Sean Penn Is Not The Capital Of Cambodia
by Heather Swain
If you're going to Cambodia, here are a few things you should know:
* you can't drink the water
* you can't bring hand grenades or semi-automatic weapons into the discos
* you have to be careful about the hidden land mines
* the famed ancient city of Angkor Wat is there
* you can buy a big bag of ganja at an open market for about a buck
In Cambodia, things have a way of balancing themselves out. That's why this tiny Buddhist nation has been to hell (losing almost 1 million of its 8 million people during the brutal Khmer Rouge regime) and is now on its way back attracting tourists from all over the world.
When my friend Ben claimed that Cambodia was an amazing place, I wondered if he had ever been out of Detroit before. This is what I knew about Cambodia:
* it's somewhere in Asia
* Sean Penn is not the capital
* there was a crazy dude named Pol Pot who slaughtered everyone
* there was a very depressing movie about the whole ordeal
The thought of willingly going to such a place for a vacation seemed ludicrous--kind of like strolling through Central Park for a little night air. But then Ben showed me pictures of Angkor Wat, and I was smitten. Mona and I booked tickets.
As our plane glided over the capital city's minuscule airport, I could hear the CNN headlines: "Good afternoon. Today two young tourists were kidnapped by the Khmer Rouge Army at the Phnom Penh International Airport in Cambodia." I scanned the area for lone snipers, armies of crazed leftist guerrillas, or Pol Pot himself. I decided that I could either drive myself insane glancing over my shoulder the whole trip, or I could just have a good time. I choose the latter. It was only after I had seen a ten foot uzi, been shot at, dodged livestock in a smuggled Peugeot, and made it safely to the Vietnamese border that I took a deep breath and wondered what the hell I had just done.
Imagine a developing nation city destroyed by years of war and you have a pretty good picture of Phnom Penh. Mona and I stood on the landing of our guest house surveying the city. The bombed out windows of abandoned buildings stared like vacant eyes. The streets were utter chaos with throngs of people riding anything that could carry them--bicycles, motorbikes, ox carts, donkeys. Barefoot children ran through the streets picking through trash piles to find anything useful like an old shoe, discarded tires, or forgotten string.
As we stood there trying to remember why we'd come to such a place and wondering where to start we heard, "Hey you! Pretty ladies. You from America? I'm from New York." We glanced down to the street and saw a group of young Cambodian men lingering by the entrance to our guest house. "Yeah, I'm from New York. Where you go today? I take you. I driving very good."
This was our first encounter with the resourceful, tenacious and ultimately friendly entrepreneurs in Cambodia. Everyone with a motorbike is a taxi service, everyone with a wok is a restaurant, everyone who can speak a little English or French is a tour guide. To be sure, there is still appalling poverty and injustice in this country, but it's as if the mass destruction has wiped the slate clean and people are beginning to rebuild from nothing but sheer determination to make their lives better.
We hired two guys from the group to be our drivers. Elephant and Narin, both in their mid-twenties, had persevered to finish high school (no small task in such a desperately poor country where every family member must earn his or her own way) and now dreamed of opening a touring company together. Their English was good, learned from talking with tourists and reading a dictionary, and they knew how to get everything we wanted. "You want Vietnam visa--I get you that. You want ticket to Angkor Wat--I get you that. You want smoke--I get you that." These two were well connected.
Our first stop was the Choeung Ek Camp, better known to us as the Killing Fields. As we bumped along a narrow dirt road, I was struck by how non-descript the area was. I expected something stark and dreadful as a reminder of the 20,000 political prisoners, including elderly people and children, exterminated there by the Khmer Rouge between 1975 and 1979. Instead it was covered by wild flowers, lazy cows and playing children.
The only reminders that something had happened were the hand painted placards listing how many people were found in each mass grave and the Temple to the Dead which houses thousands of skulls of those killed.
The atrocities committed by the Khmer Rouge were very real to our drivers, though. Narin and Elephant took turns describing the sordid history of Pol Pot's regime and what their own lives had been like as children growing up during one of the world's most horrific reigns of terror. I tried to follow Narin's eyes as he glanced around fields. Surely he saw trucks crammed with people being shipped to Mao-style work camps and armies marching into the city looting homes and shops. All I could see were trees and grass and flowers.
"It was terrible then," he said. "There is no food. Sometimes I find a dragon fly. It's big like this," he held up his hand to show me the distance between his forefinger and thumb. "And I eat it because there is nothing else." I could feel the tears pulsing behind my eyelids. I wondered how Narin and Elephant could re-examine their past every day and then lock all the pain away so neatly again. I knew if I started to cry I would not stop; maybe it was the same for them.
The next morning Elephant and Narin took us to our boat for Angkor Wat. "This boat very good...very safe...very fast." they assured us. I glanced up and watched as one man poured gas from a detergent bottle into the tank while a cigarette dangled from his mouth. I tucked my better judgment away and climbed aboard.
To get to Angkor Wat you have to cruise down the Tonle Sap River and then across the Tonle Sap Lake. The first two hours on the river were calm. We gazed at the villages scattered along the river banks wondering what lives must be like in the tiny houses built three feet above the water on stilts. At each stop to refuel, row boats crowded around the makeshift gas station. Little girls, balancing huge baskets of food and drinks precariously on their heads, climbed through windows and walked up and down the isle calling, "One dollar--pineapple. Two dollar--chicken. One dollar--Coca-Cola."
As we approached the place where the river widens into the lake our engine sputtered and died. We floated aimlessly for a few minutes while the driver jerked the cord to start the engine again. I sat gazing at the sun sparkling off the water and realized that I had felt surprisingly safe since we landed in Phnom Penh. People had been incredibly friendly and gracious. Although Cambodia is still officially at war, I felt that most people had moved on and were trying to rebuild their lives without violence. Three loud bands interrupted my reverie. All the Cambodians dove to the bottom of the boat. Mona and I craned our necks to see what the noise was, distinguishing ourselves as the only idiots who'd never experienced a war. "What was that?" I asked one of the men who spoke a little English.
"Someone is shooting at us!" he said with his head down between his knees.
"Why are they shooting at us?" I asked, quite indignant that anyone would shoot at me. By this time the engine was roaring again, and we were speeding through the water. The next round of shots sounded farther off.
"It was fishermen," the Cambodian man told me peeking up from between his legs and looking less worried. "They are angry because our boat stopped in their water and scared fish or tore nets."
"Oh, so they were shooting warning shots, right?" I asked, dismissing the whole thing as an overreaction.
"No," he said, sitting upright again and dabbing his face with a brown handkerchief. "They were shooting at us." The rest of the ride was bit more solemn for Mona and me.
There are few things in this world that can rival the timeless beauty and magnificent architecture of Angkor. Yet, most people have never heard of it. The Khmer Empire (no relation to the Khmer Rouge Army) ruled most of southeast Asia from Burma to Indochina, from China to Malaysia between the 9th and 13th centuries. During this 400 year rule, they built cities that were more complex and populous than ancient Rome and controlled the water supply with an ingenious system of human-made lakes and irrigation canals. Today, the ruins of Angkor are the only reminder of this once powerful kingdom.
Each day we started around sunrise on the back of hired motorbikes and explored the ruins until sunset. Since the government currently exercises little control over tourism at Angkor, we were free to explore the temples at will. This meant climbing ancient staircases, walking through century-old rooms, and taking pictures wherever we liked.
It's not just the huge number of temples, palaces, and promenades that makes this antiquated city fascinating, but that it was built according to Hindu cosmology to preserve harmony between the humans and the gods. Also, covering every building are relief carvings depicting Khmer history and daily life through murals of battles, circuses, births, weddings, and religious ceremonies.
Although having free reign of the place was a wonderful experience, it made me fear for the future of the temples. Surprisingly, little of Angkor Wat was destroyed by the war in Cambodia. Time is taking its toll, however, as elegant statues crumble and banyon trees wrap themselves around gigantic stone pillars like morning glories on a fence. Surely though, as more and more tourists traipse through these relics, the wear and tear will begin to show.
Each night after we were sunburned and exhausted from exploring the temples, we hung out on the huge porch of our guest house, listening to stories from world travelers and watching lizards feast on mosquitoes. Three young Israeli guys had been at our guest house for over a week. One night, as they casually passed a joint around, I asked, "So have you seen a lot of Angkor Wat?"
They said, "Angkor what?" I realized then that it may be the ruins of an ancient civilization which brings people to Cambodia, but it's definitely the people and the experience that makes them stay. And the area around Angkor is an easy place to linger. Beer is cheap, the food is good, and the people are great.
When it was time to leave, I did not want to go. I felt like I had met a weary old man who had dug through his pockets and unwrapped a dirty handkerchief to show me a magnificent jewel. I was afraid I would never see it again. But then I realized this was terribly arrogant of me. The Cambodians are some of the most proud and persevering people I have ever met. I am certain that Angkor Wat will be their crowning jewel as they rebuild their tiny nation--drawing attention away from their unfortunate past, but always looking toward their bright future.
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