Postcards From Cambodia

The title of this blog is the name of a song by Bruce Cockburn. If you’ve never heard it before, give it a listen. The song speaks aptly of the many sights and sounds, and life, Mara and I experienced while being in Cambodia this last November.

 The flight was long, seventeen hours, but the layover in Narita, at the United Club, was a worthwhile break from the grind and prepared you for the next leg to Bangkok. From there it was but a quick hop to Siem Reap, Cambodia, Gateway to Angkor Wat. Low season was just about over. In about a month, the hordes of tourists would descend on this little town, bursting it at the seams. Mara hooked us up at a little B&B, ‘La Fromager’, that was off the main drag and quiet. A perfect little spot to view the frenetic pace of traffic and commerce. Really, just crossing the street there is like playing Russian roulette. There are no real rules of the road, but somehow the seeming chaotic, accident about to happen traffic patterns, flow swiftly without interruption. It’s a totally different scene than here in the states. You gotta laugh as tourists rent scooters and attempt to navigate the streets of Anytown, Cambodia. Yeah, we did it, too. There’s nothing like taking your life in your own hands. I have to admit that driving here would take a few years to get the hang of, if you survived that long.

 To go distances longer than you’d care to walk, forget the scooter and take a tuk-tuk. It’s cheap transportation, they’ll wait for you, and the best part is they drive!

Angkor Wat

Angkor Wat

 With Angkor Wat a fair distance from Siem Reap town, Mara and I, taking the advice of our driver, would arrive before dawn. Because Angkor Wat is so well restored one can begin exploring before the sun is fully up.  Nearly every stone surface has been carved, with rarely a blank wall. Hindu imagery collides with Buddhist creating a mind–boggling menagerie from massive stone heads twenty feet high, to a tiny Buddha image carved into an otherwise unnoticeable niche. Then there is everything in between.

 We used up every bit of our four-day pass visiting half a dozen other temples surrounding Angkor. These other Wats are not as restored and have a mystery all their own. Giant trunks of fig trees have grown through the walls, ceilings, and, well, pretty much everything.

 These places are huge. The moats surrounding them enclosed anywhere from fifty to one hundred acres. The Khmer population at around 900A.D. had to have been in the millions to build and maintain these monstrous undertakings. Of course, the fertile plains surrounding Angkor stretch as far as the eyes can see. And everywhere is rice, the lifeblood of a nation that is still sown and reaped by hand.

 History Cambodia’s got. From the ancient and much revered distant past all the way to the more recent bloody swath Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge tore through Cambodia in the late 70’s, not so very long ago. The Cambodians do not hide that particularly dark time as remnants of the killing fields and caves have been maintained and preserved. Not so much as a solemn remembrance of the past, but as a tourist attraction.  For the young tuk–tuk drivers, who will take you to hell and back again, the sights are just another stop on the tourist trek, much like the bat cave, the bamboo train, and the winery.  It’s strange and I wonder if they really understand what went down during the days of the Khmer Rouge. Does anyone?

The older fold remember. You can see it in their eyes, behind the smile. Fear. But life goes on. Monsoons come and go, flooding the rice fields and continuing the cycle.

Bamboo Train , Battambang, Cambodia

Bamboo Train, Battambang, Cambodia

 After about a week in Siem Reap we headed, by bus, to Battambang. It’s an old town with enough of its own history to generate a thriving bit of tourism. There are Angkor era monuments and enough Wats to do some serious temple hounding. Battambang is a bit of a hub for western Cambodia so there is a lot going on and worthy of a few days exploring and eating our way across town. With tourism not being the main point of Battambang’s existence, you get a good cross section of Cambodian life.  It may not all be beautiful, but it is real and fascinating. The working class is armed with their smile and are probably lucky just to have a job. Those not working are busy starving. Landmine victims hustle the dining tables at the edge of the street where they vie for space with homeless kids and hungry eyes.

 Cambodia is not for the squeamish. There is just too much reality going on here. Just how long can you hang cow parts in an open–air market at 90 plus degrees? Plus there are more parts to a cow, or any other meat for food than you can imagine. Restaurants advertise that they don’t serve dog, rat, cat, or birds. Nice of them to let you know, but if you are a meat eater, there’s a good chance you’ve already had some.

Dried Fish at Market

Dried Fish at Market

 After four or five days of a comfortable bed and hot showers at the Lux, it was time to catch a bus for the half­­–day ride to Phnom Penh. The main road to the capitol is a little off the tourist route. Most of the towns and villages economy revolved around agriculture, not tourism. The most obvious sign of this was that the stores only sold things you needed. No shiny new plastic or impractical clothing or trinkets. Fresh fish, dried fish, fermented fish, unknown fish, trays of deep-fried bugs, veggies, flip–flops, rubber boots, and tools. What more does one need? It was only as you closed in on Phnom Penh that you began to see stuff that you didn’t need, for sale; ridiculous clothes, a lot of cell phones, plastic things, cheap booze and hookers. And once in the city, that was all you could get.

 Phnom Penh rises from the rice paddies and surrounding country like a darkened parody of western life. Modern skyscrapers jut obscenely from the crumbling early twentieth century facades. The action is along the Mekong river waterfront. The quay teams with Cambodians and tourists wandering the well–lit concrete in search of something to do. One thing the evenings along the quay had to offer was a Cambodian version of public jazzercise set to hip–hop. A couple hundred locals with matching shirts squared off a section of concrete and did their thing. Smiling faces in various degrees of physical conditioning sweated it out. Why and how are good questions! Trying to put a happy face on a ghetto of crime? Then came the fireworks. The first salvo had about half the street ducking before they realized the explosions were for entertainment. A visible police presence keeps the black market discreet. The market for flesh not so much. Hookers abound with children in tow to satisfy one of the darkest tourist markets I have ever seen. Ex–pat Russians have taken a liking for Phnom Penh and seem to own the place. There is even a Russian market that is packed at night. Shoulder to shoulder insane shopping and eating. I think Mara and I spent more time trying not to lose each other than anything else.

 Daytime in Phnom Penh is hot and we would find ourselves working the shaded side of the streets. With a couple weeks of traveling under our belt, Mara thought a massage was in order. With massage parlors lining the waterfront we figured this to be a no brainer. After a few inquiries, we found that the place we were looking for was on the other side of town. You see, the parlors on the waterfront come with a ‘happy finish’. We found a place by the central post office where the massages were done by the blind. I must admit to being quite pleased at the end of the massage, if not happy too!

 The capitol city offers a plethora of attractions to occupy your time. Those of us who love old temples will not be disappointed. Many of the Wats have been restored or have restorations underway. The Royal Palace and grounds are being fixed at this time. The temples themselves are fantastic with a detail of construction that marvels the eye. Gold and the vibrant colors of the spectrum radiate from the repaired structures. The old ones like the Angkor era temples, 900 A.D. to around 1100A.D., are now bare rock when originally the were all painted and gem encrusted.

 Step ahead ten centuries and you have modern Cambodia. If the recent history is more your thing, any number of tours go to the many killing fields and bombed out rice paddies where the craters are still visible. You have the opportunity to view as many skulls recovered from the killing fields as one could possibly want.

Or, if you wish to wade in a little irony, you can take a half day ride to view some killing fields and then go feel what its like to create one. By that, I mean going to the shooting range and fire some extreme weaponry. Handguns, Ak-47’s, RPG’s, rocket launchers, sniper rifles, fifty caliber machines guns, and some ancient iron.

Where else could you get the chance to shoot this stuff! Cambodia! Something for everyone! Even our hotel room had a painting we had to cover with a sarong…

Modern Art - Phnom Penh

Modern Art in our Room – Phnom Penh.

 Is the country safe to visit? Absolutely! Travelling families were everywhere, from couples with toddlers to more mature family groups. Travelling in Cambodia is similar to other locations in Southeast Asia. As long as you don’t go out of your way to do anything stupid, you will be all right. A.K.A., if there are riots, stay near your hotel. Don’t poke the tiger. Health care, however, can be an issue. The rule of thumb is, anything beyond a minor cut should send you running to Bangkok for decent health services. Cambodia’s is sketchy and expensive. Best to get to Thailand, quick!

 Local food, café food, and street cart food was safe to eat and delicious. After a couple days eating lunch at one place, they will start to offer you more exciting local food to try. Take the chance and you will be delightfully surprised with your taste buds screaming for more.

 History, culture, food, agriculture, and natural beauty, yes I have to say again Cambodia has it all. In our two and a half weeks there, we had just scratched the surface of this marvelous place. There is little doubt that we will go there again and immerse ourselves ever deeper into Cambodia’s mystery and splendour.

 After a few days in the city, it was time to head out into the country again. This meant flying out of Phnom Penh to Krabi, Thailand. With more than a little reluctance, we headed by tuk–tuk to the airport, not knowing if life would bring us back again. We certainly hope so. Ahead, however, lay Thailand. It has been twenty years since being there. Change comes to everywhere and it should be interesting to see what the future has done with Krabi by the sea.

 Next: Thailand, culture shocked!

POST TRAVELING BLUES

With four books and five hard years of writing and publishing them, a break was called for. My wife, Mara, and I have been traveling around the world since we first met. Every few years Mara gets that traveling jones for which there is only one fix. We juggled work and finances. Got a friend to sit the cat and chickens. Basically got our bases covered as best we could and mainlined it to Southeast Asia.
We had five weeks. Back in the day it would have been more like five months. Times change and so do responsibilities; still we had five weeks in which to get it on.

Honolulu to Bangkok in seventeen hours – that’s good time by any ones’ standards. We would be doing Bangkok towards the end of the journey so we booked a hotel in the old district, near Wat Pho – the reclining Buddha, as an extended layover to get our feet on the ground before flying to Siem Reap, Cambodia, and Angkor Wat.
As a ‘wonder of the world’ Angkor Wat certainly lives up to its reputation. At around a thousand years old, the place is awe-inspiring. We heeded the advice of our driver and would arrive before dawn. At that time of day Angkor is virtually empty of people with just a few others, like us, nursing the last of our coffee before it is light enough to walk. By sunrise we would be deep within the ruins. Not a sound. The hefty scent of Nag Champa incense fills the air. There sits a monk shrouded in orange robe and smoke. Very old, wrinkled, eyes blank, hands curled, as he mumbles a prayer. For a few riels, he will tie a red braid around your wrist and bless you. Such a deal and of course we did. A temporary badge of honor.

Then again, when you are visiting one of the ‘killing caves’ and a monk, old enough to remember the Khmer Rouge, ties one on, it’s a totally different experience. You are surrounded by the skulls and bones of those thrown the fifty meters down to their death into the cave. In this particular instance, the Khmer Rouge chose not to waste bullets. There were hundreds and hundreds and hundreds… And this was in 1977, not some ancient history.
Cambodia is a country on the edge. They are still recovering from the days of Pol Pot’s regime and despite overwhelming poverty; there is a surging bit of capitalism bolstered by the tourist industry. There is something for everyone in Cambodia and the salespeople aggressively vie for your American dollar. Meditate with a monk one day and go shoot a rocket launcher the next. That’s Cambodia for you.
After due consideration, I passed on the rocket launcher. The irony was just too much. Landmines and UXO’s still kill and maim after all these years. They lie in rice paddies or buried under the jungles growth, waiting, waiting for that errant footfall to remind the little machines what they were built for. Who was I to mock a bitter past and fearful reminders of the present as witnessed by small limbless music bands who play cheerful tunes for a buck? Better to visit the countryside, and enjoy a people whose smile wipes away any grim reminders its history.

That Cambodian smile. The real thing is something worth trying. When it finds you, magic happens. It is everywhere if you but open your eyes to see it. Wandering the streets of Battambang, and even Phnom Penh – with its grim Russians, tired hookers and burnt junkies – the smile is everywhere. Along with it, there’s the chance to return the smile and share it.

Serpent's Head

Serpent’s Head

You do a lot of wandering when you travel. I mean what else is there to do. Walking a town you do not know, gives you a chance to glimpse the real life at a pace slow enough to get up close and personal. We would walk everywhere. You could always catch a tuk–tuk back to your hotel if the meanderings took us too far. Our accommodations were always low end to mid range in price, 15$ to 25$ a night. Clean with a firm bed was all we asked and generally got more than we asked for. Traveling with an open mind and positive attitude opens up all kinds of doors for you. The karma is instant and generally way beyond satisfactory. You get out of it what you put into it. It’s that simple. Still you needed to be aware at all times. All the smiles and goodwill you can muster will not take care of being dumb.

Every once in while a scooter would pull over and offer you a variety of black market stuff. While the offers seemed inviting, it required you jump on the back of the scoot and go somewhere, with someone you don’t know, to acquire something you don’t really need. That somewhere is usually out in the country or in a part of town you wouldn’t be caught dead in. Either way you end up out of your environment, out of your comfort zone, and at the whim of some very unscrupulous characters. There is the chance you won’t ever come back. It happens. It’s best to just pass on such opportunities.

Which Wat is what?

Which Wat is what?

If however your tastes lean more towards a cross-cultural blend of Hinduism and Buddhism, then Cambodia is just the place for you. For more than a thousand years the dominance of one over the other has waxed and waned. You will find temples – Wats – that have morphed from Hindu to Buddhist and back again with images of the Buddha right alongside those of Shiva. Literally everywhere you look, one or the other, or both, will be in your line of sight.

The first time Mara and I went to Southeast Asia, Cambodia was off-limits with pockets of the Khmer Rouge still being eradicated from the country. Thirty years later we made it and are already planning on going back as soon as time allows. A few weeks is nowhere near enough time to really get into a country. Yet enough to allow the exotic flavors, smells, sights, and sounds of Southeast Asia to get deep under your skin. Once it is in your blood, you’re hooked.

Until that traveling jones calls once again, it is back to the books and blogs. My fifth book is well under way and I am deciphering my travel journal to blog the journey with pictures. Luckily I am one of those writers who gets to work full-time, too, so I have all the time the world to do this sort of thing.

Aloha j g rees
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