Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Freedom Way Way Off the Bay:Cambodia

After bidding good-bye to Dave and Jenny, and a few elephant kisses, we headed to Cambodia. Our travel plans hit an immediate glitch at the uncontrolled chaos known as the Phuket Airport. From the relative quiet of the ladies room I realized we were being paged by the airline. We all did our very best OJ dash to the gate and barely made it onto the shuttle bus destined for our plane.

Awaiting us in Siem Reap was our calm, knowledgeable guideand quick witted guide Pen Kong along with our driver bearing the ubiquitous refreshing wipes and cold bottled water. After a few stops to learn about native Cambodian crafts, and efforts to maintain those skills, we retreated to our hotel for a dinner and a rest:

While Siem Reap does not have the same intensity of traffic as Bangkok (or Ha Noi, as we would later discover) it did have it's own very un-Western patterns. Here is how you turn left in Cambodia:

When first turning left, turn sharply into the lane of oncoming traffic -- possibly straddling the sidewalk. Continue in the oncoming lane, constantly looking over your right shoulder for a break in the traffic behind you, alternately watching the traffic in front of you, all the while veering your car in a diagonal manner across said oncoming traffic. Eventually, sometimes within a few car lengths, sometimes within half a block, you maneuver your car across the traffic and into your lane.

As you might imagine, this is HORRIFYING this first time you witness it from the back seat, and even more so when you are in the back of a tuk tuk (a covered seat being pulled by a motorbike). But, as time goes by it begins to make perfect sense, and I wondered what would happen if I tried it at home!

Another very Cambodian sight: whole families on one motorbike. The law says one helmeted rider per bike. The reality: Typically 1-3 riders, perhaps, Mom, Dad with child in between with and groceries or school supplies in hand. Once we saw 5 on a bike!

Our time was short in Cambodia and the next day we were up and out early to explore the temples of Angkow Wat, Angkor Thom and the Banyan Temple. These 1,000 year old structures of hand carved stone have withstood the test of time, heat, humidity, neglect and the encroaching jungle. We climbed their worn original steps designed to replicate climbing the Himalayas. Where the steps were too narrow, wooden staircases were available for these modern visitors to explore the many rooms and shrines of the temples. Kong's familiarity with the temple grounds allowed us to circumnavigate the crowds (which were significant) and quietly enjoy the the artistry and peace of these ancient places.

Between the temples we drove through the countryside for a glimpse of life outside the city. Modest homes sat on stilts sheltering outside cooking and laundry areas. Hammocks were slung in the shade for daytime naps, and plastic chairs provided a spot to sit and visit.

Markets selling supplies for daily life as well as tourist souvenirs dotted the roadways. Many markets featured large iron cauldrons where sugar cane was boiled into syrup.

Our second day of touring took us through the countryside once again for a boat ride on Lake Ton Se Lai. Rice paddies, water buffalo, brahma cows, and children walking and bike riding (often two to a bike) to school in crisp blue and white uniforms caught our eye as we traveled down the sometimes bumpy roads. Once aboard our long tail we followed the Maresey River to the lake. Fishermen with nets stood knee deep in the milky waters.

Lake Ton Le Sai is home to a floating village of 217 families. We watched as women gathered on front porches to make fish paste from the morning catch and men paddled across the river selling wares or going to visit neighbors. We cheered as children, heading home for lunch after their morning lessons, engaged us in a race. It was an unforgettable glimpse into an industrious community living a very different sort of life.

As we drove to the airport later that day Kong shared his life story with us: When he was very young, in the mid-70's, his father was killed by the Khmer Rouge and he, his mother and sisters were sent away from their home. His mother was sent to a work camp, and his sisters were also forced to work during the day. When they were away, he was hidden in the jungle -- left to fend for himself -- needing to find food, shelter and protection not only from wild animals but also from the Khmer Rouge. From what we could tell, he was 4-6 years old at the time. A chilling first hand account of genocide.

Next stop: Vietnam

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