Reflections of Cambodia
Trip Start Jan 22, 2009
19Trip End Dec 22, 2009
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So, after leaving Kampot we traveled back to Phnom Penh to get our Laos Visas. We got out of there the following day to head to Siem Reap. This is where the Angkor ruins are located, Cambodia's (or quite possibly SE Asia's) biggest tourist attraction. It is a collection of ruins dating all the way back to the 9th Century AD. Angkor was the heart of the Khmer Empire that flourished in Indochina from the 9th to the 13th Century with Angkor Wat being the biggest and most notable. There are over 50 different sites located several kilometers apart all with their own unique features and histories. If you've seen the movie "Tomb Raider" you may be familiar with Angkor. Some travelers choose a 1 day pass and just visit the largest of the ruins. We decided to do a 3 day pass. The first day we rented bicycles for $1/day. They were rickety old things but they did the job. Within 5 minutes of riding mine, however, the back metal fender broke and was scraping the tire as I rode. Clint and I stopped to try to figure out what to do about it and within 1 minute a nice man who spoke no English, stopped, pulled out string and a knife and fixed it without any expectations. We gave him a small tip anyway to show our appreciation and although he was wearing a mask I could tell by his kind eyes that he was all smiles. We biked and hiked around all day in the 100 degree heat. By midday here the weather can be a bit brutal and we are usually dripping with sweat and searching out shade whenever we can (sorry to rub it in MN folk!). We were glad we chose to bike as it allowed us to move at our own pace, to stop wherever we wanted and get some exercise. We visited some of the more popular ruins this day and were amazed at how beautiful and intricate they were. We took lots of photos! The second day we took a Tuk-Tuk, left in the afternoon and stayed to watch the sunset at Phnom Bakkheng. This was a ruin high on a hill with a great view for a sunset. We could have taken an elephant up to the ruins like many others did but it was too pricey for us budget backpackers. The sunset was beautiful and we managed to climb down the incredibly steep stairs of the ruins before it got completely dark. The third day we also hired a Tuk-Tuk and awoke at 5am to see the sunrise over Angkor Wat. It was cloudy that morning so we weren't too impressed with the view but we met two awesome ladies from Japan that made the wait for the sun worthwhile. They were probably in their late 50s and one spoke English so we chatted it up. During our talk they gave us candy from their hometown, a home-made bookmark with pressed flowers in it, and invited us to stay with them if we are ever in Japan. They said we have a "home in Japan". We gave them our information and told them they have a home in Minnesota also. They then told us that in Japan there is a song about egg salad in Minnesota. How random! We'll have to look that one up. When we told them we were sorry we didn't have any gifts to give them in return they said "You give us your great smiles, that's enough". As they left, they yelled for us from across the ruins and waved enthusiastically to us through 3 different windows as they walked. They started our morning out right...with laughter and smiles.
Other than seeing the amazing ruins we also got to experience some other Cambodian sites during our Angkor tour. Our second day we saw monkeys! Our Tuk-Tuk driver stopped so we could take photos. We bought bananas from a local vendor and fed them straight from our hands. If anyone knows me well enough they know that I LOVE monkeys, so, needless to say, I was all smiles during this stop. There were at least 20 monkeys all around us, many with little babies clinging to their mothers. Another site we saw were many Cambodian children, some at play, others at work. One boy who appeared to be about 4 years old, although he looked smaller than my 4 year old nephews, was riding a grown adult 2 wheel bicycle! Of course he was too short to sit on the seat so he stood to pedal. His arms stretched high to reach the handle bars and from the back view you could barely see his head because it was lower than the bike seat. We haven't seen a lot of children's bikes here so little kids ride full size bikes and many times are giving their friends bucks on the back! Skilled riders! We also encountered many children at work in Angkor. This was very sad as we realized that children, as young as 3 or 4 and many grade school age, are working very long hours trying to make money for themselves and their families. They memorize English words and facts about the USA, such as Capitals, presidents, etc. One girl counted to me in about 5 different languages in an attempt to impress me into buying her postcards and bracelets. From what we have been told, parents are not able to afford to send their children to school and thus they are encouraged to work.
In Siem Reap, the town just outside of Ankgor, we were emotionally floored at how many disabled people are working or asking for money in the streets. As we said in our last blog, but we have seen even more of it, there are SO many people with missing limbs. Some with no legs and maybe one arm trying to sell bootlegged books or whatever they can. It was common to see full sized musical bands with signs explaining that they were all amputee victims of land mines and trying to raise money to feed their families. In Vietnam, we saw many people who were severely deformed. Later we found out this was from the effects of the chemical "Agent Orange" used in the war. It has been a very emotional experience for both of us to see the blatant effects of war on people, physically and psychologically. The system has failed these people! I have seen horrible poverty in Latin America but Cambodia may just be the worst I have seen. This is partly due to the number of disabled people who, for some, can't even afford crutches or wheelchairs and scoot on the ground with flip flops on their hands and rubber or plastic tied to their waist. Being face to face with this poverty has made us feel an intense sense of helplessness, we can't possibly buy or give to everyone and we know even if we could, it might help them today, but is not truly going to change their conditions for the better. We are inspired to fight for global systematic and social change that can improve the conditions for ALL as we see this as the necessary action. Clint and I continually ask the question "how can we (the world) allow these things to happen???"...allow such atrocities as the Khmer Rouge genocide, allow such poverty that women with their three children are out at midnight begging for food, allow children to be forced to work at age 4 with no opportunities to play, go to school and with no way out, allow people to live in fear of getting blown up by land mines that were left here by others (USA and its allies), allow such conditions that people (including many children) are forced to search out unexploded bombs to disarm in order to sell for scrap metal to make any little money they can with the full understanding of what the consequences could be. Another common site is pollution, deforestation, and destruction of natural resources. In most areas there is trash everywhere...in the rivers, oceans, countryside, cities, communities. Without education and the money and services to pick up trash, people don't have many choices here. This society of consumerism and waste must end soon. These beautiful places are being destroyed and the wildlife and people are suffering the greatest consequences. There has to be a better system....a system that values human life and quality of life over profit! A system that is sustainable!
Our time in Cambodia has been full of reflection as well as exploration and relaxation. We have really enjoyed the beautiful people here and are going to miss the Khmer food! The curry here is amazing. We are on to Laos tomorrow morning with more adventures and life changing experiences to come.
-written by Kate AND Clint