Touchdown in Cambodia
Trip Start Dec 09, 2006
13Trip End Mar 12, 2006
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That is the first word uttered by Sam Waterson as journalist Sydney Schanberg at the beginning of the film The Killing Fields. I heard that word repeatedly in my mind leading up to my visit to the little Southeast Asian country with the horrible past and uncertain future. Thus it was quite a moment to be standing on the tarmac at the Siem Reap airport and saying aloud to myself.
The plane ride began like every othr flight I've ever had, but it ended like only a few I can remember. I was giddy and excited and could not stop smiling. For those of you who don't know I've developed a bit of a interest in Cambodian history. I was familiar with the Khmer Rouge name and Pol Pot and I knew they had murdered millions of their own people but I didn't know the story
A little quick history: During the early 1970's Cambodia underwet a military coup which then faced immediate challenges from a band of communist Cambodian nationals who hid out in the wilderness, the wilderness being 95% of the country. The countryside had been ravaged by illegal bombing by the Americans during the Vietnam War and many peasants and farmers had sided with the "Red Khmer" (Khmer is the ethnic group which traditionally makes up most of Cambodia), thinking they would help them out. The Khmer Rouge promised better lives and more power to the regular people. They eventually conquered Phnom Penh, the capital, on April 17, 1975, two weeks before the fall of Saigon.
Immediately the KR began to evacuate the city, which was complete in three days. Implementing their plan to create a completely "egalitarian" agrarian state, all city people had to move to the fields where they would be turned into farmers and peasants, just like everyone else. This was one of the largest, and certainly the fastest, evacuations of an urban center in history. The three years, nine months and 21 days which followed became a living hell for anyone lucky (or unlucky) enough to survive being one of the approximately 2 million people starved or killed
Rosy enough picture for ya? Okay, back to the present day. Somehow this story of an idealistic regime brutally enforcing its own version of utopia on its own people intrigued me. Why did they do it? How? Who were they? Etcetera. So I began to accumulate (and actually read) a rather extensive library on Cambodian and Southeast Asian history. By the time I hit the ground in Siem Reap on that warm and muggy January day I could not believe that I was in a place, so far from home, both literally and figuratively, which I had spent so much time reading about and loosely imagining plans to visit. Wham-Bam-Click: I woke up and I was there.
"I Know These Guys"
Upon leaving the airport we followed the signs leading us to the airport's taxi service. I had just changed a large amount of American money into riel, only to get to the taxi stand where they asked for $5. In Cambodia they have all prices listed in American dollars, at least almost anywhere you or I am about to go. So for the next week or so I had to keep dividing dollar amounts by 4000 riel until I ran out of Cambodian money.
The 20,000 riel got us into a car with a young, charismatic driver who told us his name was something to the effect of "Raul". I sat up front and began to attemp to ease into the battery of questions I had listed in my head so as not to startle this guy. Raul said that he had lived in or around Siem Reap his whole life and lived in the city to be a taxi driver. He was in his mid-twenties or so but could have passed for a high school student
We pulled into the first stop and began to get out. Raul motioned me back in the car, explaining, "Oh, I know these guys, let me talk to them first." It was late in the evening, the time when you really don't need to be searching for a vacant hotel room, and so we thought perhaps his locall connections might help us. They helped people, but in the end it wasn't us.
After ditching a few places I had found in the book (Cambodia was supposed to be my first attempt to take over some of the planning from Huy) due to either substandard conditions, high prices, or both, we finally settle on a hotel on a corner right across from the main tourist area of the town. Raul came out to say that the place had rooms available and would take $20 a night, same as every other hotel we had been too. Huy's mom went in and talked the guy down to $18 a night and we moved in
The next morning followed a familiar pattern for our first morning in a new place; Huy and I slept in while Huy's mom got up very early and began to scour the surrounding neighborhood for a better deal on a room. She came back with the information that our good friend Raul had taken us for a ride and then another ride the night before. Apparently he went into each hotel, where he probably did know people, told them the highest we were willing to pay if there were rooms available and, wouldn't you know it, those rooms were certainly available but at our highest price. We had been in Asia for almost a month but we didn't see this one coming the night before. After a prolong effort to find a new place to stay which fit everyone's criteria we settled on a place around the corner from the first which was far nicer and only $15 a night for a room.
If there is one reason any toursits go to Cambodia it is because of Angkor Wat. Almost every visitor to the country passes through Siem Reap, what was until recently small town cut out from the jungles and providing the largest population center in the north of the country
Angkor Wat was built between the ninth and twelth centuries A.D. Constructed at the heighth of the Khmer Empire, which encompassed at one time central and southern Vietnam and strectched into Thailand (Siem Reap means "Victory over the Thai" in Khmer), the temples were left behind when the Empire's power ebbed and Cambodia's neighbors took their turns on the surrounding land. Some say that if it weren't for the French colonization os SE Asia that Cambodia might have been split up outright by its neighbors. But as it were the French re-discovered Angkor (it was written about by an explorer in the 16th century, but he incorrectly placed it in India) in the 1800's, rescued it from the jungle and began to marvel at the expanse of the temple complex.
Fast-forward to the mid-1990's. Cambodia is basically a new country. It has appeared on maps for hundreds of years, but when your nation is shut down for almost four years, producing only crops, mostly rice, the cities and infrastructure is abandonded and almost all of your intellectuals, acedemia, doctors, teachers and professors are murdered because of their level of education then you are not left with much
The country has very little, if any industry to speak of. It subsists almost entirely on foreign aid. What is does have, through the chances of history, is an amazing historical and cultural artifact, a World Heritage Site example of what humans can achieve when they want to glorify their gods, themselves and have access to free labor - the Temples at Angkor.
So the first day in Siem Reap was spent figuring out the plans for visiting the temples and basically resting. I couldn't really believe that the next morning I would get up early to go out to see Angkor Wat, the main and most inspiring of the temples. Angkor Wat is the national pride in Cambodia. When so much has been documented about how horrible your country is, or has been, anything that sheds a positive light is totally embraced. Ankgor Wat is everywhere - on the money, on the beer, on boxes of incense. The first night I even bought a six-pack of bottled water which was called - you guessed it - Angkor Water.
We made out way out to Angkor starting about 8:15 in the morning
The arrival at Angkor Wat is like arriving at a theme park, but then it isn't. The giant parking lots with hordes of cars are replaced by slightly smaller lots filled with motos, tuk tuks and a whole section of vans and Land Rovers. You don't need a Land Rover to get to the temples anymore (those prices for the day passes DO pay for something) but for some it is a nice touch I guess. Your driver lets you off, you walk up to the second or third person who comes looking for your recently-purchased day pass and then you walk through the outer gate.
At this point the most spectacular thing is just the temple's peaks off in the distance. You aren't right there in the mix just yet. You stroll down the causeway which leads you past the moat dug around the temple
Now continue on past the "seas" and the tourists. This is the point where it really starts to hit me. It was a thing of wonder to come around a left turn in the road and see Angkor Wat's peaks emerging above the trees. There were those five spires, one at each compass point and one in the middle, with their ruined pointy facades still pointing up, the ones I'd seen in countless pictures. Well as we pulled up to the parking area and moved on down the causeway they were blocked from view by the outer gate. So I continued to walk.
I came up to the outer gate and stepped in. Inside is a hallway, approximately 20 feet long. The tourists are crowding in (we unfortunately arrived exactly at the same time as the morning tour buses), looking all over, kids rooting around, old people being all slow. Up ahead was a door cut from the stone which looked out toward the inner courtyards and ended in steps which led down to another causeway. As I stepped out onto these steps, well this was the real moment.
As a 31-year old, "grown-up" on paper, I don't get the chills a lot anymore. The feeling I got when I stepped through the inner door is not fair to try to describe. You can see the spires rising up against the sky, just like they do in all the pictures, but instead of sitting on the gold velveteen Cruiser (what I call my couch as of now) holding a book I was half a world away seeing the reall thing. All I can say is that as I strode toward the temple the overwhelming thoguht that came through to me was that this trip was the right thing to do. I instantly thought of my job at UT where at that time of year I would be shooting a redundant basktball game against Nobody-U and frantically trying to catch up on editing, still wishing and talking about getting my shit together and traveling the world while sipping a pint at the Crown. Instead I was doing it. As I walked down the causeway toward Angkor Wat I knew more than almost any other time in my life that I had made the right decision.
Ahh, What's it Really Like?
Well once I got over my high (well, once I had leveled-off to cruising altitude, to be honest) I continued the walk to the temples. It is rather long! A thing that struck me of course was the number of tourists, but I was ready for that
Back to the temple. Inside there were many tourist roaming around, which is fine. There are various courtyard-looking areas (all stone) and stairs. Reliefs of Aksara (angles) are everywhere. At one point during a rest I noticed an older man sweeping out part of the temples. He ws very pleasant looking and could have blended in to the population one hundred years ago by his dress and demeanor. I found it interesting, this normal man caring for this incredible site. I later saw him sitting in nice light and he let me take his picture.
One last thing. You can climb up to the very top of the temple, the base underneath the highest spire, but only buy way of a very steep set of 1,000 year old steps. They were so steep I wondered if I could make it down. I really wanted to get to the top of Angkor so I went up. I couldn't believe the age and physical condition of some of the tourists making the climb. Do these people understand that you have to come down?? These steps would have been off-limits at an American attraction, that is how steep they were. Nonetheless, folks crawled up using hands and knees (including me) and kids scampered up with no cares. One side of the square had a railing drilled into the stone (also not very old) which was where many folks, including me, decided to make their dessent. I decided I didn't need any broken bones in Cambodia.