Travels in contrasts.
New Years Eve 2009, January 2, 2010
HAPPY NEW YEAR TO ALL! MAY PEACE AND JUSTICE BE ON THE MINDS AND IN THE ACTIONS OF ALL IN 2010.
Thanks to all who commented on my blog and who are waiting for the next installment! Here it is.
What a two weeks it has been! I have seen a lot and have experienced many feelings and thoughts about how many people live, often under conditions most of us would find extremely difficult. Many impressions were almost painful at first, such a contrast with how most of us take simple things like an income, clean water and a comfortable shelter, garbage pick up etc. for granted! Now I seem to have gotten somewhat used to the street views and people. Cambodia is one of the poorest countries in South East Asia and a great deal of the population lives on less than 1 $/a day. The economic crisis has put 450.000 people, mostly women out of work in the garment industries alone, and this of course has a snowball effect on the rest of the economy. Especially in the cities, there are also wealthy people and the rich sure can entertain themselves, shop in fashion, and live luxurious lives.
I have also seen amazing beauty, the mighty rivers, enhancing the lives of many in river cities; the rice fields with scattered palms,(although few fields are of a fresh green this season), beautiful and intricate patterned silk weavings produced under houses on household looms, charming children, colorful markets with bounties of delicious fruits and vegetables and everything someone will want, beautiful temples with old paintings and sculptures, scenes of life of resilient people, and now in Siem Reap the incredible cultural heritage of the Angkor Wat kingdoms from the 8th -13th centuries, where ancient kings -considered god-like- created the most incredible beauty by building temples to honor the Hindu gods: Shiva, Vishnu and numerous other deities, as well as the Buddha and Avalokiteshvara, the god of compassion and mercy. I am staying in Siem Reap now, in a local hotel where I am lodging for $12/night. I will try to let you in on some of my experiences. I am full of gratitude for the opportunities given to me.
I arrived in Phnom Penh with my friend Trudi, whom I met in Seoul, only two weeks ago. We were welcomed in the airport by the Cambodian friends of Trudi who we stayed with: Samorn, Ka and Davi, their 13 year old daughter. Other family members were there too! Warm reunion with Trudi who has been here 5x before. Samorn is a friend of 20 years with whom Trudi worked in Chicago in Refugee work. I met him there once. He now works as a translator for the UN at the Tribunal to try the leaders of the Pol Pot period atrocities. (more about that later).
At their house I had the first experience with home cooked food, delicious soups with fish, (chicken/meat) many different greens, with a variety of tastes, such as curry, coriander, cardamon, ginger, lots of garlic, onions, lemon grass, coconut milk, lime leafs, sprouts, and other spices we do not know, added in different combinations to make distinct different and delicious soups. Often fried fish on the side and great salads from green mangoes, tomatoes, garlic and onion. (We did not eat many of those on the road, since we were not clear about the water in which these veggies were washed, too bad!) Soy sauce and fish oil are basic ingredients. Always rice, lots of rice! I will take some cooking lessons and can't wait to cook these soups with great subtleties! And then, always the fruit, delicious pineapples, papaya's, jackfruit, enormous grapefruits and juicy mandarin oranges, little sweet finger banana's. My kind of food! Also many fruits are eaten which we don't know, hidden in rough, some with spikes, colorful, outsides, some nutlike outsides, but many are quite tasty. Samorn and Ka took good care of us, and helped me with getting to my new apartment, get a phone etc. All great convenient help!
Then we traveled in a van, accompanied by always other relatives, and first spend a weekend in Takmao, a rivertown, with a great boulevard and grass strip, where people come to exercise, stroll or sit with their lovers to see the river stream by. Spent time with Samorn's mother and walked around the town, through the backroads and really saw rural life. We slept upstairs under musquito nets and enjoyed the breeze, coming through the open windows. We were waken up by dog fights, monks starting to say prayers over the loudspeaker at 5.00 a.m and the sounds of motobikes of people going to work the early shift in the factory. Always much sounds around! We visited a small community in Takeo province, and had a great walk through beautiful ricefields. Trying to cross a backyard, we startled a cow, who fought itself to freedom and disappeared. It got us scared too! We never found out its fate, but the loose cow was on our minds for days!
Then we took a long trip to Ratanakiri province, to visit Banlung 585 km (abot 360 miles) away, close to the Vietnamese border in the NE of Cambodia. Mostly on paved two lane roads, but the last 75 miles on a trecherous bumpy dirt road, red soil, which took us at least 3 hours, over many bridges and detours or around bridges under construction. Hat off to the driver who drove this in the dark! The scenery changed a lot, outside Phnom Penh rice fields, or the stubbles of harvested rice, well fed buffaloes and cows, villages with many brick houses and well built wooden houses on stilts, storefronts and relative good looking people. The further north the poorer it gets and the huts are now often thatched roofs and siding, with mainly forest and undefined fields along the highway. Poorly dressed people, skinny to very skinny farm animals and dogs, lots of children in various appearances of dress and undress. Not many clay water containers as everywhere else, not many cars or fancy motorbikes, although most of those are means of transportation. Everything goes on the back of motor bikes. Sometimes up to four people, including babies, mattrasses, enormous numbers of sacks/straw, cans of oils/gas, and I even saw a motor bike with a platform with three dead, nicely pink, upside down pigs. Legs in the air, and covered with branches of green leaves. Quite a site! Many people ride old bikes, and the school children in white and dark blue uniforms all ride bikes to school! Many of them. I read somewhere that 46% of the population is under the age of 14!
This province is also subject to much deforestation in the benefit of rubber plantations and cashew nut production. Many stories in the newspaper about land grabbing and kicking poor farmers of their ancestral lands to benefit Chinese industry or other foreign investers. Lives are hard! Hardest of all was to see how local families in the Ratanakiri Province dig for gems, by digging a whole of about 1,5 ft by 1.5 ft, about 40 feet deep, one person in the whole digs earth in the dark and sends it up in a bucket that is trollied by a rope up and down by a person next to the whole. The bucket with dirt gets dropped in a big sand (red) pile, and then the people above dig with their hands through the dirt to find a morsel, or a real piece of gem. Incredible hard lives and dangerous. Their luck is when they sell a piece to a middle person who stops by at the digs, and we saw one person selling a rough gem for $25.00. Guess what the end price will be after polishing the gem!
We also visited local ethnic villages, where women weave for a living, and an incredibly impoverished Jarai village, an ethnic minority, where the women smoke tabacco and produce beautiful baskets that they carry on their backs to harvest and to go to the market with. The men were forging iron from bombs into steel blades for tools and knives.
The poverty in the rural areas in this province was painfully visible and the scenes reminded me of Papua New Guinea in 1975.
We stayed in fairly nice local hotels, mostly with flush toilets and hot water and some in great sites, on a lake, with beautiful sights and gardens, others in river towns, like We visited relatives of relatives and were welcomed with many meals and hospitality. Our relative-guide, who lives in the area and who makes a living on a farm with sugarcane and other crops, an older educated gentleman, who spoke fluent French and survived the Pol Pot era, hosted us in his house and his other sons houses. One son farms his land, one son makes heavy wood furniture behind his house and one son, has a shop/eating stand across the High school in town. They all make a living.
We saw great waterfalls and walked along millions of year old vulcanic lake Yeah Lom, with beautiful varieties of bamboo on its shores and other great trees. A welcome nature walk! On the way back we stopped in a rivertown, Kompong Cham, where Samorn and a volleyball buddy of his, who travelled with us, joined a local 2 on 2 volleyball game! They won and lost a game, under the watchful eyes of many locals. Volleyball is very popular here and we saw many people playing in many communities.
The last visit we made was to a floating Vietnamese fishing village, close to Kampong Luong, on lake Tonle Sap, about 4 hours drive North of Phnom Penh. This was another fascinating experience, taking a boat ride with a local 'company' through the waterways of the 'village' where all life happens on and in boats. Women having a canoe full of vegetables, selling 'door to door', and other merchants populate the waterways. Plenty of phone shops on the water! We had lunch on a floating restaurant and negotiated toilets, either in the outdoors in the mud, before going in the boats, or "indoors" (two planks to stand on) over the water! This trip was not for those who seek comfort!
Siem Reap is a comfortable city. Many foreigners, hotels and dining places, and I have walked by myself everywhere, meeting all kinds of people and discovering places to eat and see. The first two days I joined the group from the UW and we visited many temples, started with Tha Prohm, a Buddhist Temple, build in 1186, for the mother of the Jayavarman VII, the King who was a Buddhist. This is the temple where silk cotton trees and 'strangler figs' have overgrown the ruins with vast roots. This is also the temple where Angelina Jolie filmed 'Tomb Raider'. I have never seen it, but all the students knew about it. Beautiful carvings of many apsara's, (heavenly nymphs).
The biggest, most impressive temple is Angkor Wat, built to honor Vishnu. Angkar Wat is famous for all its apsara's, all of them unique and one can count more than 30 different hairstyles on these nymphs. One can also see many other characters, like asura's, devils, devas, 'good gods' and many more symbols and signs. Around the outside of the temple are epic Hindu events depicted in stone carvings on large panels from the 12th century: Heaven and Hell, depicting rewards and punishments in 37 heavens and 32 hells!! Another impressive depiction is the Churning of the Ocean of Milk with Vishnu. Lakshmi, goddess of beauty, figuring prominently. All incredible carvings. The inner temple is Buddhist and houses large Buddha's, many damaged. The construction of Angkor Wat involved 300.000 workers and 6000 elephants and took years to complete. I was impressive to see all this work and beauty.
One of the most beautiful Temples I saw so far, was the much smaller, but very rich temple, called Bantey Srei, dedicated to Shiva. It is cut from pinkish stone and has the most intricate carvings and statutes. It dates from 967, and includes epic Hindu stories. We were there just when the sun was fully up and the colors were breathtaking! Outside the temple we watched a group of landmine survivors, many blind and missing limbs, playing in an 'orchestra'. Beautiful music and I should have bought a cd, but offered money as all did.
The days here on my own were wonderful. One day I strolled through town, bought an adapter, wanted to buy a phone card and asked in a phone shop. A lady looked at my phone and said she did not have that particular provider. Summoned someone, asked me how much I wanted to put in my phone, I gave her $10, and the guy with the money disappeared on his moto. I got set down, got a candy and waited. Nobody spoke English. After a while he returned, scratched the number of the card, called on my phone and showed me that $10 more dollars were on the phone. The kindness of strangers!!
I also had some Buddhist instruction and how to worship. Walked by a temple where many people entered with bunches of lotus flowers and banana's etc. for offerings. Many police men around. I watched the scene for a while and asked two young women who came out what was going on. They told me that an important person was making an offering, and I should do the same. I was reluctant, the only white person there. They offered to go with me, and so I took off my shoes, burned incense, bowed to the Buddha, said my prayer of thanks and gratitude, put the incense in a large bowl with sand. Then we returned, because we could/should touch the hand of the gold Buddha and make another offering. By then a Cambodian men wanted to take pictures, and so took one with me touching the hand of the Buddha like everyone else. The rest of the day I spent with these two women, Shirley from Malaysia, KL, and Dewi from Jakarta, Indonesia. They went to the Museum with me, where my instructions continued. The museum has a room with Thousand Buddha's, but before entering, one can pray. They again did the incense ritual, and picked up a large round container with sticks, and two big red wooden blocks. The blocks have to be thrown, one has to land upside down, and one downside up. If they fall differently, you have to do it again. Then you hold the container with the sticks to your forehead in a bowing position, make a prayer with a wish, and shake the container at a 45 degree angle, until one stick drops. The stick has a number, and on the wall are the papers with the number and a particular advice. When I followed this ritual, I threw the number 2, and was advised to be patient in my future dealings of work, compromise and negotiate! For the rest I would have a lot of luck!! Theirs was one of caution for their future! Then we entered the room of the thousand Buddha's, undescribable! Golden, wooden, sandstone, other stones, copper etc Buddha's, with great equinimity and smiles, all great reminders of the Buddha as a great example of how we can live peaceful lives. The rest of the museum is a big explanation of the Hindu and Buddhist histories, depicted in all the Temples. It is a must to go there, preferably before visiting the Temples. We took a lunch break in between and I learned a lot about how in households children get a Buddhist education. I parted with my new friends, after having received invitations to sure come and visit them!
I spent New Year's eve with Karen, a Canadian woman from Edmonton, Canada, we ate in the light of the full moon in a Thai Restaurant and had an enjoyable evening.
New Year's day was quiet, I walked through an other area of town, went to the market, had lunch wit Tracy, faculty from the UW in a great organic Khmer vegetarian restaurant, and were invited to buy books, postcards, bracelets, etc from children, and adults alike who need to make a living, by begging or selling, rather aggressively items for a living. Kim, one big smiling boy, managed to sell me a book, he is an amputee and gets around on crutches, quite proficient in English with lots of wit! Sad mothers begging, with sick and deformed children, get money too and it is a very prevalent street scene. How much to give and to whom is the question. In a country with few social services and support it is one way to survive, so I give, intermittently and have pangs of so much suffering and injustice in my heart. Sometimes I am moved to tears.
Then, I got a foot massage. Wonderful and relaxing after trodding aournd for days. Walking back I entered a beautiful temple, Wat Preah Prohm Rath, where one young monk and three women were reciting monotonous prayers. I have come to like listening to these. I walked around the temple, admiring the beautifully painted panels with the life story of the Buddha, when the monk started to teach walking meditation. When I watched them, one of the keepers, a student who spoke English, summoned me to join them, so before long, myself, one other Cambodian men and another woman joined in. The monk started to give instructions in English and told us the purpose of walking meditation, to keep our wandering and chaotic mind in check and calm. We walked slowly and quietly together, back and forth in front of two golden Buddha's, and indeed it gave a sense of serenity and peace. It brought me back to the woods behind my mother's house where I used to take breaks and did walking meditation. All this touched my soul deeply. The monk, venerable Maha Sangwian, and I talked for a long time afterward. He studied in Pali in a Thai monastery, and will soon join the new Buddhist University here is Siem Reap. He gave me his telephone number, to contact him when I will be back. We discussed why Cambodians by and large do not seek revenge for the Pol Pot killers. Forgiveness is not a concept in Buddhism, he told me, people believe that people "who do the bad things" will suffer the consequences in their lifetime or next lives, the law of Karma. By punishing others, or do harm to them, will bring bad karma to them!
These are some of my impressions and experiences. I am not bored!
I tried to include pictures, but some reason am not able to download. Next time!
Tomorrow I will return to Phnom Penh and start my working life!!
Love to all, Golie