Today, we are writing from a short flight from Vientiane (capital 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 incredible time in Cambodia that required some digesting before moving on.
Irish Rosa and I fell in love with Cambodia in a way that I don’t think either of us quite expected. We actually stayed for almost a week, including visiting the capital of Phnom Penh, which we hadn’t planned to do originally.
The main reason to visit Cambodia is the temples and ruins. Sometimes you read or hear about a place so much it is impossible to live up to the hype, which we thought might happen with the temples, but we couldn’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 pan with Angkor Wat, an incredible, but isolated achievement. Again, we were quickly disabused of this notion. The Khmer empire lasted close to 1500 years in one respect 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, from magnificent temples of sandstone to enormous reservoir and aqueduct 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 saw a 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. Truly 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. Angkor Wat has the size of Teotihuacan, 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 dozens 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 the warmth 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 to Guatemala. Although there are many 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 context of the tour and as we continue 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 killing fields because a kid whose dad ran the fields tipped him off and he escaped from one of the communes never to see his family again. He hid out with a local widow before eventually being caught, but by this time the mass 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 nuisance 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 convincing after what happened to his family. After Vietnamese occupation of Cambodia firms, he is sent to Hanoi to study in a military academy where after years of war he asks out of military service to become a mechanic. They accept and send him to Moscow, where he studies and lives for eight years before returning after the semi-democratic elections in 1993 that returned rule to Cambodia (heavily influenced by Vietnam) where he returns to the army to help consolidate Cambodian independence as the country moves on from a horrific period. Finally in 2008 he asks the Prime Minister 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 over with 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 listening in a combination of stunned silence and insufficient words of condolence, he turns into me and starts to weep on my shoulder. At first I thought he was kidding 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 Guatemalans) and he’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 ashes of three decades of conflict. It was an exciting, very third world, 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 Cambodian spirit. On brighter notes we did a sunset cruise on the Mekong 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 percent of all healthcare in Cambodia! If the spirit moves you it is the Kantha Bopha hospital, although you’ll have to navigate a crappy website to do it.
On a much lighter note, Cambodia has some good local beers to wash the dust out of your throat after a long day touring with Angkor (what else) being the best of the bunch and Cambodia beer as the people’s champ.
Sorry for the length of this one, but it was such an enchanting place and powerful experience we couldn’t just hit the highlights.
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