Khmer Surprises

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Flag of Cambodia  ,
Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Travelling is always filled with surprises. It doesn't matter how trivial, insignificant, grand or weird these surprises are, each of them leaves an indelible impression on you. I have been in Cambodia for nearly a month now, and it has definitely left a few of them with me. Not unlike Myanmar, it has certainly grown on me as my time here slips away.
Travellers that have been to this part of the word know that motorbikes form an integral part of South East Asia, and Cambodia is no exception. The roads are simply clogged with them, and with the amount of traffic here I'm surprised not to have witnessed more accidents. Especially if one considers how the motorbikes are used by the Khmers (Cambodians). Just a few observations during my time here:
1) Riding with up to five people (including schoolkids, babies and dogs) on one bike.
2) Riding in the opposite direction against a torrent of oncoming traffic.
3) Speaking on a mobile phone while riding.    
4) Texting a message on a mobile phone while riding.
5) Transporting live animals (pigs, chickens etc.) on the back of the bike.
6) Transporting a mountain of hay on the back of the bike.
7) Transporting cupboards and wardrobes (i.e. moving house) on the back of the bike.
Whilst seeing locals do their stuff on motorbikes was amusing enough, it only takes the silver medal when it comes to getting me to laugh. Numero uno would have to go to something I coin "The Pyjama Revolution". It is a phenomenon which seems to have no plausible explanation for. Women of all ages are wearing their sleepwear onto the streets in broad daylight, and remaining in them for the entire day. Bright yellows, oranges, reds and blues dot the landscapes of cities, towns and villages, as the Khmer women proudly parade their vividly coloured designer Mickey Mouse and fluffy puppies pyjamies. In markets, on public buses, whilst getting their hair done.....It seemed to me that there must've been a certain time in the past when a woman fell out of bed and was late for work, so she simply rocked up to the office wearing what she went to bed in (despite uncountable times of nearly being late for work, I have not yet stooped to this level). The revolution which she had started continues to this day, and greatly amuses all foreign travellers to Cambodia.
The bumpy dirt roads experienced during my first week in Cambodia have transformed into smooth sealed highways. It is with good reason, as one of these highways lead the majority of tourists to the country's most famous destination, the Angkor temples. These temples are justifiably well known worldwide, and are a symbol of national pride to Khmers. It is perhaps a tribute of respect to the beauty, ingenuity and magnitude of the temples that past invaders left them untouched during their respective reigns of Cambodia. This source of pride continues to the present day with the national flag, a beer brand and a cigarette brand amongst numerous things which uses the Angkor inspiration in name and design.
For a person who has been fortunate enough to have travelled a bit and seen his fair share, I was mightily impressed with the temples. From the cliché of watching a sunrise at Angkor Wat (the world's largest religious building), to the multi-faced stone carvings of Bayon (personally designed by the God-King Jayavaman VII, inspired by his own good looks), to the crumbling, tree infested complex of Ta Prohm (where some structures are almost completely strangled by the roots of nature), it is safe to say that I haven't been this astonished by a man-made structure since the Great Wall of China. Despite a couple of torturous days of cycling, and the culo feeling like it has gone through a handful of 'Buns of Steel' workout sessions, each temple seemed more fascinating than the previous one. It left me in unbridled wonderment at how proud and majestic the Khmer empire was in its heyday, and a slight shake of the head when observing the relative shambles that is today's Cambodia by comparison.
From being inspired by sheer greatness, to being appalled by sheer lunacy, one of the primary reasons that Cambodia is in its present state is because of the infamous Khmer Rouge. I visited the Tuol Sleng Genocide museum and the Cheung Ek killing fields to learn about the madness that took place just thirty years ago. Without trying to sound like I am quoting from a book, a brief history of events is that the organisation of Khmer Rouge forcibly took over the country. They started a revolution by deciding that Cambodia should be an agrarian society based on agriculture. They captured, imprisoned, tortured and murdered uncountable ministers, intellectuals, professors, teachers and anyone that wore glasses; in other words anyone that was deemed to be smart. They separated people from their families, and instantly executed anyone that dared to answer back. They proclaimed the start of their revolution "Year Zero". For just over three years, they were amongst the worst, barbaric humans in history. It is shocking to think that the places which I visited during my previous last 2 weeks still had Khmer Rouge faithful hiding only ten short years ago. The museum and killing fields were extremely moving, and my eyes are still burning with fire as I type this.
I have realised that I enjoy visiting villages in different countries; therefore I specifically went off the tourist trail to spend a couple of nights in a very normal, local village surrounded by rice paddies, just outside of Battambang. There was plenty of time to practice my Khmer, eat local food and bathe in the front of the hut by using a bowl and pouring water over my head and wearing only a "krama" (Cambodian scarf) wrapped around the waist. I was very fortunate to speak to a man (Mr Hok) in the village who had experienced the wrath and brutality of the Khmer Rouge and emerged from the other side. He is an intelligent and amiable man who was a teacher by profession back in those dark, hostile days. When Mr Hok was captured by the Khmer Rouge, he had to disguise himself and suppress his personality to pass as a pheasant (the "desired" type of people) by wearing farmer clothes, speaking with an uneducated rural accent and behaving in a way that was in contradiction with his educated past. He ran the death gauntlet and avoided certain death by having to prove that he was a farmer and remorque (a cycle rickshaw of sorts) driver by trade, and not part of the undesired educated class. He was good enough to pass as both, even though he had previously never attempted to cycle the difficult remorque. For pure survival, he worked tirelessly without an utterance of complaint during those three years before the Khmer Rouge was driven out by the Vietnamese. He somehow managed to survive the nightmare, and then stayed in a Thai refugee camp before emigrating to the US and earning a living there for twenty years. Three years ago, he moved back to his beloved Cambodia and teaches English and Thai to the local teenagers and young adults for free, to ensure that they have adequate language skills for the future.
Being the special guest of honour foreigner in a rural Cambodian village, I was naturally volunteered to be the subject of the English lesson and conversation practice. Most of the students were quite shy, but they managed to ask a few questions under the dimly moonlight. They even sung the Cambodian national anthem for me with such pride. For my part, I sung a Spanish song and Hebrew song, told them all a joke (with the exception of Mr Hok, I doubted that any of them understood it) and asked about life and the future in Cambodia. They gave positive answers and were always smiling and giggling. They sure are an optimistic bunch, these Khmers. The night ended with a smile on everyone's faces, including mine despite a douse of the royal runs. The surprises never end.

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