Saturday, November 21, 2009

Trying to experience Cambodia in 5 days

With grunts and motions an old woman beckoned us as we stood on the muddy rural street. The shack that stood in front of us was incredibly small and built entirely out of small strips of bamboo. We paused on the threshold, convinced that if we took one step further her humble home would come crashing down. She on the other hand seemed entirely unconcerned with this matter. Her petite Cambodian frame glided over the "planks" with ease. As our heftier foreigner frames walked each plank would groan with protest causing us to quickly find a place where we could perch on her floor. Looking around we could see that the shack couldn't be more than 8x15 feet. In one corner the walls were charred black surrounding cast iron cooking items. On the opposite side she lifted a curtain to reveal a dirty mattress, her bed.

She displayed her home with pride wanting us to see all she owned. We sat for awhile. She tried to talk a little and we tried to talk alittle but, since we spoke no Khmer and she spoke no english a cloud of awkwardness sat upon our heads. Eventually we were able to get a young boy Matt had along with him from his children's home come in and do some minor translating. Through this we learned that her name was Rua and that she had lived in the shack for 16 years.

Perspective is what I gained in Cambodia. I expected nothing and because of that I came away with everything.

As mentioned in a previous post our trip to Cambodia didn't quite start out as expected. Because of a stolen ipod and a lost wallet we had a bumpy start and had to spend a night in Phenom Penh. This (or at least the second part) was a blessing in disguise. As we sat on the bumpy uncomfortable 6 hour bus ride from Phenom Penh to Siem Reap we realized doing that stretch along with the 5 hour ride from Ho Chi Minh City would have been murder.
We left Phenom Penh on the first bus, 6:30 am. We made attempts to sleep but the uncomfortable vinyl seats weren't the most sleep conducive. We finally rolled into Siem REap around noon with one thing on our minds. FOOD. We were so hungry. We dropped our things at our guesthouse and walked a few blocks to Common Grounds, a cafe run by an organization called People for Care and Learning which our friend Matt works for. We relaxed, ate awesome food and just enjoyed the familiar coffeehouse environment as we waited for Matt to come meet us. That night is when we met Rua and were invited into her house as we waited for Matt to check out her neighbors house to possibly buy for a family. Afterwards we were able to visit the AAD or Angkor Association for the Disabled.
The man that founded the AAD had quite a story. He used to be a general in the Cambodian army fighting against the Khmer Rouge (who were still around until the late 1990's, I bet you didn't know that) then, in 1992 he stepped on a landmine and lost both legs. For a while he worked as many other land mine victims do, as a beggar but soon he heard God telling him to do something more with his life and that is where the AAD came from. Today there are many people living at the compound. Some play instruments and others are slowly learning to carve wood into items they can hopefully sell.
The compound also played refuge to a gaggle of the cutest and most friendly children. When we walked out of the house I saw this little boy sitting naked on the motorcycle and I though it was the most adorable thing ever.

The oldest kids name was Kenya. She was so loving and sassy, and she loved using my camera to take pictures. She would set up all the kids in little poses then come give me a big hug around my waist. She was so sweet.

The next day we had planned on visiting Angkor but then were asked by Matt if we would want to go out to a nearby village.... and maybe teach an english lesson. Um, heck yes! These are the things that not only the average tourist doesn't get to do, it's the type of thing the average tourist doesn't even think about. We met at Common Grounds for breakfast and then piled into the PCL van to head out to the village, called Takam.
We drove for maybe 30 minutes, through rice fields and through trenches made by the recent monsoons flooding. When we finally reached the church, where we would be doing the english lesson there were a few kids already sitting but soon kids came flooding in. They had seen the van and knew it was lesson time.
Now, our mission: teach body parts in english. Our class: ages 2-adult. Wow that's a big range, although it was mostly 6-10 year olds I would say. Now the thing about teaching lessons on the fly with no materials is you have to get a bit creative and those poor kids had to do a lot of singing. First up was the good old standby, head shoulders knees and toes then there was the Hokey Pokey modified to singular and plural instead of left and right finished off with a good dose of If our happy and you know it. Overall I think the lesson was a great success.

Afterwards we played some games with a few of the kids and then headed off again.

Later that day Matt took us to his childrens home where we got to draw an color with the kids. They were all so sweet and so much fun to be around.


Our final day in Cambodia I finally got to complete my goal of visiting Angkor. I wasn't totally convinced it could be done in a day and originally I was disappointed we didn't have more time but at the end of that day I was so worn and exhausted there's is no way I could have spent more time at Angkor. If I want to see anything else I'll just have to go back.
We rented a tuk tuk for the day from our guesthouse to take us around. Our driver was a cute kid, maybe 18 years old. He knew all of the good places to take us and was always waiting and watching for us when we were through.
When we entered the park immediately in front of us was a large lake and on an island in the center some ruins. Something inside me started to fizz, I was getting so excited. As we turned a corner there it was, the majestic Angkor Wat looming in the center of that same island, but that was to be saved for the end of the day. We drove on down the tree lined road until in the distance I could see the South Gate of Angkor Thom. I nearly jumped out of my seat I was so excited.

The photographer in me couldn't wait to shoot the towering giant face on the gate from every angle. After this fun little photo shoot we got back into the tuk tuk and continued on to the famous Bayon. Crumbling but being slowly restored the Bayon was one of the sites I was most excited to see. Here those same giant faces are on every side of every tu.

Unfortunately there were a million tourists as well until we reached the back set of stairs. On the back side there was no one and homeless bricks were piled up against the stone fence. When you got close you could even see that some were carved with parts of figures. I makes me wonder what actually stood there one day long ago.

Afterwards we walked though some temple areas that were cool but not as significant or Amazing to look at. It was here that we got our first large following and children trying to sell us everything from postcards to bracelets to temple rubbings and after we bought a couple bracelets from a girl all hell broke loose and there was no stopping it. It was as if all of the children had a built in radar to detect suckers and they all came running our way. We walked and walked and continued to say no but apparently we weren't forceful enough. It was at this point that I stepped on one of those homeless rocks I was talking about, slipped and cut my leg. Fantastic. At least it was only a cut and it looked worse than it really was. All the kids asked "Are you Ok Lady?" (oh and BTW I NEVER want to be called lady again after Cambodia because if you are a woman that's what everyone that's trying to sell you seomthing calls you). I thought that was a sweet moment. Eventually we must have walked out of their territory so we were able to shake them off. WE walked out onto the Elephant terrace and quickly found our Tuk Tuk driver. by this time the sun had broken trhough the clouds and we were starting to sweat buckets. We visited another small temple in Angkor thom then we headed out through the Victory Gate.

Our driver stopped at a tall temple that didin't have intricate carvings but it did have a massive steep staircase. In "I'm up for adventure and I'l do anything," which I speak fluently that means I'm in. I was the only one in our group of four that decided to tackle the beast. I slowly climbing the stairway designed by the devil himself I'm sure. Each step was maybe a foot-2 tall and about 3 inches wide, so almost enough space for your foot to rest. But I made it to the top (and back down again) and I have pictures to prove it.

From there we continued on to Ta Prohm. The temple used in "Tomb Raider" and it is also the temple that has been mostly left in it's ruined state with tall trees growing out of the stone rooftops and many collapsed piles of rubble. It was beautiful. All of it.

After lunch our driver took us to see an older temple built out of red colored stones which looked surprisingly like a Mayan temple. We didn't spend much time there we were to excited to get to Angkor Wat. We had one more stop along the way. A temple that resembled Ta Prohm in many respects. It was very ruined, alot of which was caused by Khmer rouge bombing.

We approached Angkor Wat from the back. It was an entrance I didn't know existed and it was significantly more beautiful. It was almost as if we were walking through the jungle to visit forgotten ruins, not tourist infested Angkor Wat.
As soon as we reached the ruins the sky, which had been becoming more and more black ripped open and it began to pour. We experienced most of Angkor Wat, which was more immense than any of the other temples, from it's covered hallways. It was a bit unfortunate but no less exciting. We waited the rain storm out the went to the front of the temple so that we could get some picture. Of course, with my luck there was large green scaffolding on one of the towers. Fortunately it doesn't show up very much in most pictures.

In the Angkor area there is one place that everyone goes to to watch sunset. Long ago the first people to come to the Angkor area built their first temple on the top of a "mountain." Now you can climb to the top of the mountain and to the top of the temple. From there you can see the sunset over Angkor and Tonle Sap (Lake). We went up there at sunset time but we left before the actual sunset so that we weren't walking down in the dark. With my telephoto lens I was able to get some cool photos of Angkor Wat while we were up there, maybe next time I'll stay for sunset :)

When we got back to our guesthouse that day we were so exhausted. It took all of our energy to go out to dinner then, since it was our last night in Cambodia we sucked it up and headed to the night market. We got CHEAP foot massages and we shopped so much we ran out of money. WE all ended with maybe $3 and none of us wanted to go to the ATM because of the $4 fee it charges every time. I had just enough for breakfast at Common Grounds the next morning and for the Taxi to the border.

I loved Cambodia and definitely want to go back. I hope I get the chance to sometime soon.

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