Last notes on Cambodia

Writing this from Hong Kong, our time in Cambodia already feels very distant. I’d thought I would have written my farewell post to Cambodia by now, but actually maybe it’s better this way.

“Good luck for you”

Our visit to Cambodia was intense for me. I’d done more pre-arrival research for it than for any of the other places we’ve been so far and thus came in with a lot on my mind to begin with. For reasons still not clear to me, I had bigger emotional reactions to things we experienced in Cambodia. The country seemed to contain more extremes than the other places we’d been – extreme poverty and extreme power, the presence of deep, jagged tragedy s well as incredible and pure beauty.

(By way of contrast, I’d describe India as having extremes too, but it has a much fuller spectrum: there is so much filling the space between light and dark there.)

After the likes of Myanmar, Thailand and Laos, Cambodia and Cambodians definitely had a tougher edge.

I witnessed a lot more rough housing between kids and even adults. Play seemed to involved a lot more hitting, pushing and pulling than we’d seen anywhere and I even got hit – with a good amount of force but without any malice – by one boy in Battambang who was exuberant about the photos I took of him and his friends and wanted me to take more. It didn’t bother me at all, but it was something I could never imagine happening in the countries we’d been to before Cambodia.

One’s overall impression of a place is subject in part to completely random encounters and occurences. While we were in Cambodia, we happened upon four different funerals. These take place every day all over the world but it was striking to me that we kept crossing paths with funeral processions and ceremonies. The last place we had witnessed anything like this had been in Varanasi, where it’s simply a part of being in that city.

It didn’t feel like a morbid or depressing thing, but it left me with the feeling that death is very much present in Cambodia. While the reign of the Khmer Rouge is over, that recent history and all that happened off the back of that regime’s time in power remains a tangible presence in the country and its people.

It was rare for us to speak to people who had been adults during that time, but we did have more opportunity to talk to people from our generation. Each had a substantial list of relatives who had been lost during that dark period. When they would share this information with us, it pretty consistently had an air of deep, inherited grief combined with total matter-of-factness and acceptance – an interesting combination.

I felt currents of this sort of energy – deep passion as well as fatigued resignation – in other interactions we had. For example with drivers and guides who would have the chance to make really good money for a week or two – if they were the lucky one that a tourist would pick to hire out of the dozens of men all jostling to offer the same service.

Something small that I noticed everywhere we went in the country was that to close an interaction with us, people wouldn’t say “Thank you” or “Have a nice day” but “Good luck for you!”.

In a country where death, poverty and lack of opportunity are accepted and expected, perhaps the best one can hope for is the rare and good fortune to escape these circumstances – or just the luck to be that one tuk tuk driver that bags the generous tourist who tips so well that he and his family can eat for a month.

Emotional hindsight

If I’d written this a month ago, that might be the note that I’d have ended on. Time and contrast can be useful things though and getting some distance from the intensity of Cambodia plus some perspective thanks to our experiences in Vietnam, the strong reactions and emotions I felt while in Cambodia are softening into a more steady gratitude and affection for the country and its people.

Though I went in with far fewer expectations and pre-conceptions about Vietnam, I had a much harder time to connect with people and places there. I’ll write more about that in a separate post, but that experience has certainly tempered the way I’m thinking about our time in Cambodia.

The beauty of the place and of the people we had the chance to meet runs deep. The interactions we had with people – once the business side was agreed upon – were open and heartfelt. When I was first living in Switzerland, I read somewhere that the Swiss are like coconuts – tough to crack but sweet once you get on the inside. Maybe Cambodians are like rambutan fruit; a bit spiky and rough but also beautiful and colorful and soft on the inside. 🙂

Travel notes

On a slightly different subject, the list of locations visited in Cambodia is relatively short, compared to other places we’ve been. We’re conscious that, as much as we’d often love to, we can’t spend infinite amounts of time in each country we visit. We decided to experiment, choosing fewer stops in Cambodia but hoping that having a bit of time in each would still allow us to get a good feel for the country. In the end the balance of our time got tipped towards Phnom Penh and Siem Reap. Both places were fascinating, thought-provoking and clearly essential to any visit to Cambodia.

But I feel strongly that getting off the typical tourist spots and seeing Kratie, Kampong Chhnang and Battambang was equally vital. If I had to do it all over again, I’d probably try to spend even more time exploring towns and villages – although I’d also allow myself more than four days for Angkor as well. 🙂

Over all though, I think we managed to get a good mix into our month and a bit in Cambodia and I’m grateful for the chance to see all we did – even the less comfortable, more challenging parts.

One more random note – I stumbled upon a great blogger whose different perspectives on Cambodia were really interesting and helpful for me while were traveling there. Check her out if you want another perspective on the country. 🙂

Our Cambodia itinerary

June 20 Kratie Morhautdom Hotel
June 24 Phnom Penh Golden Gate Hotel
July 3 Kampong Chhnang Sovannphum Hotel
July 6 Battambang Royal Hotel
July 9 – 22 Siem Reap Angkor Pearl Hotel

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.

The Angkor photos: Part two

Here’s the second half of the things we saw and experienced at Angkor.

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The amazing birdsong we heard by the entrance to the temple. The size of the thing – moving deeper and deeper into the center of the temple through what felt like endless, successive rooms, cool and dim and full of deep shadows and intricate carvings. The rumble of approaching thunder and the speed with which the massive puddles formed on the stone floors once the storm arrived. The beauty of the sun on the rain on the rocks. The skeleton of a massive tree still interwoven with the stone walls.

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Angkor Wat
The sound of the vendors’ nasal voices drove Roman crazy. 🙂 Luckily it was much more peaceful inside the temple compound. The dramatic walk over the broad stone bridge spanning the moat. The mesmerizing faces of the stone dancers drew us in. Each individual and with such fascinating and warm expressions on their faces. They were my favorite part of Angkor Wat. The sun’s heat reflecting off the stones – this was the only temple we went to that didn’t have the benefit of lots of shady trees. The families there who lit incense and prayed in front of large Buddhas, the father and son who had their heads shaved as part of a ritual – I wonder what it was about. I loved the monastery we wandered through as we left Angkor Wat. Still and peaceful with beautiful trees, funny shrines, and Buddhist flags flapping against a clear blue sky.

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Mystical, magical feeling with all those massive heads serenely smiling into the depths of the surrounding forest. We made a donation, lit sweet-smelling incense to a Buddha and the woman there tied red string around our wrists. The temple is surrounded by some modern outdoor shrines with massive Buddha statues housed on covered platforms among the trees. I loved these as much as Bayon itself, the massive orange candles burning against a backdrop of pristine nature. We came back on the last day so Roman could take photos (his camera had died as we arrived at Angkor Wat) and I sat on the wall and just breathed. Birds, frogs and insects sang, somewhere a monk was pounding a large drum, devotees came to pray at one of the shrines. Sitting in that peace was one of the highlights of Angkor for me.

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Baphoun/Terrace of Elephants
We couldn’t go into/onto the recently completed Baphoun, but the surrounding ancient walls, the pathways and yet more incredible trees made for a spectacular, peaceful atmosphere and I loved the stillness and beauty of this place. No photo I’ve ever taken of a tree has ever done it justice – these were ten times as huge and beautiful in real life. Walking on the Terrace of Elephants, asking “Where are the elephants?” and laughing when we discovered them all over the place. More gorgeous carvings. It really is so much to take in and all so spectacular!

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Ta Prohm
We also went to Ta Prohm but I didn’t take my camera that day. It was also a must see, not just because of its association with Tomb Raider. Incredible, incredible – more trees to fall in love with. Best though was meeting the friendly Mr. Miyagi-type guy working there who got a kick out of the fact that we were so excited by the bird song (a Drongo. We recorded it – you can hear it here: bird2, along with phone-type sounds from the staff’s walkie talkies), he shared yellow fruit with us that he gathered from a tree and rinsed in a puddle, took us for a mini tour around the ruins, shared the heart-beat chamber with me, and helped me when we lost Roman, running around and communicating with me with enthusiasm and sign language. I wish we got a chance to properly say thank you and goodbye but we lost each other during the search for Roman. Also sweet was the young girl who kept me company in the parking lot while Boune, our lovely tuk tuk driver, went to check on the other side of the park for Roman. We quizzed each other on world capitals – incredible how many she’d learned! 🙂

The Angkor photos: Part one

There’s plenty of literature and information about the Angkor temples out there, so I won’t write any more about history of the sites we visited. I’ll include links when there are some in case you want to find out more.

We saw A LOT in the four days we spent at Angkor and I can confidently say that the temples live up to the hype. They simply are amazing.

Ironically, while Angkor Wat was fascinating and beautiful, this most iconic and well-known of the sites at Angkor was actually the place that excited me the least. I totally enjoyed it and think it is beautiful and not to be missed, but it was nearly all the other places we went that felt really magical and that managed to captivate and bewitch me.

I’m listing the places we went in chronological order, with a handful of photos and highlights from each in the hopes that these posts won’t grow to gargantuan sizes. 🙂

Kbal Spean (River of a thousand lingas)
A long, windy, interesting tuk tuk drive away from Siem Reap, it’s a bit of a hike through humid, gorgeous jungle to get to the “River of a thousand lingas”. The forest is amazing, full of fascinating bugs including incredibly loud cicadas that sound like an awful lot like power tools (yes, they were that loud!) and sweet butterflies that kept us company along the path, even hitching rides on our shoulders from time to time. The ancient faces carved into the river rock exuded an exquisite peace. We just loved it. Fun too to see bunches of Cambodian teenagers messing around and cooling off at the waterfall right by all these amazing, historic carvings. What an awesome hang out spot!

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Banteay Srei
Surrounded by majestic, tall trees. Amazing, intricate carvings in warm rock all glowing with the warmth of the sun. The crooked official who wanted to sell us “V.I.P. access” to the restricted part of the temple. The powerful heat of the afternoon sun as we stood taking in the view of the beautiful rice fields behind the temple. The cool, inquisitive, acrobatic bug that kept us company and loved jumping on Roman’s camera while we soaked in the atmosphere on the temple wall. The beautiful rainbow against dark skies that launched itself out of the fields as we drove back to Siem Reap.

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Beng Mealea
A place to feel like Indiana Jones, dwarfed by insanely huge trees, clambering over massive, fallen-down bits of temple, in a place where nature is claiming back the stone. Really atmospheric and incredible, I just loved loved loved the trees. 🙂

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This is a more simple temple, not so much carving to see as other places we’d visited, but I loved it for the active monastery that sits at one edge, and for the disabled musicians who were playing traditional Khmer music for tourists. Till then I’d never really gotten into Cambodian music, but this was just spellbinding and I was transfixed, sitting under the green and blue canopy of tree and sky at the edge of their simple stage and taking it all in. Lovely.

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An intro to Angkor

So of course I’d heard of Angkor Wat, but it took coming to Cambodia and doing a bit of reading for me to realize it’s not just that one particularly large and famous temple or the setting for the Tomb Raider movie (yes, I realize I am ignorant – that’s why we’re traveling 😉 ). For anyone else who might be as uninformed as I was, here some background (courtesy of Wikipedia, UNESCO and Lonely Planet).

A bit of history

Angkor is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The park covers about 400 square kilometers (UNESCO) and contains hundreds upon hundreds of ancient temples, “ranging in scale from nondescript piles of brick rubble scattered through rice fields to the magnificent Angkor Wat, said to be the world’s largest single religious monument.” (Wikipedia)

A photo of an ariel map of Angkor, just to give you a feeling of the size. It’s clickable if you want to zoom for a closer look.

In its heyday between the 9th and 15th centuries, Angkor was the buzzing center of the Khmer Empire, a city which archeologists speculate supported up to one million people.

The stone and brick buildings which remain today are nearly exclusively religious monuments: “…the right to dwell in structures of brick or stone was reserved for the gods,” while the palaces, houses and public buildings used by the city’s residents were built of wood which has long since disintegrated. (Lonely Planet)

Angkor encompasses multiple religions, from indigenous to Shaivism (a form of Hinduism focusing on the god Shiva the destroyer), Vaishnavism (a form of Hinduism focusing on the god Vishnu the sustainer), both Mahayana and Theravada forms of Buddhism and even the “cult of personality” in which kings represented themselves as deities. (Wikipedia) Some of the temples started out their lives as Hindu houses of worship and were later repurposed for Buddhist use.

Angkor today

While many of the ruins have been partially excavated, they remain set in an incredibly beautiful, atmospheric natural environment, surrounded by idyllic forests of trees so old and huge and wise that it seems they must have been seeds when the buildings were still freshly constructed.
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Massive trees growing around some wooden steps behind Baphoun

Bird, frogs and insect song adds to the magical atmosphere. While Western access to the park is strictly controlled, many Cambodians live in small villages on the grounds and we’d often see verdant rice fields stretching along the road between sites. The nature is just amazing and as much a part of the incredible atmosphere and experience as the temples themselves.

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Beautiful rice fields outside Banteay Srei

Many of the temple ruins were overtaken by the encroaching jungle over the centuries after Angkor’s fall. The French Ecole Francaise d’Extreme-Orient was heavily involved in the restoration of many of the temples during the 20th century; in 1907 the ruins saw their first arrival of Western tourists (200 of them!). (Lonely Planet) Today, the site receives around 2 million tourists per year.

As incredible as they are, the ruins have not been fully explored or excavated and many are lacking proper infrastructure to ensure they aren’t damaged by all those trampling tourists (us included :-/ ). While the situation isn’t black and white, indications are that Cambodia’s notoriously crooked government is more interested in increasing tourist traffic (and the related cash flow) than preservation.

Entrance to the park is 20 dollars per day, 40 for a three-day pass, 60 for a week’s entrance. We spent nearly four full days and had a really satisfying mix of sites and experiences. I could imagine having gone for the full week pass, only with Roman knocked out with a bad cold at the start of our time, we’d already been kicking around town for a while before we got to see any of Angkor and our visa was running out even as we were feeling like we’d gotten our fill of Cambodia.

I’d heard that most tourists only spend on average three days in all of Cambodia, which means spending even less than three days at Angkor. I can’t even begin to understand how or why someone would do this, although we did see plenty of turbo-tourists zipping in to a temple and leaving again before we’d even finished enjoying the amazing and intricate carvings of a single room. I suppose a little culture is better than no culture at all though. 😉

Siem Reap

The jumping off point for all the temple exploration is the town of Siem Reap. This place has apparently exploded in recent years with the increase of tourism. Roman has a friend who stayed there ten years ago; the street our hotel was on now in 2011 didn’t even exist when he was there apparently.

The bus we took from Battambang pulled into town along a broad road that was bordered by massive, pristine, posh-looking block hotels. The center of town feels more like being at Epcot center or a Caribbean island than Cambodia: a commercialized mish-mash of international and Khmer restaurants, bars, tschotschke shops and boutiques, throbbing with loud music and tipsy tourist crowds at night.

There’s benefits for tourists – high quality food and competitive pricing on hotels (well, some hotels. Lonely Planet lists one whose rates start at USD 750 per night!!) – which we were happy to take advantage of. It’s not all bad, it just didn’t feel like we were in Cambodia any more… It did make me all the more grateful for the time we had in Kratie, Kampong Chhnang and Battambang. And to be fair, the vibe feels more normal and there are some nice places around as soon as you get away from the microcosm of “Pub Street”.

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Pub street starts to light up for the night (Thanks for the picture Roman! 🙂 )

Speaking of hotels, we stayed at the Angkor Pearl. At USD 16 per night, this place was excellent value for the money. High quality, spotless rooms, simple but really tasteful and comfortable. Nice, firm mattress – among some of the best beds we’ve experienced this whole trip Breakfast wasn’t included but was cheap at USD 2.50 per person. It was a short walk from the action at Pub Street. Definitely recommendable!

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Current events: Vietnam

Feels like ages since my post about the phone incident. Since then, I’ve been sick – not sick as a dog but sick enough to have “lost” a couple of days to sleeping and a feverish, hazy, dreamy state of mind – and we’ve managed to leave Saigon after some tropical-storm induced travel delays. I have a whole bunch to write and post about our last stop in  Siem Reap and Angkor but I want to quickly check in with where we are and where we’re going.

So far Vietnam has definitely thrown a few curve balls our way, and while we’ve been mostly able to laugh or get philosophical about them, still it’s feeling good to have some movement. We are now in Da Lat, which is a quirky, kitschy mountain city north of Saigon. It’s definitely very Vietnamese, very Asian, but there are little things about it that make us think very distinctly of Switzerland, which had been oddly wonderful and comforting. The elevation and the sometimes blustery, cool weather, some of the architecture, the hilly streets.

Walking around to find a place for breakfast yesterday, the streets were wet from one of the frequent rain showers, the air was cool and fresh and we were bundled up against it – Roman said it almost felt like being on ski holiday. 🙂 It’s also the first place we’ve caught some occasional, wonderful bursts of sunshine – also like being up in the Alps during the winter. The sound of running water (from a roof after the rain or of a fountain in a cafe) keep making me reflexively think of melting snow at the start of spring – a funny feeling since we haven’t come close to seeing snow since I glimpsed some on distant peaks from McLeod Ganj back in September. I’m loving it though, and my heart is warming on residual affection for my dear old Switzerland.

We’ve gotten a sufficient taste of the place and movement is still feeling good for us though, so we’re leaving today for our next stop. Hoi An is a town that is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site, meant to be a tremendous tourist trap, but also a tremendously beautiful tourist trap. We’ll see how it treats us. 🙂 Hopefully the WiFi will be more consistent and I can catch up on Cambodia while we’re there. 🙂

Heartbreak and hope in Battambang

Apologies in advance – this is not a very neat or resolved post!

Cambodia was at times challenging for me. Laos was such a gentle welcome back to travel and life on the road in Asia after my trip home; the peaceful energy and kind people we encountered put me so at ease.

The atmosphere of Cambodia was intense by comparison. Roman and I both found it took more energy to process the experiences we had there and I definitely needed a while to find my emotional footing with the country. Once I did though, I found myself feeling more open and moved than I have yet on the trip (being really, truly present and emotionally connected has been one of the big challenges of this big trip), and for this, I’m grateful.

Battambang was the place my heart started to open to Cambodia. It had started to crack back in Kratie, opening to the dozens of smiles, waves and other greetings I received on my village walk, to the laughter and energy of the kids I met along the road. I’m not sure what let me be more present and open in Battambang, but the day we spent doing the bike tour my heart just felt so light, so present, so open.

It was easy to relax with Sum and Dollar – energetic, enthusiastic and genuine, they were easy to talk to and good company. Maybe the beauty of the places we visited just helped to take down my intellectual defences. Maybe the work I’ve been doing on myself, with Roman and on my own, to be kinder to myself, to worry less, to savor the “now” more is starting to pay off. Whatever the grace that allowed it, the day touring around Battambang was just magic and delight.

The biggest highlight for me was meeting a young girl at Wat Ek Phnom, a quiet, beautiful, ancient temple that Sum and Dollar took us to. They stayed at the entrance while Roman and I went to go explore.

Naid (not sure how her name is really spelled) started shadowing us, and eventually enticed me into the ruins where she enthusiastically pointed out fat geckos crouching suspiciously in cracks. She must have been about ten or so, skinny as a rail and full of life. She flitted around the massive stones of the falling-apart temple, chirping in musical, broken English like a sparrow, pointing out Gods and histories carved into the ancient rocks.

Roman and I have had a many discussion about the children we’ve encountered on our travels. The stance we’ve adopted is to never give begging kids money – we don’t want to support, encourage or condone the situations where adults (parents or otherwise) will choose to put kids on the street to sell cheap souvenirs or simply beg (something we saw frequently especially at Angkor). Holding to this position has meant keeping closed in many instances – looking away or dismissing the little hands and faces that have implored us to buy a bracelet or simply hand over a dollar.

(Tough sometimes yes but not always when you see the kids going from “crying” to laughing and horsing around the second they know they’re not going to get any money from you. Tougher is seeing the kids who aren’t begging, like the scrappy, barefooted children I saw digging through garbage for scraps outside the night market in Battambang.)

We weren’t sure if our lovely tour was coming free of charge, but I couldn’t help myself. I just fell in love with this precocious, precious little girl. When we were ready to leave, she did ask for money. We brought her back to the front with us to explain the situation to Dollar and ask his opinion. He agreed with us completely about not giving money to kids at the tourist spots and on the streets. He questioned Naid and for him it was clear that her story was true.

With Dollar’s translation, we were able to ask her questions about her life. The oldest of three siblings, her parents couldn’t afford to look after her and had sent her to stay with a relative and attend school in Battambang. She studied during the day but came to the temple every afternoon to show guests around and try to earn a bit of money for school and food (it’s a given that students have to bribe teachers on a regular basis in order to attend school in Cambodia). At the end we gave her double the very modest sum she had asked for and we left to our next destination.

She’s stayed with me though. That day I wanted to cry every time I thought of her, brave, bright and beautiful little soul. What will become of her? Who will look out for her if even her parents don’t have the resources to do so? I said prayer after prayer for her: “Please let her path through this life be safe. Please don’t let any of those awful things one reads about happen to her – rape, violence, prostitution. Please let her be protected. Please let her fulfill her dream of becoming a teacher.”

I shared some of my thoughts with Roman and he pointed out that I was looking at things from a very Western point of view – who was I to make any assumptions or value judgements about her life (something akin to the parable about the man trying to help the butterfly by cutting it out of its cocoon).

On an intellectual level I am sure he is right. On an emotional level though all I know is that something in me recognized and loves this little girl who I will probably never meet ever again, and for me that’s real and precious and part of the experience I have been seeking on this trip. I can’t make any more sense of it than that, but I’m so glad that I met her, and I’ll keep carrying those hopes and wishes for her around in my heart.

Photos from Wat Ek Phnom and our time with Naid

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The wat before the ruins

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Afternoon sun on the outer wall

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Naid invites me to come explore

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Temple carvings

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Lovely Naid

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Pointing out some Sanskrit carvings

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Buddhist flags at the doorway

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Moon rise

Backtracking to Battambang

We’ve made it to our sixth country – Vietnam! Just got in to Saigon/Ho Chi Minh City last night after a loooong day of bus travel. I’m excited to be here but for now I’m going to try to finish my posts about Cambodia, which means a bit of backtracking….

Our next destination after Kampong Chhnang was Battambang, where we had another short stay.

Fun with bus travel

Getting there from Kampong Chhnang was an experience. We’d bought bus tickets the day before and expected the short trip to get us there by early afternoon. The guy we bought the tickets from picked us up from the hotel and dropped us off at what we assumed was the bus station.

Apparently, however, there is no real bus station. Buses barrel down the road on their way to or from Phnom Penh (where they fill up – problematic for us). You have to flag them down and if (and it’s a big if) they have any free seats, they’ll stop. It took about three hours and five or six buses until one showed up with room for us. Not awful but it was a hot, dusty wait on the side of the street – be braced for a longer wait if you’re following the same route!

About Battambang

Battambang is Cambodia’s 4th most popular tourist destination (following the Angkor temples at Siem Reap, the country’s capital Phnom Penh and the beaches of Sianoukville). With a population more than three times that of Kampong Chhnang, it definitely feels like more is going on there. Hotels are plentiful and there’s a bit of a backpacker/missionary scene with a good number of cafés/restaurants catering to Westerners, ranging from pretty boring to pretty decent (Gecko Café was our favorite).

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Delicious spring rolls at Gecko Café

Hard to say how accurate my perception was, but to me, Battambang, unlike Phnom Penh, seemed to have more “middle class” Cambodians and that tourism hadn’t taken over. Walking around the streets and parks, it felt more grounded to me – I caught myself feeling relieved to see “normal people doing normal things” – like having picnics or doing aerobics or line dancing in the park, just having fun. Maybe somehow we managed to miss this side of life in Phnom Penh, but anyhow we enjoyed it in Battambang.

There was more to see in town than in Kampong Chhnang. We did our best to overcome the oppressive heat (felt like a giant sprung up from the molten depths of the earth sat heavily on the city, occasionally pushing the heat around with fiery sighs) and took in some of the crumbling French-era architecture, every day life along the riverside and the charmingly desolate train repair sheds, abandoned since colonial times except as an improvised playground for local kids. DSC 0624
At the train shed

More photos from around town here.

Out and about with Sum & Dollar

While there was more action in the center of Battambang, like Kampong Chhnang, the real beauty was outside the city. We got lucky again and had two great moto drivers/guides for a day’s excursion out and about (photos and details about sights seen to follow in a later post).

Dollar and Sum were young and energetic and good fun. They drove like mad men between destinations (great for me – anything for a stronger breeze! ;-)) and shared stories about their lives and dreams.

Best of all was chatting with them over a drink at the end of the day. They got sodas and then they got sugar rushes! Dollar kept us all laughing with really awful magic tricks and really awesome impersonations of tourists he’s met. He’s got a great ear and his Scots, British and Aussie accents were amazing! I loved the day we got to spend with them. 🙂

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Sum (on the left) and Dollar. To quote them, “Small but strong!” 🙂