Kingdom of Cambodia
Cambodia. It may be a harsh country with a still-recent raw past, but it’s filled with some of the most amazing people, rich history, delicious food, beautiful sunsets, and a lively nightlife. It’s a country still trying to find its way. In all my visits there, I always fall more in love with the place and can’t recommend it enough to everyone I meet. It always surprises.
The color orange comes to mind when thinking about Cambodia.
The sunsets cast down the open farmland on the outskirts of Siem Reap. The dust hovers in the air as tires crunch over the dirt road gravel. Kids running barefoot, fruit in hand along the side of the road yelling, “Hello!”. The slow burning of patient mosquito coils, children off in the fields bathing and splashing in the water with the innocence of the birds, the atonal tinkle of cowbells on mud roads and country paths, the stickiness of one’s shirt by afternoon, the fields afire with sunset.
We got bikes and went out into the country. Along the way, we stopped off at a crocodile farm. For a few dollars, we got a bird’s eye view of piles of crocodiles. The meat is served in town. The skin is used to make leather goods, which could be bought next door. Everything from baby crocodiles stuffed for display, Hello Kitty purses, small and large bags, boots, belts and everything else crocodile skin. After we had enough, we took our bikes and peddled down dirt side roads through a maze of homes that thinned out on our way to the countryside.
We were greeted by three shy children playing in a pond out in one of the fields. They knew a little English and would yell out to us. As we got closer and realized we wouldn’t bite, they opened up. They let me onto their wooden boat that floated on the pond and pushed me around while laughing at the novelty of some random foreigner stumbling upon them. Stepping off the boat and onto the muddy bank, we said a farewell. As we rode off we could hear them yelling out some more English. “You want Ecstasy? Marijuana? Cocaine!?” As we continued and a bit disappointed at what came out of their mouth, whizzing sounds in the air followed by dirt on the ground flying up. When we looked back we could see the kids hunkered down behind a small hill, slingshots in hand, launching rocks our way. Pedaling faster, we escaped.
The sunsets on the Tonlé Sap commonly translated to “Great Lake” are breathtaking as the rays meditatively shimmer on the lake. The stilted homes off in the distance scattered about make it seem like a part of the movie Water World with Kevin Costner. Along the banks you can see families walking about collecting garbage, massive dump trucks in the distance moving trash to the junkyard, children doing heavy labor moving lumber, fishing in the lake with large nets and families in wooden raised huts, surviving.
We had two kids around our age take us on a motorboat out to one of the two-tiered floating docks for sunset, but along the way we stopped in to visit an orphanage and school. The deal was we would buy items from one of the stores and then give them directly to the kids or school. The scene was grim and sad. The kids wandered around barefoot as tourists wandered around the shack that was the orphanage. A little girl held a snake and just stared up as people went through their home. We were told there was a flood leaving hundred of kids orphaned. The situation was all too real, we felt strange and oddly out of place just being there. It was sympathy tourism and the kids were on display. This has become a major problem in Cambodia. There have been awareness campaigns about not giving money to beggars because it’s a vicious cycle that isn’t progressive.
The next day we went out to a place called Beng Melea. It’s about a 4 hour round trip from Siem Reap along the ancient royal highway. We found a driver in town and he took us there in his tuk-tuk. Beng Melea is a Hindu temple built during the Angkor Wat period. The temple is left to nature, with trees and thick brush thriving amidst its towers and courtyards. Many of its stones lying in great heaps with vines hugging them and anchoring them to the earth. Wooden planks form the pathway for visitors to make their way through the temple. Stray cats peek out from some of the stones and children come out from the forest to beg.
After exploring the temple we made our way to the exit. Sandstone blocks on the ground of the entrance make their way up to the red dirt road. Cattle pay no mind to us and boss their way in front and head off to who knows where. Shops across the road are magnets for the temple. Bamboo shoots with glutinous sticky rice inside for sale. Feeling exhausted from the sun and dirt of the day we went back to town and watched the sunset on the bumpy ride back. Signs of life and modernity come back abruptly and we’re back in Siem Reap by nightfall. It felt like traveling to two different worlds. One where nature wins the other which fends it off.
The Cambodian Landmine Museum tells a story about a man named Aki Ran, who cleared landmines with a stick and had a house full of defused mines. He started charging a dollar for admittance and that’s when the museum started. In the center is an octagon glass house filled with mines that reach up to a height of about 10 feet, each with a country name posted on the outside glass showing where they were made. The horrors of landmines were shown in photographs. Parts of old weapons like grenades; AK 47s, missiles, and mines, combined with prosthetic legs twist to form art, which is displayed in the center of a room. War is only half the problem. The aftermath continues long after the shooting stops. Children affected by the mines live at the museum where care is provided. The experience was grim but important to see. After leaving the museum and heading back to our tuk-tuk, we were approached by locals asking us, “you want shoot AK 47? M16? Bazooka? You can shoot at cow!” We opted not to do that and feeling a bit awkward at the proposition we went back into town.
In the square, they sell sunglasses, cheap electronics, tacky t-shirts, silk scarves, and other random souvenirs. Outside we watched as people sat on wooden benches and had their feet pecked at by little fish. Watching this little girl balance and walk around the tank she had a slip and fell in. All the tiny fish immediately went to nibble on her. She was lifted out of the tank by her father as she screamed and cried while the onlookers erupted in laughter. Moments like these stick out. The spirit of the people. It’s a reminder to smile because sometimes your joy is the source of your smile, but sometimes your smile can be the source of your joy.