Beyond the temples at Angkor

We’re in Hanoi now at a hotel that has in-room wifi, we’ve already been in Vietnam for over three weeks, and I am determined to finish catching up on Cambodia while we’re in this city! 🙂

Siem Reap – not just Angkor

Roman was bedridden for a few days with a bad cold when we first arrived, the temples of Angkor were so captivating that we ended up tacking on an extra day because of them, and the great Angkor Pearl was a super and comfortable base for working on travel logistics. All this conspired to make for a relatively long stay in Siem Reap.

One benefit of this is that we managed to get beyond Angkor and Pub Street to do and see a bit more while we were there. I already wrote about my yummy cooking class while we were still there. We also visited a couple of non-temple-related tourist sites.

The Cambodia Landmine Museum was a simple but thought-provoking display. Roman had already learned a lot about the awful effects Laos has and continues to face due to the huge number of bombs and mines left over from a war that occurred over thirty years ago – indeed it is the most heavily bombed country in the world.

Cambodia may not be in first place like Laos, but it has more than its fair share of unexploded bombs littering the countryside and the resulting casualties. Visiting the museum is humbling because of the man who has founded it – Aki Ra.

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Recruited as a child soldier by the same forces that allegedly killed his parents, the Khmer Rouge, he grew up with constant war and violence being the only reality he ever knew. That he survived is a miracle in itself. That he went on to dedicate his life to ridding Cambodia of the very mines he himself helped to plant when a soldier is to me simply amazing and inspirational.

Reading the information and the statistics in the museum is frustrating at best. Around 18,000 people killed by mines in Cambodia between 1979 and 2002; around 40,000 injured. The number of countries who have yet to sign the Land Mine Treaty; of course the US is on the list. Urgh…. So, sobering and also aggravating as it makes you want to shake people for being so bloody stupid and senseless, but definitely worth seeing and informing yourself about.

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Just some of the bombs/mines that Aki Ra has cleared across Cambodia

We did something much more lighthearted after that, which was visit Angkor Butterfly Centre (also known as Banteay Srey Butterfly Centre). It’s small and simple but a beautiful sanctuary – a gorgeous, quiet garden under massive netting and filled with floating, fluttering butterflies. We had a sweet, enthusiastic guide who showed us around, pointing out the different species and giving us a close up view of the amazing pupae and wriggly caterpillars and answering all our questions. I’ll post pictures in a separate entry for any bug enthusiasts. 🙂

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Heavy heart, full heart

So far on this trip I think Cambodia is the country that’s made me cry the most since we’ve been on this trip. Maybe this sounds weird but I’m actually grateful for this. Sometimes I’ve had a tough time getting out of my head and opening my heart to a place. I think I must have cried in other countries too, probably because of what ever internal conflict I’d have had going on with myself at the time.

Cambodia brought me to tears just because of Cambodia. Obvious times like while at Tuol Sleng or thinking about Naid, or understandable times like when the disabled musicians at Bakong played so beautifully. Less obvious times like when tears just started streaming down my face while at the ruin Preah Neak Pean. My reaction to Beat Richner’s presentation was very strong and also unexpected.

I’d read about the controversial but significant work Dr. Beat Richner does for Cambodia in Cambodia’s Curse. Roman had heard of him because he is a well-known figure in his homeland, Switzerland. So we were both eager to attend the concert of this doctor who has opened and successfully runs four children’s hospitals in Cambodia (almost entirely through private donations which he works very hard to motivate!) and saved SO many lives.

Dr. Richner is also a cellist, and performs in Siem Reap every weekend to a crowd of tourists at his hospital. The place is amazing – massive, modern, with simple and stylish architecture, arriving at the concert we felt like we’d been transported back to Switzerland.

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The doctor’s performance consists of information, anecdotes and statistics he shares in a sharp, witty, direct way, interspersed with short pieces he plays and followed by a film documenting the history of his project. It’s incredible to see film footage of him as a young man, with crazy curly hair, when he was working as a doctor in Phnom Penh as the Khmer Rouge were beginning their assault on the country.

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Tough for me though was all the footage of present day mothers and their sick and injured children. The filming is not overtly focused on the graphic, but it is an honest depiction of the cases that come through the hospital each and every day. It made me feel physically ill to see it; the suffering of the children was more than I could wrap my head around, but I could empathize with the helplessness and fear of the mothers, thinking of my beloved sister and nephew and her total devotion to him and having my heart break again with each new sick-bed scene portrayed in the hospital.

Already then I was so glad to be learning about the hospitals and their projects, and of course we were happy to donate, but I was just overwhelmed when we left and couldn’t help sobbing as we walked through the night back to our hotel. Tough, but I was also grateful to be emotionally connecting to Cambodia in this way.

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We passed by the hospital every day that we drove into Angkor. Each and every morning, there were massive lines of families waiting to be admitted. One photo from my walk – patients and their mothers entering and leaving the hospital.

Confused heart, full heart

I had one other experience in Siem Reap that left my heart in a bit of a quandary. One morning I went for a walk on my own. I got out of the central tourist area and really enjoyed walking through a normal neighborhood. I had my camera with me and was taking photos along the way. On the same, quiet, tree-shaded road as me was a trash-picker. Our paths crossed a couple of times as I’d catch up with her or she with me.

She was pushing a bike which carried not only big bags for transporting any of the trash she could find to repurpose, but also her two young children. We smiled at each other and eventually I asked with sign language if I could photograph them. She was so gracious and her young daughter and son so sweet. I came over to show them the photo, to shake the little ones’ hands.

Just up the street was a small shop. I picked up some water for myself, plus a bottle for them and a large bunch of bananas. We could’t communicate verbally and I was just going on instinct; she seemed happy to receive the fruit and we kept waving and smiling at each other each time we met as we both made our way down the rest of the street.

But as soon as I’d walked away from the store, my mind started worrying. Was that the right thing to do? Could I have done more? Who am I to think she needs bananas? What if she and her kids don’t even like bananas?? Probably she could have used something else more. Why didn’t I buy her a bunch more stuff? Is there something else I could have done besides buy her fruit? Or did the whole thing make her uncomfortable? And so on and on and on.

I still wonder occasionally about what I did, what I could have done that might have been better or more correct or more helpful. Roman and I try to be really aware about the questions and issues surrounding the poverty and disadvantage in the countries we are visiting. It’s really hard to find the line between lending a helping hand and dominating and directing a place’s culture, values or pride, between doing what we can to not condone unhealthy or unsustainable situations like child labor or begging while still finding a way to be human and to act on compassion in the moment.

I still haven’t figured out any answers or guidelines as to what is right or wrong. I do know that as confused as I felt after my interaction with the young mother and her children, what I felt more than anything was gratitude for the real, if brief, connection, for their kind and open smiles, for the chance to wonder what their lives might be like. I am sure she doesn’t wonder about me like  I still do about her, but if she does ever remember our meeting, I hope for her, on the balance, the interaction was a positive one.

After all that, here is the photo. It should be clickable so you can take a closer look.

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