Monday, January 11, 2010

cambodia for new years

Note: I know there are too many photos, sorry, I just don't have time to sort through them all. And as always, there are captions for each photo if you click on it.

As I needed a new visa anyways, and Petra was no fun working away on grad school applications, I took myself over to Siem Reap, Cambodia (famous for the Ankor Wat temple and for being where they filmed Tomb Raider) for New Years. I've actually been before, but haven't yet finished sorting through my photos from my previous trip, so you have that to look forward to. :)

This time I just took it easy. I flew, thanks to a super cheap flight, and despite the airport wait it made all the difference to arrive unhassled and awake.

I like the Siem Reap area. A lot. It's quiet, with lots of trees, great food that's not too spicy (incl. creamy ice cream and chocolate and bread and wine and all sorts of other things not available in Thailand), there are English-language bookstores (even though most of the books are photocopies), it's easy to get around (just hire a private driver!), it smells good (because of aforementioned trees), the people are kind and fun (lots less power tripping than here in Thailand), they use $USD for their currency so no conversions ever need enter my mind, and the passtimes are ones I enjoy. And it's very very beautiful.

I was there for four days, and spent about a third my time reading while cozy in my airy hotel room, another good bit of each day eating, and then about half the day on some small adventure. Since I visited most of the temples last time I was here, I got to see what else there was in the area. My favorite things was just driving around in my hired tuk-tuk (rickshaw, like a covered chariot with a seat pulled behind a motorcycle).

I took a hike up a mountain about an hour and a half's drive outside the city. The mountain is famed because the river that flows along its top had its bedrock carved with thousands of linga (stylized penises) and other religious figures more than a thousand years ago. The carvings are still there, and are still in remarkably lovely condition. The whole area, sadly, is still littered with land mines, but it's ok so long as you stick to the well-trodden paths. A bit unnerving, though.

Fittingly, I visited the Land Mine Museum on the way back that day. It's a very small museum, set up to educate visitors about Cambodia's rampant land mine and unexploded ordinance (undetonated bombs) problem. The (luckier) victims are in readily apparent evidence everywhere you go in the country: people are regularly missing limbs, ears, eyes, and have various shockingly disfiguring scars. Having seen some of the jungle and thick brush, I can understand how difficult the de-mining process is. And from the example minefield at the museum, I was surprised to learn how MANY mines are typically in such a field. They're, like, every 18 inches! I was also sad to learn that the US is still producing landmines, and that the majority of the mines in Cambodia are originally from the US. Boy, do we have a lot to answer for. I think the US government should not only stop making these horrible devices, but pay for the de-mining of all areas where our mines still rest.

On a somewhat lighter note, the next day I took a boat ride around part of the Tonle Sap lake which makes up a large part of central Cambodia. A distinct ethnic minority has arisen in Cambodia in the insular people who live their whole lives on the water: getting around in tiny boats, and living on houses canted up on 2-storey stilts. The journey of getting out to the lake was an adventure itself (rickshaw to motorcycle to dirtbike to fisherman's boat to dugout canoe, all driven by teenagers, accentuated by a lot of adrenaline and prayers...) but well worth it, as it is a culture I find fascinating and engaging. I just toodled around the village in various boats, watching the daily lives of the fishing and agriculture (they have floating farms with plants and animals), the kids at play and at school, the new decorations on the temple, took a jaunt through the flooded forest that is their backyard, and enjoyed a delicious meal of stir-fried ramen in, naturally, a floating restaurant. I was amazed, as always in Cambodia, at the complete lack of supervision of the children, and the incredible ability of the kids to do what I think of as difficult adult tasks (such as rowing a canoe and killing a chicken simultaneously -- 2 year olds can do this!).

And I visited the orphanage that was a short walk up the road from my hostel three times during my visit: the first time out of curiosity, the second time to teach them an English lesson (at their request), and the third time just to play with them some more. It was shockingly poorly run: It worried me to no end that I was allowed to just wander in and play with the kids unsupervised, no protection for them at all. And their facilities are sadly lacking. There were kids of all ages, from 5 to 17, more boys than girls. A number were landmine victims, and all had obviously faced trauma to end up at the orphanage. That said, they were a remarkably happy and comfortable group of kids, so at least their emotional needs are being met. Though they were blessedly wary of me at first, they warmed up pretty quickly, and by the end of my visit they were literally hanging all over me, not letting me go, looking up at me with big eyes, saying "I love you! You no go!". Very, very hard to not just take a few of them home. (Sadly, adoptions from Cambodia are not currently allowed because of the prevalence of child trafficking. If they were allowed, a certain fierce 6-year old girl and 1-legged boy would have a nice future ahead of them.)

If we ever have to move back to the Mekong region again, I sure hope it's to Cambodia.


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