Cambodia 2015, Banteay Kdei, banded temple tower WMOur guide, like at most of our other visits to the various temples of Angkor, had us enter this center from its rear, where the angled afternoon light danced on the best features of the sanctuary. Compared to some of the other temple complexes nearby, Banteay Kdei is not large, but instead is tightly packed in a series of tight rectangular enclosures. Functioning originally as a Buddhist monastery during, it remains largely unrestored, resulting in an atmosphere similar to the stylistically famous Ta Prohm.

Cambodia 2015, Banteay Kdei, tree root HDR WM

Cambodia 2015, Banteay Kdei, face-topped gate tower WMBanteay Kdei has suffered more deterioration than most other more famous temples found at Angkor, since soft but easy-to-work sandstone was used in much of its construction rather than the harder stone used extensively elsewhere. 13th century vandalism of Buddhist images is apparent and common here, as the temple and region waffled between Buddhism and Hinduism with the changing decrees of differing Khmer rulers through the centuries. Many of the originally vaulted galleries have collapsed at several locations, putting a good portion of the enclosures off-limits.

Cambodia 2015, Banteay Kdei, tranquil wooded ruins WM

Cambodia 2015, Banteay Kdei, tree rooted in the ruins WMThe monastery is small and dense, packed in an area of only about 160×200 feet and consists of only a single level, making it easy to explore in its totality. Getting to the central area of the ruins, however, will take a bit time since the outer wall of the complex measures roughly 1000×2300 feet. The temple houses a treasure trove of sculptures in the architectural styles of the Ta Prohm, which it eerily resembles. Except without the paparazzi-like draw of Lara Croft and the Tomb Raider fame of that other hectically crowded place (see Tomb Raiding Angkor for more on Hollywood’s impact on the other side of the globe).

Buddha or the King?

Buddha or the King?

Column Carvings in the Hall of Dancers

Column Carvings in the Hall of Dancers

The smiling faces found here are thought to be of King Jayavarman II, although most visitors seem to be perfectly happy to assume they represent a very happy Buddha. Wall niches are found throughout the facility and many contain figurines of apsara (celestial nymph) and/or devatas (lesser deities) in single poses or in pairs as dancers. The temple is famous for its “Hall of Dancers,” where open courtyards display pillars covered in multitudes of sophisticated carvings of these supernatural females. The temple’s tiny inner sanctum (~9×9 foot square) is flanked by similar carvings and contains traces of long-lost statues. The temple is complete with tumbling and overgrown courtyards, where lichens and defacing oxidation add interesting splashes of color to the already spectacular Khmer architecture.

Apsara and Devatas Everywhere

Apsara and Devatas Everywhere

Within the temple one can find several small shrines safeguarded by female Buddhist nuns, all who offer you blessings and Buddhist-colored red and yellow threaded yarn bracelets, of course all in return for a small donation. We both offered a donation of a dollar or two, received our bracelets, and in return placed a freshly lit stick of incense for Buddha to enjoy.

Incense for Buddha

Incense for Buddha

Cambodia 2015, Banteay Kdei, dry fit falling down WMIn close proximity to Ta Prohm and every bit as beautiful (or even more), this temple does not get nearly as many visitors as the former more famous location. Banteay Kdei offers a uniquely quieter appeal than most other Angkorian ruins, a place where a visitor can sense the isolation and oppression of the jungle while they contemplate the many carvings and still-active shrines and altars protected by nuns and often visited by local worshipers. Like Ta Prohm, this temple offers a prime setting for photography, where the scenes are compact and close, and the tourists thin and subdued. In these ways, this set of ruins is the perfect antidote to the crowds suffered at Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom, and Ta Prohm. It is, however, located conveniently close to those “big three,” so it’s an easy addition to most any itinerary, and a site visit that should not be missed.

Cambodia 2015, Banteay Kdei, ruins by the jungle 2 WM

Cambodia 2015, Banteay Kdei, looker WMThe peace, quiet and solitude found here is alone worth the visit. “Tranquility” is not a word that is often used to describe a visit to Angkor, but it should be and can be found at this out-of-the-way place. It may be best to start your day early at this temple, then visit the other more popular sites in the afternoon when the Cambodian heat and humidity has driven those crowds down to more manageable numbers. The ancient breezeways running through the temple’s enclosures allow visitors to lose themselves, literally, in time.

Cambodia 2015, Banteay Kdei, temple passage WM

Similar in layout to Ta Prohm, but less overtaken by the surrounding jungle, the approach to the ruins is shaded and cool, lined with more Cambodian concessionaires than fellow tourists. Some quality merchandise can be found here, from stone rubbings, to wood carvings, oil paintings, and rice paper reliefs. But of course all the other cheap trinkets and unwanted souvenirs you might expect at such a site can be had as well. After the initial asking price tumbled as we politely haggled (the lack of visitors I think helps drive prices down), Jody and I purchased a rice paper relief, something that had caught my eye the day before.

Cambodia 2015, Banteay Kdei, wooded ruins WM

I continued to wear my Buddha-Blessing-Bracelet 24/7 after our visit (yarn is very hardy). And only recently lost it when changing out of a wetsuit after a scuba dive. Jody still has hers, but unfortunately can’t wear it to work; worries about possibly leaving it in a patient during surgery or something….

Cambodia 2015, Banteay Kdei, one of our favorite temple visits and our last

Even though the physical manifestation of my blessing is gone, the blessing of our visit to the delicate loveliness of Banteay Kdei lives on, in mind and spirit. It’s hard to fathom how anyone could be disappointed by its understated and underrated charms. Make this your final visit, make it in the afternoon, and enter the site from the rear. You will be blessed in more ways than one.

Cambodia 2015, Banteay Kdei, dwarfed by tree roots WM

For More Photos of Our Visit, See:  Banteay Kdei on Flickr

For More Information, Please See:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Banteay_Kdei

http://www.canbypublications.com/siemreap/temples/temp-bankdei.htm

http://www.travelfish.org/sight_profile/cambodia/western_cambodia/siem_reap/angkor/356

Tomb-Raiding Angkor


“Soaring skywards and surrounded by a moat that would make its European Castle counterparts blush, Angkor Wat is one of the most inspired and spectacular monuments ever conceived by the human mind.” ~Lonely Planet

You can look at all the pictures of what is often called the 8th Wonder of the World you want. But NOTHING compares to visiting Cambodia and seeing the expansively moving temples in person. Even Lara Croft can’t resist their charms.

Cambodia 2015, Angkor Wat, rear entry of Angkor Wat WM

Cambodia 2015, Angkor Wat, admiring the gallery of carvings WMCambodia 2015, Angkor Wat, Buddha in the central tower WMAngkor (អង្គរ or នគរ, “Capital City”), as a preserve and park, is more than one of the most important archaeological sites in South-East Asia; it’s one of the most important in the world. Stretching over a massive region just outside of the city of Siem Reap, Angkor Archaeological Park contains the magnificent ruins of many different ancient capitals of the Khmer Empire from the 9th through the 15th centuries. As such, Angkor has been designated as a UNESCO world heritage site since 1992, and many programs have been emplaced to help safeguard this symbolic place along with much of its surroundings. While, yes, of course Angkor Wat is the most famous and perhaps best known, there are many, many more temple ruins that, in many ways, are even more fascinating than the prime tourist draw.

Lara Croft's door at the Tomb Raider Temple.  Ugh.

Lara Croft’s door at the Tomb Raider Temple. Ugh.

Cambodia 2015, Ta Prohm, ruined tree 2 WMBut please, for the love of god, don’t bring up Tomb Raider or what has become to be known as the “Angelina Jolie Temple.” Oh, right: too late. Our guide was only too happy to refer to the 12th century temple of Ta Prohm in just that way. I’ll admit, not being either a Tomb Raider or Angelina Jolie fan, I was almost completely unaware that filming had occurred there in 2000. But locals don’t suffer from such a lapse; they’ve renamed the temple from the scene above after her.

The Majesty of Ta Prohm

The Majesty of Ta Prohm

Ta Prohm

Ta Prohm

Ta Prohm, along with the more familiar Angkor Wat both served as the setting for a long sequence of scenes in Tomb Raider. Okay, okay, I admit that we did rent and watch Tomb Raider when we got home from our trip, and although I kept falling asleep during most of the flick (not a fan, ‘member?), the scenes involving Angkor were curious and noteworthy.

lara-croft-ta-prohm1

Ta Prohm

Ta Prohm

For the movie, sets were built around Angkor Wat, providing more of a nondescript Oriental feel than that of Khmer. An exotically bucolic village was built around the and on stilts in the waters of the reflecting pond in front of the iconic temple. The scenes of Lara Croft paddling a canoe through the village are idyllic, but it’s the scenes of Lara following a sassy child and magical butterflies through Ta Prohm that have stolen the imagination for modern-day visitors to that site.

Cambodia 2015, Angkor Wat, tower through the trees WM

Cambodia 2015, Angkor Wat, admiring the galleries WMCambodia 2015, Angkor Wat, carved corridors WMThe ruins of Angkor are located amid dense rain forests and fertile farmland to the north of Tonlé Sap lake near modern-day Siem Reap city. The temples found there number over a thousand, although many are barely recognizable piles of rubble or as yet unearthed mounds still relatively lost in the jungle. Angkor Wat, the centerpiece and pride of the capacious complex, is described as the world’s largest religious monument. The place can be so spiritually moving to experience that almost two million visit annually, a unstainable number given the soft sandstone that those four million feet are trampling upon.

Cambodia 2015, Angkor Wat, arriving at Angkor Wat! 2 WM

Cambodia 2015, Angkor Wat, restful doorjam WMCambodia 2015, Angkor Wat, shooting in a corridor WMOur guide was crafty about visiting the various temple sites. Saving Angkor Wat for almost last (that last visit will be featured in its own blog!), we entered from the rear of the temple, almost entirely alone, with blue skies beaming over the steep ruins with the sun in our faces. Having been there previously in 2007 (see Power in Poverty for more on that particular Far East Fling), I had expected the “usual” entrance, walking the long King’s causeway to the main temple entrance. However, that route is what everyone else takes, and can be quite chaotic. We literally had the temple much to ourselves for the first half of our tour there.

Cambodia 2015,  Angkor Wat, candlesticks 2 WM

Ruins at Angkor

Ruins at Angkor

Cambodia 2015, Angkor Wat, carved ceremonial headdress WMIn the last decade international team of scientists and archeologists concluded that Angkor had been the largest pre-industrial city in the world approaching an area of 390 square miles of ancient urban sprawl, a figure of which any modern metropolis would be infamously proud. Angkor is perhaps best characterized as a “hydraulic city” due to its extensive water management construction and engineering which systematically stabilized, stored, and dispersed water throughout the area, key to sustaining such a large population by using irrigated agriculture. It is believed by some that the complex supported up to one million people, although the actual number is hotly debated and most likely will never be known with any degree of certainty.

Cambodia 2015, Angkor Wat, carved hands WM

Visiting Restrictions

Visiting Restrictions

Cambodia 2015, Angkor Wat, carved hands WMThe temple was much as I remembered, except there were many more visitors to Angkor than I experience eight years previous. The biggest change was the control exercised by park officials in controlling not only the number of guests allowed at any time in the highest central tower, but the enforcement of a respectable dress code, which required women to have skirts/dresses below their knees and their shoulders covered.

Library at Angkor Wat

Library at Angkor Wat

Cambodia 2015, Angkor Wat, khmer female carved in stone WMCambodia 2015, Angkor Wat, temple tower 2 WMAngkor Wat was originally founded as a Hindu temple (Wat is Khmer for “temple grounds” or literally “enclosure”), but gradually transformed into a Buddhist temple toward the end of the 12th century, a not uncommon occurrence in ancient Khmer as different rulers declared different national approaches to religion. It was built by the Khmer King Suryavarman II in the early 12th century in the then capital of the Khmer Empire as his state temple and eventual mausoleum. It is, at once and without doubt, the best-preserved temple of Angkor, and is believed to be the only site to have remained a significant religious center since its foundation. It is so an indivisible part of Cambodia’s culture that it is the national symbol appearing on Cambodia’s flag.

Cambodia 2015,  Angkor Wat, reflecting WM

Cambodia 2015, Angkor Wat, carved woman WMCambodia 2015, Angkor Wat, Kevin resting at the top levelThe temple is at once a study in grandeur of architecture and harmony of purpose, and is known for its extensive bas-reliefs along the ground-floor galleries and for almost innumerable stone devata adorning its upper reaches. Angkor Wat combines two basic plans of Khmer temple architecture: the temple-mountain and the galleried temple. The center of the wat is meant to represent the quincunx of peaks of Mount Meru, home of the devas in Hindu mythology (devas are also a feature of Buddhism). Surrounding the temples central towers are three long rectangular galleries, each raised above the next. This layered approach elevates the already tall towers, resulting in a primeval yet enduring skyline well above the surrounding jungle. The sheer size of the structure is stunning; I continue to attempt to fathom how a people living on the edge of existence could build such massive stone structures without tools or machinery. Constructing Angkor Wat today would be tough, even using our modern approaches and equipment.

Cambodia 2015, Angkor Wat, corner tower from the courtyard WM

It seems that Tomb Raider has really not done any favors for Angkor. Tourists come and perhaps role play the part of Lara as an adventurer and explorer, often climbing over and otherwise treating Ta Prohm more as a movie set than a profoundly sacred site that which it is. In fact, you can find the temple actually called “Tomb Raider Temple” in some guide books, and every tuk-tuk driver knows exactly where to take you when the movie or Ms. Croft is referenced. Back in town in and around Siem Reap, tourists can easily find the “Tomb Raider cocktail,” nothing more than a mixture of Cointreau, soda and lime, but which is claimed to be one of the favored adult beverages of Angelina. These modern facets of visiting Angkor Wat blurs the boundaries of what is real and authentic, with that which is purely fiction. The result is that Angkor for some (or even many) is slowly being cheated of its culturally and historically importance known to the few, and becoming more of a disemboweled Hollywood visual spectacle to the masses.

Cambodia 2015,  Angkor Wat, in love with Angkor Wat WM

 

Getting There: A 5-6 hour bus, taxi or boat ride gets you from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap. However, it’s the close and convenient airport in Siem Reap that offers the best option, providing regular service to Phnom Penh and abroad to international destinations such as Bangkok, Singapore, and Seoul.

Visiting: The bustling tourist town of Siem Reap is the gateway to Angkor. There one can find lodging, dining, and tour-packages to match any budget or taste. Those interested in exploring more remote and off-the-beaten-path areas can hire cars with guides, tuk-tuks for a day for about $20, or, as the cheapest option, motorbikes which provide perhaps the fastest if not most dangerously adventuresome way to tailor an itinerary. The yellow tethered Angkor balloon ride is a great way to get a unique aerial perspective of Angkor Wat, but only go in the afternoon when the sun favors the view from above. See Monkeying Around in Cambodia for a truly terrific zip-line experience that can be had within the archeological park..

When to Go: Peak tourist season runs late November through early February, during Cambodia’s dry season where temperatures and humidity are not so oppressive. “Feels-like” heat starts to soar in spring, peaking in April and holding steady through the monsoon season of May and June. Rains continue, albeit reduced, through the summer until October, becoming more sporadic the longer a traveler waits. In my opinion, avoiding the crushing crowds is worth risking a rain shower (or two). Plus, the surrounding fields turn green and rice paddies flood with the rains, although some of the more remote sites can be washed out due to poor roads and limited access.

Cambodia 2015,  Angkor Wat, Kevin and Jody enjoying the wat 2 WM

For More Information, See:

http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/668/

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Angkor_Wat

http://travel.nationalgeographic.com/travel/world-heritage/angkor/

Commander, United States Navy, Arriving!


“There’s always a reason to celebrate…but knowing why is helpful.” ~Wishful Prayer on our Ema left at the Itsukushima Shrine

Miyajima 2015, Itsukushima Shrine, Ema always a reason to celebrate

Jody and had for months planned an overly expensive blow-out vacation in celebration of our near-future together: either retirement from the Navy on 1 January 2016, or another 3.5 years and an additional tour in the Navy, ending with Jody as a Commander at 30 years of total service.

O-Torii Gate, Itsukushima Shrine, Miyajima

O-Torii Gate, Itsukushima Shrine, Miyajima

15839684381_aec7060d66_bYou see, that fork depended upon this year’s Commander (O-5) Selection results. But that split in potential paths forward should’ve been reached for us a full two years ago. In 2012, the Navy decided to split the “zone,” a grouping based on seniority which determined eligible candidates for promotion – get this – exactly at Jody. So, rather than being considered for promotion in the spring of 2013 as expected, we had to wait another year until Jody became even eligible. Frustrating, to say the least….

Married Vets

Married Vets

Jody Serving in Japan

Jody Serving in Japan

Then in 2014, Jody and I were shocked when she was not selection for Commander after waiting an extra year to finally become eligible. And that made this year her last shot. The Federal government has a statutory requirement it places on the military that states if you are eligible for retirement and miss a promotion to the next rank twice, you must retire. It’s called “two-time failure on selection,” and it’s exactly what forced me out of the service as a Lieutenant Commander in 2008.

Dining and Sleep Area in our Ryokan

Dining and Sleep Area in our Ryokan

Private Balcony Onsen Bath

Private Balcony Onsen Bath

In-room Dining

In-room Dining

So, we planned this celebratory vacation starting on June 29th, expecting the Commander results to be released the last week in June like they usually are. We booked a high-end Japanese Ryokan, a place known for their 12-course gourmet meals served in your room prepared by award-winning chefs, in a room that had outdoor bathing fed by a onsite onsen (hot spring), on the resort island of Miyajima just outside of Hiroshima. We were going to end this trip with a 3-night stay in the infamous city right next to the Peace Memorial Park and Museum at the ANA Crowne Plaza.

At the A-Dome, Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park

At the A-Dome, Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park

We fully expected to know the results of Jody’s board prior to leaving. But in any case, at the worst, we would certainly know prior to the July 4th holiday weekend while we were on vacation. So even if we left without knowing, certainly we would know before our return.

Placing our ema at the Itsukushima Shrine

Placing our ema at the Itsukushima Shrine

Miyajima 2015, Itsukushima Shrine, Ema always a reason to celebrate Jody writing WMMiyajima 2015, Itsukushima Shrine, Ema always a reason to celebrate writing WMOf course the Navy had different ideas. For whatever reason, the selection results were delayed this year (it appears at the SECDEF level). We have a tradition of leaving our prayers and wishes at most of the Shinto Shrines and Buddhist Temples we visit in Japan. So, at the beginning of our celebration-vacation, we placed an ema (See Shinto Shrines and Snake Oil for more) at the famous Itsukushima Shrine on Miyajima Island, wishing, “There is always a reason to celebrate…but knowing why is helpful.  To discovering why we celebrate in Miyajima.  The Kings ~ Jody and Kevin.”

At the famous Itsukushima Shrine, Miyajima

At the famous Itsukushima Shrine, Miyajima

Frustrated that we celebrated without knowing why, we came home and simply stopped worry about the results, at least on the surface. I stopped asking Jody about results, and she stopped checking every morning. It would happen when it happened, and there was nothing we could do about it. Of course it had always been outside our spheres of influence from the start….

Richshaw Ride, Miyajima

Richshaw Ride, Miyajima

And like most other things in life, when you let go of stress and worry, things have a way of working themselves out. Early this morning, when Jody got up to pee as the category 4 Typhoon Chan-hom was making her closest approach to Okinawa, Jody had a text message from a nurse co-worker. Dana’s boyfriend, a Navy Officer back on the East coast of the United States, had sent the just-released selection results forward. And Jody was on the list!

Not just the prettiest nurse in the Navy, now the prettiest COMMANDER in the Navy!

Not just the prettiest nurse in the Navy, now the prettiest COMMANDER in the Navy!

Jody is now a full Commander (select)!! Seems Mother Nature was already in the know and giving Jody a wetting-down worthy of one she so strongly deserved.  And yes, this means Jody outranks me now. Don’t worry, I salute her all the time (wink-wink).

At the O-Torii in the rain, Itsukushima Shrine, Miyajima

At the O-Torii in the rain, Itsukushima Shrine, Miyajima

Most likely she will pin the new rank on in December. And this means that we will finish up our tour here on Okinawa, slated to leave in August of 2016. Jody will start immediately negotiating our next set of orders, and plans to do three more years of active duty service once she’s a Commander to take full advantage of retiring as an O-5 (“high-three” retirement plan, where retirement pay is calculated as the average of the highest three years of salary on active duty). Ideas we are considering are a return to Pensacola, or quite possibly, a Consecutive Overseas Tour (COT) in Europe…if there is something available where we would want to go.

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7926452868_629435d039_b13117509193_a3e1975570_bCongratulations Jody on making Commander. It is a long-time coming, and well-deserved. You have truly succeeded in your nursing profession and have excelled in the United States Navy, having progressed from the junior enlisted ranks to full Commander during your long military service. I couldn’t be more proud, and I look forward to throwing you a more proper wetting-down celebration later this year. I eagerly await continuing our adventures together.

Learning some maritime military history at the Kure Maritime Museum

Learning some maritime military history at the Kure Maritime Museum

Fair Winds and Following Seas, My Love.

Miyajima 2015, beautiful Jody on the ferry across

Or, should I say, “Ma’am”?!?

Faces of Death: Haunting Victims of S-21


“Never will we forget the crimes committed during the Democratic Kampuchea regime.” ~S-21 Prison Memorial inscription

S-21 Genocide Memorial

S-21 Genocide Memorial

Cambodia 2015, Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (S-21), victims lost to time 2 WMEyes of crudely mounted photographs, pre-death mug shots in essence, seem to follow as Jody and I moved silently through the horrific halls of S-21. The peering stares of over 6,000 men, women and children unknowingly destined for demise seem to plead for intervention. Perhaps the saddest photo is that of a young mother and her baby lying by her side, blankly staring into the camera with an almost vacant expression of indignant resignation. All those photographed shared a tragic predicament – not knowing that they were facing imminent death just at the moment their photos were being taken – a commonality which results in a profoundly unnerving experience for any viewer.

Cambodia 2015, Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (S-21), mom and baby victims WM

In early January 1979, on a bright and breezy Cambodian wintery afternoon, heavily armed Vietnamese military reached the outskirts of Phnom Penh after a blitzkrieg campaign beginning the previous Christmas Day. Vietnam had had enough of the obnoxiously militant culture that the Maoist-inspired Khmer Rouge of Democratic Kampuchea (“DK,” how the régime referred to Cambodia) had installed. And in an interesting turn of events just a handful of years after their victory over the Americans, Vietnam was doing something about the brutal, genocidal, suicidal régime next door when no one else in the world would.

Billboard of Survivor Children found in 1979; only one Survived

Billboard of Survivor Children found in 1979; only one Survived

Cambodia 2015, Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (S-21), prisoner transport WMThe Khmer Rouge was taken aback in surprise by the rapidity of Vietnam’s assault. After barely two weeks of fighting, Cambodia cracked open as easily as that of a raw egg. The Khmer Rouge dissolved into the rural jungle and countryside just as quickly as it had appeared, while the invaders were welcomed as liberators by nearly every Cambodian who was left behind. Those people, altogether terrorized and literally exhausted by nearly four years of undernourishment, back-breaking labor, and widespread fear and executions, were ready for change. They were simply looking for peace, safety and security after decades of war in Southeast Asian, followed by a years-long internal civil war, and finally from the wretched atrocities suffered by their own peoples’ hand.

White Graves of 2 of the last 14 Victims are seen at the bottom.

White Graves of 4 of the last 14 Victims are seen at the bottom.

Cambodia 2015, Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (S-21), prison building A 2 WMAs the Vietnamese troops secured the city, two photojournalists accompanying the invasion were drawn by the unmistakably smell of decomposing bodies. As they approached the silent source of the foul odor they noticed a large fenced compound topped with dense, electrified coils of barbed wire. The entrance gate was only marked with a single Revolutionary sounding slogan in Khmer colors of red and white: “Fortify the spirit of the revolution! Be on your guard against the strategy and tactics of the enemy so as to defend the Country, the People and the Party.” Nothing else identified this curious place.

Cambodia 2015, Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (S-21), prison building C WM

Once inside, though, the photogs found themselves on the grounds of what had once been a large school, about two city blocks in size, consisting of four three-story buildings in the shape of a right-hand bracket (if facing north), each with open-air breezeway balconies on their successive floors. An additional single-story building, found littered with papers and office equipment, split the compound, dividing it into nearly identical halves.

Documentary Photo of a Murder Victim and the Crime Scene as it was found in 1979

Documentary Photo of a Murder Victim and the Crime Scene as it was found in 1979

It was the rooms of the building on the southern end of this arrangement that brought the first horrors. Here the journalists discovered several murder victims, some still chained to simple iron bedframes, in rooms almost complete barren. Most had suffered numerous serious injuries, but almost all had their throats slashed, and the blood pooled below the beds, although congealing, was at places still wet. In total, 14 victims were found, killed only a couple of days previously.

Crude Ankle Shackles and Rebar

Crude Ankle Shackles and Rebar

Cambodia 2015, Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (S-21), VIP cell and torture-murder site 10 WM

Improvised Toilets

Improvised Toilets

But what was discovered in the other buildings is what started to illuminate the sinister nature of the place: heaps of ankle shackles, hundreds of handcuffs, whips of various material, and lengths of chain and electrical cord. Other former classrooms had been crudely divided into cells by clumsily bricked partitions, while others still had more elaborate and larger cells created by wooden walls and doors. Metal American 7.62mm ammo boxes in some of the cells contained human feces. The Vietnamese had stumbled into a vicious and important Khmer Rouge killing facility known as S-21, “S” standing for “santebal,” a Khmer term that combined the words santisuk (security) and nokorbal (police).

Captive Chains

Captive Chains

S-21 now houses the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, which chronicles the auto-genocide that happened in Cambodia in the 1970s under the inhuman Khmer Rouge régime. Tuol Sleng translates roughly as “Hill of the Poisonous Trees,” and was but one of at least 150 execution centers dispersed throughout the country. Although some estimates put the death toll from S-21 as high as 20,000, a more accurate number is probably somewhere between 14,000 and 17,000.

Balcony Razor Wire

Balcony Razor Wire

In 1975, the Khmer Rouge began to adapt the school as a prison. The buildings were cordoned into a compound enclosed in electrified barbed wire, the classrooms converted into tiny prison and torture chambers, windows were covered with iron bars, and balconies covered with a thick matrix of razor wire to prevent suicidal leaps from the upper floors.

Crude Prison Cells

Crude Prison Cells

Postmortem, Death from Torture

Postmortem, Death from Torture

At any one time, the prison held as many as 1,000–1,500 prisoners. In the early months of S-21’s existence, most of the victims were from the previous Western-propped Cambodian Lon Nol regime and consisted of mostly soldiers and government officials, but also included academics, doctors, teachers, students, factory workers, monks, and engineers. But during early 1977, when the Khmer Rouge enacted large-scale internal purges, S-21 claimed an average of 100 victims a day. Of the 14,000 people known to have entered, only seven survived.

Wooden Prison Cells

Wooden Prison Cells

Crude Destruction

Crude Destruction

Most lower-ranking prisoners at S-21 were held for a few days or weeks, whereas more important ones and those suspected of grave offenses were routinely incarcerated for several months. Thousands of prisoners, regardless of their perceived importance, had undergone interrogation, prepared concocted confessions admitting counter-revolutionary crimes up to several hundred pages long, and submitted lists of their friends, family and associates entitled “strings” that sometimes ran to several hundred names. These false indictments kept the cycle of paranoia and death endlessly flowing. All the dots making up each string were ultimately “smashed.”

All the Dots of a Family Lineage Smashed because Father was a Tradesman

All the Dots of a Family Lineage Smashed because Father was a Tradesman

Inverted Submersion Torture Device

Inverted Submersion Torture Device

Few prisoners maintained their innocence for long under the torture widely inflicted at S-21. Considered guilty by the very fact that they were arrested in the first place, prisoners were all expected to confess their imaginary associations with the West and the CIA, or with the East and the KGB, or worse yet, with Vietnam in writing before they were taken off to be “smashed,” the Khmer euphemism for murder. Routinely beaten and shocked with electricity, nearly drowned by water-boarding and forced submerging, burned with searing hot metal instruments, suffocated with plastic bags, cut with knives and hung to near-death, prisoners confessed to that with which they were charged.

Water Board for Torture

Water Board for Torture

Imprisoned

Imprisoned

Cambodia 2015, Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (S-21), instruments of torture WMThe buildings at Tuol Sleng are preserved as they were left when the Khmer Rouge were driven out in 1979. The site has four main buildings, the first of which holds the large cells in which the bodies of the last victims of the prison were discovered. The second offers gallery after gallery of photographs of those tortured and ultimately executed. The third presents the original classrooms which were sub-divided into smaller cells for prisoners, while the final holds some interesting artwork by former S-21 inmate Vann Nath depicting torture alongside the actual instruments pictured. The last classroom of the last building contains a small Buddhist altar and stupa (burial tower), and empties into a large courtyard which features a remembrance memorial to the victims and the atrocity which occurred there.

Cambodia 2015, Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (S-21), barbed balconies WM

Cambodia 2015, Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (S-21), VIP cell and torture-murder site 8 WMMost of the rooms of the first building are bare, containing only a rusting iron bedframe, along with a black and white photograph hung on a wall. The grisly photo reflects the room as it was found by the Vietnamese. In each, the mutilated, bloated and decomposing body of a prisoner is shown, usually chained to a bed situated over pool of still-wet blood, obviously and brutally murdered by their fleeing captors only a day or two before the prison was uncovered.

Cambodia 2015, Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (S-21), VIP cell and torture-murder site 6 WM

Cambodia 2015, Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (S-21), VIP brother shackled in prison WMThe other buildings display about 6,000 silent, melancholy portraits. Some of the striking black and white images portray shock, while others reflect a depressed resignation. Others portray confusion. While it’s the scenes of mass graves and thousands of bones which are used to capture the imagination, the most haunting images are these stark portraits taken and preserved by the Khmer Rouge at S-21. Since the original negatives and photographs were separated from their respective records, most of the photographs remain anonymous today.

Cambodia 2015, Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (S-21), victims lost to time WM

Wooded Cell with Colorful Tile

Wooded Cell with Colorful Tile

The museum today helps to provide an organized archive of Cambodia’s brutal past in the hopes that history will not be repeated. Combined with the Killing Fields close by at Choeung Ek (see Seeing The Killing Fields for my blog about that depressing place), it’s hard to escape the brutal reality of the evil which infected these places. For survivors, the vast and seemingly random cruelties of the Khmer Rouge are captured and effectively condensed in the museum’s displays. The indifference of the DK government officials, exhibited in room after room, is all too clear for anyone to see. But the museum, at times, overly represents the Khmer Rouge as a homogenous group of indoctrinated fanatics, the incarnation of absolute evil, responsible for most of the unhappiness of the Cambodian people. While this may be an easy or attractive explanation, it falls well short of the much more convoluted complexion of the Khmer Rouge phenomenon of the 1970s.

Children Demented Into Murderous Thugs

Children Demented Into Murderous Thugs

A visit to S-21 is at once disorienting. There is a stark, esoteric contrast between the now peaceful, green and sun-soaked compound against the horrific exhibits and photographs on display. There is an almost unbelievable dichotomy between the sounds of children playing outside superimposed over the silent induction photos of the many children and teens which were held at S-21 and ultimately smashed. The sheer ordinariness of the place makes it even more horrific.

Cambodia 2015, Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (S-21), ankle shackle and rebar restraint WM

Together with a visit to the museum’s companion Killing Fields, the experience can be profoundly depressing, one our guide referred to as our “Sad-Sad day of touring.” While a broad debate continues to rage over the nature and appropriateness of “dark tourism,” I remain steadfast in my own personal convictions that we must experience such places firsthand. Only when the darkest aspects of the human spirit are seared into our collective consciousness will the evil that lurks in the shadows be remembered and banished from our civility.

Cambodia 2015, Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (S-21), never forget the crimes WM