Archive for the 'cambodia' Category

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Saturday, July 8th, 2006

just a quick note to let you know the photos of our angkor thom are here (biked 26 km around the surrounding ruins – a lovely, if sweaty, way to see them).

and the photos of sihanoukville and the botched bokor trip are here.

number 52 on the list of “101 things to do before i die”

Thursday, July 6th, 2006

i’ll admit it – i was nervous.

because after years of dreaming about seeing angkor wat, i was afraid that it was bound to somehow disappoint. i was worried it would be too touristy, too hyped. i desperately wanted it to be so special – but like a chocolate kept too long, sometimes these things go stale. not everything can live up to one’s dreams.

j had to talk me into going – it was already afternoon on our first day in siem reap, and clouds were threatening overhead.

but in the end it was probably the best thing tha could have happened. unbelievably enough, we had the place nearly to ourselves. it *did* rain – but that only made it more atmospheric. we spent hours wandering and exploring the place on our own – making it our own. wondering at the mystery, awestruck by the beauty, letting it fill up our senses.

as j says, it really does knock your little socks off.

it was the experience of a lifetime. there is no other word – it was magical.

view the photos here (admittedy, i went a little snap-happy with the camera! sorry!)


Wednesday, July 5th, 2006

i am greedy for cambodia – the sights, the landscape, the people. i want to gobble it up with my eyes. like being in the first throes of love, i can’t get enough. because there is something which beats at the heart of this country which resonates within my own. the pride, the bittersweet history, the purple mountains and emerald fields and red earth – they all combine to become something almost painfully beautiful, by turns exquisitely sad and stunning, haunting and spiritual in this land of kings and gods. a warmth emanating from both the people and places which makes me want to soak it up like a sponge, drink it in. where so many have so little, it is the warmth that carries through – and i just can’t get enough.

if only we had more time.

sodden sihanoukville, botched bokor

Monday, July 3rd, 2006

(or “jen and jonno’s national park misadventures: part 2″)

heading out of phnom penh, we decided to go south for a bit to the little coastal town of sihanoukville. there’s not much there except some beautiful beach, a relaxed backpacker vibe, and a few interesting day trips. unfortunately, the weather had other ideas – it rained solidly for the two days we mucked around there, which wouldn’t have been so bad except that in a town the size of sihanoukville, storms paly real havoc with the delicate power system. and after two days of no juice, you realise that there’s only so many games you can play and books you can read. we’d been interested in doing a day trip to bokor national park – an old abandoned colonial french retreat cum ghost town set in a big old swathe of highland jungle. but after asking around, we discovered that during the low season, there are no organised tours running from sihanoukville. our guesthouse proprietor suggested that we could do it as a day trip from kampot, the nearest town. since there wasn’t much point to sticking around sihanoukville, we decided to head for kampot early the next morning.

we arranged for a shared taxi for the two hour journey, but what arrived to pick us up can only be described as a clown car – 6 adults and a child already crammed into a toyota camry. after much ridiculous rearranging, there were 4 adults up front, 4 in back, and one kiddie across the laps. i began to wonder how we would all make it to kampot with our spleens intact, but what became truly alarming was when the driver began to operate the car from the middle of the front seat! yes, he was, in fact, driving the car as a passenger.

and so we headed off into the steady downpour – and soon enough the pavement disappeared and (like much of the road in cambodia) became little more than a well worn dirt path with two ruts, liberally pockmarked with potholes. after two days of rain, much of the slick red clay had washed away or was underwater – however this didn’t seem to trouble the driver in the least, and it certainly had no appreciable effect on our ridiculous speed. the axles creaked and groaned. heads hit the ceiling. windscreen visibility was nil. i involuntarily shrieked aloud several times. at one point a piece of the bumper came off – and yet we hurtled onward, hellbent for leather. it was terrifying.

through the miracle of some higher power, we arrived in kampot in one piece. so, after finding a guesthouse, we asked around about options for getting to bokor. group tours had already left for the day. hiring a private driver was a dead end. the guidebook indicated that the conditions of the park path would require either a 4wd vehicle, or a dirtbike with an experienced driver. since jonno has spent more than his fair share or time messing around with dirtbikes in south africa, we decided to rent one and chance it.

after making our way out of kampot (back through the ditches and lakes passing for “roadway”) we headed west on the main route, keeping our eyes peeled for the “clearly marked turnoff” promised by the guidebook. we kept going… and going… and going. we passed through spectacular countryside. children waved at us, and we waved back. we stopped for a drink at a tiny little roadside shack and all the neighbours and kiddies came out to gawk at the westerners and practice their “hellos”. we had a wonderful ride, but it was obvious we’d missed the turn for bokor and the bike was becoming increasingly uncomfortable, so we turned around and head back the way we’d come. as we neared kampot, we had to stop and wait for some steamrollers doing “construction”. as we sat there, i look left and – lo! there it was. (the sign had been removed for the roadworks.) it was getting into the afternoon, but we couldn’t not go now! we got a little hand-drwan map from the gate and headed up the mountain.

as promised, the path was indeed rough going – the park states upfront that it is not maintained, and that you undertake it at your own risk. still, under j’s experienced guidance, we made good progress. as we went further and furtherinto the hillside jungle, there was the eerie feeling of being the only humans around for miles. we kept heading up-up-up, certain that we couldn’t be too much further from the hill station buildings. after an hour, we were starting to hurt and tire, but the occasional jeep full of people passed us heading down, and so we pressed on, positive that it must be close by. it began to drizzle on and off, but still we persevered. after a further hour, the trees started to thin out so we were sure it had to be near! finally, 15 minutes later we reached the first building – an outlook station with a view that (i’m sure) is stunning, but was completely obscured by clouds. realising the day was growing late, (and knowing that we had a further two hours ahead going back down) we were trying to decide how much further to press on.

and then it began to rain.

and by rain, i mean our own private monsoon. bone-drenching sheets of water and howling winds. within minutes we were soaked and shivering. the dirt path, difficult coming up, had turned into a torrid stream of mud and wet rocks. light was fading fast. the bike became misery.

it’s times like this i am reminded that my husband is a truly amazing man. after nearly 4 hours on the bike, with more than two of those powering us up the mountain over punishing terrain, he then spent two more hours (in a freezing downpour, with the full weight of me on the back sliding into him) guiding us all the way back down without a word of complaint. his hands blistered, his fingers and shoulders seized up, his teeth chattered – and still he handled the bike like a pro.

about a quarter of the way back down, we got caught in some extended branches and the bike stalled. and wouldn’t start.

i was suddenly acutely aware that we were the last people on the mountain, soaked, cold, night falling… and a good 20 km from the park entrance. in an unmaintained park with genuine tigers and leopards. i began to think about the possibilities of hypothermia and wild animals and long hours of pushing a bike in the dark and rain. it was unsettling to say the least.

mercifully, after pushing it a bit further and another dozen kickstarts, the engine finally (praise the lord!) turned over. relief flooded through me and i instantly forgot about how cold and wet i was, how much my ass hurt from hours of dirt roads, how much my hands and shoulders ached from holding on to the back. i’ve never been so grateful for anything in my life. and when we finally made it to the front gate, i no longer cared that we’d spent almost 7 hours on our mission without even actually seeing the hill station. i just wanted to get home.

a shower and meal and beer have never been so good.

so, to recap the day:

hours spent trying to get to the abandoned bokor hill station: 9
kilometres off-road on dirtbike: 60
scary rides from hell: 2
thoughts of imminent peril: innumerable
prayers for safe deliverance: innumerable
praises for the world’s best husband: innumerable
mission: accomplished

oh yeah, baby. we’re hardcore now.

cambodia’s children

Saturday, July 1st, 2006

the streetchildren of cambodia will break your heart. a naked toddler plays with a dirty garbage bag in the middle of the street. children barely old enough to walk work the tourist spots for money with their plaintive “dollar?” and sad smiles. young girls who should be in school act as surrogate mothers for the littlest little ones, herding them out of traffic, taking charge where there is no one else to keep them safe.

tiny dirty faces, unclothed bodies, outstretched hands.

how can i say no? how can i not? my dollar does not have the power to make a measurable difference in their lives. and there are so many of them. so goddamn many. it hurts.

these are the children you see in the charity commercials. the ones with distended bellies and deadened eyes. the ones who will one day sell their souls and their bodies to sick opportunists. the ones who have no education, no food and no hope. these gorgeous little brown faces and brown eyes are the horrifying face of poverty.

they are cambodia’s future.


Friday, June 30th, 2006

exploring phnom penh in the early evening, we stumble across a small wat and wander into the courtyard to take a few photos as the sun sinks behind the stupa. a little old man beckons to us from the shadows of the main temple and towards a small gate at the back. we follow him through the gate and he leads us to a small locked shrine, which he opens. we shed our sandals at the entrance, and duck our heads under the low threshold. suddenly we find ourselves in a tiny stone vault with a simple altar headed by a golden buddha, adorned with flowers. as we kneel respectfully in the cool dark quietude, the old man tells us that the blocks of the vault are stones brought from angkor wat – he lights candles and provides us with two sticks of burning incense, which we offer at the foot of the statue, the sweet smell quickly filling the air, mingling with the perfume of the flowers, casting a glow on the buddha. the old man begins to chant in khmer, as the smoke swirls towards the ceiling and the candles flicker, the gold reflecting the light. and then he is sprinkling us with water as he chants the words by heart, blessing us with humble sincerity, offering prayers for peace or love or charity, reciting the desires of earnest and pure faith which one need not understand in order to feel deeply, be moved by, be grateful for.

and with a small bow of thanks, we exit into the descending dusk, the evening which has grown surprisingly darker, but infinitely richer.


Thursday, June 29th, 2006

there are no words for horror like this – only quiet, searing images.

there’s more here


Thursday, June 29th, 2006

there’s a solemnity to cambodia that you can feel the moment you get off the plane, a sense of gravity that won’t shake. there are subtle reminders of life interrupted – paused, thrown into complete disarray, and slowly getting underway again as people try to find their footing in a shattered peace. a world turned upside-down and trying to right itself.

i grew up in what would be considered a good school system, graduated class of 1990. i was 6 years old when pol pot was deposed and the massacres ended, 18 when the peace accords were signed. and yet i cannot bring to mind a single instance or mention in any textbook, or by any teacher, of the murder of more than 2 million cambodians in my lifetime, by one of the most sadistic regimes ever known. the world recently watched on in stunned silence at the unbelievable events in rwanda, and swore to never let it happen again – yet no one discusses what happened in cambodia only a few years prior.

perhaps that’s because to do so would require acknowledging the blood on our own hands. the u.s. and u.k. armed, fed and sheltered the khmer rouge (hell, we even offered them a seat at the united nations). we are complicit in the slaughter they carried out. while americans were gripped by disco fever, cambodians were being put to death for wearing eyeglasses.

there have been no war crimes tribunals. no “truth and reconciliation” boards. pol pot was never hunted, captured, brought to justice at the hague for crimes against humanity. he died of natural causes in 1998 at a ripe old age in the jungles of cambodia.

nobody talks about that.

and so i feel compelled to bear witness. to try to examine in my own way, the cruel cancerous biology of genocide that invades, multiplies quietly, ravages and destroys a people, and is always identified far too late. to pay my respects to those who died unnoticed by the rest of the world.

i feel compelled to see for myself the worst of humanity on display – the stark indisputable evidence of our mosyt craven and cowardly need to deny the existence of evil and suffering in front of our faces. i feel compelled to look it in the eye, because so many do not.

for how else are we to recognise it? millions died because we failed them. we can’t keep looking away.

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