Sunday, April 26, 2009

Siem Reap, Cambodia; April 24, 2009
Sitting waiting for my ride to the airport back to Phnom Penh, the desk clerk is watching a video of Korean hip hop music and I’m drenched with sweat. It’s raining now. I arrived yesterday and took a wonderful tour around the town, saw a crafts collective where they teach young people traditional Khmer crafts such as stone carving, wood carving, silk painting and so on. One group was made up entirely of deaf and mute students. There was a large store for the tourists to visit and buy the successful products of the school’s students. Then I was taken to a boat that took me out on the lake that Siem Reap is located on, the largest lake in Cambodia I think, and was taken far out to the floating village of hundreds of small boats with people living on them and fishing. There was a special boat with a school for orphaned Cambodian and Vietnamese children. I was invited to buy them some notebooks and pencils, it was obviously a fundraiser as the stack of two dozen or so notebooks was fifteen dollars and the small dozen or so bundle of pencils was five. I bought then but told them to give me their address and I could do better from home. Here’s hoping I can follow through because I sure would like to do something more meaningful.
This stop was the reason I came to south east Asia in the first place. This one day is the day the others after Egypt all revolve around. Although I don’t recommend traveling alone because it’s so much better to share the experience with someone you care about, I didn’t have any choice and half a loaf is better than none at all. So here I am. It has been I’d guess in the mid nineties. Highly competitive with a bad New York or Washington DC summer heat wave. In half an hour I’ll be on my way back to the plane to return to Phnom Penh and another tour.
Today I went with the state tourist authority’s guide and driver in an air conditioned car and if I can’t be with someone special then being alone is preferable to being with a group tour as far as I can tell. He took me to four different temples in the large group of temples known as Angor Wat. I’ve wanted to see this site for a long time and now that I have I’m glad, I am richer for it and my guide made the experience personal and gave me a great historical and political context for who what why where and when, over the last several centuries. I had not realized the combination of Hindu and Budhist interests nor the age (roughly 12th century), and that it is built mostly out of sandstone and volcanic rock cut into blocks. I came here to find out if I’d want to come back and I think the answer is yes, but when it’s a little cooler preferably. I like it cool.
I took maybe hundreds of pictures and he only showed me four temples plus the land mine museum which politely and graphically spelled out exactly what the gift that goes on giving has done for Cambodia. The gift we manufacture and delivered as well. The gift our government lied to us about and took our money in taxes to make the world safe for democracy. Thanks Johnson, Thanks Nixon, Thanks Reagan. I hope I live long enough to forget you all but I doubt the little boy in the market with one leg will.
After taking the tour of the floating village on the lake (and handing out tips every time I turn around and not really minding except for worrying what it will be like when I get home, will I be broke?)
This thing about beggar children is troubling. You can’t be a total bleeding heart unless you want to be taken for a fool too and where I come from there are plenty of both. In Egypt there would periodically appear children making eyes sadder than a Walter Kean post war orphan tableau with a starving cat foraging in the background. They make a motion with their hands to indicate they’re hungry. They all do the same thing. It’s suspiciously thematic. I was disinclined to give in as I also am incapable of rescuing every lost kitten and puppy. But a one legged boy no more than eight years old dressed only in ragged shorts? This was at the large market in Siem Ream that I was taken to after the floating village. I brushed the boy off at first, cynical memories of the child beggars in Egypt. I then thought about it for a moment and decided there was no faking the loss of a leg in this scenario and went back and gave him a paltry dollar. It was a miserably poor excuse for a moral clause but better than none at all. The next day on the way to the amazing temple complex known as Angor Wat I was taken to the Land Mine Museum. There really are no words I am capable of here, because the horrors governments heap on the populations of less fortunate nations pretending that liberty and not oil or imperialism is the battle cry, I can only stand mute and stare at what I already knew, experience all over again the sense of helpless rage in this quiet matter of fact and unassuming little place. This could be a small regional museum in the Napa Valley, but it’s not, it’s merely a reminder of the travesty of “liberty” our government has tried to put over on us in it’s relentlessly cynical drive to separate wealth from people who had none to begin with.
My guide was well trained and spoke better than average English. He also was unapologetic about his distaste for the Vietnamese and the usurping of his country by the government of Thailand. He asked me if I knew what Siem Reap meant and pointed out that the first word was in direct reference to the people of the country I first heard called Siam. Point made. His pride and love for Angor Wat was unashamed as was his great pleasure in the making of the film The Killing Fields as well as (sorry, this isn’t up my alley but now I have to see the damned film) Tomb Raiders with Angelina Jolie. Seeing the iconic Banyan trees growing out of the temples, planted from the seeds in bird droppings and now overtaking the sites structures in many places. It is easy to see how a Hollywood film company would seize the opportunity; it could have been Indiana Jones or King Solomon’s Mine, which predates the former by seventy or eighty years as far as adventure fiction goes. Apparently she spent a lot of money here and he felt deep gratitude. For all I know it may be justified, but I have the jaded cynical posture of one now inured to the glamor of movie stars and it’s hard to hear them praised as great humanitarians some times. It’s a little like the person who just stole your cab offering you a free bus ticket sometimes. I would rather not know about it. My good deeds go unknown, unreported and unimportant to anyone but the recipient and I don’t see why anyone else should be any different.
So now I sit and wait for the domestic prop jet to take me back to Phnom Penh and the tour tomorrow of the killing fields museum, some palaces and pagodas. Then I’m on to Bangkok and home. I’m feeling a little travel weary, a little financially depleted and anxious as to what the future holds. Somehow I expect my world to be pretty much as I left it.

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