Cambodia is many things . . . it is charming and it is chaotic – but it is almost magical.
The people of Cambodia descended from the great Khmer empire which once ruled Indochina. They are also the survivors and descendent of the survivors of the Khmer Rouge – the killing machine of Pol Pot which decimated the intelligentsia and artisan communities, killing 2 million people in a span of four years (1975 to 1979).
Cambodia is one of the poorest countries on Earth.
Yet, the people are charming and kind. Open and caring. Their turbulent past seems to have made them more so.
The economy is struggling to catch up to its neighbors in Southeast Asia. Yet, they have a tremendous asset in the Angkor Temples and ruins of the Khmer empire. However, the Temples come with their own double edged sword. Tourism is big business in Cambodia with something like 2 million visitors a year just to Angkor Wat. Siem Reap has grown exponentially to accommodate the tourism – at a cost to the traditional lifestyle and culture of the area. Yet, those same tourists clamor to see the Apsara dancing performances helping to preserve this piece of the heritage. The tourists pour into
villages (me included) to experience the local culture and lifestyle. We would be foolish to think that we are not impacting that very culture by just showing up, and more so by spending our Western dollars. Some of this is good; some, not so much. On a more positive note, many of those same tourists also see the poverty in the area and open their
hearts and wallets to help the schools, hospitals and orphanages throughout Cambodia.
The sharpest edge of the sword may be the degradation and damage to the Temples themselves. Long covered by the overgrown forests – now nearly 2 million visitors a year climb over them. In the 18 months between my first visit and my third, I can see the impact both in the condition of the temples and, fortunately, the amount of protection the Apsara Foundation has put in place in the form of barriers and restrictions. Some may lament these restrictions – I applaud them if they can help protect the temples. UNESCO many years ago gave the Angkor Temples its World Heritage Site designation, giving Cambodia access to resources that will help it preserve the Temples.
Ok, I getting off the soapbox now . . .
This trip was full of unique experiences . . . none more so that taking a young monk (he’s 22) to get a tattoo. First, this came about because I was participating in a photography & storytelling workshop in Siem Reap. My partner and I set out to do a story about the symbolism of the tattoos that Buddhist monks adorn their bodies with. In doing the research and talking to the monks, we met two young monks near Angkor Wat, one of whom had the religious tattoos we were looking for. He agreed to show us the tattoo “studio” where he got the tattoo and also said he would like to get another one. Well, an awful lot got lost in the translation and we ended up in the most surreal tattoo “studio” I could have imagined . . . let me just describe the event . . .
- We pick up our two monk friends at the monastery, jump in a tuk-tuk and head for the tattoo studio. In route, in begins to rain (serious rain).
- We head to the outskirts of town, down a crazy potholed dirt lane, past modest homes, interesting little shops and craftsman huts, battery charging workshops (lots of things in Cambodia run on car batteries and there’s always at least one guy with a generator who charges up the batteries), and other miscellaneous workshops.
- We stop in front of a sign that says “Tattoo Gun” and out jump our monks who head down an alley-like lane to the tattoo guy’s house (which is really just one room in a motel like set-up).
- Inside the tattoo guy’s room we find the following scene . . . the tattoo guy is sitting on a petite little stool tattooing the shoulder of a young guy who is sitting on the floor. Both have cigarettes hanging from their lips. There is lots of stuff scattered about, including an abundance of rolls of pink toilet paper– but nothing that looks at all like sterilizing equipment or even rubbing alcohol. In a word, it is dirty. The room is taken up largely by a bamboo bed, upon which is sleeping a young woman – wearing a surgical face mask. From the ceiling hang an exposed light bulb and a desktop fan on a rope. Outside young boys are running around, playing in the mud (the rain has stopped temporarily). And in walk two saffron robed monks and couple of westerners with lots of cameras. Seriously, surreal. And then the rain starts up again; the little boys outside deciding clothing is optional, strip it off. Now add naked children running about to this scene. SURREAL!
It was an extraordinary afternoon. I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.
Another wonderful experience . . . sitting under a canopy forming a shop in Kompong Khleang chatting up 2 village elders in the midst of several generations of their family. They were selling some concoction which I gather was for stomach ailments – I would have had to be pretty ill to drink this stuff, believe me. They spoke no English and my Khmer is atrocious – but it didn’t stop any of us from chatting away. Oddly, I think we managed to communicate pretty well. It was pure fun. As I was leaving, the translator showed up just in time to translate their parting comment to me: “Have a long and healthy life”.
I was able on this trip to find some of the people I met on a prior trip. I took along some prints of photos I made in February and sought out the “models”. It was really fun to see their reactions to the photos – which was generally a look of serious curiosity – followed by giggles. Below are two photos of Mai who can be found on the grounds of Angkor Wat where her mother has a vendor stall.
All in all – a really good trip!
Just one last thing . . . Each time I travel, I always hit the Longitude Books website for reading lists for the destination. With the best of intentions, I pick up several books, always meaning to read them before I travel. Sometimes, I actually do. I have been hanging on to a couple of books about Cambodia since 2009 – not because I didn’t want to read them, but because they were pretty heavy material. One about Cambodia’s dark – and relatively recent – history with the Khmer Rouge (When Broken Glass Floats by Chanrithy Him). The other, about the ongoing problem of human trafficking; specifically, young girls and women for prostitution (The Road of Lost Innocence by Somaly Mam). I finally read both of the books before leaving for Cambodia in July. I cannot believe I waited to read them. Both were written by survivors who continue to devote their lives to helping others who have experienced- and are continuing to experience – the same ordeals. Amazing stories. Amazing information about how Cambodian society works on a political and emotional level.
My point in telling you this . . . If you plan to travel to Cambodia – acquaint yourselves with the incredible stories of its history – distant and not so distant – and its current challenges. It will enhance your trip and give you a deeper understanding of what makes Cambodia what it is – and its people who they are.
All the best, Lisa