Tuesday, April 7, 2009

SE Asia Chapter 5: Cambodia

When you work as a foreign English teacher in South Korea's public system, every so often you get this unexpected gift. It happens when your co-teacher turns to you at 8:55am and says "Oh, Lisa, you have no class today." If you are me and your school is awesome (shout out to 순전 여고!) , this happens a lot. But today, instead of wasting time or planning lessons, I'm going to try to get this monkey off my back, my blog about the rest of my trip in SE Asia. It was 3 months ago, I'd be surprised if anybody actually still cares, but I seem unable to write anything else until I get it out of the way. So without my travel journal, here goes...

Siem Reap/Angkor Wat

After a day of much needed R&R to recover from our travels from Bangkok to Siem Reap (see Chapter 4), we rented bicycles to make the trip around the Angkor, the ancient city that has made Siem Reap the bustling, wealthy tourist centre of Cambodia that it is. It's home to many famous Khmer temples ("Wats") including Ta Phrom where parts of Tomb Raider and Indian Jones were filmed and the big kahuna: Angkor Wat.

History buffs can your fix here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Angkor I'm not writing down everything I know about the place, we haven't got time!
I was happy to get back on a bike after having such a great time touring Ayutthaya on one. Even the most unsteady of our troop felt significantly more bike-confident having had a full night of rest and some great food the day before. And Angkor was definitely worth seeing by bike. The forests were beautiful and gave plenty of roadside shade. We pulled up at the first small temple, Banteay Kdei and I was already enthralled by the beautiful gate to the temple, which featured a large serene face of stone smiling at visitors. After Banteay Kdei, we ate lunch at a roadside stand (fried rice, soup and fresh fruits while children and chickens ran amok around us) and then made our way to Ta Phrom, which was so surreal and beautiful. Wandering through this ancient structure, with enormous trees reclaiming the grounds, it was easy to imagine myself as an explorer or picture the temple as it might have been centuries earlier. After Ta Phrom, our travelmate Amanda ventured off on her own, while the rest of us (Susan, Ali, Jennifer and I) continued on to Angkor Thom (Angkor City). On the way we stopped to climb up Ta Keo and paused outside a couple of other smaller sites for water breaks. The day was already quickly slipping past. We biked through the east gate of Angkor Thom and parked our bikes beside the terrace of the Elephants. On foot we toured Krueng Palace, Baphoun, and (my absolute favourite) Bayon Temple. Bayon temple features hundreds of faces staring out over the city and keeping a watchful eye on its inhabitants. It was the perfect place to watch the shadows grow longer as the afternoon changed from golden to deeper hues of orange and red, matching the dusty ground beneath our feet. As we headed for our bikes we did come across a large group of Korean tourists who were thrilled to find out we were teachers in Korea and knew how to say "Hello" to them (which earns a round of applause apparently). I would have loved to stay at Bayon a little longer, but we needed to hit the road before we lost the light. Cambodian traffic is crazy enough in the daytime; we did not want to be on our bikes (without lights) after dark. As we rode past the magnificient sillouette of Angkor Wat at dusk, I felt, for the first time, excited to be going to see it at sunrise the next morning. We ended our day of biking (about 40km) with dinner in the marketplace and an hour long shiatsu massage by blind masseurs. It was lovely. It did not, however, change the fact that I had a wake-up time of 4:30 am coming around the bend.

Let me be very clear. I am not a morning person. I do not like getting out of bed. In my opionion, it is a process that takes all morning to be done properly anyway. I tend to feel a seething (but thankfully temporary) hatred towards those who disturb my slumber. This is especially true of being awakened before the sun is even up! I warned my travelmates as best I could. Every travel book and visitor to Siem Reap advised, you MUST see Angkor Wat at Sunrise. I'd seen the pictures, I was satisfied. But the girls outvoted me 4 to 1. Even Ali, who usually will happily join me in cursing the morning sun that interrupts a night of rest, was tricked by her love of photography into believing Angkor Wat at sunrise was something that could not be missed. And so it was I found myself posing for a now infamous picture for my photo-pass at 5:15 AM and bumping along a dusty road, squished in the back of a tuk-tuk with four cheery-eyed early birds. The child vendors that mobbed us would recieve no sympathetic looks or "No, thank you's" from this Lisa. Maybe afternoon Lisa, maybe even late-morning Lisa, but not pre-sunrise Lisa (some have referred to pre-sunrise Lisa and afternoon Lisa as a Jekyll & Hyde-like transformation). I will say that Angkor Wat was beautiful, I can't deny it. But I also remember hating it for being so beautiful that I had to be there at 6 am to see it and hating all the pesky tourists buzzing around happily who also had to see it. And especially, hating the shrill-voiced lady at the food stand: "Breakfast! Coppee! Hey Lady! You want breakfast? I sell you cheap!" After the sun had risen, I spent at least an hour wandering around inside Angkor Wat, solitary. It was beautiful, but you know what? Even more enjoyable at 4 in the afternoon when Susan and I returned that day to see it at Sunset. Bah! We went back to the guesthouse in the late morning, I had a wonderful nap and woke up feeling a hundred million times more cheerful and ready for lunch. We had some fantastic pizza and then Jennifer and I headed out to "The Happy Ranch" horse riding stables for an afternoon look at rural Siem Reap on horseback. As I mentioned, we returned to Angkor Wat for sunset although we missed the cut off for going up to the lookout. That night I enjoyed a deliriously blissful 3-hour spa package that scrubbed and massaged all early morning bitterness out of me for a miniscule $26. Well that is, until I had to get up at 5:30am the next morning to catch the boat to Phnom Penh.

Phnom Penh

We travelled to Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia, by speedboat down the Tonle Sap river. It's more expensive than the bus, but if you want to see the best of the Cambodian landscape, that's the way to do it. At the dock in Phnom Penh, a ravenous throng of Tuk-Tuk drivers waited for us. And followed us for a block as we tried to get some distance and get ourselves organized. We found a room at a great guesthouse recommended by my lonely planet book. I say "great" not only because our room was huge and spotless, and not only because the owner arranged our vietnam tourist visa's and travel arrangements to Ho Chi Minh, but also great because she stocked kettled-cooked potato chips and Crunchie chocolate bars, the likes of which I haven't seen since September 2008. By now the pace of our trip was taking its toll on me. I was eager to get to a beach and do nothing but relax for a few days. We decided to stay in Phnom Penh only two nights, long enough to see the royal palace and the Killing fields. We went to the Royal Palace early in the day, knowing we would need a few hours to get grounded after the Killing Fields. The palace site, including the silver pagoda, was beautiful and much less crowded than the Royal Palace in Bangkok, understandably.
Next, our tuk-tuk driver for the day took us to S-21 Toul Sleung Prison, which is now converted into a genocide museum dedicated to the victims of the Khmer Rouge. The Prison itself was once a high school before the Khmer Rouge took power in Cambodia in 1975 and emptied the cities as part of its design to turn Cambodia into a communist agricultural society. In an attempt to achieve this, the Khmer Rouge systematically killed the educated and professional people in the population. Doctors, teachers, lawyers, journalist, and anyone dared object the parties policies was killed to stem dissent. The high school was converted into a prison where suspected "traitors" were detained and tortured before being sent to Choeung Ek for execution. We walked the halls and holding cells silently, reverenced by the gravity of what happened there. Many of the rooms have been left in the same condition as when they were found. Rusty bed frames, arm and leg shackles and waste boxes are the only objects in the rooms. Some feature black and white photos of the dead who were found here when the Vietnamese took back the city in 1979. Another floor features thousands of pictures of detainees recovered in the Khmer Rouge files and another features artists paintings of the different torture techniques used here, the most savage of human behaviours. Amanda comments on a beautiful flower bush blooming between two of the buildings at S-21, its loveliness standing in stark contrast to its setting. Next, we drive outside the city to Choeung Ek, one of the largest mass graves found after the Khmer Rouge was toppled, and now the site of the Memory Stoupa, which houses the skulls of almost 9000 people, excavated at this site. A tour guide took us around the grounds, describing how Choeung Ek operated and answering our questions. Its hard to put into words the feelings you feel at a place like that. It's estimated that 2 million Cambodians died under the Pol Pot regime.

As we drove back into the city, I felt as though I were seeing it for the first time. A bustling metropolitan of people working and living, children playing. People who'd returned to a city they'd been forced to abandon 34 years earlier came back to rebuild it. I am completely amazed by the spirit of the Cambodian people. Despite horrific loss and tragedy, despite the murder of their educators, lawmakers and medical professionals, they are rebuilding their country at an astounding rate. Every single Cambodian we talked to had lost family members in the genocide. It was a day that filled me with tremoundous gratitude for my family and friends and Canada, a country which makes all of its citizens wealthy just by virtue of living there. We take our freedoms and opportunities for granted there.

That evening, we walked a road along the river lined with cafes and shops. But I lost my desire to stay out in the city. In Siem Reap, the poor were evident on every street. In Phnom Penh, they were on every square of pavement. In Siem Reap, I was able to give groceries and baby formula to mothers begging on the sidewalk, their babies asleep in their laps or on the sidewalk beside them. In Phnom Penh, there were too many to count. Of course, they congregated on this street for a reason. It was lined with restaurants, cafes and shops frequented by foreigners. We stopped and ate at a bakery who's proceeds benefitted an city orphanage and then headed back to the guesthouse. Tomorrow we would get on a bus to Vietnam, by tomorrow night I would be on a beach, worlds away from Cambodia. But not forgotten.

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