Here I was, on the eve of one of the most romantic and special days of the year in Thailand, getting on a bus. It was Loy Kratong, held on a full moon of the 12th lunar month. Colorful lights lined the streets and decorated tents of vendors selling, food, crafts, clothes and kratongs were set up at the park near the lake in my town. At dusk, people would float their banana leaf Kratongs on the water, say prayers to the Buddha, be grateful, ask for forgiveness and a fresh start. As the bus was leaving, a parade was headed toward the lake. Later that night I got a call from a neighboring PCV who was in my village enjoying the festival, she said it was so cool! I tried to stay awake on the bus because every time I looked out the window, I saw the Loy Kratong lanterns floating up to the heavens and became grateful. I also thought about the thousands of burned out paper lanterns and all the little creatures in the country side, who suddenly received near shelter from the sky.
I was on the first leg of my Cambodian trip headed to Bangkok. I finally found the perfect seat on the overnight bus, 1D. This is the first row window seat on the right hand side of the bus. The leg room is endless because there are no seats in front. I am always the only foreigner (farang) on the bus and every time I have taken the overnight bus, the person sitting next to me calls someone and tells them there is a farang on the bus. This delighted me though because I understood the words she was saying. What tickled me more was she said that I pudt Thai daai. Which means I spoke Thai well. I laughed to myself because I DON’T, I have survival language skills. This instance shows how generous the Thai people are and how easy it is to please them.
I was grateful for this opportunity to join the Peace Corps, grateful to be given the opportunity to travel to Cambodia, to have friends and family that I love and that love me in America. I am also grateful that I can feel love and connection with complete strangers because I know our lives are all interconnected as human beings on the greater adventure of life.
The movie, (which was on the return bus too) was some new Sylvester Stallone ‘mash-em up and kill’ movie with other buff, middle-age action stars: Jean Claude Van’Dam, Arnold Schwartzenagger, Bruce Willis, and Chuck Norris. It was violent, brainless, and in Thai, but I watched it, chuckling at insider jokes that I knew were being tossed but not understood.
I arrived at the bus station at 5:30am and met a fellow PCV there and we headed to the Peace Corps office to chill before heading to the hospital for my friend’s appointment. The hostel we stayed at, the Lub’d, was an interesting place for backpackers and offered dorm style rooms both same sex and mixed sex, with lockers for valuables. It was clean and architecturally interesting with steel and concrete throughout. We stayed in a room with bunk beds. The only other option was one double bed. It was located in the heart of the business district and close to the BTS, Bangkok’s light rail. The next five mornings would all be early, getting up before dawn. We met other volunteers around a large monument and then attempted to find the vans to our exit destination out of Thailand. Getting around or trying to find something in Bangkok is never straight forward, from my experience. That is part of the fun and once I accepted this, it is an adventure. There were nine of us now, from both PC groups, 124 and 123‘s. We all squeezed inside the van headed to the border. It would be an eight-hour day before we arrived at the hotel and I won’t get into all the maneuverings but I will say this… It was not that bad, really.
My home for the next four-nights, the Angkoriana hotel was unexpectedly luxurious but cheap, $60 for four nights (three people in one room). The Cambodian riel does not have coin money and it is extremely devalued. 4000 riel to one dollar. Many things I bought, food, tee-shirts and crafts from children accosting you at every temple and ruin, cost between $1-$5. The American dollar is king in Cambodia.
The trip to Cambodia had one main purpose, to run in the 14th Annual International 1/2 Marathon to support land mine victims.
Everyone did either the 3K walk, 10 or 21K run. I chose the 10k. It was such a great experience and cause. I met people from all over the world and their was such kindness and excitement in the air. We ran through ancient Khmer Empire ruins! I vow to run the 21k next year because I had some much more to give at the end.
The food in Cambodia was excellent. My first meal was fettuccine pesto! I had not had cheese for nearly a year. It was very good. I continued to pig out for the rest of the trip: tacos, hamburger, eggplant parmigan, lasagna.
The day of our arrival we headed to Angkor Wat, the ancient city of 12th century. Most of the runs and temples were dedicated to hindu gods and built in the 11th and 12th centuries, some much earlier! Although we bought three-day passes for $40, we barely scratched the surface of all there was to see.
Siem Reap is kind of an oasis for tourists. It does not represent the true nature of Cambodia. I discovered this one day when we three of us got out to the countryside, about 37k outside of Siem Reap.
We saw ruins and temples built in the 900’s. Amazing nd breathtaking. On the way home it was getting dark. I started to notice candles in homes. There were kilns burning and huge woks on top, cooking something. Charcoal and wood was being used to cook. Then we would pass a home who did have a fluorescent light. A power line, a wire really, would be draped to a couple of homes. I did not understand how one home could have light and the other not. Most of the country had no power.
The magnificence of Angkor Wat and the other temples cannot be properly put into words, or even pictures. To take in ancient ruins on par with the pyramids, great wall or other massive artifacts of humankind, you really have to be there, to see, feel, smell, hear and wonder.
To wonder about their construction… the moats and rivers that were used to haul the stone, the elephants that dragged the stone, the men (maybe women) who placed and carved the stone, of Hindu deities, and other representations of Buddha and Hindu deities.
One of my favorites was learning about these gigantic stone faces that faced four directions on top of these huge towers at The Bayon ruins. They stood for loving kindness, compassion, sympathy, and equanimity. Amazing.
Everywhere you looked there was beauty and mystery. The sandstone used to carve the temples could be touched and caressed at some sites, while some temples were so sacred you could not touch them. Other temples and ruins were tumbling before our very eyes. I was reminded of how lucky I was to see them before they disappear.
At many of the ruins around Angkor Wat, musicians played for tips. It was a sobering reminder of war. All musicians were victims of unexploded ordinances and land mines.
The children, mostly girls, who stuck to you like glue at each site, were good. They were persistent and had a sales pitch for every response you had. You could say no thank you ten times and they would ask you the same questions, over and over. We ended up talking to many and bought many things.
One young girl, Reya, who looked 9 years old, said she was 16, but small. Her reddish hair and slight eye make up gave her the air of growing up faster than children should have to.
I bought a toy called a “sai” at another site but got it out to play with the children here. It was such a hit. Some of the girls stopped “selling” in spite of a new tour bus pulling up, to play with us. They showed us the proper way to play and that is to stand in one spot and keep the ball in the air with knee and foot. Reya did it 16 times without stopping. We ended up just tossing it back and forth with our hands.
Ta Prohm temple was inside the forest and had trees growing inside and throughout the ruins. It was one of the most fascinating sights to see.
Banteay Srei was most intriguing to me because the scale was so intimate and the carvings so preserved and detailed.
A man selling a book said that Lord Shivas lingam was here and women who could not have a baby would drink from the water here and become pregnant. The center area was off limits and roped off but we saw some tourists entering just before closing after paying off security guards, who smelled of beer. I politely declined the offer when asked. The carvings were so animated and looked like new. From a distance, it doesn’t look real. It looks like a model of an ancient temple because everything is such small scale.
Our group and hundreds of other tourists from all over the world headed up a nature trail to the top of Phnom Bakheng to watch the sunset. We were not disappointed even though many of us thought the spectacle of watching other people was just as fascinating as the sunset.
Day 3, it was sunrise at Sras Srang.
This was also the site of the disappearance of my watch. I’m just sayin’. What was more interesting to me was the temple behind the moat. Some parts were being shored up by metal scaffolding and in other places stone piles showed where ruins had fallen apart.
Cambodian Land Mine Museum
I speculated that the museum was so far outside of Siem Reap (37k) to avoid the uncomfortable subject of war and the downer mood it may create. The museum owner, as a child and young man, fought and killed on both sides at different times. He was a Khmer Rouge solider and a solider for the Vietnamese Army. Now, he is a de-miner. He removes mines and runs an orphanage. His story and the story of the Cambodian people was very moving.
I was told that most of the Cambodian people do not know their own history… lest a renewed hatred for the American people? Cambodia is in a tough spot as it does not produce it’s own electricity and really does not export anything Thailand doesn’t export better. Cambodia could be viewed as the poor sister of Thailand. But Thailand is the offspring of the Cambodian language and culture.
In Cambodia, children ride bikes to school. While this is changing, most Thai people see riding a bicycle as a sign of low status. However, most people in Cambodia cannot afford to ride motorcycles. While there are many NGO’s working in Cambodia, most people are still without electricity and running water. Outside of Siem Reap, signs are posted outside of homes indicating Clean Water Action Projects, sponsored by Joseph and Mary, LA, California, for example.
On the last night, we attended a dinner and performance of the Cambodian religious dance called Apsara. The food was amazingly good for satisfying the palates of the hundreds of people in attendance with food from around the world, including traditional Khmer food. The young women who performed the dance were so elegant and their movements smooth and soft. If the Khmer Rouge had won, this dance, it’s stories and the history and culture of the Khmer people, would not exist.