Saturday, March 24, 2012

Smile, you're in Cambodia!

Despite not being there for long (only 7 days) and not doing too much sightseeing, Cambodia became my favorite country of Southeast Asia. The most compelling thing are its people: the kindest, friendliest, smiliest, most beautiful of this part of the world.

 A Romanian saying goes something like this: "The man makes the place holy." (literal translation). It's what kept coming to mind while being in Cambodia. Cambodia is not a particularly pretty country, geographically speaking: all flat, extremely dry during the dry season and all flooded during the rainy season. In addition to that, it's one of the poorest countries in the world, which has recently gone through one of the most horrific genocides known to mankind. And still, its people are all smiles, all the time. They are full of optimism, positive energy, kind words. They have perfect brown skin, crowned by huge white smiles. I want to hug them all. Angelina knew where it's at - maybe one day I'll adopt my own cute Cambodian baby!

At the Museum of National History in Phnom Penh I got surrounded by a group of 15 year old kids, who came with their English teacher from a small town to the big city. It was March 8th, Mother's day, and the schools had the day off. To celebrate this day, the teacher took the kids to the museum. When they saw me, the kids asked if they can practice their English with me. Then we took a lot of photos, with me and each of them in turn.

On the road that took us from Saigon in southern Vietnam to Phnom Penh in Cambodia. This is how a small town in Cambodia would look like seen from the bus, with bustling markets and shops set up on the side of the main road.

On the way from Vietnam to Phnom Penh our bus had to cross a river on a ferry. The ferry was packed with motorbikes carrying all sorts of things, like these ones, carrying two live pigs each. The pigs' back and front legs were tightly tied to each other, so the animals couldn't make a move. It was almost 100F degrees outside, so the pigs had a huge ice block on top of them, that was melting and keeping them cool. The pigs would frequently piss and shit, and all their crap was slowly dripping down on the side of the motorbike. I felt sad for the poor things, but since people in Cambodia are too poor to afford cars, this is really the only way to transport anything.

Just a typical scene from the side of the road.

We arrived in Phnom Penh late in the afternoon and were surprised to find it more modern and developed than we thought. The Mekong river promenade is wide and pedestrian-only, full of benches where local teenage lovers hang out. The street along the river is lined up with nice hotels, restaurants and shops catering to foreign tourists. There is also a bustling expat community in Phnom Penh and many businesses catering to them. I was also shocked by the high number of Lexus SUVs crusing the streets of Phnom Penh. In a country as poor as Cambodia, driving around a Lexus SUV is a sore contrast. These are the nuveau riche, officials, army leaders, construction moguls, etc.

Another shocking thing about Phnom Penh was the white grampa & young Cambodian lady combo. Apparently, a lot of older white males comes here for sex tourism. They either get a different lady every night, or they have one lady, with whom they walk around on the streets hand in hand, they feed, and obviously f*** at night. If they can... haha! One night, Daniel and I were walking on these alleys trying to find a massage parlor where all the masseurs are blind people. We stumbled onto this alley that was lined up with girlie bars. Sexy 16 to 20 year old girls were lined up in front of every bar, blowing kisses at passers by and trying to get them to come to their bar. Some of the bars had one or two older white men sitting at a table outside. One girl on the lap, another girl giving him a shoulder massage. All of these guys have white hair, a big belly and for the most part look disgusting. All of the girls are extremely young, skinny and wear the tiniest miniskirts. I later saw a grandpa who could barely walk. He might've been 70. A 17 year old girl helped him get out of a tuk tuk, and then they held hands like a couple in love. I couldn't help myself, so I turned around and yelled: "She could be your granddaughter."

On to more positive things: the promenade is lined up with local women who do aerobics every day in the evening and early morning. Their leader is always a young buff guy with a boombox, who volunteers dance/aerobics classes. I thought that was pretty cool.

This is the street where our guesthouse was located. We first had a nice big room with AC and huge beds. Then Anne and Daniel left for Siem Riep and I had to move to a cheaper room, without window, nor bathroom and with a barely functioning fan. That night I started watching the movie The Killing Fields (about the genocide in Cambodia - really good movie; I strongly recommend it if you haven't seen it yet.) I couldn't finish it, as it started getting grittier and I was by myself, in a windowless hotel room in Cambodia, afraid of having nightmares. That night I felt a little bit like Richard on Khao San Road.

While in Phnom Penh, we hired a tuk tuk driver to take us to the famous "Killing Fields" - a spot a few kilometers outside of the city where The Khmer Rouge killed hundreds of people and buried them in mass graves. The area where the killing fields are located is densely populated now, with houses and shops on both sides of the road leading up to the spot. But back in the 70s, the area was not populated, and covered with dense tropical forest. It was considered "far" from the city and isolated enough for people not to know what was going on there. It is also one of the many killing fields scattered all over Cambodia, but given the close proximity to the capital, this one's the most visited by tourists.

If there was ever a utopian society that actually came true, it must've been Cambodia during the Khmer Rouge rule, from 1975 to 1979. After taking power, the Khmer Rouge set out to immediately revamp Cambodian society. Their first step was to rusticate the cities, so that city people could be reformed through hard labor. These reformed subjects could then contribute to the new agrarian economy focused primarily on massive increases of rice production. Khmer Rouge transformed Cambodia into a rural, classless society in which there are no rich, no poor, and no exploitation. To accomplish this, they abolished money, free markets, normal schooling, private property, foreign clothing style, religious practices and traditional Khmer culture. The national bank was destroyed. Public schools, hospitals, pagodas, mosques, churches, universities and government buildings were shut or turned into prisons, stables, reeducation camps and granaries. There was no public or private transportation.

I have never been to Auschwitz, but this place in Cambodia made me think of it. Above, clothes found on the bodies that were dug out of the mass graves. Like any genocide act in history, its cruelty seems so absurd, so unthinkable and unimaginable, that I often wonder how the human race is capable of such a thing. In total, around 3,000,000 people were killed in Cambodia during the Khmer Rouge rule. I'm not going to go into detail about this, as there are plenty of resources online. How I feel about it? I am glad to have been in that place in person, to have stepped on the same soil where only 35 years ago, many ended their lives in an absurd, violent manner. Visiting "The Killing Fields" was one piece in the big puzzle of global awareness that each of us should have.

An alley that goes around the "killing fields." We had a guided audio tour that turned out to be really good. You could stop, sit on a bench and play an episode from the audio tour. The place was very peaceful and serene, perfect for reflection and meditation.

Three girls, begging for money outside the "killing fields." They first begged me to take their photo, so I did. Then they asked for money. I did not have any small change on me, so I told them I only have a few Vietnamese dongs, which were the equivalent of a few cents of a dollar. They gladly took that.

These are the mass graves. Each of those indentations in the ground, with grass covering it, used to be a mass grave. Forensic researchers took out all the bodies, and now the bones and skulls are all stacked up in a mausoleum. Most of the skulls have holes or cracks on them, a sign that the person died as a result of a blow to their head. Since bullets were expensive, the Khmer Rouge used axes and metal rods to kill their victims. They'd also use a blade made from a sharp palm leaf to slit throats. Every time it rains and the soil shifts, pieces of human bones come up to the surface.

This is the national museum of history in Phnom Penh. It's full of artifacts from the ancient Khmer civilization, many of which have been brought here from the temples around Siem Riep. It was a good lesson and intro for me before getting to Siem Riep. I spent a lot of time watching a long video on archeological diggings in Cambodia. It made me realize archeology is one of the coolest jobs ever: you get to travel, go on off-road adventures, and discover hidden treasures. Another video I watched was about these German archeologists who rode on the back of motorbikes through thick deep jungle in the north of Cambodia, only to find these huge stone carvings in the shape of elephants and tigers. How many people get to see that?

This is the Psar Chaa (Central Market) in Phnom Penh. I wondered there by myself one day, while Anne and Daniel were off to visit some museums. There's nothing to write home about regarding this market, however it had a cool food section, where I ate some delicious grilled squid.

Heading back home to my guesthouse. This is the street I had to walk on. I can't even begin to describe the foul smell. A lively market by day, a rat paradise by night. And life goes on, beautiful and dirty at the same time.

This little fellow seemed lost, he was just playing around, butt naked. I caught him in this photo just as he finished peeing. I hope he makes it to be a teenager and an adult - and if he does, he'll be a strong motherfucker, with a strong immune system.

This street is right behind a Buddhist wat and it was lined up with eateries and barber stations. The picture doesn't quite reflect how many barber stations there were, but they were all lined up next to each other and all had clients in the chair.

On the way to a fancy restaurant in Siem Riep, Daniel got a bit too comfy inside the tuk tuk. He then realized his feet might get cut off in the crazy traffic, and ironically, a few minutes after this photo we saw a motorbike accident, a guy lying down on the ground face down, not moving, his head resting in a pool of blood.

Taken from the bus from Phnom Penh to Siem Riep. If there's a car in Cambodia (other than a squeaky clean Lexus SUV, of course), it would probably look like this one: piled up with as many people and crap as they can possibly load it with.

On the bus ride to Siem Riep I met a cool lady from New Zealand, by the name of Rachel. Rachel is the PA of the CEO of a well-known NGO. She gets one month off work every year to work at an orphanage in Cambodia. Rachel was a bundle of life and joy, a lovely lady and I really enjoyed talking to her during our 6-hour bus ride. Rachel, if you read this - you're one of those special people that are truly awesome and glowing from inside out.

SOOO, here we are at Angkor Wat. I haven't taken too many photos if it, and I'm not going to write too much about it. Why? Because, despite being such an amazing sight to see, I was a bit low-energy due to a) the hoards of tourists and b) the oppressive heat. After being on the road for 4 months, seeing so many ruins, temples, churches, etc. in many different countries, I could say that I felt less sensitive to the beauty of this place than I should have been. I should have been more in awe, yet I wasn't... I don't know what the key to being "totally in awe about a ruin" is, but I have a few ideas: if you go to Angkor Wat, do a lot of reading beforehand. Read about its history. Suck it all up like a bloating paper. Or, get a really fucking good guide, who knows it all and can answer all your questions professionally. I'm sure we missed a lot because we were uninformed and we didn't have a proper guide. I later saw a BBC documentary about Angkor Wat, explaining the architectural genius of the place and it somehow all fell into place. I felt some of that "awe," but it was only after visiting the place. The goal to visiting any ancient ruins is to feel that "awe" while you're there. If you don't feel anything (or if you're too busy taking a million photos), you might as well watch a documentary from the comfort of your living-room couch.

All the stones used to build Angkor Wat have these holes in them. They were drilled a few inches into the rock, then bamboo rods were inserted in the holes, rope was tied around the bamboo sticks and the stones were either dragged on the ground or pulled by elephants.

This monk happened to accompany a rather handsome surfer-hair blond guy (ahem!) and I was a bit jealous that the guy got himself his own guide, and more so, a monk. Monks in Cambodia, Laos and Thailand love to speak with tourists because they want to practice their English. In return, foreigners love talking to monks because... I guess because it's cool? My biggest regret is that we didn't get to speak to any monks while we were in Southeast Asia. We were a bit intimidated to approach them, since we heard they're not allowed to touch or look at women. So, we were afraid we'd put them in an uncomfortable position.

Here we are in front of one of the two libraries flanking Angkor Wat. We asked what was kept in the libraries and our guide told us they had scripts carved on rock tablets.

With our guide at Angkor Wat. One of the coolest thing that we learned was why the temple is surrounded by a river-wide moat. As we now know, Cambodia has 2 seasons: the dry one, when it doesn't rain at all for 6 months. Then, the wet one, when it rains so much, that the Tonle Sap lake and the Mekong river grow so big, overflowing and flooding almost the entire surface of the country. Because of this, the soil is soaked in water half of the time, then it dries up and cracks the other half. Building such a huge stone temple on this soil would've meant when the soil dries up, the rocks in the foundation sink and shuffle around, and the temple loses its stability and falls. So, they built a moat. The moat ensures the soil underneath the temple always stays at the same humidity level, never too wet and never too dry. Pretty fucking genius!

The only constructions surviving from the old Khmer culture are the stone religious structures. That is because stone was reserved for the gods, and humans had to live in wood buildings. Given the wet tropical climate, none of the wood structures survived the time. However, archeologists discovered they were extremely talented wood carvers. They noticed that from the techniques they used to carve the stones at Angkor Wat. The stones are carved just like wood is carved, indicating that they were first skilled at carving wood, then they transferred those skills onto rock.

Swimming pool inside Angkor Wat. I think there are 6 swimming pools total there. 4 of them are on a lower level, where people were supposed to cleanse in water before they ascended to a higher level. The pool in the photo above is one of the 4 pools on the lower lever. The design of this pool is almost identical to the Hindu water palace we swam in in Bali. I asked the guide why they don't fill them with water now and he said the water would damage the foundation. Bummer!

This is an apsara, a dancer at the royal court of Angkor Thom (the city behind Angkor Wat). I forgot the name of the king who ordered to build Angkor Wat (in 35 years), but apparently he was the Donald Trump of his age, he liked to show off and have showy things. He permanently had tons of beautiful dancers at his court, always available to entertain him. The apsara (aka the royal court dancer) is a recurring image on the walls of Angkor Wat.

That obscure object of desire. Somehow, this photo reminds me of the Luis Bunuel movie.

It is customary for Siem Riep weddings to stop by at Angkor Wat for a photo shoot. We happened to mingle in with the official wedding photographers and snapped a few glam shots of this vibrant wedding party. It looks like pink is in this year... at least in Cambodia.

Driving around ancient temples in our tuk tuk. A blurry photo that somehow has a powerful cinematographic quality to me.

One of the gates entering Angkor Thom city. Angkor Wat was just a temple, built for religious purposes. People went there to pray. But people had to live somewhere... and they lived in the grand Angkor Thom complex, located right behind Angkor Wat. The heads of all the statues on the side of this road were cut off and removed by various invaders along time. The new heads that you see now were added later by archeologists.

This is Bayon, inside Angkor Thom. I was too tired from the 100 degree heat to get off the tuk tuk, so I lazily snapped this photo from the comfort of my shade, while Anne and Daniel went off to explore the ruins.

At Baphuon, covering my head and shoulders from burning up. It was really, really hot.

The majestic entrance to Baphuon. Scientists call this site the biggest archaeological puzzle. It turns out, right before the Khmer Rouge takeover, scientists were attempting a restoration method that implies taking the whole temple apart, taking notes of where each piece of stone was, reinforcing the foundations and then putting it back together. Sadly, the Khmer Rouge destroyed all the records of this process. So, after the Khmer Rouge was gone, scientists had the difficult task of putting the stones back together without any documentation.

This is Ta Prohm, the temple where Tomb Rider was filmed. It was built in the 12th century and unlike the other temples in the Angkor area, it was left almost the same as it was when found: jungle and massive trees took over, growing on top of the walls and through the walls. The synergy between the huge trees and the ancient stones makes this temple one of the most spectacular in the area. Here, I copied a great description of the place, found via Wikipedia: "On every side, in fantastic over-scale, the trunks of the silk-cotton trees soar skywards under a shadowy green canopy, their long spreading skirts trailing the ground and their endless roots coiling more like reptiles than plants." (Maurice Glaize, Angkor scholar.)

Ta Prohm

Ta Prohm again.

Siem Riep was full of "fish massage" tanks, laid out straight on the sidewalk. The competition was so fierce, that they almost begged you to get a massage there, for only 1 USD. Some of them would even offer you a free beer with the massage. In terms of advertising, each massage station had its own slogan, such as the one above and the one below. For those readers who don't know what this fish massage business is, it's basically a tank of water full of tiny fish. You submerge your feet in the water and all the fish will start nibbling at the dead skin around your toes, until it's all gone. It all started in the touristy parts of Thailand and then later adopted by their neighbors in Cambodia.

Strolling around the streets of Siem Riep at night I discovered a cool little art store on a tiny alley. It's called Art Deli, it's creatively decorated, especially on the upper floor, and it has some nice prints, posters and art for sale. The owners were what seemed to be Cambodian hipsters, probably the only ones I saw during my stay there.

The upstairs coffee shop area of Art Deli, with a tub converted into table. The tub was full with black and white large scale photo prints.

Street eating area in Siem Riep. I ate there one night, together with two British girls I met at the hotel. It's one of those typical Southeast Asian street grill places where you point to the fish, squid or piece of meat you want to eat, and they'll cook it right in front of you.

Food market in a village outside Siem Riep.

Food market in a village outside Siem Riep.

The next day I took a boat trip to the Kampong Phluk floating village, located very close to where a small river flows into the Tonle Sap, the biggest lake in Southeast Asia. All the houses in the village (just like many other areas in Cambodia), are built on extremely tall stilts. This protects the houses from the floods, when the Tonle Sap lake overflows during the rainy season. During the dry season, most houses have temporary kitchens and hangout areas build in the shade underneath the stilts. When it starts raining, the makeshift kitchens are disassembled and moved upstairs.

This little stilt house was made for the spirits. The religion of the people in this area is animism, which means every object has a spirit. So they built a house just for the spirits, located in-between two real houses, but just a lot smaller. How adorable is that? I just hope them spirits don't drown when the flood comes up.

View of the main (and only) street in the village. Behind the houses on the right lies the river, while behind he houses on the left there is jungle.

The other side of main street.

Main street is covered in little pieces of garbage, most of which is plastic. Small bits of plastic forks, bags, containers, etc. deeply mixed in with the soil. The obsessive-compulsive side of me really wanted to grab a rake and clean up all that shit. I asked the guide why they don't put all the trash away and he said they don't have garbage collection. Nobody ever comes to pick up their garbage, so they just leave it wherever.

Shrimp drying on main street.

Fishermen kids on the river. Their main method of fishing here is as follows: jump in the water almost naked (only wearing shorts or undies), holding a net. Bring the net back up and there will be 2 small fishies caught inside. Repeat. Many, many times, until each boy goes home with 10 or 20 such small fishes. The canal is heavily overfished, and the only way to get the big fish is to go out on the Tonle Sap lake. Also, the water is thick with mud and those kids go completely underwater. Sometimes you see the top of a head and a pair of eyes peering over the water right next to your boat.

There used to be crocodiles here in this waters, but not anymore. They've been fished to extinction. This boat was not tied properly, so it went across the river, almost blocking the passage of other boats. Instead of trying to re-tie it, boatmen were just going around it, sometimes getting their boats stuck in the muddy shallow shores.