Angkor Wat, Cambodia

Trip Start Nov 15, 2004
Trip End Mar 01, 2006

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Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Took a quick vacation trip over to Cambodia, to see the temples at Angkor Wat, last week with our friend Benji. Marjorie took a vacation from me and stayed home in Chiang Mai, and from all reports, had a delightful time.

Briefly, Angkor Wat was the center of Khmer culture for nearly six centuries, dating back to 800 or so CE. It controlled territory from present day Vietnam, north into Yunan Province in China and west to India. Like most cultures, and powers, that extend themselves too far militarily and fiscally, it eventually succumbed and faded away. In this case, its remains were swallowed back by the jungle, to be forgotten for hundreds of years. It wasn't until the late 1800's that people started taking notice and began reclaiming its monuments from nature. Then during the Pol Pot years of the killing fields and the lunatic fringe Maoists of the mid-1970's, it once again began sliding back into the jungle, only to be rescued again after the Vietnamese takeover of the country in 1979. To get a better picture of the Pol Pot years, check out the movie, The Killing Fields for yourself, if you haven't already seen it.

The ruins that have been excavated at Angkor Wat make up an area larger than Manhattan Island. It's way bigger than anything at Luxor, Egypt or Ephesus in Turkey. It is truly stupendous. But there is more to places than ancient stones and long since disappeared cultures. There are the people who live and work there today. And so it was here.

There were survivors from the killing fields working side by side with young people who barely know what happened to their country less than thirty years ago. One guy we met was 45 years old and had been driven into the countryside by the Khmer Rouge (when they denuded the cities and sent everyone to the fields to work, basically as slaves), with his family, when he was sixteen. He survived on almost no food, bad water, and no medical care. His parents died before his eyes. He eventually escaped to a refugee camp in Thailand, where he learned some English and Thai. He worked in a restaurant in Bangkok...learned the trade...and now owns his own successful restaurant in Seam Reap (the tourist town near Angkor Wat). He is also gay, which would have landed him in a mattress-less bed (on the metal springs, that is) attached by wire to a car battery or nearby electric socket, under the Khmer Rouge. He said there was no food, no one lived in the cities or towns, and people lived in constant fear of torture and/or execution. Surrounded now by bars and internet cafes, it was hard to reconcile the not too distant past, with the present, in modern day Cambodia.

Then there were the young kids who were constantly hawking postcards, trinkets, guidebooks etc. and could have become quite annoying if they weren't so darned bright and cute. Keep in mind that this country is so poor that it wouldn't (by the admission of its current Premier) exist without foreign aid and whose kids can only go to school half-days because the few schools they do have, need to be shared with the many children.

While their native language is generally Khmer, the sales pitch is usually in English. It goes something like this.
"Post card, mister. Very nice picture. Stone carving from movie, Tomb Raider."
"No thank you."

"How about guide book? You want Lonely Planet guidebook, or one just on Angkor Wat?"
"I already have guidebook, thank you."

After days of this I decided to try something a different language that I was sure they didn't know. (Please excuse my written'll get the idea)

A ten year old girl approaches.
"Mister, you want to buy post card?"
"Je nes parles pas Englais. Parlez vous France?" ("I don't speak English. Do you speak French?")
"Mai oui....blah, blah, blah..." (Yes, would you like to buy post card? How about guidebook? Where are you from?...all in French.)

My favorite was a US geography lesson.
"Mister, what country are you from?"
"America", I reply.
"Oh, very good. America has fifty states. Largest state is Alaska. Smallest state is Rhode Island. Capitol is Washington, DC. What state are you from?"
"Colorado", I reply.
"Oh, yes. State Capitol is Denver."

These kids are brighter than most Americans at this age. They try sooooo hard. And there they are, sitting there in their dusty and ragged old clothes, barefoot, telling you more about your own country than most kids back home could. You wonder what their lives will be like...and what they might be like if they could ever get out of this place. Maybe we should trade them in for a few fifth generation Americans who have gotten fat and lazy and bitter. These are the kinds of people that made America great. Now I know why Angelina Jolie took out Cambodian citizenship after filming Tomb Raider there. I always laughed at Jay Leno's jokes about it. Now I know that she knew something that most of the rest of us didn't. It's always worth going in search of those ancient stones. You never know what you might find.
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