Cambodia: Overview

In 2001, I spent a short period of time in Cambodia with Intrepid Travel as part of my travels in Asia.  Here are reflections from that time.

[singlepic=863,200,,,right]Six days in Cambodia – not enough time to experience all the beauty of her people, countryside villages or temples, but enough to exhaust you of the horrors and atrocities of her past and present.

Some highlights:

Sitting for lunch just as we crossed the border in a village where very few Westerners stop.  Out of nowhere, 50 plus kids emerged, and kept emerging, watching us in awe, laughing, giggling and pointing.  Some would shy away when cameras were taken out, others would act up and jump on one another.  They were amazed by music players and entertained by counting to ten.

[singlepic=864,150,,,left]The ornate beauty of the Silver Pagoda and Royal Palace in Phnom Penh.  In the heart of the capital, behind its walls one finds vast grounds offering peaceful quiet, beautiful trees & flowers, numerous memorial stupas, and priceless statues & jewels that somehow survived the Khmer Rouge reign.

[singlepic=868,150,,,right]The splendor of Angkor Wat – lying in ruins amidst the jungle yet still offering amazement & wonderment of a time long past.  Intricately detailed carvings telling stories of war, religion & culture.  Dozens of larger than life smiling Buddha faces looking out in contentment.  And massive tree roots entwining & engulfing what few remains are behind.  Sunrise or sunset, middle of the day – it offers beauty at anytime.

Sitting in a hammock by the lake enjoying a beer and picnic lunch under the many grass huts as locals look on in amazement as we hop in inner tubes and float in the water.  After all, it’s winter, and 85 degrees is cold for them.

Sampling assorted local dishes and fruits – amok fish, clams, curries, tamarinds, sticky rice, papaya, and even fried cricket.

The endless sprawling rice fields, with palm & eucalyptus trees lining the edges, bicyclers traveling on roads from sightless destinations, and village homes on stilts with rafts to access the front door.

Some annoyances:

“Disco Dancing” buses on roads so damaged over time and wet seasons that repair will just disappear after the next wet period.

Endless number of people approaching you every ten steps; Moto drivers (Madame, where do you go?) – Children asking for money or trying to sell you something, quite persistently (Madame, you buy from me?  Two for $1) – and amputee victims on crutches or in wheelchairs (Madame, give me money).

Then of course there are the atrocities:

[singlepic=865,150,,,left]The Killing Fields, where 20,000 of the approximately 2.3 million victims of the Khmer Rouge regime lay in mass graves.  Over 8,000 skulls make up a memorial stupa (temple) where you can see evidence of them being bludgeoned to death.  In order to save precious bullets, their necks were slashed with palm fronds, they were left to suffocate amongst the other bodies, or they starved.  After rains, you can see bone fragments and teeth of those still buried.

[singlepic=867,200,,,right]And the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum – once a school, it was turned into the largest torture and murder prison in the country.  Only seven of the 10,000 people brought here survived the months of tortures, beatings, and starvations.  On the walls are photos of the thousands of victims, taken by the Khmer Rouge to document all that they had done.  The faces on these men, women and children are filled with fear & hopelessness as they knew what future awaited them.

The corruption in this country is still very apparent and changes in its political and economic systems will still take a great deal of time to change.

[singlepic=873,200,,,left]But I can’t end on that thought.  My last day ended the way it began – amongst the sweet innocence of the village children.  We visited one of the few completely free schools in Cambodia, largely supported by Intrepid Travel.  The students performed costumed local Khmer dances for us, and they were so sweet trying not to giggle or smile at one another as they performed. Those not dancing peered over windowsills, sat underneath desks or looked in from doorways to get a glimpse of an even better show – staring at us in wonderment.  We ended the day by taking a sunset boat ride, past floating villages that relocated according to the season, the sun looking like a red fire ball as it set down on the water.  A beautiful final image of a country with a horrible past, but hopefully a brighter future.

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