Resilience is something North Americans know very little about. But to learn something about the sad history of the Cambodian people, and to experience the genuine warmth they continue to offer visitors today is to understand something about the Resilience human beings are capable of.
Cambodia was part of the French Colony of Indo China until 1954 when independence was declared under the leadership of King Naradom Sihanouk. This was the beginning of an unstable 20 year reign, plagued with rebel incursions, as well as with attacks from Vietnamese and American armed forces. In 1974, a rebel group, the Khmer Rouge began an offensive on the capital, Phenom Penn. 1975 brought the fall of the capital to Khmer Rouge forces and the beginning of a massive "purification" of Cambodian society. The KR was an extension of China's Maoist Communist state and they would attempt to transform the country from one which was urban and industrialized to one which was agrarian and peasant based. All cities and large towns were evacuated, and all educated people were arrested, tortured and killed. Between 1975-1979 2 million (out of a population of 12 million) were executed. Though 1979 brought a change in the official
government as Vietnam captured the capital, fighting continued until 1998 when Pol Pot, the leader of the Khmer Rouge, died, and the movement collapsed. Cambodian politics remains unstable and corrupt to date. Many former Khmer Rouge war criminals continue to go unpunished for the atrocities they incurred.
One only has to look into the dark eyes of locals to see that these are a tortured people with brutal stories to tell. Cambodia remains one of the poorest countries in Asia and the largest contributor to the national economy is still international aid.
The wounds are fresh and visible everywhere; a police officer with whip marks across his chest, a guest house owner who's back is covered in torture wounds, a motorcycle taxi driver who lost both parents to the Khmer Rouge. But at the end of the day, these people go on living, working and even smiling, the only way they can.
And look, here come the backpackers! in search of cheap living, local girls, and available Marijuana. They are not afraid to be drunk, rude and culturally inappropriate. They go out of their way's to shield themselves from local culture, force restaurant proprietors to offer Western food,
and yell in disgust when they are forced to squat in the bathroom and use water instead of toilet paper. Seeing them everywhere gives me a sense of self loathing, as I am one of them. By virtue of my Canadian heritage I say "please" and "thank you" more often, smile at everyone I see, and even donate badly needed blood, but I am one of them.
Nichole and I stood in line at the custom officials at the PoiPet border crossing between Thailand and Cambodia. In front of us, towering 2-3 feet above the diminutive and mostly Asian line up was "Happy Snaps". 7 feet tall and 130 lbs, the locals stared up in disbelief at this awkward monstrosity, as he constantly took pictures of everything in sight. We had just endured a three hour bus ride with him, listening to his racist remarks, and watching him take terrible picture after terrible picture. He embodies everything that I hate about my kind.
Shepherds waited for us on the other side of the boarder to heard all of the white people onto the Free Tourist Bus, lest we be exposed to the local poverty. We sat in the
shade of the bus depot, learning Cambodian from friendly locals, trying hard to stomach cheap local cuisine, and watching little boys desperately vie for Nichole’s attention by performing provocative dance moves.
The "Road" from Poipet to Siem Reap is a combination of gravel, sand, large boulders, sketchy bridges, massive potholes and chewing gum and gotch. However those with a strong stomach and 8 hours to spare are treated to a glimpse of a traditional rural Cambodia, not seen by most backpackers. This changed fast, however as the bus drove from Third to First world when it pulled into Siem Reap's main street. 5 star hotel after 5 star hotel, Siem Reap is a city that owes its existence to Cambodia's biggest Tourist Attraction, Angkor Watt. Nichole and I rented bikes and set off at 5 am the next morning to explore the ruins of this once great empire. Spectacular Architecture, expensive ice cream, and hordes of Japanese tourists made the day educational and entertaining.
The next day we would set off towards the storied Capital of Phenom Penn; a city as famed for its available and cheap social vices as for it's French Colonial Architecture and delicious French
On the Road Again
like a band of Japanese Tourists we'll go down the highway
Bread and coffee. Phenom Penn is also cursed with a large and mostly stoned population of spoiled backpackers who spend their days and nights in hammocks at riverside guesthouses being stoned backpackers. Nichole and I spent our time here eating Indian food, making fun of stoned backpackers, and teaching local beggars how to dance. We also visited S-21, a torture camp from the Khmer Rouge era, and the killing fields. Blood stains remain on the tiled floors of the torture chambers, and human bones are found everywhere on the grounds of the killing fields, producing an extremely real experience. These wounds are fresh.
Being in a country as poor as Cambodia and seeing as many ass hole back packers as Rabid Dogs, made Nichole and I guilt stricken pretty fast. And so, a way to sleep at night presented itself and we jumped at the opportunity. We would give blood. No questions asked. They sat us down chairs, took a pint of blood, and provided us with a meal and souvenir hats and t-shirts. Canadian Blood Services could learn a lesson.
Morning brought the beginning of our search for the rare Iriwaddy River Dolphin, found only in the
Northern town of Kratie. However, as we stepped off the bus halfway between Phenom Penn and Kratie for a food break, our hopes of swimming with the dolphins quickly became in doubt. The booming restaurant scene struggles to keep the dog population under control. Further, 'The Price Is Right' is unavailable on most local channels, and so dogs and cats are left un-neutered and free to breed at random. The results are terrifying. Testicle and nipple sizes soar out of control, Cats, Dogs, Pigeons and rats all engage in interspecies breeding and most creatures that roam the streets have countless injuries due to the street wars that these dogs are a part of.
I sit at a table trying to force down yet another mysterious rice based dish. The chaos of the Cambodian daily grind surrounds me, and my nostrils are filled with strange, vomit inducing smells. The meat has a distinct gaminess to it. Something hairy touches my leg. The ugliest, piece of shit, little dog is sitting their wearing a desperate and dejected look. The dog is not hungry, he has revenge in his eyes; for in my bowl is the cooked remains of this dogs best
Mormons shouting the word of god
from upon high via the back of an elephant
friend and brother. He knows. I think back to my decision not to get Rabies shots prior to leaving England. I add this to my growing list of recent regrets. Its time to get back on the bus. In Kratie we swam in rapids, saw dolphins from a distance and nearly contracted rabies from more hordes of ugly mutts.
There is an uncomfortable space between sleep and awake where I spend most of my time during bus travel. I am stirred awake from this state. The bus grinds to a halt on the side of the highway halfway between Poipet and Bangkok. Nichole and I are escorted to a bench under the shade of a highway patrol police station. Diarrhea had reared its ugly head once more to wreak havoc on my already battered bowels. I stand up and start walking towards the toilet when Nichole yells after me and tells me the bus is leaving. I clench and walk back to the bus. The air in the bus is cold, but I am sweating profusely. All I can think of is reaching a toilet on time. I will beat this Demon back in Bangkok.
Nichole just spotted
the rare irawaddy River Dolphin. Good Work!
nichole for the good times and the pictures for the blog!
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