Going Beyond the Velvet Rope in Cambodia, Part 2

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Asia » Cambodia
May 8th 2008
Published: May 8th 2008EDIT THIS ENTRY

I suppose that based on my previous entry, these posts could have been titled "Going Beyond the Red Tape...", but it really wasn't so terrible. In fact, despite the blemishes on its record, Cambodia has been my favourite stop so far. The reason for that is pretty simple: despite a remarkably bloody history, the average Cambodian may actually be the nicest person you'll ever meet.

When I say "remarkably bloody history", I mean centuries of Thais invading from the East and Vietnamese invading from the West. I mean, that for the first time in the history of civilization, the only thing that actually saved Cambodia as a nation could very well have been the French colonialists. And once they left came the even more brutal "American War" which led to a secret bombardment campaign against Cambodia as well as Vietnam. Then finally to cap it all off, the Khmer Rouge regime, a horror of governance that is responsible for over 2 million deaths at a time when Cambodia had a population of around 8 million. Yes, one full quarter of Cambodia was wiped out - particularly monks, the highly educated, and anybody who seemed to pose a threat to the ultra-communist cause.

Today, it's quite obvious in Cambodia that there is a generation missing. The population who would be around 55-60 now, or 25-35 during the regime are mostly absent, their lives lost. In the wake of this tragedy came a remarkable baby boom to bolster the population. Even today, apparently 40% of Cambodia's population is under the age of 15.

Anyway, enough facts for now. Why did I love it? I admire their resilience. The average Cambodian isn't beligerent or even openly resentful toward their history. Many of the temples of Angkor have been ruined by invading Thai or Cham armies, countless statues and carvings defaced, yet those images remain a symbol of national pride.

And then there are the children. While visiting Angkor it's easy to get worn down by the persistent entrepreuneurialism of the children. These are young children who have been asked by their families to go and sell everything from postcards to useless wooden flutes to visiting tourists, and unfortunately most of the tourists we saw got frustrated and in the case of tourists from an unnamed French-speaking European country with an unnamed new President whose name rhymes with Barcozy, are outright rude with them. In a sense I can understand the frustration of being followed around and begged to buy something you don't want in 40 degree heat, even if it is by children. They number in the hundreds and use just about every tactic imaginable to get you to open your wallet. But then it started to rain, and when the rain falls the tourists pack it up and head back to the hotel. Since it was our last day, however, we decided to tough it out. What we saw, apart from more fantastic temples was a brilliant scene: all the child vendors had put down their wares and were using the time without tourists to play. There were no fewer than 30 of them playing a huge organized game of tag. It was brilliant. Neither I nor Adrienne felt compelled to take a picture, as this was their only time all week to not be part of the attraction.

So I guess this is what I meant by "getting past the velvet rope", if you're willing to wait it out and go where not many others venture, the payoff will be huge.

We got this again in Battambang, a city in Western Cambodia. We decided to hire moto drivers for the day and take a drive through the countryside to see the surrounding villages. My driver was a stout and smiley man with an infectious laugh. He called himself "Buffalo". Truthfully, I enjoyed the journey more than the destinations. As we whizzed down the dirt roads waving to the children on their way to school, he told me all about his young family, his life, the sad state of schools in Cambodia and what he hoped for in the future. Along the way we were greeted with amazing enthusiasm by kids running out of the house just to wave or try and slap a high five with me. We stopped at a mountain known for its "Killing Caves" during the Pol Pot regime. A sad monument indeed, but again, it was made better by our 14 year old guide, a local named Pi who was headed to school in the afternoon and works taking people up the mountain in the morning. His English was broken but improving. He aspired to be a professional tour guide, and he was damn near there at 14! But that's Cambodia.

The afternoon was again spent on the bikes. We passed an enormous wedding which we could hear blasting Thai pop-hits from miles away. Over lunch I taught Buffalo a new game of cards that instantly enthralled all the locals nearby. We visited a monastery known for its fruitbats and in his typical form, Buffalo hopped off his bike and strolled to the base of the tree. He picked up an enormous branch and used it to thunderously pound the ground. He achieved his desired effect when the hundreds of bats flew off the tree and began to circle overhead. It was fantastic. One of my favourite moments of the afternoon was astonishingly simple: at one point we were whizzing past a cow field on the motorcycle and Buffalo spotted a bull that had a piece of turf stuck to one of its horns. He burst out into gales of raucous laughter. Truthfully, neither of us could stop laughing at the ridiculous sight. Most people go to Cambodia to see Angkor and leave three days later. Don't get me wrong, Angkor was amazing, but so was laughing my butt off with a new friend over a bull with grass on his head.

The third and final gem in Cambodia came the last day. We were in Phnom Penh and had already done the palace museum and "Killing Fields" (how sad is it that two of Cambodia's biggest attractions are "Killing ____"). We had planned to move on to Vietnam but despite the best efforts of the manager of our guest house, we couldn't get bus tickets to Ho Chi Minh City. Every single bus was sold out and I had to spend another day. Without any better our ideas, we asked our new friend, the manager of the guest house, what we should do.

A little background, his name is Hean Pech, and he works at the guest house called Floating Island. He does this job because he's a student at the university and is from outside Phnom Penh, and the guest house allows him free accomodation. Anyway, he was an amazingly good-natured guy, probably about 20 years old. His most interesting quirk is that while he's Cambodian learning English, most of his tutors are backpackers coming through his guest house. Where are they mostly from? Australia, of course. What this gives you is a Cambodian who has never been to Australia speaking English with an Aussie accent.

Anyway, we asked him what we should do with our extra day he pondered for a few moments and asked us if we would be interested in visiting an orphanage. Since that was part of the itinerary in our aborted Tibetan trip, we agreed readily. And so the next day Hean took the morning off work and the three of us whizzed off on his mo-ped. For the record, that's not a big accomplishment - I've seen an entire family of five on one mo-ped.

We stopped along the way to pick up some rice to give as a gift and made our way to the outskirts of town. The orphanage was small, only about 24 kids - all living with HIV. The one and only staff is a sweet elderly woman who cares for all 24 kids. The orphanage doesn't have any major sponsors, but all their medicine is supplied by UNICEF.

When we got there the kids were eating they're small lunch, simple steamed rice. At first they seemed a little shy around us, after all, they don't get many visitors. In fact the only Westerners they get are the couple each month that Hean brings out there. Of course, all the kids already knew and loved him, but it took a while for them to warm up to the pale people.

Once they finished eating and had all helped in cleaning up - no groaning or trying to get out of work here - the volleyballs and soccerballs came out and we spent the next couple hours playing games with them. With only 24 kids growing up in this orphanage together, they developped a tight group dynamic. They seemed like a family, no child was excluded. Once all out of breath, we went back into the building and Adrienne presented them with a children's book that was originally destined for Tibet. It was a Canadian counting book, so for instance, one page would be about the number seven and have seven polar bears. The kids loved and it could all count with ease. They gathered around in a circle and we tried our best to explain what they were seeing. On the page with totem poles, one little boy tapped me on the arm and had a look of excitement on his face. I asked him what he wanted to show me, and of course he could barely speak English so he took me by the arm to the far wall where there was a map of the world with small symbols. He pointed to the West Coast of Canada where there was a small totem pole. He then pointed back to the book with the page on totem poles. The fact that he put those two seperate things together, and didn't speak English, and had presumably no prior contact with totem poles, and was about 8 years old, impressed the hell out of me. We took a few pictures and reluctantly left the kids to their afternoon sleep time. As we were leaving they were saying, "see you tomorrow!". I'm not sure they knew what that meant. Well, I hope they don't since otherwise they'll be disappointed.

So that was why Cambodia was amazing. Apart from the scamsters at the border and around Siem Reap, who are unfortunately the only Cambodians the vast majority of tourists on the Siem Reap (Angkor) - Phnom Penh circuit encounter, the people we encoutered were amazing. Their ruins have been vandalized by the countries next door, their families have been tragically ripped apart by hostilities within their own borders and to this day landmines still kill or maim around 7000 people each year, mostly curious children stamping through the tall grass - yet all most Cambodians we met off the beaten track wanted was to say hi, ask me where I'm from and if they're fast enough, slap a high five before I whizzed past.


8th May 2008

YES, I love high-fives! And children! And history! And tag! Best blog update yet.
8th May 2008

that one was really good... but i'm worried that those poor kids will get a thiamine deficiency eating only rice every day! i've read it's very common there.
13th May 2008

Agreed - an excellent update all around. Your endorsement of colonialism - albeit French - warmed my heart... almost as much as the tale of your trip to the orphanage. Sounds like an incredible experience.

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