Angkor What?

In Europe you can blur cathedrals until they lose any distinction. In Egypt you’ll forget whether the pictures were from Edfu or Komombo. And in Kenya it’s almost silly how quickly you can take for granted a family of 50+ baboons crossing your path.

And in Asia, it’s the temples/pagodas/wats that you burn out on.

I hope none of this sounds like complaining, or that I’m taking our experiences for granted. I’m not. It’s just human nature, isn’t it? To adjust, to process and adapt, and eventually to move on. So a year of ruins and 5 months of wats have taken their toll on us. Hmmm, 5 tiered pyramid, it’s cool, it’s no 7 tiered pyramid, but it’s cool.–This Buddha statue has his eyes crossed.-There’s more ruins but they are all the way on the west end of the complex? Do they look that different? No, I’m aiiight, you go ahead.
So without realizing it, in my mind Angkor Wat had a near impossible task if it intended to impress me. I dared it to astound me. “Wow” me Angkor, if you can.

Wow.

Seeing Angkor turned out to be like seeing the Sistine chapel. You walk through a limitless museum with paintings and murals by Rapheal, Bernini, Rodin on every wall and ceiling. And you do this for hours all while following signs directing you to the Sistine Chapel. And your mind can’t possibly appreciate or process everything you’re seeing so you start to glaze over. You want to just get there, see it to say you saw it, and go take a nap. But then you get there, and everything you saw before simply fades. You and the hundred other people staring straight up are silent because however great you thought it was going to be…this beats it. And you need the silence so that all your energies can be directed to the sense of sight. If you could breathe it in, if you could taste the Sistine Chapel, you would. Well seeing Angkor was like that.

It overwhelmed on the macro scale as well as in the minute details, shaking any feelings of burn out from me. Spread out over 1000 sq. kilometers there were nearly 1000 temples built over a 400 year period. We walked, biked, took motos and tuks-tuks to them over a 7 day period. And throughout the exploration, the temples remained able to show us each one’s unique nature whether it was climbing through the ruins in Beng Melea, photographing the overgrown trees of Ta Prohm, looking into the stone faces of the Bayon, or walking the endless walls of bas reliefs. And though they are now ruins, slivers of their past glory, the temples fulfilled their intended purpose for me just as a chapel had done for me years ago; my visit ended not with my feeling burnt out or desensitized but rather renewed and a little in awe.

Posted: December 27th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Cambodia | Tags: , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Cambodia Eats

Again, as with so many elements of this trip, I didn’t know what to expect when it came to the cuisine of Cambodia. I thought about it. No signature dish or flavor came to mind. Time to test the waters!

So far, it’s been a mixed bag. As you know, we tend to frequent the street stalls and local street vendors, where menus are unheard of and the food is (almost) always more than worth the cents spent. In other words, street food has been good to us. So we expected more of the same in Cambodia. Maybe we’re not hitting up the right stalls. Nothing’s been horrible, but there’s nothing to write home about either. Lots of instant noodles with various toppings, rice porridge, and bland soups, and the ever present fried rice or noodles. However, we have slowly discovered that some of the restaurant prices are only slightly higher than the streets’. Once this discovery was made, we’ve taken to hunting down cheap restaurants with good food and have had some great success. Where Khmer street food may have fallen a bit flat on our palates, Khmer restaurant food has been outstanding.

Garlic pepper chicken (with famous fresh Kampot peppers)

Garlic pepper chicken (with famous fresh Kampot peppers)

The best curry to date (albeit a Thai style curry), has been had in Sihanoukville. Best fruit salad? Phnom Penh. A garlic pepper chicken that was so good, we went back and ordered it for lunch the next day. A couple nights Jeff even treated himself to barbecued barracuda (with salad and baked potato) for $3….which he thoroughly enjoyed, even if he didn’t enjoy my sneaky fork tactics. And if anybody is wondering about the “happy pizzas”…ours was a better than average pizza, but we have decided that a more appropriate title would be “relax-y pizza”, since shortly after polishing it off, I fell asleep in the middle of a conversation discussing how relaxed we were feeling. This, thankfully back at our guest house, not in the restaurant!

Neither of us has encountered the highly anticipated tarantula, scorpion, or other such fried nasty on a stick, and other than for a photo op, I’m not really looking forward to that moment. In the meantime, I’ll be happily digging into what may be my next new favorite Khmer dish.

Happy Jeff with a "happy pizza"

Happy Jeff with a "happy pizza"

Note: Shortly after writing this blog, we have had great luck with street food again in Siem Reap.

Posted: December 19th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Cambodia | Tags: , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Beach Life Redefined

I can still close my eyes and just see touristed beaches elsewhere. It’s summertime and the briskness of morning can still be felt in the air. These early hours are dominated by beach-blond surfers hitting the water; some are zen-like cool, others are territorial assholes. The occasional jogger becomes the first of the day to imprint the sand with carefree, confident steps. As the sun heats the sands, colorful board shorts and bikinis begin to paint the landscape. Most arrive in groups of two to four, and in these small groups find areas on the beach to lay claim to (spread out equidistantly of course). The occasional boat might pass on the horizon, silhouetting a sandcastle a boy has made, complimentary with the help from his happy meal sand toys. It’s quiet except for some small chatter and the break of the shoreline, only the occasional whiff of something SPF-40 or higher touches your senses. This is what I recall it is like, but just barely. At the moment “elsewhere” cannot be further from our experience.
We’re in Sihanoukville, Cambodia. Beaches line the town on 3 sides of the peninsula. We’ve checked out Otres Beach and Ochheuteal Beach here, and they, for the most part, support my image of a beach. Sunny. Calm. Relaxing. But today we decided to venture to Serendipity Beach, the popular beach of the area. Here, they’ve taken elements of what we’ve seen around other touristy beaches in Asia and crammed it into a 1 kilometer stretch of sand. We arrived via a dirt path, women in asian-style pajamas and kramas (Cambodian scarves) immediately asked if we wanted massages, pedicures or our toenails cut. We declined and hurriedly turned to our left to walk the beach, or more accurately the 1-2 meters of beach between where the water hit the shore and where the edge of the restaurants was. Yes, the beach itself had been swallowed up by about 50 beach shack restaurants with enough lounge chairs and beach umbrellas to block out the sun and the sand. Every few meters a restaurant gave us their pitch. “Cheap food! Free lounge chair! Happy shake!” Each pitch we tossed back to them politely, but firmly and kept walking. We passed a monkey leashed to a tree. And after we walked enough of the beach to not be able to distinguish one area from another, we settled down and tried to take it all in. Women continuously walked past us offering plates of fruit, cooked lobsters (and at $4 for 10 lobsters, we indulged), drinks, souvenirs and of all things…nursery plants. Small Cambodian children played in the water and came from 1 of 2 camps. Either they splashed around completely naked and for the most part only with other kids of their age, or they came to the beach in shorts, long-sleeved shirts and neon bright life-vests. These children waddled into the surf, with watchful parents arm’s lengths away. For some reason the word for “fear of the water” escapes me.
Western tourists laid out on the lounge chairs, ordered beer and read novels. They (and we) soaked in the sun, and occasionally went into the water to cool off before reapplying our sunblock to minimize the actual sun we soaked in, in order to do it again for as long a period of time as possible. It is clear that Asians view the beach differently. Groups of Cambodian young adults played beach games together. Soccer games spontaneously sprang up and just as quickly dissolved on different parts of the beach. Groups of women played Monkey-in-the-Middle in waist length surf, fully dressed and just as often in full hysterics. Men buried their friends in sand and gave them sand-boobs. And speedboats pulled groups of 7 on huge inflatable water toys, only to dislodge the laughing riders into the water at the end of their trip.
It was busy, chaotic and loud at the beach today. There’s so much going on that an image of a serene, isolated stretch of beach blips into my head but has no staying power. But tomorrow we’ll go back to Otres Beach and see again the blue of the ocean, the white of the sand. We’ll escape the crowds, the vendors, the stimulation and just relax. We’ll soak in the sun (as minimally as possible), swim in the ocean and repeat the process. I’ll get through the rest of the mystery I’m reading, maybe treat myself to a Happy Shake. And part of me will recall the groups of Cambodians playing like it’s their first time at the beach, or like they are once again six years old, maybe as if it’s both. And for some reason the word for “fear of jealousy” escapes me.

Posted: December 17th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Cambodia | Tags: , , , , | No Comments »

Untitled

12/7/09
We’ve been traveling for quite some time now. Being on the road has slowly become not just an adventure, but also a way of life, however temporary. Most days are filled with something new, something amazing, or something unexpected, and usually we feel rewarded and fulfilled. But just as important, there are days like today.

We have been in Cambodia for two days now. It is everything and nothing like people have said, which is why we are grateful for the chance to see it for ourselves (more on this in an upcoming blog). After visiting the Tuol Seng Museum (aka S-21 or Security Prison 21) where an estimated 17,000 Cambodians were held, tortured, and killed during the Khmer Rouge regime, we headed a few miles out of Phnom Penh to the Choeung Ek Genocide Center, simply and bluntly referred to as “the killing fields”. There are no words that can fully describe the terror or the pain and suffering that occurred here. I could try, but I would fail to capture the horrific magnitude of what took place in recent history. Just like I can try, but fail to understand how human beings can do such things to other human beings, and how we continue to fail to learn from history.

Classroom turned prison cells

Classroom turned prison cells

The brief knowledge I had of the Khmer Rouge was pretty ummm…shall we say, basic. By that, I mean all I really knew was that they were a political party that terrorized Cambodia during the 1970s and tortured and killed thousands of their own people in order to build a self sustaining communist country of workers. But knowing the “basics” is not enough. That knowledge gleaned from a few lines of info in some news article or textbook does not do justice to the victims and their families. Some people wonder why places like these are preserved and made into tourist sights. It’s a valid question. Particularly for victims or surviving family members whose only wish is to forget or who want their loved ones’ remains respected and properly cremated, in order to honor them according to Buddhist tradition. But as a tourist, I can say that the value of preserving and maintaining such places is necessary. Change can only come from education. And the lessons gained from visiting the very site where unspeakable acts took place have far reaching effects.

We stood inside the cells and walked through the halls of the former high school-turned-prison in S-21. Even now, there’s a ghostly sadness all around. We stared at the gallows, really gymnastic high-bars turned into torture devices, complete with the original jugs that were once filled with fecal matter into which victims heads were submerged. We read about the ideology and practices of the Khmer Rouge. You were killed if you were a doctor, teacher, student, monk, military or government officer, artist, writer, singer, actor, “intellectual” (or if you wore glasses) or city dweller. Only peasants were spared in order to create a population of self sustaining farmers. Money was abolished. Cities evacuated. Buildings destroyed. The regime created such a sense of distrust among the people, that no one could trust a living soul. They separated men from women, parents from children. If you were suspected or reported as doing anything against the rules, you were taken to one of the “security centers” and tortured into giving a false confession, then executed. Friend betrayed friend, neighbor killed neighbor, and in many cases sibling turned against sibling.

Today at the “killing field” we came face to face with the mass gravesites. In some areas, there are still piles of bones set aside. We saw the stupa filled with level upon level of the nearly 20,000 skulls that have been exhumed thus far. We saw the “killing tree” where children and babies were killed by holding their ankles and smashing their heads against the tree. There were even faded articles of clothing in a small heap at the base of the tree along with some bones. It crushed my heart.

Clothing and bones in the shadow of the "killing tree".

In the shadow of the "Killing Tree"

To say this blog entry is depressing would be an understatement. But to not blog about it at all would fail to capture our experience and would be unfair to the people who lost their lives and those who continue to suffer. It dawned on me during our tuk-tuk ride that every single person we come across in our Cambodian travels who appears to be at least our age or older, is a survivor of the reign of the Khmer Rouge. This astounds me. That this is all so recent that it’s barely classifiable as history. And with the trial currently taking place, it must be opening some old wounds for much of the population today.

The Holocaust. “Ethnic Cleansing”. Somalia. Haiti. Rwanda. Darfur. There are no comparisons to be made when it comes to crimes against humanity. Only shame…anger…disgust….and also hope. We can’t change the past. Green grass now covers the pits of the mass graves, but that doesn’t change what happened there. If we learn from the mistakes of the past, then there is hope. Given the state of the world today, we are still a long way away. But for each museum or site of this nature that we’ve visited, I have not been the only tourist with tears in my eyes. And despite the outside daily clamour, it is respectfully, sometimes shockingly silent. People emerge changed. There is hope.

Posted: December 13th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Cambodia | Tags: , , , , , , | 1 Comment »