Thursday, January 28, 2016

On to Cambodia

On to Cambodia

We'll start with one more gorgeous sunset picture.

The night before we arrived in Phnom Penh, we watched "The Killing Fields."  Though I was familiar with the story and THOUGHT I had seen the movie, it seemed less familiar than I expected. Certainly a very provocative film to see before arriving.  The terrible genocide of 1975 to 1979 was in some ways an aftermath of the Vietnam War, but certainly not something planned by the U.S., nor for which the U.S. was responsible.

Vietnam's role in the series of events is perhaps even more complex:  Cambodia was a complete wreck in part because of its essential loss of sovereignty during the U.S.-Vietnam conflict, for which both sides bore some blame, though I think that the North Vietnamese (Vietcong) were probably more responsible.  That doesn't, in any case, really matter much at this point.  Following the conclusion of the U.S. Vietnam conflict, things got completely out of hand in Cambodia.  Both the Vietnamese and the Chinese sought to affect things.

Ultimately, the Cambodian people were saved from their own murderous Khmer Rouge regime by the Vietnamese.  One might think that the Cambodians would in some way appreciate that fact, but such is not the case.  The Cambodians really resent the Vietnamese (and, seemingly most of their neighbors).  When I asked our Vietnamese friends about this, they said honestly that the Vietnamese government had sought to gain control of Cambodia for their own purpose, and this defeated any possible gratitude on behalf of the Cambodians.  Still, I had to wonder what it feels like to be Vietnamese and be so resented by the very neighbors whose country and people you essentially saved -- while your own soldiers were at risk.

I had hoped to move straight up to Siem Reap -- the site of Angkor Wat -- without spending any time in Phnom Penh.  But we ended up spending a half-day there before taking a van to Siem Reap.

As it turned out, I was glad to have had the opportunity -- to see some of the buildings, places and people who had been at the heart of such a tragedy not so many years ago.
Travel by pedaled tuk-tuk is not my idea of a liberating or just way to go ANYWHERE.
But it was the standard for the tour and is involved in some of the opportunity and
rehabilitation efforts in Cambodia.

The Colonel, who, you have probably noticed, has been making something of an advertising comeback in the USA,
is HUGELY popular in Asia.  There had to be at least 15 KFCs in Vietnam.  And here's one in Phnom Penh.
And we have one here in Jaipur, too.
Interestingly, some of those US fast food chains are better around the world than at home:
We found some pretty surprising things on the Pizza Hut menu in Hanoi (Asian style stuff),
and I noticed last week that KFC has a vegetarian product here in India.
(In fact, there are a HUGE number of vegetarian options available here, which has made things
a little easier from a kashrut perspective.)
We visited the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh, a place that was naturally in disrepair from the Khmer Rouge years, but has been restored beautifully in recent years.

During Khmer Rouge times, truly horrific things happened throughout the country.  Families were completely shattered.  Children were encouraged -- forced, really -- to denounce their parents.  It was really like a (social) science fiction tale -- except that it really happened.

The city of Phnom Penh was almost completely emptied during the "cleansing."  Its 1970 population of 457,000 was reduced to 370,000 because of the war -- but in 1978 to 32,000.  That's more than 9/10 of the population removed -- forcibly, violently in terrifying and inhumane ways.  One of our guides said that her family was among the "first 20 families" to begin to repopulate the city after the defeat of the Khmer Rouge.  Today the city is over 2 million people.

Each of the guides that we met --- whether in Phnom Penh or in Angkor Wat/Siem Reap -- was profoundly and adversely affected by the terror of the 1970s.

In retrospect, some of the sights of the palace were modern harbingers of the ancient past (if you can follow THAT locution). . . . Consider the appearance of the picture above or below with the ancient stones of Angkor Wat that you know from so many people's pictures (including our own) that we would see one day later.

The "road" from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap. . . . To say that the road from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap was under construction would be unreasonably generous.  It would be more accurate to say that in 5 or 10 years there might be a serviceable road between the two -- but in the meantime, it was a jarring dirty bumpy pretty miserable trip taking 6 to 8 hours.

The "promising" part of the journey -- where you can at least SEE that they are BUILDING the road!
After arriving in Siem Reap, we checked into our lovely hotel, went out to check out the local city and cuisine, and prepared for an EARLY morning trip to Angkor Wat.  Like thousands of others (each day), we got up around 4 in the morning to be in place to see the sun rise at this ancient temple complex. . .

It wasn't just humans who gathered in big numbers to enjoy the sunrise --
as I discovered when it got a little lighter and I looked around the
lake where we had gathered!

There's a lot to see.  Here we were at the top of one part of the Temple complex,
looking out the window (duh) -- a perch that we got to enjoy ahead of many
others thanks to our guide's understanding of how everything worked
in the most popular part of the Angkor Wat complex.

There are many places around Siem Reap and the Angkor complex with faces like these --
one side is gods, the other, demons.  The new faces are pieces that have been returned
from museums around the world.  This is one of those delicate balance issues:
It's nice for the rest of the world to be able to see Angkor's treasures -- except that
it has generally meant that those haven't been visible in the very place they originated.

The workmanship and style of the various places is pretty mind-boggling.
It also reflects different periods of time (by several centuries), with different prevailing artistic and cultural ideas --
and a pendulum between Buddhist and Hindu and variations within.

One traditional spot/perspective enables you to snap a shot
so that you are "nose to nose" with Buddha --
without getting so close that you're being disrespectful.
(The guide made us do this.)

This isn't the first time that people have put these stones back together.
Do you see what happened above?
They took some of the fallen stones from a "Hindu period" and re-purposed them
to make an enormous lying down Buddha.
This may be more obvious in the shot below -- taken from farther away:

Not too many green spaces to be seen.
I enjoyed this view.

Another real challenge in terms of "how do you preserve?"
Trees and rocks competing.  There are a few places where they have tried to maintain the delicate balance
between the two.  Otherwise, you can imagine how the work of the trees would simple tumble all the temple complexes.

I said that this spot constituted an O-H-I-O with just one person necessary.
Susan wasn't as enthusiastic about this interpretation.
There's a picture of me doing this, too -- but SHE'S the one who's a Buckeye grad.
(Law School)
So I'm using her shot.
What do you think?
Is this an O-H-I-O shot. . . . or not?

On Day 2, we started at another complex called the "Women's Temple" Banteay Srei -- some centuries later
and much more delicate and colorful in nature.
Very cool until. . . 

until my brother-in-law Steve was SO captivated by a shot that he fell over a rock
and sustained a NASTY and pretttttty big cut on his left shin.
Here he is finishing the paperwork at the First Aid Station.
Maybe we shoulda gotten some stitches that day. . .
but he didn't go to the doctor until we all got back to Vietnam.

Now THAT's an O-H-I-O. . . . although the H and I are long-time Minnesotans.

In the last posting ("Up the Mekong"), I referred to Susan taking a turn in some of the candy cookery
at the place we visited early in that trip,  She was the first volunteer from our group to do one of these things --
and she really did a nice job.

Our Angkor Wat (Day 1) guide had a special musical instrument he played.
This was totally charming when we had a 40 minute wait before one of the special buildings opened.
A little less charming when we came out of a later structure and he played a tune and said
"one more?". . . . and after that "one more?"

The whole day with him was one of those experiences (and I'm sure MANY of you have had them)
where you guide thinks he is speaking English to you, but you're not so sure,
because you can only understand a little bit of what he's saying!

We ended up buying the gorgeous color guide to Angkor Wat --
It was a beautiful little book -- which the little boys circulating the area would be happy to sell you for $15-$25,
but if you wait them out, you can eventually get for $7 or $8.
I see it on Amazon for $2.99 and up. . . but it was certainly worth the $7.
We just wish we got it at the BEGINNING of the first day instead of the END!

Our hotel was quite lovely and relaxing.
And after a LONGGGG day of Temple exploring, we cooled it by the pool for a couple of hours.
It's no accident that our Vietnam tour book included a special chapter on Angkor Wat -- which is in Cambodia.  It would be a shame to have missed it.

As noted, having the opportunity to "start" in Phnom Penh and motor our way from there to Siem Reap (the city near which Angkor Wat is located) added a lot to the experience -- a lot to think about.

It's wonderful that a place that was so terrible not so long ago (Cambodia during the Khmer Rouge catastrophe) is a place that is growing, safe, and may have a promising future.

At the same time, though, it was hard not to feel that it is a very confusing place -- a place where the past continues to cast a shadow over the present in a way not so in Vietnam.  Cambodia ranks very low in many quality of life "calculations." (You can look it up to see what I mean.)  So I would recommend doing what we did: make a long trip to Vietnam and a short trip to Cambodia.

I will say also that getting in and out of the airport in Siem Reap was pretty easy.  It's a nice little airport and they handle their international traffic pretty well.

That does it for this segment.  There's still a lot of Vietnam left to write about -- even as I sit here typing after a full week in India.

Thanks for reading (this far if you did).  And I welcome your comments and thoughts.


  1. Reading the opening line of this blog, the first thing that came to my mind was: And you went anyway?
    As it happens, in recent weeks I have been doing my second stint of intensive reading on the subject of Cambodia, Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge regime, and I was fascinated by some of your insights from visiting that country. You mentioned that Cambodians don’t seem all that grateful to the Vietnamese for ending the nightmare Pol Pot wrought, but I wonder if by then they were capable of feeling much of anything, coupled with the centuries-old enmity that existed between the two peoples.
    In his introduction to “The Pol Pot Regime,” Associate Professor of History and Director of the Cambodian Genocide Program at Yale University Ben Kiernan writes:
    “In the first few days after Cambodia became Democratic Kampuchea, all cities were evacuated, hospitals cleared, schools closed, factories emptied, money abolished, monasteries shut, libraries scattered. For nearly four years freedom of the press, of movement, of worship, of organization, and of association, and of discussion all completely disappeared. So did everyday family life. A whole nation was kidnapped and besieged from within.”
    The biggest revelation for me in this round of reading was contained in “Cambodia’s Curse: The Modern History of a Troubled Land” by Joel Brinkley, son of David. He discusses studies that show how widespread post-traumatic stress disorder is among those who survived the Khmer Rouge years, something like one third to half of all Cambodians suffering from it.
    “Won’t the nation grow out of it?” Brinkley writes. “After all, nearly two-thirds of the population is now under thirty; they were borne after the Khmer Rouge fell from power. But in fact, Cambodia is the only nation in the world where it has been demonstrated that symptoms of PTSD and related traumatic illness are being passed from on generation to the next.”
    I can think of nothing that shows how devastating that must have been than to read about this awful form of psychological osmosis.
    I’ve been enjoying the blogs, and appreciate you taking the time to take those of us back in Columbus along with you on your adventure.
    I’ll leave you with this. In his delightful series of mysteries about the oh-so-cynical national coroner of Laos back in the early 1970s, Colin Cotterill says there is an expression of Laotians: “Cheer up. Things could always be worse. You could be Cambodian.”

  2. Dear Kevin --

    (And I'll make sure to check in with you face to face. . . )

    As you may know, we've now returned. I didn't know that you had posted this comment until today -- over a month later.

    What a deep and perceptive and well-informed sharing on your part. . . 1/3 to 1/2 of Cambodians suffering PTSD? My wife conjectured 100%. Who WOULDN'T be suffering? (Although I guess we know from the history of the Holocaust and its survivors that somehow, many humans DO have the capacity to overcome this impossible cruelty.)

    As I may have said, I really wasn't eager to see Phnom Penh -- but that's where our cruise left us. . . so we had to catch a van across country (what a mess THAT was). But ultimately (as I think I wrote), I was grateful to see Phnom Penh and spend a few hours there.

    The upside of the tale -- even the worst places on earth can have a future. The downside -- how many generations until it can be a normal place?

    Looking forward to seeing you soon.