Contrast in Cambodia by Diane

Note:  With this blog entry, we’re switching to displaying our photos on Picasa.  You can view all of the Cambodia shots, plus pictures of our recent trips to Puerto Galera in the Philippines and Sibu Island in Malaysia by clicking here when you’re done reading.

Like all tourists bound for Angkor Wat, we were captivated by the ancient temples.  Our photos, reminiscent of all the photos you have ever seen of this destination, capture only a small bit of the evocative, sometimes eerie, always enticing 12th century ruins.  Two things really surprised us.  First, you can literally climb all over these crumbling temples.  There are no barriers, no silk ropes; instead there are arrows pointing “this way” with tourists from all over the world crawling through the warrens of doorways, windows and half-walls in pursuit of that one unique photo.  I’m not sure how long this “freedom” will last, and it exists in stark contrast to the serenity of the place.  Still we found ourselves quieted by our own awe as we examined the intricacy of the carvings, the weathered color on the walls, and — most astounding of all considering the march of years — the symmetrically aligned doorways that invite your eyes to see from one end of the temple to the other, a distance you find unfathomable, while light falls and fades a dozen times along the path.

The second surprise was that most of the temples (and there are thousands, btw) are in the middle of the woods! The famous photos we’ve all seen never include the surrounding pine forests and tall wispy trees.  It’s gorgeous and flat and many of the temples are connected by scenic bike paths and stone bridges and are flanked by multi-story, multi-faced ornate archways.  Wow. The forests provided much of the “cover” that preserved the temples and hid them during the years of war that ravaged Cambodia – a place with the unfortunate distinction of being the most bombed country on earth.

Cambodia can appear to be a sad, sad place.  Wars have stolen whole generations of families and the Khmer Rouge regime was responsible for unspeakable savagery.  We visited The Land Mine Museum outside Siem Reap, created through the efforts of one ex-soldier who planted land mines during wartime and has now dedicated his life to finding and defusing thousands of them, and helping survivors enjoy lives without limbs. Contrary to what you’d expect, it was an uplifting experience.

Everywhere you look it is either muddy or dusty and so very poor. What little water runs through the village is used for everything imaginable – and this is water that you and I would prefer not to wash our feet in.  Out of nowhere, there are suddenly bursts of color in the middle of monochromatic dirty, silty street life and you see baskets of chili, vibrant silks, decked-out tuk-tuks and ear-to-ear smiles on barely-clothed children. Cambodians could simply be broken people, but instead they are very busy people, busy rebuilding lives that have seen the worst that man can do to man.

It’s the first place in Asia that I noticed what I could describe as an absence of pride – very little attention paid to flourish or the indulgence of beauty – and in its place an abundance of humility.  It’s as though everything here is fragile and tentative and all can be lost again with the change of the winds.  It was also the first time in a long time that I didn’t feel sorry for the street dogs – I simply couldn’t muster enough empathy for animals when surrounded by so much collective human suffering.

A thought struck me on a ride through the countryside – the idea of geographical or psychological relativity – if you don’t know your life is hard, then it isn’t.  What looked grueling to us was far better than the alternative that Cambodians have known.  And that’s what gives the country its unique vibe – people are brimming with gratitude for the little they have.  I felt, time and again, we were witness to the beauty and endurance of the human spirit.

And thankfully, the world is helping out.  We saw many US and European-sponsored homes that were part of a clean water project.  We visited a small orphanage and brought rice, noodles, cookies and school supplies and the surprised and grateful faces of the children will live long in our memories. There are lots of projects and ways to help and peace has finally come to this simple country.

Some final thoughts…

We were amused that along the roadside, almost all of the containers used to sell gasoline were Johnnie Walker bottles! (Black, Red, Blue labels – maybe that’s why these Cambodians are so smiley!) Outside the city, in front of many houses you see enormous steaming cauldrons of boiling sugar cane that’s being reduced to a type of brown sugar candy that’s a national favorite.  Michael donated a pint of blood at the hospital and he was treated like a celebrity – they just couldn’t thank him enough.  The joy of Obama is still ringing loudly in Cambodia, a country of underdogs sees themselves in him.  We saw many ornate staircases – wide, wooden, carved and fancily painted staircases – really expensive looking steps that connected bare ground to a simple wood house on stilts; I could only imagine that it was symbolic of connecting heaven and earth.  And on a ride back from too much “templing” we saw two men on scooters, each with a full-size live pig tied upside-down on the back, clearly en route to its “final destination.”  I was struck quiet by the sight and I realized that it is hard to witness the last minutes of any life, even a life that would be feed so many.   And that’s what Cambodia was for us – a country of constant contrasts.

Click here for photos.

Explore posts in the same categories: Angkor Wat, Cambodia

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