06.08.2012 - 14.08.2012
Our trip to Cambodia was very short since we had lots of places to cram in to the little time we have left for traveling, but it was very impressive! We flew into Phnom Penh just in time to catch our good friends from Borneo: Susanna, Romain, Charlotte and Khai for a couple nights.
Our first outing was to a couple of sites we will always remember for the horror they represent: Prison S21 and The Killing Fields. There is enough information available online to justify my avoiding going into details on the degenerate cruelty of the genocide that took place in Cambodia less than forty years ago under the rule of the Khmer Rouge led by Pol Pot, responsible for the killing of about three million people during the regime ( out of a total population of 8 million), but if you find yourself in Phnom Penh, do not hesitate to visit these sites. These are human tragedies we need to remind ourselves of to learn from and prevent in the story we continue to build as a society.
After this profoundly depressing first experience, we came out into the new Cambodia, a country emerging from disaster as a resilient, hard working community. Along with bicycles over-packed with anything from baskets to live chickens to bananas, tuk-tuks and motorbikes swerving 'round corners of busy streets and merchants announcing their products loudly we found a surprising silence in elaborate temples in the middle of the busy capital, and a pleasant energy along the river's edge, where every here and there we found a dancer with a portable stereo leading a group of passers by on a casual coreograph, brightening the night.
Soon we were in Siem Reap, famous for the immense area of temples of the Angkor kingdom. Overflowing with tourists for obvious reasons, the temples -in my opinion- lose a lot of their spiritual energy but none of their grandeur. They are imposing masterpieces, covered in detail and symbolism, glorious even under the effect of centuries exposed to the torments of weather and the incessant visit of thousands of tourists a day.
We loved every one we visited, but I think our favorite was Banteay Srei, a temple located thirty seven kilometers away from Siem Reap. Juan and I got up early one morning, rented a couple of bicycles and peddaled through small towns, along emerald rice fields, across markets of bamboo crafts and sugar cane goods, and finally got to our destination, renowned for its intricate stone carvings. Though the construction as a whole is very run down and it seems that you visit only the skeleton of a great building, the details in the work are astonishing. Juan took some pictures of some of the ones that he liked the most, but really every centimeter of the temple is sublime. The expressions of the tiny characters engraved in the rock and the stories they tell seem to come alive under your gaze. We stayed for as long as we could before we raced our way back to the hotel ahead of the dark.
A river cruise followed, taking us across the Tonle Sap lake (the largest in all southeast Asia), and along the vibrant Sangker river, through moving villages where people live on small boats and floating bamboo cottages, eating creatures from the water, whatever vegetables they can manage to grow on their boats and huts and also goods they purchase from passing boats. Along the way every once in a while a canoe would smoothly pull up to the side of the boat and one of our passengers would alight in what would seem like the middle of nowhere had a crowd of very ingenious river people not decided to stop and live there for a while.
So the trip was colorful. Long an loud, for the ride took about ten hours and the motor never ceased to sound like it was preparing to take off into space, but we enjoyed every minute of it, and were quite relaxed throughout the journey. When we pulled up to Battambang, however, our state of tranquillity was quickly broken by our first encounter with the race for tourists which we would later find to be the norm during the following weeks: we hadn't even set foot on the first step off the boat when at least ten posters were being shoved in my face by people trying to get me to choose their hotel to stay in! Men were yelling in our ears from all directions, I couldn't see Juan and I could only barely see the next step I was to put my foot on without tripping! I hurried up to Juan so we could look into our book to decide on a place, but the men kept talking all at once, listing the benefits of their place, showing us the price... I was overwhelmed! At some point we gave in and followed one of the men to a place, which was fine. From then on we got used to the hassling as part of the culture, and endured it gracefully for weeks later in Vietnam. Actually I think we were pretty good at keeping our good moods and polite ways instead of becoming annoyed and rude to people who were only trying to make a living. I love traveling with my man who is all peace and sees the good in every person!
Once settled we had a nice meal in Gecko Cafe, one of many wonderful initiatives throughout the area that consist of businesses focused on bringing higher salaries and training in better job opportunities to people who grow up in disadvantaged financial situations. The next morning we took a motorcycle ride along the country side and visited a temple before heading back to Phnom Penh for the night.
Cambodia is full of intriguing history, beautiful scenery, intricate temples and growing visiting opportunites. Its forests and fields are also burdened with land mines, remnants from the war threatening to blow up unaware walkers several decades after the horrific events that led them to be there. Here and there in the places we visited during our short stay we would come across a group of people selling crafts, a cute little restaurant, traditional musicians playing with their toes or only one hand or holding up a flute with their elbows. All these and other stands under a sign that would start out something like "Support land mine victims by...". How does a country pull itself up after such a horrendous chapter? Somehow the Cambodians seem to be doing it with their heads held high and smiling boldly.