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Cambodia: The Sleeping Lotus

CAMBODIA | Tuesday, 24 March 2015 | Views [739]

These things happened within 12 hours of my arrival in Cambodia: (1) I bribed an immigration official so that we could cut to the front of the long visa stamping line; (2) I went to a pizza restaurant that was out of pizza; (3) I saw a tourist in a grocery store buying baby formula for a begging local woman holding a limp baby (I later found out that this was a common local scam*); (5) There was a massive power outage cutting off power to the entire city, except for those businesses with generators - like the local Hard Rock Cafe; (4) I witnessed a flash mob of zombie dressed Cambodian teens being video taped by a MTV Japan film crew.  


Welcome to Cambodia!


If you’re my age or older, when you think of Cambodia you probably think of all the tragedy visited upon the small Southeast Asian nation since the early 1970s. The country was carpet bombed by the U.S. Air Force during the Vietnam War in an attempt to cut off a supply line the North Vietnamese set up in Cambodia. The Khmer Rouge and their infamous leader Pol Pot subsequently took control of the country, and during a five year reign of terror, millions of innocent Cambodians were killed via starvation and outright murder. The entire population of the capital city was forcibly relocated to rural work camps. Money was outlawed. The educated were killed en masse, doctors, teachers, just about anyone who could read, was slaughtered by the Khmer Rouge. One quarter of the entire population died. After that, Vietnam invaded Cambodia, leading to a more than a decade of additional conflict and leaving Cambodia littered with countless land mines. Even today, despite years of mine clearing, children still lose limbs to land mines strewn in rice paddies.


Cambodia’s tragic recent past stands in stark contrast to its ancient glory. Between the 9th and 15th centuries, Cambodia boasted one of the world’s great civilizations, the Khmer empire. Its capital, Angkor, had a population of over a million at a time when London was a city of less than 50,000.   The Khmer of that era built the majestic Temples of Angkor, which are widely considered the greatest collection of religious structures ever constructed. 


My destination in Cambodia was Siem Reap, the epicenter of Cambodian tourism. Siem Reap is a small river town that serves as the the jumping off point for nearby Angkor Park, home to the Angkor Temples.** It is a dusty, dirty place, filled with emaciated cows and handsome people. 


In Siem Reap, you can buy a one, three or seven day pass to Angkor Park. None of these time periods are really sufficient for an in-depth exploration of a park which encompasses a total area larger than Manhattan, but I figured a three day pass would do me just fine. Much more time than that and I’d be apt to get temple burnout. Besides, there are many things to do in the Siem Reap area other than exploring temples, things like visiting a floating village or getting an hour long foot massage for five dollars. 


One of my favorite activities in Siem Reap was a guided walk through the village surrounding my hotel. The local villagers were impoverished but proud. They showed off their homes, rice fields public primary school and small medical clinic. One of the most interesting people I met on the tour was a 96 year old woman, the village’s oldest resident by far. Looking at her tiny frame and big eyes, I couldn’t help but think of all of the terrible tragedy she must have witnessed during her lifetime.  


The lotus flower is a powerful symbol in Buddhist culture. You see lotus ponds fronting many Cambodian temples.  Every night, the lotus recedes into the murky depths of a pond only to emerge and bloom the next day, pristine and beautiful. It’s easy to see why the Cambodians relate to the lotus. Cambodians are a kind and seemingly gentle people. They laugh and smile more than most people I have met. I wish them the best of luck. After the long, dark night they’ve endured, they deserve to bloom. 







*From what I’ve read, the scam works like this. A baby is drugged to look listless. Its mother and a store owner are in cahoots. Feeling sorry for the seemingly sick child, a guilt ridden tourist buys some formula from the store at a highly inflated price and gives it to the mother. The mother later returns the formula and splits the proceeds with the store owner. The formula is then resold, perhaps in the same manner to another unsuspecting tourist. 


**People often erroneously refer to the entirety of Angkor Park as Angkor Wat. However, Angkor Wat is just one of many temples that make up Angkor Park. It’s the most famous one, but not the largest. That title is held by nearby Angkor Thom. Angkor Wat is famous because of it’s five massive towers, shaped like closed lotus flowers, which at sunrise reflect off the water of a small lake. Angkor Wat is also distinctive because it is a Hindu temple, in an area dominated but Buddhist Temples.    


Tags: angkor, cambodia, hard rock cafe, khmer, lotus, siem reap, temples, zombie

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