Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Deep Within

Strapped by the shackles of inertia and still feeling the afterburn of 'Nam adventures, I guess you could say that I oozed my way into Cambodia, like a heatwave easing it's way off the asphalt with mild, rippling pomp. They say that there ain't no rest for the wicked. Oh man, I wish they were wrong at this point.
I owned a pressing urge to explore Cambodia, as every traveler that I had conferred with up to that point had relayed that the heart of SE Asia was truly fascinating. This hunger became torturous as I was rationed only one week to nibble about, due to the over extensions of a previous engagement. Quite literally, I may add, as my honeymoon with the Baron hung so sweetly, yet so stubbornly in the sky, refusing the aspiring climb of the sun a single rung to grasp onto. The domino effect of this was that I had to take in Cambodia at a Gareth-like pace. For those unaware of my brother's dining habits, this means that I had to literally inhale, instead of taking time to chew, savor, and extract the full culture from each bite. Prior to travel, my only image of Cambodia consisted of a visual provided by the Dave Chappelle in a skit, where he alludes to the 'finest Cambodian breast milk.' High expectations grew strong bones; for all the twisted minds out there, I vow any samplings were of a purely bottle-fed nature. Little did I know that it possessed much more than the healthy dose of calcium that my puckered lips were prepared for. Cambodia instead kissed me with all of its tortured beauty, departing an aftertaste that I have yet to interpret and perceive in full. All I know is that when I think of SE Asia, that taste lingers.

Until my bus ride to the capital, Phnom Penh, from Saigon, I had never even heard of the Khmer Rouge. Rude introductions were in order, as the term decided it didn't want to shake hands. The meeting occurred as I was skimming through the history section of my guide book, and came upon a particular passage, whereupon my stomach did a handstand, and shook, as if a bully were attempting to empty its pockets of any loose change. My first thought was, 'How did this never make it into any of my history lessons?' My second thought consisted of the memory of history class - or complete lack thereof, I should say, which might explain this particular omission. Jokes aside, I was appalled. Straight up disgusted. I questioned humanity for the rest of that bus ride, and for a long time afterward. Let me BRIEFLY explain...

The Khmer Rouge, headed by the infamous Pol Pot, ruled via reign of terror in the 1970's that was responsible for the elimination of roughly two million Cambodians. The extremist's intentions were fundamentally malign: to turn Cambodia into an agrarian peasant society by rooting out all intellectuals, and forcing the rest of the populous to slave away in the isolated fields, thus ensuring their choke hold on power. Those that weren't executed perished at the hands of starvation or disease. The sick thing is that seemingly nobody knew of the heinous deeds, as the countries borders were shut down, and even when the Vietnamese finally erected a stop-sign by force, I still feel that very few people acknowledged the atrocities. Even now, how many are aware of what has been dubbed by many as the "Cambodian Holocaust?" Maybe I'm just ignorant...

* I've already crossed history teacher off of the career list, and highly advise all to head straight to more viable sources for details (I'm leaving bald spots, and there's a full head of hair to be seen here) and
a dose of true knowledge. *

I first visited the S-21 detention center, where some 20,000 prisoners were murdered. All were tortured in ways that force you to spew, and all but 7 souls proved mortal in fatality. Stumbling through room after room occupied by intense photographs of victims faces left me reeling; it was all too surreal - I was sleep walking with ghosts. And that was just the warm up. Next came the actual Killing Fields.

Hatchets. Knives. Hoe's. A tree. The latter used to bash children against until death (women and children were eradicated as well, in order to ensure that there would be no further uprisings - a loudspeaker played music to drown out wailing victims). A tower rose from the center of the grounds, where intact bones were housed on brutally honest display. Walking past mass grave after mass grave was an experience that no anti-depressant pill could ever stand in the ring against. Each sign was a knockout - "350 bodies" here, "250 bodies - women and children" there. It's difficult to relate the scene and ensuing emotions accurately through any form of expression.
Even though this nation has been raped by it's own, the unconditional compassion and reception is astounding. The people's spirited resilience is inspiring, but what's more is that kindness is galore. Dr. Seuss would have felt right at home, as the collective response to foreigners is that of some long lost relative showing up to a family reunion. Granted were all bringing hefty, persuasive bundles of cash to make sure that our status as kinsman is confirmed, but in my few experiences, people were more friendly than one would anticipate given such recent hard knocks. Juxtaposing Vietnamese back-packer trail hospitality (or what I know through word of mouth) and that of
Cambodia is interesting, as Cambodians welcome any outsider, relishing all attention from the outside world.

+ Hands down, the cutest kids in the entire world. No contest there. Unfortunately, most you meet are either mini-merchants or beggars employed by elders, which is truly unfair at base. What's more is the worst poverty in SE Asia, and it's not just the hearstring pluckers out for a dime, but the sincerely crushing look in a paupers eyes of pure helplessness in need.

Bounce time to Siem Riep, the common launching pad for Angkor Wat and the surrounding temples. For the second time in Cambodia, words seem like inflated currency when attempting to purchase any type of crisp description. Photographs may provide a visual, but fail in efforts to impart tones intangible, the aura and emotions that seem to rumble from within the senior structures. My only journal entry for day one goes as follows: "I have no clue what to say. I just don't." And I still don't, but here's some BS anyway...

The Ancients have always engrossed me, ever since I was a bug-eyed youngster, slurping up my first tale of Greek mythology at Waldorf, an assailant to the remnant watermelon juice on some paper plate after a family picnic. As intrigue evolved, I grew bold, and eschewed the sloppy seconds of others for the fruit itself, eating up the masterful prose of The Iliad and Odyssey. My suspicions regarding societal regressions only expanded in daring after basking in the presence of such soulful monoliths. I bought a three day pass to the temples, and averted the bee-hive swarm of tuk-tuk touts for a more traditional, and I felt authentic, cycling experience. I burst forth from the honeycomb unstung, cruising in style atop my 1950's bike, the banana yellow frame radiating, but not as much as my pride, the radius of which only extended due to my clanging bell and classy picnic basket. I missed out on lots of tour guide info, but got to go at my own pace, and received a fine coating of candy color paint from the sun. A galaxy of irrevocable beads was strung across my forehead, ever shifting with the constant progressions of time and motion. 'Twas a shame when the handle of the big dipper burned too bright and dropped off. The dynamic duo of Camera and Vagabond is no more, do to managerial failures (on my part) in Saigon. I did acquire a mean little point and shoot in Phnom Penh though, so not all photo ops were left derelict, and I actually think that my experience benefitted by the absence of my original partner in documentarian crime. I found myself wondering how many people (myself included) have actually felt the temples as opposed to seeing them through a lens. It was strange to wander through thick crowds of Japanese and Korean tour buses and notice how many people were attempting to soak in the essence of the structures, not just pose for the uber-tourist pic that they would show all their friends when the got home. Details that the latest lens or highest megapixel count miscarry during transmission are things that you will truly remember. I reckon that bright memories remain vivid in recollection, these moments shine brilliant to no end for those who stare directly into the blinding light offered by the crumbling stone.

-sunrise to sunset.


Celine and I get cheeky.

-favorites = ta prom. bayon. bantey srei.

-highlight was final moment spent mano-y-mano with Angkor, the mother of all temples, as the fading light found itself being swallowed whole by mother natures unseen side, devoured by the faceless creature that is night.

-closing moments of solitude on adjacent lake, mulling over my time spent in SE Asia as gilded reflections drizzled toward me, an agent for reminiscence over golden times past. "Road Trippin'" by the Chili Peppers (who else, let's be real) came to mind, as I melted to the Anthony Kiedis' meditative sounds: "These smiling eyes are just a mirror for..."