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.
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.
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
NEXT: Postcards from Cambodia