Page 41 - The Rockaway Times

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Page 41
The Rockaway Times
OnThe RoadWithRover AndRosa
By Wild Rover
Today, we are writing from a
short flight from Vientiane (cap-
ital of Laos) to Luang Prabang,
which is supposed to be the
crown jewel of Laos. We spent a
quiet day and night in Vientiane
catching our breath after an in-
credible time in Cambodia that
required some digesting before
moving on.
IrishRosa and I fell in lovewith
Cambodia in a way that I don’t
think either of us quite expected.
We actually stayed for almost a
week, including visiting the cap-
ital of Phnom Penh, which we
hadn’t planned to do originally.
The main reason to visit Cam-
bodia is the temples and ruins.
Sometimes you read or hear
about a place so much it is im-
possible to live up to the hype,
which we thought might happen
withthe temples,butwecouldn’t
have been more wrong on that.
We both went in thinking it was
all about Angkor Wat and that
the Khmer culture/empire more
or less was a flash in the panwith
Angkor Wat, an incredible, but
isolated achievement. Again, we
were quickly disabused of this
notion. The Khmer empire last-
ed close to 1500 years in one re-
spect or another and in that time
built over 2,000 temples! There
are over 600 in the immediate
area around Angkor Wat alone.
The empire also covered large
parts of Thailand, Vietnam, and
Laos and remains the dominant
cultural force across parts of
Thailand, Vietnam, Laos, as well
as all of Cambodia. The sheer
wealth of the empire is obvious
everywhere you turn, frommag-
nificent temples of sandstone
to enormous reservoir and aq-
ueduct construction. The urban
planning alone was extremely
impressive, much of which still
functions today, including the
enormous reservoirs that bank
the Angkor temples. I would put
the Khmer a notch above the
Mayans in terms of scale and
accomplishment, which I never
would have guessed.
We sawa total of 10-12 temples
and complexes over two days,
culminating with Angkor Wat
on day two. We got to AW at 5:30
am while it was still dark, which
was surreal in and of itself, and
then watched the sunrise over
the temples, a couple of pictures
of which we have attached. Tru-
ly unforgettable and although it
was crowded, the sheer size of
the complex made it so that the
crowds didn’t detract from the
otherworldly experience. An-
gkor Wat has the size of Teoti-
huacan, the ornamentation and
carvings of the Taj Mahal, and
the symmetry of the pyramids.
Although Angkor Wat was the
top, the other temples we saw
were all fascinating in their own
right, from a complex with doz-
ens of Buddha faces on towers to
a temple with huge tress literally
growing out of the ruins (where
some of the Tomb Raider movie
was shot). Truly an epic culture
that is much under appreciated.
The next thing that struck us
was thewarmth and openness of
the Cambodian people. So kind,
so welcoming, and just a great
energy. They reminded us of
outgoing Guatemalans and even
in looks and history there are
many parallels toGuatemala. Al-
though there aremany examples
of the warmth of the people we
won’t bore you with that, but we
have to tell you about our guide
who we will call Siem to protect
his privacy. Great guy and very
knowledgeable with the type
of personality that you feel like
you’ve known him for years after
an hour. As we are a few hours
into our tour on day one we have
been talking about his life as you
do with guides in between the
historical sites. He drops a few
references to the Pol Pot regime
and the civil war within the con-
text of the tour and as we con-
tinue to get to know each other
and he sees we are interested in
the Cambodian culture, not just
photo opportunities, he opens
up more and more. As we are
exiting the first temple he stops
to tell us more about his story
and because English is his third
language after Russian (more
on that in a minute) he stops to
tell his story and he has to start
from the top to stay organized
because that’s often easier in a
different language. It turns out
his whole family was killed in
the Cambodian genocide of the
Pot regime. He escaped the kill-
ing fields because a kid whose
dad ran the fields tipped him off
and he escaped from one of the
communes never to see his fam-
ily again. He hid out with a local
widow before eventually being
caught, but by this time themass
killing of able bodied men left
the regime in need of soldiers, so
he becomes an untrained child
soldier for the Khmer Rouge
at the age of 16-17 doing nui-
sance raids into Vietnam. After
the Vietnamese invade he is
doing more serious soldiering
before eventually being caught
by the Vietnamese. After being
detained by the Vietnamese he
is brought into the Vietnamese
fold to fight the Khmer Rouge,
which doesn’t take much con-
vincing after what happened to
his family. After Vietnamese oc-
cupation of Cambodia firms, he
is sent to Hanoi to study in amil-
itary academy where after years
of war he asks out of military
service to become a mechan-
ic. They accept and send him
to Moscow, where he studies
and lives for eight years before
returning after the semi-demo-
cratic elections in 1993 that re-
turned rule to Cambodia (heavi-
ly influenced by Vietnam) where
he returns to the army to help
consolidate Cambodian inde-
pendence as the country moves
on froma horrific period. Finally
in 2008 he asks the Prime Min-
ister for an out from the army,
and after he gets rejected, he just
walks off at his wife’s insistence
to become a tour guide! He says
the commander is his buddy
and he was 2nd in command so
he smoothed it overwith the PM.
NBD... He only started guiding
two years ago after self teaching
all of the necessary history and
basically learning English. Oh
and he’s 56 years old.
If that wasn’t enough, at the
end of his story as we are listen-
ing in a combination of stunned
silence and insufficient words
of condolence, he turns into me
and starts to weep on my shoul-
der. At first I thought he was kid-
ding because he is such a high
energy, positive guy, I think he is
trying to lighten the mood in an
awkward way, but I look down
(he’s about 5’5” also like Guate-
malans) andhe’s sobbing. It only
lasts about 20 seconds before he
composes himself and we walk
on arm in arm, but it was one of
the most touching moments of
our lives. It’s getting dusty on the
airplane just thinking about it.
Well, after moments like that,
we had to see Phnom Penh, the
capital that’s rising from the ash-
es of three decades of conflict. It
was an exciting, very thirdworld,
but on the rise city. I think the
Buddhist monks in saffron robes
on the back of motorcycles or
tuk tuks is the best logo for the
city. We went to their genocide
museum, which was in a high
school turned detention center
by the Khmer Rouge right in
the city center. We both left with
wet cheeks and an even greater
appreciation for the Cambodi-
an spirit. On brighter notes we
did a sunset cruise on the Me-
kong and donated blood at the
Children’s hospital. Apparently
there’s a cultural stigma against
donating blood so it was great to
do and we received much love
plus free t-shirts. What more can
ya ask for? We also donated to
the hospital, which was founded
by a Swiss doctor and has grown
to seven sites that provide free
health and accounts for 85 per-
cent of all healthcare in Cambo-
dia! If the spirit moves you it is
the Kantha Bopha hospital, al-
though you’ll have to navigate a
crappy website to do it.
On a much lighter note, Cam-
bodia has some good local beers
to wash the dust out of your
throat after a long day touring
with Angkor (what else) be-
ing the best of the bunch and
Cambodia beer as the people’s
Sorry for the length of this one,
but it was such an enchanting
place andpowerful experiencewe
couldn’t just hit thehighlights.
More fromLaos next...