Monday, May 3, 2010

Guest Blog: Siem Reap, Cambodia

[As I've mentioned before, it's not the destination in itself, necessarily, but rather the people you meet at the destination that makes a place special. I have been continually blessed to have met and traveled with so many great, interesting people. Fortunately, I was given the opportunity to travel with such a person for 3 weeks. Her name is Sunny. While we were traveling together I noticed, among other things, that she was a talented writer and asked if she would consider writing a piece as a guest blogger for my site. She agreed. Sunny has an unique perspective and a eloquent way with articulating her thoughts, which I believe everyone will enjoy. So without further ado, here's Sunny's piece on our travels to Siem Reap, Cambodia. -Adam]

I’d been to Thailand twenty years ago when a friend from high school had given me a ticket to join him on his travels. My parents, in their infinite open-minded wisdom, had agreed to let me take ten days off from high school and travel to the exotic Asian country. Decades later I was back, with my sights set on exploring the north.

I found myself in Pai. Navigating my way through the town’s bustling streets I was surrounded by artsy, Rasta, bohemian shops run by funky locals and frequented by hip travelers tanned by the baking sun. Looking around for a good place to eat, I passed a quiet restaurant that seemed inviting. Other than a young backpacker sitting at a table by the window, the restaurant was empty. I ordered eggs and toast, and sat looking at passersby out the front door. The backpacker began a conversation and said his name was Adam. We were both excited to meet someone from the U.S. and proceeded to exchange the usual details of first contact; “Where are you from?” “How long have you been traveling?”....etc. Realizing that Angkor Wat was on both of our itineraries, and that the experience could be enhanced by the camaraderie of a fellow traveler, we agreed to stay in touch.

Three weeks later…
Arriving at the airport in Siem Reap, I was pleased to see a tuk tuk driver holding a sign with my name on it. The air was hot and dry, not a breeze to be found. The short drive through the flat, dull setting delivered me to the guesthouse I’d booked online. I checked in and waited in the reception area to see if Adam had received the letter I’d sent, detailing where I was staying. Flies buzzed in and out of my personal space, while the overhead fan did nothing to ease the oppression of the mid-morning sun or the incessant insects. Exhausted from an overnight layover in Kuala Lumpur, where my night had been spent snoozing on my luggage cart, I went to upstairs to rest. Less than five minutes passed and I heard a familiar voice. Adam had walked to the guesthouse through the dust and heat, loaded with his backpacks. The image reminded us both of the character from the ‘80’s T.V. show, Kung Fu. We sat and swapped travel stories in the sanctuary of my air-con room.

The next day we arranged a tuk tuk to take us to the first complex located within the fortified ancient city of Angkor Thom. With the purchase of a 3 day pass, our excursion would allow enough time to casually take in the major sites without having to rush. Excitement grew within my belly as we approached the sandstone structures of Bayon, adorned with massive smiling faces and chiseled bas reliefs. My breath was taken away as we climbed crumbling staircases, passed through arched hallways, and glimpsed the grandeur of such a mysterious world.

Passing from one temple to the other, we were solicited by women and children selling guidebooks, silk scarves, fresh fruit, and cold drinks. I was struck by how young some of the children were. I was also impressed with how easily and comfortably they used English, no doubt acquired through necessity and repetition. “Please lady. I give you good deal,” a child would say while holding out cheap, plastic souvenirs. To close the deal they might pitifully add, “…So I can go to school.” Although I’m all for compulsory education, it was obvious that the statement had become a marketing ploy for the tourist dollar. I succumbed and bought a scarf.

Elephant torsos protruded from stone block walls at the last temple we visited that day. By that time my mind was in amazement, overwhelmed by images of dancing nymphs and meditating Buddha's. I ascended the temple steps in my tourist haze, blissed-out by the cultural experience. “Ahh, life is good,” I thought.

“SMACK!” I was brought back to reality as the ruthless slap of a little girl’s hand landed firmly against a scraggly, little boy’s cheek. She yelled at him as he scurried behind, barefooted, head bowed low, with tears welling up. I stood in shock as they passed by me. What could I do? I attempted to make eye contact with the little to show compassion and a friendly face, but she was as hard as the stone we were standing on.

The little boy sat down beside her and she wacked him again. I looked over at Adam and we were both temporarily immobilized. My heart ached for them both and I immediately felt compelled to silently pray for their lives; giving thanks for my own as well.

This was a firsthand introduction to the sobering truth of a post genocidal society steeped in a history of torture and bloodshed. The terrorism inflicted by the native Khmer Rouge regime in the 1970s, under the maniacal thumb of Pol Pot, has left generations of Cambodian people psychologically and emotionally traumatized.

As the sun reached its zenith we left the site beneath the respite shade of our tuk tuk. Along the road we saw the little girl and boy again. With eyes fuming, the angry little girl stuck her tongue out at us. No doubt hungry and neglected, her frustration was justified. How must it be for a child to witness the opulence of foreigners coming and going while their life remains a constant struggle? Privilege would deliver us to the comfort of food, shelter and access that afternoon, but what did she have to look forward to? I felt a deep empathy for Cambodian children and waved a peace sign in her direction. She stuck her tongue out again.

Back at the guesthouse we recovered from the busy morning with cold showers and banana shakes. Later we reviewed the photos we’d taken. “Wow!” was the agreed sentiment. “I can’t believe I’m in Cambodia!” was my afternoon mantra. Thanks to my brother’s punk rock influence as a child, the Dead Kennedy’s song “Holiday in Cambodia” also turned out to be a favorite jingle.

That night we walked the main drag of Siem Reap and took in the sights. The buzzing, dusty hub is the gateway to Angkor Wat and is outfitted with Southeast Asian staples including colorful night markets, cheap bar girls, greasy and sometimes bizarre street food, and countless tuk tuk drivers. As we passed a crowded group of street cafes a little girl ran up to me and grabbed my hand. Before I could even offer a smile she was begging and then became disgruntled when I said “No,” abruptly throwing my hand away and running off. By now I was annoyed with the constant demands from all directions. There was no escaping the harassment or hardship.

The next day we visited Ta Prohm, a Buddhist temple from the 12th-century, and an anthropologist’s dream site. My mind was again blown by the ancient spectacle. The extensive iconography so delicately captured in stone, referenced an esoteric world of sensuality and devotion. Undulating tree roots jutted up from between the ancient stonewalls; twisted vines making their way through deep fissures dictated the posture each edifice would assume. Side by side, the inspired architecture of man woven with the unyielding design of nature. Words do no justice in their attempt to describe such brilliance.

Sitting at a roadside market near the end of the temple complex I gulped down fresh coconut water while Adam sat patiently waiting. We were both enjoying each other’s company and it was clear, that our decision to visit the site together had been fortuitous. By mid-day, we again found sanctuary from the baking hot sun by languishing in cold showers and lounging in the air-con.

On the third day we arranged to be at the main temple of Angkor Wat for the sunrise. Never an early riser, I reluctantly got out of bed in the darkness of pre-dawn. Through the blackness we moved along in the bumpy tuk tuk, past local people stoking fires, burning trash, bicycling to work and preparing themselves for a new day. Arriving at the site, we joined the hoards of tourists making their way en mass toward the inner courtyard. The sky was a warm crimson as we walked the long bridge between the entryway and the massive Angkor Wat temple. We steadied our cameras and took photos in the dim light. As the sun came up Adam and I made our way to the back of the temple and had a chance to enjoy relative solitude as the crowds remained fixated on the sunrise from the front of the temple. Images of elegant Apsaras, Hindu nymphs, were etched everywhere. The figures were lovely; fertile dancing girls with smiling faces, bare skinned, adorned in jewels and flowers. As well, hallways filled with Buddha statues surrounded the inner courtyards while four empty stone pools built inside the confines of the temple brought the element of water within.

Our last night in Siem Reap, we had dinner at a local place situated on a busy street corner. Adam had eaten there a few times before we met up and said it was good and cheap. These open-aired restaurants are a common Southeast Asian design best chosen based on local popularity. We ordered shakes and waited for our food. While discussing the day’s events a little boy no older than three or four years approached our table. He gently held his little hand up for a donation. This time my heart melted. I handed him some money and he then gestured for something to eat. Although I had really been enjoying my shake, without hesitation I handed it over to him, knowing it would only provide a temporary solution to the bigger issue. He walked away and I lost it. Adam could see on my face that something had upset me. “A child shouldn’t have to beg for food,” I said, as tears arose. I breathed deeply and eventually recovered my emotions.

With a newfound perspective we considered the world we lived in. We had no solution to the vast dilemma only good intentions and steaming plates of stir fried rice and veggies to fill our bellies.

Next Stop: Battambang



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