Just when I thought I was getting the hang of this whole blogging thing, I start slacking. But I’m going to credit that to lack of Wi-Fi, which isn’t even a real argument.
I realized I have failed to post about Cambodia, which was a major highlight of the trip, so I’m going to reach all the way into the depths of my memory and recall my amazing week in Cambodia before I start to discuss Ecuador.
We left Delhi on an overnight flight on January 2nd and flew to Bangkok and then on to Phenom Phen. It’s a shame we had to fly through Bangkok because I had to add another place to my ever-growing list of places to travel. By now the list is basically every country and Mars, so what’s one more, right? Walking off the plane through the jet bridge in Cambodia was a nice dramatic temperature change from Delhi’s icky weather. Fun fact – it never rained once the whole time we were in India – I’m not sure what that means because everyday they would tell us the rains were coming, but I think it has something to do with climate change…
So first we met our tour guide for the week, Bun (pronounced boon) and immediately we all fall in love with his contagious, and incessant, smile and excitement about his country. Bun has an interesting history. He was born just as the Khmer Rouge were gaining control of Cambodia so he has many relatives, including his father, who were killed by the terrible acts of the Khmer Rouge. Bun was a police officer for many years before he retired his AK-47 and became a Buddhist Monk for 8 years I believe. He is currently no longer a monk, as he felt his true passion was for hospitality and showing people his country. He and his wife, and their adorable 8-month-old daughter now own a bed and breakfast outside of Siem Reap and Bun leads tours around Cambodia. They also run an afterschool mentoring program for local school age children and give them a safe environment to learn and interact as well as practice traditional dancing and interacting with guests to the bed and breakfast. Overall, Bun is an amazing and inspirational man and we could tell from the moment we met him that we were going to have a wonderful week in Cambodia.
The next day we toured one of the more famous Killing Fields and S-21, which was a prison camp during the Khmer Rouge occupation. We had audio tours for both, which was extremely helpful for personal reflection and because the group has about a C- average for guided tour etiquette. It was hard to stand on soil that so many had been brutally murdered on, but I also felt so far removed from the atrocious genocide. I kept questioning why I never learned about this in school. Why do we have these monuments and try so hard to remember the horrific details of times of mass murder, but we stand silent as they happen. What about Syria right now? My children will (hopefully) learn about the malicious turmoil happening right now in the Middle East as one of the worst genocides and I’m cowardly living my life as a bystander. I learned a lot from the historic site, but the two most impactful scenes were ‘The Killing Tree’ and the monument erected in the middle of the fields housing thousands of skulls and bones of the victims. The Killing Tree was next to a mass gravesite which when excavated, was found to hold all women and children. The young children’s heads were slammed up against the tree before they were thrown into the pit. The sentence sounds so casual, but I can’t even fathom the act, nor do I want to picture it in my mind - so comprehending it at face value is all I can do. There were thousands of bracelets hanging on the tree now and I took one of my many off and hung it there in honor of all the children’s lives that were so carelessly lost. As I walked though the monument with skulls I was captivated by how similar all people looks when we are striped of our flesh. The skulls were cracked with different weapons in different locations, but male or female, young or old, our skulls define us as humans, different than any other species. If one of the guards were to be killed the same way as the innocent Cambodians, their bodies would lay to decompose, revealing an identical skull to those who were killed. It made me question the power of our minds and how people can so easily kill their own kind.
Later that day we visited S-21. The audio tour guided us through classrooms turned prison cells, galleries of pictures of the unlucky people held captive there, and around the courtyard, holding the graves of some of the last remaining prisoners. What shocked me the most was how easily the Khmer Rouge could occupy and brutally abuse so many prisoners in the confines of a very centralized location (the prison was an old high school in the middle of town) – and no one outside knew for a very long time. I was lucky enough to get to see one of the few surviving prisoners. He was signing copies of his book. He was an artist and survived through the camp because he painted pictures of Pol Pot and other Khmer Rouge leaders. Yet again I was left questioning the force of power and how easily one man’s radical ideals could completely control a population. How and why do we continue to let that happen?
Other highlights in Phenom Phen included touring the Buddhist temple Bun practiced at, getting mediocre $7 massages and the Central Market which sold everything from raw fish to mops to impressively marketed fake Beats. We saw the Presidential Palace and the city skyline from night while riding on a river cruise down the Mekong River. My favorite part of Phenom Phen was the traditional dance performance we miraculously saw to after a last minute plan and very lucky timing. A group of artists, both dancers and musicians performed about 10 traditional dances ranging from a sacrificial ritual for animals to a cute grasshopper number involving coconuts. The dancers were well trained and impressive; watching the show made me quite nostalgic about being on stage performing.
We travelled to Siem Reap on a bus – only about 6 hours, which is nothing compared to most of our travel days. Yet again, I found it relaxing and educational to look out the window at the passing landscape of Cambodia. The rice fields and houses on stilts and of course cows made the tropical landscape look both inviting and otherworldly.
In Siem Reap, our main destination was Angkor Wat – an ancient city/empire constructed around 1100BC (?). It was originally built to worship Hindu Gods, but now because Cambodia is close to 100% Buddhist, both Hindu’s and Buddhist’s utilize the holy ground. You need to first obtain an ID pass to get into the historic park area (basically the city limits when it was in its prime), which houses many different temples and ancient city ruins to explore. The passes go for $40 per 3 days; super cool ancient temples are no easy project to maintain. When we toured the historic area we saw Angkor Tom and Angkor Wat, as well as the temple Tomb Raider was shot at. All of the temples are ingenious architectural works, boasting winding passages and faces carved into the sides of the rocks. The Hindu’s believed that the Gods sat high above all regular people so there are enormous steep staircases leading to the God’s thrones all throughout the temples. These steps would not be open to the public in the United States – it was basically a 90-degree angle up, and of course you have to come back down. That is a common theme I’m realizing, that most tours and really cool places I’ve seen are completely open to the public even if they aren’t the most safe or possibly could collapse at any point, but that’s just another perk of international travel! (And another reason the U.S is super lame).
In Siem Reap we also saw an awesome circus show put on by a school for performing arts that caters to underprivileged youth and young adults in the Siem Reap area. The performers were amazing and put on a hilarious and incredibly impressive show. It was in a small circle theater so we were very close to the performers and were able to talk and take pictures with them post show. Other highlights include walking around the night market and looking at all the funny shirts and other trinkets for sale. The city was covered in lights and sounds. The fried ice cream was also a fan favorite. We also went on a floating village tour, which might have been slightly unethical as we were tourists riding on a boat through the lake in which people live, quite poorly, but it was neat to see the small town functioning completely in the middle of a lake. (Also the lake was very beautiful). The town had a church and a food vender boat and a small convenience shop. I’m not sure if there was a clinic or school, but those seem like unnecessary when you have church. (That was a bad joke, sorry). Moving on – we stayed in a nice hotel in Siem Reap with a big tiled shower and air conditioning and a pool!
Peace and love
An attempt to document my journey through 5 countries, 3 global issues and billions of people