Side saddle in Siem Reap

1 10 2012

How do they do it, Cambodian women riding side saddle? They carefreely drape their legs over the side of the bike gripping neither bike nor boyfriend.

I took one moto-taxi ride and vowed never again.

It was all I could do to keep from hugging my driver round his waist. Instead, I rested my hands on his shoulders and tried not to think about my brains plastering the pavement in Phnom Penh.

Oh Cambodia.
I’m so grateful to have had the chance to see you, if only for a week.

What is it about SE Asia? Maybe it’s that people here have so much less than we do that puts our problems in proper perspective; or perhaps the sweltering weather makes any effort toward appearance utterly useless; or it could be that riding a rusty bike down a dusty road gives childlike pleasure.

I thought one week would be plenty of time to see the ancient ruins. Noooo. Four days was barely enough to see the major temples of Angkor Wat. Two days in Phnom Penh were too brief, though long enough to visit the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and Choeung Ek, one of Cambodia’s largest killing field. Still there is more to see in these two towns as well as the rest of the countryside, including the Mekong delta and the Sihanoukville beach town. Alas.

Visiting Phnom Penh
What struck me about the devastation of the Pol Pot regime was how much education was a factor in effectively oppressing Cambodians. First, Pol Pot killed professors, teachers and the educated. Next, he closed down schools. Imagine if this educated, creative class were alive in Cambodia today. They would be elder statespeople in their 60s, in leadership positions, contributing to their communities and their country. And they would have had families and passed down their ideas and opinions. Instead, these critical thinkers were killed, and psychologists speculate ~80% of the country continues to suffer from depression.

The Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum tells stories.
Roughly 3,000,000 Cambodians died under Pol Pot’s regime, and that number is hard to wrap your head around. I mean, how many people fit in Kenan Stadium, 60,000? How many people were in your graduating class, 300? How can you begin to think about 3,000,000 million people? Tuol Sleng focuses on the individual people who were brought to the high school-turned detention center and never seen again by their families.

I was struck by the museum staff’s efforts to return the museum to its original purpose of education. The high school-turned-detention center lacks educational programs for citizens and visitors, and I left thinking, “if Jim Goodnight or Jim Goodmon visited this museum, surely, they’d make a personal gift of $10,000.” Imagine the technology a donation this small could buy…

I am grateful to have experienced Cambodia.

Visiting Bayon was amazing with its egofantastic “Buddha” (King Jayavarman VII) faces.

Eating dinner in open-air restaurants showed me at last why SE Asian beer fails at beer fests–it only tastes good in sweltering weather with 90% humidity.

Looking tuk-tuk drivers and touts in the eyes, and saying “no thank you,” I realized, was far superior to the Korean brush-off.

And getting a three-dollar haircut in Phnom Penh was a fail, but giving blood at the Angkor  Children’s Hospital, supported by our USAID, was a definite win.

English lessons in Angkor Wat

11 09 2012

Everything I know about Cambodia, I learned in the last 24 hours from Vanna, my tour guide, and lonelyplanet.

What’s ironic and sad is that Cambodia was once the capital of mainland SE Asia owing largely to its irrigation systems. Today, Cambodia is a poor country where people can not drink their tap water.

At its peak though, Cambodia, from Angkor Wat (“the king’s palace”), controlled what is now Laos, Thailand and Vietnam. Siem Riep, where Angkor Wat is located, translates to “Thailand defeated”. How ya like them apples?

Yesterday was my first day visiting the temples. Already a three-day pass seems too short. I thought one week would be plenty of time to visit Angkor Wat and learn history in Phnom Penh, but there is never enough time.

The tourist trap restaurant inside the grounds where I was dropped for lunch played a video about Angkor Wat. Built at the same time as the Notre Dame cathedral, Angkor Wat once housed 700,000 people within its grounds and Angkor Thom nearly a million, while London claimed only 30,000 citizens. More than 40,000,000 people lived within Cambodia’s kingdom, while only 14,000,000 live here today. China, Thailand, Vietnam, France and Japan each in turn occupied Cambodia, while its own Khmer Rouge moved and murdered people across the country.

My tour guide Vanna said he’s asked himself many times if Pol Pot was really Cambodian.

Vanna told me some of his story, before we toured the temples yesterday. He’s 47, lost both parents when he was 12 during the Pol Pot regime and bounced around with different people before landing in a refugee camp on the Thai border in ~1982. There for the next five years, volunteers taught Vanna how to read and write in Cambodian and speak English.

Which he does well. At times, I felt I was taking an SAT prep instead of touring temples. Every explanation, Vanna ended with, “do you understand?” “Do you know what _____ means?”
All. day. long.

“So the Japanese felt remorse. Do you know remorse? It means when someone feels bad.”
“Naga means cobra and rainbow. Do you know rainbow? It means the 7 colors after the rain.”
“Look over there. Those are swans. Do you know what a swan is?”

“Yes dammit. And that’s a goose!” I yelled to no one. Aloud I said “Yes, yes” and “Thank you. I understand.”

Vocabulary lessons aside, I couldn’t help but like Vanna, like you can’t help but root for Cambodia, after all it has been through.

Who doesn’t love an underdog?

do you understand?