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martedì 17 gennaio 2012

One week in Cambodia

When I decided to go to Cambodia I was in Bangkok waiting for my ex boyfriend to come and meet me to go to the north of Thailand. I had a week to spare so I thought to cross the border and go and see one the of the eight marvels in the world: the fantastic Angkor Wat. Some of my friends suggested that I should take the bus since it was going to be a real adventure. It was supposed to be a 7 or 8 hours journey with a big bus on the highway until the border and with a mini van until Siam Reap. After purchasing the ticket off Khao San road for as much as the equivalent of six Euros I went on the internet and read the horror stories about the journey! I basically found out that it was more likely to take from 16 to 20 hours since after crossing the border, it would take a long time to get a visa and the minivan would often break down on the gravel roads in Cambodia or worse since it was rainy season it would get stuck in the mud and the people on board would help pulling it put...It was then that I decided to take a plan instead and get there in one hour. Cambodia is known for a lot of things and sadly for one in particular, apart for the Khmer Rouge who fortunately are now part of the past: child prostitution. I'll never forget the man sitting next to me on the plane.. I'm pretty sure the reason he was going there was not business as he said or better it was the kind of business which is better left unsaid. Just a strong sensation though enough to upset me but not enough to do anything. At the airport I met two guys from France and the US who then became my bodyguards for the time I was in Siam Reap. The town is nothing special: basically a bunch of gravel roads with a center but it's the starting point to see Angkor Wat and there's where all the guesthouses and restaurants are. I stayed in a very nice and extremely clean one in the center but I don't remember the name since it was a long time ago. The first thing we did was to go by tuk tuk to see the sunset on a little hill overlooking the ruins. While climbing on the hill in the middle of this little forest we were accompanied by the music of a small group of blind and mutilated fellows. That's another bad thing about Cambodia: there are a lot of mutilated people- even kids- because of landmines left behind after the civil war and when the Khmer rouge fled the country. Believe me when I say it's a sight that can really break your heart. We spent the next two days wondering around the temples and the ruins from dawn to dusk literally. What's there to say about Angkor Wat? There are no words to describe it nor any picture can actually render the actual beauty of the place.
View of Angkor Wat
Buddhist monks in Angkor Wat
400sq of temples and ruins amidst the forest with an enchanting lake, trees and plants growing off the old houses, incontaminated nature and the product of human ability co-exhisting in an enchanting scenery. What else to say? I could have stayed there for days and the time I was there I wondered around all the ruins and talked to all the kids trying to sell souvenirs to the tourists. They are fantastic: they speak english better than a Brit and can get you into buying all sorts of stuff. Very similar to Neapolitan kids. I remember their little faces vividly. In order to look at the landscape you really have to climb above the temples. I remember that when my guys cared to venture on the top of a very high one I refused and then feeling I should give it a try went by myself on another one. I managed to get halfway through but I had the dumb idea to look down: the steps are so narrow and steep you cannot see them when looking down so I basically found myself staring at the void. I can only say I almost had an heart attack and felt I couldn't go up any further. So I descended basically sliding on my bum all the way down. However, there was nothing more beautiful in that descent than catching a glimpse of a buddhist monk's orange vest behind the windows of a temple at dusk.
Views of Angkor Wat
Cambodian people are very friendly and very helpful although they carry a heavy weight from their past and also the fatigue coming from their very difficult present. I always found exquisite people and a lot of kindness around me. Jut an example: I forgot my camera in a taxi where I also had an argument with the driver and realized hours later. I ran with a tuk tuk to my American friend 's hotel to get the driver's number and when I called him he went to look for the camera and found it and brought it back to me in the heavy rain which flooded most of the gravel streets in town. I am not sure anything like that would be likely to happen in my country but then again it depends on the person. Also other little things like taking me under an umbrella from the restaurant all the way down the road to get a tuk tuk in the heavy rain. (I went there in rainy season). As far as food is concerned Cambodian cuisine is very similar to Thai, so if you like that taste you'll like it. Coconut milk and many spices (many dishes can be really spicy in fact). I just remember this two places I went to when in Siam Reap The red piano and The Angkor what? bar where I had very good food and good drinks. Otherwise for a cheaper option there is Psar Chaa the local market with food stalls where to choose food prepared on the spot and eat it in the streets.
Angkor Wat
Children vendors
After a couple of days I decided to leave and go to Phnom Penh by bus early in the morning. I thought I could take a nap but I was completely wrong because the bus was packed and since there are a lot of cows and goats crossing in the middle of the street the driver honks the horn constantly. As if this wasn't enough, on the bus they usually play kung fu movies so I was wide awake for the whole seven hours. Sitting next to me there was a man with a child in his lap but never did I hear any noise from the little one . He was so polite and just smiled at me all the time. Since i could not sleep nor read I had a chance to look at the countryside which is amazingly beautiful. There is nothing more peaceful and full of beauty than the Asian countryside in my opinion. Eventually I got to Phnom Penh and let me tell you it's a very ugly place. However I have so many good memories from that city that I would love to go back and in any case I'll always remember it with a lot of affection .
Views of Phnom Penh
The first good memory is the taxi driver who took me around for three days and whom I chose from the hundreds who wait for tourists at the bus station. I would say he actually chose me and in any case it worked out perfectly. I stayed in an hotel run by Chinese people by the riverside which is not at all how I imagined it to be. Not very nice in fact. In the evening I went to the Foreign Correspondent Club or FCC a nice restaurant created originally for foreign journalists but open to everybody where I met a very nice guy from New Zealand. I then went to visit The Royal Palace, very nice and interesting and very similar to the one in Bangkok. When I was there, while i was in the shadow of a tree I was surrounded by a group of little children who started playing with me and reading my Lonely Planet guide. They were accompanied by two French fellow who explained to me that they belonged to an association called Pour un sourir d'enfant in which they volunteer to help and teach the poorest children of Cambodia. These kids were living in a damp and by that I mean a REAL one. I've seen them and I have seen poverty in that country. People living on tons of garbage and trying to get food out of plastic and rubbish which is everywhere . Check it out because it's a wonderful initiative. So is Friends a very pretty red and yellow restaurant where street children are employed as cooks, waiters and everything else.
Damp in Phnom Penh
Royal Palace
National museum
And then the most interesting part of the trip arrived . With my tax driver I went to the Killing Fields and to Tuol Sleng genocide museum. We all know what the Khmer Rouge regime was about and we all know of the genocide which took place between 1975-1979. Citing from Wikipedia "The Khmer Rouge regime arrested and eventually executed almost everyone suspected of connections with the former government or with foreign governments, as well as professionals and intellectuals. Ethnic Vietnamese, ethnic Thai, ethnic Chinese (except for those already prominent among the Khmer Rouge themselves), ethnic Chams (Muslim Cambodians), Cambodian Christians, and the Buddhist monkhood were the demographic targets of persecution. As a result, Pol Pot is sometimes described as "the Hitler of Cambodia" and "a genocidal tyrant. According to Michael Vickery, 750,000 people in Cambodia in a population of about 8 million died due to disease, overwork, and political repression. However many scholars disregard his claims because the number of victims of execution found in the mass graves is higher than his estimate for deaths from all causes during the rule of the Khmer Rouge and the civil war combined. The most widely accepted estimate, from scholar Ben Kiernan, is that about 1.7 million people were killed. It is described by the Yale University Cambodian Genocide Program as, "one of the worst human tragedies of the last century.". And when you got to these sites you feel it all. Visiting Tuol Sleng was like a punch in the stomach : it was a former school which was turned into a prison for the ones who were believed to be against Pol Pot regime. It has remained the same as it was in those years even the offices are basically untouched. For some reason that schocked me the most because it made it real. I don't know why that happened: the cells or the torture chambers always gave me the feeling that although I knew it had happened it was something undefined. For me when I saw the the original telephones like the ones I had at home and the furniture from those years for some reason it made it all real and struck me as a punch in the face. I remember that there wasn't a sound amongst us visitors while we were visiting this site of pain, sorrow and cruelty. I noticed at some point a Cambodian woman with an American man in their late forties in the garden. She was crying her eyes out on his shoulder. I guess she was one of those lucky ones who escaped and probably had part of her family involved in the persecution. If you haven't seen it yet I strongly suggest to watch The Killing Fields movie a wonderful movie about that tragic period of time and also to read First they killed my father a book by Loung Ung a beautiful and heartbreaking description of that period by a "Daughter of Cambodia" who eventually escaped to the U.S. As I underlined in my previous posts about South Africa and Vietnam, when going to a country I don't think such things can be ignored but have to be seen not to be forgotten also as a matter of respect for the victims of such madness. Sometimes when travelling, people tend to forget about everything and just enjoy leisure. Well a real traveller can't. A real traveller has to acknowledge the good and the bad and the pain and sorrow from the past, the contempt against repression, war, torture, lack of freedom, violence,injustice and learn from past mistakes in order for those horrors not to happen again. And that actually should apply to both travellers and non travellers, but to thinking human beings with a coscience.I know it hurts but hey that's life.
Photos of children at Tuol Sleng
Skulls at the Killing Fields
Torture bed at Tuol Sleng
My last night in Cambodia was a fun one. When I finished my painful history walk I went back to the hotel to release some steam out and remembered I had to meet my Kiwi friend for dinner. So I took a moto taxi which means I basically sat in the back of a motorcycle behind a crazy guy who drove like hell. Well, thinking about it they all did: no helmets (of course), three-four people on a scooter with kids, dogs and everything else, all ways streets , holes in the ground and high speed. Well if you've been to Asia you know what I'm talking about and if you're a Neapolitan you're not so shocked after all. I met my friend in the street and he also jumped on the motorbike so basically that made three of us but fortunately we managed to get to the restaurant. On the way we passed by women selling some fried stuff in the street: when I approached I noticed it was spiders... I almost fainted but basically just ran away to this place of which I don't remember the name where first we noticed there a were a lot of children waiters (we had about ten for our table) and then after dinner they basically all gave you massage on the head, shoulders and arms and then took you to dance with them to some local pop music... We had a blast and so did they. They took their bowties away and danced the night away. The next day I was sitting in the hotel cafeteria overlooking the street and I saw these two young buddhist monks staring at me. I was half asleep and did not know what they wanted so we basically stared at each other for a few minutes, then I asked one of the guys from the hotel about what had just happend and he explained that the monks basically go to a place and receive offers but they can't ask for them nor can they talk so people just know and give them something. Damn if I had imagined it before. It was time to go back to Thailand to meet my boyfriend so I had to leave with all the memories from this controversial, difficult yet for me so pleasant place warm at heart. I'll always remember my experience in Cambodia as one of the strongest and more instructive of all and I believe everybody should have the same at least once in their life.
Fried spiders
Buddhist monk
Beautiful Cambodian kids