Monday, April 27, 2009

Chasing Cambodia

In an effort to have the most fulfilling experience possible, Michael and I came to Southeast Asia armed with guidebooks, articles and suggested itineraries from former traveling/expat friends. All of our resources had served us well but no recommended reading brought us quite what we were searching for as did a recent NY Times article entitled, “Banishing the Ghosts in Cambodia” This article, published on Sunday, March 15th, would lure us to small towns on the southern coast of Cambodia – Kampot and Kep.

Cambodia is a country currently going through a slow rebirth. Its recent tragic history of the notorious Khmer Rouge cleansing has left the country in a dire state. In an effort to turn
Cambodia into a communist state focused on agriculture rather than industry, Pol Pot, the leader of the Khmer Rouge movement, set up cleansing camps and labor camps to rid Cambodia of its intellectual leaders and wealthy citizens resulting in a nation of peasants. He decided to empty the cities of their inhabitants, claiming that the cities are breeding grounds for any resistance to his cause. In Phnom Penh he went so far as to turn a children's high school into a prison, famously known as S-21. He converted classrooms into torture chambers and built brick walls to create barracks. His reign lasted from 1975-1979 and during that time Cambodia saw the death of approximately 2 million of its citizens. **Wikipedia.

There is optimism in the air. Recognizing Cambodia’s need for support from the global non-profit community, many NGO’s, such as Epic Arts, have set up camp here in order to help the locals get back on their feet. While everyone realizes that this is a long-tern recovery process, there is reason to believe the current conditions will improve.

After spending a few days in Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital, we hopped on a bus to head
south to Kampot and Kep. We arrived in Kampot rather late and checked into the modest Blissful Guesthouse in the center of the deserted town. At the hotel bar we befriended a group of European/Israeli travelers and headed out for beers at Honey Bar. Reconfirming my theory that Milton Bradley’s Connect Four has a monopoly on Southeast Asian board game imports, we sat down to a few games before heading home.

The next morning, after waking up in an overheated haze due to no air-con we decided to wander around town. One of the unfortunate side effects of traveling through SEA is the inevitable development of a tough exterior when dealing with transport vendors. As a tourist, when walking down the street in just about any SEA city or town, taxi drivers, tuk-tuk drivers, moto drivers, bike drivers and rickshaw pullers are constantly soliciting their services. Just as we finally found some 
peace and quiet a tuk-tuk driver approached us and offered to drive us around. Michael, noting my impatient expression, took the reigns and responded with his patient phrase of choice, “Not today my friend, today we walk.” Disappointed, the tuk-tuk driver simply sat down next to us and handed us his card with a number on the back..
"You call me I give you good price”, he said with a friendly and genuine smile, clearly eager to work. We thanked him, got up and walked around, taking in Kampot on the way to breakfast at the 
Epic Arts café. A young boy stopped right in his tracks and shot us a glance. He seemed curious, frustrated and a bit spent, an expression I was learning to accept in Cambodia. 

After eating a delicious meal of a salty egg omelette, toasted bagel, baked beans and banana shakes we exited the café. There he was, Van-Din, our relentless tuk-tuk driver, parked right outside our door. “You need transport? I give you good price!” he shouted flashing an irresistibly enthusiastic smile. We decided to accept. Tenacity like this certainly deserved to be rewarded. 

After negotiating a good price we hopped in the tuk-tuk and headed off to Kep. Nothing could have prepared us for the scenic route on our way there. We opened up the conversation with Van-Din and quickly learned that he recently graduated from high school. This is quite an 
achievement for a boy from the Cambodian countryside. Van-Din's parents firmly believe in education and are determined to send all of their children to school. He completed four years of study in three because he excelled academically. He told us that we would be passing his high school on the way to Kep so we asked to stop in and take a look around. A few moments later we pulled up to the unkept and rusty gate of Van-
Din’s school with a sign that read, “Anaridoh High School”. Kids ran around and played on their bikes. Since graduation Van-Din has taken out a loan for approx $350 USD to buy both his motorbike and tuk-tuk. His goal is to save enough money to put himself through University which in Cambodia costs about $270USD a year. As we drove along we made various stops to take in the scenery. Perhaps the most unlikely of friends, you could clearly see that Van-Din appreciated our curiosity and that a bond was forming between all of us. 

Shortly thereafter we arrived in Kep. We passed the famous crab market and Kep’s Lady of the Water statue. Cambodian lore states that her husband left to head out to sea, as he was a fisherman, and never returned so she is there waiting for him to come back one day. Oh women.

Pretty tired out, we all decided to rent hammocks by the beach, grab a few cold drinks and sit back and take in the Kep shoreline. I set out to wander around Kep’s rocky beaches and took a moment to breathe it all in. The air was charged with an electricity that was impossible to deny. A free standing tree stood just meters away having grown out of the rocky and infertile soil. It stood there, defiant, symbolic of the Cambodian people who despite all odds will once again thrive as they had before political and social ruination. In that moment I felt relieved, lighthearted and happy. 

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