What an experience!

Trip Start Jun 27, 2006
Trip End Mar 28, 2007

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Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Angkor Wat

I was expecting to see one temple - Angkor Wat - in Cambodia. Was I wrong! There are a few dozen temples just around the Siem Reap area.

I thought I had "moto" written all over my face, since so many people yelled to me that name. Motorcycles are the most convenient form of transportation in the country. I hired one of those to visit the temples further away from the city on one day. On another day, I rented a bicycle to visit Angkor Wat - the grandest of all. Just like a lot of ancient structures, cardinal points were very crucial in the construction of this huge religious complex. It was original built as a Hindu temple. Later it was the worshipping center of the Buddhists. Obviously today it is the single most important tourist site in Cambodia.

I was expecting to have a divine spiritual experience when I finally come face to face with Angkor Wat, but didn't. Oh well.

My Hero

I did however meet a hero. Noeum Samuth was born in Phnom Penh in 1959.

Just like most people living in the Cambodian cities in 1975, his family was forced by Khmer Rouge to move to the countryside to conduct hard labor. He was 15. A year later, while he was out searching for food for the family (under the Khmer Rouge regime, a cup of rice was used to feed 20 people for one day - I didn't just read about it, a number of people have vouched to me that it was true since they experienced it themselves), his entire family was "taken" - which means that they were killed (probably bludgeoned to death, like most killings during that time, as the regime did not want to waste bullets). They found out that his father was an army chief. Most ex-government officials, army personnel and educated people had the same fate.

Noeum escaped with 29 other members of the village and fled towards Thailand. Only seven of them survived, the others were killed by land mines planted by Khmer Rouge. Upon crossing into the Thai border, he was jailed. Eight months later, with the help of Red Cross, he was released. He declined sponsorship to move to a western country, but chose to be trained and worked for Red Cross in a refugee camp near the Thai/Cambodia border. He wanted to help his people.

Since then, he had worked for various international organizations. He devoted his life to helping poor children orphaned by the Khmer Rouge. Today he runs 3 schools providing educational opportunities to local students at no cost to their families, and an orphanage. Other than English, Khmer and Hygiene, his staff also taught them human rights and values. If requested by individual students, he also taught Bible. I visited one of the schools and the simple orphanage (housing 8 teenagers).

The major expenditures are the monthly rent and the food for the orphans and teachers (the teachers receive little or no pay). They do not receive any government funding. It is unsure how they are going to survive in the future, since the 2 major sources of funding have both been interrupted. (1) He used to personally fund schools and orphanage using money that he earned from a dental clinic. His eyesight has deteriorated so much so that he is no longer able to work in a clinic. (2) The students used to distribute leaflets (describing their schools and needs) to the tourists at the temples, and were able to collect some contributions from them. That practice was banned by the police a few months earlier.

I made a monetary contribution since I do not know how else to help.

Suffocating Hospitality

While I was at Angkor Wat, I met a couple of university students distributing questionnaires to tourists. I invited them to have lunch with me. One of them tried very hard earlier to drive me around the next day on his moto (typical daily charge is $10 - $15). They would not think twice to skip school if there were money making opportunities. By the time lunch was over, we became good friends. When we met again later in the day, he offered to do it for free (except for the cost of gasoline).

I took up his offer and went with him the next day to the touristy as well as the not-so-touristy sites. Later, I was invited to visit his village some 4 hours away (by shared taxi). He came up with some excuses to take a 2-day leave from his job as a hotel bellboy, and asked for his friend to fill in for him.

At his village, I met his parents, grandparents and a dozen friends. Even though it had been 5 months since they saw each other, there were no physical acknowledgement at all when they meet - not even a handshake, or a pat on the back (not to mention hugging and kissing). Also absent were any verbal acknowledgement! No "hi" no "how have you been?" My friend explained to me that it is all in the face (=smile).

To entertain me and the dozen friends, the family killed their two ducks. The "dinner party" ended soon after 7 pm - the time the village electricity was shut off. Instead of having me stay at his house, my friend decided to take me to the nearest big town (Battambang). He did not believe that I could survive the night without air conditioning or fan. (He may be right, as I have chosen only A/C rooms since I came to Southeast Asia.)

Six of us drove to town (one of his friends had a car), went drinking at a very busy noisy night/dance club (they can drink!). We finally retired to a hotel at 1am, after having a midnight snack of porridge at a coffee shop.

Since he had to go back to Siem Reap to work, my friend arranged shifts among his friends (all in their mid 20's), so that someone was with me at all times. He reluctantly allowed me to stay at the hotel room overnight by myself. Even though I stayed for 3 days in this town, I did not walk for more than a couple of blocks - there was always a motorcycle driver at my disposal. They also did not believe in walking to places.

When it was time for me to move on to Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia, another friend volunteered to go with me. He spent the entire 72 hours with me in Phnom Penh. I'm thankful that the rooms with 2 beds cost only marginally more than a single A/C en suite room in this area ($12 vs. $10). I met more of his friends, who were also very nice to me. They took me everywhere I wanted to go. It is understood that I pay for meals (these Cambodians are poor).

By the time I left Cambodia, I was almost a pro riding (as a passenger) on a motorbike. I still struggled when there were three of us though. There are tons of motorbikes in Phnom Penh. Just like riders in Bangkok, they do not wear helmets (once, I saw my friend wore helmet at midday, and was told that he didn't want to get too dark). Did I tell you that I was nearly killed running across the street in Bangkok? They drive on the left hand side of the street, and I thought it was clear....

Tough Life

During my stay in Camobdia, I was reminded repeatedly the harsh life they had from 1975 to 1979.

I watched the Killing Fields at the guesthouse. I had previously watched the movie, but it meant more this time, watching it in Cambodia.

I was fascinated by the book "First they killed my father" by Luong Ung. She was only 5 when her family was forced to move to the countryside. I shed a lot of tears reading her experience in the next 4 years. I finished reading the book in (nearly) one sitting - which is highly unusual for me. I believe she is now a land mine activist, living in Vermont.

I visited the real life Killing Fields Ek Choueng in an area just outside of Phnom Penh. Not all of the 129 mass graves here were disinterred. It is believed that 17,000 men, women and children perished here. 8,000 skulls were found during excavation. They are on display on shelves at the memorial (a stupa).

I also visited a school that was turned into a detention/interrogation/torture center during the Khmer Rouge. Most people who went through the doors of the "school" ended up in Killing Fields at Ek Choueng.

At a mountain near Battambang, there were cages of human skulls and bones. The tour guide also took us to the precise cliff-like spots where victims were pushed over after they were bludgeoned to death.

There were also occasions when my friend/driver would point to me the mass graves in the distance, or behind some unmarked fence.

To me, this is very different from Nazi/Aushwitz. Both the murderers and victims here are Khmers/Cambodians. Some said 50% of the Khmer Rouge "soldiers" were younger than the age of 15. This is so much more recent. It happened during my lifetime!

The younger people do not like to talk about it too much. When they do, it sounds so impersonal - because they did not experience it themselves. They block their ears when their parents/grandparents nag about the suffering that they endured.

What a coincidence that I spent Thanksgiving in this country. I am so very thankful that I did not live here in the mid- to late 70's.

Food and Stuff

My local friends took me to a lot of out-of-the way places. Places where foreigners don't go. Where restaurants do not have menu in English. I also ate a lot of different kinds of stuff. Due to respect towards pet owners, I won't elaborate. The most disgusting thing that I tried was a duck egg, served as dessert. You would crack open one end of the egg first, and suck out the "juice." You could then use a teaspoon and scoop out the rest of the cooked egg. Or, if you chose to de-shell it, you could actually see the shape of the duckling with dark feathers (even though the feathers did not taste like feathers)!

There are a lot of beggars in the cities. To discourage their behavior, I normally say no once, waved my hand, and ignored them. One of them proceeded to kneel next to me (when I was at a coffee shop enjoying the delicious curry chicken and rice), and softly pinched my fat thigh a few times. I think he was trying to tell me that I am too fat and I should give him my food instead.

Well, he was right. Having spent only 2 weeks in Southeast Asia, I have now gained back all the weight that I lost during my first four and a half months of travelling, plus some. The food here is so familiar (even though I still need to point, especially at roadsides stands), so cheap and so everywhere!!

I AM SORRY AS I WAS A LITTLE CARRIED AWAY AND POSTED 78 PICTURES!! (Warning: Some of them contain human skulls and bones)
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