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 cambodia

apr 30
Pnom Penh, Cambodia (or Kampuchea, as it's called there) sits at the confluence of the Mekong and the Tonle Sap rivers, as my journey swings around to catch the river at an earlier point. A lively neighborhood of shops and restaurants lined the banks of the Tonle Sap. Children begged, families slept on the sidewalks, children and maimed men came into restaurants trying to sell copied books and other goods, drivers called out to see if you want a ride. 'Madam, madam! just a minute, where are you going? tuk-tuk? motorbike? buy a book? help my family? come see my shop?' I had pangs of guilt at feeling jaded to the needy, but it was relentless and became sadly wearing. The barrage was interrupted by the absurd - an elephant had wandered into town and stole the show, right on the main street at night!

The Royal Palace grounds and buildings, the graceful roof lines and gardens, were lovely. The Silver Pagoda, in the palace complex, had hundreds of silver tiles on the floor. Among the items in the Palace museums were howdahs (seats for riding on elephants) and other constructions the Royal family rode on, some hand-held, all lavishly cushioned and decorated. Since Angkor Wat and other holy areas have been looted extensively by the French and others, all removable statues and other historic artifacts were now tastefully displayed at the National Museum: Vishnus and Buddhas, gods and legendary figures.

Under the regime of Pol Pot in the 70s, Cambodia was devastated in three short years; millions were tortured and killed, especially educated people, intellectuals, artists. The country is still reeling and scarred in so many ways. I found it too difficult emotionally to go into the museum itself, where photos of victims being tortured are displayed, but mourned in my own way, walking the grounds, sitting in the courtyard, listening to stories told about terror and loss. Everyone in the country has lost family during the genocide or from the starvation and disease that followed. On the way to the Killing Fields, the sky crashed and flashed, letting loose a monsoon type downpour. It seemed appropriate as we stood in a small covered exhibit area, looking out at the rain falling on the innocent looking green open space, punctuated by the stupa filled with skulls and clothing of tens of thousands of victims.

A tour guide invited our group to his home for dinner. The tuk-tuk took almost 2 hours to get there in the flooded streets. We sat on the floor on pads eating curry, noodles, spring rolls, rice. A wide stripe of white paper on the walls around the room was decorated with posters and photos cut from ads; small shrines at one end of the room with fresh flowers, were maintained by the four families that lived in the house. I had the pleasure of conversing with Pichna, a bright 15-year old, pleased to practice her English. The gathering was broken up abruptly by the scurrying of three fat cockroaches around the food.

Siem Reap, gateway to Angkor Wat, has been constructing ostentatious hotels and resort complexes. I walked around the block from my hotel to find a cheap local market, children playing in the dirt, a small temple. Along the canal, ramshackle houses hovered on stilts, trash stagnating in the water below. At the night market, I had a fish massage. Like the sucker fish that cleans the bottom and sides of a fish tank, these fish nibble the dead skin from your feet. About a dozen people sat with their feet submerged in the tiled tank, while the little creatures tickled our feet!

The temples of Angkor dotted the landscape, some well excavated and majestic, some merely a pile of stones suggesting a past grandeur. Ta Prohm, built in the 1200s was the only one intentionally not restored. Thick tree roots cleave to the rock walls and caress them with their spreading fingers. At Preah Kahn, once a Buddhist school and monastery, diminishing nested doorways are no longer entryways through walls, their walls have fallen long ago.

The many towers of Angkor Thom were adorned with enormous faces of the gods, echoing faces, repeated endlessly, multiple faces from every view, reputedly actually resembling the king who ordered it built. The king would sit on the broad platform of the Terrace of Elephants to watch performances. I like to imagine the hustle and bustle of an important city in these places, magnificently gowned officials milling about, common folk providing food and services, dramatic sculpture everywhere and gold tinted walls of art.

The sun slowly lit the cloudy sky over Angkor Wat at 5:30 am. I ordered a cup from a 'coffee boy' just because it came with a plastic chair to sit and wait for sunrise. The stone domes reflected in a pool inside the filled moat around Angkor Wat, producing that famous view of the world's largest temple. Walking its halls and courtyards in early morning was a sort of devotional. One long mural described 37 heavens and 35 hells, earthly life and wars in vivid relief; another the churning of the Sea of Milk by the gods, causing the creation of the world.

The floating city of Chong Kneas on the enormous Tonle Sap Lake, expands to many times its already large size in the rainy season. The far shore could not be seen, but the sky turned a blue I haven't seen since I left Colorado. Houses, and even a school, church and restaurant, sat on the lake, anchored but floating freely on bamboo rafts, not attached to each other. There were actually two separate fishing villages - Vietnamese and Cambodian, different languages but same lifestyle. The houses migrate to each end of the lake when it expands. Little shop boats slip between the houses selling goods.

Back in Bangkok, completing the loop, I made one more stop. Once a thriving place of local commerce, the Damnoen Saduck floating market is now a magnet for tourists. The goods for sale may have changed, but there's still a lot of food. Longboats row or put-put back and forth the congested canals, you can stop and buy something boat-to-boat or wander in the shops above. I bought my last sticky rice with mango from an aging boat woman, savoring the sweet combination. I had a two hour Thai massage that night, and was pleasantly pushed, pulled, poked, bent and stretched. Then it was time to fly north to Japan and back to work.

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