Mack’s comment on the last post was quite funny. And yes, the scarcity of blog posts can be read that we are having a good time, but it also means we have been very, very busy.

View of our Riverside Hut in Vang Vieng

First, travels down Laos. We left Veng Viang at 1:30 pm local time and arrived in Siem Reap Cambodia 7 buses and 35 hours later. Bumping down the length of the Lao People’s Democratic Republic was oh-so-fun, and the confusing layovers in Vientiane and Pakse just added to the pleasure.

Scrunched in to the technicolor rave night bus. Yee haw!

Getting across the Laos-Cambodia border was quite a riot though. First came the Laotian customs, $1 please for your exit stamp.

After a 5 minute walk through a sweltering No-Man’s Land of a border, we were greeted with the Cambodian Health Checkpoint, a plastic awning over a card table. Our temperature was taken ($1 please), and we filled out card with our names, addresses etc. that earned us a pamphlet warning us of the dire dangers of H1N1, but reassuring us that Cambodian Authorities had an apparatus in place to deal with any infections. At this point we were also made privvy to the greatest point of connection between Cambodia and California, that there are many Cambodians living in Long Beach and Sacramento. The woman who took our temperature has a nephew in the Marines in Iraq. That was an eye-opener.

Across the street was the Visa checkpoint, ($23 please). Here, we were almost scrutinized before receiving another awesome full-page visa sticker with all sorts of official looking seals and pseudo-communist grain sheaves adorning its edges. After receiving our visa we made our way another 50 feet to the Customs Hut ($1 please), where we were officially stamped in to the Kingdom of Cambodia.

We then had the pleasure of waiting about an hour and a half for some not-too bright Europeans (Spaniards mostly, I think), who failed to recognize that there would not be any ATM’s in the middle of the Cambodian jungle, and no, you cannot pay for a visa in Laotian Kip (despite this fact being constantly advertised on any bus line bearing you towards the border, in every guidebook and reiterated by the bus company upon your departure for the border). We think they were just ticked off that they had to pay in Amurrikan greenbacks and not their precious Euros (“You know, a Euro is worth more, they’d be making more money, I guess they’re just stupid…”).

After that pleasant layover we got on another, if possible- jankier- bus and began chugging our way across Cambodia. Literally. If you look at a map, we crossed the border at Trapaing Kreal, at the South-East corner of Laos, and then spent 10 hours driving to within 60 kilometers of Phnom Penh before heading north again to Siem Reap. Efficient.

Upside- we got to see quite a bit of Cambodia’s beautiful countryside, watch the new Karate Kid movie and get our first Cambodian scam out of the way. ($3 to upgrade to a nicer bus which never materialized, not too tragic).

We arrived in Siem Reap at about 12:30 am, pretty spaced out. Katie was waiting for me to get off the bus and yelled my name across the crowd, a cunning tuk-tuk driver identified who she was calling to, and accosted me by name at the back of the crowd while clamoring for my backpack. “Jack, Jack” he yelled with a welcoming smile as if I was a long-lost cousin. This is how we met Sam, Sam Sam the Tuk-Tuk man (we sing his praises in song), who has been more-or-less our personal tuk-tuk driver these last 3 days.

Sam Sam the Tuk Tuk Man in Action. The Cambodians seem to be bigger believers in helmets than the Laotians or Thais.

I’m running out of battery so I have to speed up the narrative at this point….

Next day, we wake up late (in a massive room, all the guesthouses here have at least 15 foot ceilings.) and spent the day wandering Siem Reap. This is a cool city. We’re in one of the poorest parts of Cambodia, but Siem Reap does a nice business acting as host city to the multitudes (and even though its the ‘height’ of the off-season, there really are multitudes) of tourists who fly in to the specially made airport to visit the wonderful, mind bogglingly large, legendary, boombastamitastic, ANGKOR WAT.

Bum bum baaaa!!!!

Fidel Castro finds the gates of Angkor pleasing.

Angkor Wat itself dates from the 13th century and the reign of King Jayavarman VII, but is part of an extended complex which contains temples and ruins from the 9th century to the 16th century.

Angkor Wat is the largest religious building on Earth. St. Peter’s? Check. Hagia Sophia? Check. Angkor beats them all. As such, its huge. The complex of Angkor Wat is surrounded by a moat with sides something like 1.6 kilometers long. The gates are 30 meters tall and it acted as the religious center of the Angkor Thom, the city just a skip to the North, which housed a million people by 1200. (For reference, at this time London had less than 70 thousand).

Contemplating the sunset atop an Angkor temple.

So it’s big, and it takes at least 3 days to see the big stuff. Which includes at least 10 temple complexes, numerous mebons (lake-sized artificial reservoirs with their own accompanying temple complexes), Royal Temples, kilometers-long terraces and miscellaneous rock piles. A fun fact to keep in mind as one wanders through these massive structures is that the remaining buildings are exclusively religious in nature. They were built to house icons of various members of the Hindu pantheon, no monks, kings or anybody. Only Gods ( and later Buddhas), were considered worthy of living in stone structures, so the entire city that house those one million people, and even the palaces, were all wood and as such have left barely a trace other than the remnants of some truly massive pillars that once were part of one of any number of palaces.

This is a small side building consistently referred to as a 'library', though it was nothing of the sort. It was just a small side temple with its own deity.

It takes a while to drink it all in.

Our first day we went with our big-man Sam. Sam took us on what is called the “Grande Tour”, a 35 kilometer loop that hits Angkor Wat proper, Preah Khan (“sacred sword”-commemorates a big battle) two mebons and two smaller temples.

The second day we opted out of the tuk-tuk and did the “Petite tour” (thank you French colonialism…) on bicycles. This included the central state temple of Angkor Thom, Ta Phrom (the famous temple that looks like its being eaten by trees), the Royal temple, and the Elephant and ‘Leper King’ terraces.

The unconquerable jungle.

These temples were houses for Gods, not places for congregations to worship. As such some of them are quite oddly designed from a mortal's perspective.

On the third day we got back on board with Sam for the 16 kilometer journey away from Siem Reap (I probably should have mentioned that Angkor Wat is 6 k away from Siem Reap) to whats known as the Rolous Complex, which is a set of three main temples and their accompanying mebons that were the first structures built in the area, dedicated around 802 CE.

The pointing man approves of the Strangler Fig.

Books have been written about Angkor (and I read one, does it show?) that can tell you much more than this scant overview. But being such an impressive sight I thought it really worthwhile to try and communicate some of the downright jaw-dropping majesty that we’ve been tramping through these past few days.

As a last note on Angkor- the site is often discussed as having been ‘discovered’. This is, pardon, patently bullshit. The Khmer never ‘forgot’ about Angkor, and Angkor Wat itself has been in continual habitation and use for the past 800 years. People still live there. It doesn’t appear that they’re allowed to engage in much agriculture anymore and most seem to make a living selling paintings, rubbings, bamboo flutes and postcards to tourists. The capitol of Kampuchea was moved to Phnom Penh in the 16th century because it was better situated next to the river for trade with the Siamese capitol of Ayutthaya. We visited the Ayutthaya ruins earlier in our trip and now understand why they were consistently referred to as ‘Angkor style’, really cheap knockoffs. (No offense Thailand, your ruins are beautiful). Interestingly, the French imperial archaeologists stumbling upon Angkor may have been one of the worst things that ever happened to the place, because immediately thereafter Western antique dealers began indiscriminately lopping off the best surviving statues and bas-reliefs, and selling them to punks like W.R. Hearst.

Troop of children from one of the small villages dotted around the Angkor complex. Not a bad place to run amok if you ask me.

One of Vishnu's avatars kicking some tail.

Altar in Angkor Wat. Still functioning after 800 years.

Tower face of Avalokiteshvara, Buddha of Compassion. Interestingly, all these faces bear a striking resemblance to that of King Jayavarman VII himself....

Cambodia, even in the short time we’ve been here, has proven itself to be the most historically alive nation we’ve seen thus far. Despite the wonders of Angkor, Cambodia is widely known for a darker, more sinister history, one that unfortunately lives larger in living memory than the wonders of Angkor- the legacy of the Khmer Rouge regime.

Katie exploring a Russian tank from the Cambodian Civil War at the War Museum.

From 1975/6 until 1979, the Khmer Rouge managed to murder 1.7 million Cambodians, roughly a quarter of the then 7 million people living in Cambodia.

It’s very difficult for me to write about in any way that would do the Khmer people’s plight justice, but two stories must suffice.

The first is our visit to the War Museum. Before spending our first evening watching the sunset from a hilltop temple in Angkor, we ‘stopped by’ the War Museum to catch up on some recent history. We were totally unprepared for Tom, our guide, and his headlong rush through the history of Cambodia, 1960-1999, focusing on the years 1970-79. Tom has one arm. In 1979/80 he was 15 years old living with his family of 6 in the Cambodian countryside, at a time when the nation was trying to return to normalcy despite the fact that the Khmer Rouge were fighting the Vietnamese and Thai armies on the Western border. In order to make some more money that his meager smallholding of rice paddies could provide, Tom’s father gathered and disarmed land mines, taking the valuable fuses, metals and TNT out of them and selling them. Tom’s father believed that his traditional Khmer tattoos would protect him from the mines. They didn’t. One night a mine his father was disarming detonated, instantly killing Toms mother, father, two sisters, one brother and taking off Tom’s left arm and filling his stomach with shrapnel. In the absence of any kind of medical care, Tom retreated to a nearby group of monks who had recently come above-ground following the abdication of the anti-clerical Khmer Rouge regime, who put him in the hands of a local ‘doctor’ who managed to save Tom’s life by taking off the gangrenous stump of his arm, but could not protect him against the soon-to-come ravages of tetanus wrought by the shrapnel in his torso.

16, roughly patched up and without a family in a war torn country, Tom hit the road, soon meeting a Christian church group who became his new family. Tom now speaks excellent English (thanks to a missionary school and a teacher from Denver, CO), is employed as a guide at the museum and has a full belly, something that he didn’t have for over 7 years under the Khmer Rouge and after. He calls himself a Buddhist and a Christian and is, if I might add, a mighty strong shot of reality. At the end of his tour the two of us could only gasp and say thank you. Needless to say the sunset trip had a bit of a pall cast over it.

American Howitzer left behind after the Vietnam War and then used in the Cambodian Civil War. All of the weapons used in the war, and the bullets, uniforms, mines and money, were supplied by either the Russo-Chinese or the Franco-American forces. There was nothing Cold about this War.

Second story.

The next night we attended a documentary on the Khmer Rouge regime that shows every night in the local Night Market. We were the only people there. The documentary was pretty disjointed, a breakneck 41 minutes that shifted between English, French and Khmer and had a narrative that was, to say the least, hard to follow. When we emerged, the one thing we could agree upon was that we needed a beer, and found our way to a bar some 25 feet away. Our waitress, Hani, had seen us exit the theater, and when we sat down came right on up and started talking.

“What did you think of the movie?”

“…uh, it was, interesting, very sad…”

“Interesting? It was terrible.”

“Yes, yes, terrible…”

“I don’t like the Khmer Rouge”

“Neither do we.”

“They killed my father and two brothers, I don’t like the Khmer Rouge.”

Hani then went on to tell us the story of her mother and father, forced to marry by the Khmer Rouge, and of how the Khmer Rouge then ended up killing her father and two of her brothers. Hani was born in 1980, a year after the Khmer Rouge regime ended, and she spent the rest of the evening popping by to fill us in on more details of her life, life in Cambodia in general, and life as a 1st grade teacher. (A cocktail waitress by night, Hani teaches 1st grade 6 days a week at a village school some 25 kilometers outside of Siem Reap).

What struck us (at least me) the most was how completely unprompted Hani came over and was so open in sharing her family’s story, and her story with us. It is obviously a story that needs to be told, and she fortunately has the wherewithal to tell it.

Later in the evening the material became lighter; she told us about the first time she took an escalator, the trials of commanding a room full of 45 1st graders, and we all sang “The Wheels on the Bus” together (Hani feels that song reflects her life, rolling along between teaching and cocktailing, continually rolling and rolling and rolling). Meeting Hani was an amazing experience, but people like her and Tom drive home like a silver stake through the face how the people of Cambodia are really survivors of a genocide, a Holocaust, and it gives you pause as you munch away at your delicious Fish Amok (steamed in banana leaf, a Khmer specialty).

As always, with love and fond thoughts,

Jack & Katie