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Published: January 2nd 2007
The Killing FieldsThe Dark Side
The sad legacy of Cambodia.
I had two extremely different experiences in Phnom Penh. The first is what most people see...the piles of human skulls, prison museums, depressions in the landscape left over from digging up mass graves, gun ranges, etcetera. It brings you closer to the dark side that lingers inside all of us. These people weren't afflicted with anything that isn't inside each of us after all, but extreme circumstances can crop up out of seemingly nothing and make people do strange things. It's the all too common lesson of mass violence that for some reason mankind has yet to learn. I imagine most people are eager to leave Phnom Penh and I can understand why after a few days of depressing activities. However there is something very amazing lurking just underneath the craziness of this city. Under the thick layer of dirt and pollution, above the noise of the chaotic traffic and tuk-tuk drivers, beyond the over aggressive salesmen and hustlers. The Other Side
I don't know that I ever would have seen this side if I hadn't stumbled upon the annual Water Festival. As I tend not to plan ahead more than a few days, it
A young Cambodian takes some time out to pose for my camera.
was pure luck that I happend to be in Phnom Penh during this festival, which also happened to overlap with my 28th birthday. Fantastic! (Traveler's note: In 2006, the dates were November 3-6th, though it's based on the lunar calendar so 2007 will change accordingly. Traveler's should also note that it does not coincide with the more famous Thai festival.) Water Festival, Cambodian Style
The Cambodian Water Festival has several storylines to it. One says it's a celebration of the Cambodian's love and respect of the mighty Mekong River for providing nutritious soils and abundant fish. Others insist it hales from proud navy history when literally thousands of 70 man canoes used to wage war for the kings. Still another story claims the festival marks the time of year when the Mekong changes direction and actually starts to flow back upstream refilling lakes throughout the country, including South East Asia's largest near Siem Reap. Regardless of the history, today's festival is an affair not to be missed for Cambodians. Unlike the Thai festival, Cambodians aren't splashing around getting everyone and everything wet. Here, it's all about the boat races! On the Mekong River some 300+ boats raced two at a
Fried bird spider anyone? That's atleast 4 bites to finish that off.
time over 3 days. A cash prize awaits the winning boat, but reputedly it's so low that it doesn't even pay off more than 2 dollars per crew member. The boats as you can see were long canoes, painted with brilliant colors, adorned with offerings to Buddha of bananas, incense, pomelo fruit, coconut, etc. Each boat had 70 rowmen who used dagger-like paddles, and one over the top coxswain. (sp?) Teams dressed in various uniforms, from all black traditional wraps, to t-shirts and baseball hats with local sponsors names, to purple velvet cloaks with matching pimp hats. There were even two different categories of boats, as some boats raced standing up, levering longer paddles on tall oar locks, while most sat down low in the water with their short colorful paddles. The races went on all day long, and the participants had lots of time to wait in "the pit", grabbing food and drink, and enjoying the beautiful sunny days with friends and family. The only people getting wet were the handful of naked kids that scavenged the river's edge for recyclable plastic bottles. The Food
During the festival the city swells with visitors from the countryside and
other cities. People set up coolers and sell drinks and snacks anywhere there is space to do so. And in order not to lose the best spots they will also spend the nights in the exact same place. Races aside, the food alone was of absolute curiousity to me. I tried a few new dishes like freshly pressed cane juice or hot cakes made with a chewy bamboo and coconut mixture of some sort. Others, as you can see in thepictures here were beyond my sense of adventure. In order of least likely to be consumed to no chance in hell: adolescent yellow chickens(?), stir fired grub/wormy things, unidentified fried black beetles/roaches, and of course fried bird spiders the size of my palm. In fact I didn't see many locals partaking either. It must have been a country-side delicacy because everyone I offered to buy one for quickly screwed up their mouth and had a hand in front of their face. So I stuck with the rice and beans in bamboo stalk, coconut foods, sugar cane, bottled water, beer, and so on for my daily sustenance. One photo shows me indulging in a birthdy beer, wearing a local hat to
beat the heat, at the Foreign Correspondent Club's roof terrace overlooking the races. Not a bad view! Feeling Foreign
I spent every day just walking around peering over the massive crowds. I quite enjoyed the feeling of being so tall (although I am an average 5 foot 11 inches in the west), and seemed to be a source of endless amusement to locals as well. I didn't go anywhere where people weren't interested in me, whether just to look or to interact. The girls giggled and snuck looks. The boys stared obviously but smiled when acknowledged. The old ladies would point to my straw hat and smile in approval. Vendors beamed and even enjoyed some chuckles with friends when I stopped to enjoy their food. People would stop me to practice a few english words, including "you're so tall!" A ring of men made room for me so that I could get a good photo of the gambling game being played. Kids would bounce around offering bright smiles and then go into near hysteria when they were shown their own images on my digital camera. A mini riot of 10 children would sometimes ensue to the point where
The infamous kalishnakov
I had to shoot the AK47, which surprised me with how much kick it had, and how freaking loud it was. I passed on the hand grenade and rocket launcher. No thanks.
you would put your camera away for fear that someone was going to get hurt. It was a scene I later found was familiar in many rural happy towns.
Although I spent only a few days in Phnom Penh I soaked up all the best things the Cambodian people had to offer. And so I left for Hong Kong full of colorful scenery, friendly smiles and happy lingerings. What a wonderful way to kick off the beginning of my 28th year on our wonderful planet!
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