Somewhere in Cambodia

memories, thoughts, and images from Kâmpŭchea

Lyly’s restaurant

Across the road from the Bayon, a small market had popped up while we were exploring. they sold bootleg copies of Lonely Planet books, literally photocopied and cheaply bound. Probably still over priced at $7, but a good deal, anyway. They sold t-shirts, “fisherman pants”, baskets full of little casts of Buddhas and Hindu deities, and beautiful Cambodian silk blankets and table clothes. I bought a few things, but after the ticket into Ankgor, and all the spare dollar bills once in my possession, now circulating the temple behind us, in the pockets of opportunistic beggars, I was beginning to realize this trip was going to be more expensive than I’d budgeted for…

So, with a dollar left in my pocket, we headed across the road to the line of food tents in search of Joe, who had disappeared quite a while ago. As soon as we crossed into their territory a dozen children, all loaded with merchandise, which seemed to go from the youngest ones selling the more junky things, to the older ones selling books, clothing, and blankets. There was absolutely no shaking them off and there was nothing you could say to them that they didn’t immediately have a come back for. Even the seven-year-old could out smart you in about three lines (a very humbling experience). The conversation pretty much went something like this;

-Mr, you want to buy?

-No thank you.

-How do you know, you didn’t look?

-I’m not interested

-I tell you the capital for your country, you buy. Five for one dollar.

-I don’t have any money.

-You lie.

-Nope, here’s my wallet. See, one dollar.

-I sell you five for one dollar.

-But it’s my only dollar!

-You go ask your friend to borrow money.

-I already had to lend my friend money.

-You go ask for it back.

-I can’t, we had to pay $40 dollars for our ticket to come here.

-You have money.

-I do in my room at the guest house. I will get it tomorrow and come back.

-No, you don’t come back, you just say you come back.

-I promise I will come back, and I will by one thing from each of you.

(I’ve had a lot more practice at dealing with these situations since then, but this being the first time I’d visited a poor country with children hustling,  it was totally heart-wrenching!)

At this point she was starting to seem a little desperate, but the word promise seemed to ease the pressure a little and it was about this time that we spotted Joe stretched out in a hammock at the back of the tent, behind the the eating area next the where they cooked the food. It wasn’t quite a stove, but it wasn’t quite a barbecue either, somewhere in between. I was too distracted anyway to take a good look at it. Once we sat down, the kids eased off a bit.

Lyly, the women who’s restaurant we were ordering from was the mother of a couple of the girls, so maybe they figured they were getting our money anyway. But it didn’t take long before they realized, “Mister, you say you only have one dollar but you order food?”

I did my best to shift the focus away from my wallet and in a few minutes we were all sitting around the table talking about their lives in Cambodia, acting foolish, and making each other laugh. They were all on summer vacation, which is why they weren’t in school, and their mother’s all worked in the same tent selling their different items. They seemed like one large family and they must have all looked out for each other.

The two sisters eventually took the table behind us to eat their lunch and asked if we would like to try their “Cambodian cheese”. It wasn’t actually cheese, she said it was made from fish, and it was really spicy. I’ve never tasted anything like it. The flavor was strong the way cheese can be, and had herbs and chillies mixed into it, probably lemon grass and ginger. The texture was almost like a dry cottage cheese, maybe, that had been crumbled up. It was interesting to watch them eat. They would take a green stem and scoop out a bit of ‘cheese’ and ball it up on a small bit of rice from an other bowl and pop it in their mouths. I only tried a small amount because I wasn’t sure how safe it would be sitting in my stomach, but I remember thinking I would have to try it a couple more times before I could find it very delicious.

As promised, we did go back the next day and we bought something from each of the girls. One girl exclaimed, “Wow, this is best selling day I have!”

Josette and I also brought our practice poi and showed them how to do some spinning. At one point, the girls came over and asked us what the capitol of Armenia (or somewhere, can’t remember) was. They said if they knew then the man sitting at the table would buy something.

I still wonder about them all, if they’re still there selling to tourist. They’re probably grown up by now but if I ever go back, I’ll bring a few pictures of them I see if they remember us. Maybe I’ll bring them a world atlas, too!

photographs of the Bayon

My only regret about the trip is that I didn’t have a very good quality camera, but, honestly, my talent wasn’t the greatest either!

making an offering??

the Bayon

The first temple we decided to visit in Angkor was the Bayon. I’d read that the light was best in the morning, but as overcast as it was, it wouldn’t have mattered what time we visited. The other benefit of being there at sunrise, though, was that we had a decent amount of time before the place was crowded with other tourists.

We traveled the thin, dirt road into the jungle, humidity smoky and thicker than the trees, it wasn’t long before we were turning the corner around the moat surrounding Angkor Wat. I covered my eyes and turned my head as we passed to save the surprise for the next morning.

After entering another stretch of jungle, we began seeing ruins scattered about the road side, piles of carved stones, partial walls,  slowly being digested by the forest and time. After passing through a decrepit, yet astonishing towering gate and more jungle, the car pulled over next to a pile of jumbled stone towers and we got out to explore.

Constructed around the end of the 12th Century, it was one of the last major constructions of the Angok era, and the last state temple. The King who commissioned its construction was Jayavarman VII, the most prominent builder of all the Angkor Kings.

Being only the second Buddhist king in an otherwise Hindu lineage, Jayavarman VII continued the tradition of Devaraja, literally God-king, similar to an Egyptian Pharaoh in being considered incarnations of Gods. The deity that he associated himself with was Avalokiteśvara, the Buddha of Compassion, not a bad choice!

Once your eyes adjust to the crumbling chaos poking at the humid morning air, dozens of mysterious, giant faces begin to emerge; the merged face of Avalokiteśvara and Jayavarman VII. The temple, with its main central tower and four large towers directly surrounding it is meant to represent the mythical Mt. Meru, the center of all the physical, metaphysical and spiritual universes. There are 54 towers in all, in various stages of ruin, and each tower holds four smiling faces. As you wander around the site, at any moment there are more than a few of the 216 faces watching over you.

I walked up the dirt path leading to the entrance and into the temple. Passing beside a towering palm tree, I thought of what my dad once told me about never sitting under one. Useless information at the time, growing up in Nova Scotia, but looking at the sugar palms, split open, fermenting on the ground, it seemed like dang good advice after all!

What were once simple corridors have crumbled into a maze of rubble, making wandering anything but linear. Actually, it was sort of like Scarab of Raw, an old Mac game I used to play when I was in elementary school, except as you rounded corners, ducked down dark passage ways, and circled walls, there were Buddhas instead and mummies, children popping up to ask for a dollar instead of monkeys stealing your gold, and tarantulas instead of scarabs. One striking similarity, though, were the 1200 meters of bas-reliefs carved into the out walls of the temple, reminiscent of Egyptian hieroglyphs. I spent a good hour scanning the stories and scenes of life in Cambodia over 900 years ago.

The second level wasn’t very different, but ascending the third level offers a spectacular treat. There, you find yourself face to face with Avalokiteśvara, where you can offer a quick prayer that the floor doesn’t collapse beneath you! Adorned with the striking features of the ancient Angkor king, his cat-like eyes are soft but penetrating, his round, plump nose, and his unforgettable bulging lips, smiling as though one of the local Irrawaddy dolphins playfully leaped up and slapped him a permanent tail-shaped grin.

By this time, I’d caught up with Josette, and we were both getting hungry, so we crossed the dirt road, now lined with vendors, and made our way into the small market to look for Joe.

tickets to Angkor (Sokimex, the rich get richer)

one of the ancient gates into Angkor Thom

At 4 am, we got ourselves up, which was 6am Korea time, so it wasn’t so bad. We came down to find the streets already lit by morning and busy with people, mostly on bicycles and mopeds.After handing over 60USD and a photo at the toll gate, we were given our three-day pass to the temples. (from what I see online, $60 will buy you a week-long pass now) Although $20 for a day pass to see one of the most amazing sights in the world isn’t bad, in Cambodia that’s a huge amount of money!

Even before I knew anything about the corruption that overruns the country, I’d read about the questionable tickets into Angkor Wat. It’s not that they, in themselves,, are a scam, it’s more that nearly every bit of that money goes straight into the accounts of Sokimex, Cambodia’s biggest oil company.

Initially, the company bought out the rights to ticket sales for a flat one-million dollars. Total sales from the tickets are about sixty-million USD, causing a lot of people to wonder about the reasoning behind the deal. As far as the reasoning I’ve read online tells it, a big chunk of cash in the pockets of decision makers has just about everything to do with it. In recent years, Sokimex has paid ten-million USD per year for the rights, which is better, but still, very little goes into the care of the ruins, and even less to the people who live there.

It was something that struck me five years ago, when after paying my 60 USD for a pass, then wandering through the sites, I saw many signs saying that the funding for the renovations of this particular temple was donated from over seas.

I don’t know what can be done to improve the situation. It’s hard to tell if political pressure would have any influence. There are many Khmer people, though, who feel the distribution of the money made off of their greatest culture heritage should go towards the improvement of the people, the descendants of the Khmer empire, and I have to agree.

Mr. T

A picture of Mr. T taken by my friend Joe

By the time we got through the front doors of the airport it was dark. The tropical air was still thick and muggy. The guest house we booked online arranged for a driver to pick us up. We scanned the row of drivers standing outside until we found the one holding a sign with Josette’s name on it, then followed him to the car and got in.

Not only was it the first time I’d been this far below the 45th parallel North, where I grew up, it was also the first time I’d been in a country this far below the standard of living I’d comfortably grown up in. But what would be the value of travelling if not to break our perceptions of “how things are”?Unfortunately, of the myriad of emotions and sensations I was experiencing, a slight fear was one of them. I remember holding my bag a little tightly, even while sitting in the car. After a few minutes, though, our driver, who introduced himself as Mr. T, helped eased lack of distrust I had for the people.

In the short drive to the guest-house, we forged enough of a friendship with him that we agreed to hire him as our driver during the time we’d spend in Siem Reap. His real name was Vuthy (Voo-tee) but I’m guessing they must have shown some old A-Team reruns recently in Cambodia. He had a great sense of humour, and spoke English well enough that we understood the majority of what he had to say. We found out later that he slept in a hammock tied between tables in the dinning area. The owner of the guest-house also paid for him to take Japanese lessons, to help attract more Japanese customers. Aside for these things, he wasn’t paid for being our driver but depended on tips for his income (this could have been a story to encourage us to give a bigger tip, but I gave him the benefit of the doubt that it was true).

At the guest-house, absolutely numbed by nearly a full day of travels (two buses, four planes, and four airports), we agreed to meet in front at 4am, then made our way to our rooms. I’m not sure that anything would have been much different if we’d had any other driver but Mr. T, but he was certainly an integral part of our trip!

landing in Cambodia

After landing in Bangkok, we scurried through the rain, across the runway to a small propeller driven plane, with a tacky, orange and green, tropical decal. Through the large drops of rain hitting the window and the greenish-blue clouds that we came in and out of, all that could be seen below were palm trees and rice paddies. As sunlight grew weary of trying to push through the clouds and give in to the night, I began to see small villages below. I remember noticing the absence of electric light with in them.

The first thing that struck me, getting off the plane in Siem Reap, was the smell, permeating, thick, moist, earthy, and mossy. Strange but primordially familiar. I don’t expect it will find its way into a designer bottle anytime soon, but switch beats for prahok and you just might have the inspiration for Jitterbug Perfume!

We walked from the plane to a small building with a large, bright room with a yellowish tinge. If U.S. Immigration is looking for ways to be even more intimidating, they should take a trip to the Siem Reap Airport and take notes. It wasn’t so much the officers themselves who were intimidating, although none of them looked as though they’d smiled in a long time, it was the over all presentation. We were the first ones off the plane and into the room. When they were ready, we were motioned by an officer to approach. It was a seemingly long walk towards the menacingly large and heavy-looking, dark wooden desk, as the eyes of the officers, faces at least twice as heavy as their desks, as well as those of the armed guards, fixed themselves on me.

The only acknowledgment they gave us was to motion us to hand over our passport, photograph, and US $20. They filled out a form for us, allowing us to receive our Cambodian Visa and sent us to the next obstacle, each with its own man in a uniform, and an expression better fit for the guardians of the afterworld then for someone whose job is welcoming you to there country, and come to think of it, I don’t recall having been welcomed? And although there were three of them, and we were the first three up, they were all too busy doing apparently not much to stamp us through. We weren’t offered much more of an explanation than, “Busy…” but they eventually found the time to put our stickers in our passports and stamp them and we were officially in Cambodia. I think the whole scene was a set for an Alfred Hitchcock film, and he must have stepped out for lunch between takes never to return, and they’ve been waiting almost fifty years for his return. It would definitely explain the looks on their faces. But I do suppose what they’ve lived through is worse than any Hitchcock, Stephen King, or David Lynch movie. A plot only reality is capable of manifesting.

If I were to go back tomorrow, it would be an entirely different experience, but having never been in such a place at the time, there was a big sigh of relief when the three of us were together on the other side, and heading for the front doors to our adventure…

Somewhere in Cambodia

Five years ago, the three Jos (Josette, Joe, and myself), took a trip to Cambodia together to visit the ruins of Angkor Thom but, of course, what we found was much, much more. I wrote about the trip in several long emails during the weeks that followed, but I’d like to revisit the trip, partly through the original emails, but also through new eyes.

In my original narrative, I began,

“I’ll just tell of my experiences as they come to me, instead of beating my head against the images and emotions that have relentlessly interupted my attention since I’ve been back. I hope just enough of the experience succeeds in transcending this pixilated chronicle so that I may share some of what I felt, being in Cambodia.”

The images and emotions have faded, of course, aside from occasional flashes, but perhaps that will allow new wisdom to surfaces form the depths of viññāṇa.