Saturday, March 6, 2010

Cambodia Part 1

I Travel By Plane Now

Flying into Cambodia we saw only swamps and rice paddies. And let’s be honest – rice paddies are just cultivated swamps.

Life in a hostel is a bit different than life on a sailboat. All the feral backpackers have kennel cough. We under packed our bags and over packed our itinerary and ran around like 2 week tourists, which was exactly what we had become. Ah – “weekers”: Those working stiffs who think they are going to “do” a country in 14 days. I’ve frowned at them for 4 years, and now I had become one of them. It’s the antithesis of what I signed up for when I bought a boat, sold my car, and graduated from my previous life. Don’t tell my fellow yachties.

I have always said that when I go to Vietnam I’m going to pick a fight with someone just so I can say, “I fought in Nam”. Well, we never made it out of Cambodia, but I did get beat up by a blind man. Now, before you think I’m a complete sissy, please note that it was an over aggressive massage and that I had volunteered. It’s charity, and the massage wasn’t all that bad. This country has more handicapped people than any other place I’ve ever been. We can blame the landmines for that.

And Now, For A Short History Of The Misery That Is Cambodia:

I’m glad I went to Cambodia. I’m even gladder I wasn’t born in Cambodia. These people have had a ghastly existence for 3 decades. From 1970 to 1975 the Khmer Rouge (Pol Pot’s guerilla forces) fought Lon Nol’s (that palindrome usurper of power) government in a civil war. In 1975 Pol Pot took Phnom Penh and thus control of the whole country. He emptied the cities and sent the inhabitants into slave labor death camps. He killed as many as 1.7 million (the estimates range from 1 to 2 million. I think 1.7 might be the most accurate) of his own people in the next 3 years. If you spoke another language or wore glasses or had an education you would be tortured and killed. In 1979 the nightmare subsided when the Vietnamese invaded and pushed Pol Pot into Thailand. The fighting didn’t end until 1999 when the last of the Khmer Rouge communist guerillas defected to the government forces. Pol Pot died in 1998 of old age.

In those 30 years of carnage it is estimated that as many as 10 million mines were laid. That doesn’t even take into account the amount of unexploded ordinance that is still in the ground from the half a million tons of bombs the US dropped on them during the Vietnam War. Cambodia is one of the most heavily mined places in the world, and not surprisingly, has one of the highest disability rates. There are 40,000 amputees living in the country and at least another 40,000 have been killed by the mines. Every month, another 30 people step on a mine. That figure was 300 a month, back in 1996. It’s getting better, but one should be very careful about where they wander off the trail. It makes relieving oneself behind a tree a terrifying prospect. A man once asked a social worker what percentage of Cambodians suffer from post-traumatic-stress-disorder. “Stupid question – it’s 100%”

Before their protracted civil wars commenced, the French used to run the show. So just like Vanuatu – they have delicious baguettes and 2 hour lunches. It’s fun to hate the French, but everywhere they go they do improve the gastronomic abilities of a locale (that was for you Sabine).

And even though Cambodia expelled the French and spent years as a communist regime they are now, of course, a capitalistic society. One might even say “they have embraced capitalism with a vengeance”. If you ever doubt the power of capitalism, please note that there is a Diary Queen in the Phnom Penh airport. A Butterfinger Oreo Blizzard is going to trump Mao’s little red book every time.

I don’t know if we can contribute this next anecdote to the French. My hunch is it’s based on abject poverty: We saw a happy Chihuahua prancing around a parking lot as we drove past in the tuktuk and made a mental note to drop by on our way back to the hotel so that we could pet that little dog. When we arrived I approached the tallest man (almost always the decision maker), and said, “There was a nice little dog here earlier and we would like to pet it”. He leaned closer and in a hushed, but knowing tone said, “Oh, you want to eat that dog.” “NO! NO! Just pet. Only pet. Please mister, don’t cook that dog.”

I did eat crocodile and snake. Reptiles now fear me. When you see beef on the menu – just know that it’s water buffalo. I never saw a moo cow the whole time I was there. Their food is delicious. I am in love with their “dry” curry. We took a cooking class in Battambang and it was a very worthwhile affair. Our translator had only lost one sibling to Pol Pot’s murder factories. That was considered “very lucky”. The depressing stories of these people continually surface.

But It Wasn’t All Bad.
Remember, we’re tourists; we scratch the surface until it gets uncomfortable, and then we go for an ice cream. The first highlight of our trip were the temples of Angkor Wat. They look like giant sand drip castles. We bribed a crooked cop $5 and had the inner sanctum of the largest temple to ourselves for about 20 minutes. It’s impressive on a scale that rivals the pyramids of Egypt. Better get their fast though, because like the Galapagos Islands – this high level of tourism can’t continue unabated.

Most of the structures were built about 800+ years ago but some are over 1,000 years old. Every surface is carved. The amount of detail is just stunning. Angkor Wat was a city of over 1,000,000 people when London had 50,000.

It seemed to me that the only 3 subjects worth snapping a shutter at were the dead and disabled, the ancient temples, and the bright orange robes of the monks. We had our own monk assigned to us as we entered Phnom Penh. That’s not really true – it just felt like it. Sary is a calm young man who accompanied us and explained the Buddhist teaching in fairly accomplished English. I think he broke a few rules by eating fruit after 12 noon, and casting his eyes towards Megan, but we’ll forgive him since he lives in the big city. Besides, who can go that many hours without eating? He simplified the Dharma into 3 pillars: 1). Do wholesome things, 2.) Don’t do unwholesome things, 3.) Purify your mind.

And I Used To Live In Phoenix

It was so oppressively hot that I bought a shirt made of gauze. I’ll be lucky if it survives one washing. That first blast of cold air when you open the door to your air conditioned hotel room after 8 hours in the dusty, parched heat of Cambodia is a magnificent feeling. It’s frosty and it punches you in the chest as it sears your lungs. Delicious.

We gave up the delights of our climate controlled hotel room for an overnight elephant trek. But first we had to get there. It was an 8 hour drive (each way) on a horrible road, with the ever honking bus drivers, and the vomiting ladies in the seat behind me. Screaming children and their stinking diapers didn’t help much and the high volume headache inducing music is so intolerable that we nearly made an eardrum pact; you perforate mine and I’ll perforate yours. But it was all worth it.

Next Dispatch – Cambodia Part 2 / The Elephant Trek

Your man on point,

Captain Bob

1 comment:

KellyWood said...

I spent almost 3 weeks traveling through Cambodia and loved every minute of it. Another example of a country that has so little but gives so much.


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