After some pancakes (Cooper), omelet (me) and banana and chocolate crepes (Jason and Sophia), we headed to the lobby to meet our guide and driver for our first tour - Angkor Wat. I committed my first faux pas (I *hope* my only actually) by wearing shorts. I had researched the customs, but I had read that "short shorts" weren't allowed, so brought shorts that came right to my knees. Come to find out, women have to cover their knees and shoulders (had that covered...literally!). I was not a happy camper at first, until I realized I just couldn't go to the top level of the temple. With the searing heat, I would gladly exchange climbing an additional level for the comfort of shorts (*relative* comfort).
I find it difficult on these vacations (not only witnessing the poverty) but realizing that I might never return. Not because I don't want to, but I am a realist. Cambodia is probably a 24 hour flight from the United States, and I doubt I will ever live in Southeast Asia again. It is a very empty feeling to say goodbye to these people that you meet for such a short time but feel very fond of.
But rather than dwell on my over-emotional side, let's move on to Angkor Wat....
"Angkor Wat is the largest Hindu temple complex in the world. The temple was built by King Suryavarman II in the early 12th century in Yasodharapura, the capital of the Khmer Empire, as his state temple and eventual mausoleum. In the late 13th century, it changed from Hindu to Buddhist use." (thank you, Wikipedia)
The complex is enormous! It's completely surrounded by a moat, followed by a sandstone wall with multiple entrances (one for the king and queen, two for the nobility, and two more for the unwashed masses). Once inside this exterior wall, the temple itself is still a few hundred yards away!
Sovann led us around, providing just enough information to keep us interested but not overwhelmed, and took us to the best picture-taking spots. Cooper and Sophia had fun climbing the rocks and narrow steps throughout the complex. Along the way, we met some (umm...randy) monkeys and passed by many Buddhist monks. It was amazing to think of how this massive structure was engineered and built so long ago, and just how long it has survived, especially with major damage in the mid 1970s from a war (more on that later). I think we were all quite awestruck. Seeing the kids in the pictures really put the size in perspective!
After the balloon, we were ready for lunch and a break. Our driver dropped us back at the hotel for a short rest and we ate at the pool and went for a quick swim. Cooper was soooo happy to have his usual chicken fingers and french fries, and I was delighted with my spring rolls. I am pretty sure I could live on spring rolls. (and vegetable ones at that....shocking if you know me!) The fried yellow noodle with chicken was also excellent. Check out the pool menu - notably the local favorites section! I was really bummed that snake was only available in the evening, because I was REALLY craving it at lunch.
We will be talking about Sovann a lot more in the next posts, but please visit his website or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org if you are interested in his services. We highly recommend him!
At 2:00pm our driver was back, but with a new guide, Sothy ("So-tee"). His job was to take us to his village to meet some of his family and see how they live. This was easily the most emotional part of the trip. After about 15 minutes on a regular road, we turned onto a dirt road that was close to undrivable due to huge holes and bumps left behind when the area inevitably floods every wet season. At one point we passed a man on a motorbike with dead pigs as cargo. What was to come was starting to become quite clear. And I admittedly started to get anxious. See, I cannot hold in emotion. Call it a weakness, call it a strength, but I call it annoying. Thank goodness for sunglasses.
The most profound moment of the entire trip came as we drove down this dirt road. Sothy, in a matter-of-fact way, told us that when he was younger, not many kids attended school in this village. Not because they didn't have a school or couldn't find teachers - rather, because all of the previous teachers had been tracked down and murdered by the Khmer Rouge regime.
What he is referring to took place mainly between 1976 and 1979 (the genocide part, the violence and fighting lasted many, many more years), when a communist party called the Khmer Rouge, led by Pol Pot, drove everyone out of the cities and into country labor camps to work the land basically as slaves. They executed almost all teachers (95%) and doctors (75%), in fact, anyone with an education, links to law enforcement, the previous government, disabled people, and minorities. Many times the entire family would be killed. The only way to survive was to pretend to be a farmer, but no matter who you were your chances were slim. Children were torn from their parents, trained as soldiers, and took part in torture and execution. By the end of the reign, approximately 2 million Cambodians died - about half by execution and the rest by starvation and disease. Did I mention this was in the 70s? While I was happily playing with my dolls, a quarter of the population of an entire country was being wiped out by monsters. The world at first mostly denied it was happening, then when it could no longer be denied, largely ignored it.
As we ambled along the road, we got a good look at the most common type of housing in Cambodia - open air wood structures with thatched roofs. People sleep on wood slats or in hammocks. There is no electricity, no plumbing, and just well water (rarely filtered). Rice farming is the primary business - rice is grown, it is processed (Sothy owns the only machine in the village and allows others to use it), made into rice wine (see pic), rice noodles, rice milk - you name it. The people literally work all day at whatever they can. Livestock are everywhere and live under the wood structures (i.e. the bottom floor of the home). They still use oxcarts to farm the land. It is almost the same way they have been living for hundreds of years, if not a thousand.
|Rice wine in process|
|A bridge to Sothy's old house|
A few stats about the country:
- 80% have no electricity
- The child mortality rate is 10%
- 75% get dysentery EVERY year
- 40% of children have stunted growth due to malnutrition
While walking through the reception, an older lady approached us, smiled, and gave Sophia a little kiss on the cheek. This was the second time this had happened since we arrived. It became apparent that few people in Cambodia had ever seen a blond girl! I was happy that Sophia took it in stride, because the lady had the biggest smile on her face.
I still don't really know what to say.
If you'd like to comment, please do. We love to hear from our readers.
If you are looking for a new book to read, please consider "First They Killed My Father" by Loung Ung. The link is to Amazon.com. It helps to understand the rule of the Khmer Rouge, and it is a book you will read in 1-2 days.