Friday, March 18, 2011
Khmer Rouge. Perhaps nothing with the exception of the Armenian Genocide or the Holocaust reached the level of the genocide wrought by the Khmer Rouge, in whose rein of terror millions were killed and anyone seen as intellectual was slaughtered. For these reasons, the resiliency and kind nature of the people is even more impressive to behold. In this country people are truly kind and generous. Even with the extreme poverty present throughout the country, people smile, wave and greet you with a warmth that is sorely lacking in Western Society. There is no falseness to it, it seems to come from a deep well of real emotion.
But tourism is certainly rearing it's ugly head in Cambodia as well due to the popularity of the Angkor Wat Temple Complex near Siem Reap in Central Cambodia, which as of 2010 is reported to have had more than 3 million tourists pass through its gates. The only area which gave the feeling of being around people that only wanted your money was in Siem Reap and around the temples of Angkor. However, Once you left these areas, the true nature of Cambodia revealed itself.
I flew into Phnom Penh, a small airport on the outskirts of the capital and took a taxi to the center. I had a few preconceived notions about this town from stories I had heard, as well as books I had read. As usual, things experienced for yourself can outstrip all advice. I liked this town. It was large, chaotic and rather polluted. However, it was also full of temples, markets, monks and monuments. It was also very clean and organized. I had some great rice dishes and soups as well as a very sweet and rather green tasting fresh cane juice drink (filled with local ice that made me a bit nervous to drink, but I never got sick on my entire trip, despite eating and drinking everything I could find).
The Central Market was certainly chaotic, and I did not see any other tourists, but it was amazing. One of my favorite things to do when in a new country is to find the local market and browse through, eating what I can, and asking questions to anyone that will listen. I certainly got some surprised stares when I was walking through, but that is the amazing part of traveling. People always want to offer samples and talk to you, no matter if they speak the same language or not. I would cetrainly recommend a stop at this market if ever you are in Phnom Penh.
The next morning, leaving at 430 AM to get to Angkor Wat we arrived to find thousands of people already walking into the complex trying to get the iconic shot of the sunrise. In fact, there were so many people that we decided to take the picture once they had cleaned out, and it actually made for a better picture. Angkor was at times beautiful, immense, overwhelming and repetitive. The main temples were overrun by tourists, but you could still find moments of solitude and temples without any
people around at all, especially if you went far outside of the main complex area. In fact, there are hundreds of temples in the general area, some are as impressive or more so than the main Angkor Complex.
An interesting religious aspect to these temples is that most of the images of the Buddha were swathed in saffron fabric like a monk.. It created an interesting flash of color in an otherwise grey atmosphere.
This city was more of what I expected of Cambodia. It was quite poor, yet felt like a real city that functioned for the people that lived there. The food was great, with carts frying all kinds of food and people walking around with platters of food on their heads. The plate of food was purchased from a market and was some type of fresh shrimp dumplings with chives and some BBQ chicken. Yum.
Overall, I felt like I just barely scratched the surface of Cambodia. It is, admittedly a very flawed and poor country. It was also however real. The people were amazing and I saw the hope that they had for their future. I would certainly like to go back and see more of this amazing place.