Cambodia, oh Cambodia. How can one small and brilliant country portray humanity at its all-time grandeur and most heinous? It was here that I found bliss and also realized that my love, South East Asia, has a lot more skeletons in the closet than previously thought.
First the good: Angkor Wat was incredible. I’m sure you’ve heard it before and it is true: This place will live up to any expectation. A $40 three-day pass found me exploring the jungles, labyrinths and stone ruins of Angkor Wat. Short and sweet: it was one of the best cultural sites I have experienced— few things could match it. For three miserably hot and humid days, myself and two 6’5” tall Swedes got up at 4:45 and pedaled bikes around the ruins until 7:00 in the evening. It was worth every one of the 20,000 calories burned because we witnessed National Geographic in all senses. I took over 300 digital and regular photos. (The folks in Turkey hosting my Web site are freaking.) On the second day, the light was perfect and the colors just popped out. The contrasts of carved sandstone, green jungle, mossy lichen and blackened psychedelic water damage were perfect. (It is amazing what good light can do to a place.) If massive monuments built out of stone one thousand years ago wasn’t enough, the entire place was carved in intricate detail with designs of the ubiquitous Apsara (the women dancer with voluptuous breasts and long dangly fingers.) Words can’t really do justice, so all I can say is go there. I think I’ve said this about one other thing I have done in the last 7 months, so when I say it, I mean it. Afterwards, it took me two full days in Siem Reap, the charming gateway city of Angkor Wat, to fully recover. I loved it and WILL go back!
Other Cambodia positive adventures included a wonderful elephant trek in the REMOTE province of Mondulkiri. Mondul — where? Yeah, when Brian says remote, it is remote. 200 Kilometers on red dirt road in the back of a Toyota pickup truck with 20 locals and seven people in the cab (27 people in a small Toyota!), followed by a ½ hour motorcycle ride, took me to the base camp with the elephants. And those of you who know me well know that I love elephants, especially the African variety, but these little cute Asian rascals grew on me quite fast as well. On board the elephants, we trekked through the jungle to some remote waterfalls and then spent the night in a hill-tribe village. At one point, we had to go down a little cliff and into a deep river whilst on the top of the elephants… I was sure I was a goner, to be crushed and smothered by a fallen beast. But these buddies held on and handled it quite well. I didn’t. Front legs first while the back stretched horizontal to the ground, stabilizing the animal. Then the back legs went down and the whole lot of us, one elephant and three human riders were safely floating/walking/trudging through the river. I can’t say it was the most comfortable times of my life, but I sure loved those elephants.
Cambodia also treated me to 3 fun days at Sihanoukville, AKA the white sand, blue water beach where I swam for hours in tropical seas and ate 10 BBQed squid for US $1. Yummy. Some friends and I also rented a jeep and 4-wheeled it through dense jungle to the French hill station of Bokor. The beautiful views we were promised were hidden behind thick, eerie fog. The Koreans were filming a movie up there too. Strange.
Now the bad: From 1975 to 1979 millions of educated Cambodians were systematically and brutally killed by the Khmer Rouge while the rest of the world stood idle. The social fabric of family and society disintegrated as people were murdered by their fellow neighbors with pipes, bricks, axes, guns, or whatever was nearby. Bludgeoning was encouraged to save bullets. I visited the killing fields and torture chambers and saw the meticulous records and photographs of those slain. The faces just stared at me with blank eyes— innocent people waiting to die. The beaten and cracked skulls were encased in glass by the thousands organized by age and sex. No mercy was taken: Monks, children, women and elders were all slain. This was the most difficult day of the entire journey, yet the turmoil continued…
I also learned that about 250,000 innocent Cambodian farmers were killed and millions displaced in the late 1960s by multiple US carpet bombing campaigns aimed at Viet Kong troop hiding out in Eastern Cambodia. It is speculated that this carpet bombing helped lay the path for the wrath of the soon-to-come Khmer Rouge… .Now this really hurt my psyche… I pondered the figures for a while. I did know that about 50,000 US troops died in Vietnam, but what I didn’t realize was that millions of SE Asians (Vietnamese, Cambodians, Laotians) also perished during those terrible times. And all in the name of what? What is most ironic though is that Vietnam and Cambodia and Lao are all slowly evolving into capitalists societies (and they even use US dollars as their second currency!) Ultimately, our selfish war in those countries seems to have only suppressed progress, impoverished people, and placed these countries 30 years behind the rest of East Asia.
Learning of Cambodia’s recent history within my lifetime really shamed me and I struggled for several weeks with bouts of manic-depression and hate towards our government as it seems we are repeating history. I wrote some politically charged emails to my parents and didn’t write anyone else for about a month. You could say that I withdrew from it all. Angkor Wat saved me.
Thankfully, the tides have now turned, and hope is once again in the air for Cambodia and her people. Tourists are returning in full-force and millions of aid dollars are being pumped into the country with much success: Roads are smooth again, buildings are repainted and people feel safer. The main problem now are the millions of land mines that scatter the country. Every year the monsoon rains come and move some of the mines to previous ‘safe areas.’ I read that 1 of every 250 Cambodians are amputees in the country from landmine accidents. [The USA is the only Western country that didn’t sign the anti-landmine pact several years back.] I pray for Cambodia; it deserves nothing but good.
I buy a ticket for Neak Krorhorm Travel & Tours. We depart the Phnom Penh and north towards Siem Reap. We are met by endless touts on arrival but refuse to go with any of them even though we don’t have a guesthouse.
We wander around Siem Reap for one hour exploring many options until we settle on the quaint Orchidae Guest House on a side street at 239 Stung Thmei Village. The front yard has wooden canopy with an elevated floor; several hamocks are tied under the canopy, some holding lazed travelers. We rent some bikes and tour around town.
The lazy boy emerges @ 6:30, but doesn’t really get to Angkor Wat until about 8:00ish. The $40 price for a 3-day ticket is OK, but much of the money goes to some random company. Anyway… we first go to Angkor Wat and are treated to majestic mastery. It is so overwhelming at first— and I understand so little about what is going on symbolically that I almost don’t enjoy myself. 2 hours of wandering is simply not enough, but we move on. Some kids (that watched our bikes) greet us. Ree gives me a flower in the form of a postcard. We then bike past the Bayan to Preah Kahn— soon to be one of my favorites (and I get into a very good mood here.) The temple is partially destroyed and somewhat restored. What is awe striking though are the dancing Apsara everywhere and the mazes, corridors and alleyways. What this must have looked like 1000 years ago? The light is at its best now and I do a photo shoot with some of the Apsara dancers (and I don’t even have to tip any of them.) Next, we are off to Bayan, but take a quick detour down some dirt road in search of Prasat Prei— we fail. The gates to Bayan are lined with brilliant statues with oversized heads. I snap away. Bayan, itself, looks like a ruble pile from afar, but is brilliantly decorated with thousands of carvings and reliefs. I am accosted by an incense lady who wants my $$$. I meet some great monks and speak Batambong with them! Off to the Baphuon— which looks remarkable, but is closed for repairs. Then a steep climb up Phimcanakas, and a steeper climb down, and a walk along the terrace of the elephants. Dusk is coming, so we bike on over to Phnom Bakheng for a hazy, not-so-colorful sunset. Dinner of fried flat rice noodles & vegetables x 2 and banana shake. Then of to bed! What a day!
Another wonderful day (and great light, as well.) The day starts @ 5:00. 5:25 biking off to Srah Srang for sunrise over this beautiful glimmering reservoir. Kids abound selling and bugging, but hey, they are just kids… Across the street to Banteay Kdie for some of the best temple lighting ever!!! Sublime! Half destroyed by the forces of time, ½ standing this lichen covered temple has trees growing everywhere. Ta Prohm is next— and what a beauty she is. I relive the LP cover photo and even get a glimpse of the famed Mr. Nee— the temple caretaker and LP cover model. We then trudge on and have a brief and hot stop @ Pre Rup and see some fine views. We cross into Eastern Barray and up to TA Som— a peasant temple with another great tree-growing-on-door scenario. Nice photos, but we are in the shades, shucks. We then jam off full speed ahead for Preah Neak Pran (briefly stopping at Prasat Ko Kut— which isn’t even on the map.) What a sweet little temple with (empty) pools that could fill with water. Wish I has seen it during its heyday! I lay on the shade on some of the rock steps and cool down for a bit. It is blisteringly hot outside and even though we are consuming over 7 litters of water a day, we take no pee. We then head for Angkor Wat but find the road to Prasat Prei and a nice temple with no one (and neat corridors) then to Prasat Tonle Sngout which is mostly destroyed. Off again. I see the cute Italian couple that has been following me ever since Sapa, Vietnam. We pass the North Gate and then take a dirt road out to the abandoned and decayed West Gate. Berek, then the beautiful South Gate and then on to Angkor Wat for some more breathtaking light. She is more amazing the second time! We run into the Canadians whom we met the Sunday before and suggest that we meet manana at the Bayon for the Sunrise. Yum!
Sick today— no temples (April Fools!) This day— our final— gets me up at 4:45 yet we still arrive at the Bayon at 5:45 for a peaceful and colorful sunrise. The temple is magnificent in all rights, but may almost be too much. What is just as extraordinary to me are the walls surrounding Angkor Thom and the gates especially. Today is a fiill-in-the-gaps day and we check out many temples that we missed. After a fried-rice breakie we head down a seldom used dirt road to the East Gate. I then head south on a sandy road to look for Chan Say Tevoda— but just find a maze of trails instead. I return back to the gate and discover that these is a path along the top of the wall surrounding Angkor Thom. Christor finds me somehow and we ride on the walls to the Victory Gate and then to one of my favorites— Thomonon or Thommanon. I see the Spanish couple again that I have been seeing since Sapa. The small, yet fully restored temple was really neat. Then off to Chan Say Tevada.
Traveling in Vietnam and Cambodia were difficult for me on a historical level. How many American troops dies in Nam? 50,000? Well, we killed five times that many innocent Cambodians (in carpet bombing campaigns) and Cambodia *wasn’t even in the war.* And the Laotians— the most bombed country on Earth per capita— all by the US and allies. Not to mention the million or so Viet Cong that died as well… And what about the allied Vietnamese? And the Aussies? And everyone else we dragged into that mess? And that was 30 years ago. So my thoughts drift towards now.
And now, what is ironic is that Vietnam is slowly drifting towards capitalism (and they even use the US dollar as a second currency!) And what is more ironic is that we probably just hindered the whole process by about 30 years. Did any Americans go to jail for these war crimes?
And now, we are still in Iraq on some crusade pumping billions of dollars which at least half of which will inevitably end up in the hands of USA companies of which many senior US leaders sat on the boards. And Iraq didn’t even have terrorists before we invaded. Why? Because Saddam was killing them all. And now look at the country! And now, how many more innocents have to die at the helms of Cheney, et al. compared to those the Saddam killed? And what about our right to see what is *really going on* but is instead “censored for our protection.”
And these Americans are sitting at home, paying taxes, like the Germans of WWII, in a state of what I call “Luxurious Enslavement: To comfortable to do anything about it.” Well, most of the world in our shoes would probably stage a revolution. But I am as just as guilty as the rest because my tax return (hopefully) has been sent in.
And what can I do about it? I really don’t know for sure. One thing: vote. And get rid of these fascist bastards that are not only destroying the lives of others, but really making people the world over hate us. The world doesn’t like us much right now. We are in the dog house on a global level. And really, I don’t like us right now either.