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A Cambodian Connection

CAMBODIA | Tuesday, 3 July 2012 | Views [881]

Sharing a meal with a Cambodian family almost always involves spreading a few mats out on the floor of the living room or the outside patio, a few bowls of rice, a bowl of soup, typically fish, and being asked multiple times if you want more. This is the tricky part. If you say, “It’s very good!” then they expect you to want a second and third helping. Saying the food is delicious and then turning down another bowl is confusing. So, you pretty much have to plan on that second helping, prefacing it with the statement that its good, and then turning down the third round without repeating that it was good.

 

The majority of our time in Cambodia revolved around family time. Eating, chatting, eating some more, laughing, attempting to understand Khmer, trying to make babies smile, and maybe eating some more. Every time I turned around a new cousin was showing up to visit and of course eat. I specifically say ‘cousin’ because for my husband’s immediate family, cousins are all that’s really left. Many members of my mother-in-law’s immediate family did not survive the reign of the Khmer Rouge. When I looked around the room during many of those meals, I realized everyone over 50 had experienced those terrifying years and survived it.

If you are not familiar with the genocide that took place in Cambodia in the 1970’s, you should take a minute to look it up on Wikipedia or Google it. I am not going to give a history lesson here, but I think it’s important for people to understand how intense meeting this family for the first time was for me considering the history and stories I have heard over the past 5 years. Also important to note, when we visited the prison camps and torture camps in Phnom Penh, it was particularly distressing. My Mother-in-law did not join us for those tours.

 

Aside from family time, we did visit a few tourist sites. Apparently, Angkor Wat just isn’t what it used to be. When Ves visited many years ago, you could rent a moto and drive yourself all around the temples and ancient ruins. Other than the two most popular ruins, Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom, there are many other sites definitely worth seeing that are spread out, some more than 30 kilometers from Siem Reap.

Today, foreigners are not permitted to drive themselves anywhere around Siem Reap, and especially not to or around Angkor Wat. So you have to either ride a bicycle or hire a tuk tuk driver. Expect a bumpy, dusty ride for both modes of transport. Considering all there is to see, possibly requiring a minimum of three days, the cost of a one day ticket being $20, and the tuk tuk driver being $15 for a full day (not including a tip), it’s a pretty penny to see the 8th Wonder of the World. Oh, and none of that includes a tour guide, if you want to understand what you are looking at beyond that it’s a really cool, old stone carving.

 

Angkor Wat is magnificent. The sheer size of the various temples is dumbfounding. Similar to visiting Machu Picchu, you walk around completely baffled by how these giant stone blocks came to be a majestic, functioning city. The moat surrounding Angkor Wat and the two reflective pools inside are perfectly picturesque. It truly is a beautiful place to spend a few days and I can totally understand why locals come here weekly for picnics and evening strolls.

The other slightly disturbing aspect concerning future visits to Angkor Wat involves the restoration currently taking place. Much of the ruins are crumbling to the ground. I don’t just mean pieces of walls flaking off; I mean entire sections of buildings falling apart. I’m sure the recent influx of tourism to places like Angkor Wat and Machu Picchu plays a big role in the demise of these ancient cities. But, I’m still not sure how I feel about countries like Cambodia and Laos producing replicated versions of the statues, temples, and sites, and attaching then them to the old. They might have to come up with a new name for them; instead of ‘ancient ruins’ they might be called ‘ancient/contemporary ruins.’

 

We also visited Battambang, which struck me as another sleepy, riverside town. We rode the bamboo train, which felt like an old-fashioned roller coaster ride, but I did appreciate the functionality of it. Before it became a tourist attraction, it was mainly used to transport foods and other goods between towns that fell along the old railway.

We spent a few days in Sihanoukville. This bipolar beach town is filled with new resort complexes that are completely empty, and pre-war hotels that are now missing windows and are covered in mold and vines. The beaches however are still as lovely as ever.

 

Probably the most moving and memorable ‘must-see’ site in Cambodia for me was the Killings Fields and the Tuol Sleng Museum in Phnom Penh. To put it simply, the Tuol Sleng Museum was formerly a high school that the Khmer Rouge turned into a torture chamber and prison, and the Killing Fields was one of the many locations where the regime executed the prisoners and buried them.

 

The mood of both places was presumably solemn, I felt sick to my stomach during the entire tour. Some changes have been made here as well. The Fields recently added an audio tour included with the admission, which was very informative, and the Museum has cleaned up the torture rooms and removed some of the graphic photos I guess to make the tour a little less unsettling.

 

All in all, it was poignant, emotional, and very informative. I learned so much about my husband, his mother, my new family, and the often-sad history of Cambodia. Some of it wasn’t easy, some of it wasn’t fun, but I am going home today with a new connection to a part of the world that seems, and is, so far away from my little life in the States.

Tags: angkor thom, angkor wat, bamboo train, battombang, bayon, cambodia, killing fields, sihanoukville, torture chambers, tuol sleng museum

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