Well team, the adventure continues: New Country-new experiences and sentiments.
There is just so much to catch up on.
I flew from Vientiane to Phenom Phen a few days ago. The city was dusty and busy and hot. Arriving at noon I found myself eager to get to Siam Reap in the north, and talked to a local, the director of an orphanage, who gave me a ride on his motor bike to the bus station. I hopped the bus then and there and endured a 5 hour long bus ride with only a bottle of water and some peanut m&ms to keep me going til dinner.
Stepping off the bus I found myself besieged by tuk tuk drivers. Shouting all at once for my attention, I was forced to cry "Simma down now!" using a forceful authoritative tone to my voice that caused them to back up a few steps and give me some room to pull out my notebook in order to figure out where I was going.
Earlier that day, around 7 am, while dressing in a dorm on the fourth floor of a guesthouse in downtown Vientiene a lump of french man under a sheet on the bottom bunk asked me where I was going. When I told him, he recommended Garden Village. So 10 hours later, with 48 different tuk tuk drivers soliciting my attention, I said Garden Village, and the first one nodded and I put my hand on his shoulder and we emerged from the thronging crowd and in no time I was whizzing along the streets of siam reap.
Garden Village was buzzing at 6 oclock. The lobby was full of Cambodians and Westerners. THe rooftop restaurant and bar was beset with people sitting around chatting, playing pool, and drinking .75 drafts of Angkor Beer having just watched the sunset from the rooftop balcony.
I asked the receptionist for a room. He said they were full. I felt crestfallen after a long day of travel, and I was hungry and thirsty and didn't feel like walking around. "Don't you have ANYthing?"I asked. The boy led me down a hall way to a covered outdoor room, behind an old armor full of dishes and tools and behind a pile of TVs in need of repair, he showed me a mattress with a mosquito net and quoted me the price of a dollar a night. I took it.
I removed what I'd need from my bag for the night, and turned my backpack into the office for safekeeping, as I was good as sleeping outside. I went upstairs for some direly needed noodle soup and immediately ran into some folks from the Slow Boat in Laos. Though i was tired, i was really eager to catch up, so I joined them for a drink at Angkor What? A bar just a few minutes walk from the hotel .
Walking to and from the bar was my first experience with destitute street beggars. Mothers holding infants and empty bottles of milk implore you to give them a dollar or two. Little girls come bounding up in dull rags, their faces smudged with dirt putting their hands to their mouths begging for some food. At first there's this feeling of dread like, " oh geese, here they come!"and then you have to ignore their pleas and ask them questions and you'll start getting ready responses. They speak good english and can tell you their age and how many brothers and sisters they have. They go to school ëveryday"they say. but who knows. They learned pretty decent english from somewhere.
The next day I awoke next to a Barcalonian named Marc in the "dorm"bed next to mine. Another late arrival who took the outside dorm and relished it's "character". Him and I teamed up with two adorable Norwegian girls, Synnove and Therese and tuk tuked out to the floating village. We got tickets for a boatman for 8 dollars each, which was pretty steep, but despite there being tons of boats, they're all owned by the government which keeps a monopoly on prices. As we walked along the edge of the lake, shacks were selling bottled water and coconut ice cream. A cute little girl in a green shirt with a huge camera took photos of all of us, which was a little perplexing, but later we'd figure out what that was for.
Our boatman was a young Cambodian with the typical wide smile and shining eyes and had an willingness to practice English. He, like many Cambodians, had a dynamic sense of humor and an easy laugh. Despite the blaring heat, my friends and I sat on the bow of the boat and took in the sights. We navigated through a dense maze of mangrove like floating flora. In the dry season, this expansive lake shrinks to just a portion of its wet season size. Beneath us was 4 meters of water, but in a few months, we would be on a road driving in a car. We began to pass floating houses, bolstered up on huge hollow barrels. Most were rudimentary and seemed to be held together by a whim and a prayer. Women could be seen with large bamboo hats fishing with nets and washing laundry in the water. Children jumped off the boats and barges into the brown water. Boats passed us by driven by Cambodians with checkered red scarves covering their mouths and wide brim hats shading their eyes, cargos of tiny snails, fish, or fruits and vegetables bound for the market.
It was like perusing the strangest of watery surburbs, each famiy living on a boat or floating house, some running stores and fisheries right out on the water. The streets were carved from the floating foliage which winded around until we came to the wide open expanse of lake that stretched all the way to the horizon. The boatman stopped the boat and we rested in the shade under the awning, sipping our now-hot water and taking in the view. A man in a boat pulled up with a young boy and girl. We bought a few bananas from them and suddenly the girl picked up an crocodile which had gone un-noticed up until this time and held up so that we could gape and take photos. the thing was nearly bigger than she was, and though its jaws were bound, it gave a powerful jerk every few seconds which sent our hearts fluttering in fear for this fearless girls life.
They departed with jovial hand waving and we returned down another floating road passing every manner of floating dwelling. Our boatman stopped at the schoolhouse where children from Vietnam were being taught English and basic elementary school subjects. They ranged from age 6 to 12. Some kids were shy but obviously curious, others rambunctious and eager for interaction. We brought some pens and donated them to the school children and sat at the desks and talked to them for a little while. Some of them had clay putty and we shaped them into cars and smiley faces and suns in an effort to communicate a little with the kids.
i also snapped this photo of a monkey for my dear sister marina.
We had to keep moving along and so we hopped back on our little boat and and came to a floating store and bought some icy cold sprites and had a look around at a little crocodile farm and while we were there a boat came along blasting loud dance music just choc full of a Cambodian Family with a bride and groom smiling amongst them-their relatives holding colorful umbrellas over their heads. They were consumed in mirth and dancing and stopped at a little floating pavilion that had been decorated in colored paper was obviously where the "reception"was to be held. The bride looked amazing in a shiny yellow dress with pink roses around the bodice. Her shining black hair was pinned up high and her makeup had her looking like an exotic princess. It was a pretty nice site to see.
We returned to the mainland and wouldn't you know it, when we arrived we were assailed with child beggars and people touting cold water and sodas. But we were most disconcertingly affronted with a girl who had our pictures imprinted upon commemorative plates...t'was the same girl snapping our photo a few hours before. We all looked at each other because here was a personalized souvenir that none of us really wanted but all felt obligated to buy. I was the first to speak, telling my friends that this was sneaky, manipulative marketing and we (nicely) told them so and declined to buy said plates....I wonder what they're success rate is though...tis a pretty smart scheme.
We walked back along the road, declining a tuk tuk right away in order to walk through a Cambodian Village. Now and again some children would come up and beg, but mostly they waved and smiled while adults smiled from the shade of their stilted dwellings on the edge of the lake. Chickens and puppies were everywhere. It was a pleasure to see these people going about daily life, collecting water, binding firewood, gutting fish, washing babies, and attending other household and communal tasks, as well as napping peacefully in hammocks. We all tuk tuked back home and took well needed cold showers.
We went for a late lunch at Soup Dragon, which was perhaps the best food I've had in S.E.A. Every dish we ordered was outstanding. The Mohitos were delicious. I ordered chocolate mousse for dessert and started a trend. Soon everyone had ordered chocolate mousse despite being full as ticks. It was so light and fluffy that we soon had 4 bowls that looked as clean as they were before they had mousse put in them.
I'm happy about my Mohito
Synnove and I toast Mohitos
Next we all climbed into a tuk tuk and headed to Angkor Wat to see the sunset. The place was, predicably, a zoo, with a zillion tourists crawling all over the temple overlooking the western horizon. In the distance the jungle streatched on forever, broken only by the lake reflecting stunningly in the late afternoon light and the plumes of smoke rising up from Siam Reap,about 10 Kms distant. We could also see planes landing at the airport. The sunset was beautiful, and was worth withstanding the zoo atmosphere to see.
It doesn't matter where you go here, you are assailed by begging children. But at Angkor Wat they are often selling little bracelets, woven hats, guide books, and postcards. They are incredibly cheeky as we came to find out, and children as young as 7 surprised us with their audacity and cunning. One boy said we had to buy one of his books if he could guess the population of the US. We bet he couldn't do it. He said "three hundred million minus 1 because you are here"...my friend bought his book. Another little girl knew the population of Norway. And the capitol of Madagascar. They're little oceans of triva, those children. If you say "I don't need one"they say "buy two !" Several went to give us high fives even after we refused to buy their trinkets, only to move their hand at the last minute in a movement of slicking back their hair while saying "too slow". Cheeky kids.
On the way down fromt he sunset there are little bands of land mine victims playing instruments and selling CDs, plus mothers with horribly disfigured children huddled by the side of the path begging change. All are terribly hard to resist.
That night we cleaned up and went back out to Angkor What? Bar. We wanted to go dancing but there wasn't much of a dancing scene out that night. We all planned on returning to Angkor Wat for sunrise, so we called it a night and went to sleep around midnight. I had moved to an actual "dorm"that day also. It was nearly as squirrely as my first night sleeping outside. It was in the attic under an A-framed roof with a floor full of holes with 5 beds lined up on either side of the sloping room, each with its own mossie net and tiny reading light that glowed orangy red. Still 1$/ night.
My friends held me responsible for waking them up and bet I couldn't do it. Yet I was awoken (sans alarm clock) by the haunting chanting of a mans voice somewhere off in the distance around 4:50 am. I dressed hurriedly in the dark and tread carefully around badly patched bamboo floor and low hanging cables to the cool air outside. I knocked softly on the girls door, waking them singing ÿou are my sunshine"and then padded up to Marc's room and woke him singing "mr sandman". We were standing in the reception area 10 minutes later nogotiating with a tuk tuk driver. For 15 total we arranged for him to take us to the temples for most of the day.
It was amazing how busy the streets were at 5 am. Individuals carried large buckets of rice and vegitables carried on their backs balanced on long poles. motos zipped by taking locals to and fro. Lots of tuk tuks were streaming north to the temples, adn we joined the flow.
The East was just beginning to glow when we arrived. As we approached the temple we all agreed that it was worth getting up so early. The air was gloriously cool and the sky was perfect for a sunrise. ( I hear many people get up early just to encounter a bleakly cloudy sky or worse, a downpour.) We got very lucky and snapped a million photos while the sun rose from behind the temple. It was such a rewarding sight to see.
We then explored Angkor Wat which was a lot bigger than i expected. It's just a maze of sanctuaries and is full of nooks and crannies. Extensive art work lines the walls telling stories of the great past princes of Angkor and of Buddhist tales. I took about a million pictures and wish I could post many more than the following. But for an idea, here is some photos of the famous Angkor Wat:
Synnove looking gorgeous next to some of the detail work on a columned entrance way.
It took a few hours to walk through Angkor wat marveling at the sculpted details on the walls and ceilings and floors. It must have been a massive undertaking-where did they get all the stone? the manpower? It truly deserves its place as one of the wonders of the world. The civilization that built it should get more credit: I've heard of the Egypitions, the Mayans, the Incas, but I never heard of the people who built a city geographically the size of Manhattan, and every bit as advanced for its time.
But may wonders never cease. We hadn't even begun to penetrate the mysteries. We had breakfast outside the temple, I had a plate of banana and pineapples and the girls had omelets on baguettes and Marc had Nutella on a baguette. We reunited with our tuk tuk driver and he took us on a road headed into the temples within the jungle. There was a mass of people with us; crowds of tuk tuks, cars, tour buses, people on the backs of elephants, and push bikes and motos. We crossed a bridge decked out with dozens of statues that would out shadow the biggest man, and under beautiful archways of moss covered stone which half concealed the enigmatic faces of Buddha. We came to another temple, and our tuk tuk let us off again.
Here we lost ourselves amongst labyrinthine corridors whose ceilings were lost in shadows. Stone lions and serpents were carved along doorways and ancient steep staircases. Turning a corner one might find a terribly old Buddha, swathed in new shiny orange fabric at whose base lies ornate sand filled bowls full of burning fragranced incense. The high towers of this huge compound depicted giant images of the four faces of Buddha. It was quite queer staring at them because they seemed to exist and yet not exist at all. See them in the following photo?:
We moved along to the next temple in the jungle, were the jungle is literally consuming the temples. I literally couldn't keep my mouth shut, it just kept dropping around every corner. Photos, millions of photos, but here are a few of my favorites.
The temple complex went on and on, but we were all really tired from our late night/early rising. We decided to head back. But we also knew that the Land Mine Museum was nearby, so we asked our tuk tuk driver to take us there for a little more added onto the fare. Soon we were zipping along a lovely Cambodian road. The land is super flat and so green its almost fuzzy. Houses are typically built on stilts. Some are of the cagiest bamboo and others are modern, built of concrete and stucco with tile roofs. Much has changed here in the last decade, it is apparent. This is me in the tuk tuk on the drive out there:
The Land Mine Museum was $1 to enter, and well worth it. The showed us a movie depicting the life of the museum creator who began his life as a child soldier laying mines from the age of 4. He laid thousands himself, and fought in the wars that ravaged this country and knew death only as a way of life. Later on though, he saw the horrific nature of the mines and has spent all of his days since in removing them. He has personally removed over 50,000 landmines, mostly finding them with a stick walking in bare feet. He has started the museum made from his collection of old mines and bomb fragments, and he also houses an orphanage there for children who are victims of mine detonations, or who were orphaned when their familes fell apart due to one breadwinner or another being maimed or killed by mines. The stories of the children are on the wall. They wrote them, themselves.
It's unutterably sad, soul clenchingly horrible, the lives of these children. They have witnessed the death of parents, or the down fall of their family through alcoholism and abuse when one member or another was incapacitated. One little girl watched her grandmother die from a mine while collecting firewood in the forest yet had to return there, terrified, everyday or else have no wood to cook with. One boy was left blind from an untreated mine explosion that shattered his face. Several had lost limbs. Another boy was given to the orphanage when his mother, who lost her husband to a Bouncing Betty could no longer support all her children, and so began selling them off to other families to which end many of them found abuse and neglect or worse in the traffic trade. The stories were all so awful but I was riveted, reading each one in simple English. Through blurry eyes I resisted the urge to breakdown while I read that these children found refuge in a place where they could care for them until they were 18, and train them in vocations so they could provide for themselves in the future. I walked through rooms full of deactivated mines and bombshells, with horrific photos documenting the wars and atrocities that cambodia has been through in the last few decades.
I can't get one image from my mind. It was a painting that a child had made. It had a little lake in the foreground full of lillypads and froggies and crabs and ducks and fishies. In the distance was a little village. Out front a crowd of adults stood covering their eyes and hugging themselves while before them lie pieces of the bodies of children. The little person who made this painting used primary colors, blue for the water, green for the grass and the mountains, and red. Lots of red. I can't imagine what the scene that small child must have witnessed and the subject matter presented in such an innocent and childlike way made it all the more disturbing and sorrowful.
We all came from the museum and it was a quiet tuk tuk ride home. I reflected on the 7 million or more landmines still in the soil of the thai/cambodian border that will continue to orphan children and break families apart forever. I relected that the USA is one of the countries that has NOT signed the Land MIne Treaty (which nearly 150 other countries HAVE signed). A most unexpected set of emotions ruled my thoughts: an enormous sense of love and thankfulness for my little brother and sister, P & M. I thought about them for a long time. Thankfulness washed over me that they are growing up in a safe world without the threat of sudden death at any step: that they have wonderful schools to attend. I felt inexplicably closer to them for what I had witnessed this day. I thought about their bright futures and just relished their presence in my life and thanked the gods or god or Buddha or Anything that they have warm beds and wonderful healthy parents.
After the somber tuk tuk ride home, we were nearly falling over with fatigue and hunger. I moved rooms yet again to share a big bungalow with Marc, which had two beds, each with its own mossie net. We all showered and rested for a while and met up again and returned to our favorite restaurent The Soup Dragon. We ate and reveled and reflected on our amazing day. Then we all got a bowl of chocolate mousse and toasted the occasion:
When we returned home, none of us could stay awake long. I tried to watch the new James Bond DVD with some others, which a friend had bought bootlegged and cheap earlier that day, but we kept nodding off. So I went back to the bungalow and fell into a very nice deep sleep.
Today I've spent MUCH of the day updating this blog. Nearly 5 hours in fact! The sun has now set. I did take a break in the middle of the day and visited an orphanage. The children were wonderful, bowing deeply and saying hello and praticing their english. I found out all about what the orphanage is doing to improve the lives of the 60 or so children it keeps and its struggles with the local authorities to expand and modernize. I just wanted more food for thought, in case I want to get involved in the future.
The girls, Synnove and Theres have left for Phenom Phen this morning, as have Yu and Yerg, my german friends who I met in Laos. Marc returned to the temples today, and hopefully I'll meet up with him tonight for dinner and drinks. My friend Katie, who I met in Chiang mai, and again in Vang Vieng, should be heading to Siam reap and I might see her tommrrow.
I'm desperatly in love with you all. Home has become a shining place on a hill that I never imagined I'd see in this way. This place is changing my perspective and opening my eyes. I'll close here with some reflections on Cambodia that I pasted to my family site, and facebook.
Cambodia: nowhere on my travels has been so soul shattering, heart rending, and yet sublimely beautiful and rich. Each breath I take now seems a gift from god and the unrecognized blessings in my life have made themselves clear as crystal. The adults carry with them the burden of horrible emotional pain of a past unspeakably awful. Nearly 10% of the population are maimed from landmines: faces, arms, and legs atrociously mutilated. Rag clad street children look inside out from hunger, and most of them have never used and wouldn't know how to use shampoo or toothpaste. YET-- and this is the biggest YET in history--YET the pain scarred faces of the adults break into the warmest smiles imaginable when you smile and attempt to say Suse-dai (hello) and wave. The smile of the attractive Cambodian people is a thing of fine beauty: the deep lines of angst and nightmarish experiences turn into bright upturned countenances where the pathways of the face become expressions of profoundly tenacious humanity. The wrinkles around the eyes betray not only the heavy burdens of passed atrocities but an unbelievable ability to express love and hope. The bedraggled children of the street are deceptively intelligent and witty, and while they melt your heart they uplift your soul. Their laughter is the sunshine of gaiety in defiance of a life of gray poverty and degradation. The stupendously expansive and gloriously detailed temples of Angkor Wat tell unaccountably vast volumes about the complexity and richness of these people's pasts. No one can look upon all this and fail to recognize a story so astonishingly redemptive and inspirational without gaining a new understanding on the width and breath of the human soul--without actually reaching a fuller appreciation of that it is to BE human.
In the quiet moments between action, riding silently in tuk tuks, breathing deeply in the darkness of my bungalow in the moments before sleep, writing post cards to my loved ones, I have found myself on the cusp of a tearful breakdowns and an appreciative sigh of respect and adoration for my Cambodian brothers and sisters. I wish all of my loved ones back home to be here to experience the extremes of life and death, richness and destitution, beauty and awful wretchedness of existence here. My eyes are open wide to the harsh light of reality. My heart is torn open. My soul yawns wide with compassion and a need to reach out and just love love love these people. I can't go back to the America and be the same person. I shan't forget what I have seen. Life is a gift more worth living now than it ever has been.
I miss you all more than you can imagine. I wish you could be here to see, hear, feel, smell, and experience the extremes of this amazing and special country. I love you more than ever.
your daughter, sister, and friend
Amy (aka, lady croft)
If anyone reads this and would like to contact me with questions or comments, I'd welcome them.