Cambodia: Survivors, Temples and Trees

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Before I visited Cambodia, most of what I heard about traveling there were warnings: the foreboding chronicles of buried, unexploded objects detonating when tourist vehicles drove over them; the harrowing tale of a co-worker’s pregnant wife being nearly rattled into labor in the back of a truck on the bumpy road to Siem Reap.

I also heard a few good things about the country. Namely, that something called “Happy Pizza” was never in short supply along Siem’s Reap’s Pub Street. I sadly didn’t have a chance to verify that one.

What I can say without a doubt is that Cambodia is the most laid-back place I’ve ever been. I would imagine derives at least partially from its population of 14 million, which is extremely low when compared with neighboring Thailand (63 million) and Vietnam (80 million), a chilling discrepancy when you consider what happened here in the 1970s.

In spite of a past wrought with dictatorship and genocide, the Cambodian people exude hope and enthusiasm. The children of Cambodia in particular are inspiring, some of whom have obviously taken advantage of being able to converse with Westerners and possess at least as much knowledge as someone their age in the U.S. and Europe.

This isn’t to say that people in Cambodia aren’t generally poor; they are uniformly so. I also won’t go into the patronizing spiel about the being “happy the way they are” — I can’t think of too many human beings who wouldn’t go to happy hour if they could afford it.

The character of the Cambodian people is nonetheless joyous and triumphant, in spite of their country still being largely barren as a result of mass killings that reduced their numbers to a fraction of what they are even today — and it’s difficult to miss once you spot it for the first time. Indeed, the only warning I’ll give anyone who wants to visit Cambodia is that leaving the place behind is way harder than you imagine it’ll be when you arrive.

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After giving me the key to my room, the receptionist at Siem Reap’s European Guest House reminded me that I should take a look off the balcony as soon as I got a chance. I wasn’t in any particular rush to get out into the city, having just arrived after nearly 12 hours of travel from Bangkok. I enjoyed a long shower, a short nap and then stepped outside my room to see these guys. To be honest, looking upon them wasn’t what terrified me — it was hearing their jaws snap at night, just 10 or 12 feet lower than where I was. I wasn’t initially sure why there was an alligator pit behind the hostel — maybe for security? — but the number of alligator-skin merchandise stalls in Cambodia made things clear in very short order.

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I traveled to Cambodia on my birthday — and the tourist in me wanted to see Angkor Wat on my birthday! I linked up with my Kale and Amber, whom I met in the taxi from the border to Siem Reap, and hopped in a tuk-tuk bound for the temple. For $40, we would enjoy unlimited visits to Angkor Wat for three days — and, as luck were have it it, we were just in time to be let in for sunset on the first. Unfortunately, the sun had mostly set by the time we finally got into the proper temple — the surrounding complex of moats and gates is massive — but we did run into some interesting characters, this child monk being one of them.

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One aspect of Cambodia that seemed surprising to me in light of all the descriptions I’d heard of it prior to visiting was how open it was. Large, still bodies of water — often crowned with lotus plants, as seen above — wide, open fields and pastures and sky that never seems to end. I couldn’t help but simultaneously think of the purges: During the late 1970s, then-dictator Pol Pot forced millions of “national enemies” from the cities of Siem Reap and Phnom Penh into the countryside, where most were killed in cold blood. I always felt a little strange admiring how uncrowded the place was in light of this fact.

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Cambodian children are really something to behold. Even walking along the town’s impossible congested, smoggy Road 6, children are unable to contain their enthusiasm when they see something new and interesting, such as a foreigner wearing a green-on-green color combination. With the country’s economy reportedly beginning to pick up in the wake of the late 1990s Asian economic crash, the young children of Cambodia are the first generation in nearly half a century to begin life without excessive national hardship or tragedy. This isn’t to say their living conditions are the greatest — I can’t even really begin to empathize, and I bet most people couldn’t — but there is something to be said about the correlation between new shoots and success. Many of the older children we met were educated about world geography — one girl could name the capitals of more than 80 countries; and she did, right in front of me! — and spoke several languages. I lied to the girl trying to sell us bootlegged DVDs as we ate Mexican Food and told her I was from China: She immediately responded in better Mandarin than I could ever hope to speak. I hope she speaks to the right person one day and becomes somebody important.

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Cambodians work hard, but they also clearly understand the value of rest. No matter where I went, whether in the town of Siem Reap itself or at any of the surrounding temples, it wasn’t uncommon to see someone getting shut eye, or even just lounging while they weren’t busy. Tour guides and drivers, for example, often lounge while waiting for clients to finish sightseeing, although they aren’t always as lucky as these guys to have natural hammocks to lie in. Is this what one would call a power siesta?

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One thing that was encouraging about Cambodia compared with places like India is that I didn’t see many people begging for food, although there were certainly panhandlers panhandling. Although I again don’t claim to be an expert on Cambodian social issues, the supple produce at nearly every market I passed suggested that in spite of their uniform poverty, the Cambodian people are eating well — and probably eating safer food than we do in the United States. Their behavior certainly indicates they know a thing or two about quality control.

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Like most of the rest of Southeast Asia, Cambodia is extremely Buddhist, with monks abound on nearly every street and temples, such as the Preah Anchorm Shrine in downtown Siem Reap, crowded all day with the faithful. As a white person who’s always admired Buddhism but never shaved my head, taken a Tibetan name or sat through more than one meditation in a single month, I always wonder whether Buddhist societies seem peaceful because I expect them to be on account of Buddhism, or whether they are and their religion reflects their inborn character. Regardless, there is no place quite like a Buddhist temple to dislodge and be present, to forget for a moment that you are a rich tourist from a rich country trying to escape the misery of being rich by sitting, for a moment, among the poor — and no Cambodians seem to have a problem with that, for better or for worse.

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I don’t watch many movies, so when I heard I would be visiting a temple where the 2001 film Tomb Raider was shot, I didn’t feel like much had been clarified. Thankfully, what I found when I got to Ta Phrom was pretty self-explanatory: Trees had managed to grow through, out of and eventually back into Buddhist temples that date from sometime between the 12th and 13th centuries. In spite of its association with Angelina Jolie Ta Phrom has remained largely intact and unrenovated thus far. Cheesily, I couldn’t help but think the trees growing out of the temple mirrored how the Cambodian people have been able to grow and prosper even with the relics of ages past still strewn around them and, in many cases, keeping them in one place. I was sad to take the taxi from Siem Reap to the Thai border not only because I knew I’d soon be back at work: I had visited a place that way in many ways untouched by all the peripheral nonsense that makes people in my country’s lives miserable; a place where people found joy in moments most of us might miss entirely.


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