There's Nowhere to Go But Up

Trip Start Mar 21, 2005
Trip End Ongoing

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Flag of Cambodia  ,
Sunday, January 22, 2006

Elephant billboards, street gasoline vendors, street barbershops, street hammocks, street food, fruit drinks, three rivers, thousands of motos, Frogger, power outages, the Royal Palace and silver floors, shop-houses, burning boats, and over one million Khmer people create a solid framework for a revival in Phnom Penh, the capitol of Cambodia.

The rule of Pol Pot began on April 17, 1975, when Khmer Rouge combatants, mostly children, entered the city and forced everyone to leave. Calendars were reset to Year Zero and four years under the rule of Democratic Kampuchea. Most art, culture, and religion were almost completely eliminated during this time, as they weren't compatible with Pol Pot's philosophies.

Luckily, like most cultures, the Khmer were resilient and I met some amazing people working to rebuild their country's culture and economy, whether restaurant workers, moto drivers, or art directors. Like the New England Patriots in the early 90s, the Khmer people have seen the bottom--there's no where to go but up.

I arrived in Phnom Penh by boat from Seim Reap. The boat forded the length of the Tonle Sap Lake and River, which ends at Phnom Penh when it flows into the Mekong along with the Bassac River.

The river tells us that things in Cambodia work differently--the Tonle Sap River might be the only river in the world that flows backwards then forwards at least once every year.

In late spring, snow melting in the Himalayas flows into the Mekong. Combined with the wet season monsoon rains and the Mekong becomes so powerful that its waters flow into the overwhelmed Tonle Sap River, flooding the Tonle Sap Lake, which rises by thirty feet, flooding forests like in O' Brother Where Art Thou and tripling its size to form the largest freshwater lake in Southeast Asia. During the autumn, the river reverses its flow and the lake is drained.

Once in Phnom Penh, I began to soak in the energy of the place, which was intense and vibrant with a gritty side. To get around, I walked everywhere. Crossing streets was like playing the a game of Frogger, but nevertheless exhilerating as dozens of motos, small trucks, cyclos, and cars dart around you (there are no crossing lights and very few traffic lights). Weaving between parked motos, business stalls, welders, and other pedestrians, the biggest obstacle was avoiding street sludge and trash with my flip-flop clad feet.

I also traveled by moto. Along almost every main street were men with their Honda Wave or Kawasaki motorcycles. The Honda Dream wasn't as common despite being the ultimate riding machine in Southeast Asia, but you got the feeling that many were saving their cash with hope. The moto drivers were persistent but friendly: "Where you going?"

"I can take you there."

"Where you from?"

"I'm going this thank you...United States."

Along city parks, such as the Vietnam-Cambodia Friendship Park, people had established small homes for themselves, whether a hammock or a shack. No one seemed to bother them--they were just trying to survive, with a smile.

Along city streets, businesses were bustling, whether a shave and a haircut shop consisting of a chair and a mirror hanging on a shady tree, a gas station composed of a barrel of gas with a tube, or a modern cafe selling fruit sorbet to tourists.

For several nights, I ate at the Orussey Market, where all the locals ate their food. Grills and woks worked overtime as people sat under fluorescent lights along the streets, eating their sixty cent, belly-filling meals. In Phnom Penh, it's easy to live on $5 a day eating fresh fruit, BBQ meats, corn on the cob, soups, and fried noodles with vegetables.

After a day of visiting The Killing Fields and S-21, the next day, I visited the National Museum, where bats and owls were residents. At the museum were statues and relicts from Angkor, revealing more of the grandeur of the ancient temples.

After visiting the museum, I took a moto ride across town to Sovanna Phum, an artists residence and theatre, with over 150 artists. Led by Mann Kosal, the Sovanna Phum was leading the charge in the artistic revival of Cambodia. Surrounded by laughing and playful Cambodian children, I watched an experimental arts show which combined dancing, acrobatics, shadow puppetry, and original music using Cambodian instruments. The scenes were lit using a backlit screen or colored spotlights or candles. Each changed the mood as did the drummers with their rhythms.

I talked with Mann Kosal afterwards. He was a jovial middle-aged man who survived the Pol Pot regime and showed me backstage: "We make all the puppets ourselves, create our own works, and compose our own music."

"This we will fill with puppets," he said pointing to a large, black carrying case.

"And will bring them with us when we visit the United States for ten weeks beginning in October. We begin in Vermont and then end in Washington, D.C."

Look for them (especially you Russ!)--Sovanna Phum.

At Sovanna Phum, I met Veera from Finland, who was traveling Southeast Asia writing about ecotourism. She had the curiosity of a cat and the drive of a bull, leading her for three months around Indochina. We decided to drink some fruit shakes together and walk around the streets.

The next day, we met again for lunch after I visited the Royal Palace and walked on the silver floor of the Silver Pagoda, filled with diamond-encrusted gold and emerald Buddhas and other national treasures. We watched a documentary film about Pol Pot at a local coffee shop and walked around the streets some more. After some fruit sorbet, we needed to head our own ways and said goodbye next to an elephant working as a walking billboard.

I ended my stay in Phnom Penh eating one last meal at the Orussey Market and left on an early morning bus to meet Kevin in Saigon. My experiences in Cambodia left me wanting more. The place was tantilizing and, despite its violent recent past, its future seemed brighter, after all, like the New England Patriots in 1990, there's nowhere to go but up.
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